Friday, 28 September 2012

Pig - Cooking with a passion for pork by Johnnie Mountain

Johnnie Mountain is the chef and owner of a London restaurant celebrating the versatility of pork called, unsurprisingly, The English Pig. You might also know him as the chef who walked off Great British Menu in a tirade of beeps after he was (in my view) harshly judged by Marcus Wareing. If he's going to write a book, it can only be about pork, can't it?

Johnnie kindly arranged for a copy of his book to be sent to me to give it the once over. Even from a distance, there is no mistaking what this book is about!

The front section is full of useful and interesting information about pork, its different cuts, how to buy and how best to cook each part. I had never really thought too much about the different cuts so I found it very useful.

The pork recipes are divided into 4 chapters  - home favourites, cured, dried, preserved and smoked, spicy and aromatic and slow-cooked. There is an enormous variety of recipes - pretty much something for everyone. Some will be very inexpensive family recipes, others much grander for special occasions. They cater for every occasion, every budget and pretty much every level of cooking ability, whether you have a few minutes or several hours to cook. The layout of the recipes is nice and clear, with lots of lovely photographs which just make you drool.

I always worry that cookery books written by chefs will be, well, too cheffy. I have one book from which I have never cooked a single recipe - all the recipes are over a page long (and we're talking a large A4 book) and the list of ingredients is huge, with some ingredients difficult to find. I was glad to see that this was nothing like that. As you can see, the recipe is short and you can see at a glance how long it should take to make (although I always take those with a pinch of salt). For this recipe, the most unusual ingredient was smoked pancetta which I bought from a supermarket. I had a lot of ingredients already in my store cupboard.

The instructions are clear and simple, and easy to follow. However, if you need some extra help, some of the recipes (including this one, it's just out of shot) have QR codes which if you scan them, take you to videos that show you how to do some of the techniques described in the book. This is a brilliant feature of the book as sometimes, it's just so much easier to watch someone make something and then do it yourself with confidence. In this recipe, the video shows Johnnie moulding and wrapping the meatloaf. Here's my attempt.

The recipes really are mouth-watering. I have a list saved on my computer of things I want to make soon so I will be working my way through them over the coming months. They range from burgers to curries, stir fries to pasta dishes. And perhaps, one day, I'll try curing my own bacon or doing Johnnie's signature dish of slow roasted pork belly.

There's also a section at the end of the book containing recipes for standard accompaniments like mashed potatoes, gnocchi - even sticky red cabbage.

So far, I have cooked two recipes from the book. This is how my spicy pork meatloaf, which is served with a sauce a lot like home made brown sauce, turned out.

I also made a pork chilli which was very hard to determine was made from pork not beef, lifted by adding some dark chocolate near the end. Both dishes were very popular with all the family. Monkey particularly liked the sauce on the meatloaf but I feel this is just his northernness coming out. Missy Woo wasn't wild about the sauce but loved the meatloaf. Both were requested again by the children, which I always take to be a very good sign.

Quite simply, this book is THE definitive guide to cooking pork and turning even the humblest cut (pig's ears anyone?) into something delicious. Popular dishes are adapted for pork as well as the old favourites, plus some new dishes you want to try. If you love pork, or would like to love pork and cook it better, you will love this book.

(I was sent a free copy of this book.) 

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Sponsored video - Clean Like a Mother?

This article has been sponsored by Method but all thoughts are mine!

When you are a mother, your whole life is against dirty. Fighting a losing battle, I’d say. As always, you have to strike a balance – too clean and no-one gets to relax plus there’s the school of thought that a little bit of dirt here and there helps build everyone’s immunity (the children rarely get ill, enough said) but you don’t want to have your house condemned as a health risk either.

The problem is if you make a vague attempt to be clean AND green. The two appear to be exclusive – whenever I’ve tried eco-friendly cleaning products, they’ve not been up to the job and I’ve ended up going back to the chemical filled nasties because, well, they work. Yet you want to keep the chemicals away from the children – there is a good reason for the childproof lock on the sink cupboard.

But now, there’s a brand called Method, who are the People Against Dirty. Their products are completely non-toxic, so they’re safe to use with kids around. The products are cruelty free, so even vegans can use them in the knowledge no animals have been harmed in the production or testing processes. And they are environmentally friendly – Method actively seek to reduce the carbon footprint of their products and their company.

It’s all very clever, but I should warn you, they are slightly bonkers. How do I know? Well, I’ve seen their latest campaign. Exhibit A - check out this video, appropriately named “Clean Like A Mother” about their multi-surface cleaners. Dig the dancing. And the beard. I love the beard.

I guarantee you’ll be singing “Give a little squirt, give a little squirt” for the rest of the day.

Cheating - on my gym?!

Isn't it silly how small things can throw you off? I am contemplating changing gyms and I feel like I'm committing some form of adultery.

Husband wants to do the Ironman next year. If you don't know what that is, it's a triathlon in super size. You swim a stupidly long distance, then get on your bike and ride even further and when that's all done, you then run a marathon. Lovely. The UK event - for it has gone global - is held in Bolton but the cycle course passes within a mile of our house. I think the fact it's so close is tempting the husband.

This means he will need to train. That means hours on a bike or on the road. So far, so good. But then, he also needs to spend time in the pool and some time in the gym working on strength. Currently, he does not have gym membership. Two years ago, he bought family membership for the local public gyms in our area and that was what got me back into Body Pump. It was familiar as I had been a member for a few years before Monkey and Missy Woo landed on this planet.

After a few months, I was the only one using the membership although I did benefit from half price holiday clubs for the children. Come renewal time, I changed my membership to a single one which was limited to the centre where I go to classes. This doesn't have a pool.

When husband told me he was thinking of doing the Ironman, he started looking at the prices of gym memberships. He does get a NHS discount so thought he would consider everything available in the area.

Yesterday afternoon, he came home from work and told me that he wanted to go to see the gym I used to belong to ages ago. I joined it as it opened, which just happened to coincide with my moving into the area. I was a member there a few years but to me, it was just a little too far to encourage me to attend when I had had a long day. I decided to trail along. With the children. This could have been a mistake.

Well, we loved it. In particular, the children. As a non-parent before, I never really appreciated how brilliant the stuff they did for children was - nor how huge the kids area is. Free classes, up to 4 hours in the kids club every day, the pool, everything. The basic layout of the rest of the gym has not changed much but the gym floor is huge, the studios are enormous and most importantly, everywhere is so well equipped. This has been something that has been my major problem with where I go now - a lot of the Body Pump equipment hasn't been replaced in over 10 years, some of it is bent or broken, and in busy classes, they regularly run out of the stuff you need unless you get there 15 minutes early.

Apart from the cost, it should be a no-brainer. I could go to class, relax in the spa, even do some work there (free Wi-Fi) whilst grabbing coffee or lunch. If I went to classes when husband is at work in the evening, the children could go into the club and be occupied. Nearly all their out of school activities could be covered.

But all around the gym, I felt totally torn. Why do I feel so bad? Some of it is guilt, like I'd be cheating on the people I go to class with - some of whom I've known for 10 years. And yet, these people aren't really friends outside of the gym. I might bump into them out and about (usually in the supermarket!) but that's it. I like the teachers who take my classes - but one of them teaches at both places and I'd be able to get to at least one of her classes. Another teacher I'm familiar with already takes another. I know all the staff on reception - most of them know me pretty well and one of them even recognised my voice when I rang up to book a class. The only thing that really annoys me is the state of the equipment and the fact the management won't do very much about it. One of the weekend staff told me once that I was the only person who ever complained about the equipment; with the subtext that I was a moaning Minnie - but I know that even the teachers have complained.

It's convenient (round the corner from school, 5 minutes from home), and it's comfortable, despite its failings. Perhaps it's the suddenness of it all that's thrown me. Perhaps it's the fact that I'm almost part of the furniture there. Perhaps I am not so comfortable with change as I thought I was. Perhaps I'm only happy with changes that I want to make. Perhaps I didn't love the potential new gym enough - as it does have a few downsides around class scheduling.

I don't know what to do. Husband has offered to pay the difference whilst I try it out. I want to give it an extended try whilst not giving up my current membership so I don't have to rejoin if it doesn't work out. In reality, I don't think that's going to happen - husband wants to join, the children want to join (and to take them to activities, I have to be a member too). Guess that means I will be joining too.

How would you react to a situation like this? Would you follow your head or your heart? Having said that, I'm not actually sure which one favours which option! Perhaps I should just get a life...

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

My little evacuee

Yes, I know, two post from me in a day, you are spoiled!

Monkey's topic at school this half term is World War II. Yesterday, the class visited the Museum of Lancashire to learn about the war and they were asked to dress up as evacuees.

I could have gone off to eBay to buy a costume but I have better uses for the tenner it would have cost me. So, in the true blitz spirit, I put together this outfit from things we had. You can't really see but he's wearing old school shorts, grey socks (which I did buy but he's going to use for school now), the waistcoat he wore to my niece's wedding, an old check shirt, and a brown coat which he usually refuses to wear with his old school shoes. I didn't manage to get a cap but I looked at pictures of evacuees on Google and it seems like it was just as common for them not to have a cap as have one. I did try to slick his hair down with hair wax but his hair was too short. School sent home the label to attach to him and I wrapped a shoebox in brown paper and tied it up with string for his gas mask box. Unfortunately, he managed to pull the string off about 5 minutes before I took this pic, leading to swearing on my part, reattaching it with sellotape which meant he couldn't wear it round his neck as planned. Children, eh?

My sum totals of purchases was some grey socks and brown paper. Make do and mend in action. My grandparents would have been proud.

Do you like it?

Paxos fish stew - a Sunvil Supper Club recipe

You may have noticed this dish on my meal plan yesterday. I was asked if I'd like to try this recipe and share my thoughts on it for the Sunvil Supper Club. Sunvil are an independent travel company who specialise in holidays to destinations off the beaten track. Appreciating the local culture in the places their customers visit, they started the Supper Club to share their passion for these destinations using food. Every month, they blog a recipe linked to one of their destinations.

So, this month, the recipe is Paxos fish stew. Paxos is a tiny Greek island, roughly 7 miles by 3 at its widest. Being an island, fish dishes are very popular. This stew is very simple. Usually, it is made with grey mullet or sea bream but any old firm white fish will do, which is good as Asda had neither so I bought some haddock fillets. I actually made something similar last week and was just as simple with a few changes. It relied on paprika, wine, bay leaf and stock for the non-fishy flavours. I love prawns so I bought some to go in the stew as well. They were cold water ones - hardly authentic but I love them, so there.

I found the potato didn't need as long as 20 minutes to cook, so this was made from start to finish  in half an hour. This includes 5 minutes where I hunted for some potatoes that disappeared into thin air, so I may have used a little less than the recipe. The picture makes it look really dry but with the tomatoes, wine and stock, there was plenty of juice. Would have been good to dip in some bread but Monkey was in a ravenous mood after school and polished it off, helped it has to be said by me, equally ravenous.

This is a lovely, healthy meal, yet still warming and tasty. The only thing I was surprised it didn't contain was olives, given that Paxos is well known for its olive groves. Perhaps I'll add those in for me the next time I make it, when I will remember to ensure I have the right amount of potatoes in, and I have a reasonable amount of bread in that won't be wolfed down by a 7 year old beforehand.

(Sunvil sent me a £15 giftcard to cover the cost of buying the ingredients to make this recipe.)

Monday, 24 September 2012

Meal Planning Monday - the MAD edition!

Yes, it's MAD. I'm off to the MAD Blog Awards on Friday so yet another week of me planning to pack, travel and unpack afterwards, but I can't wait. This week has to be pretty easy meals wise and I've planned in a meal I can make in advance for my night away and can simply be plonked in the oven. It certainly reduces the likelihood of them ending up in the chippy.

Still, I've managed to find some nice things to make this week!

Monday - Paxos Fish Stew (More of which later in the week)
Tuesday - Mexican Chilli
Wednesday - Easy Ratatouille with poached eggs
Thursday - Prawn Laksa
Friday - Tomato Chorizo and Two Cheese Pasta Bake 
Saturday - keeping free
Sunday - Roast Chicken, possibly.

As usual, Mrs M has the linky where you can find lots of other meal plans.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Of small cars and balaclavas

I may have mentioned a few times that we've been away a lot recently at the weekends - a wedding down south and to the Paralympics in London. Last weekend, I took the kids to Coventry to attend a work commitment. These days, we tend to go in husband's car even though it's quite small because my car is getting old and I worry about it breaking down, and husband's car is less than a year old. It feels much bigger on the inside - its nickname is the Tardis - but it does have its limitations.

Skoda recently offered us the chance to test drive their Citigo model as they are the sponsors of the Best Family Fun category at the MAD Blog Awards in which I'm a finalist. We decided to put it through its paces by taking it to London for the Paralympics. After all, we'd not long done the trip down south in our car so we had something to compare it to.

Skoda used to be a figure of fun as a brand, the joke car. In fact, I remember that my former partner's sister and her husband bought one and their teenage son refused to be a passenger in it, unless he was wearing his balaclava so his friends wouldn't see him. That was before Skoda got bought by Volkswagen and these days, they are not quite so socially unacceptable. In fact, Skodas are some of Monkey's favourite cars, in the way that only seven year old boys can.

When the car arrived, I realised it was a 3 door model. Not surprising really, as I'd left it late to arrange, but it was the one thing I could have done without as I was then adjusting the seats all weekend. It had pretty much everything that we have in our car, with the addition of a sat nav that also gave information about the car.

Space wise, it felt a little smaller in the cabin but the boot was bigger and all our stuff fitted in easily (not that you can really tell from this photo!). And by stuff, I mean overnight bags, bags and backpacks for taking into Olympic Park, food, drinks, and the children's school bags. In terms of build, everything felt solidly built as you would expect from Volkswagen. Our car in comparison feels like a dodgem car! The side effect of this was it felt much larger than it really was, which when it's not your car, makes for slightly nervous driving. And total heart failure when someone pulls out of the inside lane of the M6 forcing you to brake suddenly and the car behind you to come bowling up behind you and change lane at the last minute. There was probably a bigger margin for error than I estimated but all the same. Thankfully, the car remained dentless and scratchless all weekend.

The small engine seemed to have enough power to cope with all four passengers and all our "stuff" and mean we were not crawling along, and the ride was solid and smooth. What we did find odd was the sat nav - we are not used to them although I use the Navigation app on my phone a fair bit but it did seem to come up with some strange routes. One of them was a return journey from the one we'd done that morning and it sent us a totally different way, along very dark narrow roads which were obviously rat runs for the local boy racers which made for an entertaining drive and I'm pretty sure that it was no quicker - it was past 10.30pm at night after all. We stopped using it after that.

Possibly a minor detail but one thing we found odd was that there was only one power socket and not two in our car. This allows us to power our DVD player - important on long journeys - as well as charge a phone up if we need to.

One thing that did really well was the fuel economy. We got to Essex, drove around a bit there and back again on 41 litres. We had to top up a little because the tank is quite small but I worked out we averaged nearly 50 miles per gallon, which is not bad considering we were either driving stop start in queues or driving at 70mph.

Did we like it? Yes, we did mostly. Minor details irritated - and it's reinforced my feelings that you need a 4/5 door car if you have a family because you are constantly readjusting your seat and driving position when you get in the car having let your kids in. As a small car, it's probably best for driving around town - I mean, why else would it be called a Citigo? However, we found it coped well on the motorways too and therefore great for a family weekend away. The children hoped we were keeping the car but it had to go back on Monday.

Not a balaclava in sight.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

My little stars, back at school

It feels like forever since I last wrote a post just about the children and it's probably time I rectified that.

Both children were excited about going back to school. They don't tend to see their friends outside of school  as we are relatively far from it. Giddiness of the highest order ensued on the first day back, with Missy Woo running round squealing and flinging her arms around her friends that she hadn't seen for all of six weeks. Monkey, of course, was as cool as a cucumber about seeing his friend but he was happy to return.

Monkey's main reason for looking forward to the new term was having a brand new teacher to the school as his class teacher this year. Of course, for him, it's a big step as he has moved into Year 3 and therefore into the juniors. After his first couple of days, he started mentioning Mission Impossible and we ended up "singing" the tune on his way home. I wondered what it was and last week, I finally found out. His new teacher invited all the parents to sit in on a lesson at the start of the day. As the children were settling in for the day, the teacher suddenly set a recording off and the children went hither and thither putting things away. It's his way of getting them to tidy up! The aim is to do it quicker every time, and they are all disappointed if they don't do it quicker than last time. I am seriously considering downloading Mission Impossible for use at home! Looking around the class, I realised how much they have grown up in the 3 years they have been at school and their new teacher has them eating out of his hand. He's going to have a fantastic year.

On the curriculum for him this year is learning the ukulele. A teacher comes in once a week to teach a whole class. Monkey brought his new* (*second-hand) ukulele home for the first time last week. He'd had the sum total of one lesson. He thought he was an expert and proceeded to share his new-found talent with all of us. I sent him upstairs to play instead but that didn't do much - we just heard "strum, strum, strum, strum" all the time. He's quite keen - I keep coming downstairs and finding the ukulele out of its case on the floor of the living room - but I'm dreading all the practice. Don't laugh - apparently, ukulele lessons are becoming increasingly popular in schools, so it could be coming your way soon. Oh well, at least it is not a recorder.

Missy Woo is, however, the one who has amazed me. During the school holidays, she suddenly decided she wanted to write a poem so she set about doing so. She asked for little bits of help with spellings and words to use, but on the whole, I left her to it. As she prepared to return to school, she insisted on making sure she took her poem in to show her new teacher (who was, of course, Monkey's teacher last year).

After her first day back, she told me that her teacher had said she could read out her poem at the next celebration assembly they have on Friday afternoons, and asked if I was going. Thankfully, I was as the first one was after their first full week and as a parent with children in both infant and juniors, I can basically go whenever I want. She told me she would have to write it out neatly as the teacher had said.

Come the assembly, both children took their certificates in from the summer reading challenge they had been doing at the library over the holidays and after they showed them, the headteacher held her back and started explaining about the poem that Missy Woo wrote.

What I didn't know was that Missy Woo had learnt her poem off by heart to recite to the whole school. It was her own idea and I have no idea when she did it, but she did. Not only that, my little 6 year old girl (OK, not so little - she looks at least a year older, if not two) stood there and recited in a clear and confident voice, the whole of her poem and  received a huge round of applause from all the children, staff and present.

I don't think I've ever been quite so blown away by her. I had no idea she'd learnt it off by heart - of course, she wrote it so should know what's in it but all the same, she was fantastic. And for that, she was unsurprisingly awarded the first Star of the Week trophy of the new school year. I was so proud of her.

And just so Monkey didn't feel left out, his class was class of the week too, so we had double the reason to celebrate. As we were going away straight after school, we ended up lugging the trophy to Coventry with us - and Missy Woo took it upon herself to show the trophy to just about anyone who was passing, let alone ask what it was for.

Summer holidays already feel like a month ago. Routines have been re-established, friendships rekindled, reading books grudgingly read and avoided where possible. We are definitely back at school, with lots of exciting things to look forward to.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Meal Planning Monday - a finally getting back to normal edition!

We've been away for at least part of three of the last four weekends and with going back to school, I feel like I'm fighting just to stay on top of things. This week should be quieter - although I have parents evening on Wednesday, a possible night out on Thursday and the usual things that the kids do. But the weekend - that's free, hurrah! No packing, tidying up before I go, travelling, washing when I get home and all that other stuff. Phew.

I've tried to go for easyish stuff all week and I'm trying a recipe from a book I'm reviewing at the weekend, so I'll tell you how that goes later. I will finally FINALLY get to make Moroccan chicken this week - events have conspired against me in previous weeks!

Here, then, is our week.

Monday - One pot mushroom and potato curry
Tuesday - One pot Moroccan chicken
Wednesday - Spicy fish stew
Thursday -  Slow cooker chilli
Friday -  Cauliflower cheese crumble
Saturday -  Spicy pork meatloaf

Don't forget that the lovely Mrs M has the Meal Planning Monday linky over at hers. Bon appetit - what's on your menu this week? 

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Our weekend at the Paralympics

Having been lucky enough to secure some tickets for the Paralympics having run the gauntlet of the London 2012 site and won, we planned a weekend down in London with the children. We were all excited about going to Olympic Park and the children were full of chatting about it to their friends when they went back to school.

We decided to stay over down there, rather than stay with family as we wanted to be there early. Luckily, I managed to find reasonably accommodation a few miles from a Central line station with a car park. We collected the children an hour early from school on the Friday and set off down south.

We had heard how warm it was but still, we arrived early evening at our hotel and it was very warm. After rearranging the room so that the children were in one end of the room, we finally got them to bed but Monkey would NOT go to sleep. However, once I tried to sleep, I knew how he felt. Once I finally got to sleep, I woke with a start about two hours later and ended up awake for an hour. Four hours sleep when you are about to be walking around a lot is not a good night's sleep. The 6.30 alarm should have felt early but I was already awake!

Having left our hotel at 7.30, we were on a tube into Stratford within 15 minutes. For a Saturday morning, the tube was busy, full of other people on their way to Olympic Park. On arrival at Stratford, we followed the crowd - and the Games Makers - who were brilliant, especially with the children. (Note to companies - when you treat customers like human beings, they respond positively to you.) We breezed through security, and there we were at the entrance to Olympic Park. A good enough excuse to take this picture.

It was already hot so we took it gradually. Breakfast at the golden arches seemed inevitable to fill up hungry tummies (even though they had had things to eat before we left) and after our filling our water bottles and a quick look in the megastore, we wandered to our first session - athletics in the Olympic Stadium. This was our view one way.

And this was the other.

Thankfully, we were in the shade which at least kept us cool! In terms of British interest, this was a quiet session. I think there were only 2 or 3 British athletes involved and only one qualified for a final that evening. It didn't matter though - there was lots to see for the children. If you were ever worried about taking children to an athletics meet, don't - there were lots of different things going on and none of it requiring your attention for too long. The range of athletes was broad too - there were people in wheelchairs racing and throwing, men with visual impairments doing the triple jump, runners with cerebral palsy - the only thing we were missing were any amputees. We saw a number of different finals and we had lots of victory ceremonies - some from the night before and some winners from the session itself.

It was my first live athletics meeting and it was pretty special. The track looks a lot bigger than you would think - 400 m seems a long long way to sprint from close up. I was completely in awe of all of the athletes.

Despite having tickets for the tennis that started before the athletics finished, we stayed to the bitter end, which means we caught the victory ceremony for the women's javelin F37/38 final with the flowers presented by Clare Balding who got the biggest cheer of the morning.

By the time we came out of the stadium, it was very hot, very busy and we had a long walk ahead of us across the park to Eton Manor where the wheelchair tennis was taking place. We bought ice creams to keep us cool on the way but it was still boiling and there was very little shade for the 20 minute or so walk. When we got there, the bronze medal match that was on was deep in the final set - in fact, by the time we were let in, one of the players was serving for the match and subsequently won it! Our seats were very high up - so high that we could only just make it to our seats in time for play to restart in breaks between games. The view was worth it though.

We also had great views of the Velodrome and other Olympic Park venues, as well as the Shard, the North Greenwich arena and in the distance in the other direction, Monkey spotted Leyton Orient! Eton Manor is a bizarre venue really as it's only attached to the park by a bridge that crosses a major road.

There were three gold medal matches on, one after the other. First was the quad singles, featuring the Israeli player Noam Gershony who had beat Peter Norfolk earlier in the week. And he was unbelievably talented and fairly quickly won the match against his American opponent. After his victory ceremony, we had the women's doubles featuring the legendary Dutch player Esther Vergeer, who is on a winning run of 470 singles matches. Because the players weren't quad players, you could see the difference in play as the ball was being hit much harder and being doubles, it was more quickly paced. There was drama when midway through the set, the umpire suddenly stopped play as one of the ball girls fainted and had to be carried away on a stretcher. I did say it was hot! Although we were in direct sunlight at first, the sun disappeared behind the stand and put us once again in the shade.

Although the match bounced around a bit between the two Dutch pairs, the match was again a fairly straightforward victory for Vergeer and Buis. The victory ceremony followed, presented by Tessa Jowell wearing what looked like slippers from a distance but turned out to be dark pink trainers; interesting choice with the smart dress she was wearing. And the bronze medallists were British, meaning it was not a clean sweep for the Dutch!

The final match was the men's singles, contested by a French amputee and a Japanese player. These guys racked the hitting power even further and there were some breathtaking shots. It was getting dark by this time and the children getting bored but thankfully, it turned out once again to be fairly simple and a win for the Japanese.

At the end of the tennis, we headed out of Eton Manor and back to Stratford Gate. However, we hadn't got very far when we noticed a sign to say that the Basketball Arena was letting anyone with a ticket to a valid event in so we decided to go and catch up with some wheelchair rugby. A bonus sport!

We caught the last few minutes of Belgium v France then the first quarter of GB v Sweden! We decided to leave after that because the children were shattered and we had a long walk ahead of us back to the station. On the way back, we got a shot of the stadium all lit up.

As we walked back to the station, we passed a bar at Westfield just as Oscar Pistorius's race started so we stopped to watch that too. Perfect!

By the time we got back to the hotel, it was nearly 11. The children went to sleep very quickly and so did we! We had another busy day ahead of us but I was awake early again - to find Monkey approaching Missy Woo's bed with her baby Pom toy in his hand. After seeing me, he just placed it on her bed and got back in his own bed. I thought he was just going to lie there but I soon realised he was asleep. We got up, showered and packed the cases before Missy Woo woke up. We had to wake Monkey up!

Fortified this time by a full breakfast at the hotel, we set back off for the Olympic Park. This time, we just had park access tickets and there was no chance of getting into another venue for free as there was little left on - just the 7 a side football and the finals of the wheelchair rugby. Again, it was boiling. We shopped in the megastore and Missy Woo wanted to go to the Mascot House. I took Monkey to watch the Marathon at Park Live but it was too hot - and no shade! Then we headed to an exhibition where you could try the wheelchairs they use in basketball, the hand bikes and a wheelchair obstacle course.

Blurry because he was so fast!

Then, we wandered up to the Orbit - the only major piece of shade in the whole park and ate lunch, listening to the rehearsals for the Closing Ceremony, so we were treated, in part, to something of a Coldplay concert. They announced that the park was closing in less than an hour so we headed back out to the tube to start the long journey home.

It was a brilliant weekend. Paralympic sport is so incredibly skilful, it takes your breath away and we were very lucky to see not one, but three, sports. We also feel very fortunate to have been in the Olympic Park on the last day that it was open to the public for the 2012 Games. It is something we will all remember forever and the children will be able to tell their children and their grandchildren - we went to see the London 2012 Paralympics.I love that they see disabled person as different rather than helpless - fantastic when you consider that they don't have much experience or contact with disabled people in their everyday lives. It has taught them that nothing is impossible if you try.

For that reason alone, the Olympics and Paralympics really have inspired a generation.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Meal Planning Monday - a quickly cobbled together edition!

Yes, this is me typing as fast as I can as I'm writing this mid-preparations to go to London to the Paralympics. As we're not back until late on Sunday, I thought - stupidly - I'd get a quick meal plan done and then I got sent an Ocado voucher so I've even done the shop to be delivered Monday afternoon.

Don't expect anything fantastic from this - I'm away with the children again on Friday night and not back until late on Saturday so that's another two meals not on the plan.

So, quickly, here's our week

Monday - Moroccan chicken one-pot
Tuesday - Slow cooked pork shoulder with cider and parsnips
Wednesday - Pad Thai with prawns
Thursday - Cheesy lentils
Friday - not here
Saturday - not here
Sunday - Roast chicken (possibly)

Don't forget Mrs M has more Meal Planning Monday entries. What are you having this week?

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Preston - a city in cake!

If you live in the north of England, you might have heard the expression "once every Preston Guild". If you haven't, it of course means very infrequently. This is because the Preston Guild, the only Guild merchant still celebrated in the UK, only happens every 20 years with the main festivities occurring in the first week of September. It's an ancient celebration, believed to date back to 1179.

This year's Guild - the first one in the twenty first century and the first since Preston was made a city in 2002 for the queen's Golden Jubilee - included a Vintage Guild, curated by Wayne Hemingway which included a food festival in Winckley Square. As part of that, bakers from around the region were invited to build Preston landmarks in cake for the Preston Cake City project.

When I first heard about it, I never thought I'd get involved. I don't consider myself an expert baker - I'm way more confident than I used to be and my cakes taste good but never look that fancy. I mean, I only first covered a cake with sugarpaste properly last Christmas!

But then I got collared by some of the ladies I know through Clandestine Cake Club. Some of them had thought of baking a cake and had chosen this building. It is the control building at Preston Docks from where the swingbridge is controlled at the entrance to the marina.

When I was first asked, I looked at it. A pyramid. What? So I said it wasn't anything I was any good at. I got told that they just needed people to bake cakes, make buttercream, etc, and found myself agreeing to do it.

Over the next few weeks, we had a number of meetings to work out a plan how we would do it and who would do what. Thankfully, Linzi who was organising us, got her hubby to draw a plan so we knew what size to make everything. The cake was based on 20cm square madeira cakes. I was allocated the job of doing the top part. Yes, the pyramid. What?

As the cakes were to be delivered on Sunday morning, the bottom half of the cake was built on Friday and on Saturday, I met Linzi and another lady, Hazel, at Linzi's house to finish it off. This is how the cake looked when I arrived.

There is another layer that is not visible underneath the grey already decorated with brick coloured sugarpaste, windows and doors. The blue strut was there for measuring and is actually Blackpool rock!

Our first task was to cut a small square and cover it with more brick coloured sugarpaste. Being the old hand that I was (!), I helped her cut the cake to size and explained how to cover it with the sugarpaste. That just left the pyramid to cut. First I had to cut another square to the proportion on the plan and actually cut it straight which is harder than it sounds! Then, Ian (Linzi's husband) suggest I cut two opposite side to make a Toblerone type shape then the other two. We had a pyramid - which to my eye, looked slightly wonky. Never mind, I was going to cover it with grey sugarpaste.  I did this by rolling out the paste to the required thickness, cutting it in half and laying the pieces along the edges of the pyramid over the apex. Then I blended the edges together. After pressing down with a nifty tool to make a tiled effect, this was the result.

Then we had to get the cakes on the top. The square cake had to have a hole put in the middle to get it in place then my masterpiece (ahem) went on top). As you can see, Hazel had added windows in blue sugarpaste and in the meantime, Ian had cut the big sticks of rock to size.

Phew, it looked OK! Now it was down to details. I cut some licorice to size and it was stuck to the grey sugarpaste with edible glue to make the roof windows. And my final job was to cut some cherry laces to size and stick that to the edge of my little pyramid. This proved to be the hardest task of all as the laces wanted to curl up and pinged off the cake. After holding it with as many hands as possible, we stuck it with cocktail sticks whilst the glue went off and eventually, it stuck down. With the addition of some sticks for the railings, we were done!

The finished cake was delivered to Preston the next morning and placed on an edible map. Over 40 cakes were brought in total. We arrived as a family to see the finished result, just as they were putting the last few cakes out and completing the cityscape.

Once the cakes were all laid out, all of the cakes were introduced to the crowd and the bakers asked to make themselves known. Each baker and team voted for their favourite cake and a Baker's Choice announced by the town crier once they had randomly had a fitness instructor do a routine with the assembled throng. For the last part, once the cakes that were being taken home were being removed, the rest of the cakes were cut up and given away to anyone that wanted it.

In the above photo, you can see the two winners - on the left, the Black Bull inn and next to it, St Walberge's  (with the grey spire) which came a close second and was baked by someone else from cake club, who did it all by herself. The detailing on it was fabulous - it was my favourite cake.

This was a great event and all the cakes were amazing - it just goes to show what you can do with cake. Our cake fared very well and I got lots of positive comments about it when talking to people at the event. If you would like to see a full set of photos from the event, you can see them here.

Finally, a huge thanks to DewlayArtisan Foodworks, Foodlink Lancashire  and the Egg Man Mick Brooks for donating various ingredients, to Linzi's husband Ian for drawing up the designs, the other bakers Sue, Carla, Jo, Hazel and last but not least Linzi who kept us all in line and organised us to such good effect. 

It was quite some effort! I'd definitely do one again, although I'm not quite ready to do one by myself just yet. 

(We were provided as a team with some ingredients by the above mentioned suppliers in return for a mention.)

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

We have reached that point

These last six weeks have flown by and there is but a day left of the summer holidays - a day we are spending together as a family, meeting my sister and her husband who are on holiday in North Yorkshire.  I think the Olympics and Paralympics have distracted us this year and that's helped the weeks to pass quickly.

I've enjoyed them being home but over the last few days, the children have become more restless, argumentative and generally giddy. I think that's a sign they are rested and are itching to get back to school. Both of them are as excited as anything about school. They miss their friends as only one or two other children from school live close to us. The friends they play with here are getting a bit boring and quite a few have been on holiday towards the end of the holidays. Missy Woo always struggles because there are many more boys than girls to play with - and then, two of the girls she played with regularly have moved house and beyond her reach, which has reduced the field considerably.

They started getting a bit more tetchy and argumentative over the weekend and then yesterday, I took them shopping, going for a treat breakfast first. I thought that would settle them first - it usually does, and they are usually quite good around a supermarket these days - but faced with a quiet supermarket with extra wide aisles, all they did was run everywhere and screech repeatedly. I lost count of the number of times I had to say their names and tell them to stop. My stress levels were through the roof by the checkout and I heard myself saying to the checkout operator, when she asked when they went back to school, "I can't wait for them to go back." I realised it was the first time I'd said it all holiday.

See that right there? That was my tether and I was at the end of it. Thankfully, after the riot act was read to them in the car on the way home, they helped to put away the shopping without a single word of complaint, then asked to go out to play and helpfully stayed out of my way for the next hour.

Yes, the novelty has truly worn off for them and school seems an exciting prospect. Both are looking forward to having new teachers - and Monkey moves into Juniors and his first male teacher, who is new to the school as well as him. Both have new school bags, which are apparently "amazing" as they have internal pockets. My children are easily pleased.

And me? Much as I love them and the summer we have had, I would like the house to stay tidy for longer than five minutes. And it's time for them to go - I think in an ideal world, going back yesterday would have been the ideal scenario.

That first cup of tea on Wednesday morning is going to taste as sweet as anything. Although the house is going to be eerily quiet for a few hours.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Meal Planning Monday - the back-to-school Paralympic edition!

Yes, this week was meant to be a quiet one, with the children back in school on Wednesday. That was until we managed to get tickets for the Paralympics on Saturday, morning and afternoon and a pass to the park on Sunday. This means we will be away Friday night, Saturday night and late back Sunday, so in terms of meal planning, they are out of the window.

 Then, on top of that, I realised that my sister was coming up to North Yorkshire this fortnight for a holiday. Talking to her last week, we worked out that Tuesday would be the best day to meet up as the children are still off school and husband is off too. So that probably throws Tuesday out of the window too.

This week is becoming a bit of a write off really, isn't it? Anyway, I still have a plan. And oh yes, one of them was from last week. (You hate me, don't you?)

Don't get excited then - this is our week.

Monday - Pesto crusted fish
Tuesday - keeping free
Wednesday - Jacket potatoes with ham and honey-mustard slaw
Thursday - Slow cooker lasagne
Friday - away
Saturday - away
Sunday - away

I'm sure you're all making plans to get back to normal this week, so head on over to Mrs M's to see what others with fuller meal plans than this are doing.
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