Yikes…I thought all was going swimmingly on the Christmas gift and preparation front but it is a fact (possibly not actually…a fact..) that time speeds up in the week before Christmas so that however you plan you just seem to be dashing around like a headless chicken at the last minute. I’ve tried the list making (always good) and the slow, deep breathing there is still an edge of panic creeping up on me.
I was, of course, planning to make loads of edible gifts for my loved ones and some of the ideas have already been ditched but these can be made quickly.
The Mulled wine ‘kit‘ can perk up a bottle of wine and usually falls into the gift category of ‘need to get them something but they are difficult to buy for…and I actually don’t want to spend that much’. I know you have lots of these dilemmas.
The Florentines, on the other hand fall in to the gift category of ‘I really want to give them something special that they will love and show that I have spent time (in very short supply at the moment as we have discussed) in lovingly making these gorgeous Italian biscuits. They are a pretty Christmassy mix of dried fruit, candied peel, cherries and nuts held together loosely with caramel and then dipped in plain chocolate. I only make them at Christmas and so are more special because of this. Fortunately they don’t keep very well with a tendency to go soggy so you have to eat them asap-no good for putting under the Christmas tree
Now Christmas is snapping at my heels and there is a vague feeling of panic about all the cooking, buying, wrapping, celebrating etc that has to be done in the next few weeks…my top tip for this week is make a PLAN. I love having visitors to stay over, and I have quite a few, but don’t want to spend all my time in the kitchen. I love the idea of floating around with glass in hand eating beautiful delicious nibbles and cocktails or sitting by the log fire and enjoying time my friends and family. I love beautiful decorations too that make everyone’s stay feel special. I do manage some of this even though I say it myself! How do you do this? Well it’s all about planning the food well in advance and now is the time to get a wriggle on and make some lovely festive dishes that will sit very happily in your freezer waiting to be whipped out at the last minute.
Christmas day isn’t really the problem it’s the days before and the days after that complicate things especially if you have friends and family, like mine, that need to stay over for a few days – I make a sketchy plan for all the meals and even sketchier shopping lists. Ok, it’s a bit anal but if I do this then I can, truly, enjoy the holiday with out burning out on Christmas Eve and having a major melt down.
Here is an old favourite of mine that is already sitting in my freezer and will make an appearance on Christmas Eve so there is no last minute cooking and I can enjoy that glass of champagne!
Br…rr it’s cold outside and I want something to warm me up on this cold, blustery day in the Lake District.
Homemade soup is a joy to eat and never fails to raise the spirit-not to mention keeping you warm inside. You can easily add a a few soups to your favourite list of foods; leek and lentil, creamy onion with bubbling cheesy toasts, chunky spiced vegetable. or what about beef soup with dumplings. Tomato soup is the stuff of childhood but this soup is nothing like the sweet, creamy, canned version I used to have. Homemade it has a bright and fresh flavour. You could add torn basil leaves and spice it up with a little chilli powder. For a more substantial meal try these homemade croutons. They transform any soup.
This soup is lovely to eat, keeps you warm and is cheap to make………..a win win situation. Here is my homemade soup made with love for you…
Now what can these be? I have had a few tentative guesses…….Christmas decorations, fly papers, raspberry and meringue strips…actually they are fruit leathers! Deliciously chewy and fruity snacks, they are fun to make and children will love them. There are some similar sweets you can buy for children but they are very sweet and come in very violent colours which are unlikely to have come from any fruit known to man. I made these from windfall apples and foraged blackberries (I had some in the freezer as you are always reluctant to stop picking once you start-generally there are some here) and so they cost next to nothing to make. Here are the recipes for Apple leather an also some Apple with Bramble leather. I’m going to experiment with some of the more exotic fruits that you can buy tinned ie mango and apricots. Just buy the ones in fruit juice and not in syrup which would be quite sweet. Liqudise them using just enough of the juice and then pour into your tray. If you over do the water heat the puree up and cook until the water evaporates. Later in the year I’m going to use my redcurrants and blackcurrants to make more ‘tangy’ versions-like the brambles you would need to put the fruit through a sieve first to remove the pips
We were picking brambles at the week end-a favourite Autumnal day out-and windfall Bramley apples………………….a lovely combination to use for a traditional pie. None of this continental malarkey with sweet pastry and a custard base. No this is a very plain and simple pie using a shortcrust pastry made with margarine and lard. Yes, I can hear you say, it does have to be lard.
Where I come from, Yorkshire, pies have a top and a bottom if you please, tarts only have bottoms. I only added a little sugar to the fruit so that you can taste the fruit but you could always pass the sugar bowl around when you are serving for those that like a sweeter taste. I like to rebel and haven’t precooked the filling- wild I know but it is more usual to precook the apple. It really doesn’t need it and it is much better this way because Bramley apples quickly ‘fall’ when cooked ie they loose their shape and go mushy which then makes for a mushy pie-so I have avoided this by putting the apple in raw, just slice them thinly after coring and peeling. Use a traditional enamel metal plate to get a crisp bottom and no sogginess.
To get back to the brambles,it is tempting to pick too many, especially as this is a’ free’ food, but you don’t need many for this recipe as they are quite strong to taste. However you can also turn them in to jams and jellies if you are so inclined. Or what about turning them into Blackberry gin for Christmas-just pack into a large glass jar, add sugar and pour gin over the top. Put the lid on, give it a shake and then store it somewhere cool for about 6 weeks. Give it the odd shake when you remember and then sieve before using. I also like to make Christmassy gin from damsons and also from sloe berries but these are not so easy to come by. Damsons work well and give a more fruity twist to your gin and tonics. If you want more of a liqueur then add more sugar and less gin.
Now here is something rather delicious for you Spicy Falafel in Pitta Bread with a Tahini and Yoghurt dip..I would like this a lot for my tea tonight (can somebody make it for me?).
Much as I like a good steak it is very nice to have a meat free meal-I am quite happy to have them often, so ‘Meat Free Monday’ could happily become ‘Meat Free a few days of the week. Sunday is probably a step too far for me and I would have to stick to tradition and have a lovely joint of beef or a roast chicken sizzling away in my Aga, especially on a rainy, blustery Sunday. In this, North Western, part of the world we can expect a few of these…. On a more serious note we need to cut down on our meat consumption which, globally speaking, is just not sustainable. I won’t bore you with more important reasons to eat less meat-you will have to take it from me.
These chickpea little nuggets are high in protein and cheap to make. They are full of lovely fresh herbs such as parsley and coriander and fragrant spices. Tucked into warm pitta bread with some salad leaves they make a deliciously different meal. They would be good in a lunch box too-minus the dip
Oops just realised can’t have them for my tea tonight……………….REMEMBER TO SOAK THE CHICKPEAS OVERNIGHT! You could use tinned chickpeas if you are short of time and/or impatient but the freshly cooked ones are so much better.
SPICY FALAFEL WITH TAHINI AND YOGHURT DIP and PITTA BREAD
It warms the cockles of my heart when I go to small food producers who are so dedicated and passionate about their product in spite of the hardwork and difficulties they face along the way. I was delighted to visit THORNBY MOOR DAIRY Crofton Carlisle
Entering the farm shop and dairy I felt I was stepping back in time where cheese is made the old fashioned, natural, way dictated by the rhythms of the process and not to any manufacturing deadlines. Patience and gentle handling are needed to make the best cheese. The dairy is run by Carolyn Fairbairn and her daughter Leonie. Carolyn started to make cheese from the milk of her small goat herd and later on cow’s milk from a neighbouring farm was used to make these delicious cheeses.
Visit the dairy and you can watch the cheese being made. Local, single herd, raw milk is used and the cheese is made, in open vats, entirely by hand. Variations in milling and storage times results in a good range of cheeses from the traditional ‘Cumberland Farmhouse’, a cow’s milk cheese, with a smooth, buttery texture, ‘Blue Whinnow’ a delicate blue and ‘Bewcastle’ a soft, milk curd delicious served with soft fruit or herbs. The goat’s milk cheese range from the ‘Allerdale’ a British style cheese with a clean, almond like flavour to the roundy ‘Stumpies’ fresh, mini cheeses which can be grilled or fried. All the cheeses are carefully and lopacked by hand.
CHUNKY HOMEMADE BEEF BURGERS AND TOMATO RELISH…no photo this time..they were eaten before I had time to get my Lumix out..imagine some soft white buns layered with salad leaves, slices of tomato, chopped gherkins, a very meaty burger, slightly falling apart and a dollop of delicious tomato relish. They did have a jaunty little union jack flag on top and I served them with homemade chunky chips.
Yippee the sun is shining right now in beautiful Cumbria although it may not be by the time you read this…
Kids love to cook so here is something they could make, with help, for a Father’s day barbeque. There is lots of squidgy fun to be had making these. These burgers are nothing like bought frozen burgers, they are juicy, meaty, not too fatty and full of flavour. Most children are very enthusiastic cooks and happy to get stuck in so getting them into the kitchen is easy to do-I wonder why lots of us lose that enthusiasm later on in life?
In the kitchen they will learn important lessons about where their food comes from and what happens to food when we cook it. They will learn about measuring, tasting, mixing and will pick up some basic skills that will stay with them forever – perhaps you will have a future Master chef in the making! Children are also more inclined to taste something new if they have cooked it themselves and that has to be good. And they will be very proud to say ‘I made it myself’
I have made a chunky homemade tomato relish to go with them- it will liven up any barbeque food or is great with other dishes such as scotch eggs or a hot quiche. Try it and see.
The sun is beating down on beautiful Cumbria today-I have no desire to be next to my aga today so this will be a quick, possibly romantic, meal for two. I knew there must be some advantages to having an empty nest. You can have this on the table in a trice with a few freezer/store cupboard items. I used good quality frozen raw large prawns-not just because I didn’t want to venture forth-it would be lovely to have ‘local catch’ prawns available for when the urge takes me but it is not always possible, and, depending where you live, almost impossible. Most of the ‘ordinary’ prawns you see on the fish counter-cooked and therefore pink in colour, have been frozen previously and defrosted for sale. They freeze well, often immediately on the fishing vessel before they have even touched shore, but they don’t travel well so it is often best to buy them frozen raw (grey in colour) which gives you control over the whole fishy process.
When buying any sort of prawn get them in the shell and peel them yourself the flavour is much better and you can use the shells to make a quick fish stock if you are feeling virtuous….Defrost your prawns on some kitchen paper to make sure that they don’t sit in water and this helps to keep the flavour. If you are lucky and geographically in the optimum place and are able to buy fresh they should smell ‘fresh’ and not ‘fishy’ and have bright shells with no darkening or black spots.
One more thing….what is a prawn or a shrimp………the classification and names of prawns can be confusing and open to interpretation: Generally speaking we buy PRAWNS in the UK, small, medium or large. They can also be called TIGER PRAWNS or KING PRAWNS for the larger ones or just NORTH ATLANTIC PRAWNS. Most prawns are called SHRIMP in the USA. Here in the north west we have very small brown prawns which WE call shrimps-these delicious little mouthfuls are fished along the Solway coast. They are lovingly hand peeled and when potted up with butter and a little mace are a true Cumbrian delicacy. The mediterranean prawns are sometimes called CREVETTES. DUBLIN BAY PRAWNS (also known as LANGOUSTINES) are much larger and look like little lobsters with heads eyes and claws…………………………………..CONFUSED? so am I.
This is quite a luscious pudding..creamy, fruity and some crumbly sweet meringue pieces. I have used my own meringues which are SO much better than bought (why are they so much sweeter than homemade ones when meringues are nearly 100% sugar anyway?) but if you are pushed you could use bought ones. I used frozen raspberries but later in the season you could use fresh ones and if you have home grown ones this would be heaven in a glass. Other soft fruits would work too, strawberries, blackcurrants or redcurrants. Take care with the currants they need more sugar to sweeten them