Tuesday, 7 July 2015

On being a stem cell donor

I'll try and explain succinctly, but I have been oddly reluctant to post this, but here it is - it's now or never: I'm going to be a stem cell donor.

Not just sign up on the register. Actually do it. I'm a match - for a person - someone in the States as it happens - who needs stem cells. Incredible. I'm a 1 in 33,000 chance for someone. Another human. Incredible that after everything we went through with Blue (who didn't need stem cells, but I can tell you I would have sold my body to the highest bidder to get them should he have done so), that I can do this. Incredible that medicine has advanced so much that this is possible, that I can help someone like this.

Of course it's not at all about me. Sure, I feel elated, emotional and just a little bit proud that it's me, but this is really all about the many people (and their families) struggling with vile, insidious diseases, desperate for a glimmer of hope. After everything that happened with my boy, even though he didn't need a transplant of stem cells, bone marrow or otherwise, I think I am qualified to say that I know a little bit what this person and his or her family are going through. Not perhaps the specifics, but I have been in the situation where you know you would do absolutely anything, give anything, to make the person you love better, and have felt the desperation that comes with being essentially powerless, unable to do anything except rage and pray and hope that it will all come good. So yes, jolly good of me for putting my name forward, and for going ahead, yes, well done. But the reason I'm writing this is because if it means one more person signs up to the British Bone Marrow Registry as a result, that's potentially another family who will have that hope.

And of course, it's also about that one person who I match - who may still not be well enough, in the end, to go through with the transplant. But it's getting closer, and I'm hopeful that the chance can be seized, that the donation and subsequent transplant can go ahead, that there's a future for this person.

I live my life based on the fact that if I worry about something enough, it just won't happen. It doesn't always work in reverse - I've never, ever worried about winning the lottery, and, you guessed it - no jackpot rollover for me (although the fact that I never buy a ticket might have something to do with that). But the Husband has never been killed in a terrible motorway pile up, for example. I have never been raped and murdered in my bed. I have never, EVER been attacked by the monster of unspecified nature that lives in the wardrobe (although I am careful to always close the wardrobe door before I go to bed...)

On the flip side, donating my stem cells? Never gave it a moment's thought. As I've said before, I'm relatively embarrassed that I didn't make more of an effort to give blood before Blue was diagnosed with leukaemia 9 years ago. Once I was able to donate, after Pink was born, I have donated whenever I can. During one of those donations, I must have signed up to the bone marrow registry, but it's never been something I've thought much about. All the publicity makes it clear that they really, REALLY need donors from other ethnic backgrounds to my bog standard White British, and really, it never crossed my mind that I might actually be called upon. But called upon I have been, and given that I have a voice, albeit quiet a small, quiet one, I thought I'd use it to try and spread the word a bit. 

So what's happened? Well since the initial "You're a possible match" contact, over the last 8 weeks, I have had a whole series of blood tests from the initial tests that confirmed I was the best match for this patient, through to tests and a medical to making sure I am fit and healthy enough to donate (I am - whoop! - I was even described as YOUNG and healthy. How good was that?!), and more blood tests - a whole 15 vials which made the nurse at the doctors' surgery here in Cardigan blanch slightly first thing on a Monday morning a couple of weeks ago, to be sent off in 3 different courier kits... 

And now I am waiting. The final arrangements in place, and assuming the patient has started his or her 'conditioning therapy' to prepare to receive the stem cells, I will be visited by a nurse starting on Thursday for a series of daily injections to persuade my stem cells to poke their little powerhouses from above the parapet of my hip bone and start circulating round my blood stream.  Then on Sunday I head to Bristol for an 8.15 am appointment on Monday morning where I will be hooked up to a machine for the donation process. My blood will be taken from my left arm, fed into a machine which separates off the stem cells and then returned to my right arm. I've been told it will take around 4-5 hours - so I've got my kindle loaded up... And my stem cells, well they'll be loaded up and packed off with a courier on a plane to somewhere in the USA. That's all I know - and all I will know for a couple of years at least. But I'm really hopeful that in a couple of years time, I'll find out that it worked. That someone got to live because I'd signed up to the Bone Marrow Register.

I've been brilliantly supported by the lovely ladies and the Bone Marrow Registry in Bristol - who have answered all my questions, sorted me out train tickets and made sure everything runs smoothly. if you're worried about how this might impact on your financially, the procedure is fully expensed, even including expenses for a partner who has to accompany you, and - in my case, when I went for my medical, a day of 'dogsitting' for Fred the dog. 

So what more can I say? Don't leave a comment saying 'wow how brilliant', or 'good for you' - leave a comment telling me you've signed up - and I know not everyone can donate blood, but if you can, please do. Please make room in your life once every 3 months to donate a pint; and sign up to the bone marrow registry. You may never be called. But you just might. You just might be able to save someone else's life, to give another family some hope - and all for just a little inconvenience in your own life.

You can find out more about the British Bone Marrow Registry here. If you register you become part of an international community of possible donors - my stem cells will be going to the States, which is unusual but as there was presumably no one on the US registers, the search was widened internationally, which is reassuring because if you or one of your family needed a transplant, there's a potentially wide pool available. 

So go on - if you can - and do it. Sign up and tell me you've done it. Make the pool even bigger. You never know who might need it.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Lemon Orange and Elderflower Marmalade

As I was saying the other day, (in a round about sort of way), it's the start of the season of fruitfulness, gooseberries in the garden, elderflowers sprinkling the hedgerows with their intoxicating scent, strawberries and redcurrants ripening.

I made elderflower cordial last week, and reluctant to chuck away the sliced lemons and oranges, cast about for a means to use them up - after all, it's not as if they'd been boiled for hours or anything, simply steeped in elderflower infused sugar syrup.

A friend had already offered Darina Allen's very sensible use for the lemon slices - freezing them and using in G&Ts, but I recalled a marmalade that I've made before, and wanted to recreate it.

This is a lovely, floral marmalade -  I really can't recommend it highly enough. If you've made elderflower cordial, it's pretty easy to make - and quite forgiving. Life kept intervening so it took me the best part of 3 days to get from infused slices to jars of marmalade, which finally materialised on Sunday morning.

If you haven't made elderflower cordial, you'll have to find a different recipe. Obvs.

Lemon Orange and Elderflower Marmalade

3 lemons and 3 oranges, thinly sliced, retrieved once you strained your elderflower cordial into bottles. You can bin the elderflowers though - they will have had it by now.

1kg (give or take) caster sugar
300ml elderflower cordial
4-5 sterilised jars

Put the sliced fruit into a pan, just cover with water and bring to the boil.

Simmer gently until the peel is really soft - it took about an hour but it could take up to 2.

Strain and reserve the liquid, and chop the fruit up as finely as you like, taking care to remove any pips as you go.

Weigh the fruit and then measure our double the amount of sugar. I had approximately 500g of fruit, so I used 1 kg of sugar.

Measure the reserved boiling liquid and add the 300ml of cordial. If necessary make the amount up to the equivalent liquid measure as the sugar using tap water - so for my 1 kg of sugar, I had 1 litre of liquid.

Put the chopped fruit, sugar and 1 litre of liquid into a suitable pan, bring to the boil and keep going till you reach setting point. 

How you test to confirm this I leave up to you - jam thermometers, cold plates. I suffer terribly from what I call 'setting point stress' and usually combine at least 2 methods. In this case, 105C on the jam thermometer and cold plate worked.

Decant your marmalade into jars, and Bob, as they say...

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Elderflower cordial

The children have introduced a new game to our in-car entertainment repertoire. Not one to be dragged out by us parents at the first "are we nearly there yet" to a chorus of groans. Oh no.

This game has captured their imaginations and taken over even our shortest journey. And the name of this game? "Yellow Car". 

Heard of it? I'm sure you will do.

Now, you might think a game that is so absorbing would be a winner, but let me tell you, if you're not already familiar, it absolutely is not. The premise is that every time you see a yellow car you punch/pinch the other passengers and shout "Yellow Car!". Not exactly rocket science. The problem is that we've become completely obsessed.  And there are more yellow cars on the road than you might think, leading not only to yellow cars, but also to a preponderance of purple upper arms where the bruises are...

We have ridiculous arguments about orange and gold cars. Do diggers count? (Cue "We're not playing yellow VEHICLES..." in an outraged tone). I understand that there is a variation called 'Yellow Everything', but, reflecting that every car journey would turn into some kind of out of control slap-fest due to there being yellow dandelions, buttercups and celandines adorning the roadsides, yellowing fields, yellow painted houses (Cardigan is a town of brightly coloured dwellings), I have banned it.

Yellow Car remains, though, and I find myself mentally playing the game when I'm in the car on my own, clocking where yellow cars are parked, retaining the intelligence for later in the hope of gaining the upper hand.  

Not that I'm competitive or anything. 

Last week, not only was I frantically on the look out for yellow cars, I was also keeping my eye out for elderflowers, and feeling increasingly frustrated as I either managed to miss the bushes (too pre-occupied with the cars) or didn't have anything to harvest the frothy, intoxicating flowers. Ridiculous, as it turns out we have 3 elderflower bushes in the garden.

There are many, many recipes for elderflower cordial around. I started with Sarah Raven's version in her Garden Cookbook, but made free given that I didn't have any limes (an unusual addition that I haven't seen in many other recipes) and Cardigan was all out of citric acid...

Elderflower Cordial

20-25 heads of elderflower

3 oranges
3 lemons 
1.5 kg sugar

Gently wash the elderflowers to remove any little bugs that have come home with you.

Dissolve the sugar in a large pan with 1.5 litres of water, then bring to the boil. Add the flowers to the pan, then when the water has come back up to the boil, remove the pan from the heat.

Thinly slice the oranges and lemons and put them in a large bowl, then tip the hot syrup and the elderflowers on top of the fruit, stir then cover with a tea  towel or somesuch. Leave to steep for 24 hours.

At the end of the 24 hours, strain the cordial into sterilised bottles or suitable freezing containers (it freezes very well), then enjoy. Oh, and don't discard the oranges and lemons - I've got something you can make with them...

There are many uses for elderflower cordial besides just diluting it with cold water (which is wonderfully refreshing). It tastes fabulous with gin, and is a great addition to any gooseberry dish you might be thinking of - and you should given that gooseberries are also in season.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Carrot Salad

As vegetables go, I'm not a huge fan of carrots. I know they are cheap and easy to prepare but I prefer my veg green. I also have a problem with carrots if they have been cut into rounds rather than sticks. Ridiculous. I know. But think back to when you had school dinners. I can't claim this as fact but I'm fairly sure my hallowed halls of education subjected us to tinned carrots cut into rounds. Bearing little resemblance to what any sensible person now understand as a carrot, I think this is where my prejudice comes from...

I always have carrots knocking around - great for packed lunches for the kids - easy veg when there are additional small people for tea, soups etc But rarely have carrots been the star of the show. 

Recently however that has changed, thanks to a recipe that I believe originates with Leon. Having had the opportunity to peruse the actual recipe, my version ( or versions - this is very adaptable) aren't actually much like the original Happy Carrit Salad, but it has made me see carrots in a whole new light - and this, or a version thereof, has featured at least once a week for the last few months. 

Not only is it delicious, it is also so sime that it will definitely make you happy. And if it doesn't, it will at least perk up your dinner. You will, however notice, that the carrots remain in sticks. Just don't try it with rounds.

Carrot Salad

6-7 biggish carrots, peeled if necessary and roughly grated. I use the grater attachment ony trusty food processor which keeps a certain texture to the carrots.

100g pumpkin seeds, lightly toasted till they start to pop

Juice of 1 lime

2 tbsp smoky chipotle chilli sauce (or sweet chilli sauce)

1 tbsp olive or rapeseed oil

Combine the carrots and pumpkin seeds in a dish.

Mix together the lime juice, chilli sauce and oil.

Dress the carrots.


Monday, 22 June 2015

Macaroni & Cauliflower Cheese - with crispy bits

On Saturday, I had a rare day with Pink. Just her and me, and an important mission. 

No, not macaroni cheese. We'll get to that.

A rite of passage. 

The piercing of the ears. 

She's only 9 - and to be honest, I'd have rather waited for a couple more years (after all, I had to wait...) but in the end, there are probably bigger battles to fight, more traumatic ground to stand firm on, and I'd managed to defer the deed for over a year in a fairly amicable way and without actually lying about anything... 

It was her birthday present back in May, and although we had agreed to wait until the beginning of the summer holidays to avoid plasters over ears during PE lessons etc, in the end, the opportunity presented itself this weekend, so we did it. 

Now if you have daughters (or sons) of ear-piercing age (whatever that might be in your house) there is then a decision to be made - where do you go? There is a certain chain of high street accessory retailers who shall remain nameless, which appears to have cornered the market in ear piercing, but don't have much of a reputation to go by. Pink was fairly set on this option, but when I called up the branch in Aberystwyth, I was distinctly underwhelmed and decided to think again. 

Thinking again offered me an alternative - but one, I have to say, that I baulked at. When the choice is Claire's Accessories (whoops) or a tattoo parlour, what would you do? I thought to myself, "What shall I do?", and called the establishment concerned. Tattoo Man sounded very knowledgeable on the phone and told me all about how he pierced ears (and anything else - I had to be very clear that I was bringing my 9 year old for her ears to be pierced). Pink was remarkably sanguine when I told her where we were going, too - she's into conforming at the moment, and I was prepared for an onslaught of the "But Mummy, everyone else went to Claire's Accessories"s  but it didn't come, so that settled the matter.

Having never visited a tattoo parlour before IN MY LIFE (I have had a very sheltered life, despite what I like to think), I had no real idea what to expect. Suffice to say that it pretty much lived up to most of the wild imaginings of my brain. The Tattoo Man was tall with wild grey hair, a few teeth missing, tattoos down to his wrists (but not on his face) and sporting eau de stale fags. He also sported dubious taste in interior decor, limited patience with neurotic mothers, and a consent form which included a statement regarding genital warts (if relevant to the piercing required).

"Mummy, what are genital warts?"

It's one of those defining moments as a parent, isn't it - how you react to something like this. I digress for a moment, but all things sex are very much on our agenda as Blue's year 6 class are due to have THE TALK (as he keeps referring to it) in a couple of weeks. 

Early on as a parent, I took the decision to be as honest as possible with the kids and to talk without embarrassment or judgement about sex and all things related. To try and give them the facts but in a context. It's not always been easy - but when Pink, at the age of about 3 asked "But Mummy how does the baby get in to your tummy? Is it down your throat?" I knew that I couldn't just fob it off. The result is that, despite having to repeat the mechanics of sex on a number of occasions, and my perhaps over engineered attempts to put it all in the context of loving relationships (be they hetero or homosexual), about being safe and respecting your bodies, and all that stuff that I wish someone had talked to me about earlier, they both understand what happens. And I'm glad - because when Pink asked the genital wart question, and Tattoo Man raised his eyebrows at me, I could just say quite matter of factly (I like to think) that they were nasty things a bit like verrucas that people sometimes get on their 'bits' (to be honest, I'm slightly hazy as to what genital warts actually are), and all she said was "But do people want to get their bits pierced? Urgh, that's DISGUSTING".

I think Tattoo Man was impressed (although obviously not with the likelihood that he'd lost a future genital piercing customer). Not only that, but he popped his specs on and was super careful to mark Pink's ears so the earrings would be in the right place, meticulous with the cleaning of everything, and lavish with his praise of how brave she was (I mean she was, but it's always nice to be told). It was also, I have to say, significantly cheaper than the high street chain. Make of that what you will. 

As we walked out, rather than mourning the mutilation of Pink's beautiful ears, I felt elated, like I'd stepped out of my comfort zone and won - questions about genital wart answered, and hopefully a seed sewn that will prevent any more dubious piercings in the future. My work here is done etc etc. And to be honest, her ears do look very pretty.

We returned from the sprawling metropolis that is Aberystwyth (well, they do have 3G) back to our haven, and to less sophisticated matters. Pink wanted to camp out, and we'd decided that we'd have macaroni and cauliflower cheese for tea - with extra crispy bits (not the kind of bits that get genital warts, I hasten to add).

And as much as the ear piercing was a bit of a mother-daughter bonding experience so was sharing this dish. It's pretty much everything that Blue hates, food-wise, and the Husband prefers it with bacon, but for the girl and me, just as it comes is just fine. Not too much sauce, and crispy on top.

Macaroni & Cauliflower Cheese

150g macaroni pasta
1 small caulflower, cut into florets
25g or so unsalted butter
1 heaped tbsp plain flour
semi-skimmed milk
75g cheddar cheese (or to taste), grated
freshly ground salt & pepper
1/2 slice bread
25g parmesan or grano pardana cheese, finely grated

Pre-heat your oven to 180C.

Bring a large pan (preferably one with a steamer attachment) of salted water to the boil. 

Add the macaroni and cook according to the packet instructions, steaming the cauli over the top till just cooked. If you don't have a steamer attachment, chuck the cauli in with the macaroni about 5 minutes before the end of the cooking time.

While the macaroni is cooking, melt the butter in a small pan, then stir in the flour to make a smooth paste, and cook for a few seconds. add a little milk and stir, the gradually add a little more and a little more until you have quite a thick, smooth sauce - you want have a huge amount of sauce, no more than necessary to just coat the cooked pasta and cauli.

Add the grated cheddar and a grind of salt and pepper and cook out for a couple of minutes, stirring all the time.

Grease a shallow oven proof dish, add the drained macaroni, and the steamed cauli, then pour over the cooked sauce and stir it through the pasta and veg, making sure everything is coated.

Whizz your bread into crumbs and combine with the parmesan, then sprinkle this over the top of the cheese pasta, then pop in the oven and bake till the pasta and cauli are hot again and the topping is crunchy and golden.

We ate it outside in the midsummer evening, then lit a fire, drank hot chocolate and spent a night in the tent. 

Girl power.

Friday, 12 June 2015

Baked Scotch Eggs

It was, apparently, Eleanor Roosevelt that said "Do one thing everyday that scares you".

Do I agree that this is a basis for a life well-lived? I think, on balance, yes. I scare myself every day, in negative (driving too fast down narrow country lanes to get the kids to the bus in the morning) and positive (putting myself out there for work - in fact, being freelance scares me low level all the time in a "what if no one wants me to work for them" kind of way then realising that people do want me to work for them) ways, and on balance, I think scaring yourself in a positive kind of way is a good thing. The negative kind of scaring, where nothing positive comes out of it at the end (apart from getting the kids on to the bus, thereby avoiding an additional 20 minutes drive) is not so good.

But this is all fairly pointless pondering for the moment. I don't have to scare myself any more for at least 6 months, because last weekend, I went coasteering and scared the complete bejesus out of myself - in an exhilarating and positive "definitely do it again" kind of way. And this kind of scaring yourself is something I'd totally recommend, and makes me understand exactly what Eleanor Roosevelt was talking about. About stepping out of your comfort zone - in this case, quite literally: 12 m jump into the Blue Lagoon anyone - and surviving. Feeling the fear and doing it anyway never felt so real or so amazing. And when your 9 year old daughter has done it first, really, there's no option...

(this is me, btw, not the daughter)

As I've wittered on ad nauseam on here, the coastline where we live is completely stunning, and what better way to enjoy it than kitted up and with the full immersion of clambering over swimming round, leaping off and generally enjoying the coastline a little bit further away from the madding crowd. Abereiddy, Pembrokeshire was our destination

Celtic Quest Coasteering our amazingly fun, competent, utterly confidence-inspiring guides as we donned wetsuits, helmets, bouyancy aids, gloves and set off for one of the most brilliant and terrifying afternoons I've had for a long time, albeit that I had to spend quite a lot of time trying not to lose my contact lenses....


And to fuel this afternoon of adrenaline, baked scotch eggs: lovely eggs from our new neighbours' chickens, sausage & bacon from the butcher, my latest chilli sauce discovery, from Estelle's Gower Goodies and some homegrown chives... And because they are baked, they are healthy. Or less bad for you than the deep fried variety. Not very scary, but hey, you can't have anything.

Baked Scotch Eggs

for 5 Scotch eggs

5 large eggs - free range, organic, from your neighbour, if possible...
2 shallots, finely chopped
5 fat pork sausages, skinned (about 350g sausage meat)
1-2 tablespoons chilli sauce
1 slice of brown bread, turned into breadcrumbs
good handful of chives (or parsley), finely chopped
3 slices of streaky bacon

You also need a muffin tin - one with deep holes.

Hardboil your eggs - I do this by putting the eggs in a pan and covering to about 1 cm depth with cold water. Bring the water to the boil, then simmer the eggs for around 6-7 minutes. If you over cook them you start to get horrid black lines round the yolk, and also I like the yolks being not quite solid. But if you're pregnant or cooking for babies or small children, you probably wan to simmer for 8 minutes. 

Once cooked for the requisite time, plunge the eggs into cold water to stop them cooking, and leaving the shells till needed.

Turn your oven on to 200C/180 fan.

Gently sweat off the shallots in a little olive oil for 10-15 minutes, then set aside to cool a little.

Combine the sausage meat, cooled shallot, chilli sauce, breadcrumbs, chopped chives and a good grind of pepper until well mixed.

Peel the hardboiled eggs (one of my favourite cooking things to do).

Divide the sausage mixture into 5 and then flatten  a portion of sausage into your hand and wrap an egg in it, squidging and shaping as you go.

When all eggs are wrapped, cut the rashers of bacon in half, then stretch each half with the back of a knife and wrap each sausage-coated egg in a piece of bacon.

Pop each bacon wrapped, sausage coated egg into a hole in the muffin tin and bake for 25-30 minutes.

Remove from the muffin tin onto some kitchen paper to get rid of any more fat which hasn't drained into the bottom of the muffin tin, then leave to cool and enjoy as if it were your last meal, before heading off for adventure...

Linking this up with the Simply Eggcellent challenge on Belleau Kitchen where for June, 'anything goes'...

Saturday, 6 June 2015

Salmon on a board

Food, like music, is something that can instantly transport me to a time or place, intricately associated with feelings - usually happy ones, I have to say - I don't have many bad memories associated with food (apart from tripe).

My memories of 2 trips to the States, for example, are chiefly those of the $10 lobster dinners, corn dogs, and frozen margaritas the Husband and I enjoyed on our first proper holiday together to New Orleans, and of a fabulous salad with deliciously cold white wine my friends and I ate on a roof top garden in Manhattan - very Sex and the City, although we were none of us searching for love, only enjoying each others company for a long weekend...

France is enmeshed with a series of memories for me - lusciously ripe peaches and tomatoes purchased from road side stalls on the south west Mediterranean coast, the freshest tower of fruits de mer eaten in a restaurant on a harbour wall somewhere on the Cherbourg peninsula - the crabs being fished to order out of the sea, snails eaten in various guises, the first - and only - meat fondue I've ever had, at the age of 16, the day after I arrived for an exchange visit with a family that I am still in touch with nearly 30 years later... And salmon, nailed to a board and cooked over a fire, Finnish style, when I was an au pair in my late teens, early 20s.

The salmon always fascinated me. The family I was helping out had moved to an old farmhouse that was being renovated. The kitchen was out of action and we were BBQ-ing most days. The father of the family, Bruno, would appear home from work with various delicacies, and one evening, announced we would be having saumon Finlandais. I can't remember what it tasted like (unusual) but the mere fact that it was cooked in such an unconventional manner and was edible, amazed me. At that point, I hadn't done much in the way of camping...

So it's always been on my mind to recreate this, and it turns out the Husband wanted to try it too, and eager to create some memories (not necessarily food-related) for the kids, we headed down to our local beach, Mwnt, for some late afternoon bodyboarding and a cookout on the beach. I'd like to say we caught our fish but we didn't, but you can't have everything, can you...

And literally, all you do is get a decent piece of wood - we had some oak board, nail your piece of salmon to it,

and wedge it next to your fire while it cooks.

You can always cook some sausages while you're waiting...

I'd love to be able to include beautiful shots here of the food on the beach, perfectly styled, but this is what really happened, - beach food, that we ate...

And another food memory - 6 months pregnant with Blue, in Winchester with the Husband's amazing Great Aunt visiting from Australia, eating juicy cherries in the Cathedral grounds on a blazing hot day. Every time I've eaten cherries since, I've thought of that moment. But we had cherries this evening, after the salmon, bought from a local market garden, Glebelands, this morning. We ate them as the sun finally dropped behind the 'mwnt' itself...

I think perhaps cherries will trigger a new memory from now on.