Thursday, August 29, 2013

Keeping Up The Good Work

I was really good yesterday evening, and resisted looking at the 'bargains' in the reduced chiller while I was out at knitting. Consequently, I'm making inroads into the perishables and I'm starting to feel a bit less overwhelmed. The next step has to be making lists and sticking to them, but I'm not sure I'm ready for that yet! It will be good discipline to focus on that when I'm back to work next week as menu planning to maintain my sanity and minimise the number of takeaways was one of the prime objectives of Project Better.

In the meantime, I'm continuing with the declutter of the spare room. Last night I sold an over-locker that I have had since my mum died in 1995. I have never used it, but it has been eating shelf space since then 'just in case'. Just in case what? I have never found the need to over-lock anything in the last 18 years. When is it going to happen? Time to let it go and add the proceeds to the Shed Fund tin. Another tenner and another empty box was contributed by selling a heat reflector from our days of keeping larger lizards. I listed it on a local animal group page on Facebook and could have sold it three times over.

These are resources I had never considered and will remember as I get deeper into the spare room.

I feel better about things not ending up in the NON-REYCLABLE WASTE skips at the recycling centre too. I would never have considered giving things like vivarium paraphernalia to a charity shop, so that's what would have happened to it.

On the Better menu today:


Fridge veggie drawer soup

Carrots, chopped

1/2 a swede, chopped

1 slightly wizened leek, washed and sliced

2 potatoes, chopped

2 vegetable stock cubes

Quite a lot of black pepper


Bring to boil, simmer until all the veggies are cooked and softening. Blitz with stick blender.

Serve with the leftover salad croutons lurking in the cupboard.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Practicing what I preach

My name's Gill and I have fridge issues.
There, it's out now.
My fridge is out of control, I feel powerless over it. It keeps filling itself up with bargains, leftovers and impulse buys. well, I have to accept that it's me. I shop for three hundred, not the three people who actually live and eat here. My fridge is enormous and, this morning, I could not find space in it for a litre of skimmed milk.
I am ashamed.
I have tackled the freezer, so today it was time to accept that I have a problem and face up to the fridge.
Fortunately, nearly everything was still in date. Ok, we have to eat nine yoghurts by the end of the day and one bag of spinach had become one bag of spinach slime, but everything else will be useable or freezable.
So, today I'm starting to practice what I preach instead of just talking about it.
Old Bloke will be surprised by joy when he opens his packed lunch. It's his favourite tinned ham sandwiches. I'm not being ironic. He loves that stuff! It's Princes Premium Cured Ham in a pear shaped tin. £3.89 in Tesco, £1.99 in B&M.  (More about my love affair with bargain stores some other time.)
I rummaged through the chiller drawer and the salad and veg crisper drawers and got to work. Here's actual, visual, photos-or-it-didn't-happen proof of how pro-active I have been:
Sugar-free Banana Bread
I know bananas shouldn't be in the fridge, but we had rather a lot of them. Now there are five fewer. It's sugar-free because that's what I do, but the bananas certainly make it sweet enough.
5 ripe bananas, (4 mashed up and one sliced for the top)
285g (10 oz) plain flour. I used a mix of wholemeal, plain and spelt flour, because it was what I had.
2 eggs
110g (4oz) butter/margerine
Handful of sultanas
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp of cinnamon
100 mls buttermilk (or you can add a tsp of lemon juice to regular milk)
Mix everything up and divide between two loaf tins. I line mine with paper liners as I'm lazy and hate the whole greasing and lining business.
Place the sliced bananas decoratively down the middle of each tin of batter.
Bake for about 45 minutes at 180 degrees C. Test with a skewer and adjust cooking time to cope with your oven and anything else you may have added to the cake.
Leave to cool before cutting.
Corned Beef and Potato Pie
The case was made with supermarket-reduced-chiller ready made shortcrust pastry.
Divide the pastry block into 1/3 and 2/3. Use 2/3 for pie base and 1/3 for top crust. I don't bake the pastry blind for this pie, but do roll it out quite thinly. I use an 8 inch sandwich tin with a removable base to make a deep pie, but any tin/plate will do really.
1 tin corned beef
1/2 a large onion
A squirt of olive oil
1 packet supermarket-reduced-chiller ready mashed potato
I beaten egg
Black pepper
Finely chop the onion and sweat in a squirt of olive oil.
Chop up the corned beef (I had to zap it in the microwave for  30 seconds because it had been in the fridge) and mash up with the potato, a quick grind of black pepper and the onion. Fill pastry case and add lid. Wash with beaten egg. Bake for 40 ish minutes or until golden and crispy.

Serve with BetterLife Salad.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Life in the freezer

When I'm at work, I often get home quite late and am often more tired than I would want to be. There are three of us in this house, but the distribution of talents and labour means that the bulk of the cooking falls to me. I don't really mind that. I enjoy cooking. I'm usually quite good at it. What I hate is having to think up what we are going to eat, realise that the ingredients have expired/have been eaten/are still in the freezer.

Last winter, in an attempt to get round this, we started menu planning. I know this is probably a no-brainer to most people, but the fact that we weren't doing it illustrates how chaotic things had got around here.

Most Sundays I make an actual paper chart and put it on the fridge door. It shows who is where and when and it has a column for suggested meals. We don't always stick to it rigidly, but it does help. Most nights we eat well, without resorting to takeaway and the list helps the person who is home first make a significant contribution to the dinner preparation. I say the person who is home first, but I really mean Young Bloke, as Old Bloke's cooking skills are still restricted to warming up soup in a pan and making his 'speciality', which is cucumber and tomato chopped up and doused with vinegar, served with bread and butter.

Thinking about going back to work after the holidays led me to a full and frank look inside our freezers. We have one and a half. The idea is that they will help me plan ahead and contribute to us throwing less stuff away and eating better. The reality has been variable.

So, today I reorganised the freezers. Now we have one small freezer full of frozen vegetables and potato things and the other is full of all those things I bought and never got round to cooking and tossed into the freezer on the day before their expiry date. I guess it's better than the old system where I bought something, never got round to cooking it and threw it out. However, I know my shopping and cooking habits have to change if we are going to eat better and not spend so much money in the supermarket.


Easy Money

If anyone ever tells you that selling things on eBay is easy money, it's a falsehood.

Young Bloke and I spent two days sorting the items into piles: eBay, Charity Shop, Rag Recycling. I know, I know, some will say that it should all be Charity Shop, but the point of the new approach is to live better, not just have a better conscience.

Anyway, we sorted it into piles, then into different piles, of similar items, to make listing easier. Then we made a photographic backdrop out of a cream curtain and put a bit of effort into arranging things jauntily, held in place with pins, to show them off to their best advantage. I always find, when I'm browsing eBay as a buyer, that shirts look better buttoned up, tops look better with the sleeves pinned out slightly, jackets look best when you can see all the details.

Here's a tip for sellers: NO-ONE wants to buy something you are modelling yourself with grotty underwear, something that doesn't fit or you have your mishapen toes crammed into with chipped blue nail varnish highlighting your fungal nail infection.

We had a lot of items, so we started everything off at a low price, hoping to shift quantity. We scheduled the listings to start in the evening, so they would end in the evening. Silly o'clock in the early morning may be a productive time for me at my laptop, but it isn't the time to attract a lot of casual browsers out to snipe for a bargain.

We tried to be very clear in our listing details about postage and packing, but many bidders don't seem to read any of it and have maintained a steady stream of questions 'Do you combine postage?' Yes, it says so in the listing.  'Is it from a smoke-free home?' Yes, it says so in the listing and my personal favourite, 'Best price P&P to Russia, ONLY IF DOES NOT SMELL' Didn't bother answering that one as the listing says we no longer post abroad after the last, Lithuanian, experience.

Eventually, it all worked out well. Two localish people are coming to collect things this evening, Most of the parcels have gone off in the post and only a few items are unsold and will be relisted once more before they join the Charity Shop pile. Young Bloke has a couple of hundred pounds book/wine/wig (or whatever they need to buy for law school) money and I have a bit less to put in the shed fund tin. Don't know how that division of spoils happened, as I was the one up late sellotaping labels on bags and then repelling the waves of hatred emanating towards me at the post office. I wanted to turn around and shout at the mutterers, "Hey, it's my business that's keeping this place open so you can come down and take out your dole!" but I didn't.

Easy money?

[caption id="attachment_60" align="alignnone" width="300"]parcels for eBay parcels for eBay[/caption]


Friday, August 23, 2013

The box is only really useful if you use it.

This morning, I faced the piles of documents and paperwork that had been shoved on top of the filing box. There was a large pile of passports, envelopes, payslips, tax documents, MOT certificates, insurance documents, prescription copies and, for some reason, an elderly slipper.

I was going to write that I can't quite figure out how we can get it to the filing box, but not actually get it into the filing box, but actually, I can. The filing box, which is a Really Useful Box with suspension files, is on a shelf, behind a curtain, behind a bedside table. It's not conducive to prompt filing of paperwork as it arrives. Instead, I reach through the curtain and toss the latest thing to arrive onto the pile. I have good intentions of coming back soon to put it in the proper filing wallet, but the curtain hides a multitude of sins and the pile keeps on growing until someone needs a copy of a P60 or proof of address or an A level certificate and has to wade through, not only the filing system, but its decorative mound of unfiled paper.


A better system would support better habits, here. Unfortunately, until I deal with the whole 'spare room' issue, the box has nowhere else to go. I've added this to the 'to do' book: Find accessible home for filing box.

After scraping my knuckles on the self above and giving myself another back injury dragging the box over the top of the bedside table, I sorted all the paperwork into piles, filed the things that need to be kept and put everything else into the bag for shredding or burning in the chiminea.

For a little while, at least, even if I can't sleep easy, knowing that I am not going to be engulfed by a tidal wave of Red Alert letters about our endowment policy, it's one less thing to worry about.

Monday, August 19, 2013

The better life

I came over all Tom and Barbara this afternoon.

Old Bloke planted up a small salad bed this year. He planted scallions, lettuce, radishes and herbs. I got enthusiastic about the idea and persuaded him to add beetroot to the mix.

The problem is, I like, no I love the idea of home-grown, organic things. I love the idea of self-sufficiency. I like the idea of keeping chickens. I love the look of scrubbed pine tables heaped with earthenware bowls of sprouted salads and really enjoy passing a few hours with a Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall cookbook.

It's the reality I struggle with. We've been eating his radishes (which are tasty, but sometimes a bit holey where the slugs, that the frogs have missed, have had the odd nibble), lettuce (which is tasty, but needs to be very well washed to get the sandy soil off and then you need to pick out the bits the bird population have been snacking on) and scallions (very tasty, but lots of layers to peel off when you have finally untangled all the roots and washed off the sand and gravel) for a while now, but the beetroot is only just coming into its own.


"Your beetroot is ready," he informed me, when we got back from our holidays. I put off dealing with it in favour of the mounds of laundry we had dragged back from the New World.

"You don't want your beetroot to start to get all woody," he reminded me last week. It drizzled a bit, so I put it off in favour of clearing a shelf in the spare room and listing some stuff on eBay as part of the big declutter.

"Did you get your beetroot done?" he asked me yesterday, pointedly surveying a purple stain-free kitchen and noting the absence of lashings of juicy red beetroot. I distracted him by talking about his current job, showing him how many leaves I had managed to sweep up from the drive and impressing him by telling him how much our unwanted stuff was up to on eBay.

Yet, the guilt was starting to grow.

This morning, I braved the drizzle and picked the largest of the beetroot. The intention was never to create shelves and shelves of pickles in a prepping-for-Armageddon way, but simply, to have something nice to add to a salad, so I only picked half a dozen.

Immediately, the "Urggg" factor kicked in: wet, soily hands, wet, soily beetroot, mini-slugs lurking in the leaves, grit and soil all over the sink. This is the reality. It feels a long way from garden to earthenware bowl of nutritious salad. It was my idea and I the end result will be worth the hassle. I do have to acknowledge that I understand why I fall back on supermarket-prepared veg so often, especially when I'm at work and exhausted at the end of the day.


Boiled beetroot:

- Break the leaves off the beetroot without cutting the actual beet. I always leave a couple of inches of stem. If you cut the beet, the colour will bleed out during cooking.

- Wash the beetroot as best you can. Leave the skin intact.

- Place in a large pan.

- Cover with water, bring to the boil. Turn the heat down and simmer for around 45 minutes.


- You don't need to add any salt as beetroot are naturally quite salty anyway.

- At this point, test to see if they are ready by skewering the largest beet. If the skewer pushes in easily, it's done.

- Pour off hot water and run in some cold

- When they are cold, rub off the skin. (I do this with rubber gloves on)

- Serve in earthenware bowls on a scrubbed pine table.

- eat and enjoy with a glow of self-satisfaction.

I like to slice some and cover with vinegar for a couple of hours. It isn't pickled, but picklish and good on a salad.


Friday, August 16, 2013

Better begins

We just got back from a holiday and the house is more chaotic than usual. I can't seem to shake the jet lag. I feel unfit, unrested and unsettled.

I know that the piles of laundry will recede eventually, but I'm haunted by the fact that, although more than two weeks' worth of our clothes are on the kitchen floor, our wardrobes are still overflowing and that doesn't even take into account my winter clothing which is boxed up and in the room.

I feel overwhelmed. Actually ashamed and a bit sick.

I have enjoyed wearing outfits made up from the contents of my suitcase. It was simpler to put things together as I had packed things that would all work with each other in different combinations. The items that came with me were my favourites. Admittedly, I didn't need any businesswear with me, but we travelled from cool to scorching climes and went from burger bars to swanky casinos with everything in between. I coped, I was comfortable, I looked good.

There's a lesson here. I decided to simplify my wardrobe.

I have been quite ruthless. Things that only got worn occasionally, things that don't flatter, things that don't work with other things, things that I put on and then take off again have all been removed. The others joined me too. They had lots of things that no longer fit or fit into their lives.

2013-08-23 17.23.00

We listed some things on eBay, we bagged up other things and took them to our local charity shop and we put the unsalvageable things in the rag recycling bin at the recycling centre.


I have room in my wardrobe and it feels like I have a little more room in my head. The trick is going to be keeping it like that.

Useful tip for overcrowded wardrobes:

Make a loop of string, strong wool or ribbon, slip over one hanger and hang another from it. Varying the height of items in your wardrobe makes things much less crowded.


Thursday, August 08, 2013

Eating Better

I'm continuing to wage war on the contents of the fridge.

I should probably have a more rigid set of rules about putting more things in before having eaten or cooked some of the stuff that was already there, but I don't. I just need to be aware that there is not much space in there already and this evening I go to my knitting group, which meets in the coffee shop attached to our nearest supermarket. When the group winds down, most of us go for a quick wander around the aisles and I need to be strict with myself when I come to the reduced produce chiller.

Late evening is a really good time to pick up bargains in chilled food, fruit and vegetables and bread in most supermarkets. If you have the freezer space, (and we patently don't!) bread can be picked up for 30p a loaf instead of the obscene £1.45 we usually pay. Incidentally, Morrisons are currently advertising the bread we usually buy at ONLY £1.45. How can £1.45 a loaf be ONLY anything?

So, today, I give you:

Supermarket-reduced-chiller steak in leftover Merlot gravy with supermarket-reduced-chiller Chantenay carrots, which doesn't sound that great so let's call it Bouef Bourguignon. It's  a bit unseasonably warm, given the temperature today, but very tasty.


Sweat an onion in a little olive oil until soft.

Toss some cubed steak in seasoned flour and add to pan.

Pour in leftover red wine and stir to deglaze the pan.

Pour into slow cooker.

Add rest of red wine, some beef stock and trimmed whole chantenay carrots.

Cook for whole day on low.

Thicken before serving if necessary.

Follow up with:

It's-so-cheap-I-couldn't-leave-it-behind! fruit salad


Now with added mango that I could actually be bothered to prepare instead of putting off and putting off and finally sliding surreptitiously into the compost bin.

For snacking later, since Young Bloke has developed a penchant (and I have to say, a talent) for Margaritas, I have made Unholy Guacamole.


It's a bit hot, but goes well with multiseed corn chips and is very easy.

Mash two ripe-ish avocados. I don't like them so ripe they are brown. I like a bit of lumpiness to my guacamole.

Finely chop one or two chili peppers (whatever variety are lurking in the salad crisper drawer. These were a pack of mixed chilies labelled 'Mixed Chilies'. Very helpful.

Finely chop a de-seeded tomato or leave the seeds in if life is too short for that kind of thing.

Finely chop half a small onion. I used a finely chopped fiery hot red scallion, because that was what I had.

Stir into the mashed avocado. Add a little salt to season and a squeeze of fresh lime if they haven't all withered up in the fruit bowl or been used to garnish Margaritas.

Serve with chips, crisps, or vegetable crudites (a term that always makes me snigger, despite being supposed to be a grown up.)