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Friday, 29 May 2015

30 Days Wild

   Throughout the month of June, I'm going to be participating in 30 Days Wild, an event set up by The Wildlife Trusts. The idea is that you make an effort to do something to interact with nature every day, even if it's as simple as listening to a bird song. I quite liked the idea and have already come up with a few things to do, and I'm quite excited about it! I rather like monthly 'challenges' like these because they're quite vague and versatile, so it gets my imagination moving.
   The Wildlife Trusts does offer a few suggestions for people who are stuck for ideas, such as go for a walk, hunt for bugs, count the different bird species in your garden and so on, but I was a little disappointed that so many of the suggestions were so simple, but it does mean that their many ideas aren't out of anyone's reach and I'm pretty sure that was the point. If you want to do something a little more extreme you can, or you can use the event as an excuse to go for a picnic in one of the Trusts' nature reserves.
   This event isn't a sponsored event and it doesn't gather anything but awareness of the preservation of nature around us. It's free to participate, of course, and there's a month-view wall chart and booklet you can download for free about the event if you'd like to participate last-minute.
   This event is also not limited to the UK - yes, sign-up and the like is limited as it is a UK charity, but nature exists in other countries too, so as long as you take a little bit of time every day to interact with nature, you're in!



Download the wall chart & booklet
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Thursday, 28 May 2015

Chicken Vents

   I usually have meal replacement shakes for lunch - I've found a couple of brands that actually make delicious shakes rather than weak and foul ones (Real Nutrition Co and PHD Woman) - because they're just 200 calories, they're loaded with protein which keeps you full and filled with lots of vitamins and minerals, usually about 30% of your RDA of each per serving, at least, which you wouldn't get from any conventional lunch.
   But while I was doing my Spring Cleaning the other week, I opted for sandwiches and 'real' food instead. And while my salmon and chicken sandwiches were delicious, I did want to try something a little different.
   I only made two apple rose tarts when I made my puff pastry, so I had a fairly large amount left over in the freezer. It was made from just white whole meal flour, water and coconut oil, so it was far from an unhealthy pastry, as pastries go, so I figured it was pretty clean. So I decided I'd do something with it.
   And I made chicken vents. They're little chicken and vegetable pies, but they have no lids, the pastry is light, and they're really easy to make in small batches.


Ingredients:
Puff Pastry:
250g white whole meal flour
pinch of salt
250g coconut oil
150ml water

4 Vents:
100g chicken breast
1/4 cup peas
1/4 cup diced carrot
1/4 cup grated cheese
1/4 cup gravy
or your chosen fillings.


Method:
1. First of all, make your pastry. Combine the salt and flour in a mixing bowl, then rub in the coconut oil. Don't over-combine, stop when the coconut oil is still roughly the size of peas.
2. Make a well in the centre and pour in the water, then mix it with your hands to create a dough.
3. Cover the bowl and leave it in the fridge for half an hour.
4. Turn it out onto a powdered surface and roll it out in one direction so it's about 3 times as long as it is wide. Fold the top third down over the middle, then fold the bottom third over, turn it 90 degrees and roll it out in one direction again so that it's 3 times as long as it is wide once again.
5. Cover once again and set back in the fridge for half an hour. This pastry can be frozen and kept for about 6 months, so if you make too much for the vents the rest can easily be put away for the next time you need puff pastry.


6. Pre-heat oven to gas mark 5/190 C/375 F.
7. When the pastry is ready, take a circle cookie cutter and cut three circles for each pie. Set one of each three circles aside for the base. Cut a smaller circle out of the middle of the remaining two circles, brush the base circle with water or milk and stack the two rings on top.
8. Flour a baking tray and set the pastries on it. Put them in the oven for 30 minutes.
Optional: if you're adding cheese, pull the pastries out after 15 minutes, add the cheese to the bottom and put back in for the remaining 15 minutes to melt it.
9. Next comes preparing your filling. Cook your chosen meat in the desired manner, such as frying the chicken in garlic and coconut oil, and using any herbs and spices you'd like. I used frozen veg and cooked a pitifully small amount but it proved to be more than enough. I also cheated and used some gravy granules and made about 1/4 cup of gravy to divide amongst them rather than making any from scratch - it's too much hassle to make gravy from scratch when it's just to make 4 small pies.
10. When the pastry comes out of the oven, divide the pieces of chicken amongst the pastry vents, then the veg, then drizzle the gravy - or whatever filling you've chosen - and serve them immediately. If you'd like them hotter you can pop them back in the oven for 10 minutes, but they were more than adequate as they were.


   They don't look like much, these tiny pies, but one was surprisingly filling! I actually didn't feel hungry again for 2 hours, and that helped keep me from snacking on bad things which was important in my spring cleaning. I have another idea for these that I intend to try soon!



Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Apple Rose Tarts

   Sweet little rose-shaped apple tarts. That's what I made. I can't believe how well they came out, and even more so how easy they were! Seriously! Anyone can do them, and they're perfect for a spring picnic or tea party!
   You literally just need some apples, lemon juice, puff pastry and apricot jam. You can use frozen puff pastry, or you can make it yourself like I did, and by making it yourself you can make them a little healthier by replacing the butter with coconut oil, and all-purpose flour with white whole meal flour. It won't cut the calories, but 'healthy' doesn't mean 'low calorie', it means 'nutritional'. The coconut oil adds many more nutritional benefits than any other fat does without compromising at all on taste or texture (you can't taste the coconut at all), and so does the whole meal flour when compared to plain flour, including fibre.



Ingredients:
Puff Pastry:
250g white whole meal flour (or all-purpose)
250g coconut oil (or butter) room temperature
pinch of salt
150ml water

Roses:
1 small apple per tart
3 teaspoons of apricot jam or preserve
2 teaspoons of water
juice of one lemon

Method:
1. For the pastry: combine salt and flour in a bowl and rub in the coconut oil. Don't over-mix, you want the coconut oil to remain about the size of peas.
2. Make a little well in the centre of the mixture and pour in the water. Mix it with your hands to create your dough.
3. Cover the bowl with clingfilm and leave it in the fridge for 30 minutes.
4. Turn the cooled dough out onto a powdered surface and roll it out in one direction so it's about 3 times as long as it is wide. Fold the top third down over the middle then the bottom third up and over again, turn it 90 degrees and roll it out in one direction again so that it's 3 times as long as it is wide.
5. Fold the dough again then set back in the bowl, cover and put back in the fridge for another 30 minutes. The uncooked puff pastry dough can be frozen and kept for 6 months.

6. Once the pastry is done, get a cupcake pan out and have it on hand. Flour the pan's cavities and pre-heat the oven to gas mark 5/190 C/375 F.
7. Cut your apples in half and core them, then slice them finely.
8. In a heat-proof bowl half-filled with water, squeeze in the lemon juice, then add the apple pieces and microwave for 3 minutes. This will soften and preserve the apple pieces against the heat, making them flexible.
9. In another heat-proof bowl or jug, add the three tea spoons of apricot jam/preserve and the two teaspoons of water and heat in the microwave for 1 minute.
10. Take your pastry and roll it out to about 3-5mm thick. Cut strips about 25cm long by 6cm wide. Each strip will make one tart.


11. Now you'll need to work fast. I found this out the hard way. Spread a little bit of the apricot preserve over one strip, then place the apple slices along the top, overlapping them.
12. Fold the pastry length-ways so that the apple pieces are tucked in.
13. Begin rolling it up from one end to the other and then put it in one of the cupcake pan's cavities. If you're concerned that it will unroll, make sure the part of the pastry touching the edge of the cavity is the end. They might seem small but the pastry will - you guessed it - puff out and fill the cavity once it's cooked.


14. Make the next tart as quickly as you can and set in the next cavity and so on until you have the number you need.
   The reason you have to move quickly and make one tart at a time is that the apricot mixture will soak into the pastry and it will fall apart. You won't be able to get it off of the work surface. It's awful. So while my image shows two pastry strips with apricot preserve...well, they didn't work. I made them quickly and one at a time after that and avoided the problem entirely.
15. Put the pan in the oven and cook for about 30 minutes, then set them aside so that they fully cool. Don't try to remove them before them or they will break. I'm very impatient but I've learned my lesson in the past about removing cakes and pastries too soon. You can always heat them back up if you'd like them warm.

   The apple skin will probably burn a little but none of it will taste it. The lemon juice and water you soaked the apple in preserves the taste and keeps it from burning, and the apricot preserve acts as a glue as well as a little more sweetness.



Monday, 25 May 2015

Characters

   There's a few funny things about writing. You build a character's history, their motives, their decisions, and you get to know their minds. You have to, because, to write a believable character, they're each going to have their own quirks and qualms that are going to affect their decision-making process. Religion, past experiences, culture and so on. And you get to know them, you care - they don't exist, of course, but you've created these people and you know them better than you know a lot of people. I know them better than I know my sister - admittedly we don't have a close relationship, but I can't predict how she'd react to things. But of course I know how my characters would.
   And I'm not just talking about protagonists, I'm talking about every single character, the good guys and the bad guys. You have to know how all of them work, and you get attached. I don't necessarily believe I'd get on well with these people if they did exist, but I wouldn't know how their minds worked. Knowing what I do about these imaginary people changes things. I can pity and sympathise with characters who are my polar opposite because I understand how they feel and, more importantly, why. Even if they're villains.
   And when they die...yes I've cried when killing characters in the past, but whether I cry or not, I get this strangely hollow feeling for a while. I'm knocked out of my rhythm for a few days. As dramatic as it sounds, it's a bit haunting. They never existed, but I knew them so well, and now they're gone.
   I'm sure a number of you are reading this thinking I'm mad and I need to get out more, but it's the same as having a vivid dream, one where things go amazingly well for you - achieve your dreams, fall in love, make friends with someone who truly understands you - and then you wake up and it's all taken away from you and then you're out of whack for a while. It's kind of like that.

   And I love it.



Ripped In 30: 2 Weeks Later

   In the past two weeks I've spent doing Ripped in 30 (barring, of course, my week of spring cleaning) I've cleared Week 1 and Week 2. Obviously.
   As you all must have noticed by now, I'm quite accustomed to changing my workout every month. A lot of the DVDs I use have multiple workouts on them, usually 2-3, consisting of several circuits, so you're not generally using the same routine for a month straight, but each routine on a DVD is usually mostly the same, just different intensities. The beauty of the kind of mixed circuit workouts on Jillian's DVDs means that each workout is varied, and you rarely repeat moves in each different section.
   But moving on to a new routine after just 6 days of use feels very strange, and yet fulfilling. I like using a routine for 2 weeks before moving on to the next, it gives me a good chance to get accustomed to it but nowhere near enough for it to stop being effective. But moving on to a new routine after just one week kind of sends my mind into a spin. When I finished Week 1 I didn't feel at all ready for Week 2, regardless of my week off in between, and when I got around to beginning Week 2, I wanted to try Week 1 just once more, just one more day. I didn't, I jumped right in, and while the intensity had increased, I was able to do it. It hadn't jumped that far.
   I wouldn't say (so far, at least) that this workout is for advanced people like her Hard Body DVD is. Perhaps intermediate, but, to be honest, if you've completed the 30 Day Shred and are looking for the next level, this is it. That's not to say that I find it ineffective, because the fact is that there are so many different moves and by increasing the weights and keeping up with them, resting only at the end, it stays intense and effective.



   Having said that, Jillian did state that the first two weeks would focus on form, so I'm a little dubious about starting Week 3 today. But I can do it. I've realised recently that I've gotten too comfortable with the weights I've been using, so I've been upping them where I can. Unfortunately the highest weight dumbbell I have is just 2.5kg, so I've been holding onto my 1.5kg (3lb) and 2.5kg (5lb) at once, and the weight is a challenge again. I'm going to have to buy some more, of course, but they get suddenly expensive when you start buying them individually, and just one pair of 4kg dumbbells costs about as much as a beginner's set of four, which is a little off-putting. But it's a necessity. If your weights are too light you don't get as much out of it, and it's not big weights that create bulk, but lots of reps. Ideally, for maximum burn, you want a weight you can control initially but is so heavy that you can't keep perfect form on the final 2 reps of a set (a maximum, usually, of about 12 reps per set for advanced, 8 for beginners).

   Still, I'll begin Week 3 in about an hour and update again at the end of the month! Wish me luck!



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