Sunday, April 28, 2013

Grandpa Ken

Today my grandpa died. He was ninety one. Here he is, holding my dad, in about 1947. Home from the war, a family man, looking natty in a vest knitted by my Grandma Hazel. He was clever, painstaking, witty. He always did what he felt was right, was courteous, well mannered, a good friend. He was also impatient, exacting, and had high expectations his children and grandchildren. His great grandchildren he just enjoyed.

He was the last of my grandparents, almost the last of his generation. He ended his days in the nicest nursing home I have ever been in, like a kind of hotel, but full of old people. He sat in his chair with his plaid rug over his knees doing sudokus and crosswords, bossing the nurses, and doing the rounds, visiting his friends who weren't mobile, holding the hands of 'his' old ladies. On Saturday afternoons he held soirees in the lounge room. Being the only person in the home who could work a set top box, he would tape old movies and episodes of Downton Abbey for everybody to watch. A very long time ago he and Grandma Hazel held 'at homes' on a Sunday afternoon for all their friends to come and visit for afternoon tea, and sing around the piano.

There is a gap now, in the family fabric. An entire generation has passed on, and are now stories and history, or a nose or character trait cropping up in younger generations. It is hard to see the legacy of an ordinary person. No statues or artworks or political reforms for most of us. So what is left? A man who worked hard for his family, brought up his children as well as he could, drove his children a bit crazy at times, but stayed close to them, stayed married to his wife for sixty years even when they drove each other a bit crazy, and looked after her to the end.

That tradition of working hard, laughing with your family, staying together, looking after them, and driving your kids crazy? Still with us three generations later. That's why, when the news came this afternoon, The Girl gave me a big hug, then set about baking, because nothing says 'I love you' like choc orange muffins. That's why The Man rang me from the departure lounge at Shanghai Airport, even though he knew he'd have to listen to me cry, and why The Boy popped home from his busy social engagements for an hour, to hug his mum, and make sure I was OK.

And me? I hugged the children, because that is my default reaction to any news, ever, and took a moment to watch the glorious, ragged, golden autumn sunset, with the sun going down on a world that, for the first time in ninety one years, doesn't hold the man who was my Grandpa Ken.

Friday, April 26, 2013

The World is so Full of a Number of Things...

...I'm sure we should all be as happy as kings.  
Robert Louis Stevenson

Last night I went to our local Living Better Group. We learnt how to make Rosehip Syrup, (so wonderfully delicious) Hawberry Sauce (the advice is to halve the sugar in Hugh's recipe) and Sloe Wine, which was AMAZING. I am going to be a winemaker. First, to find the sloes. There was much discussion of which hidden country lanes to wander down to find all of this free autumn bounty. I can't believe I have discovered this treasure trove of Tassie locals who seem to spend all their spare hours picking sloe berries and making wine in their garages, in between spinning yarn from their Angora rabbits, whipping up jams and jellies and growing all their vegies.

And water divining. After the meeting a couple of us walked the couple of blocks back to where we were parked, and Martin whipped his water divining rods out of his car boot and gave us a demonstration. His grandfather was a water diviner, and apparently his grandson can do it as well. Martin divines water for property owners who want to know where to dig a well or bore. Sure enough, as he walked slowly across the road, the rods crossed, indicating the underground stormwater system. But he could have been crossing them himself, surely?

I had a go. Nothing. Martin says about one in ten people can divine water. I'm not really convinced about water divining, but I'm disappointed anyway. Tanya who runs the Living Better Group, had a go next. The rods crossed at the same spot. But she could have been doing that, right? Subconsciously, after watching Martin? Then another couple from the group, who had been finishing off their drinks, came wandering along. Martin thrust the rods in their hands, one after another, and instructed them to walk across the road, without explanation. Both of them had the rods cross in exactly the same place. They said it felt a little like having strong magnets in their hands, pulling together.

Well, I am amazed, and a little put out. Of the five people standing on that street corner in the dark, I was the only one unable to sense the presence of underground water. I have two things to say.

One: There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy..
Two: I am not the person to take with you on a desert expedition.

Monday, April 22, 2013

A Housework Routine That Keeps Me Sane

I am a very messy person. I can effortlessly make enormous messes by never putting anything away, leaving things out 'for later', and putting things in piles... because, well, why not? I also have a gene which allows me to sit in the middle of this giant mess, reading a book and oblivious to the world. It's a wonder I have never lost a child in amongst it all, really. For very many years of my housekeeping life, I lived in a rather tumultuous mess that I alternately ignored, or which worried me terribly, because I wasn't quite sure what to do about it. Then a few years ago, fairly simultaneously with starting this blog, we started a huge renovation, which required that we pare down our possessions to the bone and live in about three rooms for several months. It nearly killed me.

But I realised something important. I need far less 'things' than I had imagined possible, the house looked very beautiful with hardly any possessions in it when it was finished, and I didn't ever want to go back to living in a big mess.

Over the last two years I have slowly developed a set of routines that I mindlessly follow everyday. I know if I do it all, all the time, the house will be spotless. I rarely do it all, but I do enough, enough of the time, that it looks fairly OK all the time. I have since realised that the reason I was so overwhelmed by housework, was that I saw it as an enormous amorphous blob, without form or structure, beginning or end. Having a routine means that when I have finished the day's work, it is done. No more until tomorrow's jobs. Sufficient unto the day.. then I can read my book in a lovely tidy space instead.

Here are my routines. There is one for the beginning of the day, one for the evening, one for the days of the week. This means the weekends are gloriously free, except for the morning and evening ritual..


The last child, and The Man leave for school and work at 8.30 every morning. Before then, I aim to have the beds aired and made (I make mine, nag at the others), dishwasher emptied and repacked, first load of washing on. After the morning rush, I sometimes need another cup of tea. Then, cleaning up the kitchen, which generally looks like a bomb has gone off in it by half eight. Putting everything away, wiping down the counters, washing the dishes. Then I start at the front door and work my way round the whole living area (hall table, kitchen, dining, living room, hallway) putting away anything that doesn't belong, pushing in the dining chairs plumping up cushions. Feels very 1950s, but sadly I am rarely wearing heels and pearls at this point. Living area now clean and tidy, and will likely stay that way for SIX WHOLE HOURS! Do the same for bathroom, and change hand towel.


5ish I start nagging the children to clear the dining table and put away their stuff from the living areas. I continue to do this and cook dinner, and drive children to and from various extra curricular activities, all at the same time. After dinner, we try to parcel out the clearing and dinner dishes jobs more or less fairly. From 7 until 9 during the week during term time it is homework time, no TV or screens. The Man and I take turns (not in any kind of organised way) putting Posy to bed and cleaning up the kitchen. Wipe down the stove, sweep the floor. Again, a quick sweep around, putting away things that don't belong in the living area. This time we can make the children put them away. Then, peace again in a lovely tidy space. And maybe a drink..

Weekly Routine

Monday: Laundry. Wash everything in the washing basket until it is empty.
Dusting every room (except for the three older children's rooms, who theoretically do this themselves. Ditto vacuuming). Vacuuming all the rooms, including couches, laundry and bathrooms. Don't forget to vacuum the bathtub with the upholstery attachment. It looks almost as if you have cleaned it...
Grocery shopping. Menu planning.
Tuesday: Laundry. Master bed sheets and all the towels.
Cleaning the bathrooms and the laundry. Alternate weeks, scrubbing the grout, or mopping all the floors.
Wednesday: Laundry. Wash everything in the washing basket until it is empty.
Vacuuming living areas. Half and hour to an hour on The House Project*.
Thursday: Laundry. Children's sheets.
Friday: Laundry. Wash everything in the washing basket until it is empty.
Vacuuming living areas and bathrooms, including that tub. Cleaning toilets, basins.
Cleaning kitchen. This was once too big a project, so I broke it down. Each week I clean one of the four walls of the kitchen, vacuuming out drawers, cleaning down cupboard fronts, cleaning out fridge, cleaning oven, range hood, dishwasher, bin cupboard etc. It all gets done over the course of a month.

The Boy does his own laundry, and takes turns cleaning the downstairs bathroom with me. The Boy and The Girl wash their sheets on the weekend, the three oldest vacuum and dust their rooms (ha). They all give me a hand with everything else if they are feeling helpful at the time..

*The House Project. Starting at the front door and working all the way around the house doing everything that isn't covered in the weekly cleaning. Washing windows, light fittings, cleaning out cupboards etc. This takes several months because it is the job that most often gets dropped... still, at least it happens more often than never..

I would love to know how other people arrange their housework. It is not such a popular subject at dinner parties, but for goodness sake, everyone has to do it, and I am an incurable nosey parker. How do you get yours done?

Edited to add: I have since posted some very detailed (OK, obsessively exhaustive) daily routines to walk you through a week of household routines. You can find them starting here.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Some Thoughts on Protecting Our Children From Fanaticism

In view of world events in the last few days I have been thinking about how we, as parents, can protect our children from fanaticism, and from the dark and harmful voices. Unconditional love of course, and support, and kindness and the respect we show to them, the tenor of our whole lives. But also, I am thinking, reading aloud to them. This may seem a little trite and slightly mad, but here is my reasoning..

The Man and I try our very best to be good parents, and I think we are doing a good job on the whole, but we are also often harried and hurried and not paying close attention, and sometimes we just don't have the right words.  And there are so many other voices out there, competing with ours, saying things that aren't healthy or good. And that is where the reading comes in. I have always read aloud to the children, ever since they were babies. The oldest got age-appropriate books, the others just hung on while a wave of words washed over them, and picked up what they could. It might seem as though they are just listening to stories and being entertained, but so much more is happening. They are listening to the lovely words of Little House on the Prairie, Secret Garden, Wind in the Willows, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Narnia, Charlotte's Web. But they are absorbing the values that make all those books classics - resilience, kindness, bravery, wonder, forgiveness. They are discovering that the small, the weak, the poor, the disregarded - all of these are important, and have worth. And they are hearing them, not from a soundtrack, or from the TV screen, but in the voice of a beloved, trusted parent. I am sometimes in awe when I am reading aloud - all of these amazing words, in my voice, makes me sound so much wiser than I am! What our children are hearing is us transmitting our deepest values, in words so much better than we can say them.

When the oldest two children were eleven and nine, I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings aloud to them (and the five year old... and the one year old..). It took over a year, and involved epic read-aloud sessions, tucked up in our bed, under the trees in the backyard, lying draped over the living room couches eating cake... and all that time we were in the grip of an epic saga by a master storyteller, but we were also hearing about the value of friendship and compassion, discovering the Plato-esque philosophy about the corrupting nature of power, realising that even such a creature as Gollum does not spring up ready-made, but is shaped by all the forces and circumstances of a cold, friendless world. And discovering that doing the right thing might, in the end, leave you a shattered shell of your former carefree self, but that that may well be the price we have to pay for the freedom and safety of all we love.

I like to think that in dark moments in life, when things may not be going so well for the children (horrible thought. Surely the gods will strew rose petals in the path of my children, of all the children in the world. How could they not?), that they will maybe remember some of my words, and feel that love that will always be there for them. But I know, that added to everything I can say and do, there will be a shining company in their heads, Rat and Mole and Badger, and Toad, of course, Laura, and Charlie, Frodo and Sam and Gandalf, Charlotte and Wilbur the pig, and all the hundreds of others that they have heard at bedtime for years and years of their childhoods, all whispering the good, and kind, and brave words that make them so memorable.

I hope that maybe this will help them steer a course through the bad times, but I know this. Any child whose childhood has been full of good books, will also 'know' hundreds of different characters. Children's books take their readers to every country and embrace every class and colour and creed of character. They are populated by the rich and poor, the deformed, the orphan, the unloved, the happy families, the brave, the noble and the very ordinary kid next door. I think there is very little chance that such a child could grow up and be seduced by a voice telling them that this or that group of people are unrelentingly evil and deserve to be wiped from the earth. The very strength of literature is that it shows us ourselves and our neighbours as unique and wonderfully different, yet really all the same in our hopes and dreams.

So tonight and every night I'll be hugging the children tight, and reading them another story..

Friday, April 19, 2013

Making Ordinary Dinners So Much Better

This week, by happy coincidence, I have stumbled upon ways to make three of our everyday dinners so much better. 

First, roast chicken dinner. I usually make traditional bread stuffing, but only one member of the family really likes it. This week - stuffing the chicken with lemon wedges. So easy. The revelation? It flavours the whole chicken with essence of lemon. The lemon oils release into the flesh, the juice makes a reservoir of delicious flavoured pan drippings, which then make a wonderful, lemon flavoured gravy. What's not to love?

Second, Tuna Mornay. Old comfort-food standby with lots of stodgy white sauce. Yummy, but gloppy. Well, this week The Girl whipped up e's version, the tuna pasta bake. The Girl used a little less cream, and broccoli and peas for the veg. Everybody loved it. It was so much lighter, the tuna and lemon starred together, and it featured more vegetables than we usually see in a mornay. A winner.

Third, Pasta with vegetables. Generally, about once a week I whip a dish that is based on pasta with the addition of various vegetables, with a little stock, a little pasta water, and some finely grated cheese for the sauce. It is quite a dry pasta dish (in a good way, as opposed to a lot of liquid sauce). Sometimes I add a cube or two of the frozen pesto I make and keep in the freezer. This week I took it to the next level with the addition of a kind of fresh pesto. A handful each of wild rocket, parsley and basil from the garden, tossed in the blender with a little olive oil, nuts, salt, garlic, then toasted a little in the pan before adding the pasta and stock.

So far we have had this with roasted pumpkin cubes, broccoli and beans, and broccoli and bacon. As you may have guessed, local broccoli is really cheap right now, and has been a theme at dinner this week.

It is so exciting to find ways to make dinner better without having to get my head around whole new recipes.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Clever Planting Guide

You may have already met Nathalie via the comments. I was poking around on her blog yesterday, and discovered her fantastic planting guide. It is such a useful resource, because Nathalie does succession planting, something I am very bad at remembering to do, so that she doesn't have a glut of one vegie at once, or worse, a hungry gap where you kick yourself for not planting those lettuces. She even shows the number of seeds she plants, sufficient for a family of four. Brilliant!

Nathalie plants for a cold zone, which here in Oz means cold winters, frosts but no snow. Even in Tasmania we can grow lettuce throughout the winter. Well, we can if we plant it early enough. There is no point planting anything after the end of April here, it just sulks all winter, then bolts to seed in spring.

I am hoping that using Nathalie's planting chart I may remember to plant all the veg in good time for the cold weather next year. Meantime, I will be spending this afternoon ripping out the tomato and bean bushes to make way for garlic and broad beans. It is so sad. My pampered potted tomatoes have put on new growth, and are even flowering. There are baby beans. Little do they know that the frost is coming, and they are doomed. I picked all of the green tomatoes yesterday, and put them on newspaper on the laundry bench. My mother-in-law used to do this, and they mostly ripened, so we will see what happens.

This morning I will be buying new secateurs. I have looked everywhere for my old ones. I think that I may have laid them down on top of a tub of noxious weeds, then tipped them into the bin. It has happened before. Sigh.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Autumn Gardening Chores

Autumn is my very favourite season. Golden leaves against a blue sky, crisp evenings and mornings. Red apples and rosehips. And an irresistible urge to be out in the garden, weeding and planting and raking and feeding before the winter rains.

As you can see, I have cleared out much of the summer jungle from underneath the apple tree.

Here is the 'before' photo. Now I can see the windfalls, and use them before they spoil, and I'm hoping that the evil codling moth will not be finding as many hidey holes to over-winter, and that I will be able to defeat them at last..

I have done a little autumn planting - spinach, Tuscan kale, broccoli, lettuce. I am starting to be confident planting seeds, and have stopped feeling like I need to run out to the garden centre constantly to buy seedlings. One less plastic throw away in our lives. But the down side is having to be three or so weeks more organised in planting. I have improved in that this year, but 'could do better' (that was written on most of my report cards). I also hate planting seeds in punnets, much preferring to direct sow into the garden or in pots. So much less faffing about. Here's how I go about it.

First I feed the whole bed. My theory for feeding the garden is: organic matter (sheep manure - not very nutritious, but marvellous soil conditioner, making it friable and crumbly. Always put sheep manure under a mulch, or it will turn into little hard, impermeable bullets on top of the soil), a couple of nutritious, delicious soil foods (I go with blood and bone, and pelletised chicken poo. I think that covers most nutritional needs), and dolomite lime for 'sweetness' (alkalinises the soil) and calcium. Then top with mulch (I use pea straw because it is cheap and abundant here).

Once the bed is fed, I make little pockets of extra goodness with a mixture of organic potting mix, compost, and extra plant food (same as above). Then I plant a few seeds per pocket, because a little insurance is always a good thing.

Here are some seed pockets in my newly cleared and fed garden bed. I am trialling some more edibles in the front garden. This will be a graceful grove of Tuscan kale (I hope). The classic planting pattern for ornamentals is groups of three, five or seven, to give a natural, but full look. I will try this with veg instead of perennials this year. I am thinking classic English-type border, with vegetables. It may work. Or not. That is the excitement of gardening!

Here are the baby kales.

I ring them around with the pet-safe snail pellets, which I renew every couple of days, then collect the empty snail shells with glee. I wonder what happens to them? Do they dissolve, or spontaneously combust? After their first true leaves appear (the crinkly ones above), I water the seedlings with a mixture of seaweed concentrate and fish emulsion. The seaweed strengthens the roots and cell walls, the fish provides nitrogen for growth. Repeat on all seedlings every two weeks. After a couple of weeks I thin the seedlings to two, then one strong seedling.

These are baby Chinese cabbages. How adorable are baby plants? You miss so much when you only buy seedlings. There is one clear winner here for surviving seedling candidate. Sometimes you just have to shut your eyes and point. But be strong. You have to thin to one seedling, or none of them will grow to a decent size. Plants need space. These are growing in the half wine barrel at the top of the page. I put the pot under the tree so I could have food plants that weren't competing for space with the tree roots, as here. This is such a brilliant way to grow little delicate plants. They are a little protected from the weather, under dappled shade in the summer, safe from snails, who haven't discovered there is food up there yet. The only drawback is gravity. This cabbage's brother was completely flattened by a ripe, red apple yesterday.

Here is the broccoli I planted a few weeks ago, now thinned to one plant per pocket. When I planted these, there was a Tommy Toe tomato plant still bearing prolifically, growing up the trellis. When I finally cleared it, maybe two weeks ago, I carefully covered the little broccoli seedlings with jars to keep them safe, cut down the tomato plant piece by piece, and cut off the plant at groundlevel with secateurs, so that the baby broccoli wouldn't be disturbed. This also has the advantage that the tomato roots will rot in the soil, and feed the broccoli. Tiny gardens have their own challenges and advantages. I have now planted three lettuce plants behind, and will be planting snowpeas up the trellis.

More jobs. Most vegetables and fruits like lime, as it allows them to access other nutrients in the soil. At this time of year it is time to be feeding pome fruits (apples and pears) and stone fruit with a good few handfuls of lime. Also essential for happy garlic, brassicas, broad beans, spinach, indeed, most winter veg. I feed with dolomite lime, which looks like fine, grey gravel, because it is a very mild, stable lime which releases slowly over time.

Natives, citrus, blueberries, don't want lime, because they prefer an acid soil. The blueberries and citrus will appreciate a handful of iron chelates per plant, which allows them to take up the nutrients they need from the soil. If any of the leaves start turning yellow with green veins, that is a definite sign that they need more iron. Feed acid lovers with pine needle mulch and coffee grounds to keep their soil acid without chemicals.

Citrus will be putting on lots of new growth now, which is lovely. Because of course, at the beginning of autumn you fed the trees with lots of lovely plant food (sans lime), and weeded them and mulched them well, all ready for them to grow lots of delicious lemons..

Except that in a few weeks there will be frosts, which may kill off that delicate new growth. Now is the time to act, watering them with seaweed extract every fortnight to strengthen the new little leaves, and give them some protection against frost. If you live somewhere warm and frost free you can feed them now, but don't feed if you are expecting frost in the next month, because the new growth may not survive. I have some frost damage every year, but only tips of outside branches. I leave the sad, blackened growth until spring - it also protects the rest of the plant, as those tips just keep on re-freezing.

Well, that should keep us all off the streets this week. I will be ripping out the last tomato and bean plants, and putting in garlic, broad beans, snow peas and spinach. Hoping the weather will hold for just two more weeks until they get a bit established. And next year, maybe, I will get to the planting earlier..

What is going on in your garden? Are you somewhere warmer this autumn, or just coming into spring? Are there any autumn jobs I have forgotten?

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Spotty Hair Band, or I Surprise Myself With a Craft Project

I don't usually do craft, but Posy was invited to a Spots and Stripes birthday party. She had the stripey dress, but no spots.

Yesterday we saw hair bands on this theme at a craft market, but not in the colours we needed.

Today I raided the felt drawer, and Posy chose a button. I sewed it all together and attached it to a hairband with a band of felt. Ten minutes. Done.

Such a sense of achievement! Maybe this is the drug that frequent crafters get high on.

Maybe there is something to this craft thing. Especially as it involves Using Up What I Have, No Waste, Not Shopping, and a Happy Eight Year Old. So many good things coming together...

Friday, April 12, 2013

A Time to Save... and Sometimes Not

It's that time again. The electricity bill is here. Last year, almost to the day, I began our electricity saving project. I was aiming to save the 20% that our electricity prices were increasing, and so far, haven't managed it. This time, we have saved 11% on our consumption from last year. It doesn't sound amazing, but it's better than last quarter, when we used more electricity than the year before!

The most exciting thing is that we are using less than the average 6 person family in Tasmania. And the most, most exciting thing is that, on perusing the website, those averages don't include households with a pool, so that, apart from the pool use, we are using significantly less electricity.

So compared to last year, what are we doing differently? The Man decreased the hours the pool filter runs by two hours over the twenty four. I have stopped using my hair dryer. As I mentioned previously, when I stopped using it, I realised that my hair doesn't look any different. Not better, so much as not different. I have also decided that I'm not that dirty, so I am skipping one or two showers per week. This has been such a good thing for my skin. Once one reaches, well, a certain age, hot water tends to turn one's rose petal skin into something more resembling dragon's hide. So this is probably a good thing for everyone. So much better not to live with a reptile. However, I am still not taking shorter showers, and neither is anyone else that I have noticed. So there is still room for improvement. Should we ever want to improve that much...

I am relentlessly turning off lights and annoying everyone. And we are trying very hard to cook lots at once in the oven. Which sometimes makes our evenings interesting. I wish you could see us. Last night we started at five o'clock, with Posy cooking two cakes and a dozen cupcakes for the school fair, with hardly any help. I cooked dinner, which we finally ate at seven. The Girl made a cake, because apparently she needed one for her English class (???!?), then decided that she didn't like that cake (new recipe), so whipped up a batch of our old standby choc chip cookies.. The oven finally got turned off at seven thirty, the dishes were mostly done by nine. Posy was making a terrific mess, icing all the cakes, which looked amazing, chocolate with aqua icing, sprinkles and choc chips. The kitchen was an explosion. It was rather late by the time it was all cleaned up, or lets be honest, mostly cleaned up, with the cakes wrapped and beribboned.

The next thing I knew, it was dawn, and I was awoken by the sound of wailing... my dears, I can hardly bear to write this... it was Posy, who had discovered that the cakes had been invaded by hundreds upon hundreds of ...ants. It was a massacre. It was a tragedy of epic proportions. Poor Posy was heartbroken. How is it that an army of ants can spend all that energy working out how to get into a tightly glad-wrapped cake, when right next to them is an unwashed bowl of aqua icing? Mystery of life. Stupid ants.

So today, I used a whole lot more electricity making more cakes for the fair, and you know, at the end of school, when Posy got to place her cakes next to everyone else's, with a big smile on her face, well, sometimes, saving electricity is not the be all and end all of the day.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013


One of my ambitions this year is to replace some of the food I buy, with food that I make, and one of the products I was hoping to successfully replace, was salsa. Our very boring, daily menu includes lots of servings of Mexican-ish dishes, like tacos, nachos, burritos and chili con carne. Most of those require jars and boxes of expensive processed products, but they also involve lots of healthy salad, and all the children like them, so what can you do? Learn how to make them yourself, of course. I am starting with salsa, because it is tomato and capsicum season, but I would like to continue with the spice mix, and home made tortillas. Stay tuned!

First, a trip to the vegie shed for tomato and capsicum seconds. Tasmania is the only state I have lived in where you can buy boxes labelled 'sauce tomatoes' every March and April, in all the green grocers and small supermarkets. We do a lot of sauce-making here in Tasmania.

I wanted a roasted capsicum salsa, because that is my favourite, so a little oil, and into the oven they went.

When they are roasted they look revolting, and peeling the skin off them when they have cooled, is a nasty, nasty job, only because they look and feel like small, dead animals at this point.

It is also very messy. However, when you are done, you have a HUGE amount of roast capsicum strips, way more than you will need for salsa.

Here we are, a year's supply of capsicum strips. So I froze most of them in ziploc bags for pizza toppings throughout the year (I actually wasn't sure that they would be nice when defrosted, so I did a test batch over night - but all is well, roast capsicum defrosts to exactly the taste and texture of.... roast capsicum).

At this point I got really bored taking photos, so we will all be using our imaginations from here on in, OK?
I have combined several salsa recipes to get one I liked. One important note - if you are changing a preserves recipe, only ever substitute equal or more acidic ingredients. Any ingredient that might make the recipe more alkaline might also kill you. Just saying.

4 cups of peeled, chopped tomatoes. I like to peel tomatoes for any recipes that require nice big chunks of tomato. To do this, I rinse out the kitchen sink, line it with one layer of tomatoes, pour boiling water over them, wait for a couple of minutes, then poke the skin with a sharp knife, and peel with my fingers. A strangely soothing process.
2 cups chopped capsicum strips
3/4 cups chopped onion
1/2 cup jalapeno peppers (I used a jar that a friend left me when she went overseas) plus one dried chilli, chopped finely with seeds
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 cup vinegar
1 cup fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons cumin
1 tablespoon dried oregano leaves
1 1/2 teapsoons salt

Combine all ingredients in large saucepan, bring to boil, stirring frequently, reduce heat, stir occasionally. It should smell like salsa now. I kept it on the heat, simmering, for about 45 mins, until it had reduced somewhat. Then I attacked it with the stick blender, just a couple of stabs, to thicken the sauce, brought it to the boil again, then ladelled it into hot jars.

And, oh, yes, it is quite hot. But that means you can dollop more sour cream on with a clear conscience...

Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Great Pantry Makeover

Cooking, cooking cooking, day in, day out, that's what I do. I don't actually mind, mostly, and I want to do it  (actually, I want to do it much better, but that's a topic for another day); I want to use up all that good garden produce, and bake from real ingredients - and the children, well, they bake as a recreational activity, which I feel is so much better than tennis lessons. The thing is, my pantry is a terrible, non-functioning mess. The Man, who runs a business, is all about systems that function properly, and continuous improvement of those systems for maximum efficiency (see, hon, I listen, I really do). Well, considering all the time I spend in the kitchen, I am thinking that maybe this system should get a little more efficient.

At the moment, what we have is a basic structure of where to put things - although some things live in at least two different places - but there isn't quite enough room, so it is too tempting to just toss items...somewhere. This has been not working properly for too long, so now is the time to change. I consulted the efficiency guru. He said there was too much in the cupboard. I said, I know that. Der. I need a plan. He said, get rid of the recipe books. Two layers of anything, he said, is one too many. (Can you see the recipe books on the second shelf up, behind all those jars of coffee and tea bags and crackers? Can you imagine how annoying it is to get a book out?) Well, I said, where to put them? There is, as you can see, no room at the inn. He said, they are books aren't they, put them in the bookshelf. I said, but the bookshelf is all the way down the hall way. He said, but now the books are all the way behind the coffee. We had a competition, and lo and behold, it was quicker to get a book out of the book case down the hallway, than to get the coffee, the crackers and the teabags out of the cupboard, and then the recipe book. OK, sometimes it takes a different perspective. So, I severely curtailed my recipe book collection (we all know I don't cook new food anyway), and then I decluttered a few more books from the bookcase (the scary thing about decluttering is it becomes ridiculously easy after a while. It doesn't even hurt. I can see how people become minimalists...). Easy as that, two feet of clear space in the pantry.

Then I took everything out of the pantry and put it all over the floor...

...and cleaned all the shelves. Ho hum. And started at the top. Only stipulation - only use what I have already for storage. No new stuff. Luckily, our shed was filled with enough old wicker baskets to start a high-end green grocer's shop, and not an inconsiderable number of plastic crates I have bought over the years and been unable to part with.

Originally, this top shelf was full of little plastic pots of tiny amounts of ingredients for things like muesli, or dried fruit for school lunches. They took up lots of space, and I could never find anything. Then I had an efficiency moment of my own! Everything in a big tub, in little bags.

Which left room for the cake box (v. imp), and a mini crate of muesli bars (still trying to wean children off those, with variable success). A mini wicker basket of spices, and another wicker basket of obscure items like walnuts in the shell.

Now the other side. The shelves of this pantry are very deep, and I have a lot of food, so I couldn't avoid two layers of  'stuff', efficiency expert notwithstanding, but I made it as simple as possible. The tubs behind are all the same family - pulses and grains. And my most used, rice and lentils, are super easy to get at. Next to the pantry is a little slice of bench space to park stuff like the olive oil on so that I can pull out the dried  chick peas. Should I need them. Ever.

Next shelf is all about baking.

This hasn't changed much. Behind there are two big tubs that hold 5kg of flour each, plain and wholemeal. In front are all the sugars. They were originally scattered around a bit, now all in one place. I do have to lift them out to get at the flour, but pulling the flour tubs out is a two hand job anyway. And really, I mostly need sugar when I need flour... I love my flour scoop, by the way. The Man put it in my Christmas stocking, years ago when we thought we still needed extra stuff at Christmas.. It's great to scoop flour into the scales.

And on the right, all the rest of the baking gear.

At the back, oats, coconut, cocoa, next to that, choc chips and other indispensable baking aids in the plastic crate. Right at the back, the dry goods I don't use often - semolina, cornflour, rice flour, and in front of them, another plastic crate with sugar substitutes - golden syrup, treacle, molasses. In the wicker basket, baking additives, vanilla, baking powder etc. I tried to get all the like things together to make baking easier. In fact, I often take the whole basket out, and the crate behind, and just sit them on the bench while I'm baking.

In front are the self raising flour and the icing sugar. I've worked out I can store 12kg of flour on this shelf, and about 4kg of sugar!

Down we go again. Next stop, a bit of DIY.

I have always stored my breadboards here, for about two years since the kitchen was put in, and they have constantly fallen over onto the scales, and I have constantly mentioned how much I would like The Man to come up with a solution. Well, after two years, it took him about 15 mins to knock up this divider shelf from some left over melamine in the shed. Thanks, darling. In the past I have had big plastic boxes, shoved somewhere, full of the baked treats that the girls make. But I have decided that less is more. I found these two jars in the shed, and that will be all the sweet treats available, with the rest in the freezer. You think twice  before you take the last macaroon.. at least, you should...

Are you getting tired yet? Have a cup of tea.

Yes, there is a lot of tea here. But I need it all. I rather like this basket. I wonder where I got it?
Coffee, tea, crackers. One of the reasons I need some wiggle room in the pantry is that when things are on sale, I buy a lot at once. One of the problems in the past has been that I have shoved things in the bottom shelf at the back, and they have disappeared, so I go buy more. But now they are found, and I don't think I need any more coffee beans for a while.

Nearly there now. Sauces and condiments all in a basket on the left. They used to be all just stood about, loitering with intent, and I couldn't see what was at the back (the naughty ones always stand at the back). Now I can pull the basket out a bit and find what I'm after.

Two more baskets, one in the back corner, full of pasta and crackers.

One full of cans of tomatoes and chickpeas and baked beans.

And pineapple chunks which Posy likes to eat for breakfast..
Now, oils at the back, the onions and garlic at the front. Need more onions.

Whew, last shelf now. Well, the floor really. When we had the kitchen built I asked for the bottom of the pantry to be floor boards so I could just sweep it out when I swept the kitchen. Until now though, there has been a big wicker basket in this bit, full of all the things that didn't fit anywhere else. It has now been banished, and I brought down an old garage sale wine rack from the shed.

And last of all, the potato basket. This can hold 10kg of potatoes, although it doesn't feel like it today..

The giant breadboard, and the grill tray, and we're done. What a mammoth effort that was. But I can reveal to you now, that this exercise in efficiency actually took place about three weeks ago. And it is working out well. We are putting things away. The fact that everything similar is grouped together means that the children can put away the grocery shopping without creating chaos, and it is really easy to see what we are running out of, or not..

I love it! I can't believe it took two years in a brand new kitchen to work out how to make some cupboard space work. Hey ho, I'm a bit slow, but now I am thinking about all of the other cupboard spaces in the house...

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Easter Traditions

Well, the Great Easter Egg Hunt of 2013 went off with its usual success. Even though most of the children are teenagers now, there doesn't seem to be any lessening of enthusiasm. And they still love to hide the eggs as much as ever, so we repeated the tradition of them hiding the grown ups' eggs in the back garden.. but now they are all very tall and cunning and are fiendishly good at finding hiding places, then they just sit and laugh at us when we can't find them.

We are so lucky to have a bunch of good friends that our children have grown up with. There have been so many Easter egg hunts in this garden, as it progressed over the years. There was the year that the driveway was just dug, that was very muddy. There was the year the back courtyard was dug out, and there was a giant pile of dirt to play in. It's a wonder anyone lets their children come here actually. There are photos of the egg hunt when the apple trees were tiny sticks. There was the year Rosy broke her leg. That wasn't a fun Easter. But then there are photos of all those same children gathered around her, signing her cast, bringing her balloons and presents. There are memories of shared Easter feasts, with produce from our gardens, and stories of how each dish was made, and what adventures we had to procure the lamb, or the salmon... or remember the year of the wallaby steaks? There is the annual competition to see who can get the champagne cork to hit the neighbour's roof (gosh, we are the neighbours from hell..).

There is one very important tradition that was well kept up this year. When hiding the eggs, it is imperative to hide some REAL well, so that the person doing the gardening over the next few days gets some nice surprises. Well played, people. Two big, and three small so far. Nice work...

Hoping your Easter has some good traditions as well...