Food post - 27 November 2017

by Janine  

It's been a while since my last food post. This is partly due to me travelling more than normal and cooking less, and partly due to the fact that I've been sitting on these photos for at least a fortnight.

But now I'm all present and correct and ready to share. Let's do this.

American fried chicken (recipe from "Chicken Leg" by Hoe Yee)
I was very interested to see what a Singaporean/Malaysian cookbook deemed to be American-style fried chicken. (Because I'm fairly sure that the stuff they make in the US doesn't contain oyster sauce, Shaoxing wine or ginger - I left out the Shaoxing wine fwiw.) When I read the recipe, my heart sank a little: the first step included putting ginger, shallots (red shallots - what even are those? I used bog-standard normal shallots) and garlic into a blender, then squeezing the resulting paste to get juice. NOOOO! MORE JUICING!!! WHY MUST I DO JUICING!!!!? The last time I had to juice ginger and shallots, I did not have a fun time. Still, using a blender sounds easier than my attempt with a cheese grater (if there even is juice in garlic, that is.) Personally, I'm not sure I'm sold on the blender method. Mostly because I don't have a blender and so had to put it through a food processor; this left my paste a little chunky, so it wasn't that easy to get the juice out of it USING A TEA STRAINER AND A SPOON WHAT AM I DOING. You will be glad to hear that I eventually ended up with some usable juice and could move on with the rest of the recipe. Once the chicken had marinated, it was due to be floured with a mixture of plain flour, tapioca flour and wheat starch. I couldn't find those last two flours at all in my, sadly, British supermarket, so I substituted them both for cornflour. If the batter on this chicken leg looks kinda weird, that's why. Or maybe not; maybe the batter looks weird because I am a wimp who refuses to deep-fry things, so I shallow-fried it then shoved it in the oven instead. (I definitely think I shallow-fried it for too long, because the batter was going a bit black.) So, once the ordeal of cooking was over, I could finally taste it. The verdict? It's actually difficult to remember (I cooked this nearly three months ago!) I am certain that it didn't taste like American fried chicken though; or what is purportedly American fried chicken but sold in Britain. The taste was nice, but clearly didn't leave a lasting impression on me. To be honest, I think other recipes from this book, full of spices and salt, taste more like American fried chicken than this one.

Claire Peasnall's West Indian marmalade (recipe from "The London Cookbook" by Jenny Linford)
Well, that last recipe was long and difficult, let's follow it up by with something eas-- MARMALADE. LET'S TRY MARMALADE. This is the first recipe I've tried from this cookbook, which was a birthday present from my parents. I was both excited and nervous when setting out. Not only did I have to go buy jars and muslin for all these new processes (sterilisation? oh man), but it also meant that I could finally try my hand at the mysterious world of preserves. My goodness, if I mastered this then I could finally level-up from amateur-home-cooking-girl to wise-and-skilled-old-lady, and would then be fully ready to move into the remote-yet-cosy Cath Kidston-filled cottage of my dreams. Having now made the marmalade, I can tell you that I did not level-up. It wasn't a total disaster, but was instead a fairly-decent result that merely had the wrong texture and tasted bad. Thank goodness I choose to decrease the recipe so I only ended up with one and a half jars, rather than seven (seven! Can you imagine?) The recipe was also talking about waxed paper discs, but after some quick Googling, I decided to forego those because my jars came with lids. The only other change I made was in not using Seville oranges (I couldn't find them because it was the wrong time of year) and using normal oranges instead. AND THEREIN LIES THE RUB. It turns out that you need to use Seville oranges because they are much more tart than normal oranges. Add all that sugar and (in this recipe) treacle to normal orange juice and you end up with something far too sweet. It tasted like golden syrup but in a horrible treacley way (I'm not a fan of treacle anyway; let's not ask why I decided to try this recipe). I could barely finish the two slices of toast in the picture; I felt rather sick. And then the texture, while almost marmalade, was just too runny. Even though it passed the wrinkle test when cooking (more Googling) I think it needed more boiling to get thicker. Part of the problem was that my amounts were so low that I kept having to add water to stop it from boiling dry in the first stages, and then used a too-small pan in the final "boil it like crazy and whoops, make sure it doesn't boil all over the stove" stage. In summary, this was a) horrible and b) not marmalade, but I did discover that it was c) edible when stirred into plain yoghurt.

Liam's 'simple' salmon supper
Are you crying by this point? Because I sure am. Why does the 'simple' in this recipe title have quotation marks around it? What do I need to know??? Turns out this recipe wasn't that simple. Anything that involves making a sauce in a separate pan isn't simple in my book. That said, it was really tasty, and I didn't feel like the world was ending during any part of it! Alas, I bought unsmoked bacon lardons because I am an idiot who can't read an ingredients list properly. I also used dried dill rather than fresh because the supermarket refused to have any in stock (and I was too lazy to try the shop next door). But who cares? The taste was really good. I'm not a great fan of peas, and I sometimes find salmon a little greasy, but I had no such problems here. The tartness of the sauce really helped to tie everything together and yum yum yum. I'd recommend this recipe to everyone. In fact, I already have.

Tuscan fries (recipe from "Nigellissima: Instant Italian Inspiration" by Nigella Lawson)
It took me a long time to feel brave enough to tackle this recipe. Because guess who hates deep-frying things? I didn't deep-fry these, in fact. I shallow-fried them for 15 minutes, then shoved them in the oven for the rest of the time. They weren't super brown, but came out crunchy enough. For all that, though, they tasted bland and rather uninspiring. I could taste the oil used to fry them, but got only a hint of the herbs and the garlic. And they were on the dry side too. Is it because I didn't deep-fry them? idk, man. I wouldn't bother making them again.

Sticky sausage and bean stew
I don't know what to say. It seems that in this round of cooking I have finally discovered a recipe that was both easy and tasty. The hardest part was chopping up the butternut squash, but if you buy ready-prepared like the recipe suggests, you don't even have to do that. It's pretty much "throw everything into an oven dish and leave it there". The taste was sweet and sausagey. Very good. Would make again (if I was already committed to chopping up another butternut squash, that is).

Five spices fried chicken leg (recipe from "Chicken Leg" by Hoe Yee)
And finally, let's end this post the way it started. By juicing more bloody shallots and ginger. (Why do I do this to myself? I don't know! Perhaps I like the endurance. Is this why people run marathons?) This recipe called for ginger juice and red shallot juice (I still don't know what those are, so used normal shallots), but didn't tell me how I was supposed to make said juices. So instead of using the food processor, I went back to the trusty cheese grater. And do you know what? While it wasn't easy in the slightest, I think I am getting better at juicing shallots. I must have upped my grating technique, because not only could I get the required amount of juice from only half a bag of shallots (instead of a full one), but I also only accidentally caught my knuckles on the cheese grater once! Yay! As before, this recipe called for Shaoxing wine and tapioca flour, so I left out the first and substituted the second for cornflour. And again, as before, I refused to deep-fry this, so I shallow-fried it (for slightly too long, hence the black bits) and then put it in the oven (also for slightly too long). But. BUT. Once all the cooking was done (and it's funny how a recipe with two steps can take FIVE HOURS), I discovered that the taste of this dish was amazing! There's something about the marinade that gave the flavours real punch. It was so good that I was disappointed when dinner was over. In between the Chinese five spice, the ginger, the shallots and the oyster sauce, it tastes like every good thing that you could ever want from Chinese food. Don't get me wrong, it was hell to make, so I probably won't do it again, but part of me is severely tempted.

A trip to Luxembourg

by Janine  

I recently went to Luxembourg to stay with Linda and Tom. It has been an actual decade since I last visited Linda in Luxembourg. (I can't believe it's been so long!) Since I last visited, Linda and Tom have got married, had kids, and moved into a lovely new house. They were very kind to let us all stay with them, because as well as myself, Nick, James, Eppa and James and Eppa's kids all came to visit. It was a full house!

I think we picked the wrong weekend because weather was terrible. Then again, there's not much sightseeing you can do with small children, so instead we had a good time chilling out at home, eating lots of nice food that Linda made (there was also a fun raclette evening), and playing with toy trains.

The kids are all really sweet. It was nice to see Rene, Alex and Jack playing together. Cara was a bit too young to join in, but at one year old she has grown into such a cutie-pie; whenever I sat next to her at mealtimes, she'd grab hold of my sleeve and stare at me with these big, wondering eyes. The kids all seemed to enjoy having so many grownups around to play with them. Poor Alex even started crying when it was time for us to leave for the airport, because he really wanted us to stay and play trains some more.

It was such a lovely time. I didn't see Linda and Tom nearly enough last year, so it was great to catch up. The next task is working out when we can all meet up again. Soon, hopefully!

We did go and do a tiny bit of sightseeing. Here are my photos.

Gëlle Fra, the Monument of Remembrance.

The really pretty view of Adolphe Bridge. Luxembourg is a very hilly country, which makes for great views. I was so glad to visit in the autumn with the trees starting to turn colour.

We also went to visit Vianden, which is a very pretty town, with old buildings, cobbled streets, and surrounded by steep wooded hills.

At the top of one of the hills is Vianden Castle. It's really striking and makes a great impression when you're driving in and it's suddenly revealed as you turn a corner.

It looks very much like a fairytale castle if you ask me.

The whole town was fortified in the past, and it's still surrounded by walls and turrets.

We walked past many pretty buildings in Vianden on our search for a child-friendly restaurant.

We also passed this place (translation: Dicks Garden). Dicks is the pen-name of Edmond de la Fontaine, the national poet of Luxembourg. Which is all well and good, but I am also 10 years old and must take a photo of every sign that says Dicks on it.

Food post - 8 September 2017

by Janine  

Saffron orzotto (recipe from "Nigellissima: Instant Italian Inspiration" by Nigella Lawson)
This was a "risotto" made with pearl barley. I left out the vermouth but added in the optional mascarpone. I love a good risotto, and I found that this orzotto, while nice, didn't come up to the same standard as a real risotto. The pearl barley has a chewy texture and earthy taste; it's nice but it's not rice. The addition of the mascarpone makes the taste very mild and creamy; perhaps too mild for me to rave about it.

Martha Collison's pork and chorizo sausage rolls
There's an accompanying video to this recipe, and it took me a few minutes to realise: "Wait! That's talented and incredibly young Martha from 'The Great British Bake Off'!" I decided to make these at the end of a long week. "Let's relax by baking!" thought I, foolishly. FOUR HOURS LATER I was finally able to eat dinner. It then took me an hour and a half to clean up. (I slept for the rest of the weekend.) So, making puff pastry from scratch, when I make a huge disaster out of even normal pastry; that's no big deal, right? At least this was only rough puff pastry??? I am so surprised I ended up with anything that looks like a sausage roll. But, you know what, my pastry was tough (overworked, perhaps? or just old flour?) but it was edible, and it was even more edible after the sausage rolls been left to soften up in the fridge for a day. Texture aside, they were delicious. I'm not normally a huge fan of chorizo, but the taste with the chipotle paste was wonderful. (Why have I never cooked with chipotle paste before? It is the best.) One word of warning, though; puff pastry, sausage-meat and chorizo are all really greasy, so don't eat too many (i.e. three) of these sausage rolls at once or they'll make you feel ill. Also, I need to admit that I went a bit absent while cutting out the pastry (three hours in, or thereabouts) so I ended up with ten smaller sausage rolls rather than eight big ones. I didn't mind; it made it easier for me to have smaller portions to combat the grease content. Oh, but when you ignore the grease, these were so so tasty. Man.

White chocolate and raspberry macarons (recipe from "Mother's Little Book of Home-Baked Treats")
I am happy to report that I have now made macarons enough times that I am slowly becoming more competent. Not good, mind, but I'm certainly panicking less. One of the main things I have learnt is to cook these over two days to avoid stress, so I made the macarons on one day and made the filling on the next. The only real issue with the macarons is that they're meant to be white and red, and instead they turned out golden and brown. This always happens to me. I heard that maybe putting an empty baking tray on the top shelf of the oven might help stop the browning? Perhaps I'll try that next time. I could also have put on more of the white chocolate ganache, but I refrigerated the ganache as I was told to, and then discovered it was impossible to pipe easily until I'd warmed it up to room temperature again. Sigh. (The bonus is that I had loads of leftover ganache to eat for the rest of the week.) Oh, and also my raspberries were big boys, so I only put three in most macarons, rather than the requisite four. Who cares about these minor points? The macarons tasted gorgeous, albeit very sweet (but macarons are always very sweet, so that's no surprise).

Steamed chicken legs with mustard ginger sauce (recipe from "Chicken Leg" by Hoe Yee)
If you read my last food post, you will have seen how frustrated I got by following the recipes from this book and ending up with raw chicken. Not so any more! I ignored the instructions in the book "steam for 20-25 minutes" and instead steamed the chicken legs for 50 minutes (I meant to steam them for 45 minutes, but my rice needed a bit longer, so I kept the chicken steaming away while I waited). The result? Fully-cooked chicken! Yay! You know, I've never steamed chicken before; I honestly didn't even realise it was possible. Turns out that steaming will fully cook your chicken and will give it a really succulent texture. (Seriously, the texture was so soft. I was blown away.) I mean, it does look awful though. The taste of this recipe was not as strong as I thought it was going to be; there really wasn't much of a mustard taste to the chicken at all. In fact, all I could taste was ginger (I left out the Shaoxing wine, as always). Hm. Maybe it's the recipe or maybe it's because I put a bit too much water in the steamer and all the marinade floated away. It's probably me, isn't it.

Mock mash (recipe from "Nigellissima: Instant Italian Inspiration" by Nigella Lawson)
This is "mashed potato" made from semolina. What a blast from the past! I've never eaten semolina as an adult, and I've never had it savoury. The texture is just the same as I remember (I was always a fan of semolina) and the taste is nutmeggy and cheesy. One word of warning though; I made a smaller portion than Nigella recommends and it turns out it cooked much quicker than she said it would. This was done in the blink of an eye, and then started getting overdone, thick and glutinous. Whoops. Overall, it was a nice dish, but not super-amazing. I'm impressed by how quick and easy it is to make semolina as a side dish, but it doesn't beat mashed potato made with actual potato.

Scotch eggs with tomato
STOP LAUGHING. After being mildly successful with my macarons and sausage rolls, something had to give, and that something was these bloody eggs. And the thing is, the recipe initially looks so easy! I started realising it was not so easy when I discovered that I had to blanch my tomatoes and dry my breadcrumbs (I could have bought dried breadcrumbs, but I couldn't bear the thought of the packet sitting unused in my cupboard for the rest of forever). Still, that all went fine. I then realised that the recipe said to put the breadcrumbs in the sausage meat rather than on the outside... ok... But, actually, there were two major things that went wrong and it wasn't anything that I had flagged-up on reading the recipe. 1) It turns out that I don't know how to boil an egg. I'm not a big fan of eggs, so I don't boil eggs often. This means that I have no idea how "done" an egg will be after boiling it for 6 minutes. It turns out, it's not very done at all! So I wasn't careful enough when peeling my eggs and accidentally split one of them. 2) There was nowhere near enough sausage meat/breadcrumb mixture to cover the eggs. This really seems like an issue with the recipe, and it's the reason why the finished product looks so godawful. Fun fact: I tried so hard to smoosh the sausage around the eggs that I manage to break my one unbroken egg (I was only making two Scotch eggs in total). Goddammit. Still, looks aside, the Scotch eggs actually tasted pretty nice and the breadcrumbs were pleasantly crunchy in the sausagemeat. The runny yolks (or what was left of them) were fun, but even the whites of the eggs weren't properly cooked. Those eggs definitely needed to be boiled for longer beforehand. Oh, but that tomato sauce? It is basically half a squashed tomato and nothing else; it is so watery and bland. Whoever thought that would be a good idea? Sighhhh.

Garlic pesto bread
This recipe is geared up to be cooked on a barbecue, but seeing as I don't have one of those, I followed the instructions to cook the bread in the oven instead. Unfortunately, I went to buy my ingredients at the end of the day when all the fresh bread had sold out :( so instead I bought two part-baked mini-baguettes and then cooked them and cooled them before beginning on the recipe. The texture of the finished dish was crunchy but slightly soggy, because the bread had basically been steamed in the foil with the butter; the softness felt kinda right though, especially with all the oily butter in there. As for taste, it was like normal garlic bread but with a hint of extra cheesy, pesto-ness. BUT, maybe it's because I don't have a garlic crusher and so just chopped my garlic finely, or maybe I didn't have enough bread, but the (relatively-raw) garlic taste was so strong that it was burning my tongue! Not horrendous, but not super-lovely either.

Birthday trip to Kew Gardens

by Janine  

I had a birthday recently. Normally I have great weather on my birthday but, alas, this year it was cold and cloudy. It's still cold and cloudy now. What has happened to summer? Anyone know where it went? I think we've misplaced it somewhere.

Anyway, let me start with the rundown of the presents I got:

A lovely selection of cards.

Books and a DVD. I just watched the first season of "A Handmaid's Tale" and really enjoyed it, so I'm looking forward to giving the book a go. The other books look very interesting, and "The Gentlewoman's Book of Sports" will apparently help save me from "morphine-mania" so that's good. I asked for the DVD of the fourth series of "Sherlock" so I could complete my collection. I don't feel particularly enthused about watching it though. (Well, the second episode of the series was good; at least there's that.)

The rest of my presents, including a new watch because my current one looks very old and worn. The gold thing to the left is a picture hook for hanging pictures on my picture rail (I still love my picture rail). The pink thing to the right is a card holder. Mariya got me the really lovely cat scarf and the "Will You Be a Cat?" sheet face-mask with a cat's face printed on it (I haven't tried it yet, but can't wait to see how terrifying I look with it on). Mariya also gave me the super-cool biro that's shaped like a quill pen and the little, yellow bear-pen-thing, which is a lip gloss.

My parents came to London for my birthday and we went to Kew Gardens. Not only that, but my parents were very kind and gave me a year's membership to the gardens, so now I get to go back as much as I like!

The palm house. Ignore the looming clouds; it's an English high summer!

The palm house looked very cool in a faded, Victorian kind of way. We walked up to the balcony, which had a great view of the plants.

Not pictured: the humidity that I worried would ruin my camera. (It didn't.)

At the back of the palm house is Syon vista, which took my breath away.

Then we went to the hive, which is a really cool, new structure. When you go inside they have music playing and little lights glowing. It's linked real-time to an actual bee hive, so the more the bees are active in the hive, the more the music plays and the lights glow.

The garden behind Kew Palace contained aromatic plants. They smelled so good. Also, I love lavender.

I really enjoyed looking around Kew Palace, but I was surprised by how small the rooms were in there.

Even more fun was looking around the kitchens for Kew Palace. Look at the size of this fireplace! The kitchens included bread ovens, plus a tiny little oven that may have been used specially for meringues.

There are so many different species of plants in Kew Gardens. I have no idea what any of them are (I didn't read the signs). Here I present to you: a tree.

And then we saw this guy.

We spent all afternoon in Kew Gardens and didn't even see half of it. I'd better go back to see the rest sometime.

Food post - 13 July 2017

by Janine  

I've done some more cooking recently! Let's get on with it.

Chilli and poppy seeded potato chips with smoky red pepper dip
These looked rather impressive. (Ignore the fact that I couldn't find flat-leaf parsley and had to use the curly stuff instead.) The dip was smoky and tomato-y and red-pepper-y and worked well with the chips. The poppy seeds and sesame seeds were a strange choice, but they did add extra texture, I suppose. The only real issue I had with the dish was that the sweet potato chips were too sweet for my liking (I am not great with really sweet main courses). If I had swapped the sweet potato out for some more of the normal potatoes I would have enjoyed the dish a lot more.

Baked black pepper chicken legs (recipe from "Chicken Leg" by Hoe Yee)
The sauce for this dish has a real punch to it. It's tangy from the ginger and the Worcestershire sauce and it's really hot from the black pepper. I've never put anywhere near that much black pepper in a dish before! It had a great taste but the heat was so much that I couldn't eat loads of the sauce. Unfortunately this dish was marred slightly by the fact that the chicken was still pink inside when I cut into it, so I had to microwave it to cook the rest. Annoying. The recipe says to bake the chicken leg for 25 minutes. A previous recipe in the same book called for the same thing and left me with undercooked chicken. Last time I said, "Another five minutes in the oven and these would have been perfect." So this time I duly left the chicken legs in the oven for five minutes longer. It was still not enough time. Such a shame, but the dish was great once fully cooked thanks to a blast in the microwave.

Mascarpone mash (recipe from "Nigellissima: Instant Italian Inspiration" by Nigella Lawson)
This picture is not doing itself any favours. White poached egg on top of white mashed potato on top of white plate. I know what you're thinking: "That mash looks rather dry and lumpy. I'm surprised that any Nigella mash recipe would be so dry and sad." I certainly thought it while making it. FUNNY STORY: turns out it's lumpy because I got my quantities wrong! I clearly wasn't paying attention when making this and accidentally used about 50% more potato than I was told to. Hence why the quantity of milk and mascarpone were too low to make the mash as creamy as it should be. I made one more change (this time on purpose) to this recipe. The ingredients list calls for truffle paste or truffle butter; I couldn't find those at all so I used truffle oil instead. Regardless of changes and accidental dryness, this dish was gorgeous to eat. The mascarpone adds a great richness and the flavour from the parmesan and the truffle is heavenly! Who knew that truffle and parmesan went so well together? I didn't! But I will certainly remember it for the future. Nigella recommended eating the mash with a poached egg, which was a really great addition: well done, Nigella. All in all, this was stunning. I made it again the next day with the correct milk:potato ratio and ❤

Stewed chicken leg (recipe from "Chicken Leg" by Hoe Yee)
The stewed or boiled chicken leg is a thing that you just don't see in British cuisine, so I know the picture doesn't look too appetising. Thankfully, I've made a similar stewed chicken recipe from the same recipe book so I knew that the end result was likely to be tasty. Unlike the previous stewed chicken leg dish, this one uses less salt and more sugar and has a different mixture or spices (primarily tonnes of star anise). I didn't add all the spices because I couldn't find them. I left out the gan cao (licorice root), replaced the cao guo (a type of black cardamom) with green cardamom, and replaced the dried cekur (a type of galangal known as sand ginger) with an unspecified galangal paste. I don't think the dish fared too badly from these substitutions because the smell while I was cooking was absolutely amazing, and the chicken was tasty too (it was mainly a slightly sweet, aniseed taste; but it wasn't too sweet for my palate). My only problem with this dish was that the chicken was pink when I cut into it. FOR GOD'S SAKE. After three pink chicken leg recipes in a row, I'm getting pretty tired of this undercooked chicken business. The recipe said to boil the chicken legs for 25 minutes, which clearly wasn't enough time. SIGH. I've learnt my lesson. From now on when cooking anything from this book I'm going to cook the chicken legs for 45 minutes at least. I have no idea why the author consistently thinks 25 minutes is long enough to cook such a large hunk of chicken. I have a few theories: 1) Chicken legs are generally smaller in Malaysia and Singapore, and so require less cooking? 2) People in Malaysia and Singapore prefer to eat their chicken slightly pink on the inside? 3) Methods of cooking in Malaysia and Singapore somehow use a more intense form of heat, so cooking times don't need to be so long? 4) The author has no idea what she's talking about when it comes to timings? I don't know which of these theories is true. All I know is that from now on I'm going to ignore any chicken-cooking timings given in this book. I'm tired of feeling :\ about a dish that should, in theory, be super-delicious.

Satay chicken
Do you remember in my last food post when I said I don't like peanuts very much and so don't like chicken satay? I had tried to cook a Malaysian chicken satay recipe and discovered that I hated it. Well, thought I, maybe I'll finally like chicken satay if I try another recipe. So I tried this one; the bastardised, anglicised version. Turns out I like it more than the Malaysian version (my palate is so British; I'm so sorry). But, you know what, I still think chicken satay would be better if, in some crazy world, I could find a peanut-free version. This recipe calls for a barbecue, but I put it under the grill instead. The taste was nice! Slightly sweet (but not too sweet, like the Malaysian version), slightly spicy, with a hint of coconut and lots of lime. Oh, and peanuts (if you like that sort of thing). Certainly edible for me; maybe it's the lime (I LOVE LIME). Or maybe I was happy to eat chicken that's fully-cooked for once. In summary: not a complete success but definitely one of the nicer chicken satays I've had. Why do I keep eating chicken satays???

Canterbury

by Janine  

Last weekend I went to visit James and Eppa who, as of last year, now live in Canterbury. I'd only ever been to Canterbury once before, as a child, and all I remember about it is the toy cat my parents bought for me when we there there. Understandably, I was eager to go again as an adult, now I actually have some idea of Canterbury's long history. (Unfortunately, I got no toy cats on this trip. But I did get to play with James and Eppa's cat, Dale, so it wasn't all bad.)

James and Eppa's new house is lovely, and their new garden is lovely too. We spent a lot of time sitting in it, and I was also fed some fresh garden produce: blackcurrant cordial, blackcurrant jam (on American pancakes), and a gooseberry crumble. Not from the garden, but still good, I was also fed a really tasty lamb and orzo dish, and then just before I hopped on the train home we stopped at Pork & Co for a mound of pulled pork. I have been spoiled.

When we weren't eating, lounging in the garden, or playing with James and Eppa's kids, Rene and Jack (and, by God, aren't they growing fast!) we went to do some sight-seeing. I think it's pretty impressive the amount we saw in two days. Here is the photo tour:

This is the Beaney library and museum. What an impressive frontage! It was built in the 1890s, but they were clearly going for an older style. Inside it's been refurbished and is very swish. They also have a lot of toys and fun things for children, which Rene had a great time showing to me.

After passing the Beaney we walked to the Westgate, one of the surviving gates through the ancient city walls. At this point I kept boring James and Eppa by pointing out that Winchester (another historic city, which I visited last year) also has a surviving Westgate that contains a museum, just like this one.

I compared Winchester and Canterbury constantly throughout the trip. They have their differences, but they're both quite similar in the amount of history they can lay claim to; both places are fascinating.

In Canterbury, huge swathes of the city walls are still standing, which is rather cool. Also, unlike Winchester, the arch underneath the Westgate is still used as a road into the city. How cool is that? That road has only been in existence for over 1500 years. OMG.

Here's the view from the top of Westgate, where you can see the line of the road in all its glory. Also, Canterbury Cathedral is there in the background. And, while Winchester cathedral is also of historical interest, can it boast an archbishop? Or such a popular pilgrimage destination? I don't think so.

Here's the Westgate from the outside.

The Westgate is beside the river Stour, which is a small, dainty thing. We went to a park nearby and watched people on boats going up and down.

There are loads of old buildings in Canterbury. This one is an inn where Charles Dickens stayed, or something.

Then we went to visit the cathedral itself. (How can you have a history tour of Canterbury without taking in the cathedral? You can't.) Or rather, James and I went to visit the cathedral while Eppa took the kids to the park so they could run around.

This is the gate to the cathedral in Buttermarket. It's known as Christ Church Gate and is hugely impressive. Look at all those carvings! Apparently it dates from the early-16th Century, although the statue of Christ was added in 1990 after the original was destroyed in a Puritan fervour.

The pedestrian door in the gate is gorgeous. And I can't tell you how much I love little doorways inside big doorways!

James and I didn't go inside the cathedral, because it sounded like there was a service going on, but we did walk around the outside. (This was almost the only part of the exterior that didn't have scaffolding on.)

There were some huge ruins beside the cathedral, but we weren't sure what they were. One sign said they might have been an infirmary? Some part of the religious complex, anyway. I would love to learn more about the history of the cathedral. It's so old!

This entry to the cathedral is, I think, known as the Dark Entry. You can tell why!

After walking out of the cloister through the Dark Entry, we found ourselves in the middle of some school fête and quite lost. There were still lots of pretty buildings in this part of the cathedral precincts though.

We quickly traced our way back to the cloister before anyone realised we weren't anything to do with the school. In the cloister I found this fab piece of graffiti. (I'm assuming it's religious graffiti rather than written by someone called Mary.)

After the cathedral we wandered past this old church (or what's left of it) where Christopher Marlowe was christened.

We found Eppa, Rene and Jack in the Dane John Gardens, where they have an awesome-looking maze for kids. Dane John Gardens is also the site of the earliest castle in Canterbury. Here's the mound it sat on.

And that's it for the photo tour. We also went to the Canterbury Heritage Museum (if you have children with you, make sure to head to the Rupert Bear section at the end) but I completely neglected to take photos while we were in there.

All in all, I had a great time. And because James and Eppa live there, I'll be able to go back some other time to soak up more history!

A trip to the New Forest

by Janine  

I am on a blogging roll at the moment (a roll in this instance meaning two posts) so make sure to check out the food post I put up yesterday, if you haven't already.

A couple of weeks ago I made a brief, weekend trip to the New Forest. I went to visit Claire, and her new son Max, and Deborah came along too.

It was a nice sedate visit (as all outings with a young baby must be). At Claire's house we made a paella (tonnes of it; we accidentally made tonnes of it) and a key lime pie. We also got to chat to Claire's eldest son, Joe, and Claire's new cockatiel, Dave. And yes I mean chat. Dave will talk to you if you talk to him, but his conversation is limited only to "Hello, Dave" and "Good boy, Dave" (I don't know about you, but some people can be so self-centred when you talk to them, can't they?) Then we sat up late into the night (Claire and Deborah and I, I mean; not Dave, he'd had a blanket thrown over his cage by this point) and reminisced about the old days while listening to 90s music.

Good times.

Other things we did involved walking around a village in the New Forest (before stopping for afternoon tea). Now, I had known that the New Forest contains ponies, but I hadn't realised that they wander around the villages in the New Forest too. It's so weird to see semi-wild ponies just hanging about outside people's houses.

Then we went to the beach and looked out across the Solent. Take a look at that land in the distance; at first I thought, "by God, France is pretty close today," but it turns out it's the Isle of Wight instead.

While we were on the beach the sky went scarily dark. Shockingly we didn't get rained on! I don't think the folks on the Isle of Wight fared so well though.

When we got bored of walking on the pebbles, we headed up the sandbanks and instantly found ourselves surrounded by bluebells! (I love this time of year.)

Food post - 15 May 2017

by Janine  

Here we have the first food post from the kitchen in my new flat! It took me a while to get started with cooking. At the beginning I was far too busy with moving and unpacking and all that business. And then I realised that the fridge-freezer in the new flat wasn't working very well :( My landlord bought me a new fridge-freezer, but it took about a month for it to arrive. That's a month of tinned food only. Oh God. (I'm pretty sure I suffered through this whole ordeal only a couple of years ago too.) I was so ready to get down and do some proper cooking when I finally had the chance.

Star Pizzas
This is, admittedly, a recipe for kids, but there's no reason why I can't eat fun shaped toast pizzas too. Although, as an adult, I doubled the portion size, and also ate the leftover scraps of bread in a salad. All in all, it's a yummy recipe. There's a lot of good pizza flavour in those little bites, and they're really nice and crunchy. The cheese could probably have melted for longer, but as you can see, the corners of my bread started catching so I had to take them out.

Satay chicken legs (recipe from "Chicken Leg" by Hoe Yee)
I need to admit up front that I don't like chicken satay. Or, rather, I like the chicken satay skewers but don't like the peanut sauce (I am not the world's biggest peanut fan). "But, you know," thought I, "I've never eaten proper Malaysian chicken satay. I bet I'll really like it if I eat proper Malaysian chicken satay." After making this recipe I can conclude that, no, I dislike the peanut sauce on chicken satay, no matter where the recipe comes from. The shock with this one though is that the peanuts weren't the worst part (they were manageable). Instead the worst part for me was a tie between the heat of the raw onion (I hate raw onion) and the 60g sugar. Now, either that amount of sugar is a typo or, as I suspect, Asian cuisine doesn't distinguish so much between sweet and savoury dishes as we do in the UK (and, you know, this distinction is really quite a recent trend in British cooking; putting sweet things in savoury dishes was the norm for centuries). Alas, 21st Century, British me finds it really hard to handle too much sweetness in my savoury dishes (I can't stand pineapple on pizza, for example). All this meant that no matter how much I tried to like this dish (and the first few mouthfuls, sans raw onions, were ok) the sweetness of if made me start to feel a little nauseous after a while. So then I pretty much ignored the sauce and ate the chicken on its own. Some notes on the cooking: I couldn't find fresh galangal so I used galangal paste; and I couldn't find tapioca flour so I substituted cornflour (which doesn't have a great consistency for marinades, I discovered). Also, this recipe called for the chicken legs to be deep-fried before being added to the sauce. I am far too scared of deep-frying to do that, so I pan-fried them to get the skin crispy then shoved them in the oven. Only, I think I put them in the oven for too long, because they turned out a little dry. Finally, this was the first time I've cooked with fresh turmeric. I don't think I was prepared for quite how yellow everything (everything!) would turn. A lot of my kitchen equipment now has "character". So, um, if you like chicken satay, maybe you should give this dish a go. As for me, I am never making this ever again.

Italian lentils (recipe from "Nigellissima: Instant Italian Inspiration" by Nigella Lawson)
This recipe called for Castelluccio lentils, but I couldn't find those for love nor money, so I substituted with red lentils. I may also have added too much water, because what I ended up with was more of a dhal than the individual, glistening lentils in the picture that accompanies the recipe. The taste was a bit watery too, but still plenty edible. Overall this is probably a decent recipe that suffered from poor execution on my part.

Eggs Florentine
Next up I said goodbye to the "put it in a pot and stir it" lentils and decided to try to cook with the big boys. I've never eaten eggs Florentine before, let alone tried to cook them. The same with a Hollandaise sauce. As I discovered, cooking them wasn't easy. There are a lot of components and each one needs attention while cooking, so trying to get everything ready at the same time is hard. In fact, so complex was it that I ran out of saucepans and had to melt my butter in a frying pan! As you can tell from the picture, I had difficulty thickening my Hollandaise (I think I needed to let the eggs cook out a little more) but at least it didn't split on me! Now, I think the reason I haven't eaten eggs Florentine before is that it doesn't sound very appetising to me. I don't eat eggs often, because I find them a little rich. Serving two eggs (I was eating this for dinner rather than breakfast, so doubled the portions) with a sauce made out of extra egg yolks and a tonne of butter sounded far far too rich for my tastes. But do you know what? I didn't realise how lemony Hollandaise sauce is! It went really well with the eggs and the spinach, and it soaked gorgeously into the muffins. This dish was a right pain to make, but the taste was worth it.

Roasted herb chicken leg (recipe from "Chicken Leg" by Hoe Yee)
You could rightly call this dish "fusion". Lemon and rosemary chicken sounds Italian to me, but I'm sure most Italians wouldn't add oyster sauce or soy sauce too. I didn't add the Shaoxing wine to this, but otherwise I made no changes. And do you know what? The taste turned out nice! Salty and umami and lemony and herby. My only issue is that the recipe says to bake the chicken legs for 25 minutes at 200°C, but this left my chicken pink in the middle (and the kind of annoying pink, where you only realise once you've eaten half of it). Another five minutes in the oven and these would have been perfect.

Fragrant rosemary cookies (recipe from a house-warming card sent to me by James and Eppa)
I've never received a recipe on a greetings card before! I was so intrigued that I had to give it a go. The main flavour in these cookies is rosemary and lemon (much like the chicken I'd just cooked). They were pretty easy to make; the recipe involved rolling the dough into a log, and then slicing it once chilled, which I've never done before, but which I think is much easier than using biscuit cutters. To eat, these cookies were nice: crunchy and crumbly with a subtle sweetness. I've never eaten rosemary in a dessert before. I worked well, but is a little confusing if you're not used to it; while these were baking my poor head was trying to understand why the whole room smelled of a lamb dinner.

Gnocchi gratin (recipe from "Nigellissima: Instant Italian Inspiration" by Nigella Lawson)
This recipe doesn't photograph well. Instead of a smooth cheese sauce around the gnocchi, you end up with a sauce that, while smooth to eat, looks a little like scrambled eggs. I honestly don't know if the recipe's meant to do that or if I did something wrong. Either way, this recipe was ok, but not great. I get the feeling, from past recipes I've made, that Nigella likes this subtle, creamy, slightly nutmeggy taste. For me, though, I couldn't help longing for more cheese. A big old hunk of mature cheddar would have sorted this right out.

Pan-fried lamb with kale dhal
This recipe is technically meant to have griddled lamb, but I don't have a griddle pan so I just used a frying pan instead. I also used lamb leg steaks because I couldn't find lamb loin fillets. This meant that I may have overcooked my lamb a little (it could have been pink in one part, but only if you squinted) but I actually prefer my meat well-done so I was happy. The dhal was maybe slightly hotter than I normally like, but other than that the taste was really good; it went well with the lamb too. I get the feeling that this recipe is marketed as being a "healthy" carb-free option, but I ate mine with rice. I have no truck with carb-free diets. Humans literally need carbohydrates to live, so I will eat them with every meal thank you very much. If you're watching your weight, there's an extravagant greasy piece of lamb on this plate that you could lose easily, given that you already have protein in the lentils. Rant aside, this recipe was tasty and gets a thumbs-up from me.

I moved house!

by Janine  

Hi all. I've been quiet here recently because I just moved house! Oh God it takes up so much time. Oh God please never make me do it again.

Because, of course, there's not just the packing and the unpacking. There's also the buying new furniture (because the old place came part-furnished) and there's the putting together of the new furniture, and then there's the cleaning (so many years of grime to remove), and then THE PAPERWORK.

I'm being melodramatic. You've all moved house; you know what it's like. But having just finished everything, I am really looking forward to getting some free time again.

Speaking of free time, I moved so I could be closer to work. I have now shaved two hours off of my daily commute. Two hours! It's bliss. I'm currently filling my evenings with "Masterchef". The added bonus of moving is that while my rent is more expensive (let's not talk about it) I do this time get a separate bedroom. I don't have to sleep in the living room any more! What luxury is this???

Let's have a photo tour.

The kitchen part of my open-plan kitchen/living room. (Ok, so what I gained in a separate bedroom, I lost in a separate kitchen. Still, it makes watching TV while cooking very easy.) This kitchen is smaller than my old one, which made me sad. So I bought (and then put together) the kitchen island thing you see. I feel very proud of my DIY achievements.

The other part of the kitchen/living room. (Not pictured: the sofa.) Moving into a blank space is kinda sad. As soon as I'd unpacked all my books, the place became instantly more homely. Also, I love that the room comes with a picture rail. It makes hanging pictures so easy! One of my pictures (which I just received) is an heirloom from my late grandparents. (It's not rare or expensive, mind, just sentimental.)

See also: the plant on the bookcase was a house-warming present from my boss. How nice of her!

The bedroom. I had to turn on the lights, because it is grey and rainy today and this side of the house gets no light at the best of times (which is actually a boon for sleeping). The map on the wall was a present from colleagues. It's covered in the material you get on scratch-cards, so you can scratch off all the countries you've visited. (I've done well on Europe, and terrible everywhere else.)

The bathroom is tiny, but the shower has a good heft to it.

Finally we have my random corridor that leads to nowhere! This flat comes with zero (0) cupboards (why????), so I've decided to fill the corridor with all my ugly household stuff.

That's it for my new and glamorous lifestyle. I've been breaking the kitchen in with some cooking (including more turmeric than I ever thought possible; everything I own is now stained yellow) so you'll be getting a food post at some point.

Food post - 16 January 2017

by Janine  

It's time for another food post and, man, has this one been a long time coming. (p.s. Don't forget to go read yesterday's Christmas round-up blog post too.)

Roast Brussels sprouts with rosemary, lemon and pecorino (recipe from "Nigellissima: Instant Italian Inspiration" by Nigella Lawson)
You can tell it's been too long since the last food post. When I cooked these (in the summer) I couldn't find any fresh Brussels sprouts so I had to buy frozen. Now, I must confess that I don't like sprouts. Then again, in previous Nigella recipes, she's done very well at taking vegetables I don't like (namely peas) and making them actually appetising. And, considering the cheese and garlic and stuff added to these sprouts, the recipe seemed promising. The verdict? Nah. Brussels sprouts are still bitter and horrible to me. These tasted like bitter and horrible sprouts, but with nice things added on top. Better than normal sprouts, yes. But not enough to persuade me to make them again.

Mexican bean burgers with guacamole
I made a mistake with this one: I accidentally bought the wrong beans! Instead of plain kidney beans, I bought kidney beans in chilli sauce. I tried to rinse the sauce off, but there was still a lingering taste of it that I couldn't remove. That said, the chilli sauce taste actually went really well with this recipe! I can't say what these burgers would be like with bog-standard kidney beans, but the burgers I made were wonderfully tasty, and the brown rice adds a nice savoury background. The only issue I had was that the burgers wouldn't stay together once I was eating them, and would fall all over the place. But if you are quite happy to eat a super-messy burger, then these get the thumbs-up from me!

Broccoli with lemon and Parmesan (recipe from "Nigellissima: Instant Italian Inspiration" by Nigella Lawson)
This is fairly easy to make (although nothing that requires zesting a lemon is truly easy) and tastes nice. In fact, it tastes just like broccoli, lemon, Parmesan and olive oil. There's not really anything else to say.

Stewed salted chicken leg (recipe from "Chicken Leg" by Hoe Yee, a Singaporean/Malaysian cookbook, which was a present from Mariya for my birthday last year)
I wasn't sure what to expect from this recipe. The name doesn't sound appetising to me, and the finished product didn't look that appetising either. Also, I'd never cooked a whole chicken leg before; I was surprised to find that you could buy them in the shop! The recipe was easy enough to make, though. You boil up the chicken legs with lots of spices, and lots of salt, then let them cool. Job done. (Note, I didn't add any Shaoxing wine to this, and I couldn't find any cao guo, so that got left out too.) Uncertain, I gave the finished chicken leg a taste. Oh man, IT IS SO GOOD, GUYS. The level of salt in the final product is just right and the spices make it really tasty. Overall, the taste was really reminiscent of southern fried chicken, which I love. I'd count it as a roaring success.

Thai green curry paste
So, I made the paste and then used it to make a batch of vegetable curry. The recipe suggests you could make chicken curry instead, but I was all chickened out after the previous recipe. The ingredients list says you can make the curry paste with ginger or galangal. I had ginger, so that's what I used. And I couldn't find shrimp paste, so I substituted with fish sauce. As for what the curry tasted like? Well, it was a) far too hot for my tastes, and b) kinda bland all the same. Maybe it was because I used vegetables rather than chicken, but there was a umami-ness and saltiness missing. All I could taste was chillies and coconut milk. Meh. Eating this felt like a chore.

Sicilian cauliflower salad (recipe from "Nigellissima: Instant Italian Inspiration" by Nigella Lawson)
Cauliflower salad? I had never eaten that before, which made me uncertain. Also, the ingredients list is full of things I don't like much: sultanas (too sweet for a savoury dish); dry-packed black olives (too salty); toasted pine nuts (too greasy). Also, I didn't add in the Marsala. This did not bode well. But I persevered anyway and do you know what? It was nowhere near as horrible as I thought it was going to be. It was actually pretty tasty! Somehow all the sweet/salty/greasy ingredients cancelled each other out. The only odd part is that the cauliflower is only cooked very lightly for this dish. Once you get over the fact that the cauliflower is crunchy as you eat it, then it's pretty decent.

Sesame fried chicken leg (another recipe from "Chicken Leg" by Hoe Yee)
Flush with the success of my first chicken leg recipe, I decided to attempt another. Perhaps this time I was too confident. Because, my God, this recipe is difficult to make! I mean, part of it is my fault for not following the recipe entirely. For example, after marinating the chicken legs, you're meant to let them dry in the sun for one hour. Firstly, we do not get that level of sunshine during a British winter. Secondly, no, I am far too scared to let the bacteria in a raw piece of chicken incubate in the warmth of the sun. So instead I rested the chicken on a strainer and let it dry in the fridge for an hour. The other thing I'm too scared to do is deep fry anything, especially as I do not have a special deep fat fryer. (I'm sorry. I can't help it. I just don't want to burn the kitchen down.) So, firstly I tried to shallow fry the chicken legs. Yes I realise how mad that sounds. After AN HOUR of shallow frying, they were still uncooked in the middle. And so, beginning to worry that I was giving the raw chicken a nice incubating anyway, I then put them into the oven for twenty minutes, which got them cooked all the way through. The other issue with the recipe is that the marinade for the chicken calls for a tablespoon of ginger juice and a tablespoon of red shallot juice (tiny note: I couldn't find red shallots, so used normal ones instead). Maybe you can just buy these juices in Singapore, where this book comes from? Or maybe everyone there owns a juicer? I do not own a juicer. I don't even own a blender. HAVE YOU EVER TRIED TO JUICE A SHALLOT BY HAND? I grated a whole bag of shallots, then squeezed the gratings through a tea strainer. OH MY GOD. So many shallots are needed to get a tablespoon of juice, and they are so slippery and hard to grate, especially when the shallot fumes are making you cry your eyes out. After that, the ginger felt like a breeze, but the juicing of that still took about 45 minutes. So, after all that effort (it took me about five hours in total, guys), you would hope that the final product would be rather tasty. And it seemed promising; even though I left out the Shaoxing wine, the chicken smelled amazing as it cooked in the oven. Oh, if only that smell carried over into the taste! Don't get me wrong, this dish tasted fine. But mostly it just tasted like cooked chicken with (crunchy, and a little greasy) sesame seeds on the outside. I just... for that level of effort, I needed something that would blow my socks off. This did not blow my socks off.

Cannellini beans with rosemary (recipe from "Nigellissima: Instant Italian Inspiration" by Nigella Lawson)
Nigella helped calm me down after all that chicken leg business with an easy recipe. (Although, once again, nothing that requires zesting a lemon is truly easy.) This dish tasted ok. It tasted like beans with olive oil, rosemary and lemon added, which is certainly a pleasant thing. But, you know, I'm not the biggest fan of beans because of their mealy texture, and that texture was strong in this dish. I don't know though. I was just happy to find a recipe that didn't take five hours to cook while taking five years off my life in the process.

Ma po tofu
This was the first recipe I tried out in 2017 and it seems I continued on with the Asian theme. I had received a tonne of Japanese ingredients from my secret santa for Christmas and I was dying to make something with them. First up was the silken tofu. As soon as I saw it was silken tofu I knew I wanted to make ma po tofu (which isn't a Japanese dish at all, but a Sichuan one). I first had ma po tofu at the house of a colleague, who was from Sichuan, and I loved it (she's a great cook). I then ordered it at a couple of restaurants but didn't find it quite so great, as well as being slightly too spicy for me (I realised then, that my colleague had probably reduced the amount of chilli to suit an English palate, because I know Sichuan cuisine is supposed to be super spicy). Still, I couldn't shake the desire to eat ma po tofu again, and so a quick google search brought up this recipe. Looking at the ingredients list made me worry that this would indeed be too spicy for me. But I couldn't find Sichuan chilli bean paste or sauce, and so I bought a bottle of something that purported to be Korean chilli sauce instead (it was either that or Mexican-style sauces), and that was maybe my saving grace because the sauce I bought wasn't very hot at all. (Note for the pedantic: I also didn't add in the Shaoxing wine.) And, man, I say "saving grace" because this dish was so good! Wow. It was just as lovely as I remembered it being from my colleague's house. So tasty! Yum yum yum yum yum. If you ever find yourself in possession of some tofu, you have to make this.

Udon noodle broth with beef and leeks
Finally, we have a Japanese-style dish. I choose this one so I could use the nori, udon noodles and miso that I received for Christmas (I used sweet white miso paste, here). This recipe doesn't take too long to cook, but the cooking is full-on. There was a lot of multitasking by cooking several things at once that all needed a lot of attention. Additionally, this is the kind of recipe that seems to use up every single pan and cooking utensil in your kitchen. Washing up afterwards was a chore. The end result? It was nice; not super amazing, but pleasant enough to eat. I wondered why I was having to bother poaching an egg as well as everything else, but the egg actually went really well with it. Overall though, I feel like the dish was missing some kind of saltiness or something. Maybe it's because I used white miso paste, where brown miso paste would have been better? Who knows?

Christmas 2016/17

by Janine  

Happy New Year!

Hi folks. How's it going? Are you having a good 2017 so far? Let's hope it's better than 2016 by a long shot.

Man, it feels like Christmas was ages ago. Now all we're left with is cold, wet (and sometimes snowy) January. Oh, and Sherlock is on too. I don't have time to write up my normal Sherlock reviews, so here's a very quick lowdown of series 4:

The first episode was so bad it made me question why I was still watching this show. The second episode was quick and funny and amazing and everything Sherlock does best. So, swings and roundabouts really. Will the final episode in the series be as good as the second? Who knows? But there aren't many more hours until we find out!

Right. Back to my Christmas blog post, which seems to be an annual tradition for me. This year Christmas was good, and was actually relaxing for once! I learned from previous years and made sure not to schedule too much in. I also took myself away from my parents and back to London for a few days in the middle of things, which was a great way to recharge my batteries.

As well as visiting parents and family, I saw a few friends. This included visiting Steve and Heather and William in Bristol for New Year. Almost everyone was there: James and Eppa with Rene and Jack; Nick; and Linda with Alex and Cara. I'd never met Cara before! She is tiny and cute (and was well-behaved). It was lovely to have everyone together, even if Linda and I only crossed paths for 45 minutes. Smooches to you all!

That was the people-side of things. When it comes to the materialistic-side, we have the following:

Christmas cards. I seemed to receive a lot of cards this year. It was difficult to fit them all on the bookshelf!

A special card mention this year goes to Steve and Heather and William for another very stylish hand-made card. Also, it's not ironic; I don't believe you.

A second card mention goes to Mariya for this staring leopard. Yeah. That's how I feel when Christmas is over too.

On the present-front, first up is books and stationery. One of my resolutions is to tidy up my filing system. Hopefully these folders from my parents will help.

The cute notebook and pen are from Mariya and will help me feel busy and important at all times.

As for the books, I read Jane Eyre last year and enjoyed it, so for Christmas I requested that my parents get me MORE BRONTËS. I didn't actually watch that drama about them that was on over Christmas. Did any of you folks watch it and was it any good?

Oh, and I requested Quiet Power from my parents too. I didn't realise that all it is is a rehash of Susan Cain's first book, but for a YA market. Useful for some, I'm sure, but I wouldn't recommended it if "speaking up more in class" and "working out what you want to do with your life" aren't on your radar.

Next up is the clothing, accessories and housewares section. (Shut up, it doesn't have to make sense.) Pyjamas from my parents, including cute cat pyjamas :D and Mariya continued on the cat theme with a tiny, adorable cat necklace (which I'm wearing right now).

There's also a soap from Mariya from Bali, various housewares, and the box that says "luxury" on it contains a purse from my parents.

And then we have the cooking and food section, featuring CHOCOLATES from my parents and from Asia, some plastic bags with slightly scary cat-shaped ties from Mariya, and powdered Bali vanilla from Mariya too (I've been putting it in my hot chocolate!)

Also pictured is a tonne of Japanese ingredients from my secret santa. Thank you, secret santa, whoever you are! (Because you are totally still secret of course.) I have been cooking a lot of things with them, the results of which you'll see in my upcoming food post (whenever I write it, which will hopefully be soon).

Finally, I did the same thing I did on my birthday, which is that I indulged in buying some shoes for myself, and later received money from my Nan to help cover some of the cost. Thanks, Nan!

That's it for present-talk, but not for grandparent-talk. If you have been following my blog posts you will have read that I lost two grandparents this year (leaving me now with one only; she of the shoes).

The two grandparents I lost were my Mum's parents. My Nan died in the spring and my Granddad lasted only six months without her. One of my aunts sent this memorial card in with her Christmas card to me. Apparently it's a normal custom in Ireland. I think it's absolutely lovely.

These two folks meant a lot to me. They looked after me a lot when I was a child so they were always close to my heart. Just recently, I've been wondering what I inherited from them, and I think it was a lot:

- The ability to sleep easily (thanks, Grandpa Bernard)
- Appearance (both of them, including shortness (Nan) and glasses (Granddad))
- Stoicism and patience (thanks, Nanny Margaret)
- A love of maps and history (thanks, Grandpa Bernard)
- A knack for science (thanks, Nanny Margaret)
- The ability to organise things well (I don't know who this comes from, but MY GOD it's gone through the whole family. We are punctual to a fault. Turning up on time to a family gathering, rather than turning up at least five minutes early, is seen as almost as bad as turning up half an hour late.)
- A love of walking and the countryside (both of them, very much so)

And because the love of walking has also gone through the whole family, we went for a family walk at Christmas to give them both a good send off and to scatter my Nan's ashes (my Granddad was buried rather than cremated, so scattering him would have been rather difficult).

The walk chosen was a favourite of my grandparents'. My Granddad had already chosen it and started making arrangements when he passed away (this was at least three months before the event; I told you we were good at organising.) On the day we finally went, it was cold and rather misty, which made it very atmospheric. Let me leave you with some photos:

Singapore

by Janine  

I am on fire with this blogging business at the moment! Don't forget to scroll down to see the two blog posts I wrote yesterday!

Today I want to tell you about the second summer holiday I went on this year. (I am so lucky to go on so many holidays. And now I am so poor.) In September I made my first trip to Asia and went to Singapore!

Mariya was living in Singapore for the last six months of 2016 so I went out to visit her. Mariya's friend Sviatlana was also visiting and we all had a great time together. It was particularly lovely seeing Mariya again. We have a long-distance friendship so we only get to see each other about once every four years, which makes it all the better when we do finally meet up.

Staying with Mariya was also great because not only had she already scouted out all the best places to visit and to eat, but she is also really good at organising our time so that we were able to fit a lot into each day. I was in Singapore for less than a week (oh, the jetlag didn't thank me for that) but I still saw loads of stuff. Sviatlana was really good at sightseeing too; she managed to visit even more places than Mariya and I (how she did it, I don't know).

I'm going to show you loads of photos here, but what I don't have many photos of is the food I ate. I ATE SO MUCH GOOD FOOD. Oh man. Top of the list was the Chinese hot pot. I need to find a restaurant that sells that stuff in London. It was tonnes of fun and really tasty (even if the level of chilli was a little higher than I can normally take - I have memories of Mariya urgently ordering water for her poor, choking British friend). We also ate a load of good dim sum, some equally good sushi, and Maryia introduced me to pandan bread (that stuff was great to snack on after a long day). Plus, the highlight may have been discovering the best chips (read: fries) that I have ever eaten in my life! They were smoked paprika flavour and just a little sweet too and MY GOD.

The only food photo I have is of a milkshake that tasted only so-so, but it looked amazing:

It was sold in a very girly themed restaurant. The chairs had bunny ears!

Singapore itself impressed me a lot. It's a very clean place and everyone seemed really polite (compared to London). It's also really multicultural (you can tell that the people there have been involved in international trade for centuries and centuries). A lot of the buildings are new and very shiny; the sort of stuff you'd find in the financial district of any city. Also, it felt oddly homely because all the plug sockets were the same as in the UK and all the cars drove on the left! Not having to take a travel adaptor with me was a wonderful luxury.

The only difficult part of Singapore was the heat and humidity (and the mosquitoes). I shouldn't be so surprised for somewhere so near the equator, but my God it was hot. In fact, when I went it wasn't actually that hot. It felt like it was around 30C (just the same as the temperature in London when I flew out) but the difference was in the humidity. Singapore is proper tropical. It feels like you are in a steam room, constantly! When you are outside you quickly learn to find the shade to stand in (though even that isn't comfortable). Thank goodness almost everywhere inside has air-conditioning!

But, you know, the weirdest part for me wasn't just that it was hot and humid (or that the sun was so painfully bright that you had to wear sunglasses even on cloudy days; ok, that was weird though). The weirdest part was that the heat didn't go away at night! You'd be standing on the street at 2am and you'd still be just as hot and sweaty as you were at 2pm. My poor head couldn't understand that. (And to think I'd packed a load of cardigans for cool evenings too!)

Anyway. That's enough of my jabbering. Let me jabber while showing you some photos instead.

This is Haji Lane, one of the oldest and imho prettiest streets in the city. It dates back to the early 19th Century and nowadays is full of hipster shops. One of the shops owned a couple of cats, which were happily wandering around the shop and staring out at the passers-by; needless to say, we had to go inside and say hello!

Sultan Mosque. We were taken inside the mosque on a tour. In fact, I went on a number of tours during my stay. They were all really good. I still need to learn more about Singapore history, but I feel like a got a decent grounding. In the mosque tour we later went to a perfume shop nearby and were given little free bottles of perfume!

An old cemetery. I loved the look of it.

Next up was another tour, this time in Fort Canning Park. I took a load of photos of trees. I've never seen trees with dangly bits like this before. (What are they? Vines? There are trees like this all over Singapore.)

We also learnt about the history of the spice trade. I'm used to thinking of spices as dried things, so it's odd to see living spice trees.

Another tree with dingle dangles.

St Andrew's Cathedral. We tried to go inside but I think it was closed. I mean, we did get inside, but all we saw was a little corridor and kitchen and signs to classes being held. (I think we went in the back door by mistake.)

I wish I could remember what this building was called. It was so pretty. I vaguely remember the tour guide saying something about Batman? (Hay, it turns out that you can find the name of the building if you type "Singapore Batman building" into Google. Apparently it's called Parkview Square.)

Next up was a tour of Haw Par Villa. This place is an experience and a half. It was built in the 1930s by (and named after) the two brothers that invented Tiger Balm. Originally it was intended as the home of one of the brothers, but the house was later knocked down. Even while the house was still standing, however, the gardens were intended to be an attraction for the public. Not only were the gardens a pleasant place for people to relax but they were also a way of advertising Tiger Balm at every turn!

The gardens are chock full of statues like this one above. Most of them show scenes from Chinese mythology. I was very grateful to our guide for explaining the stories behind them to us!

An impressive gate at Haw Par Villa.

I completely forget what these shrimp are meant to represent.

Don't forget to buy Tiger Balm! These mascots were meant to entice children. And I'm sure that it worked when the mascots were first built. But now that everything's a little bit worn and jaded... Look, I'm not saying that I felt like I was on the set of a post-apocalyptic film. But if it turned out that this mascot was all that was left of human civilisation after zombies overrun the world, I wouldn't be surprised.

Have you remembered to buy Tiger Balm yet?? They used to drive this car around the streets as a form of advertising. Brilliant!

One of the more famous attractions at Haw Par Villa is the Ten Courts of Hell. This is the entrance. Inside are statues depicting all the torments you will suffer when you end up in hell. And let me tell you, these statues did not leave the horrors up to your imagination! If I'd seen this as a child, I would have been affected for life!

I don't even know any more. After going through the ten courts of hell I was down with anything.

The next day we went for brunch and admired the view from the restaurant.

Here we can see the racing track with Marina Bay Sands in the background. The F1 grand prix was running when I visited and Singapore really gets into the spirit of it. There were chequered flags everywhere!

We had tickets to the grand prix one evening. I'm not a big fan of motor racing but I was impressed by how fast (and how loud!) the cars were. We also got to see the excitement of a crash (thankfully it was the good kind of crash where the car just spun and no-one got hurt).

But the real reason we went to the grand prix was to see Kylie, who was performing. Now, I wouldn't call myself a huge Kylie fan, but maybe I should revise that because I found I knew most of the words to most of her songs! We were very close to the stage so we got a great view. Kylie was very professional, even when she was almost dying from dancing around in the heat. And she went really old-school and sang "I Should Be So Lucky". Man, I was a small child when that came out! (And, nearly 30 years later, Kylie still looks the same!)

Walking along the river at night was great. They had loads of these red-lanterned boats sailing past. It looked lovely.

At night you really get a feel for how bright and shiny Singapore is.

We continued our night tour by going to see the light show at the supertrees.

Here are the supertrees up close. There was also a festival going on (there were a variety of festivals being celebrated throughout the city). I think this particular celebration was for the Mid-Autumn festival? There were stalls, as well as a show with some great dancing.

Next up was Marina Bay Sands. It's pretty impressive up close. So we decided to go up to the top.

Here's the view from the top of Marina Bay Sands. The city and the moon were having a contest as to who could be the shiniest.

We had intended to go to the bar at Marina Bay Sands, but when we found out you had to pay to get in, we decided we were too cheap for that. So we just took photos and went all the way back down again.

The next day (my final day!) we went to the Peranakan Museum, which had a cute little cat statue outside.

We had a really great tour inside the museum. This beadwork was the best thing I saw. Look how detailed and pretty!

More pretty beadwork.

And that was it! Then I had to jump on a flight, spend 13 hours in the air, and go home.

But, thanks to Mariya's generosity, I was able to take some of Singapore home with me! Here we have some birthday presents and some extra presents too!

The pack of tissues were specially for "choping" in Singapore, which is the practice of saving a seat in a cafe or restaurant by putting any small item on the table. In the UK we'd do it with something big like a coat, but if I saw a pack of tissues on the table, I'd just assume that the last person had forgotten them and so I would sit straight down!

The little cat-faced thing is a purse-keyholder thing. And the sheet face mask actually had a panda's face printed on it! In food gifts we have a moon cake, which lasted exactly two days before I scoffed the lot; a pair of "Kiki's Delivery Service"-themed chopsticks, which are not only cute but are also really nice to use; and a Singaporean/Malaysian cookbook devoted to the cooking of chicken legs (I know!) I've started cooking from the chicken leg cookbook already. You'll see the successful (and not so successful) results in the next food post.

Finally we have some presents that I bought for myself while in Singapore. Clothes in Singapore aren't cheap, and I was struggling to find a shop that a) had affordable prices and b) couldn't be found in the UK (I'm sorry TopShop, but I'm not travelling half-way across the world to go to you). But the good thing about shopping in Singapore is that they have more clothes there that fit me! If you've met me in person, you will know that I am both short and tiny. Often in the UK I just have to give up on some items because the smallest size in the shop is still too big for me. Not so in Singapore. There was so much choice in my size! Thank you country of people who are all slightly smaller, on average, than people in the UK. Thank you.

Edinburgh

by Janine  

Hi folks. Don't forget to scroll down and check out the other post I wrote today. (Two posts in one day OMG!)

This summer I went traipsing around on a couple of holidays, and one of those holidays was to Edinburgh in August for the festival. I have never been to the Edinburgh festival before. I've never been to Edinburgh before. I've never even been to Scotland before! Yes I am appropriately ashamed about this.

Well, I went this year because Deborah was acting in a show and Claire and I went to give her some support. Deborah's show was really good. It was one of the better shows I saw.

I had worried that the atmosphere at the festival would be a bit drunk, a bit lary, and too busy, but I was utterly wrong. The atmosphere was completely touristy. There were just loads of people milling around and happily sightseeing or heading off to shows. And because there were so many tourists, there were so many places to eat! And all the restaurants opened late, so you could rock up at 10pm and stay for a long three-course meal. I ate so well.

Out of the shows I saw, highlights included the Cambridge Footlights (they were very professional, unsurprisingly). I also really liked seeing Josie Long. Out of all the stand-ups I saw, she was able to get the best atmosphere going. And I didn't realise that I was so close to her in age! A lot of her stuff was very relatable. Here are a couple of videos of her if you're interested:
https://youtu.be/nzmsCkqcFq8
https://youtu.be/cjQhWs8ODmw

Edinburgh itself is beautiful. Part of it is really Georgian; I felt like I was walking through Bath, only built from slightly darker stone. And then the old town is proper old. I was expecting winding Medieval streets, but it wasn't that at all. The streets were Medieval, certainly, but they were all straight and really really steep, with tall buildings on either side. Here's a picture:

We went to Mary King's Close, which explained the history of these little streets and I loved it! Oh man, I really need to learn more about the history of Edinburgh because it's fascinating.

Here, have some more pictures of the place:

I didn't take many photos (and all the photos I do have were taken at night) because I was too busy the rest of the time a) watching shows, b) eating, and c) having a great time chatting with Deborah and Claire.

We were only there for three nights but I loved it all! If it weren't so expensive, I'd go every year!

Another goodbye

by Janine  

Everything seems to have been non-stop since September. And looking ahead at my diary I can see that the first few months of 2017 will be non-stop too. But now that the Christmas season is here, I have a few moments to sit down and tell you what was going on with my autumn. (I have a few posts to write about the autumn, but whether I get them all done remains to be seen.)

My biggest piece of autumn news is that my Granddad died in October. You may remember me saying that I lost my Nan earlier in the year. Well, my Granddad, her husband, made it exactly six months without her before he went the same way. Her cause of death was pancreatic cancer, his was bowel cancer. And in both cases, the cancer was so severe that they only lasted 2-3 weeks after being diagnosed.

Still, my Granddad was always a lively and healthy person, and he was feeling pretty well in himself right up until the day before he died. If I feel that good on my way out, I'll count myself lucky.

The problem for me, selfishly, is that his illness was so surprisingly quick that I never got to see him between his diagnosis and him passing away. That was hard to take. But also, selfishly, I'm kinda glad that the last time I saw him was on Father's Day when he was feeling perfectly fine. We went on a walk with my parents and he told us about his years as a farmer. We had a very jolly time, and it's a nice final memory to have.

So, understandably, Christmas has been a little difficult this year. (Christmas last year was the last time I saw my Nan and Granddad together. And neither of them knew they had cancer at that point.) I still have one grandparent left (which is lucky, I know, for someone my age) and by God I'm not going to let 2016 take her too. (It was looking hairy at one point when she had a really bad attack from her diabetes in the summer, but she's on new meds and better now. I saw her on Christmas day and, other than her continuing back pain, she looked well.)

But here I am talking about Christmas when I'm meant to be telling you about the autumn. My Granddad's funeral was held in the autumn and it's nice to see how the family has really come together. (One of my aunts was walking around at the wake shouting "Right! Nobody else die! We can't take it any more, thank you!) Next year as a family we have a wedding, a new baby and a 60th birthday party to look forward to. And it's times like this when you really want to focus on the good things coming up.

Speaking of good things, shortly after the funeral, it was my Mum's birthday. She'd just lost both her parents, so it wasn't the happiest of occasions, but we picked ourselves up, dusted ourselves off, and went for a walk.

Often my Mum is lucky to have good weather on her birthday and this year was no exception. It's that time in autumn when it starts getting cold and the nights start drawing in, and the weather is either full of hazy mist or glorious golden sunshine. This year my Mum got both. The scenery on the walk was beautiful, and the sunset was so spectacular that I took a million photos of it (I have been reserved and only put three up here). Take a look below:

Birthday 2016

by Janine  

So, I had a birthday recently, and as tradition dictates I'm going to tell you about it here.

It was a low-key affair (which is just what I like). My parents came down to London and we went to a museum (late, so we only had an hour in there) and then went out for dinner at a local pub. It was good, and the weather co-operated this year so it was lovely and sunny and warm. The next day I went to James and Eppa's house for a barbecue in the garden. I broke Eppa's butter dish and then the visit ended after James and Eppa had a particularly stressful time getting Rene and Jack bathed and then to sleep. Also they had all been as sick as dogs with a stomach bug. But other than these misfortunes it was a pleasant visit and I got to eat some tasty barbecued meat products too. Thanks, guys! I'm so sorry about the butter dish!

Now, let me side-step my guilt to show you some presents:

Cards, cards, cards. And a bouquet of roses from James and Eppa and family. When I arrived, Rene was waiting at the front door to give me the flowers, but she forced Eppa to sing Happy Birthday all by herself (singing on the street is very embarrassing when you're two years old).

Rene made my card though! The stickers were hand-picked and stuck on. I was told that there was meant to be a (lion?) in the middle, but at the last minute it was decided by Rene that the lion was a BAD CHOICE and so she took it off again.

Next up in hand-made cards is this super stylish one from Steve, Heather and William. Not shown: a christmassy picture of kittens stuck on the inside. Also not shown: no writing anywhere on the card telling me who it's from. Thank God I only know one set of people with a laser cutter and a love of old Christmas cards.

The card from Linda, Tom and Alex isn't hand-made, but it is wonderfully tacky. Look at it! It comes with a bracelet! I have never seen a card that comes with a bracelet before! I wish I could find cards this tacky to send in return, but I have had no luck :(

So for presents, the big one was a new TV. It is neither expensive, nor a good model, nor big (I bought it before I knew my parents wanted to pay for it for me, so I was being especially frugal; I mean, I hardly use my TV) but it is NEW. I've only ever owned one TV in my whole life before, which recently gave up the ghost. I'd bought that TV in the 1990s! The first TV show I watched on it was Rugrats! As such, it was huge, despite having a tiny screen. Yay for arriving in the 21st Century!

Kitchen-related gifts, including a tea towel from James and Eppa and family, and the rest from my parents. The percy pigs are clipped up because I started scoffing them as soon as I had them in my possession. The chocolate-covered popcorn, meanwhile, has since been opened and is TO DIE FOR.

Oh, and you see that big plastic thing? I had no idea what that was when I opened it! It turns out it's a cover to put over food in the microwave to stop it from splattering everywhere. Handy. Cleaning a microwave is such a chore.

Non-kitchen presents, including some cute stationery and gifts bought by Nick on his recent trip to Japan. The maid keyring comes from his visit to a maid cafe, which appears to have left him visibly shocked (I forget that many British people haven't heard of these things before!)

Also pictured: pretty hair clips and other things from my parents, including that Bramby Hedge book. Do you guys remember Brambly Hedge from your childhoods? I only ever read "The Secret Staircase" when I was little, but it tapped into my embryonic love of history and affected me so much that I can still remember it to this day! Oh, man, maybe this is why adult me loves old, blocked-up doorways so much? Anyway, I'd rediscovered Brambly Hedge and its charming illustrations over the past couple of years, and I decided I wanted to own it for myself. I am so glad I did! I don't care if this is a children's book. The illustrations are so lovely and so detailed I could cry, and the stories (most of which I hadn't read before) are so calming and peaceful. Augh. It is escapism in its purest form and I love it to pieces.

If you don't know Brambly Hedge, go and Google it right now. RIGHT NOW. Edwardian mice living in little, detailed houses in trees. What's not to love?

And finally, I bought these as a birthday present to myself, but later found that I'd received enough birthday money to cover a good portion of the cost. I have been trying hard recently to find a pair of sandals that doesn't give me multiple blisters. Eppa has a pair of these Salt Water Sandals and swears by them (also, they look nice), so I decided to give them a go! I haven't worn them much since I bought them, because I only wear sandals in really hot weather, but I'm willing to bet we're going to get some more of that before the summer's out.

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