Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Halloween Cuisine: Three Easy Pumpkin Recipes

Halloween is upon us, which means there are a lot of pumpkins in kitchens this week! If you have pumpkin flesh or seeds left over, read on for my tried-and-tested tasty pumpkin recipes!

I got a small-ish pumpkin for £1 in Tesco. To give you some sense of the amount you'll need, my little pumpkin weighed 1750g when it was intact, and yielded around 1350g flesh and a lot of seeds! Don't buy a massive pumpkin unless you have a small army to feed!

This is the first time I've bought a pumpkin and NOT carved it, so I drew a little face on it to make up for it!

OK, on to the recipes:

Pumpkin Soup

The Boyfriend thinks I'm obsessed with soup, but that's ok because he's gone on a Uni trip to Holland (alright for some!). That also means I was free to play with the Big Boy Knife!

I've adapted this recipe from The Soup Bible by Debra Mayhew.

To make four large portions of pumpkin soup you will need:
  • One onion, chopped
  • 675g pumpkin flesh, peeled, cut into chunks
  • 450g potatoes, sliced
  • 600ml vegatable stock (I actually used a litre then tipped out 400ml at the end)
  • 1 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 250ml milk (you could leave this out for a vegan recipe)
  • black pepper
Soup-splattered wall...
  1. Fry the onion until soft in a little oil or butter.
  2. Add the pumpkin and potatoes. Sweat them on a low heat for ten minutes, stirring frequently.
  3. Stir in the stock, nutmeg and black pepper. Bring to the boil and simmer for around 20 minutes until the vegetables are very soft.
  4. (Pour out excess stock if you used 1 litre). Tip into a large bowl and blend the ingredients together. Try not to get it on the walls like I did.
  5. Pour the soup back into the saucepan, mix in the milk then heat gently.

Very tasty and very good for you. :)

Pumpkin Pie

I had never tried pumpkin pie before, but I followed the recipe on the BBC's Good Food website. Although I halved the recipe quantities because I had a small cake tin rather than a tart tin.

I also made my sweet shortcrust pastry from scratch, unlike Antony Worrall Thompson's lazy recipe! (We've never trusted him since he crimped pasties with a fork!). The recipe I used was from Jamie Oliver, which I also halved the quantities of.

My small pie serves six, or four greedy people!

For the pastry you will need:
Cut to fit whatever tin you have!
  • 250g plain flour
  • 50g icing sugar
  • 125g butter/margarine
  • one egg
  • a splash of milk
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon (use in place of the lemon zest listed in the recipe)

For the pie filling (in a cake tin) you will need:

  • 375g pumpkin, peeled
  • A third to a half of the pastry you made above, depending on tin size
  • 70g sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 egg
  • 15g butter, melted
  • 85ml milk
  • 1/2 tablespoon icing sugar
Please see the websites for instructions on how to make the pastry and the pumpkin pie itself.

One tip is to use a hand blender on the cooked pumpkin, rather than trying to push the stringy pumpkin flesh through a sieve. Also, wait for the pie to be fully chilled in the refridgerator before eating because it has to set.

Whilst you have the oven on, why not try the next recipe too...

Roasted Pumpkin Seeds

Even if your Halloween carvings haven't yielded enough flesh to make soup or pumpkin pie, you'll always be left with a bunch of stringy pumpkin goop and some pumpkin seeds. Why not roast the pumpkin seeds to bring out their flavour as a snack?

I followed a recipe on the All Recipes website.

Just wash the gunk off your fresh pumpkin seeds, cover with a little oil and sprinkle with salt. You then roast the seeds for around 15 minutes at a low temperature (perhaps on the lowest shelf of the oven whilst you have something else cooking). When the seeds start making a popping noise they are done. You can store them in an air tight container in the fridge.

Give one of these a try for Halloween themed food! 

I made all of these things in one morning. I had pumpkin soup followed by pumpkin pie for lunch, pumpkin seeds for a snack and then roast pumpkin for dinner. I can't get enough of it!! :)

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Should Everyone Receive a Living Wage?

Accountants KPMG found that 20% of workers (or nearly 5 million people) do not earn a “living wage”, but what does that mean?

The government sets a National Minimum Wage, currently £6.19 an hour, which companies must pay their staff. As many underpaid workers like myself know, it is almost impossible to pay for rent, food, bills and basic living costs on this wage, even when working full time.

To meet the basic standards of living, it has been estimated that people need to earn £7.20 an hour. This is dubbed the “living wage”, but unfortunately KPMG have shown that many companies prefer to pay the lowest possible amount to their employees.

This makes me angry.

Full time work should provide enough money to live on. Many companies pay the least amount they can get away with, knowing that the government will top up their employees' bank accounts with Working Tax Credits and the like. Many people, including myself, take on a second job in order to make ends meet. This leaves you feeling exhausted and more like a commodity than a valued employee.

Companies argue that they cannot afford to meet the recommended living wage, but from my experience they are shooting themselves in the foot. Paying a higher wage, even an extra 50p an hour, makes a big difference in the employee's psyche. As KPMG themselves have found, paying a living wage increases staff motivation, performance and attendance.

When you work for minimum wage, you find yourself wondering why you put up with all the hassle for such a measly reward. These jobs are usually high-turnover, with staff frequently leaving the company in the lurch for a better offer. Surely the money spent on paying the remaining staff overtime, staffing agency fees, job advertising and training a new employee could be better spent encouraging staff to be loyal to the company in the first place!

If you own a company and respect and value your staff, please pay them a living wage.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Getting to Know You (and Me)

Hello! I have been crazy busy the past few weeks, starting my PhD. The first two weeks were spent waiting for my plants to grow, but now I'm really getting into it! Cor, look at the leaves on that one!

Anyway, I was tagged by the lovely Pamela of Feral Housekeeping in a getting-to-know-you kind of game, so I thought I'd fill it in so you can get to know me a bit, if you like.. :)

The rules of the game are to link to the person who tagged you (check), post eleven random facts about yourself, answer the questions posed by the tagger, then write eleven questions of your own to ask to eleven unwitting taggees with under 200 followers.

So, 11 random facts about me:
  • I have a grade 1 certificate in the Cornish language.
  • I used to play in the school steel band. I played bass; six oil drums surrounding you with three notes on the top of each. I'd love to do it again.
  • I have a hole in the back on my skull from the operation to cure the craniosynostosis I was born with. 
  • I met David Attenborough when I worked at Kew Gardens in London. He was even wearing the blue shirt/beige trouser combo! :)
  • The place I'd most like to visit is China.
  • I am trying to wade through Harry Potter in German as a more fun way to learn. 
  • I can wiggle my nose like a rabbit.
  • I've tried some £100-a-bottle wine. It was quite nice. 
  • There's a small stone in my elbow where I fell off my bike as a child. I also broke my arm falling off my bike on another occasion! 
  • My second toe is longer than my big toe.
  • 'Bryallen' is the cornish word for 'primrose'.

Here are the questions Pamela asked me:

What was the hardest thing you ever did? The way I revised for exams at Uni wasn't good. I put myself under far too much pressure and didn't allow myself to do anything except work, eat and sleep. I even brewed a massive flask of tea so I didn't have to keep leaving my desk!

What's your favorite TV show? I don't watch much TV, but I always watch Doctor Who on iPlayer, and I'm currently loving Friday Night Dinner and Fresh Meat on 4OD. Or anything with David Attenborough, of course!

Why do you blog?
I don't know! I like communicating with people I wouldn't normally have the chance to meet, I like sharing ideas and I quite like having control of my own little part of the web!

Do you have pets? How did you get them? I don't currently have any pets. As a child we had the usual dogs, cats, hamsters, rabbits, guinea pigs, gerbils, tortoises, although not all at the same time! Oh, and the stick insects that my Dad got from a friend at work, that could've out-foxed Houdini in their escaping skills!

Would you rather have more money or more time? I always feel like there aren't enough hours in the day, but then again it would be nice to be able to afford to do whatever I liked. Can I have both? If not, I pick time. :)

What do you do well?
Hopefully scientific research! I've been commissioned by my sister to make a tote bag for her friend for Christmas too, so I think I've picked up the sewing machine fairly well. :)

What don't you do well but enjoy doing anyway?
Baking! Sometimes it works out alright, but I do have a lot of trial and even more error. Still, since moving I bake something or other at least once a week!

If you could visit an era in the past, which one would you visit and why? The Victorian era. It was always my favourite part of history at school, quite close but still so different to modern times. There were a lot of brilliant scientists too, especially when you consider how limited their methods were.

If there was a species of intelligent alien life that was about to reach our planet, would you want to meet them? What would you talk with them about or ask them? I suppose so, if they were friendly. I am always confused and awed by the expanse of space, so I would probably ask them their take on the expanding universe. Also, do they have the same problems of overcrowding, resource depletion and wars that we do, and if not how can we solve them?

What do other people rave about that leaves you cold?
iGadgets. Everyone seems to have iPhones and iPads. Nearly everyone I know has got through at least one screen by now too. They're so breakable and I'm so clumsy; it's not a good combination!

Ok, my questions are:

1. If you were the prime minister/president for the day, what would you change?
2. Do you have a nickname? What is it?
3. Why do you blog? (Stolen from Pamela!)
4. What was the last film you saw and was it any good?
5. What is your favourite thing about yourself?
6. What was the first CD/tape/record/mp3 (whatever it was) you ever bought?
7. If you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go?
8. How do you get to work?
9. How would you spend your last day on Earth?
10. What was your first job?
11. Where is your favourite place?

The lucky tagged people are:
1. Tania at skipandskatter
2. SFT at Saving for Travel
3. Morgan at Growing in the Fens
4. Miss Piggy Bank
5. Keshling at Keshling Pulls It Off
6. Rivulet at $12 a day
7. Stephanie at Frugal Down Under
8. Isa at The M Chart
9. Kernowyon at Kernowyon Ramblings
10. Lindjemp at A Want Not A Need - Trying to be Frugal
11. Dan at Frugal Living UK (only just managed to sneak in at the end as he's almost got 200 followers already!!)

Anyone is free to answer some questions in the comments if you feel like sharing/killing some time. :)


Friday, 19 October 2012

Keeping Your CV Ready for Action

When you're looking for a job it's important to have an up-to-date CV. The problem comes when you want to change career, or even just apply for a new position in the same company - you've forgotten all the CV-enhancing stuff you've done.  

Whether you're looking for work or want to make the most of any opportunity, the generic advice is to update your CV regularly. I say ignore it! The most important thing is that you keep an updated list of your achievements, training and skills. When you write your CV, you target it to specific jobs. Instead of struggling to remember what you've done, you can search your list of achievements to highlight your strengths in the skills required.

To start your list, I recommend grabbing your CV and copying down your list of education and previous occupations. It's handy to have the dates as a reference. Now think of the skills that you learned from each of these items. These can be specific skills (in my case it would be a list of lab skills), but you should also think about the “transferable skills” that employers love. (There's a list on this careers website).

You should also have a list of ALL of the training you have received. For example, I have a basic food hygiene qualification. It's not relevant to what I want to do but I keep a record of it just in case. If you have received any qualifications or been on a course, write down the dates and the skills you developed.

Don't forget to include any volunteer work you've done, important milestones at work (promotions, improved the company profits by XX%), and other achievements (published an article in Photographer Weekly, learned intermediate Swahili at evening class - no, this wasn't me!).

You'll probably end up with far more than you could fit on a 2-page CV, but that's the point. Target your CV specifically for the job you're applying for, pulling examples of the skills required from the list you've compiled. If you ever want to change career, you probably already have most of the required skills and probably some relevant experience. Having your details to hand will take away the stress of trying to remember and let you concentrate on your application. 

Don't forget to update your list when you gain new skills or qualifications! 

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Holly and I Hate Malls

Holly over at Club Thrifty recently wrote a post about how she hates shopping malls. I couldn't agree more!

Like Holly, I am always blown away by the huge crowds of people wandering through malls for lack of anything better to do. I especially hate crowds of people barging me out of the way so they can get 50% off a 'bargain' that they'll never use/need/wear again!

I quickly get sick of the strange consumerist mentality that comes out of people's mouths too. “I got paid yesterday (or worse, will be paid tomorrow!), let's spend, spend, spend!!” It's worst when there are parents and kids though. Child consumers are awful; they're easily influenced, ultra demanding, and if they don't get what they want they'll scream and they'll scream and they'll scream. I know kids can be difficult, but mall kids are sickening.

The worst thing about malls isn't the crowds, or the over-priced shops, or even the crap music they play; the worst thing is that they hide the exits. Have you been in a mall in a town you don't know lately? I've been through a couple in Bristol and once you're in there's no escape. They hide exits down little alleys so that you can't see them. People make a lot of money designing malls to wrestle every last penny from your clenched fist, and how will you spend if you manage to leave?

Saturday, 6 October 2012

My Plan to Lower Our Bills

I have decided to review our electricity, gas and water meters monthly, to keep an eye on our usage and prevent any big shocks when the first bill comes through the door.

This month we have used:

Gas – £2.06
Electricity - £34.01
Water – £26.55 (not including the £118 water leak when we first moved in, which is thankfully being paid by the landlord)

The average UK energy bill is £1259 per year, which of course includes a lot of winter heating and child-related costs. Our combined total for this month is £36.07 (a quarter of the UK average) but I still think we could lower this, especially since there are only two of us and it isn't winter yet!

The average UK water bill is £376 a year. Ours will be £312 if it stays the same, so we should definitely be able to cut back on this!

Methods we already use to cut down energy use:
  • Currently no heating
  • Clothes are washed at 30°C
  • We don't have a tumble drier, so clothes are dried outside on that rare sunny day
  • The fridge is fairly empty, which helps it to run efficiently (see comments below for a discussion on whether this is actually the case!!)
  • Energy saving light bulbs
  • We have a mini-oven, so we don't have to pre-heat the big oven for ages just to cook a small meal for two

Methods we use to save water:
  • Wait for a full load of washing before running the machine
  • Take showers not baths
  • If it's yellow, we let it mellow (my Mum will kill me if she sees that!) :)
  • The toilet has a very small tank, so we're not wasting litres of water down the drain
  • We live in Bristol, so there's no need to water the plants! :)

To try and get the bills down this month, I will be employing the following tactics:
  • Mark a line on the kettle for two mugs of water (The Boyfriend gets a bit enthusiastic and boils it nearly full!!)
  • Be very careful to turn things off at the wall. The TV is in standby mode even if you push the off button on the set, so you really have to turn it off at the wall.
  • Look into getting better curtains. The curtains in our flat are so thin you can half see through them! They won't do any good in winter when we need to insulate the flat as much as possible.
  • Get a shower timer. We are both guilty of luxuriating in the shower for far longer than necessary. We need to jump in, get clean and get out!

How do you rate against the UK average bills? Got any top tips for us? (We are renting so can't do anything that permanently affects the property, such as installing insulation and changing kitchen appliances).

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Cheap Meals: Lentil Soup

I recently tried a brilliant recipe I found on Not Delia. It's really simple, easy to cook, very cheap and pretty nutritious. (It is also vegan if you use either vegan margarine or oil to soften the veg.)

The recipe can be found here and uses some seriously cheap ingredients:

  • 250g split red lentils - £2 for 2kg, so can be as cheap as 25p. 60p buys a 250g pack.
  • One onion - 19p
  • One carrot - 9p
  • 1.5 litres of vegetable stock – Can be free if you use water used to boil veg, or if you use stock cubes like I did then 10p for a pack of 10 stock cubes, of which you will need 3, so 3p.
  • Margarine/oil – probably freely available in your kitchen.

Total cost = 56p (or up to 98p to buy the full packages of lentils and stock cubes), which is 14p per portion.

(Prices from Tesco's website, so could be even cheaper elsewhere!)

The recipe analyser on Calorie Count shows that this soup is pretty good for you (grade A). It's low in calories, high in vitamin A and super-dee-duper high in fibre. 

The biggest problem with it is the sodium content, which pretty much all comes from the stock cubes. If you have homemade stock yours should be even better!

I love the simplicity of the recipe. You basically just soften the chopped vegetables in the oil/margarine and then boil everything in stock for half an hour. I didn't even need to blend it; it was a nice thick soup but not too chunky!

One tip I will add is to slice the carrots as thinly as you can. This will let them break down in the soup more easily. I could nearly see the chopping board through mine!

There are only two of us, but I made the full four-person's worth. You can either freeze or refrigerate the leftovers for a homemade ready meal another day. The Not Delia website has a few different ways to jazz this soup up with other ingredients too. 

For 14p a portion I would definitely make this soup again. It was one of the nicest soups I've had!

Anyone got a suggestion for more ways to jazz this soup up? I think meat-eaters might want to try adding some bacon pieces to it; apparently lentils and bacon is a brilliant combination. Let me know if you try the soup!