Sunday, 31 January 2016

Valentine's Round-Up


With Valentine's Day coming up I thought I could post some pointers to older as well as new posts you might be interested in:

Affordable Token Gifts



Red Velvet Cake with relatively low sugar and saturated fat but without compromising on it feeling like a luxurious treat!

Glorious Chocolate Cake with Marshmallow Cream

9 Home Crafted and Affordable Gift Ideas, including homemade sweets ideas

Gingerbread Hearts (or make gingerbread men and paint red icing hearts on their chests)

Chocolate Hearts (using heart cookie cutters instead of Easter shapes)

Balloon Craft

Don't forget to browse pre-loved or charity shops, or library book sales; I have found numerous lovely items that seem untouched, unused and sometimes with packaging still in tact.  Pre-loved and charity shops even often sell very nice jewellery pieces for bargain prices.


Nice Affordable and Easy Meals to Treat Your Love


 

Ale and Mustard Steak Stew, or...
Brandy and Prune Steak Stew, or...
Gin and Hedgerow Berry Steak Stew, or...
Steak Stew with Whisky and Swede 
Cheatballs and Spaghetti
Cocoa and Bean Enchiladas
Gammon with Cumberland Gravy
Smoked Salmon and Cream Cheese Pasta with Lemon and Black Pepper

Butternut Casserole
Creamed Cauliflower
Pear Mash

Red Velvet Cake
Glorious Chocolate Cake with Marshmallow Cream
Chocolate and Almond Marble Cake

Wishing you a lovely Valentine's Day!   How will you be spoiling loved ones this year?

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Why Libraries?


Cilip (the professional body of libraries) have launched a petition to get the government to look at their lawful obligations regarding library provision.

Why protest library closures?

Well they provide a social and educational community hub, with:
a wide range of non-fiction and fiction
internet access
not-for-profit room hire
courses in IT, research and available resources
help and resources for those seeking work online
research support from information professionals
promotion and opportunity for local businesses
affordable access to entertainment, whether through events or new films on DVD
hot drinks, warmth and welcoming atmosphere
social groups such as book clubs, craft clubs, and so much more
children's and older person's groups
school holiday entertainment and free activities, and competitions

It is very possible I have missed something.

But who uses libraries anymore?

I hear and read comments such as this occasionally.  Well, just because one person has internet access, money for cheap second hand books and access to those shops within walking distance or over the internet, or has a car to get to the nearest city library, or doesn't have an interest in mixing with or meeting others with shared interests, or has a job, or is able to use their own internet connection and has the confidence and ability to search for a new job... doesn't mean that everyone has those luxuries.

Libraries right now are full of people who are meeting new parents as their children enjoy a free or low-cost yet quality playgroup; and with unemployed people struggling to get to grips with internet job searching who have been passed along to the library by the too-busy jobcentres; and the people whose printers just failed and they need their cinema/travel tickets right now; and families looking for entertainment on film night but cannot afford the new movie and refuse to download it illegally; and the students looking for a quiet place in which they can focus on their learning with all the resources they need (internet, computers, coffee that doesn't cost as much as an internet cafe); and the young people who share a room looking for a quiet place; and the older people who can't afford the heating and so head across the street for a hot drink, a read of the paper and warmth; and the recently retired who are looking to meet new people with shared interests at hobby clubs; and the kids who are finished school but no one is home so are doing homework research on the PCs or, more likely, playing online games; and the kids whose parents can't afford profit-making extra-curricular groups so attend the book groups, gaming groups, writing groups...

I know I have missed something this time.

 Without libraries, all of this is gone. People become more isolated with less access to resources and therefore to socialisation, education or work.

What sort of society resents or would prevent these people having such access?

"I'm alright, Jack" springs to mind when people question the point of libraries.

I would love it if you could join me in signing Cilip's petition.   

We use our local libraries (our branch and main) for reading books, information books, the Internet in a dedicated study setting, fun kids' activities, themed events and performances, and children's groups such as Rhymetimes, Storytime and Chatterbooks.  There is always children's colouring and drawing apparatus out at our local libraries and galleries so no matter when we find ourselves with an hour to fill, we have somewhere to go for free.

How do you use your library?

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

A Winter Warmer: Slow Cooker South African Style Beans with Creamed Cauli


It is pretty awful here in the UK today as the remnants of Storm Jonas greets us.  We are praying for everyone's wellbeing and for those who have already sadly experienced its effects.  Here at Acorn Towers, we are fortunately tucked safely in our home and are very thankful that we can be looking to warming fuel to stave off the cold.

I have cooked South African style beans this week to great success. The fruitiness and warmth of the mustard makes a really lovely combination.  Although I had intended to use apricot jam as I have seen it used in South African inspired dishes, I did not have any in; luckily, a combination of dried apricots plus homemade marmalade made a more than acceptable substitute for flavour.  The mix of beans comes thanks to Asda's 'Salad Bean' mix from their dried pulses range and they offer a really attractive mix of colour to brighten they stew.  If you really want to add a smoky umami flavour in the form of chew rather adding smoked paprika, say, to the chew of beans, you could add chopped bacon rashers or diced gammon.

Another success has been replacing mashed potato with a creamy cauli mash for not a great deal more cost than potatoes: I leave a 900g bag of frozen cauli out to thaw then blend it until smooth with milk and salt; I then heat it through in a saucepan.  It is really yummy and has a very mild taste, due to using frozen rather than fresh albeit out of season.  To up the carb element of the meal missing with the potatoes, you can add ground rice to the creamy cauilflower or simply add bread to the table.

How we make the South African style beans:

Sunday, 17 January 2016

French Calendar / Daily Weather Activity

2016 French Calendar Activity printable

I have adapted our everyday preschool daily weather and date activity so that we have reminder to practice our everyday conversational French.

You can give the children the opportunity to fill in the weather description pictures, with magazine cut outs or drawings for the following boxes:
it is nice weather -  il fait beau
it is windy - il y a du vent
it is raining - it pleut
it is snowing - il neige

This should be a great way to introduce and revise days, months, seasons and weather.

The older ones will be able to go over the dates and big numbers too.

I hope you are finding these printables useful!  Please do let me know if the kids are enjoying them!


Hearty Cereal Bars

with coconut, raisins, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds and lemon

The problem I have with some cereal bars is their flimsy nature - all seed and brittle oat - or their syrupy sweetness.  It is so nice to have something easy to grab for busy mornings though, and so here are our favourite ones; they are solid enough to eat easily due to the flour element, and light enough because of the raising agent to enjoy as what feels like a treat.  They are easy to adapt to incorporate different flavours, to suit your palate or whatever happens to be hanging around.

The cereal bars in the photograph have sesame seeds, pumpkins seeds, coconut and raisins, and also include some lemon pulp made from soaking the shells in water until softened and then blitzing in a processor until smooth - a small spoonful really zests up all sorts of dishes.

The cereal bar I am eating as I type (a test of course, to make sure they are suitable for tomorrow's breakfast) has linseeds, ground almonds, currants, sultanas and dried apricots.

You could have them plain if you really like, without any fruit or nuts, and serve as a biscuit with a cuppa for tea time.

Be warned though... at all times, they are very very moreish.

How we make them:

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Pre-School & Early Years Calendar Craft

2016 Calendar Printable (pictured: our 2013 version)
I wanted to share this fun calendar with you all.  As you can see, we made this one back in 2013 and it is still in daily use!  It is starting to get a little shabby now but it is doing well considering.  I always meant to make a fresh one for each year but we never seem to get around to it; it has hung on for so long though,passing down through the kids, that this calendar now feels too much like a heirloom to replace!

The printable does not include the weather chart; this is a great preschooler craft activity.  We cut little bits of blue paper, then stuck cut outs for the sun and the snow box, drew on a grey cloud with raindrops, and stuck cotton wool on for cloudy (see photo above.)

It is a lovely way to start the day with preschoolers and early years kids (the older ones like to listen in quietly too, remembering, I think, the days when they were exploring the topic with the very same calendar.) We start by chanting through the days, and talking about which it is today.  We then chant through the months and talk about which month it is... "and, therefore it is *season*",  We then discuss what the weather is like that day... "is it sunny, cloudy, raining or snowing?"

Do you have any tips for introducing the days and dates to your preschoolers/early years students?


Sunday, 10 January 2016

New Year Resolutions: Diets and Exercise


The ideas of diets, and particularly diets as a New Year's resolution, bothers me a little.

Why?

Well, your diet is simply what you eat.  We all have a diet.

There has to be a balance that is maintained as your way of life, rather than "trying to be good" which I hear people say as if it is a phase they are going through.

Your daily way of eating has to work for you. It has to reflect your day to day living.

There is no point trying to eat melon on a cold January morning before work, looking forward to a cold sushi pack for lunch, and eschewing potatoes because they are too carb heavy on a steak and greens dinner.  Yeah, I might lose weight but I'm not going to be happy.  Or warm. Or therefore healthy.

Meal planning plays a huge part in enabling a balanced diet, as well as saving your money and stress, as you can stand back and see the whole; switch things around to get that balance. I tend to have either porridge for breakfast, or a handful of walnuts because I don't usually want anything first thing. Lunch for me is salad with proteins or homemade pulse-vegetable soups, whichever, I have it with oatcakes - bread does bloat me too much but I'm not throwing the baby carbs out with the yeasty bathwater.  Then a fist portion of starch (my fist, not my husbands and not my five-year-old's) goes on my dinner.  I make sure high-fat dishes aren't an every day thing and are balanced out with naturally lower fat one-pots; the plate is filled out with greens or salad.  I often serve dessert nowadays; sometimes I have some, sometimes not, but if I do I have a portion akin to the smallest kids rather than piled high.  A snuggle down snack time is time for a cup of tea or, if I really feel the need for sweetness, a milky cup of cocoa.

Keeping active is just as important as the diet.  Eating a low fat high sugar yoghurt in front of Eastenders is no help whatsoever to balanced weight and health.  I get plenty of moving around and running after the kids plus household chores, as I am sure most parents do.  I also get plenty of outdoor walking in when I am visiting and attending groups around our hilly area.  I still need to make room for keeping on top of toning exercises....

On weekday mornings, I usually manage to get in 30 minutes of Yoga now the smallest one is big enough not to crawl across my throat when prostrate etc; the kids all keenly join in - we like Yolanda Pettinato's Simply Yoga DVD (the video is on YouTube but I'm not sure of the copyright there.) Then when I set the kids off on their morning maths, and the little one on her online learning games I try to get up to 30 minutes on the exercise bike (bought years ago, they are often offered on sites like Freecycle and Freegle).  Cycling on an exercise bike is undeniably boring so I watch Food Network on low volume, still able to help the kids with their numbers from my perch if they need me and without disturbing them.   Just like with the meal planning, it can help to timetable your own activities into the kids' schoolwork activities so that the visual reminder is right there on the wall.

I'm not saying I'm perfect by any means.  I occasionally eat too much. I sometimes grab a sneaky biscuit or two at community groups.  At Christmas, I put on a few pounds with all the lovely baking and sweet gifts, then as I go back to normal it eventually comes off again.  On the whole, it evens out.

How do you feel about "diets"?  How do you try to keep active and healthy within a busy schedule?

10 Ways to Help Elderly Neighbours or Relatives


It can be easy to let others, especially those who are not always visible or make themselves heard, to slip down my priorities, or even - ashamedly - my mind.  The voices will not speak up, as they do not wish to be a burden.  I have to remember to make that extra trip to hear them.

On the other hand, I hear people so often patronise and belittle their elders. I try my very best to go to my elderly - and sometimes lonely - neighbours and relatives with good will, respect and let them lead the interaction.

The best ways I have found to lend a helping hand are:
  1. Just pop in "on the way to the shops" or "just after church" etc.  Then a person might not feel they have been any trouble, if they might have otherwise done.
  2. Take an extra portion of something you have made when you do pop in.  A simple "I thought you might like to try a piece" or "I cooked too much."
  3. Just give a ring before you pop in.  Some people value their privacy and do not like unexpected guests.  A phone call before visiting also gives you the opportunity to offer to collect something from the library or shops, or pick up a prescription, on your way .
  4. If you have children who have been playing or eating during the visit, there is a good excuse to offer running the vacuum over the floor or giving the cups you all drank from a quick wash at the end of the visit. 
  5. Make sure the person knows that if you are able to, you can give lifts to hospital/GP appointments.  I have a relative who I have accompanied to appointments by taxi - it is the company more than a lift she appreciates.
  6. Check that the person is receiving regular medical check-ups, has enough medication, has enough food and warmth.
  7. I have found it is late afternoon and evening that relatives and neighbours can feel lonely.  This is when the visitors seem to dry up.  Try popping in then, or give the person a phone call in the evening.  A phone call is so easy to do and is so often very much appreciated.  I do this once the younger children are settled in bed.
  8. Make sure others are popping by, whether family members, another neighbour or church friends.  Try to get an idea of if there are any gaps in visits between appointments and others who pop by, so that you can fill that gap with a visit or simply with a phone call that day.
  9. Include them to any gatherings at your home, making sure they can be given a lift or have a taxi booked.  Also, offer to take the person out, rather than just popping by, even if it is to a nearby coffee shop in a taxi, or to sit in a local park for an hour in the warmer weather.
  10. Listen.  This is so important.  If I can't do anything else practical, giving a person enough of my time to listen is so simple.
Just as important though, which I sometimes find difficult, is to remember to look after myself.  Becoming over-stretched, tired and ill will bring no help to anyone.  When it gets difficult, a phone call can take place of a visit.  Sometimes, if I have had a lot on, my husband has kindly offered to nip along in the car with a tub of dinner or cake as an excuse to drop by for ten minutes.  It really is just keeping up a steady contact so that the family's friendship is regularly present in the neighbour or relative's life; that they know they can rely on it.

Do you have any tips for helping to relieve loneliness and be a help to elderly relatives and neighbours?  I would certainly appreciate any ideas you might share.

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Simple Beloved Budget Pasties & Turnovers


Pineapple Dhansak Turnover

As January sees the pinch - in pennies and the cold weather - I want to share a cheap yet hugely satisfying and warming lunch for heading back to the grindstone.

The fillings we use for our lunchtime turnovers are free effort wise.  A one pot meal that has been cooked for dinner can go into these pasties for the following day or two.  If the sauce is a little thin to make eating the pasties/turnovers easy, I slake a spoonful of cornflour with a little water then mix this into the pot of leftovers to use as the filling; it should set up nicely as it cools after baking, making the final product easier to eat without reheating and using your fingers .

When everyone else is clearing the table after dinner, I mix up a batch of pastry or, most usually, scone U.S. biscuit dough as it takes a quick mix.  No need to roll the scone dough; you just need to press each portion out onto a greased baking tray before spooning the cooled filling on one half, then folding the dough over and pressing the edges to seal. Once baked and cooled, pop into a container or wrap up for the next day.  Very little effort with big rewards...

Some of our most recent and popular fillings:

  • Sausage Casserole
  • Savoury Mince U.S. hamburger and brown gravy with vegetables
  • Pineapple Dhansak (a richly flavoured spiced lentil one-pot) - pictured above
  • Coconut Dhal
  • Baked Beans (tinned, with or without cheese, chopped rashers or Frankfurters also from Holland and Barratt instore)
  • Retro Curries ie. with apple, sultanas, tomatoes and starch-thickened stock gravy
  • Pulled "Pork" (we grate this with large mushrooms and cook it in a sauce recipe)
  • Tuna and sweetcorn (a sauce made for a pasta dish)
  • Bolognese sauce
  • Saag Aloo
  • Tomato & vegetable pasta sauce with cheese
Pretty much any chunky sauces, and gravied casseroles should work.

Do you have any thoughts on what might be good in the turnovers?  Ideas are always welcome!

How I make my turnover dough:

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Re-Purposing Christmas Cards

Now that all of the cards are coming down, it seems a shame to waste them.

Here are some of our favourite ideas for reusing them:

Gift Labels
Cut out smaller pictures or features in scenes (a snowman, a cutesy Victorian choir,etc) into small gift labels for next year.  Simply punch a hole in the top corner and tie ribbon through it.

New Homemade Christmas Cards
My favourite way to reuse Christmas cards is to recycle them into more!  As for the gift labels above, cut out a picture, scene or feature from a scene, as well as the greetings and printed messages from the fronts and inside of the cards. Come next Christmas: cut an A4 sheet of thin card in half across the portrait width; fold each piece in half to create a card, scoring down the crease well to make a nice neat fold; using either PVA glue or a sticky tab which gives a nice 3D built-up effect, attach your picture cut-out to the front of your card; also attach your greetings to the front and messages inside. Remember to buy some envelopes to fit.  The card and envelopes mean that you are not saving much in the way of money, but it is a really nice festive activity and a well-done handmade card always seems to be very well received.

Team Game for a Crowd: Christmas Card Jigsaw
This was shared by someone who has been running local children's groups for years.  You will need as many cards as there are teams, maybe more for red herrings.  Cut the pictures into two pieces for younger players, or four for older ones   Mix the pieces up in the centre of the playing area.  Set up teams who have to tag team finding a matching piece each until the team has the full picture.

If you have less children playing at once, you could cut each card into eight.

Lone Player or up to a Couple of Players: Christmas Card Pairs
Cut several pictures into two halves.  Place them all face down in a few rows.  Player turns over one piece at a time to try finding a matching pair; turn unmatched cards face down again.  Continue until they have all been matched up.  You can take turns to play this one.