Tuesday, 31 October 2017

The Visitors by Catherine Burns (Blog Tour)

The Visitors by Catherine Burns (Legend Press) is a creepy, disturbing and upsetting Gothic tale of our times.

Marion Zetland is a shy spinster in her fifties, who lives with her older brother. She sleeps surrounded by her teddies, and on the surface of it, has been victimised by her overbearing family. She has been cruelly taunted and bullied at school (the narrative shifts from the present to past, and back to the present). Everyone including her nearest neighbour takes advantage of her.
Marion lives a life of an amoeba, or even a parasite, who eats, sleeps and daydreams. Her life is void of meaning or purposes.
She is not entirely stupid, yet she has convinced herself to keep herself to herself and ignore her brother's secret activities in the cellar. By ignoring the horrors below she might pretend that nothing sinister is happening. She can lounge on the sofa, daydreaming, stuffing herself with cakes and biscuits and watching romantic films on TV non-stop.

Suddenly, her brother John has a heart attack and is admitted to the hospital. He asks Marion to go down the cellar steps and care for his visitors.
Marion can no longer pretend that evil does not dwell in their house.

It is a very sinister read, which poses moral questions about how easily a victim might become a perpetrator, and whether we are born evil or made evil.

It also made me think about my own past. Years ago, when the Soviet Union collapsed, I was a University student, and pretty naive at that too. All of a sudden it felt like the whole world has open its doors, you just need to stretch your arm and grab your chance. The newspapers were full of ads of possible jobs abroad, via some unknown freshly-created agencies.
I was quite taken by an idea of working as a nanny in Great Britain, imagining myself a kind of a new Mary Poppins. I loved working with children, and thought it would have been perfect. Thanks goodness, I never did apply.
Many of those naive Russian (and Eastern European) girls ended up trafficked into prostitution and slavery, some managed to escape, some disappeared without any trace.

Without giving too much information, there are some gruesome disturbing scenes that will haunt you for a long time.
The book is very clever, as it explores the depth of evil, when a seemingly harmless victim turns out to be pure evil.

Disclosure: I received an e-copy of the book for the purposes of reviewing. All opinions are my own.

Monday, 30 October 2017

The Winter's Child by Cassandra Parkin (Blog Tour)

The Winter's Child by Cassandra Parkin (Legend Press) is a dark contemporary tale of love and grief.

Susannah Harper's son Joel went missing five years ago, without trace. Her whole world collapses, and she becomes obsessed with finding her son's fate. To help herself, she starts writing a blog which is her way of coping with the horrible reality.
Her husband leaves her, and she is trying to rebuild her life and piece together the truth.

On the last night of the Hull Fair she visits a fortune-teller who tells her that her son Joel will come back to her on Christmas eve.

This episode made me think of my own visit to the fortune-teller at the Oxford Fair over 20 years ago. It was an interesting experience.

Susannah is not a likeable character. As much as you sympathise with her tragedy, there is something disturbing about her.
The story goes back in time to the days of Joel's adoption and his childhood, and you can see how her parenting style doesn't help this deeply damaged boy. Joel has complex special needs, and Susannah tries to cocoon him from reality.
There were more than one moment when I could easily identify with her. Due to my older son's special needs, I am an over-protective mother to both of my boys. I'm exactly the same when it comes to building a protective dome around my family, and making my sons the centre of my universe.

Yet Susannah is smothering her son. She is finding excuses for all the wrongs her son does, and doesn't accept her own culpability. Effectively she disarms her son rather than helps him. And Joel is a very challenging boy, as many children with special needs are.

Susannah writes her confessional blog, and has a strange fascination with psychics. On one hand, she hopes to find the truth about her son's whereabouts with the help of psychics, spending a fortune, on the other hand, she tries to expose them as charlatans. She seems not quite know which is true.

She befriends a mother of another missing boy. Jackie comes from a totally different background, and she is not portrayed too sympathetically either. The only thing these women have in common is their missing boys. Susannah's privileged background allows her to live on her own in a big house, she doesn't work and clearly has means to support herself and pay for psychics.
Yet both Susannah and chavvy Jackie are vulnerable, and their pain is intolerable.

Susannah is slowly losing her marbles. She sees her phantom Joel in the crowd, she has visions or hallucinations of being drowned in the mud, she hurts herself without realising it and blames her ex-husband for the injury. She is a woman possessed.

Without giving away spoilers, I found the ending not very credible. Also her affair with someone in the position of trust who should have known better is not entirely convincing.
It is a gripping read, but very uncomfortable, chilling and emotionally-draining.

Disclosure: I received a free e-copy of the book for the purposes of reviewing. All opinions are mine.

Saturday, 28 October 2017

Pimp My Rice by Nisha Katona + giveaway (E: 17 November 2017)

We often eat rice, and you will find a few different types of rice in our kitchen at any given time (mostly a couple of different basmati and risotto rice). I'm always on the lookout for new rice recipes, and could never resist a new cook book.
Celebrity chef, restauranteur and cookery writer Nisha Katona has a new 8 part BBC 2 show presented by Tom Kerridge coming out in early 2018 called The Finest in the Deli, where she will be one of two expert judges on each episode.
She has recently relaunched her book Pimp my Rice (publisher: Nourish Books, an imprint of Watkins Media Limited). Nisha Katona is often called a rice evangelist, and her passion for rice shines through every page of this cook book. She is the ultimate rice guru. Be prepared not to read her book on an empty stomach. It will rumble.
There are recipes to suit different styles - from meat-eaters to pescatarians to vegetarians.
The photographs are vibrant and mouth-watering (and I'd love to see a photo for each recipe too).

In the introduction Nisha mentions that she wrote this book because she felt rice needed to be celebrated. She thinks that" in the West rice is treated like a second-class citizen and that it is relegated to the realms of lacklustre side orders".
I tend to slightly disagree with that point of view. For example, in Italy risotto is one of the most glorified meals, a feast in itself, if cooked properly. The same goes for a humble rice pudding in the UK: its stodgy creaminess is back in vogue these days when cooked with a variety of dairy alternatives - almond or coconut milk. Each country probably has its own famous rice dish. Nothing of the 2nd-class citizen at all, in my opinion.
And Nisha definitely raises it to a Royal position. Her recipes are fun, jazzy and unconventional, she is not afraid to shock the purists.

Nisha gives a thorough description of cooking methods (to rinse or not to rinse, to soak or not to soak) and useful tips.
She cooks a wide selection of rice dishes from all around the world. There are not that many Eastern European recipes - two Hungarian and one Russian-inspired (I say inspired because the recipe is not an authentic Russian one. I've never come across blini made with brown rice in Russia. Buckwheat flour, yes, brown rice, not exactly).
Nisha has also put a personal twist on many classic dishes. I chuckled at her description of Zingy pineapple & anchovy arancini: "Okay, so this recipe might see Italian mammas crying into their ragu in horror..." and "Serve hot - but not to your Italian mother-in-law". Advice taken, Nisha, I won't be serving it to my Italian in-laws to spare their feelings.

The book is divided into chapters: Kick starts (Binged breakfasts), Light fantastics (starters, lunches & late-night munchies), Main grains (fantastic feasts from around the world), Souped-up sides (Super support acts) and Happy endings (the rice sweet elite).

I have bookmarked several recipes to try - like Peanut Ping Pongs (made with basmati and peanuts)...

Gin & tonic coriander salmon sounds like a fabulous recipe for entertaining and more formal dinners:

Hungarian & raisin rice cake looks luscious. I haven't tried it, but it reminds me of the Italian sweet pastries made with rice.

This is not a budget recipe book, as the author uses a lot of exotic ingredients.

I have cooked only one recipe from the book so far - Smoke my Squash (i.e. stuffed butternut squash). I have cooked different variations of this dish in the past (for example, see Roasted & Stuffed Butternut Squash with Brown Basmati, Quinoa and Goat's cheese). For Nisha's recipe you will need chorizo, sundried tomatoes, goats' cheese among the other ingredients, which all add up price-wise but if you don't count pennies or want to impress your guests, go for it.
It is very tasty, and I will be cooking it again. My Mum who is visiting us this month, loved it.

For a vegetarian version skip chorizo, and add more paprika for colour.
I have adapted Nisha's recipe, first of all by halving the amount of ingredients and slightly changing the method - see my tip on cooking the squash. I used only 1 squash, and that was definitely enough for 4-5 servings.

rice dishes

You will need:
1 medium to big butternut squash
2-3tbsp olive oil
1 clove of garlic
60g chorizo, cubed
1/2 sweet red pepper
1/2tsp smoked paprika
a handful of sundried tomatoes, chopped
about 100g cooked rice (I used Tilda's jasmine rice)
goat's cheese, cubed (about 1/3 of a small log)
fresh parsley, chopped
smoked sea salt (optional)

It's not an easy task to cut a butternut squash with its hard skin. My tip is to wrap the squash in foil whole, and cook in the oven for 30-35 minutes at 180C. Take it out of the oven, let it cool a bit and then cut in half and scoop the seeds and fibres. Scoop out the inside to make a vessel for the stuffing. It will also then take less time to cook it stuffed.

Cube the squash which you have scooped out, and fry in the pan with the olive oil, chorizo, sliced pepper, minced garlic and paprika. Cook for about 10 minutes, stirring.
Season the shells with salt and a bit of oil. I used smoked sea salt, as I love smoked flavours.
Stuff the open halves with the rice, and put back in the oven to cook for another 25 minutes. Add cubed goat's cheese on top in the last five minutes of cooking.
Add the chopped parsley before serving.

stuffed squash

This book will appeal to more experienced cooks, or/and a trendier audience, with its mini-anecdotes accompanying the recipes and the title. I confess I'm not overly enthusiastic about the title - Pimp my Rice... I know it's the word widely used these days for almost anything, but it doesn't appeal to me personally. It also proves that I'm not with the In-crowd, and am an old fuddy-duddy.

Nisha is passionate about rice and is very enthusiastic in her desire to share her love of rice.
If you're looking for a gift for a foodie in your life, as a birthday present or for Christmas, this book will tick all the boxes.

Disclosure: I received a copy of this cook book for the purposes of reviewing. All opinions are my own.


If you like the sound of this book, here is your chance to win one of the copies of  this cook book. Lovely people from Watkins Media have offered a copy of Pimp My Rice by Nisha Katona as a giveaway prize for my blog readers.

To be in with a chance of winning, please enter via Rafflecopter form.

The giveaway is open to the UK residents only.
Once the Rafflecopter picks the winner, I will contact them regarding address details, if they do not reply within 28 day, the prize will be allocated to another person.
Please don't forget to leave a comment, as it is the only mandatory step, I will make sure the winner selected by Rafflecopter has complied with T&Cs.
The prize will be posted by the publisher.
Giveaway ends on 17 November 2017 (midnight).

Good luck! a Rafflecopter giveaway

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Mini Ninja Sushi School at YO!

It is a truth universally acknowledged that getting children involved in the kitchen will make them more inclined to eat a variety of meals. If you have fussy eaters, fun cooking projects might help them to be more adventurous when it comes to food.
Sometimes I despair at my own family, who simply don't want to try new foods or recipes.

Many chefs (like Jamie Oliver, for example) say that if kids are involved in growing and cooking food, then they're far more likely to eat it. It doesn't always work 100%, but it's certainly worth trying and trying and trying.
Eddie's quite fussy when it comes to food. I find it exasperating that he is so stubborn. It's not that we don't expose him to a variety of foods. He just refuses to even try them.
My husband and I love sushi, and I often buy them, especially on Sundays. Until yesterday my mulish child has refused to try any of them.

When I received an invitation to a sushi-making masterclass for children at YO! (Japanese street food and sushi restaurant chain), I knew it was a great chance for Eddie to see how sushi is made, to make it under the chef's guidance and hopefully eat it.
I told him: please try, nobody is going to force you to eat anything. He was rather suspicious of my motives but agreed to take part. I think what sold the whole concept to him was the name of the class - "Mini Ninja Sushi School". Who doesn't want to be a ninja?!

YO! rolls out sushi-making classes throughout the autumn break across the country.

Yesterday morning we jumped on the bus to Oxford and arrived to YO! Oxford (George Street).
We were the first to arrive. We were greeted and taken to the working stations, where everything was prepared for the children's sushi class.

While the class was going on, the kitchen staff were busy preparing a selection of sushi.

Children are invited to prepare three different sushi recipes, under the guidance of the Ninja Master aka YO! chef.
Classes run from the 18th to 27th October on Wednesdays, for an hour from 11am, at just £15 per child.
This scheme was launched during the summer holidays, and it was so successful, the class has been relaunched to entertain and educate children during this midterm break.

Class materials + Ingredients
Mini Ninjas learn to make three varieties of sushi - cucumber maki, salmon nigiri and Californian rolls (vegetarian options are available).
Our chef - Tamas - looked the part of the master ninja in his black outfit with a headband. He is a good teacher, friendly and patient, explaining step-by-step and all secrets of creating sushi.

Children have to wear plastic gloves so everything is hygienic and clean.

It also makes it easier to handle sticky rice.

The first recipe was Cucumber Maki.

preparing cucumber maki

We learnt which side of nori (seaweed sheet) should go up. Take a big handful of sushi rice and spread it over the nori, leaving a 1cm gap on top. Sprinkle sesame seeds in the middle before putting the thin strip of cucumber on top and rolling the sushi, using the bamboo mat.
Once we had a big long sushi roll, the chef has sliced it into neat pieces.

cucumber maki
I was curious to see if Eddie would eat any of his first ever sushi. He had a cautious bite, then another, pronounced them tasty, ate two, and left the rest to take home to show his grandma and Papa.

Salmon Nigiri is an easier sushi to make, just roll the rice to make a rounded block and top up with a slice of sashimi grade salmon. If you fancy some heat, add a small blob of wasabi under salmon.
We decided to leave one sushi plain, and surprise Papa with a generous helping of wasabi. Eddie kept giggling, expecting his father to eat that hot sushi.

The last roll to master was California handroll, the trickiest of them all. It is made with sushi rice on top of a sheet of nori, with a helping of surimi crab mix, an avocado slice and sesame seeds.

You roll it into a cone shape.

After the class was over, Tamas also taught children how to eat with chopsticks, which was great fun.

Children were offered a mini game of picking soya beans with chopsticks.

They were also offered a chocolate flavoured dessert made from glutinous rice. I had a tiny bite, and it was unusual but delicious.

After completing the class, all participants receive a Mini Ninja certificate, their own paper chef's hat and a special YO! bag to take home, plus of course, the sushi which were made during the lesson.

Eddie was so happy with his class and enjoyed the taste of sushi so much, that he wanted me to buy him a sushi making kit to take home with us (at £20).

Many thanks to Tamas and Sunny for the most enjoyable hour and inspiration!

If you'd like to enroll your children in the sushi-making class, have a look at Mini Ninjas schedule for early November. Classes may very per site, and must be pre-booked online.

Disclosure: We were offered a free session in return for a review. All opinions are our own.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Tropical Jelly Babies

We're on a half-term break, and thankfully everyone seems to have recovered from colds and sniffles. The weather forecast was rather gloomy for today, but thankfully the first half of the day was rain-free, even if not particularly sunny.
Our friend Jen took us to the Burford garden centre by car, which we all love to visit. Eddie was chirpy and cheerful, especially that we had a stash of Jelly Babies (Maynards Bassetts) with us. We're all fond of these fruity chewy sweets.
They are quite addictive.

The original Jelly Babies are made with natural colours and flavours, and contain fruit juice (apple, lime, orange, strawberry, blackcurrant, lemon, raspberry).

Recently this popular range of sweets has had a new makeover, with an addition of new Tropical flavours - pineapple, mango and banana.

Just like the original Jelly Babies, Tropical ones contain apple, lime, orange, lemon juice and flavourings.

Top line: original flavour, low line: tropical

While with the wind whooshing around us in the playground we didn't quite feel ourselves at the Caribbean, we enjoyed the sweet tropical flavours.

These fun sweets are soft, chewy and delectable.
Jelly Babies Tropical are available in most major supermarkets at RRP of £1.32 per 190g bag.

If you are a fan of jelly, what could be better than jelly babies in jelly? Yep, we made a batch of raspberry jelly and have hidden jelly babies inside.

It was a fun activity to make with Eddie, who loved stirring the jelly cubes in hot water, mixing the liquid with cold water and then pouring it in ramekins.
He pronounced them the best jelly ever. He also said that it was more fun, when we put light-coloured jelly babies in, so you could hardly see them in a set jelly. It was like digging for treasures.

Jelly Babies are also a fun decoration for cupcakes.

Disclosure: We received a few bags of jelly babies for the purposes of testing and reviewing. All opinions are our own.

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Banana oat cookies

The last ten days have been rather stressful here, hence my blogging has suffered. I didn't have any enthusiasm to write, even when I had spare time. It started with a phone call from school, as I was sitting in a cafe with an old friend, A. She is actually a friend of one of my dearest friends who sadly passed away three years ago. I haven't seen A since the funeral, as she lives in Sweden. She was visiting Oxford and we arranged to meet. I hardly ever go to Oxford these days, and you can always find me at home during the day time. By Sod's law, the only time I go out to meet a friend outside town, the incident happened.
My darling Eddie managed to knock out his front tooth at school. They called me, I jumped on the taxi, and unfortunately due to road works we were stuck in the traffic, with me frantically trying to call a friend in town to ask her if she could take Eddie to the dentist asap. I wish the school didn't wait for me and took him to the dentist who's based literally across the square.
By the time we got there, and the tooth was put back in (without any anesthetic), it was already an hour and a half since the incident happened. The dentist told me that if the tooth was put back in during the first five minutes, the tooth would have had the best chance. In the first hour - 50/50. After an hour, the best we can hope is for the tooth to stay for several years.
So, now my poor chap will have years of dental work and possibly implants etc ahead.
I nearly fainted when they were putting his tooth back in. My little boy was so pale, he was clearly in shock. I had to sit on the floor, as my head was spinning.

He was a real trooper when they were putting the tooth in, and later stitching the gum and placing a big staple across four front teeth with blobs of paste over it to hold it in place.
He's not been eating well, as the brace/staple bothers him. He also needed antibiotics for five days.

On top of that, Sasha had a bad cold, then it was my turn to be poorly, and yesterday Eddie woke up with high temperature as well. Arrrggghhh.

I haven't been baking much these days, except for a batch of banana oat cookies.
I had one miserable-looking banana in a fruit bowl, getting softer and darker. Not enough for a cake or banana bread, so I decided to try it as a partial substitute for sugar and margarine I use in choc chip oat cookies. It worked really well.

Banana oat cookies
1 banana (about 100g weight, peeled)
50g caster sugar
50g margarine
70g oats with nuts and cranberries
180g self-raising flour
1 small egg
50g milk chocolate, chopped

In a big mixing bowl mash a banana with a fork, add the sugar and margarine and mix well. Add oats, flour, beat in egg and mix in chopped chocolate. Dip hands into flour and then pinch walnut-sized pieces of cookie dough, roll and flatten them slightly, and place them on a parchment paper in a baking tray.
Bake for about 12 minutes at 180C.
They will be still very soft, when you take the tray out. Transfer them carefully on a cooling rack.
Eat warm or cold. They are lovely.

In this recipe I used some of the American Road Trip muesli from Dorset Cereals which is basically oats with dried cranberries, almonds and orange zest. If you don't have this brand of muesli, any porridge oats would do, with dried berries, nuts or plain.

As I've made a good use of old-ish oats and an over-ripe banana, I'm adding this recipe to #KitchenClearout linky on Cheryl's Madhouse Family Reviews blog.

Veritaserum tea from Adagio teas

novelty tea, Halloween tea, Harry Potter gifts

The last hour before bedtime is Eddie's and mine reading time. We snuggle up under the warm duvet, and I read to him. All kinds of books: Astrid Lindgren, Roald Dahl, Jeff Kinney, David Walliams, Matt Haig etc.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was one of the books we've read together recently. He also watched several Harry Potter movies, and was totally fascinated by the world of wizards and sorcery.
He know it's fiction, but I think he half-believes in magic. 

When I received a selection of Adagio teas over a month ago, one of their seasonal novelty teas was Harry Potter-inspired Veritaserum tea.

novelty tea, Halloween tea

Though Veritaserum potion appears in later HP books, Eddie has seen several films and got an idea of what it was supposed to be.
Veritaserum is described as a clear, colourless and odourless liquid, almost indistinguishable from water. The potion is a powerful truth serum which forces the drinker answer any questions truthfully.
"Three drops of this and even You-Know-Who himself would spill out his darkest secrets".

When I told Eddie what I had brewing in a teapot, he got rather anxious that I might make him drink the magic potion, bless him.
If only this tea blend was truly magic. I know a few people I'd offer it to and ask some uneasy questions.

For those of us who are a bit sceptical about truth potions, here is the list of ingredients: black tea, natural raspberry flavour, raspberries, raspberry leaves, natural chocolate flavour, dark chocolate chips (contain soy lecithin), cocoa nibs, natural hazelnut flavour.

novelty tea, Halloween tea

Robert Pirlot, who created this inspiring tea blend, has based this mix on an episode from Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, when Harry makes his first visit to Diagon Alley, and Rubeus Hagrid offers him a large ice cream (chocolate and raspberry with chopped nuts).

novelty tea, Harry Potter gifts

It's a well-balanced morning or early afternoon tea, when you need a caffeine boost. Hazelnut and chocolate chip go well together with a raspberry flavour. It has a slightly sweet taste.
It is better without milk.
My Mum, who is visiting this month, loved this tea. Eddie didn't dare to try it (he must have some dark secrets indeed).

If you are looking for a novelty gift for Halloween or Bonfire Night, this seasonal tea might be just right for the occasion. And of course it will be totally irresistible for any Harry Potter fans.

Harry Potter tea, Harry Potter gifts, novelty tea

Disclosure: I received Veritaserum for the purposes of testing and reviewing. All opinions are my own.