Saturday, 30 May 2009

The Not-Lara Bars!

Ok, so the photos aren't that pretty, but just to show that I did indeed try making the fruit and nut energy bars I mentioned the other week, and they turned out great. I based it on the Enlightened Cooking recipe but added some coconut and used brazils and cashews for the nuts. Pretty damn good, although very much on the sweet side - next time I make up a batch I'm thinking of including lemon/lime/orange zest to give it a bit more of an edge, and maybe trying combos with a slightly higher nut:fruit ratio, as the dates and cherries are both super-sweet.

Best part of these is I added up the costs of all my ingredients and worked out each little square cost me less than 20p. Compares favourably with chocolate bars (even from my subsidised work canteen) and very favourably with Lara bars.
Unfortunately, having one of these in my lunchbox everyday hasn't completely ridded me of my tendency to make impulse cupcake purchases mid-afternoon - still working on this...

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

An eye pillow and two kinds of patience

So, the three day weekend was gloriously sunny and I revelled in idling. Reading, lolling, eating cherries in the shade of a tree and the warmth of the sun; soundtracked with traffic hum and kids shrieks and pigeons' cooing. Lovely.

I didn't make the skirt I thought I might (see last post) as I couldn't find any fabric in my stash big enough. I did however get round to the Imitation Larabar Project, which went smashingly - photos to follow.

This though is a project from a couple of weeks back. I had seen instructions to make a yoga eye pillow on a yoga teacher's blog (sorry I can't remember which one!) ages ago, and it seemed to me just the thing for a) my current level of sewing skills and b) the scraps of silk I had left.

It's a really really simple project, though I still managed to end up with something a little less than perfect... I was reflecting the other day how there are two kinds of patience. People often say to me about knitting that they wouldn't be patient enough to knit. And I always think it bizarre because to me there's no patience to knitting. You can just throw yourself in and get on with it. To sew, on the other hand, you have to measure, you have to press, you have to trim and measure again and press again and so on and so forth. This kind of patience - the patience of doing something properly - I am just not good at. The knitting patience - the kind that just requires an ability to be happily absorbed in a simple repetitive task - I am very good at. I have always been quite happy to get absorbed in simple repetitive tasks.

Anyway, I'm off on a tangent. Back to the eye pillow. You can do a simple one where you just stitch all bar 1" of a rectangle (about 8" x 4"), fill it and finish the gap by hand neatly tucking the edges in, but I think doing an inner bag and an outer case is better. Less chance of filling leakage, easier to be neater, and also allows you to wash the cover.

The filling is equal parts linseed and rice. Lavender is recommended, but I don't really love lavender so I tried adding lime leaves and dried mint. It smelled lovely the first time I tried it but I don't notice any scent now so this was fairly pointless in retrospect.

So, the first step is to sew two rectangles together, leaving a 1-2" gap on one short edge. The next is to funnel in your mixture until it's about 3/4 fill. Then, sew the gap closed.
For the cover I added 1/2" all round to the measurements and an extra 2" to the length of one piece. This extra bit gets folded over first, then the two bits sewed together along the other three sides (so there is a little flap on the right side when you turn it inside out).

The inner bag now fits nicely inside the outer, and the flap can be flipped over to hold it secure (you can't see it on this photo as it's on the other side).

We have enough room in our flat to roll out a yoga mat so I practice at home fairly regularly and it is really nice to have a nice cool, silky heavy eye pillow to aid rest at the end of practice. It helps encourage me to actually rest, rather than just jump up and make a slice of toast or watch TV. Nice.

And what do you think of the new title banner btw??? I'm experimenting...

Friday, 22 May 2009

Bank Holiday Weekend Projects

I keep seeing things I want to make, and as there's a three-day weekend right ahead it's perfect timing for a small project or two!

First, it was this funky little bracelet from Scavenging which brought a smile to my face. I like the idea of turning a credit card into jewellery, it just appeals. And it looks pretty smart too. I don't own a drill, but next time one of my cards expires I'll be looking into it.

Then, these cute patterns caught my eye over at Heart of Light. I particularly like the tunic-style one - can see it being the kind of dress you wear all summer.

However, as I've found out with my first slightly-too-ambitious sewing project I probably ought to start with something a little simpler. Which was why I was pleased to come across a step-by-step guide - with photos! (how can I possibly go wrong with this?!) to a simple circle skirt on Burda style.

And finally, I tried Lara bars for the first time recently. Pretty good, I thought - tasty, filling, but not too much so, not too sweet, nice simple list of ingredients. BUT, super expensive for a small snack. So, I started musing on how one would recreate one. The aforementioned simple list of ingredients seemed to predispose the snack to guestimated copying.

Luckily, others had trodden the same thought process before me. Delighted to find out the always-wonderful Clotilde of Chocolate and Zucchini, and the new-to-me Enlightened Cooking, had already done the experimenting part and come up with some recipes. Chocolate and Zucchini's here and Enlightened Cooking's here. I am definitely definitely going to be stocking up on bulk fruit and nuts and trying these out for next week's lunchboxes. Yum!

Happy (long) weekend to you all!
Photos: bracelet from Scavenging; pattern from Simplicity; skirt from Burda Style; bars from Enlightened Cooking

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Isolation and Efficiency, and How They Came Around to Bite Us in the Backside

A couple of interesting links to share with you.

The title of this post is lifted from a speech I came across today whilst blog-browsing. It's Barbara Kingsolver's commencement address at Duke University and it is lovely - meandering yet whole, funny, uplifting, vivid, thoughtful. It's called "How to be hopeful" and paints saving our lives on earth as the next big battle, along the lines of historical battles such as the abolishment of slavery, universal suffrage and the civil rights movement -

"That will be the central question of your adult life: to escape the wild rumpus of carbon-fuel dependency, in the nick of time. You’ll make rules that were previously unthinkable, imposing limits on what we can use and possess. You will radically reconsider the power relationship between humans and our habitat. In the words of my esteemed colleague and friend, Wendell Berry, the new Emancipation Proclamation will not be for a specific race or species, but for life itself."

She also talks about ideas of success, describing how things seem to be at present:

"Exhaled by culture, taken in like oxygen, we hold these truths to be self-evident: You get what you pay for. Success is everything. Work is what you do for money, and that’s what counts. How could it be otherwise? And the converse of that last rule, of course, is that if you’re not paid to do a thing, it can’t be important. If a child writes a poem and proudly reads it, adults may wink and ask, “Think there’s a lot of money in that?”"

and as to what could be:

"You could invent a new kind of Success that includes children’s poetry, butterfly migrations, butterfly kisses, the Grand Canyon, eternity. If somebody says “Your money or your life,” you could say: Life. And mean it. You’ll see things collapse in your time, the big houses, the empires of glass. The new green things that sprout up through the wreck –- those will be yours."

I read that a couple of times, and felt kind of softened, comforted, open, hopeful... But the bit I really want to take from this is the following:

"The hardest part will be to convince yourself of the possibilities, and hang on. If you run out of hope at the end of the day, to rise in the morning and put it on again with your shoes. Hope is the only reason you won’t give in, burn what’s left of the ship and go down with it. "

Read the whole speech here:

I came across this through an interesting comments conversation (commentsation?) that sprang up from this post over on No-Impact Man , which in turn is a reply to this article in The New Republic. The article talks about a 'green bubble' which is bursting as the economic crisis draws people away from environmental concerns. It was difficult to read objectively because I kept wanting to say, "well, I'm not like this or that", as it takes rather a snide view of the green movement, however I want to go back and read it again without taking it so personally as it seems to me important to read things that challenge your views as well as those that bolster them. To read without bristling and feeling attacked, but to use their arguments to see what you agree with and what you don't, to see if you want to adapt your held beliefs, or if you can more clearly focus your position by working out what exactly it is that you oppose or disagree with.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Book review - Skin Deep

So, I promised a review of this book - Skin Deep by Pat Thomas in my last post. I picked it up in my local library recently and got through it easily in a day or so.

At first I found it a little dry and uninteresting - so many sentences started with a complicated sounding chemical which my eyes just skimmed over, and ended with a slighly paranoid and flaky sounding 'danger'. To be honest, I am not hugely fussed if a chemical 'might' cause a rash, or if there's 'some' evidence that links it tenuously to cancer, or alzheimers or whatever.

I certainly don't want cancer or alzheimers, or skin rashes really I guess. But I live in a city, I breathe pollution on the train every day, I get second hand smoke on the streets, I will come across cleaning chemicals in my office and in shops and so on, there will be a whole host of things I breathe in blissfully unaware, not to mention what I eat (if burnt toast really is a carcinogen, I'm probably far more at risk from that than moisturiser!). In short, there is just too much of that stuff, and the evidence is too flimsy for me to start getting really strict about ruling things out on those grounds. Whilst I think in general it's probably going to be a good thing to avoid them and the information about the lack of safety regulations for this stuff is something I wasn't aware of, I think you risk getting obsessive and overwhelmed if you start trying to avoid everything that's been 'linked' to illness/ill health.

That said, as I read on I did start to appreciate the book more and more. What it helped me do was really think about what it was that I was buying when I buy cosmetics. It breaks down the types of ingredients that are in everyday cosmetic products and explains how they work. When it is all demystified like this it is easy to see what is behind the advertising and lovely images/words which is 70% of why I buy a product probably, and see it for what it really is - a load of different chemicals put together in a combination that the customer will want to buy.

There are a huge number of ingredients which go into products not to perform the task they are meant to do but to make the product easier to transport, or to give it more shelf-life, or to make it's consistency or look more appealing to the consumer. All of these ingredients can have some kind of effect on wherever you are putting them.

And a lot of the ingredients that are the 'active' ingredients are achieving something to make you keep buying them but not necessarily to achieve the results you think they're achieving (e.g. AHAs make the upper layer of your skin thinner, so whilst you temporarily might look smoother, it facilitates water loss from your skin actually making it more dehydrated and dryer. Also, I can't remember the details but there was a whole section on why some anti-aging ingredients probably actually increase wrinkles long-term).

There are also a huge number of ingredients made from mined minerals or from petroleum. Whilst we are all aware of the fossil fuels element of car use, and energy use, I doubt many of us think about the fossil fuels helping us to achieve dewy looking skin or peacock-coloured eyelids. This is a huge motivator for me to stay off the stuff.

The book also provides a selection of recipes or ideas for simpler, more natural-ingredient based alternatives. Recipes for toothpaste, mouthwash, simple moisturisers, make-up removers, facials, bath soaks for sore skin... The only one I have tried so far was a massive success - (I'll do a separate post I think to highlight it) and I'm looking forward to trying a few other new homemade products when I get the chance. I love the fact that you know what goes in to it, I love the whole fun mixing-up bit of it, and I love the fact that it liberates you from that relationship with the big companies and the ad-men that you enter into every time you buy a commercial product with all its shiny promises.

I would have liked more background on the cosmetics and toiletries industries - why things developed the way they did, that kind of thing - but that wasn't what the book was trying to do. It tries - and I think succeeds - to clarify and demystify toiletries and cosmetics in terms of what they are really made up of, focusing mostly on the health angle, and a little on the environmental impact. Overall, I wouldn't say it's an essential book to have on your shelf, but it was easy-to-read, straightforward, not overly preachy and pretty useful, so I would recommend it. For me it has definitely been a good starting point at least, and I am going to copy out some recipes and ideas to try out so watch this space for those...

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Exfoliation Part 1 - The Bathroom

I must admit to being a bit of a hoarder... I like to think I have got better over time (I no longer have keep all my cinema tickets and the collection of 'nice' plastic bags has been seriously slimmed...) but there's no denying the ridiculous amount of stuff I call my own.

So, when I came across Jess' exfoliation concept on makeundermylife it was just the motivation I'd been looking for to start getting more serious about The Constantly and Sneakily Accummulating Stuff. From time to time I enter a phase of nest-tidying urges and attempt to purge from this area or that, but it's never been that consistent. So, from this week onwards I'm going to try and find something (or things) to get rid of every week.

The really nice thing about this is that as well as de-cluttering, it really makes me think about how I will buy in the future and what alternatives there might be to the stuff I have.

There's also the potential to put redundant and idle objects to a better use or to discover exciting new ways to repurpose/upcycle things.

So, I started in the bathroom. (I've tried to give a feel for our bathroom in the little montage above). It's kind of plain, and the shelf is normally strewn with all kinds of bits and pieces.

For the first time in the 14 months since we moved in I took everything out of my side of the cupboard and off the shelf and off the side of the bath and considered whether I wanted to keep it. I think of myself as pretty low-maintenance so I was surprised at the amount of serums and lotions and creams and colours I had collected.
When I thought about it I realised there were two weaknesses - buying 'pretty' things as a comfort when feeling stressed or ugly or bored of myself, to which there could be much better responses; and 'free' things on magazines. I'm such a sucker for 'free' - nowadays I try and see it as them foisting something I don't need on me, rather than an exciting 'gift'. It's not really free after all!
Anyway, the results of my pruning were a tidier shelf (above!) and this little collection of stuff (below)... In the top right we have a Body Spray I never used and have no idea why I bought. It smells gross. I chucked the lot down the sink, rinsed the bottle and have put it to use as a mister for my palm tree (apparently this will stop it getting brown ends on its leaves!)

Next to that is some eye make-up remover. I've cut down a lot on eye make-up and use oil if I need to remove it so I just don't use this anymore.
Then there's some shimmery moisturiser which was just an awful idea.
And the foot scrub was ineffective and just made the bath messy.
Cheap hair colour made absolutely zero difference, and now I am henna-ing I really have no use for it.
In the bottom row we have: Hair serum - not really appropriate for fine flat hair like mine and felt like glue!; eye cream - I think I was feeling old and vain; earrings which I loved but have gone all manky with the cover peeling off; two really bad nail varnishes; and one of the 6 wash bags I've accummulated (FREE stuff again!!!!).
At the moment, most of this is still sitting in a kind of 'out-box' whilst I work out what to do with it as I'm loathe to just chuck it in the bin. In searching for alternate uses, I came across this brilliant site - - which discusses all kinds of ways to reuse or recycle all sorts of things - although sadly not sparkly moisturiser or eye cream. Would it be good for shining shoes I wonder? Would eye make-up remover clean dirt off kitchen cupboards? What could do with being painted horrible nail varnish pink? Should I rinse the moisturiser bottle and fill with raspberry coulis to create 90s' style desserts?
I'm not yet sure. One thing I do know is that I will NOT be buying any replacements. I feel quite bad that all these unused chemicals and plastic are going to probably end up in landfill. And after reading Pat Thomas' Skin Deep I feel thoroughly convinced that none of this stuff is worth buying. I hadn't really thought before about all the ingredients and what they were there for, apart from feeling a little uncomfortable at 'all the chemicals', and I certainly hadn't realised how many ingredients were based on petrochemicals, let alone thought about all the energy going into producing and transporting this shit.
I'm going to post separately about this book I think because there's lots of really interesting things to pick out of it and I've been rambling on long enough now.
I'll just leave you with a before and after shot of the cupboard. I'm kind of proud of my effort, although it is admittedly hard to tell at first which side is which! I think there is a lot more exfoliating still to do!!!
If you have any ingenious ideas for putting my cosmetic rejects to good use please do let me know!

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Spaghetti with Anchovy and Broccoli

I seem to be stumbling across broccoli and spaghetti all over the blogosphere recently... First of all turkeycookies' Jess was cooking them up mid-week, then Claudia's breadcrumb and toasted garlic version whet the appetite over at cook eat fret , and I'm sure I came across another one recently as well but I just can't put my finger on it.

Anyway all of this put me in the mood to make my own version of this again, which I thought I'd now post here to further this blogging rash of broccoli and pasta type dishes.

The first thing to do is to get the breadcrumbs toasting. I've fried them in the past, but tried spreading on an oven tray and popping in a low heat oven this time, which worked just fine, and meant I freed up the one and only saucepan for sauce cooking - and had less washing up to do. Result!

so, the crumbs are in the oven - now you want to soften half an onion in some olive oil until it's soft and translucent, then add some slices of red piquillo pepper, a tin of anchovies, a couple of sliced fresh chillies and some sliced garlic and let it all cook, stirring occasionally until the anchovies have 'melted' into the sauce and it's all nice and soft.

Meanwhile the pasta can be boiled, and if you like you can boil the broccoli spears separately but I just let them share the pan with the pasta for the last 3 minutes of pasta cooking time (saving on pots again!).

Pasta and broccoli join your lovely sauce, and the whole lot gets smooshed around (trying not to chuck it all over the place) until nicely mixed up.

Plate up and top with a handful of the toasted crumbs, a handful of chopped flatleaf parsley, and a splash of good olive oil (and parmesan if you like, but I prefer without).
It is honestly SO good and more-ish. The anchovies don't make it taste fishy they just give it this salty umami-ish delish-ness, and it's all fresh but filling at the same time. Superb.

Sunday, 3 May 2009


When I started thinking about ways in which I could replace nasty chemicals in my home, clothes washing wasn't an area that seemed immediately easy. Sure there are products like ecover that claim to be gentler on the environment, but I was never quite sure exactly how much so, and what exactly they were made up of and what effects those ingredients had, and so on...

So, when I came across this post over on the ever-informative Tiny Choices, I was pretty excited. It sounded almost too good to be true - a natural and compostable product that will wash just as well as detergent?! (Soapnuts grow on trees in Nepal and India, and produce Saponin, a natural detergent which can be used for all kinds of cleaning purposes.)

So, I had a quick look around for a UK seller and found Soapods selling on Amazon. I've now been using them for a month or so and am happy to report they really do work - and well! The little nuts themselves don't have the most pleasant smell in the world, but the washing (washed on 30C) is clean and smells super fresh - B was impressed at how fresh-smelling his stinky sports gear came out.

They're super easy to use too - you just pop them in the little cotton bag (see pic) and put them in the washing machine with your clothes. (NB make sure you tie it up properly otherwise there are little bits everywhere on your clothes! Same problem with string bags - don't do it!)

The only slight problem I've had is with storage in between washes. The leaflet advises keeping them in a closed container with a little water, if you run more than one wash a week. I found on one occasion however, this invited some nice mould to grow on my little cotton bag, so have taken to leaving them to dry out instead.

The instructions advise using for three washes, but advice I've read elsewhere suggests running the bag under a little water and rubbing it to see if it's still slippy and sudsy to see if they've still got the cleaning power. Using this technique I've had no problems and think I will get a lot more use out of a £5 bag than I would out of a £5 bottle of liquid detergent.

Apart from the fact that the water you are washing away should be less toxic and the production process is certainly going to be a lot greener, soapnuts are also compostable. (I am a little ashamed to admit that currently we don't compost our green waste - we live in a flat with no outdoor space, and though I have been researching indoors composters and seeing if I can find anywhere locally I could freeze waste and take it to, and asking the Council for help, so far I still have not found a solution. I will attempt to up the ante on this and report back at a later date...)

The only slight drawbacks then, in a green sense, are the plastic packaging they come in (my package is shown in the top pic) and the shipping from India to UK.

How excited was I then, to find out today that the native Horse Chestnut also contains saponin, and is a potential soapnut equivalent!?!? See this thread on the Money Saving Expert forums for more information. When it comes round to conker season, I am definitely going to be collecting me some free natural and local detergent and trying that out!

Another option to keep it local and free, is to grow your own soap nut tree. An account of how to do so from someone who's had success in this feat is here: . You just need to watch out for stray seeds in your soapod batches to get going. Awesome!

Have you tried soapnuts yet? How do you find them? And I'd be really interested if anyone's tried horse chestnuts or growing their own?!...