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!

 

 

 

Loving Lock-down.

 

The traffic isn’t as quiet but the people are definitely louder.  I wish I’d maintained a graph of the exponential increase in sociability during the last few months – it would have been a wonderful antidote to those awful official Covid ones.

Over at our local Blackbrook Park, there’s a new community life thriving.  When we first ventured there in March while even breathing in the same square mile as anyone else seemed too dangerous, other walkers were distinctly chilly.  As time has passed, distancing still stays social but exchanges have become happily chatty.

Dog-walkers are easy prey for anyone seeking some human contact: the smallest pooch generates a whole conversation from age and breed to obedience and energy.    Familiar faces have graduated from a bare nod to exchange of greetings.  Even the local teenagers can be persuaded to swop a few sentences.  Even on a damp grey November afternoon, the park literally hums with people talking to each other.  We may not be putting the world to rights (yet) but we are all living, breathing proof that man and womankind is a sociable species that relishes interactions – even at 2 metres distance.  Perhaps we can build on this new community spirit for the future and find the silver lining to the Covid cloud.

Simple suppers this week with my favourite smoked salmon mousse:

3 leaves of gelatine, soaked in cold water.

500g smoked salmon pieces (ideal for this dish and less expensive than posh slices).

2 tablespoons cream

2 tablespoons mayonnaise (optional)

Zest and juice of a lemon

(lots of) ground black pepper to taste

 

Pour off most of the water from the gelatine and heat in a medium microwave until dissolved.

Whizz all the ingredients in a food processor to make a thick and fairly smooth paste.

Adjust the seasoning with more black pepper if needed.

Spoon into serving dishes, cover and chill.

Serve with bread, toast or savoury biscuits plus a slice of lemon.

 

Disability

Q: What difference has 25 years made?

A: Not a lot if you’re a disabled person.

This week marks 25 years since the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (later included in the Equality Act 2010).  And the result is a raspberry.

Whether it is business, voluntary organisations or even Government Departments, there is little doubt that most weigh up the risk of being challenged under the law and decide compliance just isn’t worth the bother.  All of this contributes to people with long-term health conditions and disabilities getting a much tougher time than others.  Just a few recent examples:

Getting health information and communications in a format that is accessible for me is still hit and miss.  This week I was told that the reason I couldn’t access a report about my own health was because it had to be created using a specific template.  Despite the health sector dealing with every disabled person in the country, they still can’t get it right.  And one of the consequences, as reported by a former national Chief Medical Officer, is that people like me, for whom standard communications are more difficult due to visual or hearing impairment, have far worse health outcomes than other people.  Essentially, because the health sector won’t fulfil its legal responsibilities, I’m likely to die earlier/be sicker.

On another front, I’ve just marked the sixth anniversary of my continuing dispute with DWP: supposedly supporting disabled people to work but, due to arbitrary decisions, maladministration and injustice, they have brought my business to its knees and still no sight of a resolution.    No wonder the number of disabled people out of work is so high – and don’t believe that they are scroungers.  I’ve worked with thousands just desperate to get a job and have a place in the world.

And, talking of discrimination, what’s the difference between a care home and a student hall of residence?  Some clues: the residents in one haven’t been topped up with infected hospital castaways, have some chance of seeing their families for Christmas and aren’t all disabled people.

On a more positive note, and I need to declare an interest having worked with them for many years, our tax men and women are trying to do better.  HMRC has played a key role during the pandemic and has recently published its Customer Charter and principles of the extra help they can give to people with long-term health conditions and disabilities:

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/hmrc-charter

Please share this link with anyone you know who might need a helping hand with tax or Working Tax Credits.

And, if you want simple, straightforward and practical information  to help more disabled people, please get in touch or visit www.disabilitydynamics.co.uk

End of rant!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lest we forget.

 

Not even Covid can stop us remembering those who gave their lives for our futures, freedom and democracy.

Get your Poppy face mask from the Royal British Legion on-line shop and put on a brave face amidst our own troubles today.  I’m hugely grateful to friend Jane who found one of these for me so I too can honour those who served the country.

 

 

 

 

 

 

And I’ve been busy with some different flower arrangements too: one features the iridescence of old CDs plus a little tinsel while the other sports a fluffy pink straw bird’s ness and a black beaded cone – just a little reflection of Halloween and all created with just three stems of lilies!

And talking of forgetting: friend and frequent co-cook Karen created a superb Pavlova meringue for her son’s birthday and left it in the oven to finish cooling.  The drama of the weekend lock-down announcement threw all her plans awry: last minute dash to the supermarket to grab some essentials, pizza for supper and oven on to heat them.  A pall of acrid smoke greeted her on return: the Pavlova had been reduced to cinders and they’d been lucky to avoid a fire.  She had to re-start her birthday confection and I inherited over a dozen yolks.

Luckily, there were just enough oranges and lemons languishing in the fridge to make this

St. Clement’s Curd.  You can definitely reduce the proportions:

12 egg yolks

12 ounces granulated sugar

8 ounces butter, cubed small

Zest and juice of 3 and a half oranges plus 3 and a half lemons

 

Put the egg yolks into a heat proof bowl to reach room temperature while preparing the other ingredients.

Add the zest, juice, sugar and butter cubes to the bowl.

Place over a pan of barely simmering water and gently whisk ingredients together until the mix reaches 71 degrees Centigrade throughout the mix.

Pot in to sterilised jars and eat soon, keeping in the fridge.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

Accessible communications.

 

If you need some tips about making information easy for anyone, try this little handbook I put together:

http://www.disabilitydynamics.co.uk/index_htm_files/151123%20-%20Accessible%20Communications.docx

 

One colleague sent me this feedback this week:

“I’m a carer for my dad who has advanced Parkinson’s disease and dementia and the following points especially hit home with me:-

1/ ‘a person may be one of the over 2 million people who need others to have more patience in listening to their speech which is less fluent due to a speech impairment, a stroke’.

My dad now has a severe speech and cognitive impairment and we really have to listen very carefully and try to interpret what he is trying to say, more so now than ever, he often can’t think what he needs to say either.

2/ Talk to the disabled person, not the support person.

This is so true, when we take dad out people often talk to us instead of him which is also frustrating.”

 

I completely recognise that frustration: I was at a hospital just recently and the person controlling entry and Covid safety measures just couldn’t manage to speak to me.  It was rather as if my white cane had become magical: I was invisible, incapable of either hearing or speech.  Those who know me will understand how it became an utterly humiliating and embarrassing  experience for that wretched person – thank goodness her manager saved her!

 

The handbook is short, straightforward and free for anyone to use so please share it around.  And it helps with Equality Act compliance too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Super supper soup.

It takes more than an ordinary bowl for the Christmas cake mix here and inspired my very first Baking Blind video by brother Martin  https://youtu.be/Y81yGF72dUQ

In the past, I’ve used a pristine washing-up bowl but even this isn’t big enough for, by my calculations, nearly 10 kilos (20 lb) of ingredients.  Luckily, my Covid home clear-out unearthed an even bigger food-quality plastic box.  The dried fruit had been soaking in brandy for months;  two hours chopping the nuts gave me cramp in both hands; I layered the butter/sugar/eggs/flour mix with the other ingredients in the box, folded them all together and filled all the cake tins and moulds. It was a juggling act to cook them in two ovens, turning and changing their positions over several hours.  Thankfully, there was enough to have a “test cake” shared with guinea pig friends, Sue and Rod.  Verdict: perfectly moist but I’ll still be injecting brandy for the next week.

Other cooking was rather on the back burner in the midst of these culinary challenges but I did manage a new B&B soup:

1 onion, peeled and chopped

2 carrots, peeled and chopped

2 sticks celery, peeled and chopped

250g smoked back bacon, de-rinded and chopped

1 butternut squash, peeled, de-seeded and chopped

3 vegetable stock cubes

Salt and pepper

 

Sauté the onion, carrots, celery and bacon.

Add the butternut squash to the pan plus the stock cubes.

Cover the ingredients with water and simmer until the squash has softened.

Whizz to a smooth soup in a blender.

Season to taste.

 

Even Martin, staying overnight and no fan of butternut squash, declared the result to be delicious – served  with home-made soda bread to make that super supper.