Friday, 26 September 2008

Borscht (A Russian Favourite)

When I was in Russia I ate a LOT of soup - every evening my landlady would serve up a meal of soup, main dish, salad, dessert and homemade fruit juice (often with pieces of fruit at the bottom). Can I just say now that I have never eaten that much in one sitting in my life and it took me about a month to get used to filling my stomach with that much food! So every day I had soup - chicken soup, vegetable soup, cabbage soup and the all famous borscht.

I have no idea where the t at the end of the word comes from because it certainly doesn't exist in the Russian word - I guess it just helps us say it more accurately. I remember one of my teachers telling me that although borscht is known as the traditional dish of Russia, it actually originated elsewhere in the Eastern European countries and Russia's national soup is actually Shi or cabbage soup (equally as delicious I might add!)

I've been meaning to have a go at cooking some borscht ever since returning from Russia 3 years ago but only got around to it quite recently when my parents brought us some beetroot they had grown in their garden. We searched out a recipe for it and decided to make a few variations to suit our needs and then away we went. We were originally going to have it as a chunky soup but when we became too hungry to wait for it to fully cook we blended it up to make it cook quicker (blushes). We then adding the obligatory dollop of sour cream and sprigs of dill and ate it all up - yum.

On a side note - dill reminds me so much of Russia. It felt like the only herb my landlay ever used - and I don't mean in small quantities either... I remember eating a sandwich made of bread, ham and a whole branch of dill. I kid you not! Just the smell of the herb transports me back there.

Anyway without further ado here is our Borscht recipe, a variation on the recipe found in Best-Ever Cook's Collection - Vegetarian by Roz Denny.

Serves 6 (or 3 if you have a very hungry boyfriend!)

1 onion, chopped
1 large or 2 small raw beetroot, peeled and chopped
1 large cooking apple, chopped
2 celery sticks, chopped
1 red pepper, chopped
115g/4oz mushrooms, chopped
1 tbsp butter
30ml/2 tbsp sunflower or vegetable oil
2 litres/3 1/2 pints/8 cups of stock
5ml/1 tsp cumin seeds
pinch dried thyme
1 large bay leaf
fresh lemon juice
salt and ground black pepper
soured cream
few sprigs of fresh dill, to garnish

Alterations made to original recipe:
  1. The recipe called for 1/2 red pepper but we chose to use the full one instead of wasting half

  2. It also suggested using 2 tbsp of butter but knowing how greasy borscht can be I chose to halve this quantity and it still turned out rather greasy so if you don't like greasy soup use less butter. Borshct is nt borscht without a bit of grease though so don't cut it out entirely unless you really have to.

  3. We used a combination of vegetable and chicken stocks - 2 1/2 pints of vegetable and 1 pint of chicken. You can keep it completely vegetarian if you like (we only cook vegetarian because we find it difficult to digest meat so we don't mind using chicken stock - organic of course!) The recipe suggest you can use water instead of stock but I think that would be far too bland to be considered real borscht.

  4. As stated above we chose to keep it almost completely meat-free. However true borscht often has offcuts of meat in it so please do feel free to add leftover scraps to the dish!

  5. The recipe suggests using 150ml/1/4 pint/2/3 cup of soured cream but I don't like to put quantities on it. We just bought a tub and added what we liked. I found a good heaped teaspoon was enough for me but T added at least 2 teaspoons to his own. It is all a matter of taste.

The cooking process

  1. Put the butter, oil and 45ml/3tbsp of stock into a large saucepan and add the chopped vegetables. Cover the pot and cook gently for about 15 minutes, shaking the pan occasionally

  2. Stir in the cumin seeds and cook for a minute before adding the remaining stock, dried thyme, lemon juice and seasoning.

  3. Bring to the boil, then cover the pan and turn down to a gentle simmer. Cook for about 30 minutes. If you want your soup to be chunky then you need to leave the soup to cook for several more minutes until all of the vegetables are tender. We didn't do this but I would guess it would take another 10 minutes.

  4. Strain the vegetables and reserve the liquid. Blend the vegetables with a blender until they are smooth and creamy.

  5. Return the vegetables to the pan, stir in the reserved stock and reheat.

  6. Check the seasoning and then serve the borscht. We served ours with hot toasted bread rolls that we had stuck under the grill before blending the vegetables.

  7. Swirl in the soured cream and garnish with a few sprigs of fresh dill.


Tuesday, 23 September 2008

"Oh how hard it is to be looked after!"

Thanks for all the comments on my last post - I had no idea BlogHer was so unknown I guess I must just read certain blogs of people who have been lol

I am still interested in the idea of a British meet up of bloggers - maybe such a thing already exists - if not I don't know if I'm up to organising one - perhaps it's a challenge I'll take if I find people are interested.

In other news - I had a wonderful weekend, my parents came to visit and we went for a glorious walk in the woods with T's niece. I have loads of photos of the cake we made which I will share in a later post with you all but for now I am sitting, wrapped up in bed under orders not to do anything (I shouldn't even be online) but I am going stir crazy and thought I'd pop on quickly for a quick chat. *shhhhh don't tell T!!*

My cold has progressed - my sinuses are almost cleared but my ears are blocked and that has made me a bit dizzy. On top the virus has gone to my chest and although I made it to work yesterday I had my managers telling me not to come in today if I wasn't right and the T telling me I am vey bad at being ill and so he has quite literally tucked me in and not let me move from the bed other than to pee.

You see I get very bored very easily - I hate being ill because it slows me down. You'd think I'd be used to it because let's be fair I get ill a lot but that is actually the problem. When I was at uni I was very ill and if I didn't just keep going I'd have failed - there was no time to stay home and get better because what I had would take months to get better not a few days. Then when I graduated I started work in care and had no money so I had to work when I was ill or pay the consequences - i.e. starve! Since T lost his job I have found myself in the same position - so I carry on...

I never used to find it hard to stay home and watch tv and get better but now it is so hard. I feel so guilty because it has become a habit to get up and go. Even when I had the ear infection and could barely move I couldn't shut the inner voice saying "you should be using this time to DO something!" I actually used to find it weird how people couldn't stop and just "be" but now I find myself in exactly the same place.

So spare a thought for me as I lay in bed, wrapped up in blankets, with hot drinks and fruit forced upon me and a nursemaid of a boyfriend reading The Hobbit to me in attempts to stop me from thinking/doing/fretting. "Oh how hard it is to be looked after!" my sister said scornfully when I rang her - and to be fair, once I got over the first 2 hours of fidgets I actually began to enjoy being like a child again - it really is nice to be cared for by someone... so I am going to make the most of it when T returns home from his errands... but please do remember that I am breaking a habit right now - so I'll probably be back at work tomorrow ;o)

Take Care all of you and wrap up nice and warm as the weather begins to change and these nasty cold viruses begin to catch hold once more!
Amanda xx

Friday, 19 September 2008

A British BlogHer?

Right, so I'm sitting at home, in my pjs, feeling a little sorry for myself. I have a stinking cold and spent most of last night in a feverish dream interspersed by having to get up and visit the little girls' room. So, to indulge myself (and take my mind of feeling guilty about not going in to work) I thought I'd catch up on all the blog entries that have been collecting over at Bloglines waiting for me to have time to read them.

And one of the bloggers I know is just preparing for BlogHer in Vegas. Have you heard about this thing called BlogHer?! It sounds so cool and exciting getting to meet blog friends in one big get together. But they are all in the US (or am I missing something here - is there a British version?!)

I was really looking forward to going to a Vintage and Handmade craft fair in November that is being held by some blogger friends I recently found but unfortunately I now realise I am already booked up that weekend - a birthday party with some old uni friends who I haven't seen in so long and T hasn't met so I can't go...

I know how exciting meeting online friends can be and I know how much of a difference it makes to the friendship you have with someone. Twice now I have met up with a group of people from a forum I visit and although I had some amazing friendships before - I now have even deeper level of understanding and love for them. We missed the chance to meet up this summer and I really missed it as we had so much fun and I cannot wait until we have chance to do it again.

But this all got me thinking - do any of you guys wish we had a blog get together, somewhere central for most people, easy to get to, not too expensive, and a way to spend a weekend with the people you have forged friendships with? What do you think the chances are of arranging such an event? Do you think people would turn up - would YOU turn up? Would you want to be involved in the planning of it or would you rather just turn up? What would you bring - photos, crafts, gifts, cakes..?

I can't help but think how fun it would be - and hey if only Cambridge were a little more central for everyone there would be no problems sorting out accommodation - I'm becoming a real pro at that sort of thing... can you see my feverish mind is making me a little happy and perhaps a bit overambitious?! But a girl can dream - especially a girl whose blog contains the word dream in the title haha...

So tell me - what do you think? Would you go to a blog-meet? Or have you been to BlogHer yourself? What was it like? Come on people, leave me comments - or else I'll go crazy sat at home all day :op

Friday, 12 September 2008

Can I help?

I guess you're all wondering how the new job is going, huh? And I guess it's about time I got round to posting about it, eh? Ok...

I started at the Tourist Info Centre 3 weeks ago and have been having such a blast. The staff are all so incredibly friendly and the day is always busy but very rewarding. I love standing behind the desk and helping tourist after tourist and I have learnt so much about the city already it's unbelievable.

My first day I was sent on a 2 hour walking tour which we send out twice a day at the moment (4 times in the summer) to learn about some of the more famous colleges. Then I was thrown in the deep end and left to "sink or swim" as they put it and apparently I decided to swim!!

I have learnt how to do accommodation bookings for visitors, how to book coach tickets with National Express and am so well versed in the prices of certain tours and places to visit that I sometimes wake up trying to sell one to someone lol
Tourists are, on the whole, happy people which makes the world of customer service so much more enjoyable than when dealing with complaint after complaint. Sure we get the odd grumble, mostly to do with the state of services in Britain and occasionally because people want a free map and won't pay 30p for one. Seriously - if you haven't got 30p to spare for a map then you certainly shouldn't be in Cambridge because it is one of the most expensive places to visit and definately live in Britain.
On the topic of paying for maps - the only reason we do not give out free maps like some of the larger cities like London and Edinburgh is because tourism (believe it or not) is not a statutory service so the government do not have to give us any money. We do get funding but not enough to run our service as well as we'd like - so we have less staff than we really need and not enough money to give out free maps!! I am actually one of only 2 full time members of staff in the centre the rest are part-time and my position has not been filled since January so that tells you how difficult it can be making ends meet!! But still I love the new job, love that the days go by so fast and love my new colleagues :o)
I am working my first weekend tomorrow and Sunday and it will be interesting. I have been trained in cashing up and have picked it up really well (apart from forgetting to check the cash amounts properly the other day so having to make 3 trips to the bank to deposit money instead of the usual 1 - that'll teach me to pay more attention on busy days hehe). Tomorrow is the first day that I am "officially" cashing up, although I have done it "unofficially" 3 times this week already so know what I am doing. I will however be working with 2 people I've never met before, 2 I have worked with and the lady who is supporting me has been away since a couple of days after I started work so it'll be interesting.
I have to say though that the best part about this job is that I feel like a totally different person - I feel calm, collected and confident. I am a senior member of staff in a council role and for once in my life I feel like I am in exactly the right place and deserve to be here. I've never felt like this and certainly never expected to feel this way so soon after starting a new job. I used to wish I didn't have to work and could stay home - now I feel like going to work is a great part of my day.
Oh and the questions I get asked - those are the best!! Like "Are there any circuses in the area with elephants?" "Can I have an application form for citizenship?" and "Do you know what cemetery *insert name of supposedly famous mathematician* is buried in?" Seriously - some of these just crack me up and it is so hard to keep a straight face!! I mean every question is take seriously and we endeavour to answer every one of them and treat everyone with respect - but sometimes the questions are just so out there even the people asking them find it amusing!!
Anyway better go - I can smell the scent of vegetables roasting nicely in the oven, T has just come home and I think we may be about to eat *yum*
Have a lovely weekend
Amanda x

Monday, 8 September 2008

Does anyone else worry about identity fraud?

I have been meaning to write a post updating you all on my new job (it is going so well by the way) but right now I am so vexed about this that I need to get it out before normal posting can resume! Sorry...

You know how people are always going on and on about how important it is to be safe when using the internet - don't share your pin number, account details, personal address etc online because it's SO easy for someone to piece it all together - well I heeded that advice. Truly - I may not be the most safety conscious blogger of us all - I am more than happy to share my real name, the city I live in and what I do for a living - but I NEVER share my postal address and when I use internet banking I always check for the secure website sign and use PayPal as much as I can for online payments to avoid entering my details to yet another third party.

But it seems that what I should really have been concerned about all this time is not the internet but the services in my own country! This makes me so incredibly angry I cannot tell you - I mean why bother shredding all your bank statements and watching what you do and say when nobody else bothers to look after your personal details (and items!!) properly.

Let me explain...

Yesterday morning I awoke to the sound of our answering machine taking a message. I got up to listen, thinking it was my Grandma ringing to arrange a time for afternoon tea and cakes, only to find it was some stranger asking for me. This lady explained that she had received a soaking wet and half-opened envelope addressed to me which she could clearly see had my passport in. So she opened it up to find out whose it was and where to send it to. I am just so thankful that an honest lady received it and not someone who might have used my details.

Let me explain further - I recently sent off for my provisional driver's license (£50 by the way!!) and the DVLA asked me for a passport photo and my passport (even though I applied online and entered my passport number). I duly sent them in a special delivery envelope (to ensure safety) but stupidly forgot to send return postage for special delivery. I worried about it getting back to me safely - but never did I imagine that the DVLA would send it to someone living the other side of the country to me. This lady said she doesn't even know how they got her address as nobody from her home has even applied for a license. Nevermind the fact that there was a form inside the package with my actual postal address and phone number on - hence her ability to call me and verify my correct address.

Now is it just me, or is this just plain stupid?! How could they send my passport to the wrong person when my address was clearly marked? Was it not the DVLA who last year lost the personal details of hundreds of people?? Can you tell why I am irate yet? But even more annoying is the fact that the form I sent with my passport clearly stated that if I were sending my passport as proof of identity then the photo I sent didn't need to be signed by someone to prove it was me. The only reason they sent my passport and form back this time was to say that I hadn't signed the photo - grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr! But it doesn't end there...

Last month I was due to receive my new debit card. My bank still have my parents' address on records and I can't be bothered to change it so they sent it there. My mum duly put it in the post (in a blank envelope so no-one would know it was from the bank) but it never arrived. Realising I had but 2 days left on my old card I rang the bank and had to ask them to cancel my card (leaving me with no access to my own account) and reissue me with a new card. So in less than a month the royal mail have managed to lose my bank card AND deliver an envelope that was so wet it had opened up and the recipient could clearly see there was a passport inside it. This is also not the first time this has happened - earlier this year I sold a book on ebay and wrapped it up in tissue paper then in a brown envelope and had to refund the money because it arrived so wet the tissue paper had discoloured the book itself!

But wait - there's even more!!

In May this year T was made redundant and applied for benefits. We were told what we were eligible to received based on my income but I had to send off my previous two wage slips. We duly sent them to the Job Centre only to have my wage slips arrive at my Aunty's house with a note saying that they had no record of me making a claim so had returned them to me. This means that a) they had separated my wage slips from T's claim otherwise they would have known I hadn't personally made a claim but it was connected to his and b) they looked up an address they had on record from when I made a claim whilst trying to find my first job over 2 years ago! They never once bothered to check that I still lived at that address - as it is I am lucky my Aunty still lives there otherwise anyone could have got hold of the information on my wage slips. Seriously, how long does it take to make a couple of phone calls to check an address?

So, you see, I am most unsettled about the lack of thought put into our services - how can I possibly look after my personal data and ensure nobody steals it when our country's services cannot be bothered to take more care of it all? I shall be writing some strongly worded letters over the next few days and may even take my sister's advice and write to the papers (or maybe watchdog or something) - seriously - this is not on!