It appears that life is determined to put the cobblers on my $21 Challenge Month! Still, I refuse to despair, there is still time. I might not get a chance until the last week of the month but I WILL do it. If there are two things I have learned about the $21 Challenge, it is:
1. Planning is essential. Unless you are a super organised person in the first place, which I'm not, you need to take the time to ascertain what food you actually have to do your challenge with. As yet, I still haven't got beyond the freezer and my pantry is currently so chaotic that I will need to take before and after photos for it to be believed. I don't know about you but I can't do a $21 Challenge like that. I need to be organised. Cool, calm and in control! Of which I am neither at the moment.
2. Don't take on too much! It has taken me a long time to learn this one! The old me would have tried to force a $21 Challenge into the schedule no matter what, even if it resulted in a nervous breakdown. However I have learned these past few months that sometimes you cannot be Superwoman. You can only physically do so much, in which case you need to prioritise. Start at the beginning and finish at the end as Noel says. Obviously if being able to pay a bill or unforeseen expense depended on me doing a $21 Challenge to find some extra money I would make that my priority but at present I know I will not physically get the time to sort out my pantry or work out my Challenge week menu plan until at least the 23rd. I am happy in the knowledge that my Challenge is at least on the horizon, I will get to complete it before the month is out and when the time comes I can be confident of doing it well.
So what on earth is taking up all my time at the moment anyway? There's the book of course but something else has become even more time consuming in recent weeks - the boys' rugby! Yes, five days and nights a week you will find us at the rugby grounds at the moment. I'm not complaining, I love it and so do the boys - it just doesn't leave much time for $21 Challenges, cooking, washing, ironing, homework or pretty much anything else! Liam is currently the leading try scorer in his team and has just been selected to represent the district in a week-long tournament. It's a big honour, he's worked really hard for it and I'm as proud as punch. The trainings are not just hard, they're downright brutal but he absolutely loves it and it's been so good for his confidence. He's made some great new friends and it's lovely to see him so happy. The only downside is that what with Ali's scouts too we're now out four nights a week and weekends are non-existent. I don't mind the travelling around in the slightest but we have all become heartily sick of slow cooked casseroles and stews. The other day the family was prepared to wait almost two hours for me to make home made burgers and potato wedges, so desperate were they for a change!
Noel, bless him helps out wherever he can and has done on countless occasions while writing the book. As Alex, honest as ever, commented yesterday to my in-laws 'You know, so far I think Noel is actually the better cook. Not that I've seen Penny actually do much cooking!' Fiddlesticks! He's just referring to a rather unfortunate cooking disaster which occurred recently and I have a feeling he will never let me live it down. Alex LOVES food so I thought I would impress him with my Shepherds Pie, which everybody loves. I've been making it since I was a kid and it has never, ever gone wrong. I will share the recipe here for you, complete with the secret ingredient which my mum discovered quite by accident when I was little. We've never eaten it any other way since!
The Best Shepherds Pie Ever!
Preheat the oven to 180C.
Heat a splash of oil in a medium-large saucepan. Brown the mince as usual with a chopped onion.
Then add the secret ingredient - a can of condensed vegetable soup!
Add one beef stock cube, bring to the boil, then transfer to your shepherds pie dish.
Pop in the oven for 20-30 minutes so that a 'crust' forms on the top (and your mashed spuds won't sink)
While the mince is cooking, boil and mash spuds as usual, then spread on top of the mince.
Sprinkle with grated chese if liked and finish it off in the oven for another 20 minutes until the potato is golden on the top and the cheese is nice and melted.
Try it, I guarantee you'll love it! I guess you could call it a family specialty. But seeing as there was one more person for dinner this time I was worried about there being enough to go round, so I simply doubled the recipe. Bad move. The result was something which we now affectionately call 'Shepherds Pie Soup'. It tasted fine but it was just, well - different! The potato kind of disappeared into the meat. It slopped off the spoon and splatted onto the plates and we all did our best to scoop it up. We had a good giggle about it but I was terribly embarrassed and felt very Bridget Jones, even though my soup wasn't blue. I thought the incident had been forgotten until yesterday when Alex was tucking into a bowl of porridge Noel had made and was raving on about how good it was. 'You know,' he pointed out, 'I think Noel's porridge is actually thicker than Penny's Shepherds Pie!' The ratbag!
So based on recent performances I would say that yes, Noel has had more culinary success than me lately. The thing is, all the time I've been rushed off my feet he flatly refuses to let me menu plan. We've been sharing the cooking and he says he doesn't like cooking the same things as I do. According to him he 'uses up all the things that would never get used otherwise' if it was left up to me. A valid point but I'm lost without my menu plan! As well as never knowing what's for dinner from one day to the next, I don't even know what food we actually have. I regularly find I come unstuck when I'm doing the cooking these days as I get halfway through a recipe and find that Noel has already used up the last of a vital ingredient when HE'S cooked something beforehand! Still, his efforts are greatly appreciated and I'm confident we'll get back to our usual, slightly more organised routine when rugby has finished. In August...
One effective, although rather drastic way to avoid spending money I have found recently is to lose your handbag. Noel and I went out together last week and he treated me to lunch in a wonderful little cafe called Sola in Thames, which specialises in vegetarian and gluten free food. It also turns out they have very nice, honest staff and customers because they went to extensive lengths to track me down when I left my handbag on the bag of a chair in the cafe, containing all my worldly goods. I was blissfully unaware until I received a phone call that night and while I was most relieved I was too busy to drive 45 minutes each way to go back and get it for several days! Just goes to show you really can live without a cent when you have no choice!