The two-minute Valentine’s breakfast that will melt your heart!

Forgot Valentine’s day? Looking for a quick way to say “I love you”? Or do you just love eating fun-shaped toast? Whatever your reason, here’s a quick and easy Valentine’s breakfast that you can do in two minutes! Feed it to your husband, your wife, your kids, or even just make it for yourself. Nothing says “I love you” like a heart-shaped Valentine’s breakfast that’s so easy, a six-year-old could make it (adult supervision required)!

You will need:

Two slices of bread.

A pair of scissors.

Your favourite spread.

A toaster.

That’s it!

Here’s how to make your 2-minute Valentine’s breakfast:

  1. Take the scissors and cut the bread into heart shapes, by cutting along two of the crusts then shaping the other end of the bread (leave as much bread as possible) into a heart shape.
  2. Put your heart-shaped bread into the toaster, leaving the pointy end up to make it easy to get them back out.
  3. Wait for your bread to pop.
  4. Boing! It’s popped! Put your favourite spread on the toast.
  5. Arrange on a plate.
  6. Take to your beloved (or your child, or to your favourite sitting spot).
  7. Eating time!

Once you’ve got the knack for shaping the bread, you could go crazy and do this toast with scrambled eggs, baked beans (sorry, Weetabix, you’re not needed today) or even something fancy like eggs benedict or eggs royale (check out my easy vegan hollandaise sauce recipe if you’re planning one of these).

Did you enjoy this super-easy and quick Valentine’s breakfast? Let me know in the comments, on Twitter, or on our Facebook page!

Steps: Join the Thursday Photo Challenge

Hello and welcome to weekly Thursday Photo Challenge, a weekly photography challenge for everyone who likes to take photos and share them once a week!

This week’s challenge is steps!

My steps are from the Garden of Dreams, Kathmandu, Nepal.

What photos can you come up with? Are your steps dance steps, following on from last week’s challenge? Do you have some literal steps to share, like I do? Or did you find a photo that represents the metaphorical steps in a journey of self-actualisation and personal growth? Maybe you have the steps in a recipe or beauty routine? A worn out shoe? I can’t wait to see all the inspiring images people will create!

The journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.

Chinese proverb

Here’s how to take part:

  1. Take a photo or search your files for one that represents the week’s theme.
  2. Write a post, including your photo, any words of explanation or inspiration you wish to share, and a link to this challenge page.
  3. Comment on this post with a link to your page so others can see your contribution.
  4. That’s it! Super easy.

This challenge will stay open for one week, then next Thursday, I will post the next challenge!

Come join the weekly Thursday photo challenge: Flavour

Welcome to the Thursday Photo Challenge! This is the most delicious time of year in many homes. Food underpins most celebrations around the world. Whenever people come together over a good meal, their spirits are lifted and hearts are replenished.

Usually, we travel somewhere for our December holiday. In 2017 we were in Thailand. 2018 was three weeks of morning sickness in Malaysia. Last year, we went over the Irish Sea to England. This year, we expected Greece, but instead, we are staying home in Belfast.

Instead of travelling, we will cook and share the flavours of places we loved.

This week’s challenge, then, is flavour. How do you photograph a flavour? I’m not sure I captured it amazingly but I know many food bloggers who are experts at it!

Here’s how to take part in the challenge:

  1. Take a photo or search your files for one that represents the week’s theme.
  2. Write a post, including your photo, any words of explanation or inspiration you wish to share, and a link to this challenge page.
  3. Comment on this post with a link to your page so others can see your contribution.
  4. That’s it! Super easy.

This challenge will stay open for one week, then next Thursday, I will post the next challenge!

North Korean Cuisine at the Pyongyang Cafe

I never thought I’d get to try North Korean food in my entire life. More than that, I never thought I’d like it.

One of my last trips in China before we left was a sojourn to Shanghai (I think it was my seventh or eighth). There’s so much to eat in Shanghai that you can go that many times and still not experience everything.

My husband and I were staying in a hotel paid for by his employer so we hadn’t chosen it, and overall, the accommodation was typically Chinese: Beautifully styled foyer with average rooms. The windows hadn’t been cleaned for years and that killed the view a bit.

But attached to this hotel was one of the most unique and unusual places I ever ate: The Pyongyang Cafe.

Pyongyang, for those who don’t know, is the capital city of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, which in English we tend to call North Korea to avoid confusion with the People’s Republic of Korea (which we call South Korea).

North Korea shares a land border with China’s Jilin Province (where the very best sushi rice in China–jilin rice–can be found). It is clear that China has a fatherly demeanour toward North Korea; they are separate countries but China’s relationship is usually cordial toward its right-hand neighbour.

The separation of Korea into two separate states was caused by Japan annexing them in 1910 (two years before the birth of Kim Il-Sung), followed by, after the war, the North being given to the guardianship of the USSR while the South was given to the US.

There are a lot of parallels between the Koreas and my own home, the island of Ireland, the first casualty of colonialism, where, here in the North, some people can’t even agree on what country we are in or which state it belongs to. So we don’t talk about politics much here and no one talks about politics in China, either. I imagine that’s how people get along in North Korea, too.

I have visited South Korea and its American influences are very clear but it has largely formed its own culinary identity. Given that North Korea very clearly has a separate identity to the South, I didn’t know what to expect from the Pyongyang Cafe. Would the food be austere and dull, like how we are told food used to be in the former USSR? Did they eat the same types of animals in North Korea as they ate in China? Or would it be closer to the cuisine of other East Asian countries? Or something completely different?

I was so intrigued by all this, I got quite excited as we headed to the restaurant for our evening meal. For the first time in my life, we were eating somewhere and I had no idea what sort of food to expect. At all. Even when we ate in a Tibetan restaurant once in Nepal I expected to see rice, chicken and beef on the menu, the same as in almost every other restaurant around the world.

In beautiful traditional North Korean dress, the hostess greets diners as they enter the restaurant.

The menu featured such exciting dishes as steamed sea urchin (38RMB), former bacon salmon (168RMB) and braised shark’s fin with shredded chicken (128RMB). I chose the Miso Soup (35RMB) which was completely different to any miso soup I had ever eaten in my life.

Unusually for anything I ate in China, the food looked exactly like the picture in the menu which was a pleasant surprise.

The base soup was similar to the Japanese dish of the same name, but aside from using fermented bean curd (miso) as the soup base, the rest was a novel creation. This dish contained clams (shell on) and other seafood I didn’t recognize because I’m not knowledgable about seafood, but I might guess mussels were in there. There were a range of vegetables such as carrots and green leaves. And delicious cubes of beancurd floated in amongst the rest of the soup.

It arrived with gleaming sticky rice (cooked to perfection) and this was a substantial main dish, not at all like the miso soup sachets that sit miserably in the supermarket waiting for you to “just add water”. This was a complete meal and it was eye-opening to me to discover just what I could have been doing with miso paste all these years!

I definitely want to try and recreate this dish at home in Belfast.

The range of foods on the menu were fascinating. A lot of seafood, the North Korean cuisine seems to incorporate a much wider range of choices than the cuisine of most other countries I’ve eaten.

The experience in the restaurant was also good. The servers were efficient and warm; their English was good. The food was cooked to the right temperature and was brought quickly. The lighting and music were ambient, seating was comfortable and the menu was in three languages: North Korean, Chinese and English. Overall, it was a fascinating insight into one aspect of the culture of a country we will probably never visit now that we have a baby.

Come join the NEW Weekly Friday Photography Challenge: Beginnings

Announcing… the new weekly Friday Photo Challenge, a weekly photography challenge for everyone who likes to take photos!

So the Weekly Photography Challenge used to be an amazing way for photographers (amateur and professional alike) to take a prompt and turn it into a piece of artwork. You could search your files or go out and specifically take a photo for the weekly challenge.

“Aprils have never meant much to me, autumns seem that season of beginning, spring.”

Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany’s

I was scared of participating at first, because I knew nothing about photography (I still don’t know as much as many people, but enough that I’ve sold pictures to national news outlets) but I enjoyed taking pictures and I knew what I liked seeing in a photo.

I was away in China, where I couldn’t update my blog as our internet in our apartment was too slow, when the final WPC came and went, and I only found out earlier this year that the Daily Post’s Weekly Photo Challenge has now passed.

Obviously it’s a big commitment, to put out a challenge for everyone every single week without fail and to go and look at everyone’s contributions, but I am going to take it on. I hope this new one will be one of many challenges to inspire people to share beautiful photos and to bring together the strong community we used to have a few years ago on WordPress.

Beginnings

From endings, there are always beginnings. Leaves fall to the ground at this time of year and in decaying, they become the nutritious soil that nourishes all plant life.

Late Autumn is a time for new beginnings, as the lifecycle of the earliest plants begins, months before we see anything happening above the ground.

This week’s challenge, then, is beginnings. Here’s how to take part:

  1. Take a photo or search your files for one that represents the week’s theme.
  2. Write a post, including your photo, any words of explanation or inspiration you wish to share, and a link to this challenge page.
  3. Comment on this post with a link to your page so others can see your contribution.
  4. That’s it! Super easy.

This challenge will stay open for one week, then next Friday, I will post the next challenge!

Top 10 Hello Kitty gadgets for adults on Amazon

I’m a huge Hello Kitty fan. I have so much Hello Kitty stuff.

Her real name is Kitty, not Hello Kitty. She is also from London, like me. And we met in China. I didn’t really get the whole Hello Kitty thing until we moved to China. Now my life is full of Kitty. I miss the amount of Hello Kitty stuff we could get in China. Then I found out there was loads on US Amazon — which ships to the UK and Ireland. Happy Kitty. So here are my top 10 Hello Kitty finds on Amazon:

10. The Hello Kitty cutlery set, featuring a pair of chopsticks, a fork and a spoon. Everyone in China and Japan has one of these sets for when they are out and about, and I love this Hello Kitty one. Note there’s no knife, and the fork and spoon are small, so it’s perfect for kids or to pop in your purse.

9. These cute Hello Kitty socks. I love these, there are several different options but I like the ones that come up past my ankles, so I don’t get cold on those winter walks that have become the only time I go out this year.

8. The Hello Kitty table lamp. When you want everyone who comes into your home to know how much you love Hello Kitty, this should be sat casually on a side table near the TV, where all your friends will see it.

7. A Hello Kitty humidifier. Because the air-conditioning messes up her fur, don’tcha know.

6. Super-soft full-size Hello Kitty blanket. I have two of these. They are huge. One is on our king-size bed and fits perfectly.

5. Hello Kitty Schick Razors. Because who knows hair removal better than a talking cat?

4. For a decadent breakfast, the Hello Kitty toaster. It puts Kitty on your toast, for mornings when you can’t get up without saying Hello, Kitty! For lunch, there is also the Hello Kitty toasted sandwich maker. This puts a Hello Kitty face into your grilled cheese sandwich! How exciting is that? They will also make your kitchen look SWISH. I can’t say I’ve reviewed these ones, though, because we have different electricity in Ireland to the stuff in America and I’d need a step-up transformer, which I don’t have room for in our tiny house. 😦 A girl can dream, though, can’t she?

3. For a Christmas gift for the Hello Kitty fan in your life *hint hint, husband* these delicate 925 Sterling Silver Hello Kitty earrings are so sweet!

2. Speaking of the winter holidays, these Hello Kitty Holiday Cards are a bit pricey, but you could make your own with some card and Hello Kitty stickers!

1. And if you like stickers, this stick on car decal is gorgeous, I can’t wait for mine to arrive!

Honorable mention has to go to the Hello Kitty Tamagotchi and this cute white apron (although the pink apron seems to have a problem on the graphic as Kitty’s ear has been colored in) which could make you feel super-cute in the kitchen.

Mailerlite vs Mailchimp: A warning (it’s not what you think)

So about 12 months ago, I was using Mailchimp and there was suddenly a huge drama because they changed their fee structure and got a LOT more expensive. Customers started leaving them in droves. I didn’t understand the issue until I got my new bill and it was suddenly insanely high compared to how much money I was making.

I asked around and everyone told me it was so easy to switch to Mailerlite, and that they were better in a number of ways that no one could explain. I was pregnant and knew I needed to reduce my overheads.

So I exported my contacts and imported them into Mailerlite, where I grew my list to over 15,000 subscribers.

With Mailchimp, the only issue was the cost. Everything else about it worked perfectly, I never had a failed send or anything. They always just sorted out payment and everything was smooth. I don’t know what their customer service was like because I don’t remember ever having to contact them after the day I first signed up.

Also, Mailchimp works in China, and Mailerlite does not. I was living in China when I started emailing my list through Mailchimp instead of using batches via Google mail.

With Mailerlite, it seemed like every time my mailing list grew, they wanted me to re-verify myself, to fill out a tedious questionnaire (for the fifth time) about what I was using their services for, and they threw in some mandatory market research questions as well, which honestly is offensive but you do what you gotta do to get a half-price mailing service to email your newsletter for you.

The best part? They do this when you want to send an email, instead of when you hit the new subscriber threshold. This means, if you’re sending about something time-sensitive, like a flash sale or 24-hour deal, you will not get to send your email in time especially if you want to send according to timezone.

I didn’t like the fact that a lot more of my emails seemed to go to the spam folder when I used Mailerlite, either.

I sucked it up.

Then I had a baby, so I deleted my contacts because no-one wants to pay $150 a month for a mailing list they’re not actually sending any emails to for a year. I downloaded and carefully saved my 15000 contacts in a CSV file that I never actually looked at because I had more important things to do like keep a small baby alive.

Obviously.

Ready to get back to work, I uploaded my email list to Mailerlite and guess what? They wouldn’t let me re-verify because I’d already uploaded this list and deleted it.

So in desperation I went back to Mailchimp, thinking that paying $200 monthly is worth it if you actually get the service you’re paying for. I uploaded my mailing list.

Then I found out why you should never, EVER move your list to Mailerlite.

We’re always told that our mailing list is the most important marketing asset for our business because it is ours and we get to keep that no matter what happens to service providers, right?

WRONG.

Mailerlite has deleted so much information from the downloaded copy of my mailing list that Mailchimp actually doesn’t have the data it needs to let me upload to them.

So I opened the file to look through it. There’s email addresses, but then all the other columns are empty. No first names. No last names. No opt-in timestamps or IP addresses and no confirmation timestamps or IP addresses (all of which you need to be compliant with data handling, CAN-SPAM, and GDPR rules). It’s a mangled, useless CSV file that is as useless as a phone book comprising of phone numbers but no names.

I am effectively stuck with Mailerlite who seemed able to re-connect all the data when I uploaded the email addresses (presumably they’ve stored the rest of the data on their server and can access it by using the email addresses as a “primary key”, but I obviously have a right to have all that data, it’s not theirs, it’s mine, so they shouldn’t keep it like this). Who won’t let me go through their stupid validation and approval process. And anyway, I resent all the bullshit they’ve put me through so I’m not going back to them.

This means I have no mailing list. Mailerlite has destroyed it by deleting key data. Five years of hard work down the drain. Fifteen thousand fans of my business, who I cannot contact because Mailerlite have ensured I can’t go to another service provider.

God I wish someone had written about this before I switched to Mailerlite.

Please, please, PLEASE be careful. If you want to switch to Mailerlite, be sure you’re going to stay with them forever. Because they will not let you take your mailing list when you leave.

I guess that’s what you get when you go with a cut-price mailing list provider. I have learned my lesson the painfully, devastatingly hard way. I have no business to come back to after maternity leave. I built my business to give my baby a future, and now our situation is more precarious than ever.

If I am very, very lucky, I might still have an old version of my mailing list from when I switched from Mailchimp to Mailerlite in the first place. But obviously, that could have people on it who have since unsubscribed, so I have to weigh up whether I can use that old version or not.

This is my honest review of two companies I’ve spent thousands of dollars with, over the past half-decade. Verdict? I’d rather spend more money on a service that actually does what it says it’s going to. Your mileage may vary. If you have a different perspective, or a solution for this issue, please let me know in the comments.

Vegan Meaty Stuffed Bell Pepper Tacos

I love stuffed peppers! They’re such an easy way to get more vegetables into your diet and this recipe is super-healthy. This was an experiment in changing things up, because I usually make stuffed peppers with rice, but today I wanted something different, so I filled my peppers with a taco-style filling of soy mince (TVP), sweetcorn and salsa, and topped with my vegan no-blend guacamole but you could also add grated vegan cheese if that’s your thing (or if you have any… I don’t, because my local Sainsbury’s has mysteriously stopped selling all vegan cheese since the lockdown began). This recipe is also perfect for when you are craving tacos but don’t have any taco shells.

IMG_2107b

IMG_2108b

And finally, top with my easy no-blend avocado:

IMG_2113b

Ingredients:

  • 2 bell peppers
  • Half a cup of dried TVP (soy mince)
  • Half a cup of sweetcorn
  • A pinch of cilantro (leaf coriander)
  • A pinch (or three) of garlic
  • A big dollop of salsa (you can substitute this for some chopped tomatoes and a teaspoon or two of Piri Piri sauce or a teaspoon of any other hot sauce if you don’t have salsa)
  • A teaspoon of Vegemite (or another yeast extract)

 

Method:

  1. Cut the bell peppers in half and remove the seeds.
  2. Reconstitute the TVP with boiling water and add the Vegemite, garlic and cilantro. Mix thoroughly to avoid any Vegemite lumps and leave the mixture to sit for 10 minutes to absorb the hot water fully.
  3. Drain off the excess water from the TVP and mix with the sweetcorn.
  4. Put the TVP and sweetcorn mixture into the halves of the bell peppers, taking care not to knock them over. If you have peppers that won’t lie very well in the oven, balance them carefully against each other for support.
  5. Bake for 15-20 minutes in a fan oven at 180 degrees/gas mark 6.
  6. Serve with chilled guacamole and salsa.

What’s your favourite thing to put in stuffed peppers? Let me know in the comments!

 

Vegan Homemade No-Blend Guacamole

Serves 2 as a dip or 1 as a big dip. Scale for the number of people you’re feeding.

I looked through some fancy recipes for guacamole but they all needed ingredients I didn’t have, namely, fresh avocado, fresh cilantro and lime juice. So I’ve come up with this recipe to work with the ingredients I actually have, because I’m not the sort of person to keep limes in my house unless I want to specifically make something unusual with them.

I wanted guacamole to top off my vegan meaty bell pepper tacos, because I can’t get vegan cheese right now and tacos without cheese OR guacamole is just crazy talk. Of course, I only thought about guacamole after the bell pepper tacos were already in the oven, so this recipe is quick and easy.

The bell peppers for the taco recipe take 15 minutes and this guacamole recipe took the time after the peppers were in the oven, minus the time it’s taken to write this article. I can’t put the blender on right now, because the baby is asleep and my Ninja sounds like a Harrier Jet when it’s running, plus I really can’t be bothered to clean the thing, so this is a no-blend recipe, too.

Ingredients:

  • 1 Avocado or about 1/2 a mug of frozen avocado (I did this because lockdown).
  • 3 fresh cherry tomatoes. You could substitute this with a tablespoon of tinned chopped tomatoes if you needed to, but it will lose the texture of the fresh tomato skins.
  • A sprinkle of cilantro (aka leaf coriander), I used dried because lockdown but fresh will give a more fragrant result.
  • A teaspoon of lemon juice.

 

  1. Defrost the frozen avocado in a mug. I used the defrost setting on the microwave for 2 minutes, stand for 1 minute, microwave on defrost for 1 more minute, and then I drained the excess water out of the bottom of the cup.
    If using fresh avocado, cut around its long equator, twist, and separate the two halves. Dig out the stone with a dessert spoon. Chop into medium-sized chunks.
  2. Chop the cherry tomatoes into fine pieces. The seeds will come out as you do it. Scrape the seeds, juice and pieces into the cup.
  3. Add the cilantro and lemon juice to the cup.
  4. Mix everything with a fork, mashing the avocado and making sure it’s well-mixed.
  5. Chill in the fridge until you are ready to use it. It should be chilled when served, so make it at least an hour before you want it.
  6. If you’re like me, you didn’t make it an hour before you wanted it. So instead of the fridge, put it in the freezer for 5-10 minutes to bring the temperature down, especially if you used a microwave to defrost the avocado. Don’t forget about it or you’ll need to defrost it again. Maybe write a note or something.

IMG_2110b

IMG_2113b

 

Holland-ish Sauce Vegan Hollandaise recipe for eggs benedict and eggs royale

I’m having serious cafe withdrawals at the moment. I miss going out to cafes and ordering food that I can’t make at home. So today I decided to do what I used to do in China when I felt like this. I decided to bring the cafe to me.

I was craving eggs royale, which is the salmon version of eggs benedict. It requires a bread bun, cut in half, on which a poached egg and a piece of salmon are arranged, and they’re drizzled with Hollandaise sauce.

Hollandaise sauce is notoriously hard to make, and I don’t know how to poach an egg without a poacher, and I have to avoid dairy, but I decided not to let any of that stop me from achieving my dream.

First, I found out that Emma Bridgewater mugs are REALLY well made. You can put one in a pan on direct full heat on a stovetop and it poaches an egg. It does take a few minutes but it gets the job done. That was my second attempt at poaching an egg (my first attempt was a complete disaster and resulted in an egg-splosion because I tried to do a “proper” poached egg where you basically whisk boiling water into a vortex then drop an egg into it. I do NOT have the skills for that, apparently).

Then there was the problem of the Hollandaise sauce. Here’s the recipe I adapted:

1 packet of silken tofu (300g or about 9 oz)

1/8 cup of lemon juice

1/8 cup nutritional yeast

1/8 cup dairy free butter

1/2 tsp turmeric (for colour)

1/2 tsp oregano (flavour)

a good pinch of garlic (flavour)

a good pinch of pepper (flavour)

Blend the tofu until it’s a smooth liquid. Then put it in a pan with the other ingredients and heat on a medium heat until the butter is melted and the sauce starts to turn a bright yellow. Serve over eggs benedict or eggs royale.

This recipe is so much easier than making the complicated emulsion for proper hollandaise sauce. If you want something with a more traditional flavour, ditch the oregano.

The main point to note with this recipe is absolutely don’t use the firm spongy kind of tofu. It won’t blend into a liquid, it will turn into a scrambly mess. The sauce itself is vegan but I obviously poured it over things which were non-vegan.

IMG_0590b

Lastly, the taste test. I thought it was really nice when it was cooked for long enough, but when I tasted it during cooking, it kept tasting excessively lemony, so definitely simmer it for at least 5 minutes to draw out the other flavours in this sauce.