New Year, New Food

shakshuka recipe

No, don’t be silly, of course this isn’t a diet or detox post. I hope you know me better than that by now. There is a time and a place for healthy eating, but I’m not sure that it’s January. This is actually about a little New Year challenge I have set for myself.

My calendar this year is a free one I got with the (free) Waitrose magazine. And I am challenging myself to cook the recipe of the month every month this year and then blog about it. I’m not stupid, I have been through first and checked that they all look edible (and manageable), but of course they do, this is Waitrose!

I love cooking, and I love browsing through my numerous recipe books, but very frequently I seem to be rushing to plan a week’s menus, and I get stuck in a rut and can only think of the things we ate the week before. This will hopefully be a prompt to try new ingredients, new combinations, new techniques, and maybe shake things up just a little bit.

January’s recipe is Shakshuka Egg Flatbreads. I absolutely love Shakshuka, or a variation on it, and it is a regular evening meal at our house. I have on occasion (when cooking for a visiting vegetarian) even made my own flatbreads to go with it, as opposed to sticking a couple of pitta breads in the toaster, which is what I tend to do on an ordinary Tuesday evening. But I had never thought of combining the two.

The recipe is for four, and I am pretty confident that there’s no way my children are going to be eating these (even if I lie through my teeth and tell them it’s pizza!), but I reckon that I could make the full quantity and then freeze two before the eggs go on, and then I’ll have a quick evening meal for another busy day.

So, all I have to do now is get on with making it!


Back to normality

winter climbing.JPG

Well, there we are. Christmas is all over for another year. I followed my own advice, and successfully avoided festive fatigue, and we had a really lovely and relaxing time.

It helped very much that, after having Christmas at home, we went to my brother and sister-in-law’s for a few days. It was great to see them and catch up, and as always I’m reminded that 4:2 adults to children is a very helpful ratio. It really does take a village to raise a child, and seeing the children doing and learning things with their aunt and uncle (sewing, yoga, juggling!) which they’re definitely not going to get from their parents, is lovely.

It was also a few days off cooking, and away from the Christmas chaos of my own house. What is it about Christmas that means suddenly there is no surface in the house which isn’t covered with new toys/games, wrapping paper, packaging, sellotape, dirty crockery or glasses, crumbs? Or is that just me? There were only 5 of us for Christmas Day, but from the mess we made you would think that there were at least double that number! It didn’t help that the dishwasher conked out on December 23rd, and we couldn’t get an engineer to fix it until 2nd January!

However, the children went back to school and preschool yesterday, and I began the process of getting organised. We will take the decorations down tonight, and then I can arrange new bits and pieces nicely, and perhaps replace the desiccated holly with a nice big bunch of spring flowers.

Of course, it isn’t spring yet, there’s still a long old haul of dark, cold and wet days. I don’t mind too much, though. I’m not starting a new restrictive diet or crazy exercise regime (although possibly adding some food groups other than cheese, chocolate and sausage, and a little more exercise than lifting the remote control might be a good idea), and I’mm happy to hygge on down for the next couple of months. I’ve got a few projects on the go, and with Sophia moving to 15 hours a week at preschool I’ll have a bit more time to pursue them.

So yeah, bring it on January! Happy New Year, everyone.

My January 2017 Books


Well, January did eventually come to an end! Actually quite a while ago now, but this post has been in my draft folder for a while, waiting for me to get a moment to finish it.

I know in some ways February isn’t much better – still dark, still cold etc, but I have a February birthday, which always cheers things up for me, and it’s also half term next week so we get a little break from the relentless school run routine. My books during January have been a really mixed bag, both in terms of genre and a mix of new reads and old favourites.

Scarlet Feather by Maeve Binchy

This is my must-read-every-new-year book. Partly because it starts on New Year’s Eve, and follows the characters through a whole year in their lives. And partly because I find it a spirit-bolstering combination of comforting and inspiring. The central characters, Cathy and Tom, have been best friends since college, and are just in the process of fulfilling their dream of setting up their own catering company. The novel follows them as they battle to achieve their dream, through all sorts of family and relationship dramas and crises;  Binchy skilfully weaving in the stories of other protagonists as she goes. This novel always gives me a warm glow, and a desire to get up and get on with the new year. Just what you need in January.

The Sherlock Chronicles by Steve Tribe

I don’t watch very much telly, and what I do watch is usually courtesy of CBeebies. It’s not some kind of weird snobbery, it’s just that generally I prefer reading and talking to viewing. I don’t think I’m a very visual person really. However, husband and I did eventually come late to the Sherlock party; binge-watching the box-sets of the first two series, and then breathlessly waiting with half the country for subsequent series to be made and shown. It is quite simply the best television I have ever seen. I know. Even better than Charlie and Lola or Topsy and Tim. That good. And it’s not just because I inevitably have a lamentably cliched crush on Benedict Cumberbatch. It’s just amazing. Fast-paced plot, witty dialogue, moving characterisation, breathless suspense, stunning cinematography. I really couldn’t love it more. I actually wasn’t such a fan of the last (ever?) episode, but the end of another horribly brief series still left me feeling more than a  little bereft, and I remembered that we’d been given this book as a present a couple of years ago when we first got into the series. I hadn’t read it at the time, but the day after the last series finished I put Sophia down for her nap, resolutely ignored all the things I ought to be doing, and curled up with this book and indulged myself.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

And then, of course, I wanted to re-read some of the original Sherlock Holmes stories. I was struck anew by just how amazingly good these are. It’s very easy to see why they were the stories which spawned the wildly popular genre of detective fiction, not to mention thousands of films, television series, spoofs and translations. The acting in Sherlock is so compelling that I could hear all the dialogue in Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman’s voices, but that enhanced rather than detracted from my reading experience.

And in a little ‘how life changes’ vignette, I found a 1st class train ticket to Bristol, dating from 2006, tucked in the book. Over ten years ago – I was working for an organisation which generously provided 1st class travel for its employees, and I had a conference to attend in Bristol. Off to Paddington early one morning in my vertiginous heels and a business suit, tapping away on my laptop and Blackberry on the journey out, busy at a conference on medical regulation all day, and then sinking into my seat for the journey home and pulling a favourite book out of my smart little handbag. No first class travel, or conferences, or high heels in my life now, but I can still read and enjoy the same book in my cosy but chaotic house with my children sleeping (or not) upstairs. I think 25 year old Helen would be pretty happy at how most things have turned out for her a decade later, but slightly horrified at a) how little sleep I survive on and b) what I now feel constitutes a good shoe.

The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories by P.D.James

For me, P.D. James is one of the Golden Age Queens of Crime, who just happened to write in the second half of the 20th century (and well into the 21st!) rather than the first half. Writing in the modern age means her novels are often somewhat edgier, too much grit and realism to class as ‘cosy crime’, but they share with her earlier counterparts a strong focus on intricate and original plot, a vivid depiction of place, and a charismatic and often almost super-human detective. This is a collection of short stories from early in her career, two featuring Adam Dalgliesh and two not. I’m not a massive fan of the short story genre in general as I like to feel luxuriously submerged as I begin a new book, but I did enjoy this collection very much, and in the sad absence of any more novels from P.D.James  they are a lot better than nothing. I also pleased myself by guessing whodunnit in all of them.

The Little Book of Hygge by Meik Wiking and The Book of Hygge by Louisa Thomsen Brits.

These aren’t the kind of books you necessarily sit down and read cover to cover, but I have been enjoying dipping into them throughout January (and, indeed, into February). They were both Christmas presents – one bought by me for my husband, one bought by my husband for me! No-one can say we’re not well-suited. Hygge is a bit of an in-joke between us, because a few years ago, well before hygge was the in trend under discussion in every lifestyle supplement, husband read an article about it in The Economist. He told me about this concept of warmth, candles, blankets, cosiness, delicious drinks and food, sharing with family and close friends, mainly because it basically sums up how we tend to live.

Suddenly in 2016 the concept of hygge was being discussed everywhere, and I teased husband about being the first to spot it – possibly the first time ever he’s been ahead of the curve in identifying a lifestyle trend, as his interest is normally entirely taken up with politics, current affairs, business and technology.

Anyway, we both independently decided to buy the other a beautifully designed and presented book on hygge as a Christmas present. It turns out that, although I don’t believe either of us have any Danish blood, we have indeed always been devotees of the hygge lifestyle. For me it is so obvious as to be sheer common sense. Small intimate groups of family and/or friends are my happy place. Lighting candle or a fire provides spiritual  as well as physical warmth and light. Baking an indulgent cake or  kneading the dough for a batch of cinnamon buns or simmering a  tasty stew is an excellent way to demonstrate love. Curling up with a good book keeps the unpleasant realities of life at bay. Every sofa needs a blanket to be snuggled under. Hot chocolate is a necessity of life. Who wouldn’t agree with that as a manifesto for living? Especially in January and February!



Happy January!

No, the title of this blog isn’t a contradiction in terms. I admit that January isn’t always the easiest month to love, but, if you persevere then you will discover its good points.

I am still basking in a warm glow created by the happiest Christmas I have had for years. Possibly since I was a child myself. It was perfect. No-one was ill, no-one argued, no-one cried. The presents I had chosen for others were well-received, and the presents chosen for me were delightful. We saw family and friends, sang carols round the Christmas tree, went to the circus, snuggled up with new books or DVDs, ate a ridiculously huge amount of delicious food, drank fizz at lunchtime (not every day) and I even got a couple of lie-ins.

I was worried that such a lovely Christmas would make the return to normal this week particularly painful, but it really hasn’t. I think the secret of a contented January is to be nice to yourself. It is a mystery to me why people choose this month to start an extreme diet or a gruelling exercise regime or to dip a toe into teetotalism. I mean, seriously. This is already a month where finances and waistlines are likely to be tight, which involves getting up in the dark every single day, and which is a long, long way from the next holiday. Please don’t make things more unpleasant for yourself.

I admit that I am trying to cut back on eating chocolate with every single meal and several times in between as well. Twice a day is probably sufficient. And we’re all going vegetarian for the week this week, but that is mainly because that is the food I fancy right now, after eating goodness knows how many pigs’ worth of bacon, sausage and ham over the last few weeks. My Christmas dinner contained processed pork in no less than four different forms – sausage meat stuffing, crispy bacon over the top of the turkey, sausages to accompany the turkey and pancetta with the sprouts. But the veggie food this week is about comfort rather than self-denial. On Monday I made a potato, mushroom and parmesan gratin which we had with tomato and avocado salad. Last night was big bowls of warming lentil and spinach daal. Tonight is Turkish style baked eggs, and tomorrow veggie chilli with homemade guacamole. When I’ve run out of energy and inspiration on Friday we’ll probably have pasta with some kind of tomatoey sauce containing any veg still left in the fridge. And cheese. And garlic bread.

The house looked a little bit bare after the decorations came down, so I treated myself to some fresh flowers, and decided to try a little Anna was off school for an inset day on Monday, so we spent the day clearing and sorting. After a successful cake sale in the autumn to raise money to help refugees, Anna’s next project (decided on by her) is to hold a jumble sale in our front garden in the spring. We’ve already filled four nappy boxes with outgrown toys and clothes and unloved books and knickknacks, and it has never been easier to persuade Anna to part with things she never plays with but develops a sudden violent affection for when I tentatively suggest they should go. Much to my delight, Anna then decided she wanted to play at being a cleaner, so I gave her a duster and off she went.

Yesterday I spent two hours doing an extremely tedious but necessary financial spring clean, which was soul-destroying at the time, but gives me a great feeling of self-satisfaction now it’s done.

I’ve also given my blog a little New Year makeover. I needed to take the Christmas theme down, and much as I love the cupcakes I had previously, it suddenly didn’t feel quite right to go back to, and I tried to find something slightly fresher and crisper – what do you think?

ancient houseFinally, although I know I won’t be saying this by March, I am rather enjoying the colder weather for now. It’s still not really cold for January, but at least I can now justify one of the snuggly cashmere cardis I smugly purchased in the spring sales and which have been sitting, loved but unneeded, in my drawer ever since. Walking through Walthamstow Village this morning also reminded me just how beautiful January can be. Just as long as you don’t try to give up chocolate!


Return to normality

After an absolutely lovely Christmas and New Year period, today has so far seen me doing the school run in the pouring rain, trying (and failing) to unblock the kitchen sink and doing a supermarket shop. Back to reality with a bump.

It would be easy to sink into depression, and wallow in nostalgic longing for the good times we’ve just enjoyed. However, I am going to channel my daughter and focus on the positives. I managed to get out of the most depressing task of the year – taking down the Christmas decorations – yesterday, but my husband reports that Anna spent the entire day sighing contentedly and saying “Isn’t it nice to get the house back to normal?”. And she’s right, getting back to normal should be a positive thing, and I am lucky enough to enjoy my normality most of the time. After all, I chose to call my blog A Life More Ordinary. 

New Year Resolutions have always seemed a peculiar concept to me. Why, in the coldest, darkest month of the year, with Spring still a distant dream but our credit card bill a recurrent nightmare, do we think that we should suddenly resolve to change all the things we weren’t able to manage in warmer, drier, lighter and wealthier times? September is the natural month for initiating positive change in our lives, January is for hunkering, for embracing the normal and everyday. Great expensive blow-out meals are wonderful, but so are meals from leftovers and frugal veggie curries. After a social whirl it’s incredibly satisfying to curl up somewhere warm with all the books you were given for Christmas, and, possibly, a mug of hot chocolate.

There’s a lot of extraordinary to look forward to in 2014 – my second book, To Have and to Hold is being published in June, we’ve got some exciting holiday plans and several of my good friends are expecting babies – but, right now, this afternoon, my chief excitements are going to be rearranging my cookery book shelf to accommodate the new titles I received for Christmas, putting fresh sheets on the bed and inputting all the scribbled info on the back pages of my 2013 diary into my pristine 2014 diary. A life more ordinary. And hopefully I can get the sink unblocked soon as well…