Enough already!

Fresh, life-affirming, creative, quirky, fun (funny?), forward-looking, friendly.

The self-pity party is over. Rejoice!

Orchid

Tangled

Over the last month or so, I’ve been learning to crochet.

Correction, I’ve been failing to learn to crochet.  What I’ve in fact been doing is my usual trick of taking something fun and pleasurable and making it into a life-or-death pursuit of perfection, putting my whole sense of self and (limited) self-worth in the balance. I have injected it with my bastard melodrama and anxiety.

I’ve found it hard, to say the least. Verity has seen the tears as I fail to understand diagrams or endlessly re-read the paragraphs about how crochet is “easy”, “only 3 stitches”, “kids can do it!”. Kate has sat with me and tirelessly demonstrated the same basic methods, over and over.

Today however, with a fresh mind and a little perseverance, some pennies have finally dropped.

All the books are fine, my tuition so far has been fantastic and greatly appreciated. What I’ve been doing wrong I realise, is taking it far too seriously.

Yes, me, taking something too seriously! Imagine!

What I learnt:

  1. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Perfection is a pursuit, and part of the fun is knowing that  there’s room to improve next time.
  2. It doesn’t have to be right. Getting something right first-time means you haven’t learnt anything.
  3. It should be fun. If you’re not having fun and enjoying it – you’re doing it wrong.
  4. It should only occupy your mind a ‘healthy’ amount. Relaxing into it, not over-thinking every single action – that’s when it started to feel good, and become enjoyable.

And here’s what I’ve achieved so far. Please don’t mock – I am very very proud of my humble beginnings.

With a little more confidence and practice, I’m going to be in a position to start making the granny squares for my blanket. I’ll be blogging everyday about my progress and thoughts during Knitting and Crochet week between 28th March and 3rd April.

So there we go, crochet eh?

Ork Deff Dread

Deff Dreads epitomise three main ideals of Ork warfare: big, shooty and stompy. They thunder and clank towards the foe, limbs waving as heavy weapons spit death into the enemy ranks and powered shears snip excitedly in anticipation of the bloodletting to come.

~ From the GW Website

Gosh! Scary aren’t they?

This model has been really fun to paint. There’s so many little details on the model and different textures and materials for trying out various paint effects. I’ve had a go at (with varying degrees of success):

  • Weathering powders to make rust, dust and soot;
  • Oil spillages;
  • Glowing ‘plasma’ weapons;
  • Verdigris;
  • Chipped paint/battle damage.

Still got a lot to learn in terms of refining those techniques, but overall I’m very pleased.

Oh yes, pictures. Please excuse the carpet backgrounds, I couldn’t be bothered to crop them onto my normal background:

Plugging away

Making a dent in my stash of models…

It’s an Ork Deff Dread (grrr!). This one’s been kitted out and modified for a Big Mek (they’re really clever when it comes to all things mekanikal, with wurky bitz).

I’ve been having a lot of fun painting up this bad boy. Having a go at some new techniques like verdigris, glow effects and using weathering powders (dust, rust and soot) has been really cool.

He’s about 90% complete and I’m looking forward to posting more pictures when he’s properly finished.

Chairman of the Hoard


There’s so much stuff in my life no room for me to grow
One day I’m going to break from my life due south down to Mexico
I’m going to burn down my house it’s the only way to let it go
~ James, Waterfall

Okay, so that’s a slightly extreme response, but seriously people, I think I need help. And soon.

Continuing a break from maudlin introspection, I’m asking for help; not because I’m a madster (as my dear friend E-J put it); but because I’m crazy in another way. I don’t expect you to be kind, in fact I think I need the brutal truth and your directness.

You see, I have a dirty and not-so-secret secret.

For the last 7 years I have been painting Games Workshop models. Yes, to anyone whose been round my house (or even erm… looked at this blog) it’s not a well-kept secret I grant you.

In those seven years, my skills with a paintbrush have increased greatly, and I’m genuinely proud (if slightly embarrassed) of the models I’ve produced. I’ve even given some as bespoke gifts to friends. Spread the shame I say! 🙂

However, I’ve come to realise that in those years I have become much more proficient in another aspect of this ‘hobby’ as the following photo will demonstrate:

stash

This is my secret. This is my shame.

This photo of boxes and sprues and containers of unassembled/part-finished models; covering an entire double bed; isn’t even the full extent of my stockpiling shame. I have more boxes scattered around the house. Oh, and the models I’m currently ‘working-on’.

I dread to think how much money I have spent on these little plastic and metal soldiers over the years. I’d hazard a guess at £800. I suspect the true figure tops a grand.

Ouch.

So it is with a heavy heart that I am forced to admit I am far more skilled at buying, keeping and hoarding miniature models than I am at assembling and painting them. I have more than enough models now to last me the next decade (especially at the speed I paint).

And yet… and yet…

There’s still more models I would like to own. More fascinating little (and not so little) sculpts and characters I wish to add to my collection. And I know that I will buy yet more models this year. This month. This week even.

What does that say about me, and hoarders like me?

That I’m shallow and materialistic?

I hope not, although I know I can be. There’s always the new clothes or shoes I want. I’ve wanted a MacBook Pro for ooh, 4 years now and counting. But that’s aspirational, rather than being materialistic and demanding right?

I think the fact that I’m willing to pour so much of my time and energy into creative hobbies and crafts shows I’m not the vapid airhead I sometimes appear to be (although there are certain occasions – that Kate and Alan will attest to – where I am waaay to ditzy to be allowed out on my own!)

That I have a magpie mind?

Oh, yes. Of that I am certain. I know that my mind is never at rest, always looking for the next thing to absorb my attention, fill me with wonder and present a delightful distraction. I know that there will always be…

…ooh, new shoes… …pretty…

That I’m indecisive?

I think it could be argued that the collector or avid hobbyist is indecisive and unable to settle on a task until completion. That being said however, serious collecting of craft/hobby materials requires a great deal of discipline and an organised mind:

  • Keeping track of the items in your stash and being able to locate bit ‘x’ or part ‘y’;
  • The acquisition of beautiful storage boxes (us hoarders love this bit!). After all we need the boxes to enable us to pursue our hobby ‘properly’ – right?
  • The little white lies we tell (and have to keep track of).
    That new box or packet we come home with and shove to the back of the cupboard.
    “What? No, I’ve had that ages, look where you found it, I must have had it for a year or two.”
    “Oh no, not too much, I think it was about £8 *cough* and they had an offer on or something, and quick! what’s that behind you…”

That I have vision?

Whatever you’re doing, whether it’s painting little models, woodturning, or knitting – I think one thing that all people who enjoy craft-based hobbies have in common is quite simple:

  • We can see the promise of wonder in the materials we acquire.

Every box of sprues, every ball of yarn, every block of wood contains the potential to ‘be’ something beautiful. And not just one thing. In it’s raw unfinished form – there are myriad opportunities for us to give it love, to have some fun and to create something unique. Something that is more than the materials it’s made from.

Collecting the raw materials of a craft or hobby is as much a part of the hobby as the hobby itself. You cannot have one without the other.

Please remember that, when you come to judge us hoarders with our piles of accumulated ‘rubbish’. Contained within each box of ‘stuff’ is hope and opportunity. Our little dreams to make something delightful out of something small are held tight within each lovingly organised container.

Squeal! Lovely sorted boxes!

And so dear reader, I ask for your help.

  • Don’t help me throw away or sell off my piles of plastic men.
  • Don’t hide my credit card and prevent me visiting little plastic model shops.

No, instead, help me to keep painting and offering encouragement.

That is all I need. That is all us crafty creative people need.

We all like to hear it, just a few little words:

“That’s kinda cool”

“I really like that”

“You made it yourself? Wow.”

Who knows? Maybe if you’re good boys and girls, I’ll repay the encouraging words by ‘gifting’ you with a finely painted Ork! 😉

For now though, I leave you with a few pictures of models I have finished. The few that balance the many, so to speak:

Orks! I am such a geek...

Gluten free mince-pies

My quest to find recipes that all my friends can eat continues.  The sweet almond pastry gives a real indulgent ‘Marzipan’ richness to the mince pies.

Apologies also that I’m about 5 weeks too late publishing this. You can always save it till this Christmas!

Ingredients

For the pastry

  • 100g/4oz Ground Almonds
  • 200g/8oz Rice Flour
  • 50g/2oz Caster sugar
  • A pinch of Salt
  • 100g/4oz Butter
  • 2 tbsp Clear Honey
  • 2 Egg Yolks
  • Almond Essence

For the filling

  • 1 jar of mincemeat (approx 454g)
  • 1 apple
  • Brandy or rum

Method

  1. Mix together  the ground almonds, flour, sugar and salt in a large bowl.
  2. Make a well in the middle and put in the butter, honey, egg yolk and almond essence. Mix to a dough. Knead until smooth.
  3. Wrap the pastry in cling film and rest in the refrigerator for 30 minutes before rolling out.

Tip: This pastry can be really crumbly, I found that rubbing a little olive oil on my rolling pin worked much better than dusting with flour.

Mincemeat filling

Finely dice the apple, and mix with the mincemeat and a tablespoon or two of the booze.

Assembling the pies

Preheat oven to 200°C (gas mark 6, 180°C for a fan oven).

Roll the pastry out on a clean work surface to about 3mm thick. Cut circles with a cutter and line each pit in the tart case.

Fill the pastry lined pits about 2/3 full with the filling.

Cut extra circles to sit on top of each pie, and over brush with a little milk.

Bake in the oven for 15-20 minutes or until richly golden.

Transfer to a wire rack to cool. They are still fab eaten warm (don’t burn your tongue!)

Note: The combination of ingredients in this pastry means they come out browner in colour than a regular mince-pie. Don’t worry, they are still delicious!

Plum and Almond Crumble

Plums

This is a very happy “make it up as you go along” accidental recipe. Pursuing ideas for recipes for some friends who are on a gluten and wheat-free diet, I wanted to make a really tasty, guilty, no-holds barred sumptuous pudding. Something that just oozed “comfort” and “joy”.

Using some plums from our autumn crop, I was able to make a pudding (with a little help from my good friend Colin) that went down well with everyone.

The great thing about this pudding is that you can make the topping in any number of ways, and so I include a few variations in this recipe too.

Serves 8 (or 6 and one Alan! ;))

~#~

Ingredients

Fruit filling

  • Approx 20 Plums (2 punnets would do)
  • 125ml sherry or white wine
  • 150g Golden Caster Sugar
  • Chilli flakes
  • Pepper

Crumble topping

  • 200g ground almonds
  • 100g rice flour
  • 150g slightly salted butter
  • 150g Golden Caster Sugar

Method

Prepare the plums:

  • Stone and quarter the plums. Put in pan with the sherry and sugar.
  • Grind a small amount of pepper and sprinkle with a few chilli flakes.
  • Place on a low heat to simmer for about 10-15 minutes.

Make the crumble topping:

  • Carefully rub the butter and rice flour together, adding sugar until you have a nice crumbly texture. (Colin helped me for this part as I was dressed as a Vampiress and had very impractical nails on!).
  • Rub in the ground almonds, trying not to over-work the mix, or you’ll end up with something a little like marzipan.

Assemble the crumble:

  • Plop the plums into the bottom of an oven-proof dish. you want a good inch or two of plums lining the bottom.
  • Carefully sprinkle the crumble topping over the plum mixture, getting it nice and level. Don’ compact or press it down.
  • Sprinkle with a little more sugar for luck!

Bake in the oven at about 180°c for 25 minutes or until the crumble is nicely golden brown and you can see some of the juices bubbling up from the sides. Remove from oven and set aside for 5 minutes before serving.

Variations

Flapjack topping

Melt 125g butter with equivalent golden syrup. Remove from heat and stir in rolled oats until you have a slightly goop-y flapjack mix. Carefully spoon onto the plum mixture before cooking, as before.

Regular crumble

  • 300g flour
  • 150g slightly salted butter
  • 150g Golden Caster Sugar

Rub the butter into the flour until you have a fine crumb-y texture, and then rub in the sugar. Carefully spoon onto the plum mixture before cooking, as before.

Serve with

Custard! Clotted cream! Double cream! Boozy Christmas creams. Anything rich, and decadant! 🙂

Hey good lookin, what ya got cookin?

Hey, thanks for coming back. How’re you doing today? Good, good.

If you read my last post, you’ll know that I’m going to try to quit the whining and focus on the dining.

A healthy idea, non?

~#~

Today then, I want to talk about food.

Rather, I want to talk about making food. Scratch that, I want to talk about enjoying making food.  The gusto, the passion, the joy and sheer unbridled love of making yummy food.

Whether you’re:

  • cooking up a big bowl of gnocchi and pesto to eat in your pyjamas while watching America’s Next Model (don’t judge me!), or;
  • making a three course menu for a dozen people(*),or;
  • rashly inviting 10 people back to yours after the pub, pausing only to pick-up 3 whole chickens to roast on the way home(**)

– there are few things in life more enjoyable than sharing love, fun and good company through food.

But the sad truth is, so many people are still terrified of cooking. They’re scared of getting things wrong, scared of not living up to the unrealistic ideals of Nigella, Jamie, Gordon and Hugh. Not many of us have a small-holding to raise our pigs on organic apples and feed our sheep rosemary to give them extra flavour.

Most of us are lucky if we can keep a pot of coriander on the kitchen windowsill for a week before it bolts, flowers and hangs listlessly to one side. No amount of running it under the cold-tap will save that meagre “herb garden”.

And please, don’t get me started on Heston – anyone who refers to their kitchen as a ‘lab’ is not a chef and can thus be safely put to one side.

Forget the ideals, forget the aspirations. To start enjoying cooking and being pleased with the dishes you make, you’ve got to first find the fun.

There really are so many ways to enjoy making food, which suits different people in different ways.

I’d like to share with you some of the valuable lessons that I’ve learnt along the way, which may make cooking more fun for you.

Lesson 1: Make mistakes

Broad beans with dill and yogurt taste so much better if you:

  1. Shell the beans
  2. Cook the beans(***)

I’ve baked so many cakes that didn’t rise, or muffins that oozed out of the side, each one resembling a baked effigy of John Merrick. There’s the scones that came out so heavy they had their own gravity and actually bent light.

What this has taught me is that mistakes will always happen, there are many trips to the bin (and then trips to the supermarket) when trying new things. Embrace it.

My top tips with mistakes:

  • Acknowledge that recipes in books are sometimes (often) incorrect.
  • Know that you will mis-read a recipe, more than once.
  • As long as you’re not serving under-cooked chicken or ill-prepared blowfish, most mistakes will be edible, even if not exactly what you were hoping for.
  • When a mistake improves a dish (all recipes are invention and accident) – write it down so you can repeat the same mistake later. This is really handy to do!
  • Laugh at the accidents. It’s just one meal and in the grand scheme of life, is only one of the 89680 meals (if you’re a woman, men will only get to eat 85081 – make ’em count boys!) you’ll eat in the course of a lifetime.

Summary: It’s okay to make mistakes while cooking, it’s part of learning. It’s even better to share your mistakes with friends, and a lot of laughter.

Lesson 2: Make it up

There’s not a soul on earth who is interested in experiencing my coq-au-vodka ever again.

Plaice with cinnamon? No thanks, I’ll pass.

Plum crumble with ground almond topping? Went down very well, thank you. As did baked eggs in ham. Oh, and beans in toast(****).

There’s a lot of fun to be had going off-piste and forging your own culinary path. don’t be afraid to try different flavours and combinations.

Start small though, and build up. Come home from work and look in the fridge. If you’ve got eggs, you can put almost anything in a pan, with some whisked up eggs and make a none-too-shabby go at a Tortilla.

My top tips for seat-of-your-pants cooking:

  • Keep the set of ingredients small. Start with the ‘main’ component of the dish (normally meat, or eggs, or pasta etc.), and only add a few extra flavours or ingredients – see what works.
  • Make notes of ‘new’ things that work. That way you can try them again, and refine them.
  • Make notes of ‘new’ things that don’t work. A warning list!
  • Don’t be afraid. Experimenting starts with knowing that you won’t always succeed. But when you do, and you present a lovely dish that has your friends coo-ing, they’ll be so impressed when you say that you just “made it up”!

Summary: Start small, and have courage.

Lesson 3: Make it interesting

You need to feel a part of what you create (this applies to all crafts, hobbies and interests).

If you are impatient and prone to hysteria, then perfecting delicate French pastries probably isn’t for you. Neither is Sushi for that matter…

Try to find what interests and excites you in a culinary sense, and explore it.

For me, it’s sharing food. I love having friends over for an evening of food and wine. When I was younger, I used to be very pretentious about it – 3 courses, all the place settings, everything ‘just so’. As I’ve got older – while I still have flashes of that pretension – I’m a lot more relaxed. These days my interest is around big plates of well-seasoned and simply cooked dishes. Big oven-to-table dishes that can be placed on the table for everyone to tuck into.

I love cooking dishes like Lamb Tagine, Chilli, Sausages and Parsnips, Roast Chicken, a big leg of Lamb. Dishes that can be prepped in advance, and sit happily in the oven so that I can be a part of the evening, rather than “cook” in the kitchen.

My friend Joe on the other hand, loves making exquisite desserts. He is exceptionally talented at it, and possesses the right blend of precision and patience. We all have our own interests and passions.

Summary: Find what excites you, and explore ways to make it more exciting, to really ignite your passion.

Lesson 4: Make it with love

You can taste a half-hearted dish. The lack of care and effort permeates every morsel. A dish made without love tastes far more bitter than the most burnt offering made by someone who tried really hard.

Passion, care and a desire to try are at the heart of any great home cook (regardless of competence), and it’s this that your family and friends will taste when you share your food with them.

Summary: Give it heart.

~#~

Those are some of the lessons I’ve learnt as I’ve developed and grown as a cook, and I hope that if nothing else, they can supply you with some re-assurance to get into the kitchen and just have fun!

~#~

(*) I have done this and it was one of the funnest evenings of recent years.

(**) I have done this too and it was a whole heap of giggles.

(***) With massive apologies to Kate for making her eat that vile meal, and that the second attempt (which she did not sample) was so much better!

(****) You need a breville Toastie maker, and tenacity.

Putting all the vegetables away

Hello dear reader, and welcome to the (re)turning of a well-turned leaf.

It struck me that I have recently come perilously close to taking this little corner of the Interwebz back to it’s dark, dank hole of misery and introspection.

Let’s just accept that I’m an awful, anxiety-riddled neurotic with low self-esteem and an almost comical desperation to be liked (if it wasn’t so hideously needy). Let’s just take it as read that I’m working on it, and move on.

Shall we? (proffering his arm like a young, camply glam Mr Darcy)

~#~

When I sit and think about it honestly, I realise I have loads 0f things I’m actually really good at. There. I said it. There’s no going back from that now.

I can turn my hand to many, many different things and make a reasonably good stab at it.

So, while I don’t get crochet (yet), I can still take comfort from the things I can do. Pardon? Yes crochet is hard. Yes, grannies do it, but they’ve had years to learn and they are bona-fide Witches!*

Still asking about crochet? Okay, I’ll try and explain how it is for me right now.

Let me put it this way, imagine tying your shoe-laces. Yep, not a great leap of the imagination, I grant you.

Now, imagine tying your shoe-laces without being allowed to touch your shoes. Oh, a little harder you say?

Now, imagine tying the laces on shoes you can’t touch… with a tent peg. Scared? You should be.

Finally, suppose I tell you that the shoes you’re tying the laces for don’t exist, because you haven’t woven them yet.

See? Witchcraft! 😉 Kate knows I’m just kidding here as I’m really looking forward to learning! And making a whole Crocheted blanket, gulp!

~#~

Moving onwards and upwards then, for the next few posts, I’m going to talk about something that I really am good at: Cooking. Or more precisely, the enjoyment of cooking, playing with flavours and making my own small mark on the culinary world.

Travel with me dear reader, over the next few posts, and I’ll show you my tasty world…

~#~

*Except my grannies, who are/were both lovely.