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Five ways to clear your clutter – responsibly.

Yesterday I confessed that my recipe collection had got a bit out of control.  But it wasn’t just that.  In front of our substantial floor-to-ceiling bookcases, there was a veritable mountain range of books, magazines, games and CDs mounting.  The whole situation had got out of control.  And aside from the fact that there was no longer any room to house guests in our guest room, we also have a desire to sell our house in the not to distance future and this was not a feature.  There was only one thing for it – de-cluttering.

Once you embark on the voyage of de-cluttering, it’s an all-or-nothing sort of affair.  It becomes as addictive as sugar after a while.  You find yourself trying to give away things that you actually need or love.  That’s why it’s good to do it in pairs – you can sense check the other’s decision-making and question knowingly when everything seems to be holding firm in the ‘keep’ pile.

After a few hours of analysing, sorting, questioning, re-questioning, soul-searching and debating, we had a substantial pile of books, CDs and DVDs (why keep, when you can stream nearly everything nowadays? Good point, husband, good point!) to get rid of.  Here’s what we did, or thought about doing, next:

  1. Sell online.  eBay and Gumtree are great for big ticket items that will fetch a lot of cash, but not great for books, CDs and DVDs.  I think Amazon Marketplace is also an option, but not one I’ve tried.  We went for the quick and bulky approach – but don’t expect to make a lot of cash.  This is more a case of clearing space in your house.  I used a comparison between Music Magpie and Zapper for the DVDs and CDs, opting for whichever one paid the most for each individual item.  It doesn’t take long – you just enter the barcode into your computer or scan with your smartphone.  Then I added whatever books I could to the Zapper bundle.  Music Magpie will come and collect your stuff by courier and Zapper gave us the option to drop the boxes off at a local shop.  Both were seamless and hassle-free.
  2. Car boot sales.  I’m not a fan myself, but my brother does a couple every year, so I’ve got a pile of stuff to drop off with him when I next pop in.  You might be more inclined, and if that’s the case, you’ll probably want to do this first and try the selling online as the second option.
  3. Freegle.  I’m a massive fan of Freegle.  Yes, it’s giving stuff away for free, but it gives you a great sense of satisfaction – stuff you no longer want is going to someone that really wants it.  I got rid of all my remaining books this way – I just bundled them up in to collections: Fiction, craft, cookery, art and cake decorating.  But Freegle is great for everything – I’ve passed on everything from a broken Dyson (for parts), a pile of the plastic containers you get from takeaways to old curtains and bits of kitchen equipment.  It’s easy to use and people come to you to collect the goods.  My only word of warning is not everyone turns up when you expect them to.  Just managing expectations!
  4. Facebook.  Two options here – you can join a local buying and selling site for your neighbourhood, or you can be like me and just let your Facebook friends know what you’ve got, if they want it.  Always nice to gift to friends.  Pop some good karma in the friend bank!
  5. Charity Shop.  We’re very lucky to have a Hospice bookshop near us, so that we know that we can drop off a bundle of books (as well as purchase some others) and it’ll definitely do its bit to help others.  But I do think most charity shops will take books, CDs and DVDs – all the ones I visit regularly certainly sell them.

Whichever combination of options you choose, they are all better than landfill.  And you get the satisfaction of knowing you’re helping someone – maybe even yourself! Oh, and you get some lovely tidy bookshelves/cupboards/rooms at the end of it.  Just like us.  Here’s a snap of the after result (sorry, terrible photo!)

De-cluttered shelves

How do you get rid of your clutter without resorting to the bin?

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One cook book too far..?

There comes a point when you have to say enough is enough.  And that’s where I recently got to with my recipe collection.  I had Olive magazine dropping through the letterbox every month, despite a four-year back catalogue, along with a plentiful supply of Waitrose magazine, a few Good Foods and a large pile of Delicious.  Then there are 150+ cook books on the shelf, some of which are so voluminous you would struggle to hold them in one hand.  If that wasn’t enough, there is also the box file, crammed full of cuttings and ones I’ve printed from the endless supply that live in the internet…

Of course, you might think there is absolutely nothing wrong with this, especially if you are a slightly food-obsessed kitchen-loving cook like me.  But that’s just the problem – I was starting to feel like I wasn’t doing any of the recipes and cook books justice.  With a busy working day, quite a lengthy commute and usually an action-packed weekend, I find myself only able to cooking around four new recipes a week.  And yet, I have approximately 160+ arrive in the post every month.  The guilt started to mount up as quickly as the un-thumbed volumes.  Tough love was the only answer.  Tough, because I simply love new recipes.

I’ve done it though.  The Direct Debit has been stopped.  The last volume is poetically to be despatched on the date of my birthday next year.  A little gift from me to me.  No more guilt and time to catch up with some old friends.

Am I the only person that feels like this?

Recipe: Dawn’s Balls with Sriracha Mayonnaise

A little while ago, we had my husband’s Aunt and Uncle over for Sunday lunch.  As it was a bit of a trek for them to visit us, what with them living over two hours’ drive away, I put some effort into it and pulled together a five-course luncheon.  Because that’s the way we like to roll in our household.  If you can’t spoil the lovelies in your life, who can you spoil?

Anyway, just a couple of weeks after the lunch, which was a roaring success (I think), I got the following text off Auntie.  I hope she doesn’t mind me sharing it…

“Hi sweetheart – just thought I would let you know that we had the family round last night and for the occasion, I bought my very first deep-fat fryer and made what are now known affectionately as ‘Dawn’s balls’.”

I’m not sure what I was most chuffed with; the fact that she liked one of my dishes so much that she went away and made it herself, that they’ve named a dish after me, or that I was the reason that someone bought their first deep-fat fryer.  To this day I still can’t decide.

Dawn’s balls are much more commonly known as croquetas – the deep-fried crisp-coated balls brought to us by the Spanish, typically filled with a melt-in-the-mouth bechamel-like sauce that is flavoured with meats, cheese and/or fish.  They are easily my favourite of all Tapas dishes and something I make quite often when I’m entertaining because they always get gobbled up with lots of appreciative noises.

They are fairly easy to make, with just one catch.  If you want them to be a guaranteed success, you really need to make the filling the day before, so it has plenty of time to chill and become firm.  On the plus side, that also gives you less to do on the day, which is great if you’re busy making lots of other tasty treats too.  Oh, and the Sriracha Mayonnaise is a breeze.  Once you’ve made it and tasted it, you’ll be eating it with everything!

I use a variety of different recipes, but the one that Auntie replicated was from September 2015’s edition of Olive magazine and uses a fabulous combination of chorizo and manchego cheese.  I hope I won’t get in trouble for sharing it with you!  I think the Sriracha Mayonnaise is an excellent accompaniment.

Chorizo and Manchego Croquetas – makes around 30 balls

75g butter
75g plain flour
500ml whole milk
75g manchego cheese, finely grated
150g chorizo, chopped into a small dice
3 eggs, beaten
200g dried fine breadcrumbs
oil for deep frying
freshly ground black pepper and sea salt, for seasoning

Sriracha Mayonnaise

4 tablespoons of your favourite mayonnaise
1 tablespoon of the red topped Sriracha sauce – I think most supermarkets sell it now (I got mine from Morrisons), but you can definitely buy it from Asian supermarkets.

The day before…
1. Melt the butter in a pan and stir in the flour to make a thick paste.
2. Gradually stir in the milk until you have a smooth sauce.  For anyone that makes bechamels or other white sauces, it’s exactly the same method.  Simmer for 10-15 minutes, before adding the cheese.  Stir until melted and then stir in the chorizo and season really well.  Scoop into a shallow dish and leave to cool, before covering and chilling in the fridge overnight.

On the day…
1. Make the mayonnaise by mixing the mayo and sriracha.  Cover and leave in the fridge until you’re ready for it.
2. Put the egg on one plate and breadcrumbs on another.  Scoop out large teaspoons of the mix and roll each into a ball about 3cm across.  Roll the balls in the egg then the crumbs.  Repeat so you have a double layer of egg and breadcrumbs.
3. Fill a pan 1/3 full of oil (or use a deep-fat fryer like me and Auntie) and heat to 180C.  Deep fry the balls in batches for two to three minutes, until golden.  Scoop out and drain on kitchen paper.  It’s a good idea to keep them warm in a low oven whilst you’re frying the rest.
4. To serve, pop a teaspoon of mayonnaise onto a plate and top with a ball.  And repeat.  Then eat.  And repeat.

Recipe: Lamb and egg curry

I love curry.  It’s a weekly treat in our house – usually on a Sunday – and aptly known as ‘Curry Sunday’.  Ok, so we don’t get any points for originality.  Most of the time we go to one of the many excellent curry houses that we have in Milton Keynes, but occasionally, just occasionally, I’ll knock one up myself.  We’ve got some excellent books by a chef named Mridula Baljekar,  but this curry is one I made up myself; adapting it from a potato and egg curry I found in Olive magazine.  It’s very easy to make, enticingly fragrant, takes less than an hour and is substantial enough to have on its own, so is a good low-carb option, if you leave out the potatoes.  Hope you like it!

Serves 2-3 people on its own.

2 Onions, 1 finely chopped and the other, quartered.
1 tablespoon Sunflower Oil
A Green Chilli, seeds removed and roughly chopped (or if you like it hot, leave the seeds in)
2 Garlic Cloves
Approx 15g fresh Coriander, stalks and leaves separated
2 teaspoons Turmeric
2 teaspoons Garam Masala
2 teaspoons Ground Cumin
2 teaspoons Fennel Seeds
2 teaspoons Mustard Seeds
A Chicken Bouillon/Stock Cube (I use organic Kallo ones)
400g Tin of Chopped Tomatoes
200ml Water
200ml Coconut Milk
400g Potatoes, peeled and cubed into approximately 25mm cubes (optional)
3 Eggs
The juice of a Lemon
500g Lamb Mince
Sea Salt
and freshly ground Black Pepper to season

Cooking the egg curry

  1. In a large frying pan, fry the chopped onions in the sunflower oil on a gentle heat until soft and golden.  Meanwhile, in a food processor, whizz up the quartered onion with the chilli, garlic, coriander stalks and 1/4 teaspoon of sea salt, to a paste-like consistency.  Add a splash of water if necessary.
  2. When the onions are soft, add the paste you’ve just made, along with all the dry spices, to your pan.  Turn up the heat a little and fry for 2 minutes before adding the lamb mince.  Using a wooden spoon, stir and break up the mince until it’s all browned – this will take about 5 minutes.
  3. Next, crumble the bouillon or stock cube into the pan and then add the tinned tomatoes, water and coconut milk.  Raise the heat and bring the pan to a simmer.  If you’re using the potatoes, add these when the pot starts boiling, then cover with a lid and reduce the heat enough to keep it simmering for 8 minutes or so.
  4. Whilst your pan is bubbling away, boil some water in a kettle and pour it into a small saucepan, with the heat set to high.  Carefully lower in your eggs and cook them in the boiling water for 8 minutes.  When they are done, carefully pour away the boiling water and run the eggs under the blast of the cold tap for 30 seconds and then leave them to cool a little in the pan of cold water.  When they are cool enough to handle, peel and halve them.
  5. Take the lid off of the curry, raise the heat to maximum and leave the pan to bubble away until the sauce has thickened and the potatoes, if you are using them, are cooked.
  6. Taste the sauce and season with the black pepper, more salt and the lemon juice, as to your liking.  Then nestle the egg halves into the pan, turn off the heat and pop the lid back on, allowing the eggs to heat up in the residual heat for a couple of minutes.
  7. Finally, scatter with the coriander leaves and get stuck in!

 

Recipe: Smoked Haddock and Cauliflower ‘Rice’ Kedgeree

This is easily the most viewed recipe on my blog – so I thought there would be some value in me re-blogging it for others to see and share. Enjoy!

Food: from Dawn till dusk

I hadn’t realised it fully until last weekend, but I sort of lost my cooking mojo over the past few months.  I conjured up a few dishes of passing muster but for the main, we were just eating simple, boring meals knocked together without much care at home or getting takeaways.  Not great for someone that claims to be passionate about food.

So where did that passion go?  Well, after some thoughtful reflection whilst conquering a staggeringly large pile of washing up, I realised that it was because I was frustrated by the lack of ingredients available to me whilst trying to create low-carb dinners.  Not because there isn’t a lot to choose from, or that I don’t like nature’s offerings…on the contrary, where veg is concerned, I can’t get enough.  Even those that I’m not very keen on (beetroot and squeaky green beans) will form part of my dietary choice, if only…

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Simple, sensational salads – five ways to keep them interesting

There is one meal that I think traverses the dieting universe and that’s salad.

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Yes, I appreciate that if you think low-fat is the way to go, the dressing has to be non-existent, insipid or you kid yourself by getting it served on the side but still eat it all anyway (come on, I can’t be the only one that’s done that…, can I?).  And if I’ve got it correct, Paleo, that beach diet that I can never remember the name of and clean eating means dairy has to stay in the cowshed.   Plus a whole library of other diets that I profess to know nothing about.  But in the main, variations of the salad are a friend to all diets and dieters.

Where low-carb is concerned, salad is perfect. You can pile your crunchy and herby leaves high with chunks of cooked chicken, hunks of ham, dollops of dairy and flakes  of fish, dressing the leaves with pretty much any creamy dressing you like.  The Caesar Salad (without the croutons) has come into its own.  Which is good, because I love nothing more than a generous Caesar Salad, groaning with the weight of fresh anchovies and juicy chicken breast.

The only drawback with a salad is that if you don’t tread the leafy way careful, boredom can set in and before you know, the good intentions are on the compost heap and the Dominos’ delivery guy is knocking at your door.  So here are five very simple ways that I ensure we never get bored with salad in our house.

1. Crunch without the crouton.   Much as we love a cheeky bit of toasted or fried bread in our household, our waistlines don’t.  But when I ditched the carbs atop the salad, we soon felt their absence.  That was, until I discovered a seedy little number when browsing the shelves of a well-known supermarket.  No, I’m not talking about anything improper, merely a mixed packet of sunflower and pumpkin seeds and pine nuts.  Now I buy all three separately and mix them up myself – I’ve always got a big box on the go ready to sprinkle on the salad before it’s dished up.  This mixture works on lots of other things too….even ice cream!

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2. Peel the cucumber.  Now, I don’t know if everyone else in the world already does this and it’s just something I discovered last year, but the skin on a cucumber is actually quite bitter, so if you use a vegetable peeler to remove it, you get an altogether nicer addition to your salad.  I know there is probably a whole host of nutritional benefits in the skin, but if it puts you off eating it, then you’re not going to get those anyway.  So ditch it and get a lot more enjoyment from your salad.

3. Lots of different toppings.  There is a reason that Americans love a Cobb Salad and it’s not just because they are all about quantity.  There is something truly delightful about having six or so toppings on a blank canvas of salad leaves that means every single mouthful can deliver a different taste sensation.  I just open the fridge and see what’s going but a typical salad in our household can have tomatoes, olives (black or green), diced ham, diced chicken, grated or cubed or torn cheese, hard-boiled egg, red pepper, cucumber, gherkins or cornichons, silverskin onions, pepperdew peppers, or any combination of the above.  Ham and egg mayonnaise is a simple and reliable combo (especially good if you’ve run out or are unable to mix up a dressing), as is tuna mayonnaise and boiled egg.  Whatever you do, keep mixing it up – nothing encourages boredom like the same salad, over and over again.

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4. Leaf it out.  I have to confess, I’m a complete bagged-salad whore.  I’ve sold my soul to the supermarket devil when it comes to salad leaves.  That’s because I don’t have the time to grow and wash my own, yet I crave the variety you can get from doing so.  When I need to rush into the supermarket after a busy day at work and I know I want to keep us trim with a salad, those bags are practically screaming “Buy me!” “No, buy me bitch!” “What about me over here….look at how sumptuous and leafy I am. Come on, you know you want me”.  Irresistable.  But in truth, you don’t need those leaves at all.  Lots of great salad combinations can do without the lettuce element – look at well-known ones such as Caprese (Mozzarella, Tomato and Bazil) or Greek (Tomato, Cucumber, Onion, Feta Cheese, Olives and Oregano).  So if you’re getting bored of a pile of lettuce leaves, ditch them for a bit and mix it up some other way.

5. Get fruity!  Ok, so you have to go carefully with fruit when doing low-carb eating because the stuff is packed full of sugar.  But at least it’s natural sugar and comes hand-in-hand with lots of vitamins etc, so I work on the basis that a little bit now and again will do no harm.  My favourite fruity additions to my salad combos are pomegranate seeds or apple slices/batons (also a good substitute for the crouton crunch), grapes, which are just delightful with any kind of cheese, and strawberries, which can add a lovely element of surprise.  Here’s a fabulous way to use cherries in a salad, courtesy of Waitrose Kitchen magazine (June 2015, page 93):

Cherry Salad Dressing

Take 150g of pitted cherries and roughly crush them in a bowl using a fork.  Stir in 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, 1.5 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, plus the zest and 1 tablespoon of juice from a small orange.  Season to taste.

They suggested serving it on rocket leaves, with torn buffalo mozzarella and Parma ham.  We tried it; it was blooming delicious.

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What’s your favourite salad?

Write down exactly what you are going to do

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When I posed the question ‘Can writing help me lose weight?‘ in a post quite recently, I wasn’t sure of the answer to that question.  And I’m still not, because I’ve not made the time nor had the discipline to test that theory.  However, I have read something of great interest to make me think that yes, it will certainly help.

I mentioned in that previous post that I was reading The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.  Having finished this thoroughly insightful and encouraging read, I’ve reached the conclusion that to conquer this personal goal and lose my three stone in weight I need to do three things:

1. Focus on changing one ‘keystone’ habit – something that will act like a chain reaction, enabling me to concentrate on one thing whilst in reality changing a whole chain of habits.  Having spent some time analysing and reflecting on my habitual practices, I think slowing down the pace I eat and paying close attention to the experience could be that keystone habit.

2. Actually doing as I first suggested and using this blog space to describe my journey.  Often writing things down gives great clarity and opportunity for learning. How often have you had things going round and round in your head and it’s only when you’ve written them down that merry-go-round stops?

3. Writing down exactly what I’m planning to do each day to get closer to achieving my goals.  This excerpt from The Power of Habit explains why I think that will help:

In 1992, a British psychologist walked into two of Scotland’s busiest orthopedic hospitals and recruited five-dozen patients for an experiment she hoped would explain how to boost the willpower of people exceptionally resistant to change.

The patients, on average, were sixty-eight years old.  Most of them earned less than $10,000 a year and didn’t have more than a high school degree.  All of them had recently undergone hip or knee re-placement surgeries, but because they were relatively poor and uneducated, many had waited years for their operations.  They were retirees, elderly mechanics, and store clerks.  They were in life’s final chapters, and most had no desire to pick up a new book.

Recovering from a hip or knee surgery is incredibly arduous.  The operation involves severing joint muscles and sawing through bones.  While recovering, the smallest movements – shifting in bed or flexing a joint – can be excruciating.  However, it is essential that patients begin exercising almost as soon as they wake from surgery. They must begin moving their legs and hips before the muscles and skin have healed, or scar tissue will clog the joint, destroying its flexibility.  In addition, if patients don’t start exercising, they risk developing blood clots.  But the agony is so extreme that it’s not unusual for people to skip out on rehab sessions.  Patients, particularly elderly ones, often refuse to comply with doctor’s orders.

The Scottish study’s participants were the types of people most likely to fail at rehabilitation.  The scientist conducting the experiment wanted to see if it was possible to help them harness their willpower.  She gave each patient a booklet after their surgeries that detailed their rehab schedule, and in the back were thirteen additional pages – one for each week – with blank spaces and instructions: “My goals for this week are __________? Write down exactly what you are going to do.  For example, if you are going to go for a walk this week, write down where and when you are going to walk.”  She asked patients to fill in each of those pages with specific plans.  Then she compared the recoveries of those who wrote out goals with those of patients who had received the same booklets, but didn’t write anything.

It seems absurd to think that giving people a few pieces of blank paper might make a difference in how quickly they can recover from surgery.  But when the researcher visited the patients three months later, she found a striking difference between the two groups.  The patients who had written plans in their booklets had started walking almost twice as fast as the ones who had not.  They had started getting in and out of their chairs, unassisted, almost three times as fast.  They were putting on their shoes, doing their laundry, and making themselves meals quicker than the patients who hadn’t scribbled out goals ahead of time.

The psychologist wanted to understand why.  She examined the booklets, and discovered that most of the blank pages had been filled in with specific, detailed plans about the most mundane aspects of recovery.  One patient, for example, had written, “I will walk to the bus stop tomorrow to meet my wife from work,” and then noted what time he would leave, the route he would walk, what he would wear, which coat he would bring if it was raining, and what pills he would take if the pain became too much.  Another patient, in a similar study, wrote a series of very specific schedules regarding the exercises he would do each time he went to the bathroom.  A third wrote a minute-by-minute itinerary for walking around the block.

As the psychologist scrutinised the booklets, she saw that many of the plans had something in common: they focused on how patients would handle a specific moment of anticipated pain.  The man who exercised on the way to the bathroom, for instance, knew that each time he stood up from the couch, the ache was excruciating.  So he wrote a plan for dealing with it: Automatically take the first step, right away, so he wouldn’t be tempted to sit down again.  The patient who met his wife at the bus stop dreaded the afternoons, because the stroll was the longest and most painful each day.  So he detailed every obstacle he might confront, and came up with a solution ahead of time.

Put another way, the patients’ plans were built around inflection points when they knew their plan – and thus the temptation to quit – would be strongest.  The patients were telling themselves how they were going to make it over the hump.

So the moral of this story is that if you want achieve a goal or change a habit that you know is going to be a tough challenge, and maybe one that you’ve given up on before, write down your intentions – in lots of detail.  Plan for the bits that you know are likely to prove your weakness.  Think it through in advance and plan for success. Write down exactly what you are going to do.

Then go ahead and do it.

Have you ever tried anything like this before?  I’d love to hear about your experiences if you have.