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Thursday, 31 December 2009

2009 Retrospective



2009 was my first whole year of blogging. I know I didn't have many readers at the beginning of the year, so I hope this review is fun for everyone who wasn't reading a year ago. It's been hard to pick only one post from each month, especially since I was averaging around one post per day at the beginning of the year, but it's certainly been amazingly enjoyable for me to read back (while wondering how a whole year disappeared so quickly!).

Way back in January 2009, I got a new camera and took it out to play with the frost in my garden - as well as generating my first-and-favourite self-portrait (yes, my jumper matching my mirror was entirely coincidental). It's funny to read back and reflect on the days when I didn't have a 'pro' account on Flickr, and remember how terribly worried I was about spending that amount of money and whether it would be worth it.

I had my first (vegetarian) marshmallow in February, and conducted a series of culinary experiments to try and find out what I'd been missing all these years. The rocky road was definitely my favourite.

In March my husband and I went on a National Trust working holiday at Winkworth Arboretum, with the intention of learning how to coppice our woodland. As an added bonus, on our day off we had a behind-the-scenes tour of Petworth.

April was the first month I cooked Thai by myself, something I've done so many times since then that it's funny to think it was only eight months ago!

In May I learnt to sail, which was quite possibly my highlight of the entire year (at least in terms of skills-acquisition) since I'd been wanting to do it for pretty much my entire life. I was thankful not to fall in.

June was the first of a few travel-centred months when I went to Boulder, Colorado for a computational linguistics conference, and I was intrigued by the massive Greek houses at the university; thankfully a few of my blog buddies were able to shed a little more light on the mysteries of fraternities and sororities.

Sailing boatMachair flowersGreen Woodpecker


In July, I told you a little about one of the most fascinating aspects of the landscape on our summer driving-and-camping tour of the Outer Hebrides: the Machair, a unique coastal environment.

As much as I'd like my highlight for August to feature something from my trips to Washington and New York, I really can't escape from the fact that sharing a friend's apple chutney recipe has brought more traffic to this blog than any other post. Ever. It was also a useful way to preserve the massive apple harvest we had last year.

My thoughts in September turned to sex - more precisely, how to write about sex in an appropriate manner for any particular story. Maybe one day I'll be brave enough to post an excerpt for your thoughts...

In October I committed myself to learning Greenlandic, and though it's slow progress, I am progressing ("Qanoq ateqarpit?" "Rachel-mik ateqarpunga" and so on...).

November was NaNoWriMo, so I wrote a lot about writing, but the star of the show was certainly the green woodpecker who showed up outside my window.

Most of December's highlights were food-related, with the florentines being my personal favourite.

And that, more or less, was my year, though I haven't even mentioned our anniversary weekend in Brussels, various short trips within the UK, or any of my now-favourite soup recipes. There was more, of course - there's always much, much more than even makes it onto the blog. It was a very full year... but I've no reason to suspect 2010 will be any less hectic. Shall we go and find out?

Happy New Year everyone!

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Tubby's, Nailsworth



UPDATE: We visited on 4th March 2013 and found that Tubby's is now under new management.  The meal today was very disappointing (tepid food, smaller portions, lower quality), and while we'll happily give the new team chance to settle in before trying again, at present I could not recommend it.
If I'm at home on a Sunday, one of two things might happen, depending on how tired I am: either I cook something suitably impressive (often pie), or we go out to Tubby's for our lunch.

Tubby's Restaurant is set at one end of the Wyevale Garden Centre in Nailsworth, in a massive cafeteria-style dining room. You have to find a table first (no mean feat, on a Sunday) and then queue up to place your order.

I almost invariably order the cashew nut loaf, which is available most days (I say 'most' because the menu is generally a bit variable) but is served with a bonus Yorkshire pudding on Sundays.

Nut roast

This comes served with roast and boiled potatoes, mixed vegetables, and a rich onion gravy (though look out - they hide most of the onions under the slices of nut loaf!). The vegetables vary by season (recently it's been carrots, sprouts, and mashed swede) but they're always fresh and never over-cooked, which is a surprising achievement considering the size of the restaurant. Likewise the roast potatoes are always perfectly crispy on the outside and fluffy inside.

If you have any space left, Tubby's cakes are also fantastic, but I'm usually much too full from the generous portions - sometimes I share one plate with my husband and I'm still full. The coffee, on the other hand, is hit-and-miss, usually okay but sometimes excessively bitter. That's a gamble I can put up with, though, since the food is such great value.

Address:Tubby's Waterside Restaurant, Wyevale Garden Centre, Avening Road, Nailsworth, Stroud, GL6 0BS
Style:English
Date Visited:13 December 2009 (and many, many times before)


Monday, 28 December 2009

Yes or No?



I've read in a few places recently about the reputed benefits of saying "yes". Lots of good stuff to do with getting over your fears, gaining confidence, and having adventures.

I love adventures.

IMGP6059

The headlines say we should all say "YES!" more often.

But personally, I've found over the years that I've had to learn to say "no", else I end up over-committing and struggling to meet my commitments (which isn't fun for anyone). Maybe that's because I have a natural tendency to say "yes" to exciting opportunities - and by sometimes saying "no" to other people's requests, I have more time left to do the things that matter to me.

Perhaps the key, as with so many things, is just to be balanced. To consider every decision and say "yes" or "no" for the right reasons.

But of course, that doesn't make for such attention grabbing headlines......

Friday, 25 December 2009

Merry Christmas!



Merry Christmas everyone!

I have a full house to cater for, so I won't actually be online much over the Christmas period (yay for scheduled posts!). I'll catch up with you all very soon.

So instead of a real post today, I give you my favourite carol of all time, as sung (in Latin) by the incredible Mediæval Bæbes. Trust me, you're glad it's not me singing!



Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Two Travel Tips



Every so often, someone asks me for my 'top' travel tip. The answer varies depending on the circumstances, but essentially there are two main things I've learnt from experience, which I wish someone had told me sooner.

So, for the benefit of anyone who's interested, here are the two travel tips I would share. One is about going; the other is about coming back. I hope you find at least one of them useful. Please feel free to share your favourite tips in the comments.

IMG_9311

My advice about going?

Go!

That's really all there is to it. If an opportunity presents itself, for which you have both time and money in sufficient quantities, just go. I've adopted this strategy over the last few years, and it's certainly working for me. Even if you visit somewhere you'd prefer not to re-visit, you've learnt something. I've been in charge of my own travel plans for about ten years now, and I have only one regret - a trip to Thailand, which I didn't take. So go, whenever you have the chance.

Skyline

And for coming back?

Just be sure to take as much care packing your dirty laundry as you did packing your clean clothes to travel. Otherwise all the space you carefully left for mementos will just be full of crumpled shirts.

That's all. Go - and then pack neatly when it's time to come home.

Oh, and be sure to take lots of photos so you can show me how it went.

IMGP6028

This post is dedicated to my Dad, who's spending Christmas in India this year.



Sunday, 20 December 2009

Chilli Tomato Soup



This is an insanely quick soup to prepare (one onion and 2 chillis to chop, and that's about it) but despite the simplicity it was very, very tasty. I made it as a starter when I had some friends round for dinner at the weekend, and everyone went back for second helpings. I made it in advance and left the flavours to mingle, which seemed to work pretty well.

It felt like a great Christmas soup - I'm sure I'll be making it again over the holidays, probably with vegan cream so my mum can enjoy it, too.

Chilli Tomato Soup


Chilli Tomato Soup
Serves 4-6 (depending on whether everyone wants seconds!)

1 large onion
1tbsp olive oil
350g tomato passata
1 tin (400g) chopped tomatoes
1/2 pint vegetable stock
1tsp tabasco sauce
2 dried birds eye chillis
1 tin (400g) pre-cooked butter beans
100ml double cream
black pepper (to taste)
  1. Chop the onion very finely. Also, separately, chop the birds eye chillis (discard the seeds if you don't want as much of a kick to your soup).

  2. Heat the oil in a large saucepan and fry the onion until soft.

  3. Add the passata, tin of tomatoes, stock, tabasco, and chilli. Bring to the boil.

  4. Drain the butter beans and add to the soup. Season with black pepper.

  5. Continue cooking for 5-10 minutes, then remove from the heat and leave for a couple of hours for the flavours to combine.

  6. Before serving, stir through the cream and warm gently over a medium heat.


I'm submitting this soup for this week's Weekend Herb Blogging, hosted this week by Haalo at Cook (Almost) Anything At Least Once.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Storyteller, Cheltenham



I went to the Storyteller for a Christmas meal yesterday, and (as with all these things) had to choose what I wanted to eat several weeks in advance, from a special Christmas menu. Thankfully, when we arrived they gave us each a slip of paper with our order details, so I didn't have to worry about remembering what I'd picked.

For starter I had a massive bowl of tomato and lentil soup, which had a slight chilli kick. It was a tasty soup, but almost too much of it - there was certainly an imbalance between the large amount of soup and the tiny side-serving of cheesy tortilla (three small triangles); I would have been happier with less soup and a few more tortilla slices. Overall, this was the least inspiring part of the meal.

Tomato & Lentil Soup

The price of the meal was entirely determined by the main course, and this was also the only stage at which there was only one vegetarian option - the asian pulse and vegetable strudel, causing my bill to be £18.95 for three courses (much cheaper than the meat choices).

Asian Vegetable Strudel

The strudel was served with roast potato wedges, carrot crisps, some sweet relish (might have been beetroot), and a positive lake of creamy sandalwood sauce. The filling of the strudel included courgette, carrot, aubergine, lentils, black-eyed beans, barley, and cheese.

For dessert, I went for the chocolate mud pie (those who know me might not be surprised by that choice!).

Chocolate Mud Pie

This consisted of a thin biscuit base, then a layer of dense chocolate cake, and then chocolate mousse on top. It was served with a small scoop of vanilla ice-cream, and a lot of thick chocolate sauce. Aside from the fact that I would have liked a little more ice-cream to lighten it (it was very rich!), this was delicious. A friend had the cheesecake and was disappointed by the almost-invisible amount of biscuit, but it was the right amount for this dish and had a lovely hint of ginger. The chocolate tasted just of chocolate, but the mix of textures added interest.

I'd eat this exact meal again with pleasure, and I'm interested in going back to try their a la carte. One other comment I'd make would be the number of people packed into a relatively small space; our group found that it was virtually impossible to move after we'd struggled to get to our seats. Hopefully, outside of the Christmas period, it might be slightly less busy.

Address:11 North Place, Cheltenham, GL50 4DW
Style:Modern fusion
Date Visited:18 December 2009
Link:http://www.storyteller.co.uk


Thursday, 17 December 2009

Icing The Cake



One day at a time, Christmas is closing in.

Don't get me wrong, I love Christmas, but it seems to be hurtling towards me at an alarming rate this year. We're having family at our home this year, so there's a lot to do (and, consequently, a lot to blog about). Today: icing the cake.

Recently I've been encouraging my mum to blog about things that she thinks are easy and obvious, but which some people may not find so simple - and today's post is in much the same vein.

I grew up with extremely special home-made and home-decorated cakes for every birthday, so I think of cake decorating as a perfectly normal activity. Plus, I took an evening course in sugarcraft a small number of years ago, to learn how to do it all by myself.

If you're already comfortable icing a cake, this is probably going to be a boring post for you - go and make some florentines instead. (Do have a quick look at the photos, first, to check out my Christmas nails!)

But if you've never done it before and wondered where to start, maybe this will help.

There are basically two ways to marzipan and ice a fruit cake, depending on whether you want to use sugarpaste or royal icing. The sugarpaste method is very quick, and is what I'll show you here. Maybe next year you can convince me to demonstrate the days-long process of royal icing... but for now, let me show you this way, which took me 30 minutes from when I decided to get all my kit out.

To ice an 8in round Christmas cake, you'll need:

icing sugar
1tbsp apricot jam
500g marzipan
1tbsp vodka
500g sugarpaste (ready-to-roll icing)

Start by softening the marzipan slightly in your hands, and forming it into a ball. You need to roll it out to a large enough circle to cover the top and sides of the cake, so if you have an 8" cake that's 2" high, then you'll need to roll an approximately 12" circle.

A quick note about rolling out sticky things like marzipan and sugarpaste. I have a special mat (which you can see in the photos, with the corners held down by books), and a 2-foot-long, non-stick rolling pin. If you don't have specialist equipment, you're going to have to cheat, and I find the easiest cheat is to sandwich whatever you want to roll between two large sheets of cling-film. That saves on massive quantities of icing sugar, which you'd otherwise need to stop everything sticking to your worktops and rolling pin.

Whatever method you go for, remember to turn the sheet regularly as you're rolling, and try to keep the overall shape as close as possible to the cake you're planning to cover - round for a round cake, square for a square cake.

Once you've got a sheet of marzipan ready to go, you need to melt the jam - around thirty seconds in the microwave will do it - and brush it onto the outside of the cake.

What happens next is a delicate process of smoothing and straightening, trying to get the marzipan smoothly down the sides of the cake. I find it's best to start at the top and work your way down very, very gradually, a few millimetres at a time. (Another note on specialist equipment - I have a smoother, which is a cheap and worthwhile investment, but a clean palm will do the job.) Click on any of the pictures for a clearer view:

Christmas cake icing 1Christmas cake icing 2
Christmas cake icing 3Christmas cake icing 4
Christmas cake icing 5Christmas cake icing 6
Christmas cake icing 8Christmas cake icing 9

Once you've basically covered the cake in marzipan, you'll need to trim off any excess (yum!) and, if there are any gaps, patch them up. It doesn't really matter about a 100% neat finish on the marzipan, as you're about to cover it up, but smooth out any major bumps.

Next, roll out the sugarpaste. You'll need a slightly larger circle than you needed for the marzipan, but the method is basically the same. You'll want to concentrate more on getting a smooth surface as you're rolling (if you use cling-film, keep it taut to avoid wrinkles) because this will be the surface of your cake. You can't easily control what happens to the bottom surface, so keep the top surface nice, and when you come to lift the sheet of icing across don't flip it over.

The next step, you'll be pleased to hear, involves vodka. Pour yourself a glass, by all means, but I wouldn't suggest drinking it until you're finished; for now, it has the job of being glue. (If you can't have alcohol, you can use a light sugar syrup.) Brush the marzipanned cake with vodka, then lift the sheet of sugarpaste and smooth down the sides, as above. Note that sugarpaste will stretch a little as you smooth it, which is okay, but watch out for major cracks.

Christmas cake icing 11Christmas cake icing 12
Christmas cake icing 13Christmas cake icing 14
Christmas cake icing 15Christmas cake icing 16

You now have a basic iced cake, ready to decorate however you see fit. I haven't decided how to finish mine for this year, but meanwhile, here's one I made a couple of years ago:

Christmas Cake 2006


Monday, 14 December 2009

Florentines: A Christmas Treat



We were wandering through the supermarket a few days ago when my husband spotted some florentines, and commented how much he likes them.

"I can make those," I said, with absolute confidence.

It was only later that I realised I'd never made them before, and by then, I'd already steered Andy round to the Home Baking aisle to pick up flaked almonds, and cherries, and candied peel. We were at the checkout before I realised I had no idea what I was going to stick them together with.

Now, when I want a recipe for something baking-ish (where proportions matter!), I generally turn to the internet before my many recipe books. I really want Google to invent a new type of recipe search engine, where it scours the internet for all instances of a particular dish and then works out the ideal proportions of the ingredients, across the whole internet. But until then, I do a small-scale, manual version myself, reading a large number of related recipes and trying to find a sort of middle-ground. This is the result of that process.

Florentines

Florentines are a classic Christmastime treat in my home alongside mince pies and lebkuchen... and now, I'll never need to buy them again.


Florentines
Makes 16 biscuits

100g flaked almonds
50g candied peel
25g glace cherries
25g raisins
50g butter
50g caster sugar
50g plain flour
2tsp golden syrup
2tsp double cream
100-150g chocolate for melting (I used milk chocolate this time)
  1. Preheat the oven to 180°C, and line two large baking trays with greaseproof paper (or use a silicone baking sheet).

  2. Chop the cherries into quarters, and mix the almonds, cherries, raisins and candied peel together in a bowl.



    Dried Fruit

  3. Melt the butter, sugar and flour together in a small saucepan, over a very low heat, stirring constantly.

  4. Once the butter has fully melted, ensure the flour and sugar are fully mixed in, then add the syrup and stir through.

  5. Remove from the heat and stir the cream through the mixture. You should end up with a very thick, homogenous liquid.

  6. Add the almonds and fruit, and mix thoroughly.

  7. Use a teaspoon to scoop out small balls of the mixture, and space evenly around the baking sheets, leaving about an inch around each one for spreading. Flatten each biscuit slightly.

  8. Bake for 10-12 minutes until golden brown (any longer, as I found out with my second batch, and they will spread further to become rather too crispy). Remove from the oven and leave to cool on the tray for a couple of minutes, and then transfer to a wire rack to finish cooling.



    Florentines cooling

  9. Melt the chocolate according to your favourite method (I have a special chocolate-melting machine, but in a bowl over a pan of boiling water works fine, too).

  10. Spoon a little chocolate onto the flat side of each florentine, and spread it around to cover the biscuit. Refrigerate to speed up the setting of the chocolate.



    Adding chocolate to florentines

If you want to show off:

I was primarily making these for myself (and my husband, obviously), so I did them quite quickly. If you want to show off, you may want to ensure the florentines are round by pushing the raw mixture into the base of muffin tins. You may also want to draw pretty patterns in the chocolate with a fork, or use a mixture of different types of chocolate (plain, milk, and white are all lovely with florentines).

I'm submitting this recipe to Food Blogga's 3rd Eat Christmas Cookies event - see here for the rules and here for the roundup which is absolutely stuffed with amazing recipes for sugary Christmas goodies


Friday, 11 December 2009

Language In Fantasy



The issue of language in fantasy fiction is always a thorny one - which, for me, makes it interesting.

We can suspend our disbelief for just about long enough to accept that characters may be chatting happily in English (I think of it as translation, in the same way as the whole book may one day be translated into French or Chinese...), but there are certain things that will get in the way of believing in the world and the characters.

Essentially, it boils down to not wanting to use any language which will break the reader's concentration. If it's incongruous, if it stands out, if the reader notices the English language at all, then there's probably something wrong.

I don't shy away from using slang and informal language, but I rule out anything that's culturally grounded in this world. And as most of the fantasy settings I create tend to have an approximately Medieval level of technology, 'modern' concepts and phrases are out.

To take my Charanthe series as an example, they don't have clocks (so I don't use expressions like "wait a minute" or "just a second"), and religion has been outlawed for several generations (so no "Oh God!" or "damn"). The religious constraint makes swearing, in particular, very hard. Actually, swearing is hard anyway, because what's taboo versus acceptable is so very, very dependent on culture.

I've come across some extreme examples in my own writing/editing. I've found it very hard to find a replacement word for 'adrenaline' - which I wanted to edit out on the grounds that it's a chemical that they wouldn't know about. I've ended up rewriting whole paragraphs to make that one disappear. Another fairly obscure one is 'galvanize' - is it okay to have a person be (metaphorically) galvanized when the metal treatment in question hasn't been invented? My internal jury is out on this one. (I even had doubts about 'insurance'........ but I decided that was a step too far, and besides, I'll never catch them all.)

One big question is whether these "rules" should apply to only the dialogue and thoughts of the characters, or also to the narrative voice. (Not an issue if you're writing in first person, of course.) I tend to apply them across the board, but I think it's a very personal decision. I'm aware that I'm making my life a lot harder.

Language in historical fiction will be a post for another day... it feels even more important to get it right if there's a real historical context. That's one of the big things holding me back on my historical thriller, at the moment; I need to research language in 1920s Chicago. Anyone know any good books?

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Longships @ Land's End Hotel, Cornwall



As a nearly-lifelong vegetarian, I'd never been to a carvery before I met my husband. I mean, why would you, if you don't want the meat? He talked me round to the idea of unlimited vegetables, and also pointed out that there's often a vegetarian option on the menu (while "just one option" isn't usually a winner, if the omnivores only have a couple of choices, I'm not going to take it personally).

In Cornwall recently, we were staying with a friend who had two-for-£15 vouchers for two courses at Longships, the restaurant at the end of the world. Okay, the end of Cornwall. Whatever.

I wasn't feeling terribly well (I've been ill a lot lately) but fresh veggies and bracing sea air appealed, so we went.

Two courses could include a starter or a pudding - one of our party went for the cream of leek soup, which looked oily, and everyone else opted for pudding. The vegetarian option was a stuffed pepper with roasted tomato sauce; I don't know if it changes week by week.

Stuffed Peppers

The peppers were roasted, and stuffed (though by no means bursting) with more peppers, onions, and mushrooms. The sauce was incredibly rich and delicious, very creamy, almost too rich for my delicate stomach. It was prepared to order, which meant a five minute wait, but also that the food was piping hot.

As for the vegetables.... For me, going to a carvery is all about the vegetables. More often than not, I'm slightly disappointed in the quality, but make up for it in quantity. This time I didn't go for quantity (not feeling up to a huge meal - though my husband more than made up for my restraint!) but the quality was absolutely excellent. There were roasted and boiled potatoes, carrots, sprouts, cauliflower, roasted parsnips, and red cabbage. Everything was cooked to al dente perfection - a rarity in any mass catering situation. My only slight quibble would be that the roast potatoes could have been a tad crisper - but they were still yummy. They'd run out of parsnips when we went up to fetch our vegetables, so they offered to bring some to the table later. I also managed to nab a yorkshire pudding.

For dessert we had slightly-unseasonal Christmas pudding (they'd also got their tinsel up early!) and, between us, tested off-menu ordering with combinations of custard, cream and ice-cream on the side. Finished off with coffee, and we definitely weren't hurried, because it was almost three hours later when we finally left our table!

Considering the spectacular sea views from every table - we had incredible storms - and the quality of the food, I'd definitely eat here at full price next time.

Address:Longships Bar & Restaurant, Land's End Hotel, Land's End, Cornwall
Style:Traditional English/Cornish (Carvery on Sundays)
Date Visited:22 November 2009
Link:http://www.landsendhotel.co.uk/longships.php


Tuesday, 8 December 2009

5 Reasons To Love Cornwall's 'Off' Season



Pier at Porthleven

A lot of people tend to associate Cornwall with summer holidays and sandcastles. While there's nothing inherently wrong with that, if you'd never think of going to Cornwall in winter, you're missing out. Here are a few reasons why:

  • It's quiet
    Compared to the heaving crowds of a Cornish summer, or even the Christmas shopping rush in your local high street, Cornwall in winter is blissfully quiet. You can stroll along deserted cliff-tops or wander along empty beaches, meeting only the occasional local.

    Metal detector

  • It's cheap
    From October to April (barring school holidays) most parking restrictions aren't in force, so you can park for free, on the roads, almost anywhere. Some attractions (like Land's End) are half price, and there are various other discounts to be had (like the little-advertised free entry to Trebah Gardens for National Trust members). You might be able to pick up some discount coupons for food, too, from the local papers.

    Cornish coast

  • It's dramatic
    Windswept coastlines are always beautiful, but there's something about the winter weather that makes it all the more impressive. Just try not to get swept away by the breaking waves.

    Mullion

  • It's warm (sometimes)
    Cornwall can be a fair bit warmer than most of the UK. On good days in January, I've been out for coastal walks wearing a t-shirt, but even on the coldest days you're usually okay in a fleece and good waterproofs.

    Praa Sands

  • It's always warm indoors
    If you get fed up of the strong winds and driving rain - well, that's a great excuse to hole up in one of Cornwall's excellent teashops for a traditional cream tea, or find a pub with a roaring log fire, or pick out a restaurant with a spectacular view over the sea. There's also the Eden Project, for gardens that are dry all year round.

    The Eden Project


Preparing for Christmas, and Happy SITSmas!



First, an explanation of the title, for anyone unfamiliar with SITS. You may have seen the little button in my sidebar (and many other sidebars across the blogosphere). SITS is one of the nicest concepts I've come across for a blogging community - the basic idea being to leave lots of comments and make lots of friends. It's only open to women (sorry, guys) but it seems like a great bunch of ladies. I only signed up a couple of weeks ago, and have made lots of new blog-friends already!

And today has been designated SITSmas, the day when all the SITS girls get together (virtually) to wish one another a Very Happy Christmas.

I'd like to send my Christmas wishes to everyone, but especially to anyone who's here for the first time today.

Last year was a very difficult time for my family (my husband's family in particular), and after spending last Christmas in a hospital waiting room, this year will be the two of us at home with my mum, her partner, and my mother-in-law. I'm looking forwards to a quiet holiday period, and have just about started my preparations.

We've just bought a new tree:

Christmas Tree

For the last couple of years we've had a small, living tree which we've managed to keep alive (just) between Christmasses. But although it's still alive, it's looking increasingly bedraggled. When I saw that a local store had half price artificial trees, making the size we'd want only five pounds, we decided to invest. It's small enough that we can put it away fully decorated (and save ourselves a lot of work next year!) but just the right size for our living room.

I'm also starting to think about what I might cook - my mum is vegan and wheat-intolerant, so it requires a bit of creativity. Whatever I decide, I'll give you my recipe later.

I'm sure I'll have more to say about Christmas as it draws nearer!

Meanwhile... Merry Christmas and Happy SITSmas!

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Thai Mushroom Soup



I've been craving mushroom soup for a couple of weeks, but I'm not a fan of the typical 'cream of mushroom' style as I tend to find it a bit slimy. So I've been meaning to apply my soup-creating skills to mushrooms. I was actually going to look up a recipe for Hungarian mushroom soup (inspired by a throwaway comment from Jovialist) but I didn't quite get round to that. Soon, I promise.

When I found loads of different mushroom-related offers in Tesco, it kicked me into action, and then I found a pack of fresh coriander in the discount bin - Thai seemed the obvious choice.

I usually have a little inward groan when I see recipes that call for a million types of mushrooms, because I don't like having half-packets to use up later - but this is only three kinds, and they all add something different. I love the solid texture of chestnut mushrooms, and baby button mushrooms are just cute.

Thai Mushroom Soup

Thai Mushroom Soup
Serves 4

250g field mushrooms
2 large onions
1tsp toasted sesame oil
1inch fresh ginger
6 large cloves garlic
1 small red chilli
2tbsp red Thai curry paste
1tbsp tomato puree
2 pints boiling water
50g coconut cream
200g chestnut mushrooms
100g baby button mushrooms
20g fresh coriander leaf (cilantro)
  1. Finely chop the onions and field mushrooms, and fry in the sesame oil for around 10 minutes until soft.

  2. Chop the ginger, garlic, and chilli. Stir in to the onion/mushroom mixture and fry for a couple more minutes.

  3. Add the curry paste, tomato puree, and around 1/2 pint of boiling water, and simmer over a low heat for around 45 minutes.

  4. Dissolve the coconut cream into the soup, and add the rest of the boiling water.

  5. Trim the button mushrooms, and cut the chestnut mushrooms into thick slices. Add these to the soup, along with the coriander stalks (chopped). Simmer for a further 5 minutes until all mushrooms are tender.

  6. Stir the coriander leaf through just before serving, and reserve a little to garnish.
Endnote: my husband thought this might have been better if I'd pureed it before serving. I happen to disagree, but I'm happy to stick his in the blender if he really wants me to! Blending the onion mixture before adding the button & chestnut mushrooms would give a slightly thicker soup base so that might be a compromise for next time.

5:2 Intermittent Fasting button5:2 Diet
This soup is super-light at about 125 calories per bowl, so it's perfect for a fast day.

I'm submitting this soup for this week's Weekend Herb Blogging, hosted this week by Marillyn at Just Making Noise. Hat-tip to mangocheeks for drawing my attention to this great roundup.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

NaNoWriMo 2009: In Summary



So. December. Time to forget about crazy writing goals and move on to thinking about Christmas, right?

Well..... imminently. But first, as with all good things that end too soon, I need to have a NaNo post mortem.

NaNoWriMo victory!
Yes, I took a photo of my screen instead of a screenshot. I was half asleep!

To put these ramblings into context, I should point out that I've done NaNo twice before in the last two years, both times successfully.

For my first attempt in 2007 I was excessively keen and, with the help of a solid plan, a lot of late nights, and two weekends with my fingers glued to the keyboard, I managed to reach 50,000 words in 14 days. I should have used the rest of the month to write more, but no. I didn't write another word for about two months.

Last year, having learnt something of a lesson about burn-out, I decided to pace myself. I had an exciting idea to explore, but I started the month with only a main character and a 'concept' statement. The fleshing out of that concept into a fully-fledged plot over the course of the next 30 days was one of those organic miracles that only happens when you make yourself "just write". I finished only a couple of days ahead of schedule, but I wasn't fed up of writing.

So I know I can write 50,000 words in a month. Been there, done that. Nothing left to prove, in that respect.

This year I wanted a different challenge. This year I wanted to find out whether I could write well at that speed. Could I turn out 50,000 words and be proud to stand behind them? Could I generate 1667 words of solid first-draft material each and every day? And would I be completely exhausted by the end of the process?

It didn't help that I fell ill on the 2nd, so progress over the whole month felt painfully slow. I fell behind almost immediately and didn't catch up until the 20th. But on the other hand, I know there are some people who're happy to be behind until the 30th, and still make it.

I reached 50,117 on November 28th, and reached the end of my novel in the process (I was technically a NaNo Rebel this year, by putting my words towards an existing project).

On the whole, I'd have to say my 'quality' experiment was a success.

Of course, a first draft is always a first draft. It needs more work - lots of it. But it's writing of the same standard as my normal first drafts which, as I've mentioned previously, have actually been rewritten several times. I didn't try to stop myself editing and rewriting as I went along (I deleted hundreds of words) and nor did I do anything specifically to increase my word count (aside from sitting down and writing, obviously!).

Now I just have to decide which book to write next........

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

BJ's, Boulder CO



It was quite late at night when I arrived in Boulder, Colorado last summer. The next morning I hired a bicycle to ride a short distance into the mountains, and after that, went for a nosy around the town. By lunchtime, I was starving.

Boulder has a longstanding reputation for being vegetarian-friendly, and I was going to look for one of the specifically vegetarian restaurants (of which there are a couple) when I came upon BJ's.

To be honest, it wasn't just the food that tempted me in.

It was a combination of the food, the great outdoor seating area, and the fact that they have their own brewery inside:

IMG_3896

I went for the spinach & artichoke calzone, and the 'tasting menu' of four different beers (there was an option with seven, but I'd read about alcohol and altitude, so I didn't think that was the best idea).

IMG_3893

Spinach and artichoke seems to be a very popular combination in Boulder (and maybe elsewhere in the USA, I don't know). It was a very tasty calzone filled with cream cheese, spinach, and artichoke hearts, topped with fresh tomato & cheese, and with an extra pot of rich tomato sauce on the side (which I almost didn't need, though it was nice for dipping the crusts). I was too full to order dessert.

I'd definitely go back if I'm in Boulder again.

Address:1125 Pearl St, Boulder, CO 80302-5103
Style:Microbrewery
Date Visited:30 May 2009
Link:http://www.bjsbrewhouse.com


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