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2 March 2015

The button box

It's a very busy time here so I'm going to republish a couple of older posts over the next few days. It will give you something to read from my archives and it will give me extra time to do what I have to do.  This post is from October 2007.

= = = ♥︎ = = =

Tricia's husband died suddenly a few years ago and she's spent the past couple of years deciding whether she would sell the family home and move to a smaller place. She now lives in a beautiful six bedroom mansion house on the outskirts of Sydney. There is a library, chandeliers, four hectares of bushland and a heated pool set in a beautiful secluded garden with fountains. This last couple of months she's started packing up, decluttering and selling or giving away a lot of her unwanted possessions.

She drove up from Sydney in a car packed to the roof with things she wanted to give to me or to the people at our Neighbourhood Centre. The first day she was here, we took a lot of those things with us and gave them away to people whose needs include the blankets, pillows, coats etc she gave.

She also brought some things she thought I would like. One of those things was mum's button box.

We were both born in the 1940s and grew up as part of Sydney's working class in the 1950s. I guess we both did well for ourselves and although I became middle class, I have always thought of myself as working class. I feel comfortable with those values and the collective flaws and strengths that helped shape us.

Our parents left little in the way of material possessions when they died but what I have of my mother's I really cherish. She gave me the amethyst ring and pendant she was given for her 21st birthday, I have a small fruit knife that was her mother's - it has a bone handle with the name 'jean cullen' carved in it, a little green glass that she liked and some very fine Orrefors glasses that I drink from when I'm sick. I also still have a stainless steel wok she gave me in the 1960s - it must be one of the first non-Asian woks in Australia as no one (except me) used them then.

And now, the buttons.
I went through them yesterday and tried to remember where they were from. I wanted to see, with my mind's eye, the dresses and coats they would have been on. I didn't get far with that because going through the buttons brought back different memories to me. I remembered how mum, and every other woman we knew, saved buttons, string, ribbons, old zippers and fabrics 'just in case' they were needed. And that frugal philosophy was why I had that box of old buttons in front of me.

The buttons were packed in the small, brown, plastic containers that pills used to be dispensed in before the days of pre-packaged bubble packs and child-safe bottles; there were also two little glass vegemite jars. All these were held in a 1970s 'Fresh Pak' plastic box. It must have been one of the first plastic containers sold then. It is brown, with an opaque lid with the words 'Fresh Pak' on it.

I spilled each container out so I could have a good look and along with all the buttons came a flood of childhood memories. It really was a different world then. Now that I look back on it, we, and almost everyone we knew, were what we would now think of as 'poor'. But we didn't feel like that. We had everything we needed, we never went hungry, we took our place within a strong and happy community and we knew everyone, not just in our street, but also in the streets surrounding us.

I was too young and silly to know what people really focused on in their lives then but in our home we rarely talked about money or possessions. My mother taught me valuable things like caring for others, self respect and respectfulness, she told me it was good to be kind, brave and thoughtful, she demonstrated every day the value of hard work and she showed me, by example, the importance of positive role models. So although there may not have been much in the way of physical possessions given from her hand to mine, she left me with the soul of a frugal, hard-working woman and for that I will be eternally grateful.


These are the buttons I will keep. The rest of them will go back to Sydney with Tricia and probably spend the rest of their days, not as they were intended - as a functional part of clothing or furnishings - but as a silent reminder of the days when thrift was a part of almost every life and we all saved things 'just in case'.

27 February 2015

Weekend reading


Thank you all for the good wishes and love sent during the week when I announced I'm writing another book. It's a wonderful opportunity at any age to write but to do it when I'm nearing 70 is a beautiful gift. The process of writing enables me to think about what we value and how we live those values, and in the end, I feel regenerated and that every morning is a brand new beginning. What a life! I'm delighted to write about it and so thankful to live it as we do away from the mainstream.

I hope you have a lovely weekend watching the seasons start to change. Stay safe, I'll see you again next week.

Eggs Are Back: The Elegant Simplicity of the New Diet Guidelines
We'll all die one day. Isn't it time we got used to the idea?
Cheesy cauliflower breadsticks
Avian flue in backyard chickens - specially for north America but a lesson for everyone who keeps chickens
A family affair
Spurtopia workshops in Brisbane Spurtopia homestead is closing in April. If you want to see what they've set up there, you'll have to move fast.
Gluten-free: health fad or life-saving diet?

25 February 2015

Overnight bread

Last week I wrote about soaking your rolled oats before you eat them and the benefits that  come from that. Today I thought I'd continue on and talk about soaking other rye and wheat grains before they're eaten; today's post is about bread. The reasoning behind all this is that grains soaked before cooking are easier to digest than those that aren't, and if they're soaked in an acidic liquid such as whey, buttermilk, yoghurt, or water with lemon juice, the grain will release most of its goodness instead of a small portion of it. It's all got to do with humans having only one stomach so unsoaked grains pass through too fast to be broken down. That causes digestive problems for some people and the grains don't have enough time to release all their goodness, which affects all of us.  Other grain-eating mammals such as cows, goats etc. have more than one stomach, or several compartments in their stomach, that allow them to process their food a lot longer than we do.

This bread is good on the first day and lasts to a second day but the crust and the bread itself aren't like a soft sandwich loaf. It's drier and the crust is crunchy.
 It makes delicious toast and that's how we have it on the second day.
If you don't like that texture, try the rye mixed loaf below which is more like the texture of a sandwich loaf.  Both are excellent as toast.
This is the half white-half rye loaf. It's the one I like the most because I think it has a better texture than the white loaf. 

If you read about how to make bread in Nourishing Traditions it's a long process that I don't have the time nor the inclination for. I'm sure it produces very good bread but I'm a regular bread maker and need my bread to fit in with everything else I do in a day. I'm happy with the so called five minute bread, that I make up and allow to sit in the fridge for a few days.  It's well and truly soaked by the time I bake my bread.

I found very similar recipe in my Maura Laverty classic Irish cook book, Full and Plenty, that I'm going to try this week. Her recipe for "yeast bread (overnight method)" was published in 1960. I'll share that recipe with you next week when I post about the bread I make.

The way I do the five minute bread is to make up the recipe in Artisan bread in five minutes a day, but with a tweak. You'll need a storage container capable of holding the mixture that will sit in the fridge for at least overnight, and for a few days after that. That takes care of the soaking. You can double the recipe quite easily if you have the room to store the dough and then you'll only make up one batch of dough for several loaves of bread.

The book says it makes four one pound loaves (that's just under two kilos).
  • 3 cups warm water
  • 1½ tablespoons yeast
  • my tweak is to add 1 tablespoon of lemon juice to the water.  OR you could use ½ cup of buttermilk, whey or yoghurt to the liquid before adding it to the mix, but you'll have to adjust the water content accordingly. Mix it thoroughly so it will be easier to incorporate it into the flour. 
  • 1½ tablespoons coarse salt
  • 6½ cups unbleached white flour (or half rye and half white wheat flour)
I do this step in the morning, the day before I want the bread. 

Before mixing them together, mix the top group together, then the second group together. Then add half the liquid to half the flour and mix together thoroughly. If you have a big mixer with a dough hook you can use that because it takes an effort to mix this. I do it in two batches and use a spatula. When the first batch is finished, tip it into your storage container and start the second batch.  When both batches are in the container, mix them together with your hands, put a tea towel over the container and leave it on the bench to start rising. 

After about two hours, take the tea towel off, put the lid on but don't press it down to make it air tight. The dough will let off gas and it needs to have some means of escape. I use a Decor long plastic bin and have the top attached at one end and sitting on the top other end.  Put the dough in the fridge and store it there until you're ready to use it, but you can use it at any point after this first rise.

The dough after it's been removed from the fridge.

Don't knead the dough. It will develop the gluten and you don't want that. Just fold over the dough onto itself until it forms a smooth top.

When you want to bake a loaf, about two hours beforehand, take a piece of dough suitable for the size of your loaf from the container. Place it on a lightly floured board and fold the dough into itself so you have a smooth top and uneven bottom. You don't want to knead the dough, just bring it togehter as a nice smooth loaf. Let the dough sit to rise and return to room temperature. It won't rise a lot, it will do that more in the oven when it's baking.

Make sure the dough has flour over the top because that will protect it while it rests and rises.

About 20 minutes before you're ready to bake, preheat the oven to 450F/250C and place a cast iron pot with lid in the oven to heat up. After the dough has risen (about 45 minutes) carefully place the dough into the cast iron pot and with a very sharp knife, slash to top of the dough. Place the lid on the top of the pot.  You could use a pizza stone to bake on, that is how they bake it in the artisan bread book.

Bake for 30 minutes, then remove the lid and bake until the top is golden brown.

Remove from the pot and place on a cake rack to cool.

The method below is the same recipe, using a cast iron pot, but with the addition of the dough being baked in a loaf pan inside the cast iron pot.





You can leave the dough in the fridge for up to a week if you want to.  I think it makes better bread the longer it's in the fridge. I usually make a fresh loaf every second day and I get three fairly large loaves from one batch. If I had a large family or we ate more bread, I'd make up a double portion of the dough at a time.  I have to say Maura's recipe looks easier so I'm looking forward to trying it. I have a sneaking suspicion I'll like it. ;- )

If you have trouble making bread it's probably because you don't knead the dough long enough or you under or over proof it. This method takes all that away and replaces it with time in the fridge. If you've never made a good loaf, try this and see how you go with it. Or, maybe you just want to wait for Maura's recipe. And I don't blame you at all for that.




23 February 2015

Another book

I'm delighted to tell you that last Friday I signed my third contract with Penguin for another book: The Simple Home. It will be a hard cover, similar in size to Down to Earth. I had told my publisher that I wouldn't write another big book because I felt I'd said what I wanted to say. However, a few years down the track, I found that wasn't the case and a new plan started bubbling away in my brain. When I told Penguin what I wanted to do, they were very happy. The new book will be about the work we do in our homes that help us to live a simple life. It will be published next March. Yesterday was the three year anniversary for Down to Earth.

This is going back in time to early 2012 when Down to Earth came out. Above I was signing books at my desk to post out. Below I was signing books at Dymocks in Brisbane.


I've sold the world rights this time, not only those for Australia and New Zealand.  That doesn't mean it will automatically be in book shops around the world but Penguin will take both books to the London Book Fair in April so I'm hopeful that it will be published on a wider scale than Down to Earth originally was. Maybe the two of them will make more sense to an international publisher that one book by an unknown. Fingers crossed.

It means a lot of hard work in these coming months. I've already completed a few chapters but the deadline is June so I can't slow down. I don't want to just write a book, I want it to be a good book, the best book I can manage, and one that readers will use in their daily lives. There will be a photo shoot too. So if I don't write here as often as I used to, or if I'm missing at the forum, you'll know I'm here, tapping away on the keyboard writing something I hope you'll read early next year.

I hope you have a wonderful week ahead.



20 February 2015

Weekend reading


A cyclone is bearing down on the coast here as I write this. Cyclone Marcia will be a category 5 when it crosses the coast north of here. We're expecting wild weather and a lot of rain in the next couple of days.  I hope everyone in the cyclone's path stays safe.

ADDED @ 11.30AM FRIDAY: Hello everyone. I've had quite a few emails asking if we're okay.  Yes, we're both fine here. We have all we need and although we've already had 150mm/6 inches of rain, there has been no wind yet. I spoke with Shane this morning and they were fine then, they'd only had 40mm of rain but it was windy. Sarndra is 8 months pregnant so I hope they can remain in their home.  Kerry, Sunny, Jens and Cathy are all near us so they'd all have had a lot of rain but no wind. So don't worry, we're good!  :- )

This is part of a poem I love called The Summer Day by Mary Oliver

I don't know exactly what a prayer is. 
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, 
how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, 
how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day. 
Tell me, what else should I have done? 
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon? 

18 February 2015

Soaking your oats

If you're looking for a nutritious and thrifty breakfast that will take only a few minute to prepare, go no further than rolled oats. I'm not talking about quick oats which are processed much more than rolled oats, I'm talking about the plain old traditional rolled oats your grandma used to cook.


Years ago, when I read in Nourishing Traditions that virtually all pre-industrialised people soaked or fermented their grains before making porridge, I related to it immediately. I hadn't been soaking oats before I cooked them but I clearly remember mum and dad, and my grandma, soaking rolled oats in water or milk over night for a quick and easy breakfast the following morning. Almost all cultures used to do this. It was common practice in many African and European countries, the Indian sub continent, Scandinavia, and some Asian countries to soak or ferment grains before they were eaten. I remember that recommendation being on the packet of oats when I was young. I don't think it's there now, which is a pity. If you make sourdough you're doing this by using fermented starter for your bread. It's the same principle.

All grains, including oats, contain phytic acid, which can combine with minerals in the gut to block the absorption of nutrients in the grain. Soaking or fermenting the grains beforehand releases enzymes to help breakdown the phytic acid and gluten which is present in many grains, especially wheat, but oats as well. Oats contain more phytic acid than any other grain so it's important to soak them.

All you have to do is to measure out the required amount of oats into a saucepan, cover them with water or milk, plus another cup, then add ½ cup whey, buttermilk, kefir or yoghurt. Place your saucepan in the fridge overnight. The next morning, you'll see the oats are soft and creamy, like they've already been cooked. Stir the oats, add more liquid if they need it and heat them for a few minutes and serve. They'll be on the table in less than five minutes. If you have a lactose intolerance, use water and a splash of lemon juice or vinegar instead of the milk based liquids. The Nourishing Traditions recipe has ½ teaspoon sea salt in the porridge but I leave that out.


When I was younger and my oats were cooked for me, my parents always added a knob of butter to the oats. Well, it turns out that cream and butter both help with the absorption of minerals contained in the oats.  It also allows the oats to be absorbed over a longer period of time. Isn't it amazing what the old folks knew. And I thought they did it for the taste. :- )

And if you'd like a price comparison to seal the case, here are the prices for Uncle Toby's and organic oats at Woolworths:
  • Uncle Toby's Oats Quick Sachets Original 340g: $4.40 or $1.29 / 100g
  • Uncle Toby's Oats Quick 1kg: $6.76 or $0.68 / 100g
  • Macro Organic Oats Rolled 500g: $4.03 or $0.81 / 100g
We use Homebrand Rolled Oats 750g: $1.06 or $0.14 /100g. The Homebrand oats are good quality, Australian and taste just fine. You know how sometimes rolled oats have that powdery material in the bag? That's usually from some sort of insect that's been eating the grains.  I've never had a packet of Homebrand like that and always the grains are whole and perfect.

So there you have it. Yet another food item that is as convenient as the modern version but more nutritious, and so much cheaper. So don't believe the advertising that tells you that you need the expensive quick oats and a microwave. Just soak your oats instead and you'll have a much healthier breakfast.

How do you prepare your oats?  Will you try this?

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