This is not your mother’s quilt

If you read my last post, you know that my mother is an amazing (hand!) quilter.  Growing up watching her give her time making beautiful things is a huge part of my inspiration for knitting.  But for the past couple of years, I’ve been thinking ‘I’d like to try quilting.’  Those words even came out of my mouth to my mother in the fabric store a while back and she sent me some lovely fabrics for my birthday last year–enough to make a lap quilt.  But then the sewing machine went into storage whilst we had our flat on the market and (eventually) executed our move to Cambridge.  But finally, I got my sewing machine back and bought a table for the sewing machine.  I’ve been doing a few bits and pieces of sewing–a pillow, a couple of project bags and some heavier weight bags that I think I’ll use for my knitting or sewing notions.  The straight lines had been going well (although I did have to call my maternal help desk once when I couldn’t figure out why the machine had suddenly stopped making stitches properly–user error, of course), and I wanted to tackle a quilt–I had the rotary cutter and mat, I had some fabric, a couple of patterns (that I understood from having watched Mom do them) and I had a good reference book.  I did, however, lack the confidence to start.  I didn’t want ‘teaching’ so much as I wanted someone there to ask questions of and to interact with if I got stuck.

Fortunately, I live near Sew Creative, a great sewing and fabric shop with a patchwork focus.  (They are also my most local yarn store with a nice selection , which is why I first went to visit them….)  They were offering a class for a patchwork quilting top in late April, and I thought that would give me the impetus I needed to get myself going. So I duly signed up.  Later, I went back to the shop to pick the fabrics, which I loved to do with Mom when she was planning a quilt.  The class was based on a ‘layer cake’, a stack of 10″ x 10″ squares in nine or ten different fabrics.  I started with a bright cherry print that I liked and the vague idea that I wanted to do something with reds and purples and maybe blue or green and the amazing Lucy at Sew Creative patiently waited and suggested while I picked out the rest of the fabrics for my custom layer cake for the class.  I even went ahead and picked the fabrics for the borders and the backing since it all seemed to work so well together.  (Be patient, you’ll get to see the fabrics in a minute.  I’m trying to build suspense in my narrative here!)

A few days later, I lugged a sewing machine, a cutting mat and a bag full of sewing supplies out of a cab and into Sew Creative.  They’d made room around their big central display table and six of us and all our gear lined up around the table.  The class was made up of a mix of seriously experienced quilters and sewers and passionate novices.  I was sitting between two experienced quilters, of course.  Elaine Green, our teacher, began quilting in (I think she said) about 2002 and hasn’t looked back since.  She brought great enthusiasm and calm, clear instructions with her.

We started by randomly pairing our 36 10″ x 10″ squares and drawing a line across the diagonal.  We then sewed a seam on either side of the line.  And then, we cut along the centre diagonal, leaving two triangles.  (This was where having someone there to watch what I was doing came in handy.  Not only did Elaine point out that I would probably be safer if I worked the rotary cutter away from myself (whoops!), but also noticed that if I was using the cutter in my left hand, I needed to shift the blade to the other side so that it would sit flush against the ruler.  That was a bit of a light bulb moment and things got much easier after that.)

Once we pressed the seams and opened the triangles, we had 36 squares like this.  These all had to be trimmed to be precise squares of equal size.  All six of us were sharing one square ruler large enough for the job.  After Elaine showed us how to do it and I did a few to get the hang of it, I passed on the ruler to someone else.  (In the end, Elaine wound up helping me cut the rest of the squares, because I ran out of time.)

While waiting to trim the rest of my squares, I cut out 100 smaller squares in my contrast fabric.  Yes: 100.  I’d seen my mother do squares and strips before, but again, it really helped that Elaine was there to help me get started.  I now know the tricks for keeping things straight throughout.

After I got home from class, with my stacks of 36 big squares and 100 little squares, I kept going and attached most of the little squares to the big squares.  The next day was a big day.  Yes, it was the day of the Royal Wedding, but far more importantly, I picked the layout for the quilt.

The husband came up to give me his geometrically trained eye to help with the layout.  (He doesn’t know a thing about quilting, but he is good at spotting patterns.)  We went from this…

…to this.  I had been getting a bit wobbly about the fabric choices, and laying things out made me wobblier.  I could see things were coming together, but I wasn’t sure whether I liked what was happening.  But I persevered, turning the individual squares into larger pieces.

After a minor (okay, major) cutting fiasco (it helps to recheck the dimensions before you cut, even if you are sure the instruction says 3-1/4″) and a trip to Sew Creative to buy more fabric for the inner border, I had the whole of the patchwork top together and the inner border on. I loved the way the border went on, and how the purple squares at the centres of the blocks carried out into the border.  But I was still unconvinced about the fabrics I had chosen and worried about the fabric I had chosen for the outer border.  Would the colourful print on a white background work?  I went ahead anyway, and was quite pleased with myself for figuring out the best way to cut the outer border to avoid having to piece it (although I did have to do squares in the corners).  And in the end, I was really very pleased with how the whole thing turned out:

I think the white border helps to contain all the lovely, colourful visual chaos in the body of the quilt and softens the harsh lines.  Besides, I really do love the cherry fabric.  And I am happy with the way the colours came out now that everything is together.  It’s vibrant and cheerful.  And I love that the whole of the parts is completely different from how any of the individual fabrics looked, or even how the pieces without the borders looked.

The next step is to get this quilted.  In some ways, the only way to quilt is by hand, because that is what my mother does so amazingly well.  On the other hand, I would like to have this available to keep guests warm by Christmas time, so I am contemplating doing this as a machine quilted project.  I have some time to decide: I am signed up for a class on machine and hand quilting in early June at Sew Creative (in their Bury St Edmund’s branch this time).  And in the mean time, I’ve also signed up for a block-of-the-month club at the store too.  In fact, my first installment in cheerful bright colours picked by yours truly is upstairs waiting for me to piece it together.  And it’s possible that I’ve stashed a few pieces of quilting cotton with vague ideas for projects in mind.  It seems that somehow I’ve picked up another hobby.

Posted in Crafting, Quilting (by me) | 5 Comments

Simple gifts

I have been enjoying some lovely gifts of late.  We’ve had lovely weather here in Cambridge, so I’ve been lapping up warm spring breezes as I bike around town.  And I’ve had the pleasure of one of my cats curled up in my lap whilst I knitted, both of us basking in the sunshine.  I’ve been given some beautiful gifts for my birthday–books, a handknit shawl, some yarn and a cool mug.  And there have been two other gifts that I want to share more about here.

A meal to remember (and remember and remember)
On Saturday evening, the husband took me out for dinner to celebrate my birthday. He picked the restaurant with the help of a guide book and we’d heard there was a good food scene in Cambridge, but I wasn’t sure what to expect.  (Of course, the fact that the husband had told me the reservations were at KFC (since McDonald’s don’t do reservations) loewered my expectations….)  But I was absolutely blown away by Alimentum.  When the cab pulled over across the road from the local cinema and leisure centre in front of what could only be described as a shop front location at the bottom of a modern block of flats, I did begin to wonder if we were going for a fry-up.  But from the moment we walked in the door, I knew that couldn’t be further from the truth.  As we walked inside, we were greeted a swank bar, complete with a jazz singer (à la Jamie Cullum).  The street outside was blocked off completely by black string blinds.  Passing through the bar, we were seated in a spacious, modern dining room.  We could have been in a stylish restaurant in New York.

Despite the slickness of the space, the staff were charming and knowledgeable.  One waiter helped me choose my starter (I was torn in many directions) and the sommelier was clearly enjoying his job and was happy to engage with us and skillfully matched wines to each of our courses.  There was not a hint of stuffy.

And then, there was the food.  After consulting the waiter, I chose the ‘surf and turf’ starter, a stack of lobster and crab with apple, porcetta and little deep fried cubes of terrine of pigs trotter.  The bits of pork was rich and flavourful and played with the sweetness of the seafood and the apples.  And the apples cut the richness.  Everything worked gloriously with the (three) wines the sommelier had selected for me.  Result?  I pounded the table in gustatory delight.  The main course was pork–a filet of pork richly roasted and served on a puree of black pudding and a ‘sausage roll’, which was beautiful, rich, shredded pork rolled in perfect puff pastry.  Again, I was reduced to table-pounding grastro-ecstasy.  Pudding was a ginger cake served alongside a Stellenbosch pudding wine.  And the cheese board had nine, yes nine, samples of cheeses of all sort.  Glorious.  So glorious, that I put it at the second best meal I’ve ever had.  (For the record, the very best meal I had ever had was the tasting menu at Michael Mina in September 2007.)

We’ll be going back soon, I hope.  And I’m looking forward to checking out more of the Cambridge scene.

And a gift of beauty

Cat not included

The other lovely thing to share is a gift that the husband and I  put out over the weekend.  I love handwork by anyone, but when it is a quilt from my mother it is really special.  (And when it is a gift from her to celebrate my marriage, it is even more special!)  She had held off sending it to us until we’d finished our move but it was wonderful to lay it out on our bed and see it in its full glory.  (The cats like it too….)

I remember when my mother took the quilting class that set her onto her passion for quilting–I was about seven.  That first quilt, a massive king size bed cover, was a sample, done in blues and sandy browns.  Mom pieced every last piece of that quilt by hand and then sewed the elaborate quilting patterns all by hand too.  Since then, she has made countless quilts, many of them for me.  And I’ve revelled in trips to the fabric store with her to pick fabrics–it’s always magic.  And I’ve learned from her the gift of love that comes with making something carefully by hand.

Japenese imagery

For inspiration, Mom took the husband’s and my 2008 trip to Japan and a book on Japanese quilting as her inspirations for this lovely gift.  The squares have Japanese designs and imagery, like this vase.

Cherry blossom motif

And there is also the beautiful quilting: you may be able to see that the vase has been painstakingly outlined by hand quilting.  And the border has wonderful cherry blossoms, also done by hand.

Stained glass from fabric

The border includes a patchwork strip made up of all the fabrics that went into the quilt.  I love how the simplicity of design lets the colour play, almost like stained glass.

Unexpected colour

And the colours are unexpected.  My favourite square, complete with lovely quilting, is not a colour I would have picked for the quilt in a million years.  But it works on it’s own and in the whole.

A quilt so filled with love and time and talent and beauty is surely a wonderful blessing for a marriage.  And it is one of the things that is making our new house our home.

Posted in By others, Crafting, Restaurants | 3 Comments

The root of the matter: Sunday rösti

I had planned to blog more often, but it hasn’t been happening.  I’ve been running lots of errands, trying to tackle the always painful sorting of the clothes that should have happened before everything went into storage last summer, attending to two very cute but very demanding and very spoiled cats and trying to find my feet.  I’ve had relatively little time for knitting and am feeling a bit creatively zonked.

I have been finding lots of inspiration in the kitchen.  (Keep reading; there really is a recipe at the bottom.)  As I may have mentioned, our new kitchen is inspiring in and of itself because it is big enough for two people to cook together comfortably in it and it holds all of my beloved cooking gadgetry.  I have been reunited with pots and pans that have been in storage for two years.  And we have an amazing new pan–a Green Pan–which is wonderful to cook in.  Even more exciting, I have finally been able to use (for the first time) the lovely red Kitchen Aid Artisan mixer

Isn't it nice and shiny and red?

that the husband gave me for our first Christmas together in 2007 and the (also lovely red) Magimix food processor that my parents gave us for Christmas 2009.  I’ve never had a mixer or a food processor before, but they are changing the way I cook–things that would have been ‘too much trouble’ are  now quick and fun.  My final kitchen inspiration–perhaps the most persistent and productive one–is our weekly veg box order from Riverford Organic.  Every Thursday, our order comes with a selection of fresh organic produce, much of it produced locally. Occasionally I add to the selection with my own choices to round out our week of vegetables.  We are using more vegetables in our cooking than we ever have before, wasting a lot less (I am determined that everything will get used!) and spending less on fruit and veg than we would if we were going to the supermarket for it.

Every new veg box sends me to the cookbook shelves (at the moment, I am rediscovering Moosewood Cooks at Home (I’ve given a UK link, but it’s definitely a US book), an amazing vegetarian (occasionally pescetarian) cookbook–15 years on and the recipes are still simple, modern, interesting and tasty), to the Internet and to the far corners of my culinary imagination.  I like the experience of being given some vegetables that I don’t know very well and finding things to do with them, or even of being given vegetables that I do know very well (vast quantities of carrots, for example) and coming up with new and different concoctions every week.  Right now, root vegetables are featuring heavily in the veg boxes.  (The period between February and early May is, I believe known as ‘the hungry time’–the time when all the fresh veg are used up and the stores are down to root vegetables and brassicas.)  I’m pretty familiar with my beloved spuds.  But carrots have never featured heavily in my diet and I’m having to learn to do things with them.  And as for the more exotic root vegetables, I only have limited experience with those.  So I have been getting to the root of the matter.

Last weekend, we had the in-laws to visit and I was roasting a chicken for Mothering Sunday.  It was a bright sunny day and the usual roast potatoes didn’t feel right.  Besides, I had a celeriac bulb (possibly the world’s ugliest vegetable, but very tasty) and the aforementioned glut of carrots.  And I had my wonderful food processor to grate, slice or shred all those root vegetables.  (I love how it turns a somewhat time-consuming task into a five-minute job.)  So I decided to make an adaption of a rösti–a Swiss potato cake.  Instead of Sunday roasties, we had Sunday rösti.  We all loved the results–this went beautifully with the roast chicken, asparagus with pine-nut dressing and broccoli cheese (I warned you–we have lots of brassica in the house at the moment)–and provided a lighter option than the usual starch.  My mother-in-law enjoyed her portion with some mustard and I may try a squirt of lemon juice on mine next time.

Sunday Rösti

3 small to medium potatoes, washed and peeled
1/2-1 bulb celeriac, washed and peeled
2-3 carrots, washed and peeled
6-8 wild garlic leaves (optional) (or chives, onions or garlic if desired)
salt and pepper to taste
olive or other cooking oil


Press everything firmly into the pan.


1. Using a food processor or a hand grater, grate the pototoes, carrots and celeriac and transfer into a large mixing bowl.

2. Shred the wild garlic leaves (or chop or press the chives/garlic/onion).  Add to the root vegetables and mix well.

3. Salt and pepper the mixture to taste.  Add a glug of olive oil to hold things together and mix well to coat.  (You may want to use your hands here, but a heavy rubber spatula or wood spoon works well to get an even mixture too.)

4. Heat a large skillet/sauté pan over medium heat and, once it is heated, add a little more oil (swirl it around in the hot pan to coat evenly).  Press the vegetable mixture firmly into the pan and cover with a lid.  (Covering with a lid will help the raw root vegetables cook.)  Turn the heat down a little.  (This depends on your hob and your pots and pans–you want a gentle sauté heat, not a crazy frying heat.)

5. Check the state of the rösti occasionally (maybe after 5 minutes or so) to make sure it isn’t burning too much on the bottom.

It's okay to break it into two halves for turning!

When the vegetables are starting to get soft and the bottom of the ‘cake’ is going golden brown and is sticking together flip the rösti over. (This was about 7-10 minutes into the cooking time for me.)  I broke  it into two halves and flipped each half for manageability.  Keep the lid off from this point out and cook until the other side is golden brown and the vegetables are cooked through.

6. Portion the rösti out and serve up!  (This can easily be kept warm in the oven until serving time if you are doing a meal with lots of moving parts.  I also believe that this would reheat beautifully, but there’s never been anything left to refrigerate in our house!)


  • This would work beautifully with any combination of root vegetables.  I used what I had to hand.  (I think you do need some potato to add the glue-y power of starch.)
  • This could become a main meal with the addition of cheese or bacon.  (It is vegan as is.)
  • For a fancier effect, do individual rösti, setting them in ring molds to help them keep their shape if necessary.

In one other cooking note, I have edited the recipe for lamb and chickpea stew.  (I left out the cinnamon and cumin when I originally published the recipe.  Eek!)

Coming soon: I blog about knitting and crochet.  (Really!)

Posted in Cooking, Recipe | 2 Comments

Weekend cooking: lamb and chick pea stew

I had planned to faithfully blog most days.  Instead, I’ve been stripping wallpaper and prepping walls for painting.  I had also planned that my blogs would tend to focus on my knitting, with forays into cooking and other non-knitting crafts and very occasional discussions of what’s happening with the house and new life in Cambridge.  But new life in Cambridge (and the house) have been dominating at the moment.

But I did manage to cook one meal this weekend.  With the husband and I finally sharing our first two-person kitchen–things were a little tight in the small London flat, I had visions of us spending whole weekend days concocting enormous feasts.  This is perhaps an unrealistic vision for the moment; not only are we operating with a skeleton crew of kitchen equipment and only one cookbook (even if it is The Joy of Cooking) until the removal van delivers our stuff next week, but we have decided to change the colour scheme in two of the bedrooms and began the aforementioned wall prepping.  So, feast cooking was out for the weekend.  But I did manage to make my lamb and chick pea “stew” on Sunday night.  It’s made with lamb mince and it only takes about five minutes of prep, 15 minutes of active at-the-hob cooking and one to one-and-a-half hours of simmering, so I’m not sure it actually deserves the name stew.  But it is spiced with harissa, a North African chili sauce that I love, and vinegar and is lovely and warming on a cold winter night.  I’ve had several requests for recipes in the blog, so I’ll pop it in here.  Enjoy!

Easy and warming

Lamb and Chickpea Stew

Serves 4 generously

500 g minced (ground) lamb
1-3 tsp harissa (to taste)
1 tsp cinnamon (or to taste)
1 tsp cumin (or to taste)
salt and pepper to taste
olive oil
1 medium onion, diced finely
1-4 cloves of garlic, minced or crushed
2 410 g (14 oz) cans chick peas, drained
2 410 g (14 oz) cans chopped tomatoes
glug of cider- or white- vinegar
spinach (lots) (optional) or parsley (lots) (optional)
plain Greek style yoghurt (optional–as garnish)
1 pita bread per serving (optional)

Needs just one deep frying pan/skillet


1.  Heat a deep frying pan/skillet over medium heat and brown the lamb, breaking it up as it cooks.  Add salt and pepper to taste and 1 heaping teaspoon while the lamb is cooking.  When the lamb is browned, put the lamb in a bowl (and drain fat, if desired) to one side.

2.  Reduce heat and return the pan to the hob.  Add a little olive oil and heat.  Once the olive oil has heated, add the onions and saute.  Once the onions begin to go translucent, add the garlic and cook until the onions are quite soft and translucent (or even a little caramelised).

3.  Add the lamb back into the pan, give it a stir and then add the chick peas.  Add the tomatoes.  Fill the two tomato tins with water and add that too.  Add harissa, cinnamon and cumin and a glug of vinegar to taste.  (You can start small and add as much harissa and vinegar as you want to!)  Bring the mixture to a gentle boil and then reduce to a gentle simmer.

4.  Allow to simmer for about an hour to an hour-and-a-half, until the liquid has reduced the stew has thickened.  Shred the spinach or parsley (if you are using them) and stir it into the stew.  (If you are adding spinach, you may need to add it in several batches as it cooks down.)  Let it cook for a further 5-10 minutes.

5.  Optional.  While the spinach is cooking, cut the pita breads into strips or wedges, brush lightly with olive oil and sprinkle with a little sea salt and pop into a 180-C/350-F oven for 5-10 minutes.

6.  Serve the stew.  Top with the yoghurt to taste and serve with the pita bread.

Note:  This is an extremely flexible recipe, invented off the top of my head one winter evening.  All the amounts and proportions are adjustable (e.g. less lamb and more chick peas), and I think it could easily made into a vegetarian chick pea stew simply by eliminating the lamb and adding an extra tin of chick peas and maybe some extra spinach.  It refrigerates and reheats beautifully too.


Posted in Cooking, Recipe | 3 Comments

How I became a stripper

And thus I embark on my blogging “career”.  I set this blog up a few weeks ago in the dreary gap between exchanging on our sale of the flat in London and our purchase of the new house in Cambridge and completing and moving into the new digs so I would have an extra treat to look forward too.  I figured that my first post would be pictures of something I’ve been knitting or maybe a recipe that I improvised or possibly an amusing little anecdote about me getting completely lost as I find my way around a new city in the quest for a good butcher.  And I suspect that there will be many posts just like that.  But today, as the title has already tells you, I’m going to tell you about how I became a stripper.

A bit of background for those that don’t know me….  For the last fifteen years I’ve lived in really big cities (New York, then London), in the fairly limited living spaces you get when you live in the centre of some of the largest cities on earth.  And for most of that time, I was working 10 or 12 hour days as an overworked, overstressed lawyer.  Overworked, overstressed urban lawyers living in smallish flats (especially when accompanied, in latter years, by two cats and a husband) are not known for their enthusiasm for home DIY.  But I stopped the lawyer gig a couple of years ago, and now, with the move to Cambridge I live in a house with plenty of room for me, my shoe collection, my knitting and crafting stash, the two cats and even the husband.  But those who know me would still reasonably expect that my first step to getting something done around the house would be either to ask the husband or to call a builder.

We’d always known that we wanted to make our stamp on our new house.  At heart, the house is an old Edwardian farmhouse (now on a street in Cambridge surrounded by houses built on what was once the farm).  But it has been through many things in its life, including conversion in the ’80s to two sets of bedsits.  The previous owners relieved the poor house of the trappings of bedsittery and left us a house in good order.  But even then, we could see more things we wanted to do.  So there had been much planning and speculation, but it all seemed to be in the far distant future.

But a funny thing happened on the way over the threshold into an empty blank canvas last Wednesday.  The house is, much to our astonishment, ours.  We chose it together.  We went through the stress of selling the husband’s flat together so we could move here. We dreamed about the day when we’d actually walk into the house with the keys firmly in our grasp.  And here we were (are).  And suddenly, I saw things that needed to be done, not because they presented a problem, but because it was our house and I wanted to take care of it and make it more ours.

One of the things that has gotten to me is the room we call the “library”.  It’s a second reception room that we love for its nice straight walls (good for bookcases!).  But it has been left in decoratively suspect conditions.  (We think it was decorated in the ’80s, possibly with a carpet that was made in the ’70s.)  If you can’t tell the wall is covered in woodchip.  (For the Americans, that is textured wallpaper that is then painted over.)  And this room ate at me.  Here we have this lovely square room with this terrible decor.  And I couldn’t let it stay that way.

So Saturday (in addition to having one of our architect friends round to start talking about some of our bigger plans–the kind that involve moving walls), the husband and I went to the DIY store to buy supplies for painting some of the walls upstairs (green is not my ideal for a bedroom) and for dealing with the woodchip in the library.  We scored the wallpaper to make it easier to come off.  (You can buy a special tool to make it easier to score.  Who knew?)  And yesterday (Sunday), while the husband was out buying groceries, I started stripping.  After a brief interlude when we went out to buy more effective stripping equipment, I continued stripping.  I probably did a solid six hours stripping off that woodchip.  And to the right, you see an example of some of that work so far.  (Even the bare plaster is better than the dirty, nicotine stained paper.)  The stripping was extremely satisfying–sort of like peeling off a scab, but without the pain.  I enjoyed it not just for the decorative result (such as it is), but also the sheer pleasure of the physical work (yes, my arms do hurt today) and the pleasure of knowing that I was taking possession of our home.

So today, and probably tomorrow, I shall continue the stripping.  There appears to be a particularly noxious border that is buried under the wood chip that I’ll also be stripping, and I expect there may be some other tasty surprises about the history of that room in store as I reveal more and more of the plaster and plasterboards.  And I shall enjoy every moment of it.

Then, perhaps, the sledgehammer.  Or maybe I’ll stick to prepping and painting walls for a while….

Posted in The House | 3 Comments