Not a bad year at Shoestring Cottage…

Fruit of the harvest

Fruit of the harvest

OK, so it’s not original, but I thought it would be interesting to look back over 2014 to see what we have achieved. This is where blogging is such a good hobby – I really enjoyed reviewing what is basically an on-line diary. We have had some trials and tribulations, but nothing that was insurmountable.

Redecoration, complete with new carpet!

Redecoration, complete with new carpet!

I started the year attempting to join in with the 52 projects challenge ( However, that was too ambitious. I simply don’t have time to do a project a week. Just getting the cleaning and shopping done at the end of a working week is challenging enough! In spite of that, we did manage to do a lot in the garden and decorate our awful shabby hallway. Mr Shoestring built a new shed from an old one we got from Freecycle and some scavenged wood, although he did have to buy the materials for the roof. We also had a very productive summer on the veggie patch and are still eating our preserved home grown food.

Shoestring harvest

Shoestring harvest

I started a new yoga class in January which is now going strong and we had several language students to help boost the household income.

Blue skies in Tenerife

Blue skies in Tenerife

We managed two holidays, which was amazing. A week in Tenerife (a first for me – accommodation courtesy of Mr S’s mum) and another in my cousin’s caravan in the Lake District. Completely different but both fantastic and rejuvenating. We also had a day at the Chelsea Flower Show for Mr S’s birthday – I loved that! We went as a family to see the commemorative poppies at the Tower of London and managed to do it before the crowds got too horrendous. It was an amazing spectacle and I am so glad we made the effort.

Poppies and people

Poppies and people

DD3 completed her GCSE’s and had her prom. She looked gorgeous – grown up and sophisticated.

Gorgeous prom girl

Gorgeous prom girl

I decided to give gluten free eating a go. I had spent a long time convincing myself that I didn’t need to, but feel so much better for it. I have had a few disappointing baking experiences though and the bread is horrible, but I can cope.

My new roofer

My new roofer

I spent several months fighting First Utility, who were trying to make me pay thousands of pounds that I didn’t owe them. Fortunately the Ombudsman got involved and decided in my favour. As a result I got a large pay out, which unfortunately was mostly spent on my car! If you look at the picture you will see the issue. We also had a leak into the roof which actually came through my bedroom ceiling. Fortunately Mr S managed to repair it without it costing thousands.

Crumbling car disaster

Crumbling car disaster


Sunflowers at Chelsea

How has your year been? I hope it was happy and healthy and that your finances didn’t buckle under the strain! We are celebrating the New Year with friends and an Indian takeaway tonight. I will be back with my resolutions! Happy New Year and all the best for 2015!

Still got leftovers? How about Turkey with pasta and blue cheese?

imageI thought we had used most of our Christmas leftovers, but then Mr S turned up with a great hunk of cooked turkey breast from his brother! Never one to waste such a gift I decided to adapt a recipe I have had for years and use it with the remaining Stilton and a bit of cream and wine to make a delicious pasta sauce. The original recipe uses fresh chicken breast, Gorgonzola and white wine but it worked just as well with the cooked meat, Stilton and a bit of rose wine that had been hanging around for too long in the fridge. If you are using raw meat, fry it in the oil with the garlic for a bit and then proceed as below.

4oz spinach, chopped (or frozen peas, or par cooked broccoli)
2tbsp olive oil
2 cloves garlic, crushed
About 8oz cooked turkey or chicken
14oz dried pasta
4fl oz white wine
7 fl oz cream
4 oz blue cheese

Put your pasta on to boil as per instructions. Heat the oil and gently sweat the garlic then add the veg and fry for a few minutes before tipping on the meat. Warm through then add the cheese cut into cubes, the cream and the wine. Allow it all to bubble away until the cheese has melted and the meat is heated right through. Season to taste then stir into the cooked and drained pasta and serve.

We had ours with some salad that needed eating but it’s nice with some crusty bread to mop up the juices.

I found a great little blog via Instagram yesterday which I will be passing into my daughter for inspiration. If you know a young person who needs a kick to start saving, send them to:


A Girl Called Jack recipe book

Look what my daughter found for me in the charity shop for 99p:


Most of you will have come across Jack’s interesting and unique blog (if you haven’t then take a look:, with its mixture of politics, opinion and nutritious budget recipes. She has her detractors; the usual mix of malicious trolls and others who don’t like the fact that she is no longer a single mum struggling to feed her son on £10 a week, or maybe that she is a mouthy lesbian with the guts to tell the politicians how it is. Her intelligent, inspiring and, above all, honest blog has led to a book deal (she is on her second), an appearance in an advert for Sainsbury’s, a regular column in the Guardian and various interviews in the media.

As a fellow Essex girl, I wish Jack well. I think she is great and I hope she is allowed to continue to be successful without too much of a backlash.

Some of the recipes look pretty good too. I will definitely be trying her sausage and lentil one pot dinner, diet coke chicken, easy chicken satay and fishy cakes. I will report back!


Keep it simple and save your wallet

So, you have eaten the turkey and probably have mounds of leftovers. Hopefully, being frugal in your habits, you will be freezing them or creating new meals (turkey and veg soup anyone? Curry?) rather than consigning them to the bin. We didn’t have too many leftovers, apart from meat and salad, so that’s what we will be eating for the next few days. I don’t mind the same thing, but will vary it by chopping up the ham in a creamy sauce with pasta and salad, making a vegetable gratin and serving that with some of the 5 bird roast (which was delicious by the way with its cranberry glaze).

As I feared, the gluten free Christmas pudding was not a success. Fortunately I bought a mini one from the Coop’s Free From range and it was lovely with a Tesco gluten free mince pie.

Still, it was, as ever, an expensive time. The belt needs tightening, although I can barely fit it round my middle at the moment with all the food I have eaten! I will be buying only what we need and nothing more.

I want to simplify my life and buy as little as possible; to use up everything I have in the way of food, toiletries and cleaning products before I buy any more and then only buy what I need and will use.

imageOn this train of thought, I was having a chat with  my daughters about the products people buy that they don’t really need and were only invented in the last few years by marketing folk to make a quick buck. Our grannies managed perfectly well without most of them. A lot of them seem to have appeared in the last 20 years. This is what we came up with. If it was down to me I wouldn’t buy any of them, but my daughters have other ideas…

Beauty products:

Face wipes
Handwash (what’s wrong with a bar of soap?)
Shave cream/gel (see comment above)
Shower gel (ditto the handwash comment)
Face primer (what?)
Moisturiser containing real gold (uh?) or sold using dubious pseudo scientific claims
Cellulite creams/body firmers – for the seriously optimistic
Skin toner (a bit of water on a cloth does the trick)
Eye/neck cream (skin is skin, surely?)
Bubble bath
Baby wipes

Household products
Cleaning wipes
Fabric softener (a cup of white vinegar does the trick)
Ironing water
Air fresheners, especially the plug in variety (how do a load of chemicals bring you fresh air?)
Tumble dryer sheets
Washing machine/dishwasher cleaners (how dirty can they get? I just flush mine through on a hot wash with a couple of cups of white vinegar every now and again)
8 different cleaners for different rooms in the house. Surely a spray that cleans the bathroom sink could also clean the kitchen sink?)

So a resolution: to keep things simple and buy only what I need and will use. It’s early for New Year resolutions, but why wait until then? What are yours, and what are you doing with your Christmas leftovers?

Ready to party?

It’s my last day at work today. I am girding my loins for a trip to the supermarket tomorrow to get my last minute veg and salads for Christmas. I am not looking forward to it! I did consider going tonight after work,  but I doubt I will be able to get in Aldi’s car park at 5.30. I could go later as they are open until 10, but I am worried they might have run out of things that I need.

I also have to make the chocolate brownies to take to my sister’s on Boxing Day. We are having a whole clan gathering – even my nephew is coming from Thailand – and there will be 19 of us. Fantastic! Total chaos!

I have news that I am getting a language student for a couple of weeks at the end of January which is unusual.  This should help me kick start my New Year financial resolutions so is good news. Let’s hope there will be lots more to follow!

How are your last minute christmas preparations coming along?

Everybody needs a Mr Shoestring!

King of the world!

King of the world!


Poor Mr S is in an exhausted heap on the sofa. I think the week up on the roof in the cold wind sorting out the leaks has taken its toll. It was in a pretty poor state. I guess the whole thing will need serious work at some point, but this repair should last a few years.

There were some serious holes. On one side all of the concrete seal where the roof meets the gully had perished and some of the tiles had slipped and were broken.

imageimageHe had to drive round Essex to source tiles to match, get the scaffold up, clean all the moss and broken concrete off, cut the tiles and fit them, then concrete them into place. Not to mention running up and down the ladder and having to conquer his fear that he might fall off or go through the roof! What a hero!

All sealed up and water tight

All sealed up and water tight

He had a good view of the garden while he was up there too.

It has rained a couple of times in the last few days and no leaks!!



Fabulous Easy Fruit Cake

Thanks for all the comments on gluten free baking yesterday. I have had much more success with my baking today!

Today I made my favourite easy fruit cake. I make it about once a month. As suggested by Kate in the comments yesterday, to make it gluten free I substituted the wheat flour for 75% Dove’s Farm self raising and 25% ground almonds. I also added 1 fl oz more milk as I have read that GF flour can take more liquid than the regular stuff. The recipe was given to me about 15 years ago, and I have it stuck to the front of one of my baking books. It was a huge success in its gluten free form – as you can see, several pieces had gone before I even got round to taking the photo!

easy fruit cakeHere is the recipe, in old money so apologies to those of you who are strictly metric:

8 oz self raising flour or 6 oz GF self raising with 2 oz ground almonds
1 tsp mixed spice
5 oz brown sugar
2 eggs
5 oz butter or margarine
12oz dried mixed fruit
4 fl oz milk, or 5 if using GF flour

Gas mark 2/150C for 1 1/4 hours (check after an hour as you don’t want to over cook it)

Grease and line an 8 inch round cake tin.
Place all ingredients in a large bowl and beat well until mixed.
Place the mixture in the tin and smotth the top.
Cook until firm.

This easy fruit cake couldn’t be simpler and is fail safe as long as you don’t cook it too high.

Not a total disaster

I also discovered that yesterday’s cheese muffins weren’t quite the disaster I thought they were. When they were hot, the feta tasted awful – really overwhelming. This morning, tasting one cold, they were much nicer. The recipe suggested refreshing them in the microwave for 30 seconds before eating, so I tried that and my muffin was really quite good. Better for lunch with some soup or a salad than the dry GF rolls I have been buying in the supermarket. I have frozen them in batches of six to take to work and left some out to eat over the weekend.

Mr Shoestring and his brother spent much of the day on the roof finishing off. They have done a splendid job. The roof now appears to be completely water tight and cost about £200, rather than the £1500 we feared a roofer would charge us.

Greek Salad

What to take to the Christmas buffet?

We had the work Christmas buffet today. Everybody takes a contribution  and it is always a fantastic spread, with leftovers to last a few days as well. Money seems to be getting sucked continuously out of my purse at the moment with all the Christmas celebrations. I wanted to take something healthy  that wouldn’t break the bank. I decided on this frugal version of a Greek salad.

There are always lots of carbohydrate at these events – sausage rolls, sandwiches, pork pies, crisps, etc – so I thought a Greek salad would be welcome. It was very easy to make last night and the ingredients weren’t expensive. I bought them from Sainsbury’s on the way home from work and the salad cost £3.50 not including the dressing.

greek saladGreek salad

1 med cos lettuce, £1
half a cucumber, cubed, 25p
Half a pack of cherry tomatoes (about 150g), halved, 50p
half a bunch of spring onions, chopped, 30p
1 pack of Sainsburys Basics feta cheese, cubed, 85p
A small jar of black olives, 60p

From the store cupboard for the vinaigrette I used 3 tablespoons of olive oil, half a teaspoon of Dijon mustard, 1 tablespoon of cider vinegar and salt and pepper.

Combine all of the salad ingredients. Mix the oil, vinegar and mustard together in a jug and add seasoning to taste. Pour over the salad just before serving and mix well.

This Greek salad went down a treat! The feta – cheap because it is made with cow’s milk so isn’t the genuine stuff – is just as good as the real thing at about a third of the price.

I took mine in a lovely big ceramic bowl that I bought recently in my favourite charity shop for £1.50.

Best gluten free chocolate and raspberry brownies

imageI have mentioned previously that I bought two nice looking little gluten free cookery books last week. One is Hamlyn 200 Gluten Free Recipes by Louise Blair and the other is BBC Good Food Everyday Gluten free Recipes. They both look really promising and seem to use ingredients that are easy to buy in the local supermarket.

Yesterday was my first chance to try out a imagerecipe and I thought I would start with some gluten free chocolate and raspberry brownies from the BBC book. Fresh raspberries aren’t easy to come by this time of year so I decided to stick with just chocolate.  My local Co-op only had milk chocolate so that is what I used. They were delicious! They weren’t cheap to make, however, so I will save this recipe for treats. Here is the original version. Next time I will be more prepared and use Aldi’s cheap dark chocolate – today I used Cadbury’s!

imageGluten free chocolate and raspberry brownies

Makes 15 squares

200g dark chocolate broken into chunks
100g milk chocolate broken into chunks
250g pack salted butter
400g soft brown sugar
4 large eggs
140g gf plain flour
50g cocoa powder
200g raspberries

Heat oven to 180C or gas mark 4. Grease and line a 20x30cm baking tin. Gently melt the chocolate, butter and sugar in a saucepan, stirring well. Remove from heat and whisk in the eggs one at a time. Move to a mixing bowl and sieve in the flour and cocoa powder. Whisk together, then stir in half the raspberries. Pour the mixture into the tin and scatter over the remaining raspberries. Bake for 30-35 minutes until set but nice and squidgy. Cool and then cut into squares.

I have put half in the freezer as they are best eaten within three days.

We had them still warm with a cup of tea but they would be fab as a posh pudding with a big dollop of cream.

I want to try some corn and cheese muffins next which are made with polenta and look scrumptious!

Chicken and Chorizo Casserole

chicken and chorizo casserole

Fry up the onion, celery and garlic

I mentioned that I went to a friend’s for dinner last week and she made a delicious chicken and chorizo casserole with butterbeans.  I loved it, so recreated it yesterday.

I had a look at a few similar recipes on the internet, then adapted it to what I had. It is amazing how tasty a butter bean becomes when it is stewed with chorizo and smoky paprika. I put mushrooms in to use them up, but think it would work well with a chopped red pepper instead. This is lovely served with plain rice and salad or a vegetable. Yum!

chicken and chorizo casserole

Add the paprika and mushrooms

Chicken and chorizo casserole

Serves 4-6

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees

Pack of 8 chicken thighs, skins removed
Large onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
2 sticks of celery, chopped
4 oz mushrooms, sliced
400g can chopped tomatoes
400g can butterbeans
80g chorizo, diced
2 dessertspoons of smoked paprika (or just paprika if that’s all you have)
200ml chicken stock
Salt and pepper to taste

chicken and chorizo casserole

Ready to serve!

Heat some oil in a large pan, and add the onion, garlic and celery and sweat gently for 5 minutes. Add the mushrooms and paprika and continue to fry gently for a further 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes, stock, butter beans and seasoning and stir. Place the chicken in a large casserole dish and pour the sauce on top. Cover and cook in the oven for about an hour.

This is quite inexpensive for entertaining and I will definitely be doing this again. DD 1 isn’t keen on chorizo, so I might replace that with bacon.

I made double so no cooking for me today – I don’t mind the same thing two days in a row, especially when it is really tasty!

Check out my Frugal Recipes page for other ideas.

I’m fixing a hole where the rain gets in, and stops my mind from wandering…

I woke up yesterday morning very early to an odd sound. It turned out to be a drip, drip from the ceiling. It had rained very heavily overnight and the roof was leaking again and coming through my bedroom ceiling. Not the best start to the day. There wasn’t much I could do except put a bowl under it and wait for the rain to stop, which fortunately it did. I went up in the loft and I could see exactly where it was coming in.

My neighbour did promise to go up and have a look as it is a shared roof, but that was two weeks ago and he still hasn’t. I have been on the go ever since so haven’t managed to see him yet, but stuck a note through his door to say if he can’t do anything I need to get a roofer in. I think that will be a job for Monday. In the meantime I have put some plastic down in the loft and a plastic tray in case in rains again. I could do without this as I can see this is going to cost a lot of money!! But it is the roof so I can’t exactly ignore it. Bum :(.

At least I have finished my Christmas shopping now and within budget (just about)- I went into town with DD3 this morning early before the crowds. I will try to get all the wrapping done tonight.

I had a brilliant night out with some work colleagues yesterday at the local Indian restaurant, with a couple of pubs thrown in for good measure. It’s fantastic when you see your sensible work mates let their hair down. We all got less and less sensible as the evening progressed. Someone’s Secret Santa present was a funny dog book, so we amused ourselves by picking out appropriate pix for each other. This was mine!

Spot the difference!

Spot the difference!

I hope you are all in control and not facing any unwelcome expenses before Christmas. With all the belt tightening I am going to have to do in the New Year, at least it should help my new year weight loss resolution :).

Watch out! The Christmas grinch is here!

imageIt has made me grumpy this week to listen to the Government saying that cutting the public sector even harder over the next few years will make us strong as a country. As someone who works in local government and has seen staff getting cut in swathes and the resulting lowering of the quality of the public sector services we can offer – not to mention no pay rise in 4 years and a change of hours that actually gave me a pay cut….well, it’s somewhat depressing.

I don’t have the answers. I just know that you can’t keep making cuts without services being affected as the government seems to be saying. There is only so much that can be achieved through improved efficiencies. After that you start giving social workers too much to do, leaving huge potholes all over the roads and making people wait 3 months to get their disabled parking badge renewed. I’m not saying that this is all happening now, but it has to be a danger.

Anyway, rant over! I know we have to budget and save money but it does seem relentless sometimes.

Sometimes I think I should stop watching the news and just stick my head in a gardening magazine and dream of the Spring!

I’m dreaming of a frugal Christmas…

I enjoy Christmas – I am no bah humbug sort of person. I love the little treats and outings that cheer up the short, dark days, the sparkly lights, the presents and the carol services. However, I can’t stand the sheer over indulgence that this involves for some people.

I do not believe that spending hundreds or even thousands on presents, clothes and parties makes it a special time. Watching people fighting each other during the obscene Black Friday buy-athon made me feel sick. I prefer a more simple, frugal Christmas.

christmas wreathMy daughters have always had plenty of nice Christmas presents; enough to feel they have been given some things they really wanted that they will treasure and look after but not so much that they get bored opening them.  I usually buy them a main gift, then things like books, pyjamas, sweets, underwear, games and the odd CD or DVD.  This year they have a cash limit to choose some particular items for me to purchase for them, and I have bought a few little surprise bits and bobs too.

Secret Santa for a frugal Christmas

I no longer buy for all of the adult members of my family. I am one of 4 and we all have partners, so where do you stop? Instead we do a secret Santa, and just buy one nice gift for the name we pull out of a hat. We buy for anyone under 18 who is not in full time employment as well. After that they go into the Secret Santa. It takes the pressure right off!

I don’t buy gifts for friends. Again, where do you stop?

Christmas on credit

One time, shortly after I had separated from my ex-husband, I made the mistake of not being organised and saving money for Christmas. Instead I bought all my gifts on a credit card. The Classic Error.  I will never do that again, as I was still paying it off months later and then had no contingency fund to pay for some other unexpected bills and they went on the card too.

I still have a small amount on a credit card, but I also have a (admittedly small) fund for Christmas, birthdays and emergencies. As I get more organised I hope to increase the size of this fund so that I never have to resort to a credit card again. In the meantime it is a useful fall back and I am disciplined enough to only use it very occasionally as a last resort.

A fancy roast

Dinner will be nice but not lavish. In the end it is just a fancy roast, isn’t it? I would love to host some Christmas parties but really don’t have the budget for that.

I am also hoping for a green Christmas: I will be carefully folding any undamaged wrappings and collecting gift bags and boxes for reuse; the turkey carcass will be made into stock and any left over food frozen or made into soup. Anything else that can be reused or recycled, or even composted, rather than thrown in the bin will be.

I don’t have time nor talent to hand make all my gifts and decorations, although I love seeing them on Pinterest. I am fascinated to read about how other  creative types make amazing things frugal Christmas gifts and decorations for pennies.

I will get out my 10 year old tree and put up some decorations and a few lights. But I will resist putting up a ladder and smothering the outside of my house with them. I don’t need to pay to light up the whole street!!

Will you be having a frugal Christmas?

Review of the Month: November

1st December already! November has flown by. I would love to say I have spent no money but actually I bought almost all of my Christmas presents. This didn’t hurt at all as I have been putting money aside and still have £300 in my fund which will kick off next year’s present and holiday fund. It pays to plan ahead!

I have discovered a fantastic charity shop nearby that sells all of its clothing items for 99p so I have allowed myself a bit of retail therapy and spent a whole £10 on 10 new (to me) items. These included a pair of Monsoon jeans, a good black coat and a skirt from Zara.

I also decided to start eating gluten free this month. I stopped eating dairy containing lactose a couple of years ago to counter my long running IBS issues. This helped a lot, but the issue wasn’t resolved. I didn’t want to believe that gluten was a problem but October was a particularly bad month for me with my IBS so I decided it was time to try cutting the gluten out as well. I do without doubt feel a lot better. As yet I haven’t been 100% strict about it: I have sauces and gravy mixes in the store cupboard that I don’t want to waste for example. But I haven’t eaten any bread, cakes or pasta unless it was gluten free. I have my work Christmas meal booked for Tuesday, which was arranged before I changed my diet and thus won’t be gluten free. My plan is to gradually cut it out completely.

On the right path

On the right path

An unexpected bonus so far is that I have lost 3lbs with zero effort!

I made my Christmas pudding, gluten free of course. I had already bought an Aldi five bird roast which isn’t GF but I will avoid anything else contains gluten over Christmas.

I had intended to get on top of the garden but the weather put paid to that. I have only managed about 5 hours work when it needs several long days to sort it out.

The leak from the roof and damage to the bedroom ceiling that I blogged about yesterday caused me some consternation as I can see this costing some money. The £300 left over the Christmas fund might have to be diverted to sort this out.

Mr S bought me a wood burner at the start of the month. There is a lot of work to do to prepare the chimney and fireplace for its installation so we won’t start that until after Christmas.

I managed to host a frugal and GF dinner party too. I spent about £20 on this.

My goals for December?

I have 2 meals out to pay for with work colleagues and a tiny bit more shopping to do. Other than that I intend to spend as little as possible and work through all the food in my store cupboard. I also need to research gluten free eating and cooking on a shoestring and will share my experiments as I go. I want to do a lot more exercise. Just yoga, walking and digging, none of which costs me anything but all of which makes me happier and healthier.

We are going to sort out all the sheds. They are full of junk so it is time for a clear out. I have some days off over Christmas so I should be able to find the time. Then we will be off to the tip and listing things on eBay and Freecycle.

What have you achieved in November and how are your Christmas preparations going? Does anyone have any tips on the cheapest way to eat gluten free?