A Long Garden Weekend

This weekend was a long one in Ballarat thanks to our local show day being on Friday. It also coincided with the most gloriously sunny weekend we’ve had for a long time. While we didn’t make it to the actual show, we did take advantage of the weather to tackle the jungle of weeds growing in out back garden.  There’s still a few spots to me to clean up and the west side of the house is beyond my capability (I’ve decided to get some professionals in to do that), but the bulk of it got done ready to be planted out.

Here are some before and after shots for you.

This is what I dubbed the corner of shame! There’s quite the difference between the before and after. Some of this will be planted out with vegetables, but I need to reduce the size of the patch so it’s easier to keep on top of.

The rest, including this narrow bed pictured below, I want to plant out with some hardy but pretty perennials. Some of the beds are in shade a lot of the day, the rest are pretty much full sun. I’m after suggestions for what to plant – please offer them in the comments.

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Another spot I tacked recently was the side path. Considering this is essentially a concrete path it defies logic that the weeds can be so persistent in this section, but clearly they love it.

And looking for some inspiration, Mum and I took a tour of the five gardens open in the  Ballarat Gardens in Spring event. There was one just around the corner on a very similar sized block to mine which was full of good ideas. The rest were on the outskirts of town on much bigger blocks. They were all beautiful, and I was completely jealous of the towering, shady trees, wide expanses of lawn and stunningly designed garden beds. I didn’t take lots of photos, but I’ve included a few of features or plants that I thought would suit my garden (many of which I’m unsure of the names, so if you know what they are please let me know).

Hope the sun was shining in your neck of the woods. Did you get out into the garden? Or do something else inspiring? I’d love to hear about it.

Barbara

PS Glenn, if you’re reading this, my potatoes are going gangbusters, thanks for motivating me to get them in the ground a few weeks ago. You’ll be please so know I’ve also got some lettuces going really well, with more to come.

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Smile File – The Little Book of Lykke

This year (and the end of last year) hasn’t been the most positive for me but despite some set backs I have managed to look on the brighter side of life more recently. I’ve become a little bit fascinated with the concept of happiness, how happiness is achieved, what brings happiness to different people, and hopefully to me. Recently I listened to the Little Book of Lykke by Meik Wiking who runs the Happiness Research Institute in Denmark. It’s a short, amusing and practical little book, full of research into happiness all over the world and tips for how to bring a little more happiness into ones own life. One such tip was to keep a “smile file” which records nice things people say to/about you or nice things people do for you.  I’ve turned this idea on it’s head a little for this blog (though I’ll be keeping a smile file in my personal journal) and will be sharing some of the simple ideas I learn about for increasing happiness.

What follows are the things I took from this particular book:

  1. Eat like the French – light a candle, eat with company/family, eat slowly and ban screens. Eat with meaning and enjoy it.
  2. Get to know your neighbours – find out about them through an amusing questionnaire, create a neighbourhood directory (of skills and/or resources you could share), build a neighbourhood free library/book swap.
  3. Smile and chat to people you meet in the street or going about your day.
  4. Move more in your day (walk or ride instead of riding)
  5. Buy experiences instead of things OR save a big purchase for when you reach a milestone or achievement (I love this idea), that way the item will forever be linked to that positive event.
  6. When you’re at work (if possible) schedule uninterrupted time to concentrate on animportant task – turn off notifications, emails, messaging etc. This point was also mentioned in a Podcast I listened to recently, they called it “deep work”.
  7. Spend less time on social media and more time face to face with family and friends.
  8. Use wasted time (waiting time, commuting time etc) to read or do something productive.
  9. Live near where you work if you can – a commute of less that 15 minutes is optimal.
  10. Volunteer.

Some of these I do already – I volunteer at the girls school each week, I do lots of walking instead of driving or riding with Miss 8, and when I do work the commute is between 5-15 minutes depending on the school. Some I’ve tried but slipped out of the habit of – I’ve tried to limit social media but have fallen back into it recently, and dinner times have become a bit harried and rushed. And yet others are quite a ways out of my comfort zone – talking to people I don’t know and getting to know the neighbours pushes my introvert nature quite a bit, though I do know one next-door neighbour well enough to chat with and exchange home made jams etc with.

The book also gave me a few things to look into further. For example, Bhutan measures happiness instead of wealth and even has a Ministry of Happiness – I need to know more about that. And there is a street in Perth where they have put all sorts of initiatives in place to build happiness and create a social network for everyone. Tottenham has something call Incredible Edible which sounds fascinating. And of course there is the Happiness Research Institute itself and Meik Wiking’s first book, The Little Book of Hygge.

I’ll be back soon with some more smile file news, in the meantime I will be lighting the candles for dinner tonight and putting on my best French accent as we sit and share a meal. That’s enough to put a smile (or cringe) on anyone’s face.

Chat soon,

Barbara.

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Flashback Thursday – My 2nd most popular recipe

This post first appeared on my blog just over three years ago and it’s been in my stats every week since then. I think that’s at least partly because it’s a Jamie Oliver recipe which would be regularly searched for I imagine. That aside, this is such a great recipe, so it doesn’t surprise me that it’s still popular.

I’ve just spent a few minutes re-reading that post. I generally enjoy doing that. It’s interesting to hear myself back, see how things have changed without me even realising it. For instance, I haven’t ordered half a lamb for ages, probably because once I started working more I stopped cooking as much.  The other thing I notices is the quality of the photo…. much better than the one from the old post I shared last week and from the ones I snap on my iPhone these days. That’s another thing I don’t do as much, photo shoots with my good camera. But one thing that hasn’t changed, I still love that Jamie Oliver cookbook and use it all the time.

Anyway…. here’s the recipe, give it a shot, it’s so worth it.

Recipe: Punchy Crunchy Lamb Noodle Salad

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Sometime last year I won a copy of Jamie Oliver’s Save with Jamie cookbook through the Good Guys.  It has become a regular fixture on my kitchen recipe stand and has somewhat transformed how I think about food and cooking, especially the roast.  Sides are important additions to meals, not just last minute thoughts.  Sauces, gravys, dressings are a must and are generally pretty easy to whip up from scratch – his mint sauce for a roast lamb, yum!  The bigger the roast the better – so much scope for left-overs – and cheaper cuts with long, slow cooking make it a smart economic purchase.  Now I’m more likely to do a shoulder of lamb, than a leg, the chicken I buy is always the biggest I can afford (and usually free range) and planning the meals using left overs is exciting and new.  No longer do I do the standard shepherd’s pie or cold meat fritters – not that there’s anything wrong with these, but there are many other options – instead I whip out the Save with Jamie book and try to get a bit more creative.

Here in Australia, this last Sunday was Father’s Day and the request from Mr Good was a roast.  I had a lamb cushion in the freezer from my last lamb order (a friend and I split a lamb together a couple of times a year).  I hadn’t even heard of a cushion of lamb until this order, but after a quick explanation from the farmer we bought the lamb off we decided to give it a go.  A cushion is bascially a shoulder, bones out and then tied together to resemble a round cushion.  You can add a stuffing or filling to the centre before you tie it up, but ours was just the meat.  I cooked it for about 2 1/2 hours with some onions, beef stock and wine in the base of the roasting dish and covered with tin foil.  In the last hour of the cooking time I added potatoes that had been parboiled.  Carrots and pumpkin were roasted in a separate dish.  The foil was removed for the last 30 minutes to crisp up the spuds and the top of the roast.  The juices at the bottom of the pan made a lovely gravy.  After we had all eaten our fill of meat and veggies, I had about 400g of meat left over.

This is where I hit the cook book and see what appeals.  What I love is that most of the dishes using left over meat only require about 150-250g of meat and are very adaptable, add more veg if you’re light on meat or vice versa.  Some use up left over gravy as well – very useful considering I always make way too much.  This time around it was Jamie’s Punchy Crunch Lamb Noodle Salad that was calling my name.  The girls love noodles and the weather has started to warm up a little (though you wouldn’t know it today!) so salads are on my mind and while it does have a bit of chilli I thought it would be easier enough to make a small portion without the heat of the chilli that Miss Five is so fervent in her hatred of – Miss Three doesn’t mind it at all.  It turned out to be a very good decision, dinner was a hit!

Jamie Oliver’s Punchy Crunchy Lamb Noodle Salad

2 thumb-sized pieces of ginger, peeled and grated
1-2 red chillies (I stuck with one, but could easily have put a second in)
8 tablespoons of olive oil
4 tablespoons red wine vinegar
4 tablespoons soy sauce
300g medium rice noodles
2 carrots
1 cucumber
2 gem lettuces (these seem to be like mini cos lettuce here)
1 round lettuce (I only used the gem lettuce)
1 bunch of mint
250g leftover cooked lamb
1 tablespoon of sesame seeds
1 teaspoon of honey (this was my addition, not in the original recipe)

Add the grated ginger to a bowl with half the chilli (Jamie grated his, but I find this tricky, so just finely diced mine) oil, vinegar and soy sauce.  Mix and then set aside.

Put the noodles in a bowl and cover with boiling water, then leave for 15 minutes or until tender.

Speed-peel the carrots into long thin ribbons using a vegetable peeler and slice the cucumber however you like.  I really should get one of those cool crinkle cutters, instead mine were plain half circles of cucumber.  Add both to a bowl.  Trim the lettuce and then cut into wedges – I love this way of slicing lettuce, it gives the salad a sort of structural appearance – and add to the bowl.  Then pick over the mint leaves and add those too.  Drain the noodles and add to the bowl.

Shred the left over lamb and put it into a frying pan on a high heat with the sesame seeds.  This is where I varied the recipe a little.  In the book Jamie’s lamb looks dark and glossy which I just wasn’t getting, plus mine seemed a little dry.  So I initially added a tiny bit of the lamb dripping I’d kept from the roast (another great tip of the book) and then I added a teaspoon of honey, which gave the lamb a bit more moisture and that lovely glossy look.  The honey also works with the chilli, ginger and vinegar in the dressing.

Mix the dressing up again, then drizzle over the salad and toss well.  Finely slice the last of the chilli and scatter this over the salad.  Finally top with the lamb and sesame and serve.

This recipe serves 4-6 people, but as it was just for two adults and two kids I reduced the quantities a little.  I also made a small non-chilli version for the kids using a third of the dressing ingredients.  Like I said his recipes are very adaptable and this would be equally great with some snow peas or other crunchy veggies so play around with it.  Lastly, even though I made a smaller version we still had plenty leftover (leftover, leftovers!).  It holds up pretty well to a day in the fridge and is excellent “wodged”, as Jaime would say, into a wrap for lunch.

Kids salad without chilli

 

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Book Review – The Boy on the Bridge

I’ve been contemplating a few things to write about today in an effort to get into something of a regular blogging habit again and I finally settled on a book review. Given it’s been quite a long time between book-related entries I had a lot to choose from. In the end I went for the one I just finished which was a book club pick.

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It was M.R. Carey’s The Boy on the Bridge – a companion novel to his previous The Girl with all the Gifts which I wrote about here. The most confusing thing about this, otherwise quite spectacular novel, is where the time fits in with the previous novel. It was touted as a prequel set twenty years before the first, but I – and the rest of my highly intelligent book club members – didn’t think this worked. We agreed it was more like a concurrent novel which perhaps starts a bit before the first, and then ends with the epilogue after the end of the first.

All of that will mean nothing if you’ve not read the first book, but it certainly made for some clever detective work for me when reading it and a good discussion at book club trying to piece it all together.

But I should go back and tell you a bit more about the actual story. In short this is a zombie story (as in Walking Dead type zombies rather than the dead coming back to life), but it’s also so much more. The novel follows the lives of a group of soldiers and scientists as they set out across the UK in a tank-come-lab-come-camper-van looking to discover a treatment for the infection that is turning ordinary people into human-munching undead. The characters and they way the interact with one another is what makes the story so incredibly compelling. Samrima, the compassionate scientist hiding her unfortunately timed pregnancy from the rest of the team (until, of course, she can’t), Stephen, the possibly austistic but brilliantly clever teenager ill-at-ease being in such close quarters and misunderstood by all but Samrina, McQueen, the ill-discplined soldier consistently taking matters into his own hand usually to the detriment of the team and the two always-at-loggerheads co-leaders, Fournier a second-rate biologist who spends as much time as possible hiding from the rest of the crew and the level-headed but with a dangerous past Colonel Carlisle. Along with a cast of other, lesser explored characters, they stumble through their weeks and months together, with rising tensions and fading hopes.

As with Carey’s first novel in the series, he saves the best for last – this man sure can write an ending. Everything you assume is wrong, and the conclusion leaves you breathless and in a quiet reverie over what you just read.

M.R Carey’s writing is straight-forward, precise and gripping. His ability to draw in the reader and embed a consistent sense of impending doom and inevitability to the whole story and then turn that on its head at the last minute makes for a novel that is a joy to read, one that should be devoured not savored. This is binge reading at its best. Don’t let the zombie-trope put you off, this is no gore-fest and one that I enjoyed just as much as the first (even if some aspects of the time-line didn’t quite work).

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Slow Cooked Thursdays – Chicken, Leek and Mushroom Casserole

I thought as a way of re-invigorating my blog and looking back on the many things I’ve written about in the last 7 years I would re-post some of my old, but still popular posts.  This post from August 2012 has consistently been my most popular post. I think that’s with good reason, who doesn’t love the chicken, leek, mushroom combination! Plus its super easy and whip up in the slow cooker. Actually maybe ‘whip’ is the wrong adjective when it comes to slow cooking… what I meant is it’s super easy. Having said all that, I so often great dishes I try a couple of times, for whatever reason fall off the regular rotation of dinners. It’s not really the right time of year to be cooking this, but I am going to resurrect this one before the hot weather really starts and hopefully many times more in the future. As an aside, I hardly ever go to the farmer’s market anymore either, something else I should try to remedy.

So with that, I give you my version of a Slow Cooker Chicken, Leek and Mushroom Casserole.

A recent trip to the farmer’s market brought home a supply of leeks and parsnips among other things.  These are two of my favourite vegetables and I thought hard about what I wanted to do with them.  It had been a while since I’d done chicken in the slow cooker and Miss Three had a fancy for mushrooms – her favourite vegetables – so putting all that together I came up with this meal.

The original recipe came from here, but I made several adjustments to make it more slow cooker friendly.

Ingredients

10 bone-in chicken thighs (chicken chops – equally you could use drumsticks, casserole pieces or regular thigh fillets)
1 tbs olive oil
250g rindless bacon rashers, coarsely chopped (this was another pick up from the market and was free range)
2 leeks, pale section only, washed, ends trimmed, cut into 2cm-thick slices
400g button mushrooms, halved
2 garlic cloves, crushed
2 tbs plain flour
250ml (1 cup) chicken stock – this could have been reduced a bit more, perhaps 125g ml would be better.  I used home made stock which is low in salt, if you use bought stock use a salt reduced one as the bacon adds enough salt content as it is.
125ml (1/2 cup) white wine
6 sprigs fresh thyme
125ml (1/2 cup) thickened cream

Heat the oil in a large frying pan and brown the chicken pieces on all sides.  You may need to do this in batches.  Add to the slow cooker once browned.

Add the leek, mushroom, garlic and bacon to the pan and fry until soft and golden brown.  Stir in the flour and cook for a further minute or two.  Finally add the stock and wine to deglaze the pan.  Stir to combine, scraping any bits off the bottom of the pan, than turn off the heat.  Add this mixture to the slow cooker along with the thyme, give it a good stir and then cook on low for 8 hours.

Stir in the cream, season with pepper (I didn’t think it needed any salt) and serve with mashed potatoes (or a combination of mashed potato, pumpkin and parsnip as I did) and steamed vegetables – broccoli and carrots from the garden.

If you had time you could follow the final instructions from the original recipe which involves removing the chicken (set aside and keep warm) and pouring the remaining leek sauce into a saucepan on the stove top.  Add the cream then bring to the boil and cook for five minutes or until the sauce thickens.  Server the chicken pieces on top of the mash and then pour over the sauce.

A delicious and well received meal which was even better the next day for lunch – yum!

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One Step Closer

Yet again it’s been a quiet six months on the blog – though with a few odd days where my stats went through the roof (relatively speaking consider this little blog is no high traffic site) for no apparent reason. I’ve neglected this blog and a lot of other things I enjoy while concentrating on the first semester of a Master of Information Management course. Yet another piece of paper to add to the growing collection – I’ll have enough to wallpaper a room pretty soon. I’m desperately hoping this one pays off and I’ll find a job that gives me the same satisfaction I used to get from teaching, but without the aspects that saw me turn my back on that particular career.

I have loved the course, my brain has been expanded in ways I didn’t expect. I can now code, catalogue according to RDA, Dewey and Library of Congress, search the deep web, explain the term web 2.0, create a LibGuide, write a rapid evidence review and speak conversational MARC – most of which will make no sense but makes me feel pretty proud of myself. I started the course with the goal of kick-starting a library career, but info management is so much more than that and I feel like there are lots of directions this course could take me in. I just hope starting a new career at nearly forty is less frightening than it feels right now. Ironically, this time twenty years ago I was in a very similar position – preparing for my final high school exams and figuring out what direction my life would then take.

This morning I finished the last assignment for this semester – which technically gives me a Graduate Certificate in Information Management – and now I am one step closer to the next stage in my life. That’s certainly a better feeling than 12 months ago when my life as I knew it felt like it had imploded in part and I had no idea what to do next. While I may not have that crystal ball telling me things will be fine in the end, I am actually excited about what I’m doing and where it might lead. That feels really good.

In the meantime, I have about four months until the next semester starts and lots of free time on my hands. Perhaps this could be the Summer of Barbara! Here’s the agenda so far:

  1. Get back to the garden! – I have made a start, cleared out two and a bit garden beds. I’ve planted lettuces, strawberry runners, parsley, and (inspired by Glen) I ordered and planted three types of potatoes which have all come up and look good so far. Sadly, I can’t for the life of me find where I put the details on the types I planted – I know one was King Edward) – but I’m sure they’ll all taste delicious. There’s plenty more weeding to do and I’ll be planting as I go. I’ll keep you updated on my progress.
  2. Read, read, read! – so many good books have been piling up on my bedside table. The stack is precariously high right now and may just take me out in my sleep if I can’t get through some of them soon.
  3. Cook – it’s been pretty boring in the kitchen for the last six months. But I’m starting to feel the cooking bug scratching its way to the surface again.
  4. Painting – no, not the artistic type, I have absolutely no talent for that. But I am hoping I can spruce up my very dark lounge room with a new coat of white paint. This will include finally painting the 1970s style dark wood paneling on the back wall. I’ll post before and after photos for your approval.
  5. Start another blog – seems silly considering I haven’t had great success in recent years in keeping up with this one but I would like to track my journey out of teaching and into a library (or related) job. This will record the things I’ve learned and other interesting library-related topics. I’ll share it here too if I think it’s interesting. The first thing I need to do though is to come up with a catchy name. I need some help with this, so hit me up with some suggestions in the comments… please!

I’m sure there will be other things that come up that will spark my interest and keep me busy. Ah, it’s nice to sit here, looking at the glorious stretch of time ahead of me and feel motivated and inspired again. That’s a pretty special at any stage in life and I intend to make the most of it.

See you again soon (I promise!)

Barbara.

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The Charming Books of 2017 (so far)

When I came back to blogging this year I was sure I’d be able to do weekly or even twice weekly book reviews to catch up on all the fantastic and few not so great books I’ve been reading.  Clearly that hasn’t happened.  So today, in a break from my cataloguing class (it’s so much greater than it sounds, though that just might be me?) I thought I’d do a combo review.

Given that so far 2017 has been something of a rubbish year for me, in some regards, I’ve been drawn to reading happy, light-hearted, humorous and just plain old charming books.  I have been pretty selective so they’ve all been beautifully written, engaging novels that welcome you into a fictional world like a comforting arm around your shoulder.  It’s kind of like cheap therapy, pulling me out of some darker patches of my mind.  I’ve listed them below, given them a rating and a quick run down.

  1. A Man Called Ove by Fredrick Backman – I read this in January and have already reviewed it here.  I gave it 5/5 – its sublime.
  2. The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald – This is the story of a young(ish) Swedish women, Sara, who ventures to the town of Broken Wheel, Iowa to meet up with her long time pen pal.  It’s only when she arrives and no is there to collect her from the bus that she finds out the pen pal has died.  Despite this Sara decides to stay in Broken Wheel, a dying little town, and set up a book shop.  The small town characters are unique and charming, and the adventures Sara takes change the course of many people’s lives, not least her own.  For some reason this reminds me of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe (without the cannibalism), I thinks it’s the location and the quirky characters.  4/5 for this one (added bonus, it has lots of literary references)
  3. Blue Shoes and Happiness (No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series) by Alexander McCall Smith – If you know this series you’ll know what to expect with this one.  Set, as always, in Botswana, with Mma Ramotswe solving cases big and small in her beloved town.  This one involves a pair of blue shoes, a game reserve, and the sinister goings-on in a health clinic.  With her usual penchant for bush tea and straight talking, Blue Shoes and Happiness is a lovely Sunday afternoon on the couch kind of book.  3.5/5
  4. The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin – this book came at just the right time for me and made an enormous impact.  The story circles around A. J. Fikry, a grumpy bookstore owner and recent widow living on the difficult to access Alice Island.  He dislikes all but the classics, despises children’s books and detests most of his customers.  All that changes when he discovers a small girl has been abandoned in his bookstore and he sets about raising her in the most literary of ways.  That sounds preposterous, but it works, trust me.  Along the way he connects with the local policeman, reconnects with his wife’s sister and brother-in-law and is introduced to his knew agent from a particular publisher (hint this turns romantic).  Again there are lots of wonderful, intriguing and unique literary references and the character development is superb.  Highly, HIGHLY recommended – 5/5.
  5. Heartbreak Hotel by Deborah Moggach (who also write the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) – Buffy, a much recognised but retired actor unexpectedly inherits a B&B in rural Wales and makes the sudden and surprising decision to pack up his London life and give country living a crack – mostly because he couldn’t get a carpark in his street!  He’s a hopeless businessman, doesn’t really like the idea of sharing his space with strangers and has no idea how to even start.  What could go wrong?  The first half of this novel introduces you to a vast array of side characters.  My advice is to let this wash over you to some degree, I promise it will all come together in the end.  The connections made in the second half are amusing, delightful and surprising, as Buffy’s guests come to learn basic car maintenance and instead get a lesson in love.  Not everything gets tied up which is a little frustrating and some characters that were introduced in the first half, seem to get dropped for inexplicable reasons in the second and the character development is a bit hit and miss, but overall it’s a fun and funny read. 3/5

And that’s a wrap, all the “charming” novels on my 2017 list.  Please, please hit me with some more recommendations.

Barbara.

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