Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Quickie Vegetable Pasta

I make this recipe at least once a week. I'm not even sure if it counts as a recipe because it changes every time but the basic concept stays the same. We started calling it 'Quickie Pasta' as it's our go to for evenings when I really can't be bothered to make an effort and have very little food in the fridge. It's lazy and filling and pretty delicious. It's often something we go for after an evenings of house painting, cleaning or general busyness. I debated whether or not to write about this dish but it really does taste good, is so easy and is perfect for people who are a little wary of cooking without a recipe or lack confidence.

To serve two you'll need:

Half a bag of pasta, about 250g - I use wholemeal and believe that it's infinitely better
Tin of tomatoes or carton of passatta
1 onion - I prefer red. If you don't have an onion use a clove or two of garlic instead
1tsp bouillon powder or a veg stock cube
1tsp sugar
Ground pepper

 + Vegetable options 
Whatever you have in the fridge, cupboard or freezer. Now is not the time to be picky. Now is the time to use up that half a pepper or slightly sad looking mushrooms. Try:
Broccoli (especially when the flowers are in danger of turning yellow very soon)
Frozen peas
Handful of fresh spinach or rocket that's slightly beyond wanting to eat fresh but not slimy yet

+ Optional additional flavours  
Include one that you might have in the house:
A glug of balsamic vinegar
Sprinkling of oregano
Sprinkling of thyme
1/2 tsp Marmite

The basic concept of this dish is the sauce is made in the time it takes for the pasta to cook. 

Fill and boil a kettle. Chop the onion and add to a dry pan. Let soften and become transparent. Add a splash of water if it starts to stick. Put the dried pasta in another pan and fill with boiled water from the kettle. Leave to simmer whilst you finish the sauce.

Now it's time to use up all those veg. Last night I used half a pepper that was left over from another recipe, a punnet of mushrooms from last week. Chop the veg and add to the pan. If you're using carrots, chop into little cubes so they cook quickly enough. If using broccoli, chop into thin strips. I diced the pepper and thinly sliced the mushrooms. Let the veg cook down for a minute or two and then add your tin of tomatoes or passatta. Sprinkle in your seasonings, sugar, herbs or whatever flavourings you fancy. This time I went with oregano and balsamic vinegar. If you've got greens, now's the time to add them in. I used half a bag of spinach that was beyond salad-worthy, picked out a couple of slimy leaves, washed the rest and ran a knife through it a couple of times. Let the leaves wilt in whilst you drain your pasta. 

Tip the drained pasta into the sauce whilst still on the heat and let everything meld together a little. Serve with a green salad if you're organised enough to have anything fresh in the fridge, or just in a bowl by itself if not. Cover with cheese at your discretion and bask in the smugness of a healthy, home-cooked meal from what you thought were empty cupboards.



Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Places to Visit: Weald and Downland Museum

I think it's quite difficult to feel human sometimes because of the way we live now. It's nearly impossible to go through a few hours without scrolling on your phone or zoning out in front of the TV. Look, you're reading a blog right now (please don't stop) probably on your phone (how's my mobile site - user friendly?) I think sometimes it's necessary to go somewhere that sets itself apart from your every day life. Lucky for you, dear reader, I have the very place.

The Weald and Downland Living Museum is tucked in the countryside seven miles north of Chichester in West Sussex. The views from the drive up the hills alone are enough to turn your day around. This is somewhere you can feel the time of day passing and feel the seasons on the turn.

The living museum is home to fifty historic buildings for you to explore. Among them are an 18th century school room, a Tudor kitchen and a working mill. Buildings have been saved from all over the UK, dismantled and labeled, stored (sometimes for years) and then reassembled in original condition on site using the most authentic building methods. If architecture is your thing, visit the Gridshell - a remarkable timber frames building completed in 2002 and the feature of one of my architecture lectures where they insisted it was in Kent...

Some days, volunteers wander around in medieval costume demonstrating traditional pastimes. Over my years of visiting I've seen cooking, weaving, spinning, rag rug making, blacksmith-ing (not a word?) wood turning, coppicing, and most recently natural dyeing. I left with a little seed in my pocket that I could use as a mordant in my own natural dyeing experiments - the volunteers are completely lovely. There are shire horses, chickens, cows, sheep and pigs. 
This place is food for the soul. 

On events days there are stalls filled with things to eat and buy, Morris dancers, may poles, live music, children's activities and demonstrations - a hustle and bustle of historic enthusiasm and joy. However, if you need quiet and calm, a normal day at the museum will provide the softness and sustenance to bring you back to life.

A recent injection of lottery funding is being used to create a new visitor's centre and cafe (with a balcony over the lake!) They plan to open these at Easter - the perfect time to visit.


Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Light Vegan Mushroom Risotto

This risotto recipe is surprisingly doable on a weekday. Last night we painted the bathroom and worked up an appetite in a paint-fumey haze. We downed tools at eight and I got straight on to chopping onions. We had finished eating by nine. This recipe doesn't require any oil, butter or wine so it's vegan and pretty low calorie too.

To serve two you'll  need: 
1 onion (I always use red because they taste better and don't mind that it slightly discolours the rice)
2tsp Bouillon powder
3/4 pint boiling water
About 1 cup risotto rice (I just pour it in from the jar...)
1/2 punnet mushrooms
Sprinkle thyme
Fresh dill (optional)
Dried mushrooms, soaked (optional)
Large grinding of black pepper

Start by chopping the onions. If you have an onion-chopping-partner like me then get them to do it and save your poor eyes for the important part. Sweat the onions in a dry pan on a medium-low heat. Add a splash of water if they start to stick a little. Slice the mushrooms and add to the pan. Let them sweat off most of their liquid and shrink down. The onions should be translucent and soft by now. Pour in the risotto rice and stir everything together. Boil a kettle and pour about half a pint of water into a small pan. Add the bouillon powder and place the lid on. Simmer gently to keep the stock hot. Add a ladle-full of stock to the rice and stir in. The rice will begin to absorb the stock and soften. If using, pour some boiling water over a couple of dried mushrooms. Go about your life and potter about. Wander past the pan every couple of minutes and add another ladle of stock when the liquid has nearly disappeared. If using, chop the dried mushrooms into tiny pieces and add to the pot. Spoon off a little of the soaking water and add this too (don't pour it in or you'll get all the gritty bits which will anger your guests). Sprinkle in the thyme and chopped dill fronds if you have any. After about four ladle-fulls give the rice a nibble to see if it is soft yet. Keep adding until the risotto is tender and gooey and delicious. Season with lots of black pepper.

Serve with a green salad with balsamic vinegar. The acidity cuts through the richness of the risotto to create a perfect plate. Last night I also added beetroot and cucumber to the salad because I'm fancy.

Let me know how you get on with this one. It always works for me and has become a bit of a staple. Sometimes I make a 'green risotto' instead with frozen peas, edamame beans and any green veg from the fridge which, quite frankly, is just as good.



Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Making an Etching Plate: The Bloomsbury Sisters

One of my family's favourite things to do during the Summer was (and still is) to go driving in East Sussex. The one rule was that, if someone pointed out somewhere they wanted to go, we would go there: follow a sign down a lane to a pretty village or pop into a shop. We discovered many things this way including breathtaking cliff top views and a heavenly book shop in Alfriston called 'Much Ado Books'.

There is a house tucked away between Lewes and Alfriston called Charleston. If you're ever looking for artistic inspiration, as I was at the age of 17 when we first visited, please go to Charleston. This olf farm house is the (rented) family home of the Bloomsbury Group. This house was home to many inspirational people during and after the war including artist Vanessa Bell, her husband and art critic Clive Bell and fellow artist Duncan Grant. It was visited by famous minds such as John Maynard Keynes, E.M Forster and of course Vanessa's sister Virginia Woolf.

Every surface of Charleston is adorned with artwork from the group, including ceramics by Vanessa's son, paintings, furniture and sculptures. The artwork creeps onto every surface: onto the walls, the window frames and doors. I spent a year working on a study of Charleston and the people who lived and worked there and it still influences my work today. 

During my time at bip art in Brighton, I created an etching plate celebrating two of the great Bloomsbury minds: Vanessa Bell and her sister Virginia Woolf (who's house is just round the corner from Charleston and is owned by the National Trust).


I used a soft ground so the I could achieve lighter marks with a more hand drawn feel. I much preferred this method to the hard ground that I used to create my pencil pot etching as I think it's more sympathetic to the hand of the maker.

 I'm not normally a big portrait artist but there's something about these two sisters looking at one another that resonates with me. The plate inks up beautifully and will soon become an edition of prints now that it has been proofed.



Thursday, 9 March 2017

Painting our Floorboards

When we first got the house to ourselves I was a little bit giddy with lofty interior plans (quite literally actually: at one point the loft was to become a Moroccan style living space).  Now that we've discussed plans and checked our bank balances, everything is a little more settled and realistic. No Moroccan loft dream-house (I know right?), no open plan ground floor and no ripping up the fireplace.

BUT we have ripped up the carpets. If you've read about my interior design preferences before, you'll know all about my spiteful relationship with carpets. I take issue with the fact that you can't wipe them down and I find the lack of footstep noise disconcerting. Is someone sneaking up behind you? Is there anyone else in the house? How did I even get to the other side of this room? Who knows!? If you, dear reader, are a carpet lover then please ignore these moans as a stubborn floorboard-loving hippie. Luckily, this hippie is allowed to make this house a home and that means out with the stained carpets. Yippie!

Disclaimer 1: None of the work described in this post was completed by me. Literally none. I made cups of tea, provided chocolate biscuits, and generally oohed and aahed whilst by lovely Dad and lovely boyfriend completed all the work. I would also like to point out here that I am a feminist and believe that men and women are both fully capable of DIY. The thing is though, I am a clumsy, accident-prone feminist and also a perfectionist with limited strength (I know, it's sickening). 

Some of the wobbly boards needed to be taken up and screwed back down, some were swapped around to hide dodgy bits and large holes were filled. All the staples, pins and sticking up nails were pulled up or banged down. If we were stripping the floor we would have to bang down all the nails or the sandpaper would be ripped to shreds. But we're not. We're painting it.

Disclaimer 2: I have read forums on painting floors, I've read paint reviews, I've spoken to people on Instagram and in person and the world seems to be divided. Are painted floors a scandi-chic interior statement that's easy-breezy to maintain and the envy of all your neighbours? Or is it a hoover-rage inducing dirt trap that scratches if you so much as sneeze near it and needs repainting every four and a half minutes. I honestly couldn't tell you. All I know is that it's a lot cheaper than hiring a floor stripper or a floor stripper person and I love the look of them. My first ever bedroom had a blue-grey painted floor. It's nostalgic. Furthermore, I am a great believer in the power of prep work, as is my Dad who is a painter-decorator-carpenter all round professional make-it-look-better-er. So there.

After the floors were free of nails and the boards were properly secured down they needed to be sanded. I know what you're thinking - if we're painting the boards anyway, why do we need to sand them? It's the same as if you were to paint a piece of furniture: you have to prep the surface first for the paint to fully adhere and create a strong surface. Raised areas of paint and dirt need to be flattened and cleaned with a sander to get the best possible finish. This doesn't need to be completed with a floor stripper though, just an electric hand held sander (with a 60 grit) and a few rubs downs here and there with sandpaper.

We made sure that the floor was hoovered twice and that all dirt and dust was eradicated before starting to paint. 

Farrow and Ball is my favourite paint company. I love their dirty heritage colour range and think their paint is heavenly to apply with a beautiful finish. It's pretty pricey but we've only so far used Brilliant White all over the walls, all of which so far has been given to us so it made sense to splash a little cash here (however painful). After testing seven colours on the floor we decided on Purbeck Stone: a  warm soft grey.

Tom and I shuffled around the room with a brushes and then my Dad whizzed across each board with a roller. The paint applied beautifully.


We left the first coat to dry for a few hours and then painted a second coat. It was pretty clear that we would only be needing two coats, leaving lots of paint left for the rest of downstairs. We bought five litres but only used about a litre.

The room looks beautiful and we cannot wait to fill it with furniture. The untold story about redecorating a room though, is the avalanche of chaos that befalls the other rooms... presenting our current 'dining room':


Thursday, 2 March 2017

Making an Etching Plate

Towards the end of last year I attended a course at bip-art in Brighton to further my skills in etching. I had completed a term of etching at university. Although enjoyable, the university term ended on deadline day with me holding a bandaged wrist above my head, a disposable glove taped on to keep the sterile-strips dry. 

Lessons learned:
1. Etching plates are sharp and slippery when soaped up with degreaser
2. One handed etching is almost twice as hard as two handed etching. 

The workshop at bip was taught by Ann d'Arcy Hughes: a human library of printmaking knowledge with a cavalier attitude towards white spirit and acid. The thing about printmaking seems to be that it's all about the preparation. The 'simple' plate took me three sessions to complete and that only included two proof prints taken. Luckily I have the means to take prints from my plates at the studio at Handprinted which is exactly what I did yesterday morning and acted as the catalyst to finally writing this post. 

I began with a zinc plate which I filed, scraped white-spirited, degreased and dried (do you see what I mean about the preparation?) I then applied a hard ground whilst the plate lay on the hot plate. Further along on the course, towards Christmas, these hot plates were used to gently warm mince pies. Do you now see how wonderful printmaking studios can be?

The fun part comes with smoking the plate. A flame is held beneath the plate and smoke is used to colour in the matte black to an almost pearl finish. This is the closest thing to alchemy you can get on a Thursday evening in Sussex. After the plate has cooled on a marble slab and the back is protected, you're ready to start your drawing. 

I eased my way in with a simple still life of the first thing I saw in front of me, drawn directly onto the plate with an etching needle. Into the acid bath for ten minutes, looked at and poked, another five minutes, more looking and poking and then a final ten before I was confident that an impression had been made. A swift wipe with a white spirit soaked rag and the plate was ready to print:

Successful but uninspiring. This needed more.

By now we are on to session two of the workshop and it was time to tackle aquatint. Aquatint is a powdered resin applied in what can only be described as a large cupboard with a rotating paddle. The plate is placed into the cupboard, the door closed and the paddle is cranked round and round to waft the powder into the air and left to settle on the plate. The resin is then melted onto the plate with a bunsen burner. This creates an all-over texture when the plate is placed into the acid. We use Stopout to mask areas from the acid, applied in stages between acid dips. The Stopout is gloopy and black is takes forever and a half to dry so get out your knitting in between stages.

 The first layer of Stopout masks the areas that will be white when printed. The surface will remain smooth and hold no ink.

The final layer of Stopout masks everything except the areas that will print the darkest. All the layers in between have created different tones as each has spent more and more time in the acid. This plate has four tones including the white.

When finished, the plate is cleaned with meths and is ready to print.

The below print was made yesterday morning using Akua Etching Inks. These inks are soy based and so are easier to print with outside of an etching studio - no hot plates are needed and the inks wash away with soap and water. The result is a somewhat moody pen pot with a clumsy painterly-ness that I quite enjoy. Not bad for the first etching made in four years.


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