The wonderful weather has continued, with a few breaks here and there, for weeks now and I feel that we’ve been truly spoiled. It really has been glorious. It has been so hot and sunny it’s felt like summertime and yet with it only being late May we have all the summer months to look forward to.

I’ve really been enjoying my garden this spring, I’ve bought new garden furniture and have been making the most of the lighter, warmer evenings by spending much more time outside, as anyone who follows my Instagram feed will know!

 

I’ve also been spending time by the sea, on the Sussex coast where I have a caravan. It’s great taking off on a Friday evening after work, driving down the motorway with summer music playing, to spend the weekend at my ‘holiday home’.

All of this outdoor living has meant lots of eating Al Fresco, something which I love, and with the seasonal British, spring produce now available, such as the asparagus I get so excited about each year, ripe strawberries, and Jersey Royal new potatoes, I’ve been having some real feasts.

Of course, we’ve also had the excitement of the royal wedding which most of us couldn’t help but get caught up in, even just to enjoy the sense of Britishness and festivity. Ella, Jamie and I watched Meghan and Harry get hitched last Saturday and then spent a lovely afternoon in the garden soaking up the sunshine. I did more of the same on Sunday, making the most of every day of hot sunshine.

And I’m certainly not the only one enjoying the warm weather; my cats, Simba and Skye, are loving it too.

I hope you’re enjoying your springtime too. Let’s hope summer is just as good!

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Finally, finally warm spring weather has arrived. It’s come later this year and in fact at the beginning of the season, in March, snow brought the country to a standstill – and prevented me and my friend from getting to Wembley to see the Stereophonics which we were most upset about, but that’a a whole other story.

After the late start spring seemed to appear overnight with trees and flowers blossoming, grass looking greener and lusher thanks to the April showers, and birds singing merrily – take a look at the video I took of the dawn chorus on my Instagram page. The sun is now shining gloriously and it’s so wonderfully warm you could be forgiven for thinking we’ve skipped spring and moved straight into summertime.

Watching my partner’s little girl, Ella, who’s seven, play outside with her friends in the warm weather is a joy and takes me back to my own childhood and seemingly endless summer days playing on the grass, making daisy chains, riding my bike and playing with my sister and friends. Back then there were no mobile phones, no iPad games, no social media and in these different times there’s a greater significance in seeing children playing outside and it needs to be encouraged all the more.

I thought it would be lovely to make some fresh lemonade this weekend for us all to enjoy. It’s so easy and no trouble at all to make, and it brings real pleasure to see the kids sip it up thirstily and eagerly through straws.

This recipe features in my cookbook but if you don’t have it (why not?!) here it is for you to try. Do adjust the sugar and water quantities to your own taste, and try it with still and sparkling water to see which you prefer.

Makes approximately 1 ltr

4 large un-waxed lemons
200ml still water, boiling
80-100g caster sugar, depending on how large, and how tart, the lemons are
Approximately 600ml still or carbonated water

Peel the skin off lemons, leaving the white pith on them, and then juice them. Put the zest and juice into a measuring jug and pour over 200ml boiling water from a kettle. Add the sugar and stir well until it dissolves then leave it to cool. Once it’s cooled you can either use it straight away or leave the lemon zest in the liquid for longer for a stronger flavour.

To serve, pass the mixture through a sieve then dilute it with still or carbonated water. Check the taste and add more sugar or water if necessary. Serve chilled in a big jug with lots of ice and slices of lemon.

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Photograph, used with permission, by Rosalind Atkinson Photography, @her_dark_materials on Instagram.

Having been pretty much out of the social media world for several years I came back to a changed landscape and found myself a little out of touch when it came to platforms such as Snapchat and Instagram. I haven’t really explored the former and don’t have much curiosity for it but I’ve really taken to Instagram. However I quickly realised that users have really upped their game and the photographs I was scrolling through were in another league altogether. Looking back at my own Instagram feed I had a little sinking feeling as I realised that my iPhone snapshots, often with the unmistakeable yellow tinge from harsh indoor lighting, were not going to cut it if I wanted to reach a wider audience.

Luckily I have a professionally artistic and incredibly talented friend who just happens to be the man behind the beautiful design of my cookbook ‘A Slice of Cherry Pie’ when he was in the role of Art Director at the publisher Absolute Press. Matt Inwood is not only critically acclaimed in his field but also one of the nicest and most modest people you’ll ever have the fortune to meet. Scrolling through his Instagram feed is like turning the pages of a beautiful, treasured fairy tale book full of evocative, slightly dark and twisting stories that pull you in and leave you breathless. Matt’s photographs, predominantly of food, family life, nature shots and the odd portrait, are of a quality you’d find in the pages of glossy published works. His eye for a shot and talent for turning an ordinary every day moment or object into an extraordinary work of art is quite incredible. Even more so when you discover that every photograph on his feed is taken with just an iPhone, and until recently, a very old one at that. So when he asked if I would like to attend one of his Instagram masterclasses I jumped at the chance.

Matt chooses beautiful restaurants for his masterclasses and they include a sit down lunch. The class I attended was held at The Cinnamon Club in London and the private room we were in had an old world feel to it which was both inspiring and, with the low lighting so we could see the projector, a little like walking into one of Matt’s photographs.

Five minutes or so into Matt’s opening presentation and it became clear just how much knowledge he has, not only about the art of styling and photography, as I expected, but also the Instagram platform itself and how to use it to its full potential to engage with and build an audience and to polish your feed as you present it to the world. Matt is incredibly generous with his knowledge sharing and once you learn from him it’s actually quite simple to turn your snaps into something much more artistic and professional looking, albeit not perhaps to the quality of Matt’s.

The presentation was followed by practical work where we used Matt’s props and ingredients from the kitchen of The Cinnamon Club. Matt was on hand to offer advice and I came away from the day with several photographs of a quality that looked out of place on my amateur Instagram feed. But I’ve since been putting what I’ve learned into practice and in just a few weeks my feed is looking much more professional and I’m getting a significantly higher number of likes and followers than before.

You could perhaps argue that I’m a little biased as I’ve known Matt for a number of years and he worked on my book, but I can honestly say that I have genuine admiration for his work and talent and I’m sure that once you take a look at his Instagram feed you will share that admiration.

If you’re looking to improve your photography, to increase your Instagram followers, to learn how to make the most of the Instagram features and tools, and to create an Instagram feed you can be truly proud of, all with just a phone camera, then I highly recommend Matt’s Instagram Masterclass. You won’t be disappointed.

Photograph, used with permission, by Rosalind Atkinson Photography, @her_dark_materials on Instagram.

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I think us Brits can be forgiven for getting a little over excited when we get get hot weather as we get such little of it, relatively speaking. I guess we appreciate it all the more because of that, and we know to make the most of it while it lasts as it’s so fleeting in the UK. Although we are now in sunny springtime there is a good reason for the phrase ‘April showers’ so the last thing we were expecting was a heatwave, especially as we had snow just a few weeks back, but that’s exactly what we’ve had. It was surprising but very welcome and just what we’ve needed – everything is just so much better when the sun is shining. Shorts come out from the back of wardrobes, music blares out of open car windows, shops get ransacked for barbecue food, it’s fabulous!

With the summer mood taking over the country it felt like some summer-style cooking was called for and so I threw together a chorizo and potato hash for lunch the other day. It’s a really tasty and easy dish, and very adaptable if you want to change it up with different ingredients. Onions and peppers are often used but instead I grabbed the leeks that were in my fridge and they worked really well.

Chorizo Hash

Serves 2
70g chorizo
1 leek, sliced
360g new potatoes, cooked and cut into bite sized pieces
2 eggs
A handful of chopped herbs, such as flat leafed parsley, basil, chives (optional)

Sauté the chorizo in a large pan over a medium heat for a few minutes until it starts to release its oil.

Add the sliced leek and sauté with the chorizo for about 5 minutes,stirring occasionally, until it softens and starts to take on a little colour.

Turn the heat up and add the potatoes to the pan. Continue sautéing until the potatoes colour and crisp up a little.

Once everything is cooked through turn the heat back down to medium, stir in the herbs (if using) and then make two spaces in the pan for the eggs and then crack them into the pan. Fry the eggs until they are cooked to your liking and then remove the pan from the heat and serve.

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This year hasn’t been as I’d anticipated so far, getting off to something of a false start for me. As last year drew to a close I had to say goodbye to a dear friend, my cousin-in-law’s father, when he sadly passed away. Unfortunately this was to be the first of several bereavements, the next being an uncle at the beginning of the new year and then my own father at the end of January, the latter throwing me into a turmoil with not only the grief to deal with but also a funeral to arrange and my father’s affairs to sort out.

As the waves of grief washed over me I found myself once again contemplating the meaning of life, as I have done many times over the years. I have battled with depression for all of my adult life, and anxiety for much of it, and naturally a time of bereavement can be a trigger, particularly as I lost my sister years ago in a car accident when she was just 18, and I was coming on for 20. I’ve never fully recovered from that and all these years later I’m still working through the intense grief that it brought on. It was this that triggered my contemplation of the meaning of life, a contemplation that over time has developed into existential thinking and now, with the recent events in my life, into a full blow existential crisis.

You may not be completely familiar with what an existential crisis is, although you may have heard of it and almost certainly can relate to some of the questions at the heart of it such as ‘why am I here?’ and ‘what is point, or purpose, of my life?’. They are the sorts of questions that we all think of from time to time but in the context of psychological wellbeing an existential crisis can throw someone into a state of severe anxiety or depression. I won’t delve too much further into this for fear of making this post too melancholy but if you are interested or can perhaps relate and would like to hear more then I can always talk about it another time.

My saving grace through all this, aside from the support of my wonderful family and friends, has been through immersing myself in art when I picked up a paintbrush again for the first time in a very long time. I spent hours, into the night, lost in the painting which carried me away and offered me an escape and a relief from the emotions and dark thoughts that had been consuming me. Painting, as with most arts, is such an immersing activity that you can’t help but be ‘in the moment’ – mindfulness at its best – as you carefully choose and mix paints, brush the picture into life on the paper or canvas, and wash away the paint from the brush in the water. There is a strong correlation between creative people and mental health issues such as depression and it’s fairly easy to see the links. There’s a form of escapism to be found from painful emotions and hardships of lives, and expression of overwhelming emotions, whether through lyric writing, dance and movement, acting and becoming someone else, or expression through art. It is those who think and feel deeply who are able to most easily express themselves in such ways.

If you need some time of escape, some relief from stresses and strains, or simply a fun way to relax, try turning to arts and crafts if you haven’t already, or turning back to them if you have. It can be as simple as picking up a biro and a pad and doodling, or a shopping trip to treat yourself to a box of paints (which needn’t be expensive) and some art paper. No one need see it, it can be for your eyes only, just let it connect you to your inner child and begin to play. A few minutes or a few hours of forgetting our adult woes and entering a child like world again is a true gift.

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Candle

Whoa, that was a bumpy sleigh ride this Christmas. May I pass on a little word of advice? Don’t move home three weeks before Christmas. In fact, don’t move at all in December. Especially not if you are hosting Christmas. Which is exactly what I did.

I am actually very happy to be in my new home and happy that I was in just in time for Christmas but, my goodness, it was hard work. I was lucky to have a lot of help from family on the move weekend and I took a week off work so that I could get things organised but I was still unpacking, sorting and organising right up to the big day. Then there were the utilities and services to sort out and change of address notifications. I still have more to do but the main things are sorted.

With the move taking priority I was behind with Christmas planning and shopping and I could feel the stress building the closer to Christmas it got. But then at some point early on Christmas Eve I just let it go (launches into song from ‘Frozen’). I realised that my family don’t care what state my home is in, they just want to spend Christmas with me and they would take me as they found me. After all, Christmas really is about being with the ones you love. And so it was that we had a lovely, relaxed Christmas Day. I was very pleased with the turkey crown I cooked, which was tasty and moist. Everyone enjoyed the meal and there was plenty of meat left over for sandwiches. I usually buy a whole turkey but as there were only a fewof us I thought a crown would be fine, and my cousin’s wife has one every year and recommends it – as, now, do I. I prepared it in the same way I would a whole bird, mixing chopped herbs with a whole packet of salted butter and stuffing that under the skin and over the breast, laying rashes of streaky bacon over the breast and seasoning it with salt and pepper. I put it into a tray on top of chopped onions and carrots and threw in a bay leaf, then covered it with foil and roasted it, taking the foil off for the last half hour in order to brown it. The real key is letting it rest breast side down once it’s cooked for at least an hour – I left it for two while I prepared the rest of the meal. This allows the meat to relax and the juices to run back into it so that it isn’t dry. You don’t need to worry about it getting cold, just cover it up completely in foil and then lay a good few thick tea towels over it to keep the heat in. It will cool a little but stay nice and warm.

Turkey2

Early into Christmas evening I started to feel quite unwell. I hadn’t been feeling particularly great before, but I just put that down to the busyness of the proceeding weeks and the fact that I had been up until 3am wrapping presents! But I was now starting to feel nauseous. Concerned that it hadn’t been long since we’d eaten I asked the others if they felt unwell but they all felt fine, so this wasn’t the food. In fact, I’d come down with a nasty stomach bug/virus. I went from being up and about cooking dinner to being bed ridden, nauseous and achy in a matter of hours. It was like being hit by a truck. The next few days were a complete right off, but I was fortunate that my mum and stepdad were staying with me for Christmas and they insisted on staying and looking after me. I don’t care how old you are, when you feel that ill having your mummy look after you is wonderful! And at least being unwell at Christmas time means there’s lots to watch on TV! Thankfully the nausea and sickness was only a 24 hour thing but it left me feeling awful, and now I have a kind of flu and throat infection. This seems to be a winter bug that’s doing the rounds as I’ve heard of lots of people coming down with it. I sincerely hope that none of you get unwell this winter but if you do, here’s my advice – none of which is new or ground breaking but advice that we often hear but don’t follow. As difficult as it can be, rest if you can, as much as you can. In some ways I was fortunate that I didn’t have to go to work or look after children, or keep to any other commitments, so I could just lay in bed or on the couch and rest and sleep. It really is the best way of getting better quicker. Drink plenty of water or squash but if you have a stomach upset sip it slowly, don’t drink lots quickly. A hot bath helps with the aches and pains, and you can just get back into pyjamas afterwards.

Couch

Now that I’ve given you my Christmas tale of woe I’ll leave you with a little something that may come in handy if you still have any leftovers, or are cooking another turkey. Alternatively you could use chicken. Apart from the broccoli, I made this entirely from what I already had in so it’s a great store cupboard meal. Just keep a packet of risotto rice in your cupboard and you can always whip up a great mid-week risotto. I very unconventionally added a few drops of Tabasco sauce which really lifted it and added a little spice to the otherwise fairly bland leftover turkey meat.

Turkey and Broccoli Risotto

Serves 2

750ml chicken stock
1 onion, finely diced
150g risotto rice, such as Arborio
100ml white wine
1/2 head of broccoli, chopped into small pieces
A good few handfuls of cooked turkey meat, chopped
A few drops of Tabasco sauce, to taste
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat the stock in a pan until it is hot but not simmering, ready to ladle into the risotto.

Heat about a tablespoon of olive oil in a non-stick frying pan over a medium heat and then add the diced onion and sauté it for a few minutes until it starts to soften a little.

Add the rice and stir well until it starts to turn translucent. Pour in the wine and stir the rice for about 30 seconds while the alcohol sizzles and burns off.

Start adding the hot stock, one ladleful at time, stirring continuously. Allow the rice to absorb each ladleful before adding the next. Once the rice has absorbed a few ladlefuls of stock add the broccoli to the pan then continue stirring and adding the stock as before. About halfway through add the turkey meat to the risotto, stirring it in.

Keep adding stock until the rice is al dente, not totally soft all the way through but still with a bite in the middle, and the risotto has a sauce-like consistency. Different varieties of rice absorb differing quantities of liquid so you may not need all of the stock or you may need to add a little more (water will be fine if you run out of stock). Make sure the turkey is piping hot before serving.

TurkeyAndBroccoliRisotto

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