Monday, 31 March 2014

Dear Mr Gove by Jess Green

It never fails to amaze me the amount of bile spread in the media whenever people chose to go on strike to protest about poor working conditions. Yes, a withdrawal of labour is inconvenient, that's the entire point. It shows that those striking are valuable, dedicated employees that make a difference to our lives.

Last week's teacher's strike was no different. Anyone who knows someone in the profession will know that an already difficult job is being made harder and harder by Education Secretary, Michael Gove's incessant meddling.

Yet, reading the bottom of the internet, you'd never guess it.* I can never get my head around the hatred directed against hardworking people exercising their democratic right to strike...

"This is purely a political strike, nothing to do with teaching. NUT members are typical left leanig (sic) sandal wearing troublemakers. I am surprised any child in this country gets educated at all."

"at least these activists won't be poisoning the childrens thoughts for 24 hours. so there is an upside"

* PUBLIC HEALTH WARNING: Do not read the bottom of the internet. Especially on tabloid websites. It's really bad for you.

So, as an antidote to all the criticisms and anger, here is fantastic Leicester poet, Jess Green. She expresses the problems teachers are facing eloquently. Take note, Mr Gove.


Sunday, 16 March 2014

The Blaggers Guide to: Talking to Musicians

I don't know about you, but I find myself in rooms full of musicians all the time. Now I like to play music, I like to sing, but I don't actually know anything about it. And I certainly don't know anything about guitars. So I decided it was time to put together a short guide so you can blag your way through any muso-dominated situation.**

**Disclaimer: Explanations may not be true definitions. But they should be enough to get you through. Please ensure you excuse yourself and get another drink immediately after using any of these lines, to avoid more in-depth questioning.

Situation: A friend is showing off his new 'axe', much to the admiration of the gathered crowds.
You say: "Nice action?"
They reply: Some bullshit response, generally in the affirmative.
But what does it all mean? 
The 'action' is the distance between the strings and the fretboard (the long thin bit of the guitar). Most people prefer a low action where the strings are close to the frets, so you do not need to apply too much pressure with your finger to get a clean note. However, if the action is too low, the string will vibrate against the metal lines of the frets and cause a buzzing noise.

They say: "So I'm getting my sweep-picking arpeggios down now."
You reply: "Nice - you're turning into a real shredder now then, eh?"
But what does it all mean?
"I've been practicing a technique where I can play an up or down sequence of single notes really quickly on my guitar, and it makes me sound really ace."
"Oh really, well done - so you're getting to be a very fast guitar player now then, are you not?"


Warning: Pretend musicians are everywhere
They say: "This whammy just knocks everything out of tune."
You reply: "You should put a Floyd Rose on it."
But what does it all mean?
The whammy, or vibrato bar, is the metal stick that sticks out from the strings on the main body of the guitar. When the guitarist wibbles it, it makes the note wibble like Mariah Carey. Or Britney Spears. Or Whitney Houston. You know, people who can't just hold a solid long note and have to have it wibble all over the place. So, somehow, possibly by magic, the whammy bar is attached to the strings and when you wobble it, you wobble the strings. Now because the length of the strings is what makes each specific note, when you wobble it about you might change the length a bit. That would make the guitar out of tune. But with a Floyd Rose (a type of locking whammy bar), the strings are locked so that you can wibble it all you want, without losing your tuning. Simples.

 The situation: Someone hands you their new guitar, for your approval. What do you do?
Hold the guitar with the fat end away from you and peer intently all the way along the strings. Then you say "Nice neck."
But what does it all mean?
Absolutely nothing. The neck of a new guitar should be pretty much straight. An older guitar might not be. Some styles of guitarists deliberately bow their guitar necks a little bit cos that's how they roll and actually, unless you play the guitar and you know what you're doing, you won't know how the construction of the neck affects the sound. But they all do it. And now you can do it too.


The situation: A friend's band is playing. Afterwards, the drummer asked what you thought.
You reply: "I liked your sound, it really held things together. And your toms were tuned really nicely."
But what does it all mean?
Weirdly, you can tune drums. They have little screws at the side that make the skin on the top more taught (or not), which will change the pitch. A drum kit will sound better when properly tuned, and certain jazz musicians will play in a certain key throughout the set so that they complement the drum tuning all the way through. I think. Anyway, you'll be giving a nice little technical compliment. And you won't look like a dufus, providing they don't ask you anymore questions.



Tuesday, 11 March 2014

RECIPE: Guaca-pasta

Do you need an easy tea? Everyone needs an easy tea sometime, somthing comforting and delicious. I adore avocado - they bring a wonderful natural creaminess to your cooking and are extremely healthy for you. So in under 10 minutes (take that Jamie Oliver) you can whip up a fantastic, guacamole inspired pasta.

I'm not bothering with proper quantities again, get on with your intuitive cooking.

Guaca-pasta

Ingredients 
Serves 2
Wholemeal pasta
An avocado
Squeeze of lemon juice
Drizzle of olive oil - just a teaspoon, or even less
3 cloves of garlic (or to taste)
Seasoning
 
Method
  • Put your pasta on to boil.
  • Meanwhile, add the garlic cloves to a food processor and whiz them up.
  • Add the remaining ingredients to your processor and whiz them up to a creamy, green pasta. The lemon adds flavour and also helps the avocado to keep its colour.

  •  Drain your pasta, reserving a dash of the cooking water.
  • Toss in your sauce and serve!
So simple, but really delicious. The heat of the pasta warms the sauce through and takes the edge off the garlic flavour, but still leaves a great punch. You could add in anything you like. Some crispy bacon crumbled over the top would be amazing. But then it would probably take you more than 10 minutes. Well, 9 actually, the pasta took 9 minutes to cook.

This comes in at 380 calories a serving, and is quite high in fat on account of the avocado and olive oil, so it's not quite in my 'Under 300 calories' recipe collection, but still mainly healthy fats and a blast of nearly raw veg. A great meal.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

REVIEW: Chandos Deli, Bath

You know when you stumble across a new place totally by accident, and then you kind of feel glad that you don't live nearby, because you'd be there all the time and then you'd have no money left because you'd spent it all on charcuterie and lovely wines? Yeah, that's how I felt when I discovered the Chandos Deli in Bath. We were just ambling around, enjoying our time in Bath after the Badger Ales pie competition, and we found this deli on the way.

Really unassuming and peaceful, the deli has an awesome selection of food and drinks, clearly visible through the window.  They had a lovely mix of fresh, local produce and a quite impressive wine selection.


I had to get the old camera out and take some notes. Initially, it was the wine that attracted me. They have a super space age wine dispensing machine, which probably shouldn't feel as exciting as it does. If you have the magic card, you can press a button and have a free 10ml taste, or select a 125ml or 175ml glass to sit and drink. 

The first drink to catch my eye was this clear wine. I am a sucker for a gimmick I know, I really liked Tab cola as well. It is quite cool though, a 50% Sangiovese and 50% Syrah red wine that has ever so slight colour in the glass. It was pretty light bodied as you'd expect and I did like the light touch floral notes. It was pretty fun and for £12.95 a bottle to take out, probably worth a punt, just for the fun of it.

Having tried that, we decided to go a bit more serious. We wanted to stay and hang out for a bit, even though it was quite quiet it was still a really welcoming and relaxing place. After another taste, I settled on a glass of the Chateau Carbonneau Sequoia, while the Boy selected from the variety of local ales and ciders on offer and opted for two bottles from the Tiny Rebel brewery - the Belgian Urban IPA to take home and the Full Nelson Maori Pale Ale to drink in, both of which he was really impressed with.


From Bordeaux, the Sequoia was a little delight. Made from predominantly Merlot, it has a touch of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc which mercifully takes the edge off the Merlot's usual juicy characteristics. Really woody on the nose, like the dresser at your nan's, the fine oak scent was really appealing. The flavour was rich, but not too smooth or creamy. However, there was the lightest vanilla hit and also a slight caramel note. As if from the centre of the barrel it tasted tannin rich, but not overly heavy. It's a red wine for red wine drinkers (like so many nice drops from Bordeaux), without any predominant fruit. It was one of the easiest on the pocket at Chandos, at £9.99 to take out and £14.99 drink in.



 They had a great charcuterie selection, including a super delicious looking whole leg of what I presume was a prosciutto of some description. Along with artisan breads, cheeses, and olives it is an idea place to stop for a light nibble along with a drink. They also have some lovely Italian brand snacks, including particularly epic looking pannetonne. 
Lauden chocolates

I was impressed by the chocolate selections, especially the super extravagent Lauden chocolates - probably worth stopping in there to buy yourself a coffee and have a little box of these while you watch the world go by from one of the little tables. Or just look at them for a while, they're beautiful.


The staff were also completely lovely - helpful, knowledgeable and friendly. In short, this place has everything. I have to give it 10 out of 10 Extreme Points, and urge you to stop in if you're in the area. I think I would probably live there if I could, eating cold meats and drinking wine to survive. It'd be a tough existence, but I could probably manage it.

 

Having looked at their website since my visit, I can see that they have a number of other locations in the South West. Given the chance, I will be trying them also. This is exactly the sort of place that I have experienced in California, in Spain and in France, and am always disappointed I do not experience to the same quality in the UK. Well done Chandos.


The Badger Ales Big Pie-Dea Competition

Given the amount of time I spend writing about, thinking about, creating and eating food, it was a real honour to have my idea for a pie selected as one of the finalists for the Badger Ales competition. As you may already have seen, we've got stuck into National Pie Week already, so this was the perfect way to send this slightly bizarre foodie celebration to a close.

Being picked to be in the last 8 from 650 entries, by a judging panel including Guardian journalist, Fiona Beckett was a surprise and being invited to the Hall and Woodhouse in Bath for the finals was just the icing on the cake.

The event was held at the Hall & Woodhouse in Bath and it was a really informal, friendly event. The pub itself has some really stunning architecture, with its statement staircase and rooftop terrace. It certainly seemed like a gerat location for this homely event.

The super friendly bar staff were handing out half pint tasters of Badger Ales and Prosecco. The Boy has been loving all of this - we also got sent The Countryside Sett, a tasting box of 12 Badger Ales which he had been working his way through the week before. For those of you without a Hall & Woodhouse pub nearby, you can get the ales at most supermarkets, including Aldi. The Boy has been a big fan for a while, loving the peachy tones of the Golden Glory, so this whle experience was right up his street.

We were invited to try all 8 of the finalists pies and I also got to meet most of the other finalists, which was really lovely. There was a selection of meat, vegetarian and sweet offerings. Most notable amongst them were the following:
  • Mitch Adams’s Slow-cooked diced venison and beetroot pie filling made with juniper, Poacher’s Choice and stock. This was full of really tasty pieces of venison and chunks of beetroot. I thought it suffered a little because the Poacher's Choice didn't really come through and the whole juniper berries were a little too powerful, but perhaps simplified down this would have been a real winner.
  • Ben Hutchins’ Tangle Foot stewed pork cheek with braised fennel, garlic and star anise in a suet crust. The savoury pie of the night for our tastes, the meat was soft and melting, with an unctuous gleaming gravy. I would definitely order this on a menu and was quite surprised it didn't win.
  • Bernie McTaggart’s Golden Champion A shortcrust pastry bottom, chicken balti filling with a hint of first gold and an onion bhaji topper. Not the best pie for me, but I loved the onion bhaji topping, a great idea for a lovely crispy, flavourful top - a nice change from the full on pastry offerings on the rest of the table.
And then there it was - my spiced pumpkin pie with The Boy's favourite Badger Ales Golden Glory. It had a really hefty cinnamon hit - perhaps needing a little less cinnamon and more nutmeg. But the pastry was crisp, the filling smooth and creamy. Totally delicious. I did assume that as the final judging was being done by votes on the night that I would lose out to one of the meat pies, and I was right, but I still thought my pie held its own against some stiff competition.

And soon we were all full of pie, and discussion of flavours and textures filled the air. The votes were cast and counted and the winner was announced - Neal Biddle’s Pheasant, fig, beetroot, shallot and Poacher’s Choice pie. This was a really tasty pie, the pheasant soft and yielding in a deep pink sauce, with sweet hits from the fig and beetroot. Obviously beetroot is the fashionable ingredient this year. It was a little sweet for me, but I do struggle with the whole meat and fruit combination in anything.
Yes, these are just my tasting plates. Well, I had to try them all
 The event closed with some tasty Norfolk cheeses and a really delightful wholemeal, seeded bread, which I would have gorged on, had I not been totally full of pie. And then the beer cocktail. This was totally bizarre. I've heard that beer cocktails are on the up in your fashionable establishments, but to us it tasted like a minty shandy. We stuck with it, but I don't think we'll be having another Beer-jito!



Thanks to Badger Ales for a wonderful evening and the chance to escape to Bath for a couple of days. Perhaps I need to look into more of these Foodie competitions, it was definitely a lot of fun! Thanks also to the staff at the Hall & Woodhouse. When we returned for dinner the next evening, they all remembered us and took the time to ask us about our visit to Bath, a lovely personal touch.

Monday, 3 March 2014

RECIPE: Budget steak and kidney pie

The Boy kindly grabbed a pack of steak and kidney from the reduced section today, so I can make a pie. Apparently flattery does get you everywhere and so I appear to have dutifully made one. I decided to blog about it and so started taking photos as I went, but I realised that actually I was a bit irritated at making a mental note of the quantities of things I used, because normally I don't.

I am more of an intuitive cook (in line with the Extreme Housewifery ethos) and if you don't do it already, I think you should give it a try. When I search for recipes online, I use them for inspiration - reading the ingredient list (but not the quantities particularly) and then possibly scanning the method, if something is particularly complicated. Otherwise, I wing it. I think it's the best way to cook. That way you make do with what you have in the cupboard, waste less food and also have a shorter shopping list because you can just go with whatever's cheap. I reckon if people got more comfortable in the kitchen then it would help save everyone pennies.

For my pie, I used the £1.10 pack of steak and kidney. It's definitely on the way out, so I knew it needed to be cooked today, but that's no problem. You could even cook some up and freeze it for later. The pastry was a quick mix I got from Approved Food for about 20p a packet so cheaper than flour. Approved Foods delivery charges are quite expensive so can obliterate the saving you make so make sure you have a lot of cupboard space so you can order the maximum weight of stuff. Search for 'case price' to find the cheapest bulk deals.

The mushrooms are from an Aldi family pack, so about 40p worth. Taking into account the odd bit of this and that I also added I think this whole pie easily costs only £2-£2.50. It serves 6-8, so not a bad price per portion. If you can get your veg from the reduced shelf too, obviously it'd be even cheaper.

Steak and Kidney Pie

Ingredients

  • Pack of steak and kidney
  • Large handful of mushooms
  • 2 onions
  • Couple of cloves of garlic
  • Squirt of tomato puree
  • Sprinkle of smoked paprika
  • Half a beef stock cube
  • 2 spoons of flour
  • Splash of port
  • Bag of pastry mix

Method

 Put your meat in a bag with a couple of spoons of seasoned flour and shake until coated.
Mix up your pastry and put in the fridge.


While the pastry chills, brown off your steak and kidney in a hot pan in batches. I found a splash of oil kept this going and made nice crispy bits in the pan. Put the meat to one side.


In the same pan, fry the onions until translucent. Add the mushrooms, a squirt of tomato puree and a dash of smoked paprika.


When the mushrooms are starting to cook down, add a splash of port, and bubble it for a minute or two. It will start to thicken straight away because of the flour, so then add your stock cube and enough boiling water to come just under the ingredients.


Bubble away lightly for 30 minutes to reduce and thicken. Stir occasionally, because the flour will thicken most at the bottom so you want to mix it in and not let it catch.


While this is bubbling away, you can roll out your pastry and a lid and then stick em back in the fridge to chill. This is a good time to get your oven preheated. I go for about 190-200'C - that's the temperature that everything in the world cooks at.


Fill your pastry case with the filling and crimp around the edges.


Poke a hole for the steam in the middle and get it in the oven quick, before your pastry melts completely.


Bake for about 40 minutes, or until done. During this time I boiled up some potatoes for mash and then whacked in some frozen peas.
 

Serve to much applause and gratefullness from your significant other.


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