Monday, 25 November 2013

New life? New plans.

As I hinted in my last blog post I have made some rather dramatic new decisions.
I have turned down my singing contracts for next year.

Wow, I have actually written it down, it is actually happening.

So what has prompted this decision? Well I don't need to tell you all that I have been struggling a lot with the constant going away, I moved my life here from London but kept my working life based in London which is a very hard, nigh on impossible thing to do (unless you have an income to afford such life-style). I felt that the time has come to put that right and let go of 'the South' altogether. Add to that the almost impossible cuts the arts are getting in the UK at the moment. We hear much about establishments losing arts funding, but what is rarely mentioned is the knock on effect these slashed figures has on people like me, let me tell you my income this year was only two thirds what it has been before and the proposal was to cut it in half again.

Sometimes it just isn't worth it.

Now, for those of you who are saying a horrified 'no don't give up singing' let me assure you that I will never give that up entirely, it is what I am, what I do, and I'm good at it, when all said and done. Let's just say I am diversifying.

Here are some of my plans.

I am writing to all the local choral societies. Plenty of choral societies have professional singers doing the solos in their concerts and it will keep me singing, but it will not require long, long rehearsal periods, in fact most of these just rehearse on the day and so can easily fit in with other things.

I have, in the past, been a competition adjudicator for music festivals, and on a word of mouth basis have yet again been booked for 2 more in 2014. I have the application forms to apply officially for a position as an official adjudicator. It will never give me a full income but there are many music festivals and once you on the list more will come my way and it is a great supplement for your income.

I have set up a recital duo with a friend of mine, another baritone. He will sing and I will play the piano. We have no bookings yet and we need to get our details to anywhere we can think of that puts on classical recitals. So if anyone knows of anywhere, let me know!!! Of course I am available for recitals, with me singing too.

Thirdly I am setting myself up as a singing teacher and piano teacher. I am very highly qualified to do this and have taught off and on for years (I had my first piano students when I was 15!)

So I have been working on my CV, which I will send to some sixth form colleges and universities that offer music lessons. I will also be teaching from  home and have set up a new website which you can check out should you be interested :-)) on

I am also having some flyers printed that I will send to local choral societies and Churches advertising as a singing teacher. There are lots of people who sing in amateur choirs and some may want singing lessons. When all said and done I am good at this stuff and have rather hidden my light under a bushel and I only need a few pupils to keep my head above water.

It is a daunting prospect and after Thursday I will officially be self-employed with an empty diary and we all know what that means - no income. But I have been preparing for this (some may say that frugal living has been preparing me for this for years) and I can probably survive (on little) until May if nothing comes my way from all these plans.

So wish me luck. I have to go to London for the last time at the end of this week, for my final performance there.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

What have I been up to?

The weather has been so strange, one moment raining, one moment sunny and then next snow! Last week had some beautiful days, so I got out in the garden and really got stuck in. I have completely dug the new bed now, it looks a bit of a mess, but I am thinking ahead to it being full next summer. It's the largest bed of the garden and I am carefully planning what will be going in there.
Believe it or not, I still have a £40 garden centre gift token from my 40th birthday last May, and I have been waiting for the right thing to spend it on. Now opporunity beckoned. I have put in an ornamental flowering cherry at the back of the new bed, which should be very lovely in a few years, and a couple of sweet box bushes and a couple of roses, one climbing and one floribunda. It's a start. I also have planted anenome bulbs, alliums and sown some ladies mantle (alchemilla mollis) in the border. It looks a little stark so, as always in the garden, imagination is needed.

I have a 2 metre obelisk which I have to put together to go around the climbing rose at the back. It is a pink one called pink perpetué which looks like it will be lovely.

As usual I had to dig out a hundred thousand rocks - the price you pay for living up a hill near a quarry - and they are piled around the corner at the moment. I am taking them to the tip in bagfulls every time I go, except some of the big ones, which can always be useful around the garden as stepping stones, lawn edgers etc. The problem was the weight of them and so I turned my attention to freecycle. Advertised for a wheelbarrow, and within a couple of hours had been offered one from a kind couple 3 miles away. went to pick it up on Saturday morning, fantastic. I love the entire concept and freecycle!

Cost me nothing except petrol and as it was a 6 mile round trip it really wasn't much.

Finally yesterday there was a massive change in the weather and I woke up to the first snow of the season.

It looked magical, but I am glad to say that it has all washed away this morning.

Meanwhile plans are afoot. To say that major changes in my life are on their way is an understatement and I will be unveiling my 2014 plans soon.

The sun has just come out so time to make hay.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Making lists on scraps of used paper.

A lovely reader has made a request of me to talk a bit about how I do my shopping, do my lists, plan my food week, based on my frugal food challenge this month. I am more than happy to do that as it is a pleasure if a blog post can actually be useful to even one person.

Unlike so many, and contrary to popular belief, I am not very organised. My brain is rather haphazard and my memory is appalling - I am one of those that can go to a shop for 3 items and instantly when I get there have no idea what two of them are, I think my head is too full of the complete script of 36 operas and there is not much room left for anything else.
So my answer is lists. I have learnt through bitter experience of wasted shopping trips that if I don't have a list I will not buy most of what I needed, I will spend more money and I will buy something that the clever old supermarket pushed on me without me realising it.
Some people have beautifully drawn up charts of what their menu plan for the week (even for the month in some cases) will be, and I am in awe of these people, I can't be that organised and it is good for me to have a bit of flexibility in my plan. And there is certainly no beautifully drawing up. In fact mostly the plan is written on the back of an envelope as I can hardly ever find a piece of paper when I need one.

I usually write my list, both menu and shopping list on a Sunday night. It doesn't take long, can be done in 10 minutes if you get a move on and don't get distracted by Antiques Roadshow. Two bits of paper, one for a shopping list, one for a 'menu', I start with writing on the shopping list what the house needs, that may be nothing, or it may be stuff like loo roll, washing up liquid, etc. Also it may be a kitchen cupboard staple that I know that I am running low on - sugar or tea or something like that. This week it happened to be baking powder as I noticed when I made some scones last week that my last dregs of baking powder was best before October 2012. No idea if baking powder loses it's oomph but don't want flat cakes.
Then certain things go on every list just about - eggs, butter, milk, cheese. I tend to get through one of these a week, give or take, maybe a fortnight with butter, depending on baking.
Next I just cast my muddled head through the week, and see if there is any day I am going to be out, whether I will need a packed lunch at any point etc. This week happened to be a very easy week. So then it is worked out, 7 breakfasts, 7 lunches and 7 dinners.
Breakfast is easily dealt with as it will always be either fruit, yoghurt or toast, or a mixture of the three. What fruit is in the basket? Do I need yoghurt?. That is breakfast dealt with as I make my own bread.
Lunch I keep simple, something on toast, a baked potato, a sandwich. I need to quickly jot down 7 possibilites. I know that I have certain things left over from last week, I made sweet potato and blue cheese pasties and have 3 in the freezer, 2 portions of Boston Baked Beans in the freezer so these will be remembered as possibilites. So this week had down eggs on toast, mushrooms on toast, baked potato and cheese and coleslaw, my blue cheese and sweet potato pasties, beans on toast. All can be made from stuff I had in, and it doesn't have to be written in stone as some is frozen and can be used any time, next week, next month even if I don't get to it.
Dinner is slightly more complicated in that it takes more cooking and usually has more specific ingredients. I will think what I have in the freezer, if there is some beef that wants using or some pork chops or whatever. Then I jot down enough for 7 meal possibilities. Pizza went down twice, with my blue cheese and pear topping (there is still some blue cheese and some pears from last week, so well worth doing again. Carbonara will do a couple of meals as I really enjoyed that and all I need is bacon, mushrooms and a tub of Quark (these get jotted on the list) and finally I know I have potatoes in the fridge and some minced beef in the freezer so I will make my favourite comfort food meat and potato pie which will do three portions. So that is it. Scan through all of those things and make sure I have the ingredients, if not, pop them on the list.
Finally I will usually try and make one sweet things, either a cake or  a dessert and here I tend to scan through a recipe books. This weeks happened to be some fruity flapjacks, I had most of the ingredients and popped down what was missing.

As you can see, none of my meals are assigned to a particular day and there is a lot of flexibility in what I choose to eat when, but I have a good skeleton frame-work. I will then look down the shopping list and give everything an approximate price to check there is no overspend, if I know something is much cheaper in a particular shop then I will make a mental note to get it there.

This week my shopping list looked like this:

Baking Powder £1
Eggs  £1  (Free range eggs are this price in Lidl and Aldi, more expensive everywhere else)
Onions 80p
bacon  £2
Mushrooms  £1
Milk  £1.30
Butter £1
Coleslaw 50p
Condensed milk  £1
Coconut flakes £1
Cheese £2

That comes to approximately £11.60 I reckon

And my Menu plan looks like this

Meat and potato pie   x3
Pizza x2
Carbonara x2
Cornish Pasties x3
Beans on toast x2
Eggs on toast
Mushrooms on toast
Baked potatoes with cheese and coleslaw

Now I know that there will be leftovers here and there from this week that will go onto next weeks plan, I may not eat all of those pasties or all of the beans. There will probably be a baked potato or two left.

As for timings, well I know which of those things I will be cooking are very quick and which take most time and effort. The meat and potato pie will take most effort so will probably get made on a day when I have lots more time. Baked potatoes get put in the mini oven in twos, to save time and money. One will be put in the fridge until I want it while the other is eaten there and then. I tend to, kind of, decide each morning what I will eat that day, so if something needs defrosting I can get it out, but I am fairly relaxed with it all.

So it is not an exact science with me, just a 10 minute effort on a Sunday night, It actually took me far longer to write this than it does to make that small preparation and it is great when I get into the supermarket with my list in my hand (so long as I didn't leave it on the kitchen table) and zoom from one place to the other, not looking at anything extraneous  and there is a lot of satisfaction when I see that a whole weeks worth of food has come in well, well under £20. It's a game to try and beat what last weeks was, but I know, for example next week will be more expensive as I need loo roll. Pop it on a list!

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Frugal drive week 2

Week one was a big success, I managed to spend only £20 for the whole week. Week two has started with a food shop spend of £15 and I have enough ingredients for a weeks food. The strange thing is that with a bit of planning and a good shopping list I have ended up eating far far better, like a king in fact, than I did when bad habits drew me into random shopping. I think because I have planned to actually cook something at a specific time, I just get on and do it, where as without the plan I tend to just grab whatever I can that is easy. The results have been a batch of scones and pear and ginger muffins in the tin and some absolutely delicious meals that have cost me next to nothing. Roll on week two.

The weather is promising today so I will get on and carry on digging the new bed in the garden. It is looking a right mess at the moment, these things always look an awful lot worse before they start looking better. That is why I have left it until November to do, as the garden is looking tired anyway.

This is where I'm up to so far, as you can see, just a bloody great big hole. Eventually the bed will carry on right to the back wall in a, hopefully, perfect arc. That stone was the biggest thing you can ever imagine to dig out, I can barely lift it!
My method is to double dig then put the turf back in at the bottom. Cover the lot up and then put plenty of manure and soil improver on top and let the worms do their work over winter. I'll probably cover the bed with something as last year when I dug a new bed and left it the cats had a field day thinking it was a brand new huge litter tray. I might get some of the plants that are suitable for planting out at this time of year in like roses but for the most part the bed will just be left until next spring planting can start.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Boston Baked Beans on Sourdough Toast.

Okay, that sounds like something only dear Nigella would think up to call beans on toast, but it happens to be the truth. If you remember (those of you who have been reading long enough) that way back last March or April time I started a sourdough starter and began learning how to make my own sourdough loaf? Well I haven't really updated since, but I am thrilled to say that the same sourdough starter is still alive! That is about 7 months and counting, still as healthy as can be and producing great bread. As for me, I think I have improved no end since those first loaves and am knocking one out about every 5 days or so. This was yesterdays offering:

I really do love making it and I really enjoy the 'dark' taste of sourdough loaves and especially the wonderful toast it makes and the starter is almost like a pet. (for those of you unsure, sourdough is a bread made without yeast but using a starter which is kept alive by feeding with flour and water, it then produces it's own natural yeast)

Yesterday I decided to make my own baked beans to go with the bread. Why? I hear you ask. Is there any point in toiling in the kitchen to make something which is perfectly good out of a tin? Well the only (and rather inadequate) answer I can come up with is why not? The ingredients are very cheap, I know what  has gone in them when I make them myself and who know, they may just be nicer than tinned ones.

Okay, so maybe you don't want to undertake them if you are busy, not really because they are complicated and make you spend much time in the kitchen, they really aren't, but they do involve soaking the beans 24 hours before and then cooking them before you even start the recipe. Not hard, but you can't be spontaneous and 'want them now'.

Anyway, what were the results?

Well they certainly look like baked beans but they were incredibly tasty. Now I have nothing at all against tinned baked beans, a great staple and wonderful to have in, but having tasted my own, these ones definitely do have a more 'natural' taste to them and I can taste what went in them, which is always a nice feeling (which was really the beans, water, tomato puree, cloves, dark brown sugar, garlic onion, mustard and smoked bacon, salt and pepper)

So in conclusion, if I can be bothered I will definitely make them again, they taste great, it makes loads (I reckon the equivalent of 5 tins), they freeze well (apparently) and can be done in the slow cooker so are cheap to cook (as it happens I did them in the oven today through pure impatience because I wanted them for lunch. There again, if I can't be bothered, I have tins of them in the cupboard :-)

Friday, 8 November 2013

Virtually fat free carbonara

2 recipes in a row! It's interesting, but this months frugal drive has made me use my imagination and get cooking new and interesting things again.
Today's recipe is for spaghetti carbonara. Now I love this, but very very very rarely have it because it is rather fatty, using plenty of cream in the sauce.
Well here is a version that is guilt free as it is virtually fat free and still tastes as good - in fact, I would challenge anyone to tell the difference.
The secret is Quark. For those of you new to this product (probably most of you know it already, but it's new to me) it is a naturally, completely fat free soft cheese, yet has a deliciously creamy texture.

So here is the recipe for one:

Mix half a tub of Quark with one egg and plenty of black pepper.
Put on some spaghetti to cook.
Fry an onion, a chopped up clove of garlic, add some chopped bacon (remove the fat) and then some mushrooms and then remove from the heat when all well cooked.
Drain spaghetti, add the quark mixture to the onion mix and then add the spaghetti and toss to coat and season well.
That really is it.

You could add some parmesan and serve but it was good enough without any. Delicious and guilt free carbonara.

(Has anyone else noticed that on Blogger at the moment posts are taking hours and hours to make it onto the reading list?)

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Pizza with a difference

I don't generally like pizzas. Perhaps I should qualify that, I don't generally like pizzas unless I have made them myself. Bought pizza bases are thick, doughy and rather unpleasant things and I would rather give them a miss personally. I like my pizza bases to be thin and crispy and fresh with a crunch.
Fortunately pizza bases are one of the easiest things to make in the world and my recipe is split into two with one half of the dough wrapped and in the fridge for another night. They are cheap, lovely real frugal good (depending what you put on them) and don't have to be unhealthy because they don't have to be loaded with fatty meat and cheese.
It was with great interest that I watched a River Cottage episode the other day in which Hugh made a simple pizza with no tomato on it. I admit I have never tried this, just usually knocking together a quick tomato sauce, a few veggies and a sprinkling of cheese on mine. This recipe looked like it could go either way, could be incredibly dull, or tantalizingly stupendous. It was - STUPENDOUS.

There are only 4 main ingredients for the topping: onions, spinach, pears and blue cheese.
and 3 minor ones: nutmeg, olive oil, chilli flakes.

Here is the recipe.

Basic pizza base recipe - makes 2 pizza bases, one of which does a large appetite like mine for a main meal

250g strong bread flour
5g salt
5g quick yeast
up to 180ml water.
2 tbs olive oil

Form the above into a dough (you may not need more than about 150ml water to get the desired consistency, but use your noggin) and kneed for 5 - 10 minutes, it really doesn't take long to become stretchy. Leave to prove for an hour and a half approx.
Split in half and roll out one half to make as thin a pizza base as you can manage. If you are not using the other half wrap in film and store in the fridge and use in the next could of days.

Meanwhile while it was proving fry one onion, chopped into rings, until the rings are soft and golden colour and cook some spinach in a tiny amount of water and squeeze out the water after. The original recipe called for some fresh spinach, but I rarely have this in as it is pricey here, I used frozen spinach and about 2 or 3 block is enough.

Peal and chop the pear, pouring on a little olive oil and a shake of freshly grated nutmeg on it, I also added a few chilli flakes.

Get the oven on to it's hottest.

Assemble the pizza: spread the onion and the spinach on the base, arrange the pear over that and then dot with some blue cheese (I used a cheap stilton, but anything would do) here and there - don't need tons of it. another spinkling of olive oil and some ground pepper and you are good to go.

Bake for about 10 to 15 minutes, depending on your oven, until crispy and gorgeous looking.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Frugal Living UK - back to basics.

November is here and I have to get a bit serious with myself, bad habits have become every day occurrences and it has to stop.
I have become used to handing over my card, not for frivolous purposes, but for every day stuff, but without being aware of what is in the account, this is partly due to the unstructured way in which self-employed people like myself are paid. If you have only ever been in a salaried job, just imagine how tricky it can be when some months nothing comes in at all and other months lots comes in and other months in dribs and drabs. How sometimes you have to chase up payment and don't get a penny until months after you did the work. I would love to be paid a monthly salary rather than lumps now and again, I would love to be paid if I am sick and can't work, I would love to be given pension contributions, but sadly self-employed people get none of these things, sure there are benefits, but definite minuses.
Anyway, to get back onto the point, before I was side-tracked there, I have let things get away from me and it has to stop.

So today I went onto all my online bank accounts to see how serious the situation was and it is not great, not dire, but not great. Last friday I had to spend yet another £140 on my car (gasket blown and lightbulbs replacing) which has not helped the situation. I will be back on track if I can spend only a maximum of £100 on everything (food, toiletries, household, petrol etc) in November and the same in December. A lean Christmas? no, just a well thought out one.
It's a challenge although I know many people (some of you included) who live on less than this so not that serious a challenge. I have a freezer packed full of stuff, I have a lot of knowledge and resources to fall back on looking at cheap recipes etc. The petrol could be tricky, but the car is full and I hopefully can get through most of the month on what I have if I don't take any long trips (exempt from this challenge is having to travel to London for work towards the end of the month - there is no way around that expense and I have just to budget separately for it)
So today I did what I used to do but have got out of the habit of doing: I made a meal plan, a shopping list and took £100 cash out of the bank.
Oh what a joy it was to be back in the supermarket with a structure, order and plan to what I was shopping for, I had forgotten how easy it makes shopping, how satisfying to spend so little, what a great feeling it was.
I spent just £9 on a weeks food (might have to top up buying some milk). Yes, I have a lot of things in the freezer, but even so, it just took some imagination and get out of ones head the idea that each meal has to be something 'special'. Home cooked, cheap food is always special, just because tv chefs like us to think we should be eating bloody pheasant croissants or cod roe curry doesn't mean we have to.
So the challenge is set, let's see if I can achieve it.
The irony is that because I have structured my week, I will probably end up eating even better than usual.

Beautiful weather today, done an hour and half gardening and that on top of the 2 hours I did yesterday has tidied it all up no end. I believe the rest of this week will be wet, so it was good to get it done today.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Books Books Books......part 2

The last post was about books and in a round about sort of way, about a new bookcase I built.
But it got me thinking about the power of books in my life as well.

Some books are a diversion, some books are like old friends that you know are always there when you want to see them again, some books are a bit of nonsense, but make you smile all the same and some make you sad, but in a good way. Books are there, often at bad times (and I've had a few of those of late) and can be cathartic, can be enough to take your mind off troubles for a few hours.

Some books conjure up associations and memories with certain people, or certain places, or certain times in our life.

And some just pass through our lives, seemingly unnoticed.

I have memories of certain books. I remember reading Pet Semetary by Stephen King, when I was 14 or 15. I remember I was in my bedroom and listening to some music at the same time as reading the last chapter of the book. There is a chilling final sentence, as his wife, Rachel, recently buried comes back from the dead as something murderous, It reads something like:

'In a gravelly voice, full of dirt, "Darling", it said.'

That isn't wholly accurate but it was something on those lines. I remember as I read them a really weird thing happened. The tape I was listening to get chewed up in the machine (remember how that sometimes happened) and started playing all wrong. It sounded like something from beyond the grave itself had got into the machine. Rather funny now, but at the time it really freaked me out! One of those moments you don't forget when timing is everything.

Other key books that I associate with moments are Jane Eyre, which I read when I was about 16 for the first time. I couldn't believe how fantastic it was and stayed up until about 2 in the morning when I started it, reading and reading - just one more chapter. For anyone who only knows this story from one of the many (in my opinion) very poor TV or film adaptations, I urge you to read it.

The book I have probably read the most times is probably a very strange choice for most people. It is called The Magic Cottage by the recently deceased author, James Herbert. I have probably read this book 15 times over the last 30 years. Why? What a strange choice? you may say. It is something to do with a) the couple moving from the big city of London out into the countryside, in the middle of nowehere (seems this idea might have been in my head for way longer than I thought), their relationship and, of course, the Magic, with a capital M. Even though it all goes wrong, it never has failed to captivate me.

I keep short stories and ghost stories by my bed, for those times when I may wake up in the night. My favourite author of short stories is Katherine Mansfield. Each one is a gem in its own right. Often nothing much happens, it might describe a day out at the beach, but always, there is a real beauty in the way she creates characters, so quickly. I can imagine there is quite an art to scaling a story down to just a few pages, not one that many authors have and I can think of none better at this particular art.

I still have my shelf of Enid Blyton's and occasionally reach for one and read it, can be done in about am hour and a half. Such memories. I will never understand why she is given such a hard time by teachers and parents. She was singly responsible for starting my off on my love of reading and that is worth everything. Maybe her language is limited and so is non-educational, but should reading only be about education when you are a child? Surely not.

If I had a list of only 10 books I could take to a desert island to read over and over for the rest of my life, these would be them:

Katherine Mansfield - collected short stories.
Charlotte Bronte - Jane Eyre
James Herbert - The Magic Cottage
Victoria Clayton - Running Wild
Agatha Christie - Hallowe'en Party
William Thackery - Vanity Fair
Barbara Erskine - Midnight is a Lonely Place
Donna Tartt - The Secret History
Stephen King - The Shining
Charles Dickens - Bleak House

Covers most bases and women authors seem to win, 6 to 4.
Have a go yourself. It is hard. What is your favourite book?