Little Home Comforts

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It was six months ago today that my husband and I received the keys to our house (though we delayed spending our first night here until the 30th of December when we were ready to move our cat Mara across) and with our downstairs renovations finally nearing completion, we are all feeling very settled in our new home.

As much as I have fond memories of the little flat we rented, which was the first home my then boyfriend (now husband) and I shared together, after three and a half years we had outgrown it and were ready to move on. Over the last six months in our little house, it has often been the simplest things – easily overlooked and taken for granted – which I’ve noticed and appreciated the most.

The novelty of being able to park the car outside our house every day instead of circling round our old street searching for a space to squeeze into has not yet worn off. It has been a relief to watch Mara adjust her old routines to the new location without any fuss or distress, and she seems to enjoy having more space to play and explore. The washing line in the garden and the pulley we fitted above the stairs seem like luxuries after so many years of trying to dry clothes on radiators and clothes airers in rented flats. I enjoy drawing the curtains open every morning to check the weather outside and watch the seasons unfolding in our garden. I love the sunlight streaming through the South-West facing windows, bathing our home in warmth and light from dawn until dusk. Our little garden is a constant source of delight, from al fresco breakfasts in our pyjamas at the weekends to weeding and watering our raised beds, making salads with the lettuce, spinach and radishes we’ve grown, and sipping refreshing gin and tonics with friends on warm summer evenings.

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After renting for so many years, we also appreciate being able to make changes to our home without having to ask the landlord for permission, and every change we’ve made – from hanging a key rack by the front door to installing a wood burning stove in the living room – has made our house feel more and more like our own.

The first half of 2017 has been turbulent, but whenever world events or personal struggles and upheavals seem overwhelming, I’ve been grateful to close the front door at the end of the day, to enjoy the simple comforts of our home and immerse myself in the easy intimacy of my little family and all our daily routines together.

Happy summer solstice and have a lovely week.

Sweet Potato and Black-Eye Bean Tacos with Simple Salsa

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Ingredients (serves 2)

2 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped into cm cubes

1 medium onion, peeled and diced

1 clove of garlic, peeled and crushed

4 tsp of ancho chilli powder

1 400g tin of black eye beans (drained)

Method:

Pour about a tablespoon of olive oil into a medium sized pan and heat. Once the oil is warm, add the sweet potato to the pan and shallow fry for 15 to 20 minutes or until it starts to soften, stirring occasionally.

Add onions and garlic to the pan, mix well and cook for 3-5 minutes, until the onions start to turn translucent.

Add ancho chilli powder, stirring to ensure vegetables are evenly covered. Add more oil if necessary to prevent the powder from sticking to the pan.

After 1-2 minutes, add the black eye beans to the pan and stir thoroughly. Cook for a further 5-10 minutes until beans are mixed in and warm through.

Serve with warm corn tortillas and sprinkle with grated, mild cheese (optional).

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Simple Salsa Ingredients:

100g of baby plum or cherry tomatoes

1 onion, peeled and diced

1 clove of garlic, peeled and crushed

1 red chilli, de-seeded and finely diced.

Handful of coriander, cilantro leaves

Method:

Fry onion, garlic, chilli and half the tomatoes in a small frying pan with a splash of oil for 3-5 minutes. Once the onions start to turn translucent, transfer to a food processor along with the other half of the tomatoes and a handful of coriander or cilantro leaves and pulse until coarsely blended. Strain to remove the excess fluid.

Review of ‘The Silmarillion’ by J.R.R. Tolkien

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As a child both of my parents took turns to read stories to me, yet my dad was never much of a reader himself. The exceptions, however, were J.R.R. Tolkien’s tales of elves, dwarves and hobbits in Middle-Earth, which captured his imagination as a teenager and have continued to fascinate him over the years. My dad and I have spent countless hours discussing the books and film adaptations of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but I have always struggled to get into The Silmarillion, which happens to be his favourite book.

I recently learned that my dad, who has suffered from backache all of his adult life, requires surgery as the underlying condition has been steadily deteriorating and has now reached a level of severity where the risks of doing nothing outweigh the risks of operating. After spending some time with him recently, I became determined to attempt The Silmarillion once more.

Published posthumously, The Silmarillion is a compendium of stories starting with the creation of Middle-Earth and ending when the elves depart after the events of The Lord of the Rings.

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What immediately struck me about The Silmarillion was the thought and detail Tolkien put into it, from the geography and genealogy to the languages and mythology, at times the book feels more like a painstakingly researched historical treatise than a work of fantasy fiction. Having said that, the writing is dry in places and I sometimes found it hard to follow without frequently referring to the family trees and maps at the back of the book.

It is an incredibly ambitious collection, yet the quality varies from chapter to chapter: Of Beleriand and Its Realms, for exampleis a tedious geography lesson that could have been cut during edits, but I thought the highlights were the chapters concerning Melkor and Ungoliant’s theft of the coveted elven jewels (the Silmarills), Of Maeglin (a story of betrayal and comeuppance), and the thrilling but bittersweet love story, Of Beren and Luthien. I also enjoyed learning a little more about familiar characters from The Lord of the Rings such as Galadriel, Elrond and Sauron.

I have always delighted in the power of stories to connect people, and the works of J.R.R. Tolkien in particular are beloved by people all over the world, but there is no one that I’m more excited to discuss The Silmarillion with than my dad. Have a lovely week.

A Little Gratitude List…

A Little Gratitude List…

1. We were in Fife recently visiting my husband’s cousin and his wife who have just moved there. We spent a little time catching up over mugs of coffee in their home as the four of us don’t get to see each other as often as we used to when they lived round the corner from us, but we always enjoy the time we do spend together and it doesn’t usually take long for my husband and his cousin to bring out the mischief in each other. After a tour of their new house, we all piled into the car and drove to a nearby beach where we spent a happy couple of hours strolling along the shore, chatting and exploring rock pools. I’m grateful for time with family and the chance to explore new places together.

2. On Saturday night, we had a house full of friends for a little Eurovision Song Contest Party. The Eurovision is a lot less kitsch than it used to be, and our guests were a disparate group (some of whom had only met once before at our wedding), but laughter and banter resounded round the room all evening. It was the first party we’ve hosted in our house, but it won’t be the last. I’m grateful for good times like these with good friends.

3. My husband is working away this week, something he tries to avoid as he’s a homebody at heart. We miss each other, but I’m grateful for technology (like Skype) that helps us stay in contact when we’re far apart.

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4. Luckily, I have our cat, Mara, to keep me company while he’s away. It’s almost impossible to feel lonely with Mara around, she brings so much life and noise to our home; from the impatient whine at feeding times that sounds more like “now!” than “meow” to the rumbling vocal cords when she runs up or down stairs, paws padding across wooden floors, a slurping tongue as she grooms herself and too many other distinctive chirrups, squeaks and meows to list separately. Lately, Mara has started sleeping on my pillow with her head pressed against my neck, although her whiskers tickle and she sometimes snores in my ear, she’s too cute to shoo away. As always, I’m grateful for Mara’s companionship and affection.

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5. I’ve been adding a few new recipes to my repertoire and realised that most of the food I associated with Mexico (nachos, chilli con carne and burritos) are actually Tex-Mex, so I borrowed Mexico: The Cookbook by Margarita Carillo Arronte from the local library to learn more about authentic Mexican cuisine. First attempts at making corn tortillas failed but the other recipes I’ve tried have all been tasty and I’m looking forward to adapting some of the meat dishes to vegetarian. Some of the ingredients are tricky to find here in Scotland, but I’m grateful to live in a country where food is plentiful. I’m also grateful for public libraries, they’re a valuable resource in the community.

Have a lovely week.

Pottering in the Garden

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Over the last few weeks the weather in our corner of the world has been warm and sunny, and we’ve been spending lots of happy hours working and relaxing in our little garden.

Since my husband and I moved here five months ago, it has been a pleasant surprise whenever flowers planted by the previous occupants have emerged, like snowdrops in January and most recently a cluster of bluebells, but in many ways the back garden was a blank canvas and we’ve been steadily transforming it into our own.

On a blustery day back in February, my husband and dad built three raised beds for us to grow some of our own herbs and vegetables, and another for flowers. While they prepared the ground and built the frames, I rescued earth-worms and relocated topsoil (which is currently sitting at the bottom of the garden in an unsightly mound, but will hopefully mulch down). We had four tonnes of topsoil delivered in March to fill up the raised beds, and we finally started sowing seeds in April, when the risks of late frosts had reduced in our part of the country. It’s so rewarding to see the first shoots and seedlings already peeking up out of the soil.

(Before and after photos of the garden from above)

Both my parents are avid gardeners and when I was growing up they always encouraged me to help in their garden, and I’m so grateful for their help and advice as we cultivate our own little garden. As a child I planted a bed of strawberries in my parents’ garden, that still produces fruit well over a decade later, and I’ve taken runners from those same strawberries to plant in our garden now.

Our garden is too small for us to ever be self-sufficient but my husband and I have longed for a little kitchen garden for years, and it’s lovely to see our ideas becoming reality. We’re both novice gardeners but we’re eager to learn and excited to see what – if anything – grows this year.

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The previous owners of our house planted an ornamental cherry tree that we’ve relocated, we were worried that the roots might have been damaged when we dug it up but we were relieved when delicate white blossoms started to appear. We’ve finally planted our spindly, little Acer, which was surviving in a half-barrel planter until now, and it seems much happier being able to stretch its roots into the soil. I look forward to watching both of these trees change through the seasons and grow over the years.

We treated ourselves to a companion set, and we’re looking forward to spending lots of time in the garden over the next few months, and on days when it’s too cold or wet to sit outside, we can still enjoy the view of our back garden from our living room window. Have a lovely week.

Vegetarian Chickpea Paella

Ingredients (serves 4):

1 onion finely diced

1 courgette diced

1 red or orange pepper deseeded and diced

1 cup of frozen peas

400g tin of chickpeas

1 cup of long grain or basmati rice

1 clove of garlic crushed or finely diced

1 tsp of vegetable stock powder

2 tablespoons of smoked paprika

1 lemon

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A tasty, vegetarian alternative to the classic Spanish dish, inspired by a similar version I tried while visiting Barcelona a few years ago.

Method:

Pour about a tablespoon of olive oil into a large frying pan or shallow casserole dish and place on a medium heat. Once the oil is warm, add the garlic and onion.

Cook the onion until translucent, then add the peppers and courgette, cook for 3-5 minutes or until slightly softened.

Mix in the paprika and stock powder, stirring constantly until it becomes paste-like.

Add the juice of half a lemon and stir in. Cook for a further 2-3 minutes, mixing thoroughly to prevent it from sticking to the pan or burning.

Pour in the rice, stir thoroughly. Add three cups of boiling water. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and allow to simmer for 10-15 minutes until the rice is cooked, stirring occasionally.

When the rice is almost cooked and the liquid has reduced to a thick sauce-like consistency, add the peas and chickpeas, and cook for a further five minutes.

Serve with lemon quarters and add juice to taste.

Review of ‘Chocolat’ by Joanne Harris

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Chocolat had been sitting unread on my bookshelves for more years than I can count, but last weekend on a whim I settled down to read it while nibbling pieces of chocolate Easter eggs, which seemed wholly appropriate as the story takes places between Shrove Tuesday and Easter Sunday.

Chocolat follows Vianne Rocher and her daughter who sweep in on the winds of a carnival bringing flavour and colour to the drab and parochial French village of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes.

The novel is written in the first person, but switches between Vianne and Francis Reynaud, the village priest who takes umbrage when Vianne opens a Chocolaterie on the first day of Lent. The pace of Chocolat is meandering, yet the antagonism between Vianne and Reynaud builds suspense and drives the story on to its inevitable conclusion.

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The village of Lansquenet itself is rife with secrets, gossip and simmering tensions but Vianne finds friends among the other village outcasts and rebels, their kindness and camaraderie in stark contrast with Reynaud and his cronies’ hypocrisy and meddling.

Chocolat is a story that doesn’t reveal its secrets too quickly and kept me wondering right up to the end. I really enjoyed the supernatural elements of the story, there is magic in Chocolat, yet it is always understated and never becomes too fantastical.

The descriptions of Vianne’s chocolate creations are unsurprisingly mouth-watering and Chocolat was a delightful story that left me hungry for more. Have a lovely week.