Why Big Brand Names, When Indie is Much more Indie-vidual??

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I was in Exeter city centre yesterday, enjoying soaking up the pre-Christmas atmosphere, and generally having a good mooch around. (I am rather delighted, and somewhat smug, to announce that it was for pleasure only, not Christmas shopping, as I actually completed that two weeks ago. Ahem.)

The wonderful Exeter Christmas Market was going strong on Cathedral Green, a local brass band were playing jazzed up versions of ‘Jingle Bells’ and the mood was just as you’d hope for with only ten days to go until Christmas, but as I was wandering through the streets and shopping precincts, I found myself taking a long hard look at the shops that were represented there. In Exeter, we’ve got some fabulous independent shops; from the gorgeous Inside Out to Gandy Street’s veritable banquet of fabulous indie establishments, such as Moko and Mounts Bay Trading Co.

But largely, as with any city, our retail areas are dominated by the big name shops, the huge corporations, such as John Lewis, Top Shop, H&M and Marks and Spencer. I’ve nothing against these stores in themselves, after all, the likelihood is that they themselves, once in the mists of time, were once independents, who made it big, and fair play to them.

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However, I found myself musing, why do we, as consumers, seek to buy mass produced products? I popped into H&M (no mean feat with a buggy and an offspring that likes hanging his feet directly at 90 degree angles from the front of the pram, ensuring he manages to knock virtually everything off the shelves) and found myself gazing at row after row of carbon-copy clothes;  with women grabbing at them, left right and centre (and of course, my youngest son…)

Then I found myself thinking of Exeter’s brilliant Fore Street; where all our vintage shops are; where you can easily find ‘one of a kind’ garments, at prices that are comparable, if not cheaper than the main branded shops. It seemed baffling to me, all of a sudden. In fact, I did literally find myself momentarily rooted to the spot, surveying the fracas as shoppers seized indistinguishable item after indistinguishable item, stunned by the strangeness of it all.

I started trying to ponder out the motivation of it. And I had a few theories. They may be wrong. But none the less, here they are!

1) Clever emotive advertising. I noticed, in all of the shops, that they each had prominent photos on all of their walls. There was a pretty common theme. All young, beautiful people, wearing the clothes of the shop, of course, but very much selling in an ideal way of life. A lifestyle rather than just a piece of clothing. Primark’s theme for this Christmas, with their models in hilarious onesies etc, was on fun, of being young and quirky and ‘having a laugh’. Top Shop’s seemed all focues on ‘geek-chic’ – of solemn faced young Adonises with NHS specs, peering into the lens as though earnestly entreating you ‘buy the clothes, and you too can be as gorgeous and effortlessly cool as us’. With supremely skilful marketing like this, how can any of us resist those kind of non-verbal promises?

2) Perceived value for money. All of the stores had their ‘basics’ range, which almost seems akin to telling us that we completely, totally NEED these things in our lives, and without them, we’re literally living without our necessary basics to survive. Which is, of course, when you stop to think about it, utterly ludicrous. They of course, often push their sale items heavily too – cramming the clothes on to tight rails, giving us the strong message of ‘these are our very last ones, our exclusive, last chance to buy items, get in quick!’ Which of course, helps us to conveniently forget that they are churned out in large-scale factories, and can easily be replicated, should the company want them to be. (Remember, the reason they are in the sale is because they don’t sell so well and need to be got rid of.)

3) Teeny-tiny Mannekins. Wow – I studied the mannekins in H&M (I’m sure they’re not the only ones to do this, I’m not picking on them personally!) and had to have a little laugh. They were minute. I’m not a big girl myself, but when I actively forced myself to compare my physique with these impossibly slim mannekins, I realised my body was WAY bigger. And I’m a size 10. Does this send a rather horrid message to us all, saying that, if we purchase their clothes, it will miraculously transform us? Make us slimmer than we ever thought possible?

I don’t blame any of these big stores, after all, they are just doing what any business does to some degree, they are actively pushing their products to gain maximum sales. But I am curious as to why we all seem to fall for it. It’s basically propoganda, when you stop to think about it.

By contrast, the independent store tends to be more about offering a more authentic experience. When I pop into the indie stores of Exeter, I find myself greeted by people who care about their stuff on a personal level, and who genuinely want you to love their stuff as much as they obviously do. Imagine if those high street stores were instead dominated by local designers, individuals who were thrilled to offer their designs that they had hand-made and spent ages working on, rather than just made manufactured in a factory in China?

Perhaps its just a dream…but wouldn’t it be lovely! I don’t think Father Christmas is going to give me that one this year though…!

Tortilla Mince Bake

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It would seem that, in the light of me fasting every Monday, and me being the only vegetarian in the house, that Monday has been re-named Meatday. Its when the men of this household reconnect with their rampant inner cavemen and get down with some serious carnivorous activity.

On that note, let the meat-fest commence!

Tortilla Mince Bake

You will need:

1) 250g lean mince.

2) 1 onion, peeled and chopped.

3) 1 garlic clove, peeled and chopped.

4) 2 tbsp tomato purée.

5) 1 tbsp Worcester sauce.

6) 1 tbsp red wine.

7) 1tsp mild chilli powder.

8) 2tsp paprika.

9) 4 flour tortillas.

10) lots of cheese to sprinkle on top! (Around 200g min)

11) 1tbsp olive oil for frying.

12) Tin of chopped tomatoes

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How to make it:

1) Heat the oven to 200c, then heat the olive oil in a large frying pan. Fry the onion and garlic for a few minutes, until soft.

2) Add the mince and allow it to brown off, before adding the paprika, chilli powder, tomatoes, purée, Worcester sauce and wine. Simmer for around 15 minutes.

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3) Once the mince mix has finished cooking, place the first of your tortillas in a well greased oven proof dish. Lay a third of the mince mix on top, then sprinkle with a third of the cheese.

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4) Then, simply repeat, layering until the final tortilla is on the top. Then sprinkle over the top a generous spread of cheese.

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5) Pop it in the oven for around ten minutes or so, then serve with a side salad.

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Total Cost? Around £3.70 in total, but there is enough for four, so around 92p per portion!

The verdict? I didn’t even see the other half eat it, it disappeared within about a minute ( think that means he likes it) and DB1 also did excellently well and polished off the vast majority of his plate. DB2 was rather significantly less keen, sadly. Ah well. Can’t win em all.

A Slow Cooked Hotpot

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I have got a bit of a love affair with my slow cooker. (Not literally, that would be wrong on so many levels.) Its an excellent bit of equipment to have in the kitchen, not least because its a little bit like magic…you chuck a load of stuff in, and then voila, a nice meal emerges a few hours later.

This easy Hotpot is a brilliant slow cooker recipe, nice and easy, and tasty to boot.

Slow Cooked Sausage Hotpot

You will need:

1) Some sausages (I cook these seperately, to make the skins crispy, and also use Quorn. Is entirely up to you though, it is perfectly fine to welly them into the slow cooker with everything else!)

2) 1 red onion, peeled and chopped.

3) 1 leek, thinly sliced.

4) 2tbsp tomato purée

5) 1 tin tomatoes.

6) 1 red pepper, deseeded and thinly sliced.

7) 1 can baked beans.

8) 1 tbsp Worcester sauce.

9) 1 tsp paprika.

10) 75ml red wine.

11) 1 sweet potato, peeled and chopped.

How to make it:

1) Very simple, shove it all in the slow cooker for around 7-8 hours (checking sweet potato is soft, if not, crank up the heat setting). Then add sausages, if you’ve cooked them separately!

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Here’s ours simmering away, in the lovely slow cooker!

2) Serve with crusty bread for a nice, simple and satisfying meal!

Total Cost: Around £4.00, but makes a lot, so plenty for tomorrow lunch too!

The Verdict? We all like this one! It’s a nice flavoursome meal for winter. Thank you, Mr Slow Cooker!

Veggie sausage jambalaya!

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I’m borrowing heavily from Caribbean cooking here; which is filling and highly suitable for a brisk November evening (particularly when needing energy for an evening of work, like me!)

Veggie Sausage Jambalaya

You will need:

1) 6 Quorn sausages

2) 3 peppers, deseeded and cut into strips.

3) 1 courgette, cut into thin slices.

4) 1 red onion, peeled and chopped.

5) 2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped.

6) Vegetable oil for frying.

7) 1 tsp each of oregano, thyme, paprika and mild chilli powder

8) 150g rice (not bloody flavoured rice like me, as that’s all I have…be better prepared than I!)

9) 300g veg stock.

10) Can of chopped tomatoes.

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How to make it:

1) In a large saucepan, heat about 1 tbsp oil and gently fry the onion and garlic until soft.

2) Meanwhile, in a separate frying pan, cook the sausages in a little oil, according to pack instructions.

3) Add the peppers and courgette, rice, herbs and spices to the onion, stir well, then add the stock and the tomatoes.

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4) Leave it to simmer for around 30 mins, or until the rice is all cooked and the veg soft. When the sausages are cooked, chop them into slices and add to the rice dish.

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Total Cost: Roughly £1.60, so 40p per person. Bargain! (Benefits of Aldi shopping…)

The Verdict: Well, considering the boys aren’t too keen on rice dishes these days, not too bad at all! It was almost a bit like a more spiced up paella, nice flavours and very filling.

CreamyCheesy Broccoli Pasta Bake

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Hello!

Sorry, it’s been a while. Things have been hectic in the house, plenty of pre-Chrimbo orders to keep me busy, and as a result, blog posts have been mildly thin on the ground. However, I’m making the time now, to share this tasty little number….

CreamyCheesy Broccoli Pasta Bake

You will need:

1) Enough pasta for four, dependent on how greedy you all are, ha ha!

2) 1 broccoli, chopped into small florets.

3) 100g spinach leaves.

4) 1 onion, peeled and thinly chopped.

5) 2 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly chopped.

6) olive oil ( to fry onions)

7) Around 300g cheese. Such as cheddar.

8) 700ml semi skimmed milk.

9) 50g butter

10) 50g plain flour.

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How to make it:

1) Preheat the oven to 200c, then get a large saucepan of water on to boil. Pop the pasta in and cook according to packet instructions. Time it so that you can add the broccolli five minutes before the end.

2) Meanwhile, heat a tbsp or so of olive oil in a frying pan and fry the onions and garlic gently until soft.

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3) Next on the agenda is the cheese sauce. For those of you who know how to make a cheese sauce; crack on. For those who don’t, a basic lesson: Firstly, melt the butter in a saucepan. Then stir in the flour, scraping it all from the sides, until it forms a thick paste. Straight away, start adding milk, bit by bit, whisking the whole time to stop it going lumpy. Bring to the boil, then take down to a simmer, then finally add 200g of the grated cheese.

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4) Mix everything together and pop it into an oven proof dish. Sprinkle over with the remaining cheese and stick in the oven for around 20 minutes.

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5) Serve immediately, on its own or with a side salad.

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Total Cost? Pasta was a cheapie from approvedfood.co.uk (25p a bag, bargain!) so the grand total was around £3.00. 75p a head, and plenty left over for tomorrow’s lunch!

The Verdict? Went down relatively well! The dish was mellow enough for kids, predictably, my two picked out the ‘green bits’ but accidentally got a few nibbles of the smaller bits of broccoli that hid undetected in the pasta! For adults, add a bit of salt and pepper to season.

Gnocchi Bake

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Hello! It’s been a while since I last posted; call it the Christmas effect! Kids are hectic, present buying is in full swing and work, as predicted, is ramping up a good’un.

This may go some way to explaining why tonight’s is a quickie. It is based on a recipe that I vaguely remember seeing in a magazine (possibly the Sainsburys one?) but I can’t for the life of me quite remember where. I remember thinking ‘ooh that looks super easy and tasty to boot’ though, so here’s to hoping that it lives up to expectations and that I remember the key ingredients correctly. As per usual, there’s a bit of poetic licence involved…

Gnocchi Bake

You will need:

1) One bag of gnocchi.

2) One onion, peeled and chopped.

3) One green pepper, deseeded and chopped.

4) One courgette, chopped.

5) One tin of chopped tomatoes.

6) One Mozarella ball, drained and sliced up thinly.

7) 100g feta cheese.

8) A splash of red wine (if feeling decadent, ha ha!)

9) Olive oil for frying.

10) A tsp dried basil

11) a tsp chilli powder, for an optional kick. Up to you.

12) Some breadcrumbs to sprinkle on top.

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How to Make it (I hope)

1) Heat about a teaspoon of olive oil in a pan, and fry the onion, courgette and pepper for around five minutes.

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2) Meanwhile, turn the grill on to high. And meanwhile meanwhile, get some water in a saucepan, boil it, and cook the gnocchi according to packet instructions. Then drain and set aside.

3) Add the chopped tomatoes (and wine, if using) to the peppers etc and simmer gently, allowing the tomatoes to thicken. Once the sauce has thickened, add the basil and chilli powder (if using).

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4) Mix the gnocchi with the tomatoes etc, then pour into an oven proof dish. Sprinkle the cheeses and breadcrumbs over the top, then grill for a few minutes, or until the cheese has melted.

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Total Cost: Roughly £2.75 in total. So around 70p each, I think?

The Verdict? Initial resistance, but I wasn’t anticipating much else, as historically, gnocchi has not been popular with the smalls. However, they both did pretty well with it in the end, and ate a good amount of it. My verdict was that it was reeeeally tasty! (If I do say so myself!) A filling, carby meal with lots of flavours going on.

Halloween Pumpkin Soup

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To honour the arrival of my niece and nephew, we’re doing it a hallowe’en style today…and making pumpkin soup!

Halloween Pumpkin Soup

You will need:

1) A big pumpkin.

2) 1 onion, peeled and chopped.

3) 2tbsp vegetable oil.

4) 1 apple, peeled, chopped and diced.

5) 1 litre vegetable stock.

6) 2tbsp chopped coriander.

7) bread to serve.

8) 1 tsp mild curry powder.

How to make it:

1) Begin by carving your pumpkin up. Take the top off with a sharp knife, scoop out the seedy mess inside, then extract the flesh and pop in a bowl for later.

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2) Once you’ve scooped the flesh out of your pumpkin, put the empty pumpkin to one side (10 guesses what to do with that part of the pumpkin!)

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3) Heat the oil in a large saucepan, and fry the onion gently for five minutes or so. Then add the curry powder and stir in well.

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4) Add the pumpkin and apple and stir well. Then add the stock, bring to the boil, and reduce to a simmer, covered, for 20-25 minutes.

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5) Leave to cool down a bit, add the chopped coriander, then blend well.

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Total Cost? Pumpkin was £3.00, though obviously served a multipurpose requirement, ha ha. In total, about £4.20.

And you want to see the rest of the pumpkin?.

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Hee hee, not too bad for a first attempt!

Jazzing up the Humble Spud

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You’ve got to feel sorry for the humble jacket potato. It’s a classic lunchtime staple, served at cafes across the country; and yet it feels woefully stuck in a rut, like an old lady unable to move with the times. How many times have you seen the menu…jacket with cheese, jacket with cheese and beans, jacket with prawns, jacket with chilli con carne; and so on and so on. Seldom any groundbreaking toppings for the poor old potato.

I’ve got a bit of a love affair for the potato, so am honouring it today with a new topping! Yes, there is cheese involved, but it isn’t taking centre stage today, no siree!

Baked Potato with Creamy Cheesey Brocolli

You will need:

1) 3 large potatoes (if cooking for two adults and two smalls, like me)
2) 3 tbsp sour cream.
3) A brocolli, chopped into small florets.
4) 200g cheese, grated.
5) Butter and pepper to serve.
6) Olive oil

How to make it:

1) Firstly, wash your potatoes, then, using a kitchen towel, rub the skins with the olive oil (this crispens them up a treat) Pop in an oven (220c) for around an hour to an hour and a half, depending on size, piercing with a fork beforehand!

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2) About ten minutes before the potatoes are ready, heat a saucepan of water and boil the brocolli florets for around four minutes. Drain, then mix with the cream and cheese.

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3) Take the potatoes out of the oven, cut open and add butter as desired. Then heap over the topping, season with pepper if you wish, and eat!

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Total Cost? £1.90; so just under 50p per portion.

The Verdict? Nice strong flavours of cheese and sour cream work well with the smoothness of the potato and the mellow brocolli flavour. Yum!

Cheese and Tomato Crumble

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Cheese and Tomato Crumble

You will need:

1) 500g ripe tomatoes, cherry, plum, whatever you can find!

2) 150g goats cheese.

3) 50g sunflower seeds.

4) 100g breadcrumbs.

5) 5 tbsp olive oil.

6) 40g Parmesan.

(Double these portions if cooking for four, tonight, I’m only cooking for two; well, me and two smalls!)

How to make it:

1) Preheat the oven to 200c and chop the tomatoes roughly. (leaving the cherry tomatoes whole, if using, is fine).

2) Heat 2tbsp oil in a saucepan, then add the tomatoes and cook gently for ten minutes or so. Make sure to stir regularly.

3) When they have cooked, pour half of the tomatoes into a ovenproof dish, and then layer it with half of the goats cheese, crumbled up.

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4) Heat the remainder of the oil in a frying pan, and fry the breadcrumbs and sunflower seeds. Mix them well in the pan.

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5) Pour the breadcrumb mix over the tomatoes and cheese, then top with grated Parmesan. Pop in the oven for 20 minutes or so.

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Note the Parmesan is sliced, not grated…I’ve lost the bloody grater! How can you lose a grater?!? Seriously?!

6) Remove from the oven and serve with salad or the vegetable of your choice!

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Total Cost? Roughly £3.20, so £1.07p per person.

The Verdict? Mmm…that is what I call hearty! Yum! Tart tomatoes, tangy cheese, crunchy sunflower seeds…it all works together very nicely!

Spiced Vegetable and Chickpea Couscous

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Three hours sleep last night. This does not maketh for a happy me. Poor old DB1 has come down with croup and was coughing himself silly until about 2am.

Therefore, he is at home with me (looking a bit sorry for himself) and we’re in need of some fortifying food to satisfy the (disgruntled, wheezy and tired) soul.

Spiced Vegetable and Chickpea Couscous

You will need:

1) 250g couscous (or thereabouts)

2) 1 large red onion, peeled and sliced.

3) 1 tbsp Olive oil.

4) 1 pepper, deseeded and sliced.

5) 1 courgette, sliced into long sections.

6) 2 carrots, peeled and sliced into long sections.

7) 1 tsp ground cumin

8) 1/2 tsp chilli powder, turmeric, ground ginger and cinammon.

9) About 400ml vegetable stock.

10) 1 tin of chickpeas.

11) 1 tbsp tomato purée

12) 1 tbsp butter.

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How to make it:

1)If you haven’t already, prepare your vegetables.

2) Heat the oil in a large saucepan, and start frying the onion and peppers gently, until softened.

3) Add the carrots and courgette, then the spices, and cook for a moment or two, before adding your stock.

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4) Bring to the boil, then reduce to a simmer. Add the tomato purée and stir through. Leave to cook, covered, and gently for around 30 minutes. About ten minutes before the end, add the chickpeas.

5) Meanwhile, towards the end of the cooking time of the veg, prepare your couscous. Pop the dry couscous in a bowl, and pour over enough boiling water to amply cover (around 450ml for 250g, but use common sense here, don’t flood it, or leave it too dry!)

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How much I generally add!

6) Leave the couscous for five minutes, then stir through the butter. Then drain the veg, and mix into the couscous.

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7) Serve immediately, and enjoy!

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Total Cost? Around £1.00, and there is lots left over! A very cost effective lunch!

The Verdict? Really nice, and perfect for the next day too.

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