Really Beautiful

We just returned from the Big Smoke! Despite living just an hour away we rarely venture into the capital. I always dread the thought of the crowds, noise and general busy-ness but usually enjoy it when I get there.

  We had a fabulous trip. We saw the Carole King musical Beautiful and absolutely loved it. It was at the Aldwych, which is a gorgeous little theatre. I was stunned at how many really well known songs King wrote for other artists before she made her Tapestry album for herself. I really recommend it.

  We stayed at a hotel in Russell Square, the first time I have ever stayed in London as I have always lived close enough to get home. It was nice not to have to worry about missing the last train and rushing.

  Just across the park is the British Museum so we decided to have a visit. It was huge! We had a wander for a few hours and then headed off to Borough Market near London Bridge to meet darling daughter no. 2 for lunch. It was a great market, full of fabulous food. The green grocer’s stall was particularly stunning. We each had a delicious lunch in a take out box and sat in the sunshine to eat it. I had a selection of veggie curries and rice and the others tried some Lebanese food. It was cheap and scrumptious.

  My daughter is just finishing her dissertation and in a few weeks will be finished with university for good. But she loves London and, as she wants to work in publishing, she intends to stay there if she can find a job and somewhere cheap enough to rent. I couldn’t live in the city but I don’t mind visiting!

Planning a trip to the city

I couldn’t believe it when the alarm went off this morning.  I felt sure I had literally just gone to sleep. I was totally confused! I get up at 6 most mornings as I give my daughter a lift to work and she starts early. If I don’t take her I only have an extra half an hour in bed but it makes a difference to my tiredness levels.

  I had a healthy breakfast of porridge with linseed, honey and blackcurrants to help me wake up.

It is cold today. The beautiful spring weather seems to have disappeared and Carol on the BBC tells me it will be freezing all week  and we could even get wintry showers. Typical English weather!

Mr S is still having a few issues with his back after suffering a prolapsed disc a few months ago. I have been trying to encourage him to do a little more exercise. Yesterday we had a yoga session. He can do general stretching but no strong forward bends and twists. He needs to get fit enough to get back to his aikido class – he is a black belt but hates sitting in the sidelines and wants to get back on the mat. 

My poor old mum has had an operation on her leg, which has unfortunately become infected. She and my dad were due to go to London to see the Carol King musical Beautiful tomorrow but neither of them feel up to it. They had even booked a hotel. So we are going in their places. I am sorry for my parents but they were more concerned the trip would be wasted than they were about  actually going. I have been online to get the cheapest possible rail tickets. I am looking forward to it – what a treat! I shall report back.

Stretching the chicken rations: warming smoky chicken with chickpeas

We had a lazy kind of day today. Up late, big breakfast, a drive for tea and cakes to my parents and then home for dinner. We watched The Durrells on TV as well – I love this and it has brought back happy memories of our holiday to Corfu last year. It is the most beautiful place and I would love to return. One day!
I had a couple of sad looking chicken breasts in the freezer. Not really enough for dinner, so I decided to stretch them with chick peas. I got a few ideas from the Internet, then cobbled this together. You could use ordinary paprika but I think the smoked variety added a lovely depth of flavour. I chucked in a bit of cooked spinach too as it needed using up but it isn’t essential.
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, crushed, with a little salt
2 chicken breasts, cubed
1tsp cumin
1tsp smoked paprika
1tsp turmeric
400g can chick peas
400g can chopped tomatoes
Chicken stock cube
2tbsp lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste
Heat the oil and sweat the onion and garlic for a few minutes, then add the chicken and spices and fry gently for about 10 minutes. Dissolve the chicken stock in a quarter of a pint of boiling water and add to the pan with the tomatoes. Add the lemon juice and bring to the boil, then tip the chick peas in and add salt and pepper to taste. Cook gently for another 10 minutes to make sure the chicken is cooked through. Serve with rice and bread. It
Serves 4.

Courgette and celery soup  – and beating the rag and bone man

 Last year’s courgette harvest is still feeding us. I am down to the last few bags in the freezer. I thought I would combine them with celery and it made a good combination. If you use frozen courgettes, like me, start with just a litre and a half of stock and add more if you need it. They are quite watery and can make your soup too thin. Here is the recipe I used today:

2 large onions, chopped
5 sticks of celery, sliced
6 tsp of vegetable bouillion power dissolved in 2 litres hot water
2lb courgettes, sliced
4 medium potatoes, chopped
1 tbsp soy sauce
Salt and pepper to taste
2tbsp oil

Hear the oil and sweat the onions, celery and potatoes for about 5 minutes. Add the courgettes and fry  for a couple minutes more. Pour on the stock and bring to the boil. Simmer with a lid on the pan for about half an hour. Add the soy sauce, salt and pepper to taste, then whizz in a blender.

This makes a large pan and you can put it into old margarine or ice cream containers and freeze for when you need it.

We had to take our student to meet her bus back to France this morning. She seemed to enjoy her week with us. On the way home we spotted a broken wooden garden bench and a heavy cast iron parasol outside our neighbour’s house. The bench seat was broken but the frame seemed sound so we asked if we could have them. They seemed delighted to be rid and they were close enough to Shoestring Cottage for us to walk them home. The bench is little project for Mr S but it won’t need much repair. With a lick of paint it will be perfect in the garden.

An hour or so later we heard the bell of the rag and bone men. We were lucky to have beaten them to it!

Saving pennies every day

I have started freezing my tights – as you do!! Freezing them overnight before you wear them is said to make them last longer. I really can’t say if it has worked yet. Mine tend to last quite a long time anyway as I try to be quite gentle with them and tend to wear the thick lycra kind (I stock up whenever I see a Primark as they are a good price in there – £3.90 for 3 pairs of 80 derniere). Now that the weather is getting better I have moved to thinner ones (5 pairs of ladder resist tights in Primark are even cheaper – only £3), so thought I would try the freezer trick. Nothing like a bit of lycra among the frozen peas to raise a few eyebrows 😀.

  My student is proving very easy to feed. This is good as I can’t stand fussy eaters! She even tried curry and rice last night. I wasn’t sure she would enjoy it as other French students we have had weren’t sure what curry was. I don’t think it is popular in France. She ate the lot with some poppadums but drew the line at the mango chutney. 

To my great relief she has found her way to school and back on the bus. She seems confident and independent for a 12 year old. I really don’t know how I would have coped with having to navigate the bus system in a strange town with very basic language at her age. I would have been quite terrified I am sure. I won’t have such a young student again though – it feels like much more of a responsibility than the older ones I am used to. Still, she is leaving on Saturday and is a nice kid.

I spent a lot more on food this week as the student was coming – more meat and treats like cakes and desserts. Not good for my diet and I have put on 2lb!! Never mind – I will go back to low calorie eating next week. The food I bought should last well into next week anyway so I will just do a small top up shop when I need to.

I am determined to save as much money as I can as I am saving for a new car (new to me anyway – it will of course be second-hand). Every bit of extra money I earn goes into the savings account. I may still have to borrow some but hopefully as little as possible.

I am growing lots of vegetables again this year and have loads of seedlings on the go. This saves me a lot of money in the summer, but it can be a lot of work growing, watering, picking and preserving. I usually feel there aren’t enough hours in the day anyway, but when everything is ready to pick it can feel a bit stressful. It is worth it though, eating some delicious home grown blackcurrants on my porridge or making courgette soup when all outside is barren and cold in the depths of winter. At the moment it is lovely to see the little plants making some progress. I need to start to pot some on at the weekend.

 How is your garden growing? And does anyone else freeze their tights?

Pop art and a walk in the park

  We had a great day on Sunday. The sun decided to shine at last, which always helps. Often on Sunday we will make a visit somewhere for a walk or to a local attraction. This time we decided to be as local as we could be and headed to colchester’s First Site gallery to see the Andy Warhol pop art exhibition there.

  I don’t know much about art but I loved it, both Andy Warhol’s pieces and the work of a Colchester born artist called Katie Stewart. So vibrant and an interesting take on popular culture. It was a free exhibition too – a bonus for us frugal types!

We had a lovely walk through the Castle Park afterwards which was full of blossom and flowers.

Our new French student arrived on Saturday evening. She is very sweet but it was a bit of a shock as we were told she was 16 and she is, in fact, 12! I am not comfortable having students this young as I work full time and they have to get themselves about on the bus. I travelled with her on Monday to show her which stop to get on and off at. This made me late for work but I wasn’t happy to leave her to her own devices. I fought through the traffic to collect her after as well but I can’t do this every day so this morning she got herself there and will take the bus back too. I haven’t heard anything so I assume all is well! 

It is hard work hosting students! I am thinking of just getting a lodger. Then they can look after themselves. Anyone any experience of this?

This week I will mainly be eating…purple food!

I am still eating from the larder and freezer and they are looking a bit sparse now. As I have a French student arriving for a week tomorrow now is the time to do a proper shop I think. They might not want too much in the way of lentil bolognese and vegetable curry! I will do a week’s eating plan tonight with my shopping list and be first in Aldi in the morning, before the hoards arrive.

I found quite a few blackcurrants and blackberries lurking in the freezer from last summer’s harvest. This is great timing as last night I watched How to Stay Young  on BBC2 which featured a bunch of very old but extremely healthy Japanese pensioners, with very low levels of heart disease and vascular dementia. The research suggests that they are protected from these health problems because they eat a type of purple sweet potato every day. These contain  high levels of a nutrient called anthocyanin. We can’t easily get hold of these purple sweet potatoes but we can eat other purple foods that contain it. So blackcurrants and blackberries are good, along with blueberries, red cabbage and aubergines. I had a large handful of blackcurrants on my porridge today! I also had purple sprouting broccoli with last night’s dinner. 

I think the link between nutrition and physical and mental well being is so obvious I can’t understand why we, as a general populace, continue to eat so badly. I guess it is ignorance but there is plenty of good information and advice out there if you look for it.

I don’t think it costs more to eat well either – fruit and veg are cheaper than meat and ready made processed dinners! It’s all about education – I wish schools would take this more seriously and go back to proper cookery lessons with a focus on nutrition as well.

Anyway, rant over! My student maybe eating quite a bit of red cabbage with their meat this week…

A lot of gardening and spot of retail therapy

  The weather has been a mixed bag recently – sunshine and April showers! I am typing this on my phone drinking a cup of tea in Asda waiting to head to the hospital for a routine appointment and it is pouring! Luckily the sun shone on Sunday and we had a great day in the garden. 

  Mr S was super productive and cleared out the potting shed and the hundreds of pots that had built up between it and the greenhouse. He found some interesting wildlife on the way. It was full of big spiders so I was happy he decided to do it rather than leaving it to me!

  I dug over and prepared the veg patch so that I could get some seeds in – leeks, carrots, beetroot and spinach went straight in the ground. I also sowed courgettes, runner beans, sorrel and parsley in pots. The seeds I planted a few weeks ago are doing well and we should hopefully have a cracking crop of cucumbers, tomatoes, Brussels sprouts and salads.

  We found time to go to the charity shop over the weekend as well. I bought a ‘frugal’ cookbook by Jamie Oliver. I doubt he is as penny pinching as me but I might get some inspiration. I noticed a lot of lamb recipes – I rarely buy this as it is far too expensive – but I haven’t had time to look through properly yet. My haul cost a fiver – that’s my sort of retail therapy!

Right, off to brave the rain. Happy Tuesday!

Bootstrap cooking

I am trying to eek out this week’s groceries by being creative and using things up. It’s good to do this every now and then as it makes me look properly at what is in my freezer and cupboards and use ingredients that have been hanging about a bit. I am lucky that we still have broccoli, spinach and chard in the garden too so I haven’t had to buy much veg. I did pop out to get milk from the local Co-op yesterday though and picked up parsnips and peppers reduced to half price. I will make a spicy parsnip soup for lunch today.
I don’t have much meat though so we are eating more vegetarian dishes. The other night I made a stew out of pretty much everything we had in the fridge: celery, sweet potatoes, parsnips, carrots, mushrooms, peas and garlic with a tin of tomatoes, brown lentils, dried herbs and some vegetable stock. It was lovely with brown rice and a bit of grated cheese. I do like easy, no fuss dinners when I have been at work all day.

Last night we had some chicken thighs from the freezer in chicken chasseur as I had red wine that was a bit old for drinking but fine for cooking. I always use the recipe from A Girl Called Jack: 100 delicious budget recipes (my affiliate link). This is one of my favourite cook books ever. I have the second one but it doesn’t appeal to me as much. I have also signed up for her third which was crowd funded through Kickstarter. I should receive a signed limited edition copy for my money next month some time. I know Jack has become a vegan on the last few months so it will be interesting to see how this affects the recipes on offer. It wasn’t billed as a vegan cookbook but I don’t mind as lots of meat makes cooking more expensive. It is called Cooking on a Bootstrap.

As with anything related to Jack Monroe there is an interesting story behind the use of crowd funding to get the book out. It will actually come out with a ‘proper’ publisher in 2017. You can read about the saga  at

Off to the garden now as I have more seeds to start for the garden. Happy Sunday!

Trying out my birthday presents: Lush by name and Lush by nature

I have been trying the Lush products I got for my birthday and I am pretty impressed so far. I was given Godiva solid shampoo, Jungle solid conditioner and T’eo Krysztal deodorant. 
  The deodorant feels like a solid lump of what I suspect is bicarbonate of soda with a wax bottom holding it all together. It smells lemony and herby and I really like it. I wasn’t convinced it could really work though and I have been pleasantly surprised at how effective it is – I am even using it on my feet! Ok, I am not a manual worker and am office based so I guess I don’t sweat that much. Still,  I will buy it again. Don’t use it straight after shaving though as I did as it stings!

The shampoo bar was also nice. I only needed a bit on my hands and it lathered up really well and smelt divine. The conditioner I  still have reservations about. I am used to a big blob on my hands that is easy to distribute throughout my hair. The instructions say to run it down the hair shaft which I did but it felt more difficult to get it all over. I thought my hair would be full of tangles after but actually it wasn’t, so I will persevere. 

My hair felt really nice when it was dry. Lots of liquid products make my hair feel heavy and coated and my scalp itch. None of that with these products so far. I will need to use them for a while to see whether they are a good choice long term.

I hope I don’t have to revert back to the old products in plastic bottles! Can anyone recommend any other good products that are plastic free and cost effective?

(This is not a sponsored post and the views expressed are my own honest opinions).