Favourite store cupboard recipes

It’s the end of the month but not payday yet and you’re stony broke – what are you going to cook for dinner tonight?

You head to the fridge and there’s nothing there besides some floppy celery and that fish you forgot to cook three days ago which is now sprouting legs and will probably soon leave the fridge of its own accord.

So what do you do? I had just this experience on Thursday night. Money is tight as just one of us is working full-time and I was reluctant to go food shopping until the cash came in. An added problem is that there are only certain things a three year-old will agree to eat.

I have a few store cupboard recipes I resort to when I’ve run out of everything else. A favourite, which my friend Pratab on Twitter reminded me of this week, is a very cheap and easy pasta sauce recipe.

Tomato Pasta

As long as you have some pasta and tinned tomatoes, you can always make this simple pasta sauce and throw whatever you like into it. Chop up some veg – anything works really, like peppers, mushrooms or carrots (I throw in sweetcorn or frozen peas when there’s little in the fridge – tinned olives are nice) but whatever you have to hand.

If, unlike me as I’m intolerant to them now, you cook with onions and garlic, sautée some chopped onion and garlic and then add your veg. Next, add a tin of chopped tomatoes and then a tablespoon of balsamic vinegar, a bit of chilli powder or Tabasco and a squirt of soy sauce. Simmer for 20 mins or so and you have a great pasta sauce.


As long as you have some beef mince stashed in your freezer, you can make this simple dish of chilli. Brown mince in a pan, adding some tomato puree or ketchup and a tablespoon of flour.

Add some chopped pepper or any veg that you have spare – courgettes etc – a teaspoon or two of cumin, paprika, some soy sauce or a beef stock cube and chilli powder to taste. Add a tin of tomatoes and red kidney beans – a splash of leftover red wine is good too if you have any lying around – and simmer for a good half an hour or so. Serve with rice, pasta or couscous.

Fried rice

A third good store cupboard recipe is fried rice. I don’t get to do this one much anymore as our little boy won’t eat rice, but it used to be a popular stand-by as it’s really quick.

Cook some rice in a pan – Basmati or American long grain but it doesn’t really matter. Then, in a frying pan, fry up some leftover chopped-up veg – bacon or ham work well too and peas and carrots are good, but you can put in anything really. Then add the cooked rice with a ground-up veg or chicken stock cube, some soy sauce and a squirt of Tabasco or a dash of chilli powder. Mix well.

A nice touch is to beat an egg in a cup and then add this gradually to the pan too as then you get egg-fried rice. Sometimes I get some prawn crackers and have this to feel like I’m having a Chinese takeaway.

What are your favourite store cupboard recipes? Leave a message and let me know.

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Demonstrating kitchen hacks live on BBC Radio 4

Me with Maria Mcerlane & Nimco Ali in the green room with Dolly the dog

I had a really exciting Sunday morning this week. As a busy Mum, I don’t often get into London these days but last week I got a surprise invitation to appear on BBC Radio 4’s Broadcasting House programme. It’s normally presented by Paddy O’Connell – long ago when I had a job at BBC Television Centre I used to process his invoices – but this weekend political correspondent Jonny Dimond was standing in.

I’ve been interviewed many times on the radio but never before on Radio 4, so it was a real treat. We were not just talking kitchen hacks but trying them out on air to see if they really work, which was good fun. Not all of them did. A video on a cunning way to peel garlic cloves had been doing the rounds on Twitter and some time ago I wrote a piece for Mirror Online on life hacks, hence the invite.

Do have a listen – its here about 22 minutes into the programme. I can highly recommend the banana peeling hack which I picked up from a Nectar card seminar on life hacks back in 2017 courtesy of author Annabel Staff.

In the green room I met newspaper reviewers Maria Mcerlane, an actress you will no doubt recognise, and FGM activist Nimco Ali. Maria brought her dog with her who apparently even goes into the studio with her and sits on her lap, she is so good. That would never happen with our pug Ralphy! I was up early in the morning – hence my particularly gormless expression… My excuse anyway…

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Would you buy stuff from your local dump?

Would you buy from your local dump? In my last post, I talked about the pros and cons of buying things second-hand. But would you ever considered buying something from your local refuse centre?

Until I became a parent, it had probably never occurred to me to buy something from a refuse centre, not even – I’m ashamed to admit – when the Frugal Blog was at its height and featuring on MSN UK.

But when you have kids you find yourself living on a much smaller budget. Plus, you also find that you – and other parents – only need certain toddler items for so long as they grow out of them quickly, which is why it makes sense to reuse and recycle.

‘Batman’ with his trusty Batmobile…

I’m often at our local dump in Hoddesdon dropping off things to be recycled and there they often have a good selection of things for sale you can pick up for a song.

I’ve found a number of useful things for Stellan there, including a cool red Sharna ‘Ranger’ car for £3 and even a toy John Dere tractor for £5. The Ranger has kept him amused for a couple of years so far – he drives it around our downstairs – while the tractor lives in the garden. He still can’t quite pedal yet so I’m hoping they should be good for a while.

True, the Ranger did develop a problem with the steering wheel – the screw dropped out – but my husband soon fixed it. Stellan has been showing an interest in boxing recently – I bought a pair of handwraps after researching an off-beat feature idea – and he keeps wearing them and pretending to hit a cushion and/or the lounge door… Er..

While I don’t necessarily want to encourage boxing at such a young age, I’d wondered if a punch-bag might be a useful thing to acquire. Imagine my surprise when I spotted a child-sized one during a dump run! Bought for £5.

There are often furniture items, mirrors and pictures for sale that are also still in good condition. Certainly, if I were furnishing a home on a budget now it would be another port of call along with charity shops.

Initially when friends asked me where I got the vehicles for Stellan I was a bit embarrassed – it’s silly really. But now I have no shame. The only problem is that my husband complains that I leave the dump with more stuff than I took there in the first place…

Do you scour your local refuse centre for stuff or is it not for you? Leave a message and let me know.

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Baby stuff: Brand new or second-hand?

It’s been a very long time since I posted here & our lives have changed dramatically in that time. Nearly four years ago we had our little boy, Stellan. Recently I’ve been going through a small mountain of baby stuff that has been taking up room in the garage & it prompted me to wonder whether it is better to buy baby things first or second-hand.

Back when I was pregnant, I got a lot of baby items second-hand to save money. Our travel system pram/pushchair/carrycot came second-hand from Gumtree from a lady in Colchester – we replaced the car seat with a new one – the Moses basket (only used for a couple of weeks as it creaked & kept me awake!) was purchased via eBay from a new mum near Saffron Walden .

Even some clothes were second-hand, either from friends or charity shops and the Saffron Walden lady sold me a mountain of expensive baby clothes – some still with the tags on – her friends and work colleagues had given her. Many friends were very generous to us when we were expecting Stellan – one in particular drove up a couple of times from Kent with a trailer and car full of stuff. Another couple lent us their expensive cot until Stellan was old enough to have a ‘big boy bed’.
At the time we saved hundreds of pounds but now I wonder whether it may have been a false economy. The difficulty is that second-hand items are often not worth much when you try to sell them on. Other people I know who bought their pushchairs brand new have been able to recoup much more of the value when selling them on.

The pushchair I loved – a Joie Chrome – cost us £160 second-hand but is now worth no more than £50 on eBay. In fact, in the end, I decided I couldn’t be bothered with the hassle of selling it and other baby items myself after failing to sell our Tommee Tippee machine on eBay – I just don’t have the time to spend on it – so I donated it and our also preloved Jumperoo to our local village charity shop.

The pram went for £20 in just a day – I felt a pang as I drove past and saw it outside for sale – but it will at least hopefully have helped the charity in some small way and whoever snapped it up will have got a bargain that they might really need.

And at the end of the day, it’s just good that these things are being reused instead of disposed of as they might have been in the past.
Did you sell on your baby items? What was your experience? Leave a comment and let me know.
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Introducing our new hens

Inundated with eggs...

Inundated with eggs…

For the past few months we have been utterly inundated with eggs. It’s come as a bit of a shock to be honest as since we got our new hens late last summer, it’s taken them a while to get into their stride to say the least…

Sadly, Marmalade, our gorgeous buff Orpington hen went to the great chicken coop in the sky in November 2013 after she became ill (we think she may have eaten part of a firework which caused an obstruction in her tummy). Missy, our Sussex hen, was on her own for several months last year as it was the wrong time of year to get hold of any pure breed point-of-lay hens. She was a bit lonely and anxious to begin with but, I was surprised to find, soon got used to being on her own and would just hang out with us a bit more when we were in the garden.

The fancy new coop

The fancy new coop

But eventually, after Doug built a new wooden coop, we got two more Orpington hens from a breeder in Maldon (Orpingtons are big girls so they needed more space than the old egglu run could provide…). It was nice to welcome two new Essex girls to the fold and they didn’t seem to object too much to their move to Hertfordshire. After some careful introductions, all three girls have been getting along nicely and Missy – after her initial outrage – has been enjoying having two new hens to boss around.

We’ve kept hens for nine years now and this is about our fourth little community of them, I think, (you can still read about our first – and famous – hens, Thelma and Louise in the Financial Times here) so this time we were a little lacking in imagination when it came to names. The pretty red hen is… er…called Red, while the flamboyant white hen Doug named Lady Gaga.

A cheeky Red and Missy

A cheeky Red and Missy

But while the new girls were point-of-lay, laying eggs seemed to be the last thing on their minds as we went into autumn and winter and then spring arrived. True, Orpingtons aren’t known for being strong layers, but we worried that we’d made the nice new hen coop, complete with hay bales, ladders and even a tasty Orpington cockerel pin-up pic on the wall, too comfortable. Occasionally I’d whisper into the hen house at night, “You know, ladies, this isn’t a holiday camp…”. But all to no avail. With all the shock of the new girls arriving Missy, of course, had also given up laying so we were having to buy in our eggs.

Lady Gaga strikes a pose

Lady Gaga strikes a pose

But things changed around February/March when I was amazed to find an egg in the hen house. We had no idea who the culprit was. Then one day we found two and then…well, they just kept on coming. Missy – despite being four and therefore a little long in the tooth for all this – has also remembered her intensely strong work ethic (she ignores the Sabbath day of rest and scorns bank holidays, despite what it says in her contract) and joined in. So most days we have been picking up three eggs a day. Doug puts it down to the fact that these new girls also have a little bit of hybrid bred into them, making them more hard working than dear old Marmalade, who would lay for a month, go broody for six weeks and then start moulting and give up work altogether for the year…

Missy surveys her domain...

Missy surveys her domain…

We are grateful but to be honest we are really struggling to keep up with production. Even if we manage a day of eating four eggs between us, as Doug points out, we’ve only made inroads of minus one for the day. Let’s just say, I’ve been making a lot of Spanish omelettes (4 eggs, yay!) lately.

Fortunately, a friend is coming round later to relieve us of some. All I can say is thank goodness for the food swap, which is coming up in a couple of weeks!

If you have any suggestions for good recipes that use a lot of eggs, please let me know! Someone on Twitter recently suggested pickling them, so I may need to investigate. Believe me, it’s no yoke… 😉

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Hot Cross Buns: Taste and Value for Money Test

Buns on a plateI’m sitting here feeling rather fat as I write this. I feel a bit guilty considering it isn’t even Easter yet, but I do have a good excuse.

In a quest to find out which supermarket produces the tastiest and best value for money hot cross buns, I have been testing samples from some of the big supermarkets.

My husband loves hot cross buns. When we met he used to eat them all year round – keeping them stocked up in the freezer – and even managed somehow to cut each bun into three slices instead of two to make them seem like they lasted longer. So I wanted to find out which ones we should be buying this Easter.

I selected four supermarkets in my taste test – Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and my local Co-op. I decided to pick in most cases the in-house bakery option or if that wasn’t available the closest product to that.

To vary it a little – I was a bit concerned they would all taste the same – for the Sainsbury’s option I went for their low fat Be Good To Yourself range.

I had considered heading to Waitrose to test Heston Blumenthal’s wacky range of Earl Grey and mandarin or acacia honey buns, but ruled them out in the end as I decided it would be comparing apples and pears – and working out at 89.5p per bun, they are hardly low cost.

Oops... I burnt one

Oops… I burnt one

How they look
Having selected my purchases and brought them home, I gave them a quick once over. I was surprised to find that there were quite a few variations in their appearance.

The Tesco buns’ crosses were whiter and more uniform, while Asda’s were pretty skewiff, as though the baker was a bit drunk when he or she was making them.

Asda’s, however, were lovely and soft, while I was surprised to notice that the Co-op’s were much darker and their crosses weren’t straight either.

The low fat Sainsbury’s buns had a creamy-white cross on them, which made them look quite different from the others. I wondered if this was something to do with the low fat ingredients chosen.

Asda’s were the cheapest of the bunch at 65p for four, so just 16.2p each. I was also surprised to find that Tesco and the Co-op tied at second place in terms of pricing, with each bun costing 16.7p each.

As the Co-op is somewhere I shop when I’m short of time and don’t expect to be cheap, this was a surprise but then the buns are on special offer until 14th April. Sainsbury’s Be Good To Yourself buns were the dearest at six for £1.30 or 21.7p each.

But how would they taste?

The taste test

For once, I managed not to burn them all in my overzealous grill, which was a relief as I didn’t want this to spoil the flavour. Here are my results, bun by bun…

Coop buns1. Co-op Loved By Us hot cross buns
As I said earlier, the Co-op is somewhere I shop on the hop, so I was shocked to find that their hot cross buns came top in my taste and pricing test. The flavour was lovely and cinnamony but not too sweet.

The cook was generous with the sultanas, although they did tend to be all on one side of the bun – a frequent issue I found in the test with other samples. At 16.7p, I felt this was good value.

Flavour:  8/10  Price: 7/10

Asda buns2. Asda bakery hot cross buns
Asda’s bakery hot cross buns were lovely and soft – no doubt because they were slightly fresher than some of the others and had most likely been baked that day. There was also a good proportion of fruit.

The flavour was much lighter than the Co-op’s offering and not as heavy with the seasoning – I would have preferred more – but it was still tasty and the pricing – 16.2p – was great value.

Flavour:  6/10  Price: 9/10

Tesco buns3. Tesco bakery hot cross buns
Tesco’s buns were crunchy and also had quite a light flavour to them but more flavour than Asda’s ones. However, what let them down a little bit for me was the stinginess with the sultanas and the fact that they were all bunched on one side.

But while 16.7p – the same price as the Co-op’s – isn’t bad value, I’d expect slightly better value from Tesco.

Flavour: 7/10  Price: 7/10

Sainsburys buns4. Sainsbury’s Be Good To Yourself hot cross buns
The disappointment of the bunch was the Sainsbury’s low fat offering. They were labelled as only 3% fat but when I compared the calorie rating to the Co-op’s, the Co-op’s actually had fewer calories per bun – 170 calories compared with Sainsbury’s 187.

The Co-op’s were 4% fat. Sainsbury’s buns were nice and soft but the flavour from the sultanas was much too overpowering for my taste. Considering they were the least tasty of the bunch, they are also the most expensive, which is why they came bottom in my test.

Flavour: 5/10  Price: 5/10

Having worried that they might all taste the same, I was very surprised to find so many differences in flavour and fruit distribution as I did, as well as price. It just goes to show that it’s worth shopping around for the best deal and for hot cross buns that suit you and your family’s palate.

I now have a lot of leftover hot cross buns that I need to fit in my freezer. At least it will keep my other half happy for the next few months!

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Can you name this weird vegetable?

Do you recognise this vegetable?

Do you recognise this vegetable?

OK… there are some strange vegetables out there in the vegeverse, like kohlrabi and celeriac, and I’ve met a few odd-looking parsnips in my time but this one really takes the biscuit. Or should that be stalk? Doug has been growing something over the past couple of years on his allotment that really is a bit weird and wonderful. The Victorians went mad for it – one gardening writer at the time declared that if you didn’t have enough space for both, it was better to grow this than asparagus because it tasted far superior – so much so that the plant almost died out altogether. You don’t tend to see much of it around now as it seems to have fallen out of favour. So what is it? Any guesses yet? A weird kind of celery…?

Doug's prettier photo...

Doug’s prettier photo…

I’ll put you out of your vegetable misery. It’s sea kale. It’s white because Doug has been forcing it (under a bucket in our dark and gloomy hallway as the utility room proved to be too chilly for it). It grows naturally by the sea – surprise, surprise – and is a perennial. A bit like asparagus, you have to let it get established for a few years before you can start tucking in. We fried the stalks in a bit of butter and it was surprisingly tasty and sweet. It reminded me a bit of eating a globe artichoke though as it was a bit of a weird experience. If you’re interested in growing it, there’s some more information here on this interesting Victorian gardening website. Are you growing any strange or unusual fruit and veg this year? Or just something new? Leave a message and let me know

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Our Local Food Swap

Some of the items at our local food swap
Some of the items at our local food swap

Belated Happy New Year to you for 2015! It’s been a while since I posted, I know. 2014 wasn’t the fun year it initially promised to be for personal reasons and I haven’t felt moved to post anything here for a while because of that – but 2015 looks to be a brighter year.  I plan to be doing some more regular blogging and hopefully giving the site a bit of a revamp too soon, so watch this space.

I just wanted to tell you about something cool that Doug started getting involved with last year – the newly launched Hertford Food Swap. This is a fantastic small but perfectly formed event that takes place each month now, organised by local mushroom fancier and all round good egg, Simon Gladding. If you’re a local and fancy going, the Facebook page is here.

Every first Saturday of the month a growing group of enthusiasts congregate in the upstairs room of the Mudlark café in Hertford, where people bring various items of delicious home-made produce – from garden-laid eggs to jams, cakes and even speciality breads and foraged mushrooms.

Marcus - the bread chef

Marcus – the bread chef

Unsurprisingly, Doug has been a regular contributor of his Sweetpea Salad bags – even over the winter months thanks to his greenhouse plot in the back garden, which is still going great guns.

We even managed to bring along some eggs ourselves last weekend as our two new Orpington hens, brought home in August, have finally got their act together and started laying.  I’ll tell you more about them soon when I’ve managed to take some decent photos of the pair of them. Missy is still with us but isn’t laying at the moment – just bossing the other two around.

Doug's salad bags and eggs

Doug’s salad bags and eggs

But anyway, the idea of the swap is that you bring along various items that amount to the common bartering currency, which in this case is a box of six free-range eggs – so worth around £1.50. Everyone has a form and then they wander around the room, looking at the items and signing up for the things they’d like to swap.

According to Simon’s website, the idea started in Brooklyn in the USA and has since taken off. There is also a local one in St Alban’s, not far from us.

It’s great fun and a great way to get your excess produce off your hands, especially in the summer if you have extra fruit and veg you don’t need or jams and beers, and there are some fantastic people who come along. We’ve got beer makers (Pookie in the red t-shirt below, among others), fudge producers (Emma), growers, chutney and chilli sauce makers, would-be bee keepers and cordial makers (Auntie Toria), and even Marcus who has got so into his bread-making that he recently ordered his own supply of French flour just to get it right.

Food swap guysThis week we went home with a tasty haul of chocolate fudge, delicious bread, jam, and apple and cinnamon cake. Delicious!

It’s truly heartening to get to rub shoulders with so many enthusiasts of the good life. I’m just going to have to stop riding on Doug’s shirt-tails and make some of my own stuff to bring along soon!

Do you have a local food swap or do you swap produce with friends? I’d love to hear about it. Leave a message and let me know.  



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Looking back at 2013

House pic

Our new home!

Happy New Year! How was your 2013? Ours started slowly, with the snow putting the brakes on some of our plans, but turned out to be surprisingly good – if twisty-turny.

We started the year determined to find a house to buy. Back in 2011 we sold our home in Essex and found ourselves renting again in Hertford. As much as we loved Billericay, it was time to move on and we wanted more space plus, once we’d sold our house, we realised we wanted to be somewhere where Doug’s commute to Victoria would be easier. But we couldn’t decide where to settle and at the time we couldn’t find the right property.

At that point we were labouring under a pretty naive ‘Hugh Fearnley’ kind of delusion that we might be able to move out to the countryside and live the good life more whole-heartedly. But eventually, after probably three years altogether of my property search, I came to my senses and realised it just wouldn’t stack up financially or otherwise. I have to say that that was after looking at everything (insane) from buying a smallholding (which we nearly did in Hertfordshire…until we realised we’d never get planning permission in a million years…) to renovating umpteen broken-down barns everywhere from Cambridgeshire to Norfolk to Kent – even to living in a caravan while we built somewhere (something Doug knew I would never really be able to cope with…).

We both now need to be near London for work (I’m no longer working from home permanently as I was when I started the Frugal Life blog on MSN back in 2007) and anywhere we could have realistically afforded to buy a plot of land and build a home was simply too far away from the capital. Plus the whole area of getting planning permission was just too fraught with difficulties.

Allotment photo day 1 Oct 2012

Doug’s allotment – day 1

So we said goodbye to crazy ideas – Doug would find some land to rent rather than buy to pursue his vegetable ambitions – and we started looking for something more sensible. But in 2012 that proved difficult in Hertford as there was so little on the market, so in 2013 we widened our net and searched in earnest for somewhere we could call home. The cold weather made it all the more crucial as being in our un-insulated rental was like living in a freezer. Eventually, after several false starts and unsuccessful offers, we thought we’d found a home to buy in a nearby town. Our offer was accepted and we thought that was that, but fate had other ideas.

Four hours later disaster seemed to strike. Our landlord of our rental gave us two months’ notice to move out. We panicked, realising that the move to the house we were buying could never go through in time, especially as the vendor needed to find a property to buy. After some frantic searching, we eventually found a new place to rent. But we were pretty stressed, realising we would have to move twice. We have a lot of stuff, so this didn’t appeal. Plus it could end up costing us a lot of money if we had to get out of our new rental contract early.

It was the evening we moved in that, exhausted, I realised that I suddenly felt different. I felt calm and at peace for the first time in months. I sat and looked out at the lovely big garden and the hens enjoying the space for the first time in 18 months. It was like the house was telling me, ‘this is your home…’. The following week Doug started saying things like, ‘I wish we were buying this place instead of the other house’. Fortunately, after a few tentative approaches, the landlord proved willing to sell and – after much toing and froing – and worry that we were setting ourselves up for disappointment (as well as guilt about the vendor we were letting down), the new rental was ours.

So we’ve just blissfully spent our first Christmas in our new home. Yay! It needs a lot of TLC and redecorating but it’s ours and it’s such a relief to have a permanent home again. We realise how lucky we are. The great thing is that it has a nice big south-facing garden and – of course – Doug hasn’t wasted time but has already put in a veg plot…Maybe it’s just to cut down on the amount of lawn he has to cut…

My beautiful ginger girlie!

My beautiful ginger girlie!

The sad thing which happened just before Christmas is that our lovely hen Marmalade is no longer with us. She got ill out of the blue – it was some kind of intestinal blockage, we’re not sure how it happened – and despite an operation didn’t make it. We and her best friend Missy miss her desperately. She was a lovely soul who gave us much pleasure as she was so fun and full of character. We should be hardened chicken owners by now but a lot of tears were shed. We just hope that there is a chicken heaven and that she is up there in the great coop in the sky, bumbling along and enjoying herself in the sun.

Missy & Marmalade - best friends

Missy & Marmalade – best friends

Missy is currently on her own and could be until the spring as there aren’t currently many pure breed hens available – it’s the wrong time of year. Hopefully we will get something sorted soon, but Doug is also thinking about building a new hen coop that will be big enough for three pure breed hens as they are big girls and need plenty of space…

Hope you are all having a great 2014 despite the endless rain and wishing you an amazing year. Do let me know what you plan to grow or do this year and thanks for all your kind comments.

xxx Piper

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Giant pumpkins



Continue reading

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