Saturday, 30 May 2015

Photo diary: week 22, 365

Midterm break has been a busy week for us. While Sasha spent three days with the Guideposts, Eddie and I played in the garden, visited the Pleasure garden at Blenheim park and the Burford garden centre. We also plan to go to the cinema tomorrow. Eeek, I haven't been to the movies for about 14 years. 
Last Sunday we decorated our cardboard castle, having painted the dragon with poster paints. It now proudly sits atop one of the turrets.

We made some slush iced juice drink with a ChillFactor bottle, and loved the taste and texture. It reminded me of the iced drinks called granita we had in summer in Italy.

Going grocery shopping with Eddie is a dangerous business, as he tends to push me towards The Entertainer shop. "Just to look, Mummy"... Of course, we always end up buying something. Eddie wanted to have his photo taken as a ninja turtle.

Our friend Jen took us by car to the Burford garden centre. I had a latte and a very soggy slice of cake. Eddie enjoyed a bag of crisps (which costs as much as a whole packet of 6 bags in any supermarket). For some reason, he thinks that he needs to close his eyes to show his appreciation of foods and drinks, which makes me laugh every time.

On Thursday we anxiously looked at the sky, as the big dark clouds were moving slowly. We planned to have a picnic at the pleasure garden in Blenheim park, and didn't want any rain. We were lucky. Eddie loves the train ride in the park. And we were photobombed by the train driver.

Wisterias in town are already starting to look ragged, but I managed to find a slightly better bunch.

Our weekly visit to Costa for a cup of latte for me, and some sweet treat for Eddie. Sitting outside the cafe, Eddie insisted staying in the sunny spot. 

Friday, 29 May 2015

WHAT IF? No.11 Elizabeth & Raleigh, 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle from Ravensburger

Assembling a puzzle is supposed to be a relaxing pastime, isn't it?! I enjoy my puzzles, but the last one I was solving proved to be truly fiendish. Which jigsaw puzzle kept me awake until the early hours? It was What if? No.11 Elizabeth and Raleigh 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle from Ravensburger.
This was my first experience of the What If? series of puzzles, and I had no idea what to expect.
With the usual jigsaws you have an image on the box and quite often an insert to use as a reference while piecing together your puzzle.
The image on What if? no.11 shows good old Queen Bess arriving to visit her favourite Raleigh. It depicts a scene often-presented in literature and movies.
That's how the story goes: "As the Qeeen drew near the place where Raleigh stood she glanced at the ground and seemed to pause. Raleigh's quick eye saw that the ground at that place was muddy. Pushing past the guard, he flung from his shoulders his rich velvet cloak and spread it over the muddy spot. As he did so he bowed low before the Queen, his plumed hat in his hand, and the sun shining on his wavy dark hair. Looking up, he found the Queen smiling graciously and thanking him for his courtesy. Then, stepping gently on the cloak, she passed on and went on board her boat" (Margaret Duncan Kelly, The Story of Sir Walter Raleigh). 
And that's what humorously depicted on the cover of the box of the puzzle. An admiring courtier, spreading his velvet cloak for Queen Elizabeth to step on.
But what if Raleigh wasn't a true gentleman? The wicked wit of the artist Geoff Tristram has turned the well-known scene into a comic encounter.
As always, I start with the frame and work the image inwards, sorting the pieces into colour schemes: a group of purples, greens, reds, blues etc. Slowly, the faces start to appear. 

But what's that? There is at least one more person present in the puzzle rather than the Queen, Raleigh and the coach driver.
Then you realise that Elizabeth is not where she is supposed to be, if she were stepping off the coach. Why is Raleigh smiling wickedly? And why is the driver looking shocked? What has scared the poor dog?

As it happened, the imaginary scene is not what you might have expected.

While I was assembling the puzzle, I was secretly fuming at the absence of the reference image (you can request one by writing to the address on the side of the box, but maybe it could be a good idea to put one in every box, neatly hidden in an envelope, so that if you were desperate to look at it, you had it there and then rather than writing a request and waiting for a reply). I told myself: Never again will I do another What if? puzzle.
I confess, I didn't do it all by myself. My friend Jen, who loves jigsaw puzzles helped me for a couple of days, so that we finished the puzzle together.

But once it was done and we admired the job, I started thinking, well, maybe, just maybe I will be curious to try another puzzle from the series.
This jigsaw puzzle will make a marvellous gift for any puzzle enthusiast.

Have you tried any What if? puzzles? 

Disclosure: I received this puzzle for the purposes of reviewing. All opinions are mine.

Thursday, 28 May 2015

Poached salmon salad with soft-boiled eggs

May is almost over, and it was good weather-wise. We had quite a few meals, sitting in our garden, enjoying the sun and the birdsong. It was a month of salads. Different ingredients and cuisines - but eggs featured prominently. I love adding eggs to a lot of salads, like the Poached salmon salad with soft-boiled eggs.

Poached salmon salad with soft-boiled eggs (serves 2)
250g salmon (2 pieces)
1tbsp olive oil
1 fennel bulb, sliced thinly
1 small carrot, thinly sliced (optional)
50ml white wine (optional)
2 medium eggs
1/2 cucumber
a handful of olives and sun-dried tomatoes
mixed salad leaves
dressing made from 1tbsp honey, 2 tbsp balsamic vinegar and 2 tbsp olive oil

First prepare the poached salmon. In a deep frying pan cook the thinly sliced fennel for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. I also added a bit of carrot, for the extra flavour.
Place the salmon on top of the fennel. Season with sea salt and a bit of pepper. Pour a bit of white wine. Cover the pan with the lid and cook on low for about 10+ minutes until the fish is cooked and flaky.
While the fish is cooking, prepare the soft-boiled eggs in boiling water.

Assemble the salad: first the mixed leaves, then a few pieces of cooked fennel and thinly sliced cucumber. Flake the salmon and scatter over the leaves. Add the olives and sun-dried tomatoes.
Make a simple dressing from the olive oil, balsamic vinegar and honey. Drizzle over the salad. Add one soft-boiled egg on top. If you prefer, use a poached egg.

This is an easy dish, yet immensely satisfying. It makes a perfect lunch. The egg is not just a garnish here, but an ingredient which adds an extra flavour and texture.

For more egg facts and information, visit Egginfo.

Disclosure: As part of the ShortcutEggsperts programme promoted by British Lion Eggs, I received vouchers for creating a recipe using the eggs.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Kid-Eco Cardboard Castle

Kid-Eco castle

Cardboard boxes have always being top favourite toys for many children. Both of my kids would happily play with the boxes when they were little, quite ignoring the gifts which arrived in the boxes. As far as I know, this is a universal phenomenon. Kid-Eco took the cardboard creativity to the next level. They produce an amazing range of toys from recyclable & biodegradable materials.
Their playhouses and toys are wonderfully imaginative and inspiring. You can choose a car, an aeroplane or a rocket, a castle or a fort, a doll's house (I want one!) or even a Christmas tree. 

My younger son Eddie loves dressing up, and he has a King's costume, which comes with a sword and a shield. The only thing that was missing was the castle. Eddie was ecstatic when the big box was delivered, with the castle inside. The cardboard castle arrived as a flat pack, with easy instructions.

 He's been paying with it for days. It's covered with his doodles and writing inside, and we have also decorated it outside.

It would be perfect for the Early Years Foundation Stage activities. In fact, my son's class (Reception) built a cardboard castle a couple of months ago. They have partitioned a corner by a big screen with a gate, and decorated it. This castle would have been a wonderful addition to the classroom. In fact, I have suggested to Eddie that maybe one day we could take the castle to the school, but he's adamant he wants to keep it forever.

We have chosen a silver castle but you can choose a different colour scheme: brown, white or even pink for your little princess. 
Eddie's been inspired by Puff the magic dragon song he has learnt recently at school and wanted to add a little dragon to one of the turrets. 
I helped him by drawing the outline and cutting the dragon out of the cardboard (we re-used the big box which the castle pieces have arrived in). Eddie painted it with poster paints, glued an eye and glitter stickers. 

And we glued "King Edgar" in plastic letters to the turret as well. As you can see, there is still plenty of space to decorate, and I think we'll do something else for the turret with the crown. Maybe a mini-knight.

He also decorated a big golden crown, and went a bit over the top with the glitter stickers.

This is an excellent toy, perfect for creative activities and imaginative role play. It will make a super gift for any younger child. And as for my little King, he loves his castle.

To find more about Kid-Eco, follow Kid-Eco Cardboard Toys on Facebook or @Kid_Eco on Twitter.

Disclosure: We received the castle for the purposes of reviewing. All opinions are mine.

Monday, 25 May 2015

Beef fajitas with Old El Paso

Fajitas, who doesn't love them?! Full of flavours and textures, delicious fajitas are easy to make and messy to eat (or is it just our family? we all end up with moustache from the sauce). This Mexican classic could be prepared with a variety of ingredients. Some of them you can buy as kits, some come as separate products. Mexican food experts Old El Paso got in touch with me earlier this month, asking to try their range of separates (i.e. non-kits). They certainly know how to celebrate good food and create a Mexican fiesta at home.
Last week I received three of Old El Paso products: Seasoning Mix for tacos (garlic and paprika), Super Soft Tortillas and Squeezy Soured Cream Topping.

Beef fajitas
450g beef, cut into strips
1 pack of Old El Paso seasoning mix for tacos in garlic and paprika
a squeeze of lime
3tbsp olive oil
1 red onion, finely chopped
1 sweet red pepper, cut into strips
1 avocado
gem lettuce, shredded
50g Cheddar cheese, grated

Cut the beef into strips, place in a deep bowl and mix well with the seasoning mix. Add a good squeeze of lime or lemon, and 1tbsp honey or maple syrup (optional). Chop the onions and slice the sweet pepper. Fry the beef in the deep frying pan with the olive oil. Add the onions and pepper.

Serve in warmed tortillas, with a selection of toppings, like shredded lettuce, grated Cheddar cheese, cubed avocado (or guacamole), soured cream and/or salsa. Assemble all the ingredients and enjoy the feast.

Old El Paso Seasoning mix for tacos (garlic and paprika) is a delicious seasoning mix, which is enough to make 12 tacos, or about 8 fajitas. Ingredients include spices like paprika, cumin, dehydrated onion, garlic, salt, oregano, marjoram and more. It is mild and bursting with flavours.

Old El Paso Super Soft Tortillas (flour) are perfect receptacles for any kind of filling, be it strips of chicken or ground beef, salad and cheese, guacamole and soured cream, salsa and tomatoes. They are a truly democratic food. Forget about knives and forks, roll the tortillas and tuck in with gusto.
I used it with beef cut into strips, but it will be great with the ground beef as well.
There are several recipes for beef fajitas on Old El Paso recipe page, choose which one you like best.

I love soured cream, and don't need a second invitation to add some to whatever meal I have. You see, it's my Russian genetic pool which just pulls me to add a spoonful of soured cream to a bowl of soup, salad or beef Stroganoff. And of course, it works great with the Mexican recipes as well.
Old El Paso Squeezy Soured Cream Topping comes in a handy bottle, and is lovely in fajitas.

For more information on Old El Paso products and recipes visit their site or follow OldElPasoUK on Facebook .

Disclosure: I received three Old El Paso products for the purposes of reviewing and testing a recipe. All opinions are mine.

Minions 3d jigsaw puzzles from Ravensburger

Ravensburger Minions 3d puzzle (72 pieces)

Minions. Do I need to say more? Most parents of younger children know them only too well. Their popularity might be only rivalled by Frozen. If you are a fan of mini-horrors, you'll be pleased to know that Ravensbuger has recently released not one but three Minions 3d puzzles, featuring these adorable little creatures.
Ravensburger Minions 3D Puzzle (72 pieces) has oodles of appeal for any Minions' fan. This spherical puzzle comes in 72 shaped plastic pieces.
As always, with the Ravensuburger 3d puzzles, all the pieces are numbered for the ease of assembly, and have a little arrow pointing you in the direction where the next piece should go. They fit perfectly.

It is a bit tricky to finish the puzzle and fit in the last few pieces, as you globe is getting complete.
The design is colourful, funky and amusing, featuring your favourite characters. Once assembled, this puzzle measures 13cm in diameter. Turn the sphere and smile.

Ravensburger Minions 3d puzzle (72 pieces)

My younger son Eddie was happy with all three puzzles, but he said his favourite one was a Pirate-themed one. Of course. I had no doubt that he'd pick this one as his top choice. Minions dressed up as pirates. Who can resist?!

Ravensburger Minions Movie 3d Pirate Jigsaw puzzle

Ravensburger Minions Movie Mini 3D 54-piece Pirate Jigsaw Puzzle is a mini-sphere which comes with a stand. At 7cm in diameter, it is small enough to be on display on any shelf among the books and favourite toys.

Ravensburger Minions Movie 3d Pirate Jigsaw puzzle

And then there is Ravensburger Minions Movie 3D 54-piece British Jigsaw Puzzle which is also a mini-sphere on a stand. It is the same mini-size as the Pirate puzzle. But this time Minions are discovering London, and most likely plotting to take over the Cabinet.

Ravensburger Minions Movie 3d British Jigsaw puzzle

As you can see from my photos, all three jigsaw puzzles are very cute, bright in colour, cheerful and plain adorable. They will make fab gifts for the Minions fans of all ages. In fact, I know quite a few adults who are crazy about the Minions. Do you reckon they will be a super duper gift for the Father's day?

Ravensburger Minions Movie 3d British Jigsaw puzzle

Disclosure: we received the puzzles for the purposes of reviewing. All opinions are mine.

Minions 3d jigsaw puzzles from Ravensburger

Seven meals with Giovanni Rana's pasta sauces

Leek & mushroom pie

Giovanni Rana is a well known Italian brand of fresh chilled pasta. It is synonymous with authentic, classic Italian dishes, which you can so easily recreate in the comfort of your own kitchen. To offer a perfect pairing of fresh pasta and pasta sauce, Giovanni Rana have expanded a range of its Italian flavours by adding six new pasta sauces to their Simply Italian and Italian Indulgence range.

If you visit my blog regularly, you would know how much we enjoy the Italian cuisine. I often cook Italian meals, though I am yet to master the art of making my own pasta from scratch.
But then, even in Italy nowadays, the homemade pasta is often bought from the dedicated pasta-makers. My mother-in-law doesn't make her own pasta, but buys it from a little pasta shop in the neighbourhood.
And though I can make my own pasta sauce, and I often do, life is sometimes too hectic to spend hours in the kitchen. Open the fridge, and choose a pasta sauce from Giovanni Rana, especially that the selection of pasta sauces is inspired. I recently received a full range of new sauces from Giovanni Rana, and was asked to test them in a series of meals (anything but pasta). And here is a week of meals, where I used the different fresh sauces.

Lemon sole in tomato and basil sauce

Lemon sole in tomato sauce
2 fillets of lemon sole
2tbsp olive oil
a handful of baby tomatoes
1 red pepper, sliced lengthways
1 tub of Giovanni Rana Simply Italian Tomato & basil pasta sauce
a handful of green olives
Place two fillets of lemon sole in a deep ceramic dish, slightly oiled. Scatter baby tomatoes on top, as well as a sliced sweet pepper. Season well. Pour the tomato and basil sauce over the fish and vegetables. Bake at 180C for about 20 minutes. Add the olives in the last 5 minutes of cooking.
Serve hot, with salad.

Simply Italian Tomato & Basil sauce is a classic combination of flavours - sweet tomatoes, subtle peppery basil, extra virgin olive oil. Perfect as a base for any pasta dish, or a pizza.

Lemon sole in tomato and basil sauce

Squash risotto with crispy sage was cooked with a delicate and flavourful Simply Italian Butter & sage sauce. This is probably my most favourite sauce from the range. It is simple yet sophisticated, velvety-smooth and creamy. Pure indulgence. This risotto could also be cooked with porcini mushroom sauce, or creamy carbonara sauce.

Squash risotto with crispy sage

Pesto sauce is another favourite of ours. I buy both fresh and jarred varieties. It is a versatile ingredient, which could be used in a wide range of recipes. This time I used it in a all-in-one chicken and sweet potato tray bake, a kind of meal, where you chuck in all the ingredients and put in the oven.

Chicken and sweet potato in pesto sauce

Chicken and sweet potato in pesto sauce
400g chicken fillets
2 sweet potatoes, cut into wedges
3tbsp olive oil
sea salt
1 tub of Giovanni Rana pesto sauce
wedges of lemon
1 head of garlic

Cut the chicken fillets into thin strips, and the sweet potatoes into wedges (with the skin on). Pour the olive oil over the chicken and sweet potatoes, and arrange both in a deep ceramic dish or roasting tray. Season well, Scatter the garlic cloves and squeeze some lemon juice over. Pour the contents of the pesto sauce over the meat and vegetables. Roast at 180C for 35+ minutes, until cooked.
Serve hot with a salad.

Simply Italian Pesto sauce is a classic dressing for pasta, a base for many Italian dishes like pizza, salads and antipasti. It is made with basil, extra virgin olive oil, pine nuts and hard cheese. For a fuss-free dinner, just swirl a generous spoonful into a bowl of pasta like spaghetti or trofie, grate a bit of parmesan or grana over the pasta, and imagine yourself in Italy.

Chicken and sweet potato in pesto sauce

For leek & mushroom pie I used the Italian Indulgence Cream with Hard Picked Porcini Mushroom sauce. I used plain chestnut mushrooms, and the porcini sauce has added an extra oomph and flavour to this easy recipe.

Leek & mushroom pie

Leek and mushroom pie
2 medium leeks, about 250g
3tbsp olive oil
300g chestnut mushrooms
1tsp dried basil.
1 tub of Giovanni Rana porcini mushroom and cream (250g)
puff pastry (I used Jus-Rol puff pastry sheet, 320g)
Chop the leeks and mushrooms, and cook in a deep frying pan with the olive oil. Season well. Sprinkle with the dried basil or oregano. Add a tub of porcini mushroom and cream sauce.
Cut the ready-made pastry into two discs, one slightly larger. place the bigger one inside a pie dish, and bake for about 10 minutes before taking out and filling with a mix of mushrooms and leeks. Top up with a smaller circle of pastry, which has incisions on it for the steam to escape.
Cook at 190C for 15+ minutes, until the pastry is golden.
Serve hot with a dollop of the soured cream.

Italian Indulgence Cream with Hand Picked Porcini mushroom sauce is made with champignon mushrooms, porcini mushrooms (17%), cream, onion, white wine, full fat hard cheese, parsley, garlic and more. This will be a good base sauce for the mushroom risotto.

Leek & mushroom pie

These sauces could be added to a lot of side dishes as well, like fennel in tomato and basil sauce.

Fennel in tomato sauce

Fennel in tomato sauce
2 fennels about 430g
2tbsp olive oil
1 medium tomato
1tub of Simply Italian Tomato & basil pasta sauce
sea salt, pepper
(a side dish for sausages)
Slice the fennel thinly and place in a baking/roasting dish with a dash of the olive oil. Slice the tomato and put over the fennel. Empty the contents of the tomato and basil sauce over the fennel. Season with sea salt and pepper. Roast at 180C for half an hour or so.

Fennel in tomato sauce

One more side dish - potato gratin, cooked with Simply Italian Butter & Sage sauce.

Potato gratin

Potato gratin
2 medium potatoes
2tbsp olive oil
sea salt
1 tub of Giovanni Rana Butter and sage pasta sauce
3tbsp milk
50g Cheddar cheese, grated

Peel the potatoes and thinly slice. Arrange layers in a gratin dish, slightly oiled. Season well each layer. Empty the contents of the pasta sauce over the potatoes. I have slightly thinned the sauce with milk, to make it more runny. Bake for half an hour at 180C. Sprinkle some grated Cheddar in the last 5 minutes of cooking.
I served it with the chicken breasts wrapped in prosciutto (with sage leaves tucked under the ham).

And the third side dish made with Giovanni Rana sauce is one of my staple recipes, variations of which I cook weekly - stuffed peppers. I use different kinds of rice, and different fillings like herbs, sweetcorn, peas, minced meat etc. This time I mixed the pre-cooked rice with Simply Italian Sun Ripened Tomato & Mascarpone sauce to go with the hake, cooked in banana leaves (courtesy of M&S Dine for two offer).

Sweet peppers stuffed with rice
Depending on the amount of peppers you want to use (a half is enough as a side dish for one), use 3tbsp of cooked rice mixed with 3tbsp of tomato and mascarpone sauce for each pepper ( so about half of the mix for each half).
This thick sauce, with its wonderful mix of flavours from creamy mascarpone to sweet tomatoes, will be fantastic with pasta.

I still haven't tried Italian Indulgence Creamy Carbonara Sauce, so watch this space for more recipes and recipe suggestions.

Alison from Dragons and Fairy Dust has cooked a delicious Chicken and bacon Tortelloni Salad, perfect for a dinner in the garden, weather permitted.

What would you cook with this range of pasta sauces?

Disclosure: I received a selection of Giovanni Rana products as well as some vouchers to buy the ingredients. All opinions are mine.