Winter cheer

The Not Forgotten Association  (www.thenotforgotten.org) Jingle Bells Rock drive-in entertainment and lunch at Southampton Airport was the highlight of this week.  It was covered by ITV local News.

We all sat in our socially-distanced cars with special speakers that blasted out the jollity of popular Christmas songs rendered by a stalwart and talented group of entertainers on the stage, battling the winter chill.  They had to be wildly determined and motivated as the only audience feedback was the hooting of car horns and waving of arms.  We and other veterans with health conditions and injuries from military service were welcomed with beakers of mulled wine (tea or coffee for the drivers) and fed a simple but delicious hog roast lunch.  Songs, dancing and hooting continued for a couple of hours, punctuated by silly games and a raffle.  The synchronised horn hooting to the “12 days of Christmas” was the fantastic finale.

As a blind person, the spectacle wasn’t so obvious but the sheer energy, enjoyment and happiness of the event was wonderful after nine months of hibernation.

For anyone else with little or no sight, there’s a possibility that a mobile phone and artificial intelligence could help you get around. See more on: www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/technology-55178066

Meanwhile, I’ve been re-making this simple lamb tajine https://youtu.be/z5YjvpvwVOg.  It is fragrant with spices, is not too hot and reheats perfectly from the freezer.

2 medium onions peeled and diced.

1 tablespoon oil.

2 portions GGG*.

500 g lamb, diced.

1 teaspoon turmeric.

1 teaspoon ground cumin.

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon.

1 teaspoon smoked paprika.

1 rounded teaspoon harissa.

500cl water.

1 handful stoned dates, chopped.

7 fresh tomatoes, chopped.

1 rounded tablespoon almonds, ground.

2 chicken stock pots/cubes.

A good squeeze tomato paste.

1 medium tin chick peas (240 gram, drained.

1 orange – zest and juice.

 

Sauté the onions in the oil until softening then add the GGG.

Add the lamb to the pan and sauté.

Add the spices and sauté for a minute or two until their fragrance can be smelled.

Add all remaining ingredients (except the orange juice and zest) and bring the pan to a very gentle simmer.

Cover and continue to cook over a very low heat (over a heat diffuser, in a very low oven, in a slow-cooker) until the lamb is tender and the tajine is unctuous (at least 2 hours and sometimes 5-10 hours depending on how you are cooking it).

Add the orange zest and juice before serving with couscous.

 

*GGG is 4 parts fresh root ginger, 2 parts garlic and 1 part green (or red) chilli.  Peel and de-seed and roughly chop before whizzing in to a rough paste in a food processor.  A portion is one teaspoonful.  I freeze portions in an ice-cube tray and then store in a box in the freezer.  Excellent for all curries too.

 

 

 

 

Goose getting fat?

 

The first two of the Christmas trees are now up and sparkling here, gifts are being wrapped and festive menus planned.  Christmas is just around the corner and let’s hope that the news of the roll-out of a vaccine is a gift for thousands.  It’s time to smile again – even behind your mask.

I’ve been reviving a classic country recipe from the Vendee. I first tasted this recipe in France with friends, Joan and Jeff: simple and hearty for a comforting lunch.  If you are having goose for Christmas, then it is worth saving some of the fat for this dish.  Alternatively, there are jars of both goose and duck fat around for roast potatoes so you could use what’s left-over.

In France, a boudin noir would be steamed on top of the mogettes (white beans).  My UK alternative of black pudding is close enough.

 

4 large handfuls of dried white haricot beans, soaked in water for at least 24 hours.

2 medium onions, peeled and diced.

2 carrots, peeled and diced.

4 sticks of celery, diced.

6 cloves garlic, peeled and diced.

1 tablespoon goose fat.

2 chicken or vegetable stockpots/cubes.

A good squeeze of tomato puree.

Half a glass of white wine.

2 stems rosemary, leaves removed and chopped.

3 sprigs thyme, leaves removed.

Black pudding

Apple puree.

 

Sauté the onions, celery, carrots and garlic in the goose fat until softening.

Add the drained beans (they will have become about 6 large handfuls).

Add enough water to cover plus the stockpots/cubes, tomato paste, wine and the herb leaves (about a tablespoonful).

Simmer very gently until the beans are soft (about 8 hours) when nearly all the liquid will have been absorbed and check seasoning – perhaps some pepper.

About half an hour before serving, place the black pudding on top of the beans to heat through.

Warm the apple puree in the microwave and place a spoonful on each plate – top with some black pudding.

Serve the beans alongside.

 

I brought the beans to a simmer and then put a heat diffuser between the pan and gas.  They cooked for five hours one day; were switched off overnight and re-simmered the next morning.  A pressure cooker (too terrifying for this blind person) would probably be quicker or, in desperation and at the cost of authenticity, a can of pre-cooked beans (NOT Baked Beans!) might do.

I tossed a diced courgette on top of the beans before the black pudding so I didn’t have to trouble with any more vegetables.

Be aware: this bean dish is long-winded in more than one sense!

 

 

Brightening up dull days

I wanted something warm to match my electric blue Crocks – and this madly exuberant leather and fur cape leapt out of the wardrobe.  It hasn’t seen the light of day for about 15 years since I bought it in Athens with friend and guide, Rosemary from Australia.  I even found matching gloves in one pocket and the original receipt in the other.  I am pleased to report that, even in those days, I’d driven a hard bargain and managed a great reduction!

Comments on the sartorial elegance are not needed please but it amused me and, hopefully, the neighbours.

Now: something very simple and not too calorific so that you can get in shape for those Christmas treats.

3 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped.

400g mushrooms, sliced.

2 tablespoons olive oil.

Salt and ground black pepper.

Freshly grated parmesan cheese  (optional)

7 handfuls pasta shells.

200g fresh spinach leaves, washed and any hard stalks removed.

 

While the hot water comes to a simmer for the pasta, gently sauté the garlic and mushrooms – season with salt and ground black pepper.

When the water is boiling, add 3 handfuls of pasta shells per person and one for the pot.

Add the spinach to the mushrooms and sauté they start to wilt.

Drain the pasta and return to the pan, adding the mushrooms and spinach.

Mix well and serve in hot bowls with a seasoning of parmesan .

 

This makes an excellent hot lunch for a winter’s day for two people.  I give the parmesan a  miss as cheese gives me migraines  and I can’t bear the smell!  Any pasta will do but shells are good for holding the mushrooms and garlic.  We’d eaten  the lot before we remembered to take a photo!

 

 

 

 

Deck the halls …

Still a bit early but it’s not too soon to practice some Christmas treats.  These mince pies must be nearly calorie-free being so very tiny and encased in just a wisp of pastry.  How could anyone refuse

I’ve been experimenting with a different pastry: sweet and spiced hot water crust.  Usually this is reserved for pork or game pies but I’ve found it very flexible for many different uses.

This quantity made 24 very small pies and even enough to make tops for four.  The rest were given a crumble topping.  I used homemade mincemeat made with our own apples but shop-bought would work just as well – perhaps with some added orange zest, chopped apple and a splash of brandy to make it your own.

Thumbs up for this version: pastry could be pressed very thin to contrast with the succulent filling, crisp with a little bite and easy to extract from the tin.  Ideal pastry for blind people as minimum mess with no floury rolling out – and good for children too.

75g lard

100g water

50g sugar

200g plain flour

50g strong white bread flour

1 rounded teaspoon ground mixed spice

Half teaspoon salt

50g butter.

Melt the lard, water and sugar until everything has dissolved and allow to cool a little.

Meanwhile, rub the butter in to the flours, spices and salt.

Pour the liquid mix in to the bowl of dry ingredients and mix well to combine, first with a wooden spoon and then your hands.

Roll small pieces of the dough in to balls and press in to the tin, over the bottom and up the sides of each hole.

Trim the excess pastry from each pie and reform the scraps to fill every hole, using anything left over to make lids.

Fill the mini-pies with mincemeat – not too much as it may run over in the oven.

Top with lids, re-trimming as necessary, or with a few tablespoons of crumble mix.

Chil the tray in the fridge for an hour or so.

Cook at Gas 4 for 10 minutes and then at Gas 2  for a further 15 minutes.

Dust the lidded pies with a little sugar and allow the whole tray to cool for at least 30 minutes before gently removing the pies.

I always have a bag of my standard crumble mix  in the freezer.  It uses a ratio of 1  each butter; crushed hazelnuts; soft brown sugar to 2 porridge oats.  Excellent   on top of cooking apples and some more of the mincemeat – and no more sugar needed.

 

 

Babies’ Heads

 

One of those pieces of Royal Navy food slang.  Imagine a tray full of individual steak and kidney puddings: rows of glistening and moistly steaming pale domes….

I haven’t made these for probably 40 years but thought a little warming nostalgia would be cheering in these days of isolation.  I hadn’t realised that steamed suet puddings had also recently featured on Bake-Off and that the success rate with the Sussex Pond version was distinctly low – why it’s called a lemon?  But this is a much more fool-proof method more suitable for the rest of us mortals.

This approach takes not too much preparation time spread over a couple of days and produces puddings that can be cooked straight away, from the fridge or even from the freezer in minutes.  The only drawback is that the quantity (driven by the size of the suet box) made exactly seven small individual puddings.  I could have stretched the filling with some carrots and/or leeks but would still have been a bit short on the pastry to make the eighth.

 

For the filling:

3 tablespoons olive oil.

2 large onions peeled and chopped.

500g mushrooms chopped small.

500g stewing beef, cut small.

2 lamb’s kidneys trimmed and chopped.

2 tablespoons plain flour.

Good grinding of black pepper.

1 generous teaspoon mustard powder.

2 beef stockpots/cubes.

6 dashes of Worcestershire sauce.

3 bay leaves, stems removed and torn small.

440ml can of Guinness.

 

For the pastry:

1 pack (240g) suet.

480g self-raising flour.

Grind of black pepper.

Cold water.

Day 1.

Sauté the onions in the oil until becoming transparent and then add the mushrooms.

When the mushrooms are nearly cooked, add the beef, turning to cook all over.

Add the kidney pieces and flour, stirring to mix through.

Add the remaining ingredients and stir thoroughly as the mixture comes to a gentle simmer.

Cover the pan and place in a low oven (Gas 2) for two hours (or cook on the lowest heat on top of the hob or in a slow cooker).  Add some water if it seems to be reducing too much.

Allow to cool then chill in the fridge overnight.

Day 2.

Rub the suet in to the flour and pepper then mix with the water to a firm dough that leaves the sides of the bowl (around 3 tablespoons or so).

Take pieces of the dough and press flat and thin to line individual 1/3 pint bowls, leaving a lip at the top.

Fill the bowls with the meat mixture.  Keep any gravy to serve with the puddings.

Take more dough and press out into a circle, dampen the edges and press firmly to seal to the pastry lining the bowl.

Trim off any excess pastry.

 

To cook the puddings:

Microwave: suitable for plastic bowls only  (Lakeland)– cover with paper kitchen towel and cook on Medium power for 4-5 minutes (1 bowl) or 7-8 minutes (2 bowls), allow to stand for 5 minutes before serving.

Steam: cover each bowl with a double layer of greaseproof paper plus a layer of foil on top, fold all the layers together in the middle to form a pleat for any expansion, tie the coverings to the bowl with string and trim off any excess.

Place on a saucer or similar in a pan of simmering water (water about half to two thirds up side of bowls), put on a lid and simmer for one hour.

Remove string and coverings and turn upside down on to plates.

The microwave method is much easier for me as I don’t have to fiddle around with the greaseproof, foil and string – not so easy when you can’t see.

This is also a great dish to make beforehand: the puddings can be kept uncooked in the fridge for a day or so or frozen and de-frosted before microwaving.

Wonderful served with mashed potatoes, some of the reserved gravy and green vegetables or even a stir-fry – memories of our youth!

 

 

 

Quick cakes for tea

Friends Joan and Jeff visited for a Covid-secure tea and came laden with their allotment produce including an enormous potato weighing in at over 750g – that would feed a family of four.  They’d brought peas that can be planted now and will grow over winter and tiny self-seeded rainbow chard plants that can go into the pots vacated by summer’s tomatoes.  Most intriguing were the coconut sugar and flour they’d found in a local supermarket – definitely worth trying in my next baking session.

Creating something interesting and delicious to entertain them hadn’t taken long.  A few minutes preparation the night before and just minutes in the morning produced these very simple little fruit cakes that came out perfectly: soft and spicy, rich with fruit and not too sweet.  Just one left at the end of their visit!

 

A generous handful each of:

Raisins

Currants

Sultanas

Dates, cut in half

Dried apricot, chopped

Glace cherries

250g each of:

Butter

Soft brown sugar

Self-raising flour

4 eggs

2 heaped teaspoons mixed spices.

 

Put all the fruit except the cherries into a bowl, cover with water and then drain off virtually all the water.  Microwave on low/medium power for a few minutes until the fruit is warm.  Allow to cool.

Whizz the butter and sugar together in a food processor until soft and fluffy.

Whizz in the eggs one at a time, with a little of the flour.

Pulse in the remaining flour and spices.

Pulse in the fruit and cherries – you might need to fold in by hand.

Place dollops of the mix in to muffin or cupcake paper containers.

Cook at Gas 1 for 45 minutes.

 

I warmed the fruit,  put the butter and sugar in the food processor bowl, weighed out the flour and spices, got out the eggs the night before so everything was at room temperature.

It only took about 15 minutes to create the mix and put the 12 cupcake containers into the individual holes of a metal tray to support them while cooking.

The mix made 12 small cakes and another larger one (cooked for an extra 30 minutes, for later in the week).

This would make a good alternative last-minute Christmas cake.

 

 

 

 

Two for one

Even in these times of restrictions, life can be hectic so one cooking session that provides at least two different meals can be a boon.

Here it has been rather a mad house of activity.  Enough mix for sixteen Christmas puddings was lovingly tied up with string for steaming in the individual bowls.  Long-term builder Rodney and his lads, Wayne and Andrew, were all over the garden for a week installing a magnificent new fence.   I reckon that the trellis topping will provide over 130 square feet of luxuriant sun-bathed growing space for productive climbers  (kiwi, blackberries, grape vine) plus annual climbing vegetables (sugar snaps, beans and more) plus some evergreen fragrant plants too.  The noise was pretty dreadful for the neighbours as they dug holes for new posts, chopped down neglected scrub outside the boundary and groaned to instal the heavy panels.  No peace for the neighbours as the security team tested the alarm system for what seemed hours.  Thankfully the plumber/heating engineer was distinctly more peaceful as he worked his special magic with a couple of leaks.

Most of these tradesmen have been here on and off for nearly 20 years.  It makes such a difference, when you can’t see to check the work, to have people whom you can trust entirely and who have become friends.  Although they still send the bills …

A quick cooking session was the solution with so much going on – perhaps an hour in the kitchen and at least two meals ready for later.

3 pieces of fresh rosemary

Good handful of fresh thyme

2 onions, peeled and finely chopped.

5 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely chopped

2 tablespoons of olive oil

6 red peppers, de-seeded and cut in half top to bottom

2 handfuls of pitted black olives, cut in half

1 tin of tomatoes

6 fresh tomatoes, chopped

Salt and black pepper.

250g sausage meat, divided and rolled into marble size.

Remove the leaves from the rosemary and thyme and chop finely.

Sauté the onions and half of the the garlic in the olive oil in a large ovenproof pan.

Add 4 halves of pepper, chopped, plus half the olives and herbs plus the tin of tomatoes to the pan – season and bring to a gentle simmer.

Mix the remaining herbs, garlic, olives with the chopped tomatoes in a bowl and season well.

Place 3 or 4 marbles of sausage meat in each of the remaining pepper halves and top with the tomato/herb/garlic/olive mix.

Add the remaining meat marbles to the pan.

Place the filled pepper halves in the pan and cover with a lid or foil.

Place in the oven at Gas 4 for an hour and then reduce to Gas 2 until the peppers are soft  (an hour or more).

Remove the stuffed peppers for one meal (they reheat perfectly in the microwave on a medium setting).

Use the sauce left in the pan to make another meal with pasta.  I prefer shells which capture the pieces of vegetable or meat.

Family of creators.

There are Melville-Browns making all sorts:  painting and sculpture (Chris), handmade dovecots (Peter), photography (Martin), plays and drama (Jonathan), car design(Guy), sodabread enterprise (Laura), lighting for international hotels (Jessica), architectural and other illustration (Toby), theatrical stage management (Emily) and even one of the youngest is moving in to metalwork.

Emily’s latest venture is close to our interests and links to the bees: cotton food wraps impregnated with beeswax so that they are food-safe, durable and washable.  The perfect alternative to clingfilm if you want to reduce your use of plastics https://www.numonday.com/shop/m-bee/

For my part, let me introduce the humble but wildly successful sock-dryer.  Fiddling around with individual pegs to hang up socks was just too irritating – put it down to being blind rather than innate impatience.

1 large ice-cream box lid (other pieces of plastic are available).

2 plastic coat hangers.

Gaffer tape.

1 one inch pastry cutter.

1 pen.

1 Stanley or similar sharp knife.

 

Mark two rows of 4 or 5 circles down the two sides of the lid – going lengthwise – marking the circles by running the pen around the pastry cutter.

Cut a cross inside each circle with the knife: cutting from edge to edge like a hot cross bun.

Attach each side of the lid along the length of a coat hanger with the tape.

Tape the two coat hanger hooks together.

Voila: one perfect sock-dryer.

(For good finish, make sure the circles are in a straight line and cut the crosses all in the same direction.  I confess I just did the design and master craftsman Steve did the making.)

At first, you need to watch your fingers when pushing socks through the crosses but these soon soften.  Simply load and hang up in a good drying location.  Those with tidy minds can even pair their socks in the dryer (too sad).

 

 

Terrine de campagne.

One of my long-term ambitions has been to make the sort of terrines, pâtés and cooked meats in storage jars that you can buy in France.  With the Covid situation continuing and Brexit looming on the horizon with all the possibilities of food shortages and power cuts, I have the excuse to try some preserving that doesn’t rely on a freezer.  And having a great local butcher who will select and mince exactly the right meat makes a huge difference.

I used the type of glass jars that have a rubber seal and metal clips.  This recipe is my adaptation of the Le Parfait terrine that you can find on-line https://leparfait.co.uk  (they make the jars):

5 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped.

1 glass of white wine.

500g pork meat (100% lean, minced

500g pork meat (50% lean, 50% fat), minced

500g chicken livers, chopped.

2 large onions, peeled and finely chopped.

1 egg

3 teaspoons ground black pepper

1 teaspoon mace

1 teaspoon salt

A good slug of brandy.

 

Place the garlic and wine in a pan and gently heat to soften the garlic (or microwave in a bowl).

Get a very large bowl and add all the ingredients – I used my hands so had a bowl of hot soapy water ready.

When thoroughly mixed, fill the jars to the neck, fit the seal to the lid and clamp shut.

Place in a large pan and cover with at least an inch of water.

Bring to a simmer (100°C) for three hours.

Allow to cool in the pan.

When the jars are cool enough to handle, release the clip and try to lift the lid.  If it is not possible, you have a good vacuum seal so replace the clip and store.

I also filled a silicone loaf mould with the terrine mix, on top of three bay leaves, vacuum packed it and cooked it in the sous-vide for 6 hours at 70°C.

Alternatively, you could cover loosely with foil and place in a roasting tray filled with water.  Cook in a moderate oven (Gas 4) and cook for a couple of hours – until a cooking thermometer shows 70°C.

Served with the damson and apple, date and walnut chutneys, homemade bread rolls and salad garnish.  Excellent.

 

 

 

Tamarillo or not Tamarillo?

 

That’s the question.  We have just discovered a plant in the garden: long soft ovate leaves and elongated yellow fruits with the feel and structure of apples – even the same taste as I threw caution to the wind and ate one.  The plant finder App pronounced tamarillo (also known as the tree tomato).    But great friend and gardening researcher Elaine re-posted that they are the fruits of the passion flower: cause stomach upsets if eaten when still yellow rather than the golden peachy colour they should achieve when ripe.  I have no idea where the well-established shrub sprang from and why it has chosen to fruit this year or what it really is.  Any suggestions very welcome please.

This week I was finding a use for last year’s crop of chilli peppers.  They have been drying for many months so, once topped and tailed and de-seeded, I ground them with dried rosemary from the garden, dried thyme and powdered garlic.

A simple potato recipe for the mix:

Slice potatoes into thick slices (about 0.5 cm thick).

Throw the slices in to a bowl with a good grinding of black pepper, half a teaspoonful or so of salt, a teaspoon of the chilli/herb mix plus a good tablespoonful or two of olive oil.

Mix with your hands so that every surface of potato is covered.

Lay out on parchment paper and cook for about 45 minutes at Gas 4, turning the slices over after about 30 minutes.

Utterly delicious!

The potatoes were dished up with a roast chicken cooked the Heston way: soaked overnight in a litre of water plus 60g salt, slices of lemon and herbs.  Next day, drain, put the lemon slices inside the chicken and put into a roasting tin in the oven at the lowest heat.  The key piece of equipment is a thermometer (mine talks) and, after three or so hours, check that the temperature of the thickest piece of thigh has reached 70C (put it back in the oven if not hot enough).  When you are satisfied with the temperature, remove the chicken from the oven and cover with foil and a kitchen towel (the cotton sort).  Let it rest for about 45 minutes (while you cook the potatoes).

Turn the oven up to the highest temperature and remove all the coverings from the chicken – cook it for 10 minutes to produce a crisp, brown skin.

Serve everything with vegetables: easy roast chicken lunch.

And, while I was making this, I also cooked apple, date and walnut chutney using the same proportions and method as the damson version (posted a few weeks ago) – excellent.

(Plus, an apple crumble and a rhubarb and ginger (crystallised) crumble – a busy morning in the kitchen.  My crumble mix uses oats, brown sugar, crushed hazelnuts and butter – I prefer it to the flour version.

 

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