Baking Cookies to Declutter!

After a bad week last week I’m trying to get myself into gear and move forward this week. I’m going to do things, even if they’re only little things. I’m picturing it as the first positive pebbles which will hopefully begin an avalanche of positivity (possibly not the best metaphor, what with the crushing and all, but it’ll do for now.)

One of the things that makes me anxious and guilty is the amount of clutter in my house. I struggle to get rid of anything, have raised two kids who also struggle to get rid of anything and chosen a partner who, guess what? Yep, struggles to get rid of anything. I constantly want to do something about this, but don’t know where to start. I read blogs and articles, and I would be happy if my house looked like the ‘before’ picture, never mind the ‘after’ one. I spend ages doing things that seem to make little difference, and then I give up. 

The anxiety and depression doesn’t help. The anxiety makes me worry and feel guilty about the house, but the depression drains any energy to tackle it. A never ending spiral of:

LACK OF ENERGY > GUILT > WORRY > MISERY > LACK OF ENERGY > GUILT >>> ad infinitum

I’m putting the breaks on that. I’m going to try and celebrate the little successes, rather than dwelling on the outstanding failures. This is going contrary to my normal pattern of thinking, and is going to take practice. But I managed to make changes in how I act to improve my physical health, so I’m sure I can make changes to how I think to improve my mental health.

So. Baby steps. 

As a result of struggling to throw anything away my fridge has multiple almost empty jars. You know the ones – too much food to comfortably throw away, too little to do anything with. Wasting food was a big no when I was growing up, and I’ve held that belief with me. 

So rather than throw all these jars away I decided today is the day I’m going to use them, or some of them at least. I found this recipe for Chocolate Raspberry Thumbprint Cookies and decided that would do nicely. 

The first thing you’ll notice looking at the finished cookies on that website is that they are beautiful, delicate things, carefully shaped and crafted. I baked them with my teenage son and our approach was a little more… let’s say rustic, rather than cack-handed, shall we? Baking helps my son practice fine motor skills, which are difficult for him due to his undiagnosed genetic condition and severe dyspraxia. So we went big and bold rather than small and delicate! 

At first the dough was far too dry, and I ended up adding the egg white as well as the yolk. This still made delicious biscuits. 

We used up the dregs of five jars of jams, chocolate spread and curds, so that’s five less jars cluttering the fridge. 

Unfortunately they are now cluttering my bench until I can pass them on to a jam-making friend, but still, it’s progress. 

Baby steps! 


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In praise of occasional randomness

It’s getting towards pay day, that last week of eking out the remaining pennies and supplies and hoping nothing expensive happens. It’s in these circumstances that some of my best culinary creations occur, like the fried rice in Tanking the Takeaway. My family look forward to such delights as “almost payday pasta” and “almost payday pancakes”, meals made of whatever’s to hand without a recipe in sight. 

It’s a skill to just throw what’s left in the fridge together and get something that tastes like a meal, rather than something that tastes like you just threw what was left in the fridge together. It’s a skill I’ve developed over time, although it can be a bit hit and miss. Since I signed up to the organic veg scheme (of which more here) I have a lot more fresh fruit and veg to play with than in previous months, which helps. 

My trawl of the cupboards turned up just 200g of pasta. Before I signed up to Newcastle Can and started eating more healthily I would have given up at this point, certain that you can’t feed four adults (or two adults and two adult sized teenagers) with so little. Now I know better. 

The fridge was better stocked than the cupboards, yielding some bacon, two onions, a courgette, half a bag of spinach, one pepper, a small cabbage and some feta cheese. 

The basic technique of my random meals is to chop everything then cook it all together, nothing complicated! So while the pasta was cooking I chopped everything except the spinach. I cooked the bacon first, adding the onion and pepper after a couple of minutes. Next went in the courgette, followed by the chopped cabbage and the spinach. When it was almost ready I added the chopped feta and stirred til it had melted into the sauce. I didn’t need to add any liquid, plenty had come off the veg. Then stir in the pasta.

Tadah! A healthy, tasty, colourful meal made in minutes. 

Although I was so busy chopping and stirring that I almost forgot to take a photo for the blog!

I think it’s important to embrace randomness occasionally. I tend to get stuck in a routine, unable to easily leave my comfort zone, especially when I’m struggling with my anxiety. I’ll seem fine while doing my usual stuff, but throw something unplanned at me and I completely unravel. So I need to remind myself now and then that random can be fun; just throwing things in a pan can be tasty; that sometimes it will go wrong, and that’s OK.

Tonight, on the spur of the moment, I tried an alternative route home from work. I ended up stuck for ages at one of those junctions where the traffic lights seem slightly out of synch, so only on every third green light could any traffic from my lane move. Sometimes random things don’t work. Rather than get frustrated at being delayed I turned the radio up and sang along, enjoying a few minutes with nowhere to go (and possibly startling passing pedestrians, my singing has more enthusiasm and volume than tunefulness!) Despite the delay I had a good journey. 

So, here’s to occasional randomness. 

Not too much randomness though, chaos would just cause more stress! 

Dancing, Memories, Exploration, Cooking – a good weekend.

Saturday morning was my fourth Dancercise session. It seems I can still get either my legs or my arms moving in time, never both. Despite that I am improving. Certainly I’m managing more of the high impact moves now, and feeling confident enough to sing along. Its doing me good at many levels.

After a shower and change my partner and I headed off across the Pennines for a night away, a much needed break. Our destination was chosen because I wanted to visit my dad’s memorial bench and the place we scattered his ashes. 

I like to think I’m all scientific and logical, I know he isn’t really there. I believe he’s still alive in our hearts and memories more than in the place we left his physical remains, but science and logic can only get you so far. Sometimes I need to be in a place he loved, to take a few moments to be quiet and remember him, away from the busy, challenging turmoil of everyday life. 

It’s changed, but everything changes. His bench had been revarnished and repositioned to face the meadow where his ashes were scattered.

The view from dad’s bench.

The tree that used to stand in the meadow is long gone, but a darker patch of grass showed me where it had been, and closer examination revealed some remaining bits of tree stump. I felt a connection to how it had been when my dad knew it, despite the changes. The bee hives were busy, the sun shining, the gardens beautiful. It was evening and felt like summer. I was glad I’d gone.

We had dinner in a local pub. My tactic to try and eat healthily when eating out is to go for either fish or salad, and the red snapper was delicious, but the meal was considerably less healthy than it could have been due to the marvellous dessert! We had a long walk through the town, possibly confusing the folk outside the local pubs as we walked through the market square several times in an hour, from every possible direction. 

The following morning we decided to set off early but stop and explore Kendal on the way back. Despite confusing signage (one signpost directed us down a back alley at the end of which was the river and no further directions!) we eventually reached the castle, glorious in the sunshine and well worth the climb up the hill. We could see for miles.

Kendal Castle.

Home and back to reality. Dogs to walk, family to feed, all the everyday things to do. I didn’t want to spend a long time making tea, and after the indulgences of the weekend I definitely wanted it to be healthy. Our veg bag this week included cabbage, so I decided to have another go at this Garlicky White Beans and Greens Pasta recipe. Last time I tried it I hadn’t cut the greens small enough, so it had a slight raw cabbage vibe which wasnt exactly appealing. This time I was without beans, which I replaced with chickpeas, and rosemary, which I replaced with oregano (that and mint seem to be the only herbs flourishing in the garden at the moment.) It turned out well, definitely better than my last attempt and I’ll certainly be using the recipe again. 

All in all a good weekend. If I could only have stopped my anxious mind worrying about the week ahead it would have been perfect. Howeve there were times over the weekend when my brain was still, and that’s an improvement on recent weeks, so I’ll take it. 

Trying new veggies: Chard #NewcastleCan

The main positive change I’ve made in trying to eat more heathily since signing up to the Newcastle Can challenge has been adding more fresh fruit and veg to my diet. Most of the other changes have been negatives, reducing this, limiting that and cutting down on the other. To help with the fruit and veg I’ve signed up for weekly organic bags, as I explained in That’s what apples look like!

This weeks veggie bag had another new to me vegetable, a bag full of leaves labelled CHARD. Like the purple sprouting broccolli it’s something I’d heard of but never cooked with. I’m getting braver with new things, and am spending a lot of time searching online for recipes which include whatever’s in this weeks bag. Last week I made both Rhubarb and Ginger Muffins and Dark Chocolate Rhubarb Brownies, to the delight of my kids who’d begun to worry that the healthy eating meant I’d never bake again. It was a challenge not to forget being healthy and eat them all once I’d made them, but I coped!

I found this recipe for spaghetti with cauliflower and garlicky swiss chard gremolata after much browsing on Pinterest, and clicked through despite not knowing what ‘gremolata’ was. I was heartened by the fact that I had most of the ingredients to hand, and totally won over by it being described as an ‘oops recipe’. This perfectly describes most of my creations in the kitchen! 

There were minor challenges though, and its a mark of how comfortable I’m getting at cooking and improvising that I stuck with it. 

Challenge 1. No spaghetti. I am the sort of person who can’t eat soup without slopping it down my chest, so really messy food like spaghetti is rarely on my shopping list. I replaced it with 300g of wholemeal penne pasta.

Challenge 2. No food processor. As I mentioned way back in Kneading to Stop Thinking there was an incident with a dog, a hob and an almost fire. I’ve still not replaced the broken bits, partly due to lack of funds but also due to lack of motivation, to be honest I’ve been managing fine without. 

This recipe calls for the cauliflower and chard to be pulsed until the bits are the size of grains of rice, so I had to adapt this to my food processor free kitchen. 

The cauliflower seemed straightforward – just grate it. I decided to try the finer side of the grater, but one floret took ages, and even on a bank holiday there’s a limit to the time I want to spend in the kitchen, so I decided grating the florets on the coarse side and the stalks on the fine side led to near enough rice sized pieces. After 10 minutes the cauliflower looked like this:

The chard I decided just to chop as finely as I could with scissors, using the effective but not very high finesse method of grabbing a handful and chopping slivers off the edges until it was all done. 

I also had to consider how much chard was a bunch? One handful, two handfuls, the whole bag? This is the sort of lack of detail that used to terrify me away from new recipes, but the more I cook the more confident I am at just giving it a go and hoping. I decided as I’d only had a small cauliflower to use the whole bag of chard.

The chopped chard looked like this, and I added a dash of hope that the pieces being much bigger than rice sized wouldn’t affect the taste too much!

My only other alteration to the recipe was to skip the red pepper flakes as I didn’t have any.

I think it turned out well, if a little more bodged and less beautiful than the original! The family agreed it was very tasty. Because I’d used less pasta it made 5 portions rather than 6, so my partner and I now need to decide who’ll be the antisocial one breathing garlic fumes over our colleagues tomorrow! It’s definitely one I’ll make again, when chard and cauliflower next appear in my veg bag. 

Count Spatula approves!

In praise of giving it a go. #NewcastleCan

One of the benefits of taking part in NewcastleCan’s campaign to get healthier and lose weight is that I’m getting braver in the kitchen. 

For years I’ve had a shelf full of beautiful recipe books which sat on the kitchen shelf exuding cooking vibes, hardly ever used. I found them intimidating, often full of ingredients I’d never heard of, and so prescriptive that I was terrified of deviating from any step. There were a couple which were friendlier, but only a handful of recipes I used regularly.

For NewcastleCan I’m trying to avoid processed food by cooking more often, and I’m trying hard to make what I cook healthier. I’m deviating from the recipes, trying new things with less worry about how it will turn out, and getting an understanding of the impact of the food I make on my body. I’m not resorting to takeaways as often, I am eating more fruit and veg, less dairy and carbs. 

Cooking from scratch.

If I don’t have an ingredient I substitute. Sometimes it works. Usually it works. Sometimes it doesn’t, but I learn from that (learning sweet potatoes don’t take as long to cook as regular potatoes is a case in point.) Occaisionally something unexpected happens. I learn from that too. Tonight the egg in the fried rice I was making went green due to the green peppers and spinach creating excess liquid in the pan. It tasted fine, and luckily I have a family who’ll pretty much try anything! 

As well as feeling healthier and losing weight it’s saving me money. There’s less wasted food, bought with good intentions but never used. More homemade lunches taken in to work, and so less cash on lunches. And making sure I make filling meals is helping me snack less too. 

I’m hoping these are habits I’ll stick to. Of course I’ll allow myself occasional treats, but I’ll make sure they are just occasional. So far so good.

Tanking the Takeaway #NewcastleCAN

I’ve had a hard day. And it followed a hard night. Phobic issues led to very disturbed sleep which left me already jittery and anxious to face what turned out to be a very stressful work day. Preparation for tea was delayed by having to drive through awful weather to collect the dog from the vet and my son from his Granny after work. All with a stotting headache. These are the days I inevitably order a takeaway. 

But I remind myself I need to break the habit of stress leading to food. And I already had the one take-away a month I’m allowing myself while being healthier, actually just this week. 

Then I tell myself there’s hardly any food in as I need to go shopping, and what harm would one extra takeaway do? After all it would prevent me feeling stressed. Reducing stress is healthy, right?

Then I take myself to the kitchen where we have one onion, one pepper, the tail end of a bag of rice and some leftover chicken. Add some frozen veg, garlic, ginger and about the amount of time it would take me to walk to and from the nearest Chinese takeaway and…

Enough to feed myself, two hungry teenagers and save a portion for tomorrows lunch. And I get to bask in the virtuous glow of not having given in to temptation. 

I can do this.