Little spring birdies

IMG_9456A few years ago we started decorating our home for spring. Actually, we originally called the decorations ‘Easter decorations’ but who am I kidding? We are often away at Easter so as with all our decorations, they come out early, at the first sign of new leaves coming into bud.

Our decorations are simple – a few polystyrene eggs that have been painted, glittered and held up with ribbon and pins; fluffy chicks and rabbits that have been sent to us over the years and a few crocheted chicks made from this pattern. They hang on some branches that the children found and The Husband whittled so that they fitted into the holes he drilled into a piece of old worktop.

A few weeks ago I felt the urge to do a little sewing and decided to make some birdie decorations, based on the crocheted ones I already had. They are very simple, requiring only the ability to sew on some beads and buttons and do a running stitch. They are also very easily adapted to the materials that you have to hand.

You will need:

A small amount of cotton fabric, this project is ideal for using up scrap bits and pieces, my birdie was 11cm in diameter so that’s the minimum size you need.

A small amount of felt for the wings and beak.

A few beads and buttons for embellishing and making eyes.

Thread to match your fabric and buttons. And a needle and scissors.

A crochet hook, size 3 to 4 will do.

A small amount of double knit yarn to make the legs. You could also use string but I’m guessing that if you own a crochet hook, you own yarn.

A small amount of toy stuffing. If your birdie is a one off, you aren’t going to wash it and you don’t want to buy a whole load of stuffing maybe you could use cotton wool?

Some ribbon to make a hanger. Again, you could use a simple loop of yarn or thread instead.

Pinking shears.

What to do:

IMG_9474Use a small pot or something similar and a pencil to draw a circle onto your fabric, approximately 11 cm in diameter. Cut out the the circle using pinking shears if you have them. Fold your circle of fabric in half and iron it so that you create a crease across the diameter.

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Now cut out a smaller circle from some felt. This will form the wings so choose your template accordingly. Ideally it should be around 5cm in diameter. Cut the felt circle in half to form two wings. Lay out your fabric circle with the wings on top, as shown below. Their straight edges parallel with the crease you made and about 1 cm below it. Fold your birdie in half to get an idea of where they look best, pin one on and then lay it out again and repeat on the other side. You can attach the wings as you see fit but I decided to sew them on in one place only, near the ‘beak end’, by attaching a few buttons or beads on top. If you hate sewing, you could do this step with a glue gun.

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As you can see in the picture, I have also stitched on the button eyes and ribbon hanger at this stage. If you don’t have appropriate buttons, you can stitch an eye with black thread and parallel stitches that form a circle.

To make the legs, crochet a chain of about 30 stitches (or chain until it is twice as long as you want the legs to be). Make sure you leave a tail at either end. Trim the tail ends to about 1.5cm long and tease out the fibres to create the effect of feet. Stitch the middle of the chain to the inside of your fabric circle, close to the edge, so that when you fold it up again, the legs dangle down about halfway between the ‘beak’ and ‘tail’ end of your bird.

Cut a triangle from felt to form the beak of your bird. You can often squeeze this shape out of the offcuts from the wings. Fold your triangle in half, lining up the fold in the triangle beak with the crease in the body. Stitch the beak in place. Almost finished. Continue the stitching from the beak in a simple running stitch along the curved edge of the body. Leave a gap at the end so you can put the stuffing in. You should have something that looks like this.

IMG_9485IMG_9486When the stuffing is in, finish off the stitching up, right to the ‘tail end’. Tie the hanging ribbon in a knot (or stitch it). Your birdie is done. Now you just need somewhere twigs and maybe a few friends for it to hang around with.

IMG_9518If you have a lavender plant, you could harvest the dried seed heads and put some inside these birds to make scented lavender bags.

Recycled paper pots for growing seeds

I am flattered to have been asked to be the School of Thrift’s resident gardening expert. However, I think it would be more than a bit untruthful to describe myself as an expert. I would suggest ‘enthusiast’ is probably a better description. So, in the name of enthusiasm, here is a little post about a thrifty way to grow seeds.

Have you ever seen one of these?

IMG_9408The wooden pieces on the right are a little device used to make paper pots for seeds. I like the idea of starting seeds off in individual pots but I don’t like the idea of transplanting them. I’m not sure that the seedlings like it much either. It can’t be nice, having their delicate roots disturbed. Lots of gardening gurus recommend using small coir pots (made of coconut husks) that simply decompose when the seedling is eventually planted into the ground. These little paper pots do the same thing but you can make them for free and recycle your newspaper at the same time. Unfortunately I can’t tell you how effective they are because this is the first time I’ve tried them.

paperpotsYou simply roll a strip of newspaper around the cylinder part (not too tight) then starting at the seam, fold the bottom over. I found that three folds were enough to neatly close the gap. Next you press the bottom of your pot into the other part of the wooden former and twist. Finally, remove the pot from the wooden cylinder (this is sometimes a bit tricky and requires a bit of wriggling) and hey presto, you have a pot. Call me sad but I found making these little pots really addictive.

IMG_9511The next problem is how to store the pots once you have planted them up. Their very nature means that they are a bit floppy, especially after they have been watered. They also become slightly mouldy after a while, which is probably a good thing and all part of the decomposing process. I hunted around our shed for a suitable tray to put them in but all the proper seed trays had holes in the bottom. Not ideal for keeping leaky pots on a clean windowsill. Fortunately for me we had several old ice cream tubs out in our garage, waiting to be re-used. They turned out to be the perfect size for 12 little paper pots. Very satisfying.

My mind also skipped back to an image I had seen on Pinterest (you can take a look at my gardening board here) of a drinks carton being used as a plant pot. Rooting around in the recycling bag I found two empty cartons and chopped off one of the larger sides of each.

IMG_9510Bingo – just the right size for 8 little pots and the cartons themselves sit together on a windowsill or greenhouse shelf in a pleasingly snug sort of way.

So far I have sown sunflowers, leeks, sweetcorn, sweet peas, oregano and rosemary in these little pots and they are all germinating (well, except the rosemary, but that takes a notoriously long time).

Have you noticed my plant labels? I have been making these for a long time. I cut up old plastic containers, anything from margarine tubs to milk cartons and use them. They are probably not as durable as shop bought ones but they are free and I *think* the plastic in milk cartons is biodegradable.

Now, what I’d really like to see is someone ingenious enough to create a paper pot maker from recycled materials. Surely all you would need is a pipe to wrap the paper around and, erm, hmm, something to form the base. And that is where my creativity ends. Happy seed sowing everyone.

School of Thrift

Blogging is a great way to be more mindful. In the same way that writing a diary makes you reflect on your life, writing a blog gives you a nudge to think just that little bit more about what is important to you and recently, I have been nudged into thinking about the word thrift.

This all started when I noticed that the organisers of the Festival of Thrift in Darlington were looking for bloggers to join their ‘School of Thrift’. I had heard from a friend (thank you Susie Cottonsocks) that last year’s inaugural festival was a fabulous event so I was keen to get involved. But then I wondered about my lifestyle. Could I call myself thrifty? I had to look up a definition of the word to check. This is what my computer’s dictionary had to say on the matter.

Thrift: the quality of using money and other resources carefully and not wastefully.

That seemed reasonable to me. As a family we do try not to waste things. I still wondered if I could qualify as thrifty while owning a new iPhone and a car that is less than two years old. Perhaps it’s because I associate thrift with my Grandparents era of rationing and post-war austerity that I’m finding it hard to unpick exactly what thrift means to me. These days, when we choose to be thrifty, we are perhaps thinking more about separating ourselves from mass-production and our throw-away, disposable culture than our Grandparents, whose thriftiness was an essential skill rather than a lifestyle choice.

My computer also tells me that the opposite of thrift is extravagance and I don’t think that is a word that could be used in connection with my family.  After all, the sofa I am sitting on is over 20 years old and next to it are two chairs that belonged to our grandparents. I have no desire to replace any of them yet because they are good quality and comfortable.  So I think thrift is fairly integral to the way I make my purchases and live my life. Maybe it’s just that thrift is such an everyday occurrence in my household that it doesn’t feel like anything special.

So, this year, I will be contributing to the School of Thrift by adding as many thrifty posts as I can and I will be looking back over my previous posts to flag up any that I think qualify with a ‘thrift’ tag. Look out for recipes, gardening and crafty ideas. There will be lots of other thrifty goings on at the main School of Thrift pages over at Google+ (which is a whole new world for me) so head over there if you want to find out more.

Happy Thrifting!

Mud lovin’ puddin’

The husband has developed a taste for ‘mud running’. Today he did his second event, the Newcastle Stampede, which is organised by the British Heart Foundation. This is the state of his kit.
IMG_8444Since it was a cold, wet, grey day to be running and I needed to put the oven on for dinner anyway, I decided that he should have one of his favourite puddings. Baked rice pudding, like Mama used to make.

Baked Rice Pudding  ::  Serves 2-3 generously

2 oz or 50g pudding rice

1 oz or 25g sugar

half a pint or 225ml of milk

half a pint or 225ml of evaporated milk ‘Carnation’

butter to grease the dish

ground nutmeg sprinkled on top

Grease a shallow, lidded, oven-proof dish with the butter. Add the remaining ingredients and stir. Put the lid on and place in the oven at 160C, 325F or gas mark 3 for 2-3 hours. It is done when the top has formed a golden skin and the inside is creamy.

Mine was probably in the oven for a little bit too long. Such are the perils of taking the children out to a swimming party after you have turned the oven on.

IMG_8443No complaints were heard from The Husband though. Even I enjoyed it with a good splash of double cream on top and I detest tinned rice pudding. This is the real deal and it could hardly be easier to make. If your oven is going on anyway, for something like a slow cooked casserole this is the ideal dessert to pop in at the same time. Two dishes for the price of heating the oven.

Foraging

Even by the August Bank Holiday, summer is slowly slipping into autumn and a walk out in the country can unintentionally turn into a foraging trip.

IMG_8085In this case, we set off to simply blow the cobwebs away with a walk near this flooded quarry and the neighbouring woodland.

IMG_8089The path we were taking passed some exposed rocks that I think are limestone pavement. The dips and troughs in the rock are like little micro-habitats. Look at the delicate plants and bright lichens within them.

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IMG_8087As I was taking pictures, the rest of the family were beginning to hunt for something else: mushrooms. My husband has often reminisced about mushroom picking in his younger days.  As I was brought up in town and warned never to pick or eat wild mushrooms, it always seemed like a mildly risky thing to do. However, I figured that in the company of two older family members who have been picking  (and eating) mushrooms from this area for years, we were probably safe. We sent The Husband back to the car to collect a bag and we all spread out on the great mushroom hunt, combing the field and darting off after white blobs on the horizon. Alas, many of them were just stray bits of fleece from the sheep that were grazing nearby. By the time he got back we already had a couple each. We searched for a while, with reasonable success but soon the children wanted to retrace our steps and head into the wood. The Husband’s Aunt decided she would go on alone and look for some more, so the rest of us trooped off to explore a different habitat.

IMG_8102Son Number One was keen to build a den. Between him, Babykins, The Husband and Grandma, they did a pretty good job. The Middle Miss was not so keen to pick up soggy, spiky bits of wood and haul them across rough ground so I took her off to explore and again, I was taken by the smaller plant life of this damp woodland.

IMG_8092We enjoyed looking at these tiny, star-like plants and spotting the even smaller creatures running among them. Then I gave her a little lesson in using a compass, with the built in app on my phone. We tested the theory that moss grows on the north side of tree trunks but it didn’t seem to be a very good theory in this particular conifer plantation. All the time, The Middle Miss was looking out to see if her Great Aunt had returned. As soon as she was spotted we ran to see what she had found.

IMG_8143Sure enough, the little bag she had taken was full up with mushrooms of varying sizes. By that time, everyone was ready to head back home.

IMG_8100I tried really hard to capture the view of the fells as we drove back in the car, they looked so dark and dramatic. The eastern Lakeland fells that surround Haweswater hold special memories for me and I will enjoy looking at this picture, despite the poor quality image my iPhone produced.

IMG_8105And finally, the only way to eat foraged field mushrooms (according to The Husband anyway). Mushrooms cooked in milk, with a little cornflour to thicken the sauce and served on toast. A taste of his country childhood.

What to do with courgettes

I love courgettes but they do have a tendency to appear as a glut. Especially when you have seven plants.

IMG_7709This was my haul last Friday.

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We have almost managed to eat up this batch. They have been sliced and fried in butter; griddled, layered with tomatoes and cheese and cooked in the oven like an aubergine parmigiana;

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IMG_7755 baked with a topping of smoked cheese and parmesan;

IMG_7757and grated into a chocolate cake.

IMG_7752When the courgette glut really gets going I like to preserve some of them in lemon juice and olive oil. We managed to make a batch of these last week when the weather was still at it’s warmest. The photos below show the process, the recipe is at the bottom. It takes quite a long time to complete the whole process but it can also be broken down into chunks of activity and as you may be able to see from the photos, the whole family can get involved. Even Babykins likes to brush the sliced courgettes with oil, though it is Son Number One who is in the picture.

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Courgettes Preserved in Lemon Juice and Oil

Juice and rind of 3 lemons. 

Up to 2.5kg of courgettes (big or small)

1 large onion, finely diced or 300g shallots

about 6 cloves of garlic (or up to a whole bulb if you are brave)

salt

fresh or dried herbs such as thyme, bay, oregano and perhaps a tablespoon of peppercorns

Approximately 500ml of olive oil, plus more for brushing over the courgettes before cooking

1. Slice the courgettes into long-ish pieces, 1/2 a cm thick and layer them in a bowl, sprinkled with salt. Rest them for about an hour then rinse and dry them.

2. While the courgettes are salting, finely slice the onion and garlic and sweat over a gently heat until translucent. Remove from the heat and set to one side.

3. Mix the lemon juice and rind with a tablespoon of salt in a large bowl. Add the cool onions and garlic and plenty of herbs.

4. Wash your jars in the hottest soapy water you can find. Rinse and place on a baking tray, the right way up. Put them in the oven and turn it on to 100 degrees C for at least 5 minutes. Ideally you want the jars to be hot when you pack them with the courgettes. You can use any recycled jars if the lids are clean and fresh. Personally, I find the golden syrup jars that Tesco sell their value golden syrup in are an ideal size. They are the round ones on the right in the picture below.

5. Before you cook the courgettes, brush them on both sides with oil. Heat up your griddle pan or fire up the barbecue. Cook the courgettes on both sides, covering them in nice, black, criss-crossing lines.

6. When the courgettes are cooked, place them in the lemon/onion/garlic/herb mixture. When they are cool enough, toss them all together, with your hands if necessary and then strain the courgettes, retaining the lemony juice in a measuring jug.

7. Begin to pack the courgettes into the jars. Use the end of a wooden spoon and some tongs to do this. Try to pack them in as tightly as possible. Fill the jars but not completely to the top. Leave a space so that they will be completely covered in oil.

8. Add olive oil to the lemon juice until you have 500ml of liquid. Place it into a pan and heat it to 80 degrees C (the oil will begin to boil) mixing it thoroughly, ideally with a whisk. Pour the hot oil/lemon mixture over the courgettes, sharing it out as equally as possible.

9. Make sure that the courgettes are completely covered with oil. Top up the jars with more if necessary.

10. These jars should store well right into the winter and make a quick and easy meal when mixed with pasta. They are also good on their own as a sort of antipasti.

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Elderflower time again

IMG_7390You know it’s June when the elderflowers bloom!

I love making elderflower cordial. It’s a little bit of summer in a bottle. It’s also well worth it because the store bought version is relatively expensive.

I love picking it too: no thorns or stings and the smell is divine. We are lucky to have an elderflower tree growing over the corner of our allotment, behind the greenhouse. I harvest both the flowers and the berries each year but only from the lower branches. There is always plenty of fruit for the birds in the autumn.

IMG_7512I have been thinking all week about when I could do some foraging and preserving and today was the day. While Babykins raked and watered I snipped away at the big, creamy, flat flower heads, dusting the yellow pollen all around me as I went. Babykins and I also harvested the first courgette of the season.

IMG_7518Which, as you can see in the photo above didn’t last long.

Tonight I have started the process of making cordial. The flowers are steeping in a bath of sugar syrup and lemon slices. After my experiments last year, I have decided I prefer the sharper version of elderflower cordial (a bit like this). It’s a miracle that there’s any sharpness left in it at all when you realise just how much sugar goes into cordial.

IMG_2563Each pint of water requires 750g of sugar. I thought I would measure this by volume too. 750g of sugar is almost equivalent to a PINT and A HALF!!!!!!! No wonder it tastes good!

IMG_2559 For previous elderflower posts, click here

Make do and mend…

You might not think it, but I am trying to count the pennies at the moment. I’m not very good at it but I am trying. Today I decided to jazz up my jeans with a packet of Dylon machine dye in order to avoid buying a new pair.

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I like my jeans to be a good, solid dark colour, without worn patches. However, life with small children means that I am frequently kneeling down to talk to them, do up shoes and dry tears. My comfy jeans were no longer looking as new and fresh as I would like.

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Using a machine dye is very clean, easy and I’ve never had a problem with the colour staying in the machine. The only down side is that you need to run the machine through at least 2 cycles, three if the garment you are dying can’t be washed at 90 degrees Celsius.

IMG_7498 Ok, so the knee on the right is still a bit faded, but they look a lot better than they did. I should have taken a ‘before’ picture as well as an ‘after’. The salt cost less than 30p and the dye, as you can see in the first photo was £3.99. I don’t know how much two 60 degree and one 90 degree washes cost, but I think it’s probably less than a new pair of Marks and Spencer jeans…

 

Sweet and creamy coconut, chickpea and vegetable curry

I am not a vegetarian but I really do like vegetarian food. I think that we probably eat a vegetarian main meal at least three times a week, sometimes more. Eating a vegetarian diet is linked with better health and it is usually much cheaper. I’d like to say that a vegetarian meal will have a much lower carbon footprint but I guess that depends on where your veggies come from. Apparently this week is National Vegetarian Week, so in honour of that, here is one of my most recent dinners.

I was inspired by this recipe at Attic 24, having used it quite a lot. I wanted an easy going meal, i.e. no last minute trip to the shops. Rummaging in my cupboard, fridge and freezer I found the following ingredients:

IMG_71171 large Red pepper (capsicum)

1 Courgette (zucchini)

4 Spring onions (scallions)

1 Tin of Chick peas

1 Tin of Coconut milk,

1teaspoon Ground Coriander

1teaspoon Ground Cumin

1teaspoon Garam Masala

About a 2cm ‘squeeze’ of Garlic Puree

1 Vegetable Stock Cube

1 tablespoon of mango chutney

1 tablespoon of coriander leaf (frozen)

As you can see, I chopped up the veg, ready to fry it gently, in a large pan, with the lid on. I think this is what cheffy types call ‘sweating off’. I also added the garlic and spices at this point. If you like your dinners a bit hotter, you could add your preferred amount of chilli at this point. If I was making this for just me and The Husband I would probably add about a teaspoon of mild chilli powder and about a quarter to a half a teaspoon of hot chilli powder. I think using both types gives depth of flavour and a bit of ‘kick’.

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When the vegetables were softened and the spices had released some flavour, I added the tinned chickpeas and coconut milk. I also added a vegetable stock cube and allowed everything to simmer for a while. Adding the mango chutney was an afterthought really that I remembered from the Attic 24 recipe. I just felt that more sweetness was needed. The last thing I added was the frozen, chopped coriander leaf. By the time that had defrosted I was ready to dish up.

I served it with boiled rice and steamed cauliflower. Again, if this had been a grown-ups only meal I would probably have added the cauliflower florets with the chickpeas and coconut milk but not all my children like them. I wish they did. We are experiencing a cauliflower glut at the moment. You can see them going to seed in the picture below.

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A word about rice. I only ever use easy cook rice – 1 cupful of rice to 2 cupfuls of cold water, bring to the boil and simmer until done. I have never had success when cooking basmati but if you want to try there are tips to be found here and here.

The thing is, a store cupboard recipe like this can be endlessly adapted. You can change the balance of spices for a subtly different flavour or add your own favourites. The vegetables you use will depend on what you’ve got to hand. I’ve used regular onion, spinach, butternut squash and aubergine for example. You could use a different kind of bean or lentil to provide the protein. It is also a good way to use up left-over meat if vegetarianism is not your thing. Finally, I think this qualifies as both vegetarian and vegan, being dairy free if you fry in a suitable oil, rather than butter.

So, happy National Vegetarian Week everyone!

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