Monday, 24 December 2007

It's Coming...

Well, I picked up my (free-range Welsh) turkey from Rob Rattray's in Aberystwyth yesterday and today's the day when preparation really is the name of the game. My jobs have so far included making my giblet stock and stuffing, preparing the sausage-and-bacon rolls for the oven tomorrow and getting Delia's Parmesan Baked Parsnips (from Delia Smith's Christmas) done to the oven-ready stage.

The boys and I had a lovely lunch of scrambled eggs with smoked salmon earlier, though James didn't think much of the salmon and Chris and I were left to eat it all, quel dommage. This has long been the traditional Christmas Day breakfast at my Mum and Dad's, and I should miss it terribly if it didn't figure somewhere over the festive period. With small children, though, Christmas Day breakfast is more a case of "whatever gets you through". Coffee, anyone?
Things are pretty much ready to roll now, all the pre-preparation is done and dusted, the cake is iced and ready to slice and the fire is lit. The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols is on Radio 4 as I type this and it really feels like Christmas has begun... The only thing left for Christopher and I to do is to put out the annual "snack tray", all those dried figs, twiglets and jellied orange-and-lemon slices that make Christmas nibbling so inviting. The dish of nuts is already seriously denuded; Chris has already discovered just how tasty are raw nuts, straight out of the shell.

We have the same Christmas Eve dinner every year, a ham (this year cooked in Coca-Cola á la Nigella), baked potatoes and vegetables, followed by mince tarts with thick cream. The leftover ham will be great for cold cuts on Boxing Day, it's true, but more than that is the comforting routine that the meal brings; we look forward to it almost as much as the big feat itself and every year another decision is already made. The ham goes on the stove as the aforementioned service starts at King's College, Cambridge and bubbles away gently until suppertime. Potatoes in the oven, veg on just before six and pour a nice glass of red. Merry Christmas to you all, God bless us, every one.

Cath xx

Thursday, 20 December 2007

A (Cran)Berry Christmas

Cranberry sauce is one of the essential components of Christmas dinner. I know you can buy it in a jar, but it's so easy to make that it would really seem a shame not to take the opportunity for some casual footling about in the kitchen. In fact, Christopher not only helps, but can pretty much make it himself, under supervision of course. What's more, it can be dealt with early in the week preceding Christmas, so I can get another job ticked off the list. As cranberries seem usually to be sold in 300g bags or cartons, it makes sense to cook the sauce in those quantities too. Yes, there'll probably be leftovers but in this house, a turkey sandwich without cranberry sauce is hardly worth contemplating. Cranberries freeze exceptionally well, so I buy early, then use the berries from frozen . Replace the orange juice with a slug of port if you want a more 'adult' edge to the sauce.

Cranberry Sauce

300g cranberries
200g caster sugar
juice of 1/2 an orange
1 cinnamon stick
Put the cranberries in a pan with 175ml water and bring to the boil. Simmer until most of the berries have burst open (I do think the texture and appearance of the sauce are better if some are still intact). Stir in the sugar and stir over the heat until dissolved, then mix in the orange juice and poke the cinnamon stick under the surface. Leave to cool, then transfer to an airtight container and chill the sauce in the fridge. The cinnamon stick will infuse the sauce with just a hint of spicy flavour , but do fish it out before serving, won't you!

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Cheating at Roasties

Regular visitors to The Distracted Housewife might recall my rather pathetic inability to make roast potatoes which are anything like as good as those made by my Mum or my husband. When I received some vouchers to try out the new McCain Roast Potatoes Basted in Goose Fat, I leapt at the chance. Promising "roast potato unparalleled golden crunch...succulent fluffiness in the centre", how could I resist?

The potatoes were easy enough to cook - 40 minutes at 210°c in my fan oven (they apparently take 10-20 minutes longer in a conventional oven, and need the higher temperature of 240°c. In their frozen state, they were spattered with hard white streaks of fat, so that seemed encouraging. I turned them twice during cooking, but found this quite difficult. The rather small tray was quite crowded with decent-sized chunks of potato (definitely a good thing), so manoeuvring my tongs to get hold of them was a little tricky (not so good).

Once cooked, the potatoes were an appetising golden brown and had a crisp, crunchy exterior. The inside was very soft, so soft and smooth that it put me in mind of those potato croquettes my brother and I used to eat as children. In fact the flavour was similar too; they did taste 'processed' rather than home-made, but not in an altogether unpleasant way; they were very enjoyable. I would think of them as an alternative to roast potatoes, not a substitute for them (if that makes any sense to you). I think a carton might find its way into the freezer as a back up, for a quick Sunday dinner when Hubby's at work and I'm on my own with the children. Roast a small joint, two or three chicken legs (or even a poussin if I can get one), put these potatoes in the oven alongside and cook some veggies. That would keep the spirit of Sunday dinner without quite such a production number when we are just three. It would make a change from my usual roast chicken with baked potatoes and greens, and a change is as good as a rest, you know what they say. It's all good...

Monday, 17 December 2007

Mulling It Over

It's been a really busy weekend for us; my parents came to visit and, as we won't see them over Christmas, I wanted to give their stay a bit of festive spirit. We went to Aberystwyth on Saturday afternoon and visited the Christmas market; Mum and I both bought some mutton for the freezer and I also brought home some big slices of Welsh Black braising steak. We nipped into Ultracomida to get some cheese before driving home. I was able to pick up my annual cheese treat, a Vacherin Mont d'Or.

Mulled wine is a Christmas favourite, so a good home recipe is helpful if you want to avoid buying the supermarket alternatives of ready-mulled bottles, or teabag things purporting to be an 'easy option'. If you want to take a shortcut (always useful at this time of year), I would suggest the cloth-tied mulling bundles available from Julian Graves. What I would do without JG at this time of year I really don't know, a big sortie for snack foods and spices is de rigeur. This year we are mostly eating their gorgeous (and very moreish) Garlic and Herb Grissini.

Mulled Wine

This makes a lot, but you can use half of it for the chicken recipe below (which freezes very well). Nor do you have to drink all of it in one evening (ahem). If you strain it into a jug it will keep in the fridge for a couple of days to be reheated. You can even microwave it by the mugful if you like... Please don't try to use cheap nasty wine for this, you need something halfway decent or it will just be foul.

2x 75cl bottles red wine
500ml water
1 lemon, sliced
1 orange, sliced
inch of root ginger, sliced (no need to peel)
2 cinnamon sticks
pinch of whole cloves
pinch of whole black peppercorns
1/2 nutmeg
50ml brandy
50g caster sugar, or to taste

Bung everything into a big pan. Bring to boilking point, then turn the heat down and keep the wine just below simmering point for about 20 minutes. Either dole it out straight from the pan, or decant into a punch bowl if you have one (we were lucky enough to be given one as a wedding present). Either way, serve in heatproof glasses or nice chunky mugs. Mulled wine and good cheese is a great combination on a cold winter's night.

This chicken casserole, which we had for dinner on Saturday night, is something that I first made a few years ago when Hubby's parents came to visit just before that Christmas. Most of the work can be done a day or two in advance, then finishing it off takes only about ten minutes of hands-on work and half an hour in the oven, making it ideal if you want to spend time with your guests rather than your stove.

Mulled Wine Chicken

half-quantity of mulled wine recipe above
5 rashers streaky bacon, chopped
6 small onions, quartered
400ml hot chicken stock
6 chicken legs

Boil the mulled wine, reducing the quantity by half, to concentrate the flavour. Heat a knob of butter and a drizzle of oil in a large casserole and fry the bacon and onions until just browning. Add the hot stock and the (strained) wine, bring to the boil, then lay the chicken legs in the liquid. Cover the pan and transfer to a 200°c oven for an hour.

*At this point you can quickly cool and then chill the chicken for two days, or freeze it for up to a month. Defrost thoroughly, bring to the boil and then proceed as below.*

250g chestnut mushrooms, quartered.

Stir in the mushrooms and return to the oven for 30-40 minutes. Serve with steamed potatoes or rice and some green vegetables. We had broccoli and sprouts from this week's veg box.

Pudding was another Christmas favourite of ours; Mincemeat Meringue Tart. This is my bastardisation of Michael Barry's 'Mince Pie Royale' from his lovely Radio Times Cookery Year. I make an almond pastry for the base, top it with my homemade mincemeat and then pile on meringue made according to the original recipe in the book. Dust it with icing sugar and serve with dollops of thick cream.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Idle Pie

Idle Pie is the accepted name for Meat & Potato Pie in my husband's family and it was something I had to learn quickly how to cook to Karl's quite exacting specifications; good chunks of meat; tender, but not mushy, potatoes; a good savoury gravy cloaking the filling and a stout pastry case to hold it all together. I don't think that I've achieved the apotheosis of pie, but it's pretty darn good. Make sure the meat is a good stewing cut such as shin or chuck and not too lean. As long as you're in the house to put the pie in the oven and hang around (doing other things of course) while it cooks, this is actually a fairly low-effort affair. Make the pastry and preheat the oven, then get the filling together while the pastry rests in the fridge. A quick assembly and bung it in the oven until dinner time.

Idle Pie

Put a large baking sheet on the middle shelf of the oven and preheat to 180°c.

For the pastry:

175g lard
350g plain flour

Rub the fat into the flour, season it well and add enough cold water to bind the pastry together. Rest it in the fridge for 15 minutes or so, then roll out and line a metal pie dish. Trim the excess, then roll out again to make the pie 'lid'.

For the filling:

500g stewing beef (and see above), cubed
1 large onion, chopped
1 fist-sized potato, peeled and chopped
1 tbsp plain flour
salt and pepper

Combine all the ingredients in a bowl, mixing well to distribute the flour and seasoning evenly. Tip all this into your lined pie tin, then pour 175ml of cold water over. Top the pie with its top crust, crimp the edges together and brush the whole lot with beaten egg. Cut a couple of slits in the top of the pie to let out the steam (no need for a funnel here), then transfer to the baking tray in the preheated oven. Bake for 20 minutes, then turn the oven temperature down to 150°c and cook for a further 1 hour 15 minutes.
A dish of vegetables is all you need to to with this, then a comfy chair to sink into as you find out just why we call it idle pie.

Monday, 10 December 2007

Quickies #2

Always looking for easy dinner options that give a great meal without too much hands-on time, tonight I decided to try cooking a rice dish in the oven. It took about half an hour to put together, worked very well and I can imagine finding a lot of variations using the same method. The next thing is to try it out in the slow-cooker, as that would be a great help when Christopher starts nursery school in the new year.

Baked Pork & Cabbage Rice

1 onion, diced
500g cubed pork
250g brown rice
1/2 savoy cabbage, shredded
600ml hot vegetable stock

Heat some oil in a casserole pan. Soften the onion, then add the pork and cook it briefly, to 'seal', but not brown it. Tip in the rice and stir to coat the grains in the fat and pan juices. Put the cabbage into the pan, then pour over the hot stock. Cover the pan with its lid, bring the contents to the boil and transfer the pan to a 180°c oven for 20 minutes, until the rice is cooked.

Friday, 7 December 2007

Deck the Halls!

We put our Christmas tree up yesterday, after Karl and Christopher went out on the annual buying excursion. We spent the afternoon decking out the tree and the rest of the house, so everything now looks, well, as camp as Christmas. Yay! Proper paper-chains, three trees of varying sizes and no less than seven sets of fairy lights dotted around the house mean that it's begining to look a lot like Christmas. I went and ordered the turkey yesterday as well, a job that had been on my to-do list for a while. I can pick it up a couple of days before Christmas and get any last-minute bits from the nearby greengrocer and The Treehouse while I'm in town, thus saving myself the bustle and indignity of supermarket shopping immediately before Christmas.

It would perhaps be the understatement of the decade to say that I love Christmas. I adore it, and start getting excited about the whole shebang earlier than anyone else I know. I love settling down with my Christmas recipe books, planning what I'll cook, and making lots of lists to do with Christmas. The up side of this is that it's all pretty organised. The down side is that it just makes me worse! This year I have also (finally) got around to setting up a database of addresses so that I can print out all the address labels for our Christmas cards (complete with decorative holly clip-art, natch) and therefore have thankfully not practically broken my wrist by writing all the envelopes out by hand.

We've had such awful weather over the last few days that I was quite relieved to have a dry spell this afternoon so that I could nip out into the garden with my shears to cut greenery for decoration. Some ivy sprigs, round-leaved holly, rosemary branches and bay all came together beautifully to frame the mirror hanging over our fireplace. There's a lovely herbal fragrance scenting the room now, which is even better. It's especially lovely to have an open fire at this time of year; it always seems so festive and welcoming. The garland on the mantel itself is an artificial one with tiny baubles already attached, but I think it looks pretty good and the combination is great. I can't wait to sit in front of the fire with a glass of wine tonight. Maybe I should make some mince pies...

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Stwmp, stwmp, slam

Words are wonderful things, and words that make you feel good are extra special. For me, that means not only the words like "cake", "gin" and "sleep", but alliterations like "luscious lickable lemons" and anything that fools around with sound somehow. Onomatopoeia is, to me, the highest form of wordplay and tonight's dinner bears witness to that. Stwmp (say 'stoomp', like a Yorkshireman describing a tree stump) is derived from stwmp naw rhiw (mash of nine sorts); the name of a Welsh vegetable dish, traditionally served at Hallowe'en, supposedly to ward off evil spirits, but it's good all through the colder months. I don't use nine vegetables, just potatoes, carrots and swede. I have been known to chuck in a bit of parsnip or some shredded leek, but on the whole I stick to this basic 'root vegetable medley' idea. I used to make it for both the boys when they were still gummy-mouthed, newly-weaning babies (where did the time go?). It's great baby food, comforting and sweet, but still filling and nutritious.


The quantities given here are flexible, to say the least. Roughly speaking, I use:

500g potatoes
500g swede

500g carrots
a large lump of butter
salt & pepper

Peel and chop all the vegetables. Steam for half and hour until really soft, then mash with the butter and plenty of seasoning (and hear the fabulously onomatopoeiac 'stwmp' sound as you do) .

Stwmp is a great side dish (tonight, for us, it accompanied a roast shoulder of lamb), but it can also be a great veggie main course; pack it into an ovenproof dish, top with grated cheese and either grill or bake until browned and bubbling. In fact, that's what I'm doing with tonight's leftovers for the boys' supper tomorrow!

Monday, 3 December 2007

Anchovies and Extra Cheese

All this 'trying to empty the freezer' lark has a down side. Forgetting to defrost anything means that you're on your own with the contents of the storecupboard and fridge. Luckily, our vegetabkle box brings a wealth of opportunities with it each week and combined with a few basics we had a very good meal tonight. As we had everything, bar the bacon, in the house to cook my Potato and Bacon Layer, I decided to try something a little different and use anchovies instead. Now, before you start with the "I don't like anchovies" stuff, have you actually tasted one? I've converted several people to these salty, melting little fillets after they've admitted that they've never tried them because they don't think they'll like them. In fact, in this bake, you hardly taste them; it's certainly not 'fishy', just nicely savoury.

All I did was replace the bacon in my usual recipe with a can's-worth of anchovy fillets. Don't waste the oil; use it to brush the inside of the dish, rather than butter. I added some chopped rosemary and plenty of black pepper, but no salt (anchovies really are quite salty enough) and used créme fraîche instead of the cream because there was a tub in the fridge that needed using up. I used rather more cheese than I generally do, because I was nattering to Karl and got carried away with grating it over the dish.

It was very tasty - no leftovers - and great with the steamed broccoli I served a s a side dish (anchovies and broccoli are a fab combination, to my mind). With hindsight, I should have stuck with double cream though, as the créme fraîche didn't amalgamate with the other cooking juices too well and ended up a bit watery. A minor problem, however; just stick with the cream next time, methinks.


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