Tuesday, 31 July 2012

First Foodie Pen Pal Package!

My sister, who is a far more experienced and professional blogger than I, runs the UK's Foodie Pen Pals scheme (FPP for short), which she found via The Lean Green Bean, a fabulous foodie blog from Across The Pond. The basic idea is this: everyone involved gets a different penpal each month. Penpals don't send to each other, so the person you're sending to is not the person sending to you. With me so far? You send your penpal a 'thoughtful, food-related parcel' containing any mix of foodie delights you like, eg home baking, local or unusual sweeties, mad crisp flavours, alternative foods and so on. You also send something hand written, like a note explaining the contents, a recipe card, whatever. There's more to it, but you just need to click on the link above or on the right to find out more.

Anyway, I joined the scheme at the beginning of July, and I received my first box last Monday. Which, incidentally, as I gave out my work address, made going back after a week off a little more bearable. It came from Dannii, who writes Hungry Healthy Happy, and it contained a plethora of interestingly healthy alternatives to my usual sweets and snacks. Dannii's a total inspiration - her blog shares the recipes, diet tips and exercise routines that helped her lose 98lbs and keep it off. (98lbs, to those of you now reaching for your calculators, is seven stone. Seven. Count them. Wow.)

Now, I will admit that I'm a sceptic when it comes to health foods. I love, love, LOVE my sweets and treats and I have the true glutton's deeply-rooted suspicion of anything not bursting with sugars, calories and atery-clogging saturates. Sweets and treats, after all, aren't meant to be good for you, right? Enough of the hippy dippy nonsense, bring on the fat grams! However, FPP is designed to introduce you to different ways of thinking about food, different types of food, different ways of meeting it, treating it, and most of all eating it.

So here is my parcel as it looked when I first opened it.

Full of potential, full of interesting shapes, colours and smells. And it's living up to that potential. Dannii's letter explained that she had chosen some unusual goodies from her favourite health food shop - Unicorn in Manchester - for me to try. But she had also included a little treat of her own making: raw brownies. Not raw brownies as you or I would make them; that would have been horrendously messy apart from anything else, but brownies made from raw foods like almonds, dates, cocoa all ground up and smooshed up together to make little sticky, sweet, intensely-chocolatey-flavoured blocks of yum.

Here they are:

The taste is a little surprising to those of us more used to the traditional variety, being extremely cocoa-ey, but it is really, really delicious once your head stops sending 'traditional brownie' messages to your taste buds, and it's incredibly more-ish, particularly if you're a fan of dark chocolate. I happen to love dark chocolate, so these little bites suit me right down to the ground. And the great thing is they're so intense that one teeny one keeps you going for aaaaaaages. Aaaaaaaaaages. 

Next up, Unicorn's own range of goodies. 

We've got cocoa nibs, garlic sticks and sumac, which is a spice I've never used before. It's lightly lemony, so I tried some on grilled salmon. The taste is less intense than I expected - from the colour you expect something with the strength of chilli or paprika, but it's very, very subtle. It went well with the fish, though. I'll definitely use it again, and next time I won't be so tentative with it.  

Cocoa nibs, Dannii tells me, are great for baking because while you can munch on chocolate chips as much as you like, you can't do that with cocoa nibs, you have to cook them first. Excellent idea for preventing that desperate late-night 'I....must...have..chocolate...' snack attack that can strike even the most iron-willed healthy eater from time to time. You know the one, when you will, cheerfully and without shame, rummage through the rubbish bin for a chocolate wrapper you're sure there's still some chocolate on... No? Just me then. Hmm. Anyway, I'm looking forward to trying them and will let you know how it goes in future updates.

I was a little apprehensive about the garlic sticks, fearing they might be a bit overwhelming. But no. They were absolutely delicious. Crunchy and satisfying, with just the right amount of garlic seasoning. They are long gone. Looooooong gone. 

Finally, there were some cherry raisins; a mint raw brownie bar; a jar of apple purée; a dinky wee carton of almond milk; a pot of apple and blueberry purée and a raspberry brownie bar. This woman, by her own admission, loves brownies. 

Being similarly inclined, I naturally consumed the raspberry brownie almost immediately. It was good, but not as good as Dannii's home made variety - the texture was much drier - but the flavour was very nice. I've had cherry raisins before, and I had a sneaky feeling they might go rather nicely with Dannii's brownies. And they do. Oh, they do. I'll be using them again, either in my own version of brownies, or in some kind of mash-up of Dannii's recipe, which you can find here. I'm also looking forward to finding out more about baking with the apple purée, which Dannii says can be used in place of butter or oil. Hmm. Should be interesting. 

So, have I changed my mind? Will I be converting from Star Bars and Walker's crisps to health food options? Well, no. Like I said, I love my treats. But, perhaps, I will experiment with some of the ideas Dannii has given me, and make the occasional substitution. Every little helps, right?

To close, my thanks to Dannii for a lovely, thoughtful and interesting parcel, and a warning to all of you fans of my own internationally-famous chocolate brownies: next time they might be raw... 

Want to know what I sent? Check out 2 Weddings, 1 Bride - the link is on the right.

Monday, 30 July 2012

Amphibian antics

I went to Mum and Dad's this weekend, as much to see the frogs (see 'Frog frenzy') as for any other reason. However, in the true spirit of all wildlife when one is intent of observing it, the little buggers were nowhere to be seen. I am forced, therefore, to submit some of my favourite frog pictures by way of a salve to my disappointed heart.

Damn frogs.

Awwwwww... look at him! He's definitely smiling. Definitely.

Heheheh... peekaboo!

My pal Jacqui took this one. You can't help feeling he struck that pose deliberately.


A closer view of the hypnofrog. DON'T LOOK DIRECTLY AT IT!!

Remember having pen and pencil toppers when you were at school? I can has this one pls? 

Aaaaaaand finally... Combine two things I love. Three, if you count Harry Potter. Ta-dah!!!

Aaah, that's better. 

Friday, 27 July 2012

It's not seedy, it's sustainable

There's a new badge on my blog. It says I'm a Seedy Pen Pal. That's a tad harsh, to be honest. I may, on occasion, border on risque, but seedy? Nah.

Naturally that's not what it means. It's part of a new scheme based on Foodie Pen Pals set up in the UK by my clever sister Rock Salt - more of that in a later post. Seedy Pen Pals is designed to bring together gardeners of all abilities who want to swap, well, seeds.

In a (rather truncated) nutshell, it works like this: you get paired up with a fellow gardening enthusiast. Fellow enthusiast gets paired up with another, and so on. So it's not a swap, the people you're sending to will be sending to someone else. Do you see? You then send a parcel of seeds off to your penpal, along with any tips / instructions / educated guesses about how to sow and grow, and you get a parcel from someone else in return! You can find out more by clicking on the badge over there --->.

This has all come about as a result of a decision on my part to take over the care of the communal garden I share with my tenement neighbours. It was kept tidy by our factor, but nothing more. And by 'kept tidy' I mean 'attacked with a strimmer once or twice a year'. So I've been getting in there with spade, fork, hoe, shears, loppers, secateurs and saw, and attempting to create something with a little more wow.

It's very early days, but you can see my efforts so far (if you want to) here. There are some nice flowers and I've had a go at some veg - peas, carrots, potatoes and tomatoes are going well; cucumbers, gherkins and radishes are coming along nicely; beetroot I'm not sure about and I'm afraid the turnips just didn't work at all. So I thought joining something like Seedy Pen Pals might provide some helpful tips on growing veg in a garden where there isn't a lot of sun. Not because of the crappy summer we're having, just because the building gets in the way.

First match up will be on August 5th; I shall let you know how it goes!

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Frog frenzy

There has been much excitement in the Grady family in the last couple of weeks, as we welcomed no less than FOUR new arrivals to the clan. Yes, four little bundles of loveliness hopped their way into our lives and, in the process, into my dad's garden pond.

I'm talking about frogs, people. FROGS. 

This is by way of being a momentous event. The pond was created some years ago, and has been the scene of many a small drama: the disappearing fish which, it transpired, were being eaten by a heron; the sudden and unexpected appearance of fish fry, six of which are growing into a new population to replace the heron victims; the fox barking an alarm when the lining sprang a leak; the Dread Winter of 2010 which was miraculously survived by quite a lot of the inhabitants... But to date, no frogs. Not one. And suddenly there they are, four of them! Maybe it's some kind of froggy bus service thing? They appear to be common frogs but to be fair I'm not that up on my herpetology so they could be any kind, really.

The first new inhabitant appeared just over a week ago. Dad saw the neighbourhood cat chasing something across the green, and assumed it was a mouse. Then there was a splash as the 'mouse' took a desperate dive for safety and landed among the fishes. Naturally Dad was perturbed. A scuba diving mouse? Surely not. So he crept forward for a look and there, hiding among the weeds, was this fella:

A brammer, is he not? Now, as I said in my first post, I love frogs. LOVE them. I don't know why, they're not cuddly, you can't really pet them and they're a bugger to fit for a leash, but still. They're so cute. Those inscrutable little faces, the beady little eyes, the crazy legs and feet - what's not to love? Look at this wee guy, actually sitting on an actual lily pad, eyeing up the pondskater next door in a hungry fashion. How could you not just think 'squeeeeee!!!'? (If there are any lovers of French food reading this, thinking 'yum!' - get out. Get out now. There will be no breading or seasoning or deep-frying of this little fella. Not on my watch.) 

So. Some days later, Mum decided to have a wee peek at Mr Frog, to see how he was getting on with his fishy neighbours. A leap, a splash, a flurry of comedy legs, and a second frog hopped into view. Quite what the two of them were up to before Mum appeared I don't care to speculate, but oh, the excitement. It was like something from a David Attenborough programme. Except not in glorious HD slow motion. Somebody call the BBC!

Here is the second visitor, captured on camera just before a dive into the pond. A chubby little chappie (or possibly chappess) and clearly a bold adventurer, as he was out and about, checking out the neighbourhood, in general defiance of any cats, herons, seagulls or lawnmowers that happened to be lurking in wait. By this stage I was, needless to say, beside myself. I could barely wait to get up there and see the little critters. 

I'd hardly caught my breath from the last piece of news when more came in: another two frogs in the pond! One of them, according to Dad, was 'zebra striped'. He sent this picture to illustrate:

'Wow', I thought. 'He's the best yet.' Delightedly, I sent the photos to Froglife, hoping they would be able to identify the type. Imagine my total over-reaction when they responded, saying: 'We don't think that's a UK frog...' Oh. My. God. It's a new species, previously unknown to science and discovered, albeit accidentally, by My Dad. It shall be named after him, Froggius Daddus, and stand as an eternal monument to the excellence of his pond. Or not. Further internet searching suggested this was in fact a Striped Marsh Frog, native to Australia. What the...?? How in the wide, wide world did it get here? 

Alert the media! Scramble the Frog Squad! Send in the boffins! And, once again, call the BBC! And then came the phone call. Mum was ringing to inform me that this, in fact,  is neither a species new to science nor Frog No. 4. It is, sadly, a photo Dad found on the web. He thought it looked like the little fella from his pond and in sharing it with his family almost sparked an International Incident among the world's herpetologists. Thankfully we discovered the error in time and were able to head off the Scientific Discovery Teams ready to congregate on Glasgow's South Side at that very moment. Phew.

Today's news on the frog front is that Dad, for some reason best known only to himself, decided to spray the surface of the pond with the hose. This, apparently, seriously disgruntled the newly-settled froggy population, all of whom seem now to have disappeared. Silly Dad. I am hoping they are merely hopping mad (ahahahaha) and will return in due course. Please hope with me, because a world where no frogs live in my Dad's pond is, suddenly, a smaller and sadder place to be. 

***UPDATE*** There has been a sighting of the alleged 'zebra' frog! 

Ahahahaha. No, this is him really. Quite what natural history programmes Dad has been watching I don't know... But still! The frog has returned!!

Monday, 9 July 2012

Monday musings

So I read a thing in the paper today about how consumer use of plastic bags is on the rise. This was written in such a way as to suggest it was A Bad Thing. It so happens I agree with this view - plastic bags are Not Good. Clearly, they have their uses. They can, for example, be left on trains, filled with the remnants of somebody's kerry-oot. Or they can be used as impromptu headgear during sudden showers of rain. They can be artfully draped from the tree branches along the sides of country roads - a phenomenon some friends of mine call, rather delightfully, 'witches' knickers'. This latter application has the added bonus of staying around for a good long time, gradually seeding the surrounding branches until a large part of the tree is covered in tattered, greying shreds waving gently in the breeze. (Incidentally, does anyone else remember when this particular ecological niche seemed to be largely taken up by the innards of cassette tapes? Time was you could hardly walk the length of yourself without seeing a tangled brown mass glinting among the branches of the nearest horse chestnut. But I digress.)

Sad pic of sad turtle eating bag
Despite the many and varied uses to which a plastic bag can be put, including of course that for which it is most renowned - cutting off the circulation to a large part of your hand with handles apparently made from razor blades - they are an Ecological Menace. Some recent random browsing on my part turned up a collection of mournful pictures showing various creatures wrapped in their non-biodegradable embrace. Whales, turtles and seabirds, apparently, eat them, mistaking them for jellyfish or other edible morsels. I'm quite sure the advance of the plastic bag affects other wildlife too - what one might do to the average animal digestive tract doesn't really bear thinking about.


It is unfair to place the burden of all this on the shoulders of the average consumer. Like many others, I attempt to be a Responsible Shopper, and have a collection of Bags For Life that would impress even the most ardent eco-warrior. But also like many others, I have a tendency to forget the damn things and end up buying yet another out of pure guilt at the supermarket checkout (which, by the way, I'm sure is a devious plan by BFL makers. Make 'em impossible to carry around in the average handbag by using that stiff and scratchy stuff that simply refuses to fold into a manageable shape.) Last time I cleaned out my hall cupboard, I found a bag of bags, holding nothing but dust bunnies the size of your Auntie and the remnants of one very dead spider. Ridiculous.

So. I have a very simple solution. The people who make plastic bags need to start using biodegradable materials. It's entirely do-able. We now have cornstarch bags for home composting use. Why aren't all plastic bags made of the same stuff? OK, it's probably more expensive. So what? Shops are charging us for them anyway, it's surely just a matter of passing the cost along. They might not be that strong, but again so what? How many times has a regular bag given way at the seams just as you were lifting it into the car / getting onto the bus / walking home, leaving a trail of consumer goods in your wake as you stagger along under the weight of your weekly shop, wondering vaguely if this is the time your hands will actually fall off? And how strong does a bag have to be to live forever in the cupboard under the sink once you've emptied it of what remains of your shopping? The only sensible solution to the pestilence of plastic is to stop making the stuff. It shouldn't be up to us to sort this out - well, not entirely, anyway. We can continue amassing vast collections of jute and hessian carriers and forgetting to take them with us every time we go shopping, but it's up to the people who feed this consumer addiction to start stepping up to the plate. Nuff said.

(Although I feel special mention should be given to the unique smell of those weird blue bags you get in most corner shops. What's up with that?)

Friday, 6 July 2012

Post the first - what am I doing here?

Ohai! Well, in answer to the above, I should say that I haven't quite decided yet. It just seemed like everyone else had a blog, so I wanted one too. There's no theme here, though. No subject of particular interest. It's just a look inside my head. It seems only fair, after all, to give the rest of the world the chance to marvel at the crystalline caverns of my astonishing mind. Some days it might be venting spleen like Mount Vesuvius with a staggering case of heartburn; others it might be gently wafting zephyrs of cogitation across the pretty flowers and burgeoning crops of my little garden. Basically I'll be sharing whatever goes through my head. This is unlikely to be of interest to the Powers That Be; or to change the world in any way; but you never know and so I shall begin...

My name is Joan. I live in Glasgow, which is in many respects a wonderful town. Not THE Wonderful Town, obviously, but Glasgow has a character and personality all its own. It's like a big, good-natured, straight-talking, hard-living bon vivant with a heart of gold, a wealth of slightly blue jokes and an endless supply of fabulous stories. The kind of guy you sometimes bump into on family occasions- he's usually someone's uncle or something - who you end up having a brilliant night with despite initially thinking 'Oh God please don't let him come over and talk to me'. It's not a beautiful town, although there are some incredibly beautiful bits; and it's not without its problems - but hey, where isn't? So if you look past the neds* and the jakies** and ignore the wee hairies*** pushing prams around the town centre, Glasgow's a great place to live.

What else do you need to know about me? I'm lucky enough to have a great family life and a respectable number of incredible friends. I work in media and communications and largely hate it. I have a rich and varied range of likes and dislikes, but I won't say more here or there will only be one post on this blog and it will be eight million words long. I have all my own hair and what teeth are left are also mine. No pets, not even a goldfish because I get terribly upset when they inevitably leave me, especially when they pretend to be dead all day then suddenly spring back into life just as I hit the flush. I'm horribly afraid of spiders but am working on it and I don't like okrah.

Oh, and I like frogs. I don't know why. It's just something about their slightly serene, slightly thoughtful expressions. Seriously. Look at this picture of a frog and tell me I'm wrong.

He's planning something, isn't he?

OK, that'll do for post #1. If you've enjoyed it, come back for post #2. If not - well, just don't come back. Some life decisions  are very simple.

*non-Glaswegians: think reincarnated seagulls wearing shellsuit trousers and skip caps so far back on their heads they look like they're stapled on. Usually found swigging 'Buckie' and swaggering down the centre of any particularly busy road, especially if there are buses thundering along it at 50mph. Also noted for an inability to pronounce consonants.

**this time think reincarnated pigeons. Especially the ones with the stumpy feet. That's it.  

***Female chavs