Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Re-covering kitchen chairs (photo-heavy)

After a good start on Sunday, I spent most of yesterday wishing my chairs were not in pieces so that I could ignore the re-covering project for another couple of years. I slept late, read for a couple of hours before getting up, made lunch, spent nearly an hour on the phone to my sister, did the dishes, burned baked a cake, read blogs, watched an hour or so of stuff on the internet, did the ironing and then made and ate dinner before I finally just accepted I was going to have to get going if I was going to have usable chairs any time soon.

All in all, I'd estimate this project took me about six or seven hours - about four or five of those spent taking the bloody staples out of the old covers, as the person who had these chairs before me had, it turned out, already recovered them. Without taking the original covers off first. So each seat had two sets of covers to be divested of.

These are the offcuts from the cushions I had bought. Once they were cut down to size, I had just exactly enough for the width of the fourth chair and only had to trim a small amount from the length. So that worked out well. Time will tell whether that chair can stand up to regular use, I suppose.

I put the covering material down flat on the table (had washed, dried and ironed it beforehand). On top of that, there's a layer of cotton batting. Both of these are couple of inches bigger than the cushion, which is the next layer.

Next came the wooden seat - making sure that the stripes were lined up in the right direction so that the holes for the screws would be on the right sides when I wanted to re-attach the seat to the chair. Glad I remembered to do this. I stapled each side in the centre (first side done in this picture) before going round, pulling tight and filling in the gaps. I did corners as I went on two of the chairs and last on the other two. Had to cut out a corner of batting on all to ensure the layers weren't so thick nothing could get through.

My lines of staples were not by any means straight. Nor were my 'squares' of material really. But it's all hidden underneath and so it's all good. I am not at all the kind of perfectionist that would be bothered by what's out of sight. Well, I am, but only in my head - in reality, I'm so glad to get something finished I just don't care. So no tidying up the edges of cutting away excess material for me! Once all the material was stapled in place, I screwed the seat back into the chair.

Et voilà! Full marks for the superb photography on this one, non? Well, it was nearly nine o'clock and I was tired. I very nearly forgot to take any photos at all but I since I'm not planning on doing this again anytime in the next ten years or so, by then I'll be glad of the reminder of what to do.
I did try and make sure the stripes were straight and I think I did an alright job of that overall.

They went from this flat as a pancake, not comfy to sit on and dreary old style....

...to this. Brighter and more importantly, a bit of padding for comfort.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

What's it called when you finally do something you've procrastinated about for years?

Whatever that is, I'm doing pretty well at it this weekend. The chairs I bought a few months after I moved here (more than five years ago now!) were 'free' with the table I bought for sixty euro. Since the chairs I actually wanted cost 15 euro each, it only made sense to get the table that was similar to the one I was looking at, but which came with four chairs included in the price. They weren't all wood though and were covered it a not terribly nice fabric. They were also fairly flat and have, obviously, only become more so since I got them.
I always intended to recover them (I'd bought a staple gun just after moving here, so figured it couldn't be too hard) and even got material and foam a couple of years later. Actually, I bought three cushions that were on special offer, took the covers off and cut it into pieces the right size for my chairs. And then because there were only three, I bought extra foam a year later. And it has all been sitting there for at least two years, waiting for me to just do it.

So, yesterday I set to. I've washed the material, taken three of the chairs apart and cut the foam into the right sizes. The leftovers from the three cushions actually give me enough for the fourth, so I didn't even need to buy extra. All of this is just prep work, of course, but I should get them finished tomorrow.

And just starting to tackle that seemed to have spurned me on to even more. I've loaded the clothes that have been hanging around my bedroom for the last year or two, waiting to be washed ('cos of the moths) into my suitcase and will bring them to the launderette to get it all done next weekend. I've even thought to bring some plastic bags and I will sort through them and anything I don't really need/want anymore, will go straight into the clothes bank on the way home.

I opened a drawer in the sitting room to take out some incense and ended up emptying half of it straight into the bin. Bottles of perfume and body spray and nail polish remover and hand creams - none of which I have used or missed in the five years or so since I put them in that drawer. I had forgotten there was anything but candles and incense in there, as they were covering the rest of the stuff.

And finally, simplest and best of all, I finally washed all of the punnets that have been sitting in my kitchen all year from the strawberries I bought last year (there may even be one or two from the year before!). I'll bring them back to the market next weekend, as they re-use them.
Mostly I bring Tupperware with me to put the soft fruit straight into so each of these punnets reflects a week when I was too unorganised to do even that.

Preserving plans need to be formulated

The first strawberries appeared at the market yesterday. Still very pale but sweet enough, just about, to be eaten without needing sugar. Lovely flavour to them. And today I took my last portion of tomatoes, courgettes and onions out of the freezer to use. Last week, it was my last jar of tomatoes. I did very little in the way of preserving last year and am going to have to put a lot of work into it this year. I've already bought a large tin of tomatoes to use next week, since I know I have none of my own. And I've used the occasional tin over the course of the year, too. But it's just never the same as my own bottled ones. I don't think I'd ever use just a tin of tomatoes as a pasta sauce - I'd have to make sure to add loads of herbs and probably onion and garlic as well, just to make it tasty. Not so with the fresh and/or self-processed ones (I do often add herbs, etc. to those, too but they can stand alone).

I think rather than trying to do a couple of huge canning sessions, I'm going to aim for doing just one batch every week. My water bath canner fits seven jars at a time. If I want to have one jar to use every week, on average, then I'll need to do one batch every week for eight weeks. And I think I'll try to resist the temptation to make lots of other stuff, or try new things this year. That's enough. Well, maybe one batch of raspberry jam. And some dried strawberries. But that's all.

Friday, April 18, 2014

I'm at that age...

...when it seems that funerals are just going to have to become a regular part of life. I got a text from my sister yesterday to let me know that one of our aunts had died the night before. I know she was old, although I've never really known the ages of most of my aunts and uncles and always had to sort of go by where they were in comparison to my mum or dad. In this case, though it's actually my mum's brother's wife. My mum was the youngest girl and second-youngest altogether of her family and would have been sixty-nine this year. I think Uncle B. two up in age from her and Aunty M. was at least a couple of years older than him so I suppose she was heading for eighty at least.

After my sister died last year I started thinking about some of the people I hadn't seen for a long time, as you do at times like that, I suppose. Of course, stupid, stupid debt stayed my hand and I promised myself that I'd head to Manchester to catch up with family there at the end of summer. And now it's too late, because really, the person I wanted to see was Aunty M. and I had heard that she was getting old and frail, losing her sight and even going senile (but that was according to one aunt, who it seems had had a falling-out with her, so I don't know if it was really true and obviously would prefer to think not).

When I was a kid, almost everyone I knew had relations in England. Well, when there was no work and no prospects in Ireland, people went to England because it was close, or, if they could get the money together, to America. Things back then were obviously not quite like today and contact was mostly restricted to christmas cards, sometimes birthday cards, a couple of phone calls a year (sometimes having to shout because it was a cross-channel call) and then one week or so in the summer when the whole lot of them would arrive home en masse on the ferry. They'd be en route to Galway, where they invaded my aunt and uncle's farm (he being the oldest son and therefore the one to inherit the family farm they'd grown up on). For a few wonderful years, before my mum died, we joined them too. Including one memorable year where there were so many coming that we ended up hiring a caravan so that we'd have space to sleep. Other years, we'd be squeezed six or seven into a bedroom, with the older cousins in the sitting room - sleeping bags and floors and, if you were lucky, you did manage to get a pillow. I loved it, even if, most of the time, I was to be found hiding in a quiet corner somewhere away from the crowds, reading.

I wonder if it's because of that time that it didn't feel unusual to not really have regular contact then, with my relations in England. You'd catch up with everyone in the summer, or at weddings and funerals. Now I find myself asking why, since contact these days is so much easier, I didn't just find out what her phone number was and just call every once in a while to catch up. I only visited twice as an adult. Once when I was barely that and returning from having lived in Germany for a couple of years after college. They lived in London at the time and I inter-railed home so was travelling through England. I was only supposed to stay for one day, I think, and ended up staying for nearly a week. Had a great time.

Aunty M. is the one who we didn't have a lot of contact with when we were very young but then, when my mum got sick, she stepped up and actually moved in with us for the six or seven months. Her daughter was grown up and had a family of her own but still, she left her husband and home and came to look after us. And look after us she did. My goodness but that woman could cook up a storm. After my mum died and she went back home, she still used to come over to mind us when my dad and my step-mother went on holidays (usually twice a year for two weeks). My older step-sister didn't much like her, though and, well, she did favour us a bit over my step-siblings, although not half to the extent my step-mother did it in the other direction. I think I was fourteen or fifteen the last time she came, because my step-mother insisted she had been nasty to her kids and told my dad she didn't want her back in the house. She had more or less already done the same with most of my mum's family, which is why we mostly lost contact. And then it just never seemed to be properly re-established when we were grown up. Such a pity and I feel guilty about it but also don't know if I knew how to do anything differently.

She was very much a traditional Irish kind of cook (she was from Galway, too, although she met my uncle in London and didn't have a trace of an Irish accent left - I always think it's funny that people who moved to England lost their accents to the local ones quickly (it can happen during a weekend there) but people who moved to the US never do). So meat, veg and mashed potatoes. And then on Sundays roast potatoes, too. I loved potatoes. Still do. Once she realised that, she almost always gave me one or two just boiled ones when I was just in from school, before mashing them for dinner. When I stayed the week with them in London she did the same thing. I was twenty-one at that stage and had completely forgotten about it and then she came in from the kitchen to offer me the little saucer with a boiled potato on it to have before my dinner. It was nice to feel so looked after again for a little while. Goodbye Aunty M., even if I've only seen you a couple of times in the last twenty years, I will miss you.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Chickpea curry and a simple quark dip

I made chickpea curry again yesterday and just so I have a note of it for the future, I'm doing a quick post on what went in this time. I soaked 250g of chickpeas overnight and put them on to boil. In the meantime I chopped the couple of handfuls of chard that I bought yesterday at the market, an onion, two cloves of garlic and a small piece of ginger. When the chickpeas were nearly ready I put heated some sunflower oil and added the chard stems, onion, garlic and ginger and let that saute for a couple of minutes. Then I added some black and yellow mustard seeds (about 1 teaspoon each) and some black onion seeds (about half a teaspoon). Gave it all a good mix and then added the other spices, a teaspoon each of tumeric, cardamon, cumin and coriander. Then I added the last of the jar of curry paste, which was about two teaspoons. Used some of the cooking water from the chickpeas to rinse out the jar to get every last bit of it.

To all of that, I added my very last jar (0.75lt) of tomatoes. Oh the smell when I opened the jar. Heavenly. Really must bottle a very large amount of tomatoes this year. There was a small amount of basil in that jar but after a year and a half, there wasn't much of it to smell. I let all of that simmer for a while and then added the chopped chard leaves. At that stage, I drained most of the liquid from the chickpeas into a bowl. I then added the tomato mixture to the chickpeas and mixed it all up and tried to judge how much more liquid was needed. I ended up adding back in all of the cooking liquid (there was slightly more than needed but sure why not). I left all of that simmering for a short time while I took care of the washing-up and was just about to serve it up when I remembered that I'd intended to add some grated carrot. Typical. I took one bowlful and then grated a carrot into the pot. It's not like carrot needs to cook, now, is it?

I actually felt like having a more creamy than spicy meal so I dolloped a couple of spoonfuls of quark into my bowl and mixed it all up. It was all delicious. So much so that I went back for seconds. I liked it with the carrot, too. All in all, I'm fairly pleased with it. The bowls I ate were more liquidy than what I left in the pot. That was on purpose though as I want to use the leftovers to have in wraps for lunch next week and slightly less liquid is always good for that. There were three decent portions for filling wraps. So that's more or less all my food sorted for next week now. Monday evening is book club and we're going to a Mexican restaurant. On Wednesday a friend is coming to town unexpectedly and she rang me today to invite me to dinner with her and her husband. So I just have Tuesday and Thursday dinners to think about and I think I'll be taking the easy way out and just having eggs or pasta.

Or I'll have something like yesterday's lunch, which I really enjoyed. Bread from the bakery next door, this one is called Kornkaiser. About 50g of the turkey salami I bought at the market (it has gone up in price and now costs 25.50 per kilo - that's 2 euro/kilo more than it was in 2011, the last time I seem to have made a note of the price). And the little bowl is three teaspoons of quark mixed with about a quarter of a teaspoon of the curry paste. It only occurred to me to do that as I had already taken the jar of curry paste out of the fridge in preparation for dinner. Will definitely do this again!

Saturday, April 12, 2014


Recently, while skyping with my friend J.,  in Ireland (my original debt buddy, although she caught her problems earlier than I did and got out of them quicker) I mentioned about how I sometimes feel a bit nervous about how I'll manage post-debt. I've planned various things over the year, have spreadsheets with new budgets made out for various levels of income and that kind of thing but until the time is actually here, I won't really know how I'm going to manage. I think I've learned enough and my spending patterns have changed enough that I'll be okay. But still, that nervousness of the unknown does creep in now and again.

J. mentioned that for the last while she has taken to using an app on her phone called YNAB, or You Need a Budget and has highly recommended it to me. I took a look at their website and have been slowly reading through some of the stuff. Of course, once one person had mentioned it to me, I started to hear about it all over the place. Some people are of the opinion that there are enough budgeting and financial apps out there that it makes no sense to pay for one. A valid enough point, I suppose but at something like 40 or 45 euro (I think it's USD 60 but have heard you can often get good deals or coupons), it's not very expensive really and if it works then it's worth every cent. At any rate there is a free trial version so whenever I do get around to getting a smartphone, I'll definitely get that anyway. I like the idea of entering the amount I've just spent onto my phone as I'm walking out of the shop - far less chance of me forgetting something and although I do sometimes to this with pen and paper, I'm not so able to do that one-handed and while walking.

I think what I like about YNAB is that it reflects most of what I've already learned/come up with on my own. The method is based on four rules. Rule 1 is "Give every dollar a job" - check. When I do up my spreadsheet for the month I never leave an overrun - all expenses that I know about are put in, the remainder is divided by the number of weeks and becomes my discretionary spending (food, going out etc.). On the rare occasions that weekly amount is a lot (I usually have about 50 euro) then I just increase the amount going to debt or savings. Rule 2 is "Save for a rainy day" - yep. Although I don't have a lot of savings, I do put money aside to cover expected annual expenses, including a small buffer for unexpected things. Rule 3 is "Roll with the punches" - absolutely. I check and update my spreadsheet at least once a week, and on the weeks where there's lots of bank activity more often than that. Although it sometimes feels like robbing Peter to pay Paul, I do know that allowing some flexibility in what the money is spent on does make for a less stressful time.

And finally, rule 4 is "Live on last month's income". Okay, not at all something I do but something I have wanted to do for a very long time and talked about on and off over the years. I never really thought I'd ever get to a position where it would be possible though. So this is something I'm going to have to give serious thought to. Because actually, the thought of having a full month's salary just sitting in my current account doing nothing is more difficult for me to take these days. So I may go with a variation on this one that involves keeping one month's worth of salary in an easy-access savings account earning at least some interest.

How about everyone else? Any experience with YNAB? Any favourite apps or budgeting methods to share?

Sunday, April 06, 2014

My new favourite way to eat eggs

I first saw this idea on the Two Men and a Little Farm blog last December. I immediately thought it sounded delicious and wanted to try it out but as these things go, it's has taken me a while to get around to it. I've seen mention of similar recipes a few times since. I'm not sure if it's just doing the rounds or if it's a case of becoming aware of something and starting to see it everywhere. The latest mention was just a few days ago, when Dani's Simple Tomato Supper and today the stars aligned and my new favourite way to eat eggs was brought to light.

I took a ziploc bag out of the freezer this morning, which had tomatoes, courgette and onion in it from last summer. I was actually having a fasting day today so it suited me to have something substantial but simple for a lunch. As things turned out I got caught up doing a few things and since I wasn't feeling particularly hungry I just kept going. So it ended up being an early dinner at around six o'clock.

I put the tomato sauce into a pot and brought it to a boil, reducing the heat after that so that it was simmering. I then popped two slices of bread into the toaster and slipped the two eggs, which I had already broken into a cup, in to the tomato sauce. I put the lid on the pot and started to put away the few dishes still on the draining board. When the toast was ready, I buttered that and then I scooped out the eggs into a bowl and added plenty of tomato sauce. I had forgotten about adding cheese, which both of the recipes above do, but in my opinion, it didn't need it at all. Poached eggs are a favourite of mine anyway although I've never been successful at cooking them so it tends to be something I have to wait for someone else to cook for me. But this method is the business. And having the veg to eat, too, just makes it even better. I actually thought I had overcooked the eggs and that they were going to be hard inside but when I cut in to them, they were just perfect. I didn't get a picture of that - too busy scoffing the lot. I was very full when I was finished, I have to admit. And how wonderful to eat an almost entirely local meal at this time of year - tomatoes, courgettes and onions from the market last summer, eggs from the same market just yesterday, bread from the baker next door. I think only the butter wasn't local.
Eggs poached in tomatoes, courgette and onion - it tasted far better than it looks in the picture
There is still some of the sauce left - I may be having this for breakfast in the morning again!