Ding Dong

Last of the Christmas decorations: three wreath rings and a turquoise tree to welcome friends popping in to exchange Christmas gifts.  Masked and distanced, it is very different to the usual party gatherings but worth it if we are all to be around next year.

More people are making special efforts to share Christmas treats: the superb “self-isolation choir” will be presenting their Nine Lessons and Carols this Sunday 20 December at 1700:

http://theselfisolationchoir.com/s/Christmas-at-Home-Poster.pdf

These talented amateur singers exude their enthusiasm and the authenticity of Christmas giving as they warble alone from their homes and create the splendid sound of the massed choir.  There is a voluntary ticket price of £5 to the charity FORGETMENOTCHORUS – further details in the link

I was especially treated for my birthday this week.  Friend and co-cook Karen created the super-decorated ginger birthday cake, great cooking pal John brought his Christmas Bakewell tart and I’d used the scrapings from our own Christmas cake to make a small birthday edition – topped with a mini-pile-of-presents I’d made in pewter.  Far too many calories too close to Christmas!

John was happy to share his recipe and I’m working on Karen.

John’s Christmas Bakewell Tart

For the pastry base:

125g butter.

250g plain flour.

50g icing sugar.

1 egg.

Rub the butter in to the flour and sugar before binding together with the beaten egg.

Roll out the pastry to line a deep flan case.

Cover the base with a layer of fruit mincemeat topped with glace cherries and flaked almonds.

For the filling:

175g margarine.

175g sugar.

200g self-raising flour.

3 eggs.

A generous tablespoon of good almond essence.

Whizz all the ingredients together in a food processor and pour into the flan case.

Bake at 160C Gas 4 for about an hour.

 

For the icing:

3 tablespoons icing sugar.

1 teaspoon almond essence.

1 teaspoon water.

Flaked almonds.

Mix the sugar, essence and water together to create a smooth and slightly runny icing.

Remove the tart from the flan case once cooled and pour over the icing, topping with the almonds.

 

This is a substantial and delicious alternative to other seasonal cakes and puddings – perfect for a last-minute addition to a Christmas buffet.

 

 

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!

 

 

 

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.