Author Archives: thelostpenguin

About thelostpenguin

Writer. Sound Designer. Researcher. Film Maker. Photographer. Puzzling my way through my 30s and across the world in search of a way to combine my varied interests, from Astro-physics to Archeology to Animation to Architecture. A believer that ideological fundamentalism (whether political or religious) is the second biggest source of the world's problems. The first being greed. This blog serves as an online record of my writing.

Returning to an Old Friend

Many years ago, when I was first exploring the world of tea, I decided that I wanted to become the kind of person who drank green tea and set about exploring the world of green teas.

(I like to say that my twenties were all about working out who I wanted to be and figuring out how to achieve that, whereas my thirties have been about becoming and being that person.)

One of the problems of being known among your friends, relations and acquaintances as someone who likes green tea is that you get given a lot of green tea. By given a lot of green tea, I don’t mean that people see an unusual green tea somewhere and buy it for you as a present, or keep a box in their cupboard for when you visit – a few people do, in fact do this, and it’s lovely and much appreciated – but rather that you become designated drop of point for spare green tea. There was a while in the late 00s where green tea became the trendy health drink of choice. I’m not sure how or why, but lots of diets and general health improvement articles and advice seemed to involve drinking gallons of green tea. For a while it seemed as though everyone was trying to cut down on their caffeine and trading in their afternoon coffee or tea for a cup of the green stuff. I’m sure some of them found a deeply satisfying replacement or supplement to their hot beverage repertoire.

Now, for most people whose entire experience with tea drinking involves teabags of the kind purveyed by Tetley, PG Tips or Typhoo, served with milk and/or sugar, changing over to green tea requires a bit of getting used to. I would go so far as to call it an acquired taste. There are a lot of terrible green teas out there, that are, to me, the equivalent of those cheap generic tea bags that my dad calls ‘floor sweepings’ tea. Even with decent green tea, its fairly easy to make a terrible cup of tea with them, its very easy to make weak insipid tea and even easier to leave the bag in too long and end up with bitter stewed tea. Which should actually not be a surprise to the average tea drinker, as while most people who drink tea will claim a cup of tea is a cup of tea, given the option they will evince surprisingly specific requirements for their cuppa. (I’m a strong tea with lots of milk kind of person – leave the bag in if you’re not sure – or neart le torr bainne gorm at work.) Learning how other people take their tea is a gesture of friendship and affection. But rarely do people consider this when they try green tea. Therefore the fad for green tea mostly led to those people having a box of green tea lurking in their cupboard, for months, with half a dozen tea bags out of it and then gifting them to me when they discovered that I actually liked the stuff.

For years I never had to buy the stuff, just keeping on top of the forsaken boxes of tea kept me in more green tea than I could face. To the point that I was completely scunnered of the stuff. I had some beautiful Jasmine tea that I’d picked up at one of the Chinese supermarkets in Glasgow and I couldn’t face it. For years. Even when I liked green tea, it wasn’t an everyday drink. It was something I had to be in the mood for, something I drank after some excellent Asian cuisine or as an accompaniment to a good book. I’ve spent most of the last five years refusing green tea anywhere that wasn’t a Japanese restaurant – for some reason, even the complimentary cups they do at Wagamama’s are reliably great – and exploring other teas. I’ve discovered lots of teas I love along the way, but every time I came across some nice looking green tea, I’d feel wistful that I knew I wouldn’t enjoy it the way I once had and so would pass it over.

A few months ago, I was visiting my parents and discovered a small stash of Jasmine tea bags. Out of curiosity I made a cup and a beautiful aroma rose out of the cup, it was a truly gorgeous cup of tea. I gathered up the remaining bags and rationed them out over the following months. Slowly, carefully I’ve been experimenting with green teas again. Mostly Jasmine teas, but with more generic green teas, a flavoured green tea here, an iced tea there, the surprisingly pleasing matcha latte when I’m in the mood. (Why are matcha lattes so good? I’ve accidentally put milk in green tea on several occasions and its vile. It shouldn’t work – and admittedly depending where you get them, it sometimes doesn’t – but somehow, a good matcha latte is divine.) At work the other day, I unearthed a box of green tea, which a Malaysian colleague had brought back for the office from a recent holiday to Korea. It is one of the mildest, loveliest green teas I’ve ever drunk. The box is massive and now lives on my desk, because I’m the only one who drinks it. It’s amazing. I’ve rediscovered my love of green tea.

But I’ll be keeping that to myself most places, in fact lets just keep it between ourselves, because we’re about due for another cycle of ‘green tea is good for you’ and if people find out I’ll start to receive boxes of unloved green tea once more. And I’d really like, to just keep on, enjoying my green tea.

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Cooking the Book – June Edition

I thought I might have trouble meeting my targets for this month as I was away from home for a substantial chunk of the month. However, it turned out that the spells away from home would end up acting as motivators, as I ended up cooking both my target items out of the need to use up food I had in the house before I went away for a week.

First up I made what turned out to be a massive pot of veggie chilli. The recipe in question was actually Baked Sweet Potatoes with veggie chilli, which was utterly delicious, but I did end up making a variety of other dishes with the leftover chilli. (Or to give the dish its full name – Baked sweet potatoes stuffed with a hot bean and lentil chilli with red peppers and port. Except it was cheap red wine rather than port.) I think I’ve almost mastered the art of successfully spicing my chilli without the aid of one of those packet spice mixes. I’ve been a bit disappointed in some of Lorraine’s other takes on ‘chilli’ but this one is pretty good, though I heartily recommend adding a few large mushrooms and draining your chopped tomatoes before adding to the chilli wouldn’t go amiss. Also the recipe suggests fresh parsley if you don’t have any coriander – or like me, you’re one of those people for which it tastes like soap – and having a glut of the same in my herb garden I was delighted to find that works extremely well.
Baked Sweet Potatoes with Chilli
June’s monthly bake was once again brownies. This time they were pear and dark chocolate. It was an adaption of a raspberry and chocolate brownie recipe. Last month I bought some small pears and though they took a couple of weeks to ripen, once they did they were delicious and I absolutely didn’t mind heating two a day for a week when they all ripened at once. So I bought another bag of the exact same pears and, naturally, after 3 weeks – including one with a bunch of bananas sitting on top of them – they remained brick hard. Unfortunately a lot of recipes that involve pears state silly things like ‘use two perfectly ripe pears’ as though everyone I know who cooks pears is only cooking them because they won’t ripen! So I gave up and poached them (Japanese-style in mirin with star anise) and stuck the poached pears into the brownie mix. I like this brownie recipe better than the one for the beetroot brownies, because you melt everything in a pot rather than trying to blend the room temperature ingredients in a blender – eminently more sensible in my opinion. Though if I make them again I think I’ll add cinnamon – I’d normally use cinnamon sticks when poaching the pears but I couldn’t find any until I turned up a box hiding behind the brown sugar and by then it was too late.
Pear and Dark Chocolate Brownies

They are particularly nice warm with a generous spoonful of leftover crème freche…

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Cooking the Book – May Edition

I hoped, that last month’s post would knock something free in my brain and I would be able to get back to cooking adventurously and writing about it. It did actually knock something loose, because I managed to hit both my targets for the month within a week of writing the post. Hooray!

I manage to combine both my challenges in one during May by baking something from my new cookbook. Technically this is a more substantial variation on a theme from a previous cookbook of hers. I’ve previously made pesto pastry puffs (and for that matter nutella puffs too) from instructions that were a side-not on another recipe – a way of using up left over pastry. This time they’re the main feature and you’re supposed to fill them with chorizo and lemongrass. I chose to make a vegetarian version picking and mixing from the alternate filling option that the recipe offered to some up with smoked cheese and sundried tomato paste puffs.
Constructing the Puffs
With the chunkier filling these are somewhat more substantial than the previous versions I’ve made, but that’s no bad thing, turning them from canapés to a light lunch. They are absolutely amazing hot, but are a bit claggy cold and don’t re-heat well so I’d recommend only making them when you’ve a few people round for nibbles to help you eat them up while they’re still warm. Either that or just make a smaller batch, or maybe a half batch each of the savoury and the sweet?
Smoked Cheese and Sundried Tomato Puffs

The second one is a bit of a cheat. I wasn’t originally going to count it, but its fun so I’m going to mention it anyway. The recipe book that I’m working through at the moment is front heavy on canapés and cocktails and the like. One of those funny little things, was making fruity icecubes for cocktails and summer drinks. As the weather was rather nice for a sizeable chunk of May – it seems a very long time ago, looking out at the June rain – I decided to try my own version with blueberries. Blueberry icecubes, I’m delighted to report, are rather tasty, though I think if I make them again, I might add a teeny amount of blue food colouring to the water to really make them pop visually. The downside of blueberry icecubes, is that if the blueberry is too close to the top of the cube and end up poking out of the water as they freeze, they sort of pop, and look like they’ve frozen mid explosion. Which is kinda comical looking, but not very appetizing if you’re serving them to someone else. There’s probably a reason the recipe suggested raspberries or strawberries.

Blueberry icecubes

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Can’t Cook, Election Will Eat Me

It’s been that sort of few weeks. You know its bad when your go to de-stress activity is too stressful to contemplate. (Also my laptop broke down and was out of commission for about three weeks, adding a whole extra level of unnecessary stress.) However, I have almost been keeping up with my cooking challenges

In February I hit both my targets, making something from my new cookbook and baking something. On the baking front I made a pie, before there are few things more comforting on cold winter nights than a pie. This was a mushroom and chestnut pie, for which I finally got round to buying an actual pie tin, so I managed to actually get the pastry ratio right to give it a full lid! Though I did end up making too much filling for the pie due to it not being my usual ‘deep-dish’ pie, and I found the filling to be a little dry – I think it would have benefited from a bit of spinach of to keep it moist, or made just a more runny sauce. I have the fear of ending up with a ‘soggy bottom’ but I think my insistence on blind baking my pie before-hand probably means I’m safe on that front.

Mushroom & Chestnut Pie

From my new cookbook I made a variation of the ‘Carribean cups’. One of the alternate versions Lorraine suggests is to fill the cups with chilli con carne and I happened to have some leftover veggie chilli in the fridge needing used up. These are a slightly fiddly but delightful little dish. They make a fun lunch, the kind of thing that with a bit of practice would make a good way to turn leftovers into something a bit different when you unexpectedly have guests for lunch. Though probably only the kind of guests that don’t mind getting a little messy.

Carribean Cups

I was somewhat less successful in March, but nonetheless I managed some other successes. I discovered I had a bag of pearl barley in the cupboard, that had clearly been bought for a particular recipe many moons before and then forgotten about, as it needed used up that month. So I did a bulk cook of the pearl barley and attempted to fork my way through one of the Guardian’s four ways with a bag of what have you articles. In the end I only made two of the recipes but I made the sausage casserole several times and it’s a thing of gloriousness. Finally I’ve found an effective and tasty way to cook quorn sausages so that they a) taste nice and b) actually successfully quash my occasional bouts of sausage cravings. It’s a really satisfying and filling comfort food this dish and I recommend adding a couple of sticks of celery to it if you have them. Add them just before the spinach, so they get nice and tender but still retain a bit of bite to give the casserole more texture. I only used them because I found some lurking under the spinach in the salad box but I now can’t imagine the dish without it.

Sausage Casserole

In April, despite best intentions involving muffins, no baking actually happened. However, I did actually cook something from my cookbook adapting a chilli con carne recipe for quorn mince. Which was, fine. Over the years I’ve evolved my own veggie chilli recipe that I make a few variations on, depending on what I have in the fridge and this recipe couldn’t hold a candle to it. I mean, how much can you truly believe in a chilli con carne recipe that doesn’t involve kidney beans anyway? Perfectly edible, just a bit disappointing.

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Ten for Ten

So, the news has broken, that ideally we should be trying to have ten portions of fruit and vegetables each day instead of the previously recommended five. Now, even as a vegetarian who comfortably gets their five a day most days, I thought, that’s a bit steep. Yet I remember as a kid, discussing with my mum the whole 5 a day thing and her telling me that actually it was meant to be much higher – 7 or 8 portions – than that but they picked five because they thought that was a reasonable amount that wouldn’t cause people to revolt. And really, at 80g a ‘portion’ that’s not all that much once you’ve weighed some actual fruit.

So I decided to do a fun project over the first ten days of this month to see how easy it was/how much I needed to change my diet in order to get my 10 portions a day. I should add, that I made this decision at about six this evening, while waiting for the oven to heat up and contemplating how much baby sweet corn I would need to have with my dinner to count as a portion, so I’m starting from a reasonably neutral position of a normal workday. Also that I didn’t weigh my portions until dinner so I’m making rough guesses on those.

I was actually surprised by how few portions I ate today. In the process of researching how much an official portion is I made some frustrating discoveries. The guidelines encourage diversity in your fruit/veg consumption, so multiple portions of the same thing don’t count. Potatoes aren’t a vegetable! (Though sweet potatoes are…) Kiwi fruit are only half a portion each – I don’t think I’ve ever eaten more than one kiwi in a sitting; one is the perfect size to tuck in your lunchbox or to chop on your cereal. Which all meant that the big bottle of homemade smoothie I took to work with me today – I’m recovering from the cold so I’ve been making a lot of smoothies lately – with its two kiwi fruit and three pears – only counts as two portions. Thank goodness for my kale and blue cheese soup at lunch, I’ve no idea how to count a liquid but I reckon between the giant leek, three sticks of celery and half a bag of kale, there has to be at least 2 portions per serving.

I was also surprised how much baby sweet corn I did need to make up the portion. I’d picked up a packet of reduced baby sweet corn and mange tout on my way home and ended up using half of each to make up my 80g portion. (Apparently what those packets contain is essentially a portion of each veg.) However, when I actually came to eat my veggies, there did seem to be an excess of them, so clearly I’ve just been skimping on them in the past!

All in all though, today’s eating was pretty average and I still managed seven portions of fruit and veg over the course of the day. It’ll be interesting to see how much better or worse I do once I start thinking about them properly.

Dinner - ten for ten challenge

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Seasonal Eatings

There’s a little bit of a vegetable crisis in the UK at the moment. While the weather here has been suspiciously mild, Spain – where something like 80% of Europe’s salad vegetables are grown – and Italy have been experiencing flooding and snow. Hence, the noticeable lacks of things like lettuce, spinach, courgette, aubergine and broccoli.

My main question is, who’s eating all that salad at this time of year? It’s cold here, what are they playing at? On the other hand, not being a fan of either aubergine or courgette, the news of a shortage gives me a surge of relief, perhaps I’ll see more ‘vegetarian options’ on the menu that aren’t centred on either vegetable!

This winter appears to be one that is determined to make me think more actively about seasonal vegetables and seasonal eating more generally. I suspect there must either have been a bit of a cauliflower shortage earlier this year, either that or there’s been a glut of the stuff the last few winters. Since becoming a vegetarian, I’ve grown used to buying a big cauliflower cheaply to bulk out winter curries and soups. At the start of the season there appeared to be very few of them around and once they did appear they were twice the price they’d been the year before. Handily beetroot was plentiful and reasonably priced so I’ve been continuing my experiments in rehabilitating it into my diet with some enthusiasm.

It wasn’t until spinach disappeared from the shelves that I realised quite how dependent I’d become on it as a source iron and general colour in meals. I also hadn’t noticed, quite how often kale could be found on special offer, or just reduced at the end of the day. I still need to pump up my iron levels, so I’ve been experimenting with substituting kale for spinach. Now that I’ve learned the trick to quickly and effectively steam cook my kale it’s proving surprisingly versatile. I’m still a bit dubious about trying it in muffins or on pizza, but so far it’s been delicious in dal and a perfect substitute for broccoli in many a meal. Weirdly, on the broccoli front, while there’s been an utter dearth of those familiar little trees around the place, I’ve been able to pick up packets of broccoli florets (or mixed broccoli and cauliflower florets) in the reduced section on a regular basis. So broccoli and cauliflower cheese has become a regular treat for me (I made it a few weeks back with leftover Xmas cheese, brie makes a really very decadent sauce) and sweet potato and kale bubble and squeak is an unexpected delight.

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January Friends

January ended up being more adventurous than expected in some ways and less in others.

First up, I cooked something from my new recipe book. A lot of the recipes are actually designed for things like dinner parties so aren’t actually that practical for cooking for one, so that was a little bit of a set back. As was the realisation that a lot of the recipes I actually fancy making, are very much summer-time recipes. Hopefully, at some point during the summer, I’m going to have friends round for dinner and knock four things off this list at once in the process.

Anyway, I ended up picking Peanut Soup to make, as soup is pretty much a sure fire win with me. It’s a fairly unusual soup actually, there’s not a lot to it and I found that rather disappointing. It’s designed to be used as a starter and served in shot glasses, so perhaps it needs to be as light-weight as it is for that purpose, but frankly I could have done with some lentils, maybe some celery, to give it a bit more body and texture. The recipe suggests that you can blend it but I found that there wasn’t enough in the soup to actually blend rather than spin round at great speed. All it seemed to do was lose any thickness the peanut butter had given it. It tastes nice enough but I found it too thin for my taste.

On the other hand, my first attempt at baking this year was a resounding success. I made Beetroot brownies from a recipe a friend recommended from the BBC Good Food website. I’ve had Beetroot and Dark Chocolate cake before so I knew the flavour would work for me. They’re actually quite straightforward to make, with relatively few ingredients and they taste amazing. Unexpectedly moist brownies, but that’s no bad thing. The recipe makes loads, even with taking some of them to work with me, I’ve only just finished them a week and a bit later. Also, on a learning experience front, I discovered that my kitchen in January is too cold to bring butter and chocolate to ‘room-temperature’ so that it will melt nicely when blended with the cooked beetroot. I had to make judicious use of the microwave once I realised what was wrong. You’d think I’d have learned that from last spring’s 36 hours to defrost some puff pastry shenanigans but apparently I needed the reminder.

Chocolate & Beetroot Brownies

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New Year, New Challenges

So I think we can call last year on the blog a reasonable success. I wanted to blog twice a month, I wanted to cook 2 things a month from my new recipe book and most of all I wanted to stop myself from being all feast and famine in writing terms. I didn’t entirely succeed, I only made 20 posts last year, but that was an improvement on the previous year’s 15 and while I didn’t cook two things from the cookbook every month, I did cook something from the book almost every month. And most importantly, for the first year ever, I managed to write at least one thing each month! Hopefully I can keep that up, along with writing – and much, much more importantly cooking – more.

This year, I have decided on two separate challenges to keep me writing (and cooking for that matter) on a regular basis. First up, I want to bake something new each month this year, sweet or savoury, it doesn’t matter. Despite us now having a better oven, I’ve barely baked in it. I want to master baking in this oven. I miss it and its an important part of how I relate to my colleagues – I like being the kind of workmate that appears sporadically with home-baking. Secondly, I plan to work my way through the other recipe book I got last festive season – How to be a Better Cook by Lorraine Pascale. As I’m going to be doing two different challenges, I’m only going to try and cook one recipe a month from the book – unless the thing I’m baking that month is also from that book!

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Cooking the Book – November Edition

I had all sorts of plans to cook all sorts of exciting this last month. I had a week’s holiday and everything so I thought I might actually get lots made that week – maybe even do some baking!

The month started well, with some Sweet and Sour Chicken (Quorn again, I did intend to make it with tofu, but there was all this quorn in the freezer needing used up), which, despite a minor disaster, was pretty good. The minor disaster was that it suggested using dried chilli flakes. I normally measure them out before adding them to anything – my tongue is notoriously timid with chilli – but I always end up putting too little in whatever I’m cooking. (I’m better at judging chilli powder, but chilli flakes are what I have in the cupboard.) So, in my wisdom, I decided to shake some into the pan, and you can guess what happened next can’t you? I didn’t quite end up with half a jar in the pan, but there were decidedly more than were necessary to the recipe. It could all have been much worse but that was definitely the spiciest sweet and sour chicken I’ve ever eaten.

Sweet and Sour!

I had two other recipes picked out to make this month, good, solid, winter warmers. Perfect bulk cooks to nourish me through the long winter nights. I even bought vegetables for them. Did I make them? No. I did in fact get to the very last day of November without having cooked anything else from the book. I was really starting to think I was going to fail out for this month.

Handily though, I remembered that there was a recipe for a Porcini, shitake and Oyster Mushroom Pasta in the book and that I had loads of mushrooms that I’d bought for one of the recipes I hadn’t made. (As the recipe name suggests, it requires several kinds of mushrooms, handily I had some more unusual mushrooms in dried form in the cupboard to balance out the masses of Chestnut mushrooms.) I cut down the recipe from its original version, as I always end up with far too much food. There was still a slight excess of mushrooms, but only really enough that I ended up with a small side of mushrooms for another recipe later in the week, rather than an excess of them. An odd side effect of cutting down the recipe was that I ended up with lots of excess vegetable stock – its really awkward to make a small amount of stock out of stock cubes – so I cooked my spaghetti in the leftover stock and it was incredibly tasty. I could have eaten the spaghetti plain, maybe with a little parmesan but perfect just as it was. I’m not sure if it was the intention of the recipe or a product of cutting it down, but the mushroom liquor didn’t cook down as much as I expected – I think if I make it again, I would add some corn flour to thicken up the sauce, I do prefer a bit of body to my sauce.

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Comfort Food

For a variety of reasons, I haven’t been writing as much as I’d been expecting to this last few weeks. I never quite got round to mentioning here that I’ve been doing nablopomo again this year, not that you’d notice if you only you only read this blog. (Due largely to the fact that I’ve actually been blogging regularly here this year, so I didn’t actually have a backlog of posts I’d been meaning to make to catch up with.)

What I have been thinking about a lot lately is comfort food. What constitutes it and why does it hold such an appeal for us. I spent the early part of this week fighting off a head cold and frankly all I wanted to eat was comfort food, preferably comfort food of my childhood. Food and health, or rather food and self-care have a rather straightforward relationship for me. I learned to cook – beyond the basics – when I was living in Bournemouth and doing my Masters, as an act purely and simply of self-care. I was constantly getting throat infections and generally showing the signs of student life having worn down my body. Taking the time to learn to cook well and to feed myself properly was a radical act of self-care for me; that was physically and psychologically healing. Good food became both the fuel for and the reward for hard work. Over the years, I have taught myself that whenever I feel a cold coming on, the most important act of defence is to make a big pot of soup, packed with as many vegetables and pulses as I can get into it. Because if I fend it off I’ll have tasty soup to help me fight it and if I end up coming down with the cold, it’s entirely possible to live off the soup while I’ve no energy to cook anything else.

One of the less fun aspects of being a vegetarian is that much of the comfort food of my childhood that I crave when I’m sickly is no longer available to me as it contains meat. Often now, when I find myself craving childhood comfort I end up just making mashed potatoes or a big jug of custard. However, on Monday night I found myself longing for potato and leek pie, and decided to make my own take on it. I could, theoretically have made it with quorn sausages to make closer to the original, but I knew I had both potatoes and leeks in the house and grabbing a wee pack of puff pastry from the chiller cabinet was about all the complexity I could cope with. I stuck the potatoes on to boil and gently cooked the leek in some butter while the oven heated. While my white sauce will never be a patch on my mum’s, I do make a decent mushroom sauce, and apparently this carries over to leeks too. By the time I had a good consistency of sauce the pastry was in the oven and I was able to mash the potatoes, combining sauce and mash into a soft but firm pie filling of pure comfort. Served with little wodges of puff pastry it both looked and tasted like comfort food straight out of my childhood.

2016-11-27_07-08-17

I ended up with loads of filling so I kept the leftovers to use up with the remaining pastry on Wednesday night ahead of a long train journey. On that occasion I decided to attack my pastry with some little crimped circular pastry cutters I have and that added to the delightfully childish nature of the meal. My mum assures me that I’ve actually amalgamated two separate childhood meals into one here, but I agree with her that it hardly matters if I find it comforting.

Speaking of my mum and comfort food, we were both feeling the need for comfort food when I saw her the other day, so I gave her the excuse to have soup and pudding and call it a meal. (No matter how good I get at making soup, how happy I am with the soups that I make, no other soup, than my mum’s vegetable broth will ever taste as good when I’m sick.) Particularly I gave her an excuse to make semolina with tinned fruit, and I can think of no pudding more stick to the ribs filling and comforting, the true definition of a pudding that gives you a hug!

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