Tuesday 29 April 2008

Thanks Gordon

So much for the increase in personal allowances* at the start of the new tax year on 5th April. I just got my April payslip - my take-home pay has gone up by a whole £1.25 a month!

Thanks, Gordon. Your fiddling with the tax bands and National Insurance** rates makes me SO much better off. Based on the change in personal allowances alone from £5,225 to £5,435, I should have got an extra £17.50 per month in my pocket. But no, you had to find another hidden way to claw this money back.

- Pam (not a happy taxpayer)

* The portion of income that is tax free in the UK.
**Just another tax despite its name. The common belief that this is state pension contribution and National Health Service contribution is wrong - the money goes into the general tax pot. It does, however, earn you "points" towards your state pension.

Sunday 27 April 2008

Sunblush tomatoes

(Recipe renamed and revised after experimentation)

Most supermarkets sell these as "Sunblush Tomatoes". This recipe is based on Nigella Lawson's, who calls them "Moonblush Tomatoes" because she dries them in the oven overnight.


1lb/500g cherry tomatoes.
1 teaspoon sugar (preferably caster sugar)
1 teaspoon dried oregano
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt in grinder (or 1 teaspoon table salt)
Olive oil to store

  1. Preheat the oven to 240C.
  2. Halve the tomatoes and arrange in a single layer on a baking dish. Sprinkle over the sugar, oregano and olive oil. Grind over the salt, ensuring all tomatoes are covered - approximately 7 grinds. (If using table salt, sprinkle over.)
  3. Place the baking dish into the very hot oven, close the door firmly and switch it off. Leave overnight. DO NOT OPEN THE OVEN FOR AT LEAST 12 HOURS.
  4. Next morning, decant into a container and refridgerate.
They last for a week.

- Pam

LBYM on my mind

This post is turning out to be a random collection of musings about food related techniques for Living Below Your Means ("LBYM").

One of the principles of LBYM is to prepare for your busy days, during your quiet ones. If you know year end is coming up and it'll be hell-on-earth until the management accounts are out of the way (or worse, the statutory ones), then preparing in advance and stocking the freezer can be a Godsend. You don't have to lock yourself away on a cook-a-thon, either. Double up recipes for a few meals and freezing half. Make a batch of Base prior to cooking dinner one night. Prep dinner on Sunday night for a couple of nights in advance. Make ginger "ice cubes"* next time you cook Chinese.

Another principle is just because it's the big size, it doesn't mean it's good value for money. Today DH and I made our annual trip to Wing Yip . This time, I didn't purchase everything I wanted: we'd mainly gone to buy rice, but I'd wanted to buy flour too, if I could find it at the right price. With Tama's post about bulk buying in mind, I'd gone on line before I left and double checked the price for the "value" flour from our local supermarket (my normal purchase), instead of relying on memory. Wing Yip don't really do bulk flour - they sell the usual 3lb/1.5kg packages in cases of 6 - and the unit price was still higher than the cheap stuff at Tesco. So we passed; I'll track down a good price elsewhere. The opposite was true when it came to cornflour - 3kg for the price of two from the supermarket - so a sack was added to our trolley.

Also don't waste what you already have. Most Sundays, we play RPGs at the club DH runs and, usually, I take along cherry tomatoes to nibble on (no WW points - very important). Last Sunday, I didn't really touch them, and we didn't play today. Although they look OK, they won't keep another week so instead of letting them go bad (DH doesn't eat tomatoes that looks like tomatoes), I decided to make Nigella Lawson's "Moonblush Tomatoes" with them instead. These are basically oven dried tomatoes, frequently sold in the shops as "Sunblush Tomatoes". I'll post the recipe separately, in a moment.

I do other things to minimise food waste, too. Over-ripe bananas get shoved into the freezer to be made into banana bread later on. Excess cooked rice or pasta gets portioned out into lunchboxes and frozen with a "needs stuff" label stuck on top. Ditto small portions of excess stew when I've run out of rice (only this time it gets a "needs rice" label).

- Pam

*The best way to store ginger is to turn it into ginger ice-cubes. Buy a large root, peel and grate it. Spray an ice-cube tray with oil (helps stop sticking) and then put a tablespoonful of ginger into each slot. Freeze overnight. Turn out the ginger cubes and store in a Tupperware container in the freezer. 1 cube = 1 tablespoon or roughly 0.5 inches of ginger root.

Wednesday 23 April 2008

Ouch! My hip pocket nerve hurts!

This afternoon, I paid £1.20 a litre for diesel. That's 5p more than when I filled up on Friday before heading home from Site, 200+ miles away. That's not even the worse price in Britain: there is a petrol station in Scotland that briefly charged £1.45/litre on Monday and is currently charging £1.33. Crude oil is over $120 a barrel, and Scotland's only oil refinery (Grangemouth) is closing down in preparation for a strike on Friday (it will take them several weeks to gear up again, even if the strike is cancelled).

On the radio, a somewhat confused oil industry analyst explained that the British are a bit more insulated from the global rise in oil prices because of our high tax/fuel duty regime. I still can't quite get my head around that one. His argument was that over 70p a litre goes to the Government in fuel duty, so we're used to paying higher prices and the proportionate increases in the prices we pay are, therefore, lower than in America. True, but that doesn't excuse the fact that diesel is over 20p/litre more expensive than this time last year!

Fact: our Government will increase duty by an extra 5p/litre this year; last year, they increased it by a similar sum. Seven and a half years ago, there were protests when diesel hit 84p and oil prices peaked. Back then, we were paying approximately 40p a litre duty, so it's increased by 75%.

Fact: The slice of the price of diesel/petrol that goes to the supplier hasn't changed much, even with the oil price rises. It used to be 30p/litre; now it's probably 33p.

Fact: Every litre of petrol/diesel purchased has VAT levied on top of the duty and whatever the supplier makes. That's an extra 17.5% tax on top of everything that we're already required to pay. This afternoon, I purchased an emergency* 6 litres of diesel for £7.19 and paid £1.07 of VAT. Ouch!

Do you see why I have a problem with that guy's argument?

Thank God I drive a fuel efficient car. I worked out the miles per gallon for last week's trip to Site - without altering my driving style, we managed 67 mpg! (In US gallons that's 56.7 mpg. Your gallon is 3.8 litres; ours is 4.5.)

- Pam (off to buy diesel from a cheaper petrol station)

* I had to go to an oil-major's petrol station, so only purchased enough to get me home/to Tesco, where I'll fill the tank tonight and collect my Clubcard points. Tesco, like most supermarkets, charges a couple **of pence less per litre than the oil-major chains.

** (Added later) I've just filled up. Only saved a penny per litre at the pump, but at least my Clubcard points will give me a penny refund on every Pound I've spent.

Monday 21 April 2008

Dear Gordon

May I be the first to congratulate you on achieving something that was once thought impossible: making your political party, the Labour Party, unelectable. The Conservative Party must be so grateful - it has taken you less than a year as Prime Minister to achieve something which they have been working towards since 1997.

How could you betray your core voters? The 3.5 million low paid workers who will be worse off following the abolition of the 10p lower-rate tax band at the start of April. Did you think nobody would notice when you buried it in the detail of your last Budget as Chancellor? Were you surprised, last week, when your back benchers reported the feedback from canvassing for the local elections? Or were you so busy wooing George W. and the candidates for the American presidential elections that you didn't notice? Did they even know who you were?

Oh, come on! Don't look at us with your bloodhound eyes and expect the electorate not to feel aggrieved. It may only be a few Pounds month, but to someone earning less than a tenth of your salary, those people you've just hit hardest, that is a lot of money. Your press release today may talk about "looking at further help for the lower paid", but treasury sources have already admitted to the BBC that there aren't any funds available and won't be until 2009/2010.

What are you going to do about it?

- Pam

Death by Cellotape

True confession time: in the last week, I've submitted my expense claims for the last six months. I'd been procrastinating because I'd lost the invoice for my hotel bill last October. Couldn't find it anywhere. Finally, on Tuesday, I swallowed my pride, phoned the hotel and asked for a duplicate. Which they faxed over.

Yes, I know it was an awful lot of money, close to £1,500. And that I was paying credit card interest on two-thirds of it (the rest was mileage). But I couldn't step over the obstacle in my mind that said, "If I don't claim for October before I do any of these others, they won't let me claim for it". Not true, but an obstacle none-the-less. I finally reached the point where the financial pain of not claiming hurt more than the humiliation of admitting I was an organisational idiot (as it was, my authoriser didn't even notice the dates involved. So much for humiliation!).

Six months of hotel bills, meals and mileage claims were submitted that afternoon. Each receipt need to be numbered and taped on all four sides to an A4 sheet of paper. That's an awful lot of cellotape. Remember back to Grade One when you did "craft", when the kids could be divided into those who liked messing around with glue and those who didn't? I was firmly on the "hate" side of the divide. Last Tuesday reminded me why. It was punishment, if not death, by cellotape.

- Pam (feeling virtuous now because I've already done my claim for last week's trip to Site)

Tuesday 8 April 2008

Snow day

It snowed on Sunday. I wandered downstairs at 7.30am to find a winter wonderland as London was blanketed in the only decent snowfall of the winter. Regressing to the age of 5, I woke DH by flinging open the curtains ("It's snowing" [squeal] ) and then ran back downstairs to take some photos. In the time it took to get downstairs, it stopped snowing.

This was the view from the front door. Note, one lightly frosted Toy on the far side of the street:

After hastily checking to see if anyone was around, I dashed outside in my dressing gown and slippers, stood in the middle of the road and took this shot of our house:

This was the view from the back door:
And our patio table and chairs:
Do you remember me resolving to buy a garden "cupboard" shed for the mower, etc? Well, we ordered it in January and it arrived at the start of March. We spent one weekend painting it with wood preservative and it's rained or snowed ever since! Behold the new garden shed:

Still waiting to be assembled. Maybe next weekend?

- Pam (the snow melted by 10am)

Best. April. Fool. Ever

And the award for Best April Fool goes to the BBC:

Tuesday 1 April 2008

holiday knitting

Remember how much knitting I was going to pack for our holiday? I had to leave the Must Have Cardigan at home - it didn't fit into our suitcase. Yes, that's right, our suitcase - the Toy only has room for one case, so DH and I fitted everything into one bag. Introducing a rather overstuffed, Cecil B. de Suitcase:-

All 26 inches of him. It was a bit of a struggle to fit everything in. Inside was a week's clothes for both of us including DH's suit and good shoes for the wedding, my dress and shoes, all our toiletries and enough layers to put on in case it turned freezing. The smaller pocket was stuffed with sock yarn, three skeins of fancy stuff for Kim's scarf and a book; the larger pocket scored the dirty laundry.

Lack of baggage space didn't stop me taking along enough yarn for one and a quarter pair of socks. Here is the quarter, made from 20 grams of Regia 6-Fadig in Passion.

20 g is all I had left-over from a Christmas present for a friend. I have ordered another 50g skein, but it didn't arrive in time for our holiday (and still hasn't - grrr ). That was Sunday night's knitting; the rest of our trip was spent working on these:

These are yet another example of my use it up socks, this time a mixture of Opal Lollipop sock yarn (in lilac IIRC) and Lisa Souza's Sock! in ecru). Note the toes. Normally, when I do use it up socks, I knit the toe in the feature yarn. This time, I'd completed the first sock including grafting the toe, and was half way through the second heel when I ran out of yarn and had to resort to extreme measures:

Shocking, isn't it? Sock cannibalism in the act. :o)

- Pam