Weaning Ways

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As I said in my last post, if there is one thing I have learned from having twins it is just how different babies can be. Two babies, from the same parents, brought up in identical circumstances, my boys are so far apart in terms of development, personality and emotional needs, it surprises me daily. And mealtimes are no different – whilst Conall was desperate to self-feed, grabbing at the spoon and bowl from week 1, Hal is still content to sit back and let Mummy do the work to this day. Conall took to finger food quickly, whilst Hal was really only interested in squidging bits of banana between his fingers. Both boys like nothing more than to make as much mess as possible.

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Weaning twins is a massive job, and one with which I was willing to take any help I could get. My Dad and Step-Mum had bought me Annabel Karmel’s New Complete Baby and Toddler Meal Planner before the boys were born, and I still use this regularly for reference, and for recipes. But there are many essentials without which I would really struggle – not only the store-cupboard stash of baby jars, but regular food stuffs and kitchen equipment that just make life that little simpler.

Here are my weaning baby must-haves:

Jelly moulds and leaf gelatine: I like to make my own jellies for puddings for two reasons: firstly, I can control the amount of sugar that goes in, and secondly, I can make them with pure fruit juice. I had no idea how easy it was to make your own jellies, but it’s every bit as simple as using jelly cubes – simply bring fruit juice to just below boiling point, add in four softened gelatine sheets for every pint of liquid, pour into moulds and refridgerate to set. The boys will eat pretty much any flavour, but a favourite is made with a tin of raspberries in juice: I strain the fruit and share between the moulds, then make the juice up to a pint with cranberry and raspberry juice. Add a tablespoon of caster sugar to taste (cranberry juice can be quite tart), and pour the jelly mix over the berries.

Semolina: I found that for my sons, what they ate during the day had a direct impact on how well and long they slept at night. This is not true of all babies, but it was of mine. I quickly realised that a portion of baby rice pudding after their evening meal added up to a decent night’s sleep for mummy and daddy. But to buy the pre-made baby rice in jars for every evening meal was proving expensive. As soon as my boys were on dairy, I began making an alternative to rice pudding, in the form of semolina. I’d mix up a batch with milk and sweeten with fruit puree (see below), portioning it up into tupperware for the next few nights. The twins love it!

Tinned fruit: I was buying fresh fruit and pureeing it up for the boys over summer, but as the nights began to draw in, so the price of fresh soft fruits began to sky-rocket. I often found that a punnet of peaches would go mouldy before they would ripen too – something of an annoyance. And then I saw a TV programme about food waste, which highlighted that tinned and frozen foods have gone out of fashion, despite being fresher, out of season, than their “fresh” brethren. I now stock the cupboard with tinned peaches, apricots and raspberries – as long as they are stored in juice and not in syrup, they’re fine by me! I blend a tin every few days and store in the fridge to add to semolina and…

Ready Brek: Courtesy of Annabel Karmel. My boys were getting through a box of baby porridge every two days – which, at £2.10+ a box quickly adds up! As soon as they were old enough to be introduced to gluten I began to mix their baby porridge in with Ready Brek, increasing the quantity week by week. They now have about a third baby porridge to 2/3 Ready Brek, and it goes a lot further. As many of the baby porridges are flavoured, I sweeten this with a slug of fruit puree (see above).

Frozen veg: peas and sweetcorn, fresh from the freezer, are great to throw into dishes for baby (once they’re old enough to process the husks) and packed full of goodness! See “Philly” below for a recipe using frozen or tinned sweetcorn that the twins just wolf down.

Lentils: Great for stodgifying root veg dishes, my lads love lentils in their dinner. I cook mine in the bottom of a three tier steamer, with chopped carrot and sweet potato above, then blend with the veg, a tin of tomatoes and a tablespoon of yoghurt, a very little cumin and turmeric, and chunks of pineapple to make a very gentle dahl. Always a hit at dinnertime!

Avocados: A godsend when I’ve run out of lunches, we started on avocados mashed with bananas when the lads were still eating mostly fruit and veg. I now blend with a pot of baby fruit from the cupboard in an emergency, with cottage cheese and pineapple from the fridge, or for a real favourite, with either poached chicken and basil leaves or poached salmon and dill.

Bananas: as above, an real emergency staple. Mash one with yoghurt or rice pudding to make a filling finale to a meal.

Cottage cheese & Philly: Cottage cheese, especially with pineapple, was a surprising hit with the boys from the moment they could eat dairy and forms the base to many of their lunches. Philly (other cream cheeses are available…) is fantastic for mixing with tiny pasta shapes and tomato, or in the boys’ favourite dinner, with poached and pureed chicken, sweetcorn and pasta bits. They can’t get enough of it!

Natural Yoghurt: Babies need the full fat version of dairy, and I find the market leading brand of fromage frais somewhat overpoweringly flavoured. I tend to mix Greek style natural yoghurt with fresh fruit, fruit puree or smushed up jelly instead for an alternative dessert. Also good for watering down/creamy-ing up savoury dishes.

Silicone muffin moulds: ice cube trays are too small for babies beyond a couple of months into weaning. Silicone muffin moulds are great for freezing patties of pureed chicken or fish, mixed veg and herbs – anything you’d like to make in a batch and divide up into portions before freezing, really! Freeze in the muffin moulds overnight, then bag up in labelled freezer bags. I mix and match to make up a meal – a patty of chicken with a patty of mashed carrot and sweet potato and perhaps an ice cube of herbs or baby stock, popped in a Tupperware dish in the fridge overnight to defrost…

Wand blender: I could use my lovely fancy Kenwood every time I needed to blend something, but it is time consuming both in terms of set-up and washing-up. My stick blender was £4.99 from Tesco, and has been used AT LEAST twice a day for 5 months solid now. If it breaks next week I will feel confident I’ve had my money’s worth! My Kenwood is great for Sunday afternoon batch cooking sessions when I’m stocking up the freezer.

And a non-necessity that I just love…
My Squeeze Station: I bought this from the Jojo Maman Bebe outlet and I adore how organised it lets me be. I fill the pouches with pre-mixed meals and label with my sharpie, then store in the freezer until needed. Before my working week begins, I can pull out a few meals and write on them exactly what and when they are for: “MONDAY – LUNCH”, for example. It takes the guess work out for me and my Mum/Mother-In-Law when they’re looking after the boys. It wasn’t especially cheap – I got mine for £15 in the sale, and an additional 50 pouches for £13, but then with a voucher code for another 15% off, so about £25 for the whole system plus extra pouches… but it has been worth it for the sense of control it has allowed me. Trust me, when you’re a twin-mummy, anything that allows you the semblance of control is a real luxury!

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Cob Days

One of the things I miss most about Newcastle upon Tyne is the food shopping. Living in the city centre, supermarket shopping was a once monthly (often less) occurrence, requiring lugging our bags full of recycling onto the metro to an out-of-town supermarket and returning with the few basics that are cheaper from the big three. Meanwhile, right on our doorstep, the Green and Grainger markets were a bargain hunter’s paradise: I was on gossiping terms with my two favourite greengrocers in the market, the fishmonger would often throw me in a handful of samphire to cook with my fish or a bag of “bits” for fish pie free of charge, and the cheese lady would wave me over when she had actually managed to get some Fourme D’Ambert from her supplier. I was expert at cooking with whatever was in season or on the spoil, and we ate well off it!

My garlic, galanghal, chillis, ginger and a lot of my herbs came in huge quantities for pennies from the chinese supermarkets round the corner. Our cartons of passatta, jars of sweet peppers, tinned anchovies, pickles and baking goods such as cinnamon sugar and packets of yeast came very cheaply from the Polish supermarkets and pound shops that sprang up around the west end of the centre. My Saturday morning was all about food shopping – heading out with my canvas bags and my shopping list to stock up for the week.

In Leamington there is no food market. There’s a farmer’s market once a month, but that’s for treats, not basics. For the longest time I gave in, and just did all my shopping at the supermarkets, topping up at the corner shops when I ran out of milk, splashing out at the fishmongers when I wanted decent fresh fish, nipping to the excellent Thai supermarket when I needed fresh coriander, ginger or chillis. I found it all (the Thai excepted) painfully expensive.

For far too long I stopped cooking. I baked to indulge my passion, but stopped bothering with “meals” – why eat properly when you can grab a peanut butter and jam sandwich? I could not see the point in cooking for myself, particularly as I no longer had my Saturday morning shopping trips to inspire me. For me, cooking is about feeding, about nurturing both bodies and relationships. A small part of me doesn’t see the point in self-nurture on either score.

I now live in an area with a surplus of corner shops – three within about 100 yards of each other. One is run by a sikh couple, and sells big packets of spices and pulses at incredibly low prices. One is a wannabe supermarket and somewhat overpriced. The third is a family business, stocks fresh fruit and veg as well as herbs (root-on coriander – a real bonus in Asian cuisine), packet spices, pulses and sundries, and is beautifully cheap!

The third is my shop of choice. They’re mid-refurb right now, and appear to be increasing their range greatly. The whole family – Mum, Dad and two sons – recognise and acknowledge me. Sometimes, towards the end of the day, one of the sons refuses to charge me for a couple of chillis, a thumb of ginger, an onion or lime… Which keeps me coming back for the sake of the service. And their produce is fresh, cheap and seasonal, so is starting to inspire me again.

Take this week as an example. With barbeque season having been in full swing, supermarkets have been selling corn on the cob at discounted prices. This usually means it’s been freed of it’s sheath, topped and tailed and placed in plastic to be sold at the discounted price of two cobs for £1. Last night I really fancied corn…

But I really didn’t fancy Asda…

So I stopped at the corner shop to see if they happened to have any in stock. I wasn’t too hopeful…

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These beauties, still in their original (and natural) packaging were 5 ears for £1. Last night I had grilled corn drizzled with melted, seasoned butter. Tonight I’ll be having creamed corn served with a steak from Asda’s reduced section (UPDATED: inspiration from this fantastic foodie blog, but cooked with bay leaves and a teaspoon of wholegrain mustard to go with the steak), and tomorrow, corn fritters with sweet chilli dipping sauce. The shorn cobs and remaining kernels will be used to make a stock for soup, the sweetness that comes out of them working perfectly with potato and parsley.

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This is the sort of availability inspiration that used to form the basis of my diet, and is a habit I need to get back into. I’m hoping regular trips to the refurbed corner shop will kick start my cooking once again.

Chutney

Just back from a soroptimist social – the president cooked us lovely lamb tagine with cous cous followed by fruit salad. I walked up, naturally, and as I left I contemplated going back into the flat for my sunglasses… 10 minutes later I was sheltering from a cloud burst, soaked to the skin and literally dripping. Luckily it was a warm evening, and within half an hour of arriving at Val’s I had dried off!

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Dress & cardi: charity shops;
shoes: Dotty P’s

Before I left I quickly cooked off the rest of the mirabelle plums into a chutney. I had a recipe from a book but ended up twisting it slightly, adding an extra spoonful of sugar to taste, a good handful of sultanas for texture, a grating of fresh nutmeg for that Christmas edge, and using cider vinegar instead of white wine vinegar for that apple ‘bite’:

Chutney

Mirabelle Chutney Recipe

Ingredients
500g mirabelle plums, halved and pitted
2 shallots, finely chopped
1 tbsp olive oil
1/2 cup/110ml cider vinegar
3 tbsps water
Good handful of sultanas
1 cinnamon stick
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/2 cup/100g demerara sugar

1) Place the shallots in a stainless steel saucepan with the oil and saute for 5 minutes until softened and sizzling.

2)Add the chopped plums, vinegar, water, cinnamon, nutmeg, sultanas and sugar. Stir until the sugar dissolves, then simmer for about 15 minutes until softened and slightly thickened.

3) Pre-warm your chosen (sterilised) jars, either in boiling water or in a warm oven (120C). Spoon the chutney into the warm jars, seal, then leave to cool completely.

Bank Holiday

Ready for a weekend round-up? Yeah y’are!

On Friday morning I got up and walked into town to do some odds of shopping and buy ingredients. I then made a Victoria sponge, sliced a punnet of strawberries and whipped up a tub of double cream with vanilla sugar for Mummy’s birthday cake. I didn’t assemble it as I was worried about it falling apart in the car, but here it is after assembly at home (but before Ben, Lauren and I devoured half of it in a very short space of time!)

Birthday Cake

After tea we walked the dog (but it was cold and grey, so no snaps) then got ready for dinner at a the China Garden restaurant in Cannock. Now, that may sound like a simple occurrence, but trust me, it wasn’t: it took us over two hours to reach a decision about where we were even eating! We’re a picky, indecisive family – see, it’s not all my fault that I can never make my mind up, it’s genetic!

After a fraught two hours of buck-passing, I was hoping for something spectacular from the food. But to be honest it was a bit… meh. Well, it was ok: our aromatic duck starter was delicious, but arrived a good 10 minutes after Mummy and Pete’s Yuk Sung, and only then because we chased it; my fragrant chicken was bland but everyone else’s main was tasty, so that could have been my fault for opting for the low MSG sauce choice; and the manager was really rude about us wanting to leave a cash tip, trying to force Ben into adding it to his card – so ended up without one. I’m not happy tipping for poor service, but especially not if I can’t be sure it’s going to the waiters at all!

On Saturday morning we went to town to meet my cousin Sarah and baby Yasmin for tea and scones in the Soup Kitchen. As a child I use to spend my weekends with my Gran, and every Saturday morning we’d go to Mill Street where she’d get her hair done, then to the Soup Kitchen in Church Lane for a coffee and a teacake for her and a milkshake and a fairy cake for me! When I was about 10 they changed from the old stemmed milkshake glasses to modern tumblers, but they held back a stemmed glass especially for our Saturday morning trips! 😀 If you’re ever in Stafford I highly recommend a visit for coffee or for lunch.

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Church Lane

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Jackson’s Green Grocers on Mill Street: Mill Street comprises buildings from a range of eras, but the 17th century grocers is definitely the oldest!

After pots of tea and scones with clotted cream and jam Ben, Lauren and I wandered around the charity shops and did some food shopping at Tesco. Then we went home for lunch and more birthday cake (yes, more cream!) with Sarah and Yasmin (because I hadn’t had sufficient cuddle time in the Soup Kitchen 😉 ), before taking Harry down an area of Cannock Chase that we call “the leafy lane” for obvious reasons…

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On a previous trip my Mum had spotted lots of fruit for foraging, so we went armed with baskets and trussed up against the nettles and brambles:

Foraging

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Mirabelles and Sloes

Fruit

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Ben&Lauren Walkies!

We gathered 3.5 lbs of sloes – enough to make a pint of sloe gin each with half a pound left over – and 14lbs of mirabelle plums!! The sloes are better gathered after the first frost, but are just a good picked when freshly ripe and frozen in the ice box (which is where mine are right now!). The mirabelles were starting to turn slightly last night, so I sorted and pitted them this afternoon and half are waiting to become chutney tomorrow while the rest are cooling on the stove top in a mirabelle tart:

Mirabelle tart

Ingredients:
1 shortcrust pastry
700g mirabelle plums
1 egg
80g caster sugar
50g butter

Recipe :
Preheat the oven to 180°C (Gas Mark 6).
Roll the pastry out into a baking dish and prick with a fork.
Pit the plums and put them at the bottom of the dish.
Melt the butter and sugar then add the beaten egg, off the heat.
Pour over the plums and bake for about 30 minutes.

Recipe from sofeminine.co.uk

On Saturday night I made king prawn saag and we watched the highlights of the Stoke City match, then on Sunday we had a wander around the Stafford Common car boot sale (I finally got some pyrex Carnaby design plates to match my tea set and gravy boat – 7 for £1!), ate roast dinner and an apple and blackberry crumble made with berries from the garden, then came back to Le Spa. All in all it was a lovely weekend, and I hope my Mum enjoyed her birthday as much as we did!

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Today, aside from pitting plums, I had shopping to do so had to walk into town. When I got dressed this morning I took the holiday excuse to dress up… but when it got to leaving the flat I was very slightly worried that Le Spa might not be ready for such unusual attire… hence two outfits:

Petticoat Shopwear

Saturday? Must be picnic time!

That’s right folks – I had yet another picnic this weekend! Maybe the best things in life really are free! But let’s start again…

After work Friday I set to work baking in preparation for Si and Ellie’s visit. I made:

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Salmon, feta and spinach pie

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Chocolate cupcakes with nutella filling
and cocoa buttercream frosting

On Friday night I went with Kate to see her hubby’s band Quaid play in Warwick. It was a scary old man kinda pub (there were tankards behind the bar!) and they played classic covers which went down pretty well. I haven’t been to a small gig in so long, I’m afraid I regressed right back to my mis-spent youth, Friday nights at the Red Rose in Rugely, or following our mates’ band Silversurfer playing dive pubs in the Cannock and Wolverhampton environs… I loved every minute!

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Dress and shoes: Ebay; belt and necklace:
charity shops; cardi: Topshop: hair bow: H&M

On Saturday morning I got up early (for a Saturday!), cleaned, iced the cupcakes and made myself pretty for Ellie and Si’s arrival.

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Cardi: George; shoes: Dotty P’s;
dress: charity shop; belt: gifted

They brought some picnic bits too, and we went straight to Jephson Gardens to meet Ben and Lauren for pie, mini sausage rolls and party eggs, rice salad, houmous, king prawns marie rose, pasta salad, fresh avocado, crisps… basically every good thing! It was delicious!

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Lunch in Jephson Gardens

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Mmmmmm, cupcakes!

Saturday night we went out for curry at Kismet, which was absolutely delicious as always. I had a lamb dish – Sagwala Gosi Lahore – which was a bit spicier than I like, but still very tasty – I do love my spinach!

This morning we went to a car boot sale between Leamington and Kenilworth. It was a huge sale, and I found a couple of bits and pieces…

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Pyrex spice jars: £1 for all five

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£1.80 worth of notions (buttons, dressmaker’s chalk, elastic and a vintage
Embassy needle booklet complete with needles) from this stall:

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And Simon bought some computer games. Afterwards we brought the car home and set out to walk along the canal to the next village and the White Lion pub where we had some lunch – in my case poached salmon with rocket and apple salad, new potatoes and a dill yoghurt sauce. We sat in the beer garden in the sunshine and chatted – it was a lovely relaxing afternoon!

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Simon ponders the light…

When I got back to the flat, Kate had been round and dropped off some felt I need for a current project. I pottered about and did some chores, then went to Ben and Lauren’s for dinner – meatballs cooked in Ben’s “special gravy” – delicious!

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Pink felt from Kate!

A great end to a great weekend!