Friday, 6 December 2013


With our house build underway and Christmas approaching, our attempts to live cheaply and sustainably are now in full swing. 

As luck would have it, my favourite place to eat out has given us an unexpected hand.  Pillars of Hercules is an organic farm shop and cafĂ© in Falkland, one of my top places to visit in the area, which serves delicious and healthy home cooked food.

Last time I popped in, they were handing out copies of their Pillars Chilli recipe, a filling winter meal that’s ideally suited to the Starving Artists’ Kitchen.  It shares ingredients with many of the recipes here (saving you money by using up leftovers) and uses the same palate of spices I always keep on my shelves.  So I took it home, and gave it a shot.

It turns out it's a great addition to the kitchen.  Make it in the same week as Sweet and Sour Stay-In, Feast or Famine Bake or Summer Proof Soup, and your food spending should stay low.  Better still, it tastes fantastic on the night it’s cooked, but any leftovers reheat perfectly to serve up with rice, baked potatoes or in pitta bread.

I’ve tweaked it a little from the original, and here’s the result.  For those passing the Falkland area, Pillars is open from 10-5 every day, with Friday and Saturday bistro nights from 15th November.


2 cloves of garlic, chopped finely
1-2 onions, chopped
1 small red chilli, chopped finely
1 teaspoon double concentrate tomato puree
2 tins chopped tomatoes (or plum tomatoes, diced)
1 tin mixed beans, rinsed
2 medium courgettes, chopped
1-2 carrots, peeled and chopped
2 peppers, preferably red / yellow, cut into slices
half a small tin of sweetcorn
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons ground coriander
2 teaspoons paprika
2 teapoons ground ginger
1 tablespoon olive oil (for frying)
Salt and pepper to taste
Natural yoghurt to serve
Grated cheese


1. Fry the garlic and onion in the oil until they begin to turn transparent.
2. Add the chopped vegetables and fry on a medium heat for approximately ten minutes.
3. Add the chopped chilli and spices and cook until the scent from the spices begins to rise (about 3-4 minutes).
4. Add the tomato puree and stir through, then add the chopped tomatoes, mixed beans and sweetcorn.
5. Cover and simmer for approximately 45 minutes, then season with salt and pepper.
6. Serve with rice and warmed pittas, a spoonful of natural yoghurt and a sprinkling of cheese. 

Friday, 15 November 2013


Whenever I find something beautiful or moving in a book, I turn the page down. This is my copy of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

Thursday, 31 October 2013


October in Scotland - season of rain, more rain, armpit deep mud and hurricane force winds.  Also, by happy coincidence, the month we began our house build.

It’s been two years since we moved to the country from Glasgow.  It was a decision that surprised us – we’d talked about it for years, but a combination of great work and better friends had kept us far longer in the city that we’d intended. 

I was writing and making documentaries, Nichol had a thriving business in fine art, and we had close friends who were like extended family – we ate together, socialised together and our kids had grown up like siblings.  It was hard work and it was fun, and our dream of building a house in the country seemed certain to stay just a pipe one.

Then came a double whammy.  Art is rarely an area to make money, and when the recession hit, it hit us hard.  We spent as long as we could keeping the business afloat, paying our staff out of our savings and not taking wages ourselves, but it was soon clear that this was going to cost us all we had. 

Then, worse news.  Our best friends had got jobs in Ireland and were leaving within months.  We had a choice, we could stay and struggle or sell everything we owned, find a plot of land and create our dream home. 

We both knew what we’d always wanted.  My dream had been a hobbit hole, underground, with curved walls and windows and filled with quirks based on my favourite children’s books.  Nichol fancied a castle, or perhaps a stately home.  Then we looked at our budget; we could afford a box.  So the task began, to find a plot, agree with each other about anything, and fill our box with as much interesting stuff as we could manage. 

The plot part was relatively easy.  We found a piece of land in central Scotland, and started to think about what to make.  We definitely wanted an eco-house, something that we could run at the lowest cost possible, and which would sit naturally in the land.  It also had to be something the kids loved, so we enlarged the site plans to table top size, filled it with toy trees from a train set, and let the children ‘play’ in the garden. 

As they played, we moved our ‘house’ round behind them, keeping well out of the way of the ‘bike trail’, the ‘treehouses’, the ‘rope swing’ and the ‘unicorn paddock.’  Avoiding the ‘crocodile swamp’ was far trickier.

It worked though.  We quickly found a location for our wonderful new home.  All we needed now was an architect…

Thursday, 24 October 2013


When I set out to bake the remnants of my Halloween decorations, I admit that I wasn't intending to create anything quite so... spine chilling.  Whether it was really the influence of the undead, or whether I'd simply been talking too much while I cooked and accidentally added a teaspoon of baking powder to my self-raising flour, we may never know.  But the cake was delicious regardless, although it provided rather more of a talking point than had originally been planned.

Pumpkin is a fantastic ingredient.  You can make soups, curries or cakes with it, and even the seeds - when roasted - make a wonderful snack. Given its versatility, it's surprising how few people know what to do with it, and many pumpkins simply get carved into Halloween lanterns then thrown in the bin.  It's a shame because, flavoured with the right spices, pumpkin is both healthy and delicious, and probably one of the cheapest foods around at this time of year.

Here, to use up your leftovers from last night, is Halloween Pumpkin Cake.


225g self-raising flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
225g sugar
225g pumpkin puree (this is easier to make than you think)
118ml olive oil
2 eggs, beaten
4 tablespoons of water
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon all spice


1. Preheat the oven to 180C
2. Open your pumpkin, scoop out the seeds and stringy bits, and cut the remainder into chunks.
3. Place the chunks in a steamer over boiling water, and steam for 20 minutes.  Allow to cool and peel off the skin, pureeing the soft flesh with a hand blender.  A whole pumpkin will make far more puree than you need, so weigh as you go. 
3. Mix the pumpkin puree, olive oil, eggs, spices and water together.
4. Add the flour (preferably sifted), salt and sugar.  Mix gently to ensure there are no lumps.
5. Pour the mixture into a greased cake tin and pop in the oven on the middle shelf.
6. Your cake will take 50-60 minutes to bake, possibly less, so make sure to check it regularly after about 45.  It is ready when golden and risen, and a skewer or sharp knife comes out clean.


1. Don't throw out the seeds!  Separate from the stringy bits (which you can bin as I've yet to find a use for them) and soak them over night in salty water
2. Preheat the oven to 140C.
3. Drain the seeds and pat dry with a tea towel.  
4. Add 1 tablespoon of olive oil, and half a teaspoon of salt.  Mix well.
5. Spread the seeds in a single layer on a baking tray lined with foil, and cook for approximately half an hour.  If you listen, you might hear them pop.
6. See?  Delicious.  And to think they were going to end up in the bin... ;-)

Friday, 27 September 2013


For as long as I can remember, I've wanted to build a house.  Not a sleek modern house crammed with the latest gadgetry, but a really imaginative house inspired by all the books I loved while growing up.

Ideally it would be in the country, preferably inside a tree or underground, and there would have to be secret rooms. Whatever it appeared to be on the outside, the inside would be different, as if simply stepping through the front door transported you to a whole new world.

Years passed and I got a job making documentaries, moved to the city and married an artist.  We lived in a flat that he had bought when it was near-derelict, and together we discovered something. I had ridiculously ambitious ideas for our home that I couldn't translate into reality.  Nichol was extremely skilled at making things and had a remarkable degree of tolerance.  And gradually, we transformed our home into a wonderful, creative place that reflected all of that - a home that we thought we'd probably stay in forever.


Out of the blue, the chance came up to buy some land.  We wrote down what we wanted, hired an architect and drew up the plans.  Our brief was simple - or so we convinced ourselves.  We'd like a Hobbit House on a Weasley budget with as much room as possible for the stuff that we'd made.  Our budget was very tight, and so as much of the house that we could do by ourselves we would need to.  Given my previous experience of watching building projects go off piste you'd think I'd have learned my lesson, but apparently not.  I'm nothing if not optimistic.

So that's where we now stand.  Tether's End will chart the growth of our new project from start to finish, and hopefully the final cost will be less than £400 million.

So, to all those who partied, loved, crashed, missed the millennium, danced on the roof, painted, played chess, made films, held cricket matches and rode half-pipes in the hall, came to the poker, cooked banquets, were born, slept in the storeroom / roof / bath, wrote books, fell down the stairs, got up the stairs in the first place, drank purple passion punch and survived, didn't fall off the edge of the mezzanine, or smoked cigars next to the chimney watching the sun come up at our old home - we salute you.

We had a great time there.

Welcome to our next adventure.

Thursday, 12 September 2013


Whenever I find something beautiful or moving in a book, I turn the page down.  This is my copy of The Humans.

Matt Haig has made no secret of his battle with mental illness.  For anyone who has been through it, or witnessed its impact on someone close, it is a life changing experience.  Like most serious issues however, it is probably best explored with a humorous eye and make no mistake The Humans is a very funny book. 

But it is a rare talent that can take a devastating personal episode and transform it into something that sheds light on the human condition, and a rarer one still that can achieve this while telling an entertaining story.  That’s what Matt Haig has accomplished in The Humans, and it is an extraordinary book.

Professor Andrew Martin is dead.  Shortly after solving the Riemann hypothesis, he was murdered by the Vonnadorian assassin who now inhabits his body and is on a high-stakes mission to save the universe.  His brief is simple: find Martin’s theorem, eradicate all trace of it and kill any witnesses.

It seemed a straightforward plan on his own planet where logic and mathematics form the basis of society.  However life on earth – our alien soon discovers - is somewhat more complicated and although he controls Martin’s body he hasn’t retained his knowledge of being human.  This, it fast becomes apparent, is rather a large oversight.

As you’d imagine, the comic repercussions are immediate.  ‘Professor Martin’ struggles to blend in with the most basic human behaviour, a situation not helped by his failure to arrive on earth wearing clothes and his reliance on Cosmopolitan for relationship advice (we’ve all been there).  Unsurprisingly, he ends up in a psychiatric hospital. 

But it is what Haig does with this scenario that makes The Humans so special.  This book is infused with the experience of breakdown, not in a mawkish or preachy sense, but with a subtlety that sits perfectly with the narrative. 

Dissociated from Martin’s identity, our alien is both absorbed by the minutiae of ‘being human’ and a dispassionate observer of it.  As Haig writes in an endnote, ‘when I was in the grips of panic disorder… human life felt as strange for me as it does for the unnamed narrator.’ 

Delicately, he replicates this experience in the reader.  By making what is familiar seem strange and alien, insight and distance are triggered simultaneously.  The effect is to make the reader look at life from a new angle, drawing him in while at the same time keeping him at arm’s length. 

It is a very effective device.  Affection is evoked for the simple things we take for granted, while our more ludicrous pretensions are laid bare.  But it is the conclusions drawn that are so moving.  Take this view of Earth’s strangeness:

‘I tried to see the similarity.  I told myself that here all things were still made of atoms, and that those atoms would work precisely as atoms always do.  They would move towards each other if there was distance between them.  If there was no distance between them, they would repel each other.  That was the most basic law of the universe, and it applied to all things, even here.  There was comfort in that.  The knowledge that wherever you were in the universe, the small things were always exactly the same.  Attracting and repelling.  It was only by not looking closely enough that you saw difference.’

It’s elegant and obvious, when viewed from outside.  And as ‘Professor Martin’ gradually discovers the wonders of being human, so too does the reader.  It’s an ingenious driver for the narrative, for as the tensions of the mission change the reader grows increasingly invested in its outcome.  It’s a process of slowly rediscovering life’s wonder, and it is beautifully done. 

If you’ve ever wondered what makes life both terrifying and special, this is the book for you.  It transforms an intensely personal experience into a story that is both widely relevant and accessible, and  for any writer that's not an easy thing to pull off.  For those who like their insights in bullet points, there's even a seven page checklist of 'advice for a human' towards the end.  It’s funny, poignant and may teach you things you haven't considered about life on earth.  Except number 79 - I think we all suspected that.

Friday, 30 August 2013


In all honesty, this didn't start out as a Pac-Man tribute cake.  The fact is I had two overripe bananas and the ingredients for a Victoria sponge, but the cake smelt so fabulous coming out of the oven that by the time I'd located my camera it looked like this.

The brilliant thing about this recipe (apart from the smell) is that it works equally well with yellow bananas or those black ones that are way past their best.  Cooking time varies according to the size of the fruit and your cake tin, and you can adjust the cinnamon to taste.  Today though, this is what I did...


175g butter (softened)
175g caster sugar
3 eggs
175g self-raising white flour
2 medium bananas (ripe or overripe)
2 generous teaspoons of cinnamon


1. Grease and flour an 8 inch cake tin.  Preheat the oven to 180C (350F, Gas Mk 4).  

2. Beat the butter and sugar together.  Normally, I avoid hand blenders like the plague, but it really makes a difference here so is well worth the moral compromise.

3. Add the eggs gradually and mix well.

4. Fold in the flour, avoiding the compulsion to sieve (not necessary).

5. Chop and add the bananas.  Mix using the hand blender.  Your mixture should be smooth and moist, and will rise to form a lovely sweet, dense cake.

6. Add the cinnamon and mix well.

7. Tip the mixture into the cake tin and bake for 20 mins.  Check the cake every 5 minutes from this point on (today's cake took 35 minutes).  It is ready when it is golden on top and shrunk slightly from the edges.  

8. Hide cake from family and eat in private.

Friday, 16 August 2013


When you make your living through creative work, chances are you’ll go through periods of feast and famine. 

While the feast periods are great, lean times can be a chance to get inventive with the contents of your cupboard.  Your finances may not stretch to a take-away but a stay-in can be every bit as good, provided that you ignore the fact that you’re cooking it yourself (wine helps).

This Sweet and Sour chicken recipe uses the spare bits of Thai Chicken NoodlesFeast or Famine Bake and Odds and Sods Stirfry, with the addition of some fresh chicken and tinned pineapple and water chestnuts stockpiled from a wealthy period.  It’s one of our favourites for a Friday night in.  Enjoy.


Rapeseed oil for frying (best choice for helping the batter stick, although olive or vegetable oil will do).
2-3 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped finely
Leftover chillies, deseeded and finely chopped (equivalent of two, preferably red)
2 thumb-sized pieces of fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped
Leftover peppers, cut into strips (equivalent of two, red and green if you can manage it)
400-450g tin chopped pineapple pieces in juice
225g tin water chestnuts in water
100 self-raising flour
175ml chilled soda water
several large tablespoons of cornflour
2 large chicken breasts, cut into chunks
1 tablespoon tomato ketchup
3 tablespoons light soy sauce
1 tablespoon light brown sugar

Rice and chopped spring onions (optional) to serve

A large, clip top lidded packed lunch box (bear with me).


1. Pre-heat the oven to 120C.

2. Add the soda water to the flour and mix to remove any lumps.

3. Heat 2-3 tablespoons of rapeseed oil to a high heat in a saucepan.

4. Put 3 tablespoons of cornflour in the packed lunch box, add the chicken pieces, fasten the lid and shake vigorously.  See?  Efficient. No mess.

5. Remove the dusted pieces of chicken in small batches, dunk in the batter and fry in the rapeseed oil for 2 minutes on each side.  They should be golden and cooked through.  Keep warm in the oven.

6. In a separate pan, gently fry the chopped garlic, chillies and ginger in a tablespoon of rapeseed oil until softened. 

7. Mix one and a half tablespoons of cornflour with 3 tablespoons of the pineapple juice.  Add to the pan along with roughly 350ml water.

8. Add the pineapple pieces, soy sauce, ketchup, sugar and water chestnuts.  Bring to the boil and simmer for 10 minutes.

9. Rinse and cook the rice.

10. In a separate pan, flash fry the chopped peppers until seared but not soft.  Add to the sauce mixture.

11. Serve the chicken on the rice, and spoon the sweet and sour sauce mixture on top.
Slice the spring onions diagonally and add as a garnish.  Fab.

Friday, 26 July 2013


The meringue has always been a bit of a mystery to me.

My mum used to make them all the time when I was little and, although I never took to the ones I found in the shops once I'd grown up, I never felt a burning urge to make them myself.

All that changed on Sunday.  We visited good friends in Ireland and were treated to the most amazing tray of meringues I have ever tasted in my life (sorry Mum).  

It turned out that they were adapted from an old family recipe for pavlova and, in the true spirit of The Starving Artists’ Kitchen, they’re made from ingredients that you'll find at the back of your cupboard.  

They looked pretty spectacular too.  Here’s how they did it.


6 egg whites
2 teaspoons custard powder
2 pinches salt
2 teaspoons white vinegar (this will make the insides lovely and gooey)
2 teacups caster sugar


1. Beat egg whites and salt together until very stiff and whipping into peaks.

2. Add half of the sugar, continuing to beat all the time.

3. Fold in the remaining sugar, custard powder and white vinegar.  I know this sounds revolting but trust me, it will make all the difference.

4. Bake at 150 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes.  The meringues should be golden on the outside, gooey on the inside and not look out of place on Notre Dame.  Fabulous.