Sunday, 30 December 2012

On another note...

Those two dead birds? Nothing to it really - just like peeling a satsuma. Do use the kitchen floor (a much under-utilised work surface) with newspaper, and a pair of good scissors. There was no blood. Apparently these aristocratic creatures don't have any - that way there is no need to make brain cells either...and i'm sure we've all met a few like that at parties.

Saturday, 29 December 2012

December 29th - Great Expectations and the Christmas Wasteland

Dear Nigel,

I hope you had a good Christmas. Did you? I'm not sure whether i did or not. The problem is that thing called EXPECTATIONS. We all have them  - huge inflated things, impossibly sentimental and romantic things.

Sitting in my Christmas Wasteland amid the half-eaten pudding, the Turkey leftovers and the wreckage of fading decorations, bits of children's toys and mess, i begin to amass a list of all the obstacles to a decent family Christmas this year:

1. Illness.
My family and i, and half the country it seems, spent most of the run-up to the main event either being sick or groaning over a heavy cold and not being able to do anything in the way of Christmas preparations, particularly food ones. The normally heaving freezer and tins of smug mince pies gave way to hurried boxes of something not quite as worthy - however expensively packaged - and the  annual battle in the supermarket requiring medicinal compensation of the alcoholic variety.

2. Weather
Whether it was debilitating floods altering the travel plans of loved ones, emptying flood-alert homes just  at Christmastime, or simply rain, rain and more bloody rain, dark days and damp spirits; it came. Christmas cards  tell us that the natural weather for this time of year is bright skies, snow-laden landscapes and ethereal beauty - not many cards depicting cars being washed away under bridges it seems. Yet. I feel a new generation of Christmas cards being invented as we speak: sarcastic realism...remember the year the dog took the turkey off the side while you were busy laying the table and it had to be rescued, reformed and one leg removed in the interests of hygiene?...etc

3. Difficult Teenagers.
You may not have had the pleasure of this one, but i can assure you that this sub-species has the power to crack Christmas wide open with its minimal words and grunts. The plea (almost hysterical ) to get the family to the Christmas table at just the right moment, being met with a 'Just going for a shower now' boils the blood instantly - at least mine. Don't think Jamie Oliver or Gordon Ramsey have this trouble with their brood; it's all those sharpened knives, you know....dinner will be served now, won't it?

On the plus side, apparently the presents were acceptable, the stockings up to scratch and the dinner did at least all make it on the same day...and i jest not. But i'm still left sitting in a puddle of destruction with an appetite for nothing it seems.

I turn to your diary to see what you're up to.

December 27th: 'With snow still on the ground and mercifully little to do, three of us sit at the kitchen hob making warm hotcakes of sweet mincemeat and brandy butter.' Here maybe lies my answer. Instead of me sweating over things i don't wish to cook and don't wish to eat, a communal activity of conveyor belt eating. Like pancake day marathons, there is much to be said for the clamour for the next one fresh from the pan. Perhaps with the added attraction of an appetite formulated on a walk in the rain. Sophie is desperate to use her new umbrella with its kitten handle, so what the heck, out with the wellies. Teenagers have a habit of waking up when they smell food. Like dogs really. The little mincemeat hot cakes you make (like drop scones) will use up the leftover mincemeat nicely and a couple of clementines knocking around in the fruit bowl. Shopping aversion has set in. There is a deep split in a nation of those living to shop and those shopping to live if pictures on the news are to be believed.

I have put away my Turkey now. Made the stock for soup, made the traditional Turkey curry, and cold meats and pickles for a Boxing Day cooks rebellion; 'the day those working 'below stairs' would open their presents and count the tips box' (...still waiting for that tips box...) You enjoy the annual ritual of stripping the Turkey from the joint, and, i have to admit there is something very therapeutic about slipping the flesh from the bones and frugally easing off each minute morsel to add to the pile on the table. Your chosen recipe for leftovers this year is a Christmas bubble and squeak (page 512) made with red cabbage - leftovers if possible - an apple, and goose or turkey trimmings. This will be tasty-enough for me to be able to cope with the red cabbage. And fried again. This is not the time for New Year penance and self-flagellation.

Best wishes for a really good year next year. Think we probably both deserve it.


Friday, 14 December 2012

December 14th - Two dead birds in the shed

Dear Nigel,

There are two dead birds in my shed. No, it's not the latest crime fiction on tele, these two were live and kicking  until fairly recently and running around in their fine rust feathers.

I came home from the school run to find them tied by the necks to my garden gate. If this were a place where they celebrated witchcraft and the local vicar was seen helping the villagers create a wicker man with a slightly unhinged manic look on her face, my heart might be starting to race a little. As it was, the gamekeeper next door came round again to give me a lesson in quick pheasant plucking - don't bother, just take off the skin and cut out the crown. Having only ever been faced with a nicely plucked, dressed and sealed-in-cellophane bird from the farmers market i am feeling a bit dubious about my Christmas casserole.

I decide to shelve the problem temporarily and hang them in the shed until I'm feeling a little braver - after all, aren't they supposed to be hung for a good while? Eventually, i think, i will set to for the massacre with newspaper on a clean kitchen floor and a pair of scissors to get inside the skin. (Not many recipe books, i suppose, start their recipe with ' first clean your kitchen floor', but the thought of rivers of blood streaming off my worktops rather puts me off.)

I turn to see what you have been up to lately and find that you have been considering the prune (page 487), a wonderful edition to so many recipes at this time of year. You like to use those half-dried prunes that require no soaking, adding them to casseroles and other slow-cooked dishes. I notice that you recommend them for Beef, pork, rabbit and game, so this might be a possibility for my brace of pheasants when i get round to it. They add a deep richness to the sauce, and, as you say 'any slow-cooked dish where prunes have been added will be better...for a night in the fridge.' You use them in a casserole of oxtail and prunes. I'm not a great fan of oxtail, and nor, by your admission are most of your friends. Your recipe is for two people as you 'can't imagine ever getting four oxtail-loving people around the table at the same time.' Nor me.

Your Mincemeat cheesecake (page 486) is much more to my liking, and it gives that welcome lift (which cheesecakes so often need) from their overbearing richness. I like your use of shortbread biscuits for the base and the addition of soured cream to the cream cheese mixture to help temper the sweetness. All-in-all, i think this could be the recipe i have been looking for - something a bit different yet festive and popular with all ages. Thank you for that.

We are definitely in agreement when it comes to canapes, however. I refuse to make them as they seem so pointless and time-consuming: if ever there was a time to nip into M&S now is definitely your moment. You declare that 'if there is a part of the festivities that depresses me, it is the thought of making bits to go with drinks.'
Let's the two of us declare war on canapes with a bowl of olives and a rich brown casserole.

With Best wishes and Seasons greetings,


Tuesday, 4 December 2012

December 4th - Best laid plans....

Dear Nigel,

Are you a list person? I am a list person. There's the Christmas card list (-I've written three), the Christmas present list (easier since the advent of one-click-and-it's-yours), and, of course, the Christmas food list. The latter started off as a pleasant evening perusing all my favourite recipe books and deciding what people wanted to eat this Christmas. There were requested favourites such as Millionaire's shortbread for Tom, Smoked Salmon soup for James, Traditionals such as my Granny Burn's Christmas cake (for which no Christmas could possibly happen without), and other inspiring or useful recipes. So, QED; and i went to bed feeling I'd sorted - and actually already done - Christmas.

Now, here we are first-footing into December and the items cooked and stored are lagging behind the advancing days on the calendar. I count them up and realise that unless i make one extra dish every day of the week from now until Christmas then Christmas is not going to happen. Like some ridiculous horse race we put ourselves through it every year.

 Alison Pearson may have smashed up some bought mince pies to make them look homemade but this is nothing compared to the expectations of  family members that this year must be at least as good, if not better, than last year. I may feel like i want to retire to bed with a bottle of sloe gin and a half-read book but other members of the family would soon put a stop to that. Christmas may be for everybody but you'd better make sure you want what everyone else wants. My second son, Christopher, declared last year 'the best Christmas ever' - so however am i going to top that?

I return to THE LIST and decide to make mince pies with the little ones. This is one of those areas where imperfection is almost a requirement. I manage to knock out a few dozen mince pies on one end of the table whilst Sophie is busy hammering pastry into submission at the other. Once levered off the table into tins they are being over-generously filled ( supermarkets' ideas of 'generous fillings' and my kids' seem to differ somewhat), and stamped with carpet-sized stars.

 I stop for a moment and catch  a look of deep concentration as Molly carefully paints each star with a whitewash of floury milk. And it is at this point that all the lists and panic and pressure of Christmas goes completely out the window. This is what it's all about, and if there are huge gaps in the Christmas menu and we are resorting to opening a packet of cheese straws on Boxing day then nobody will really care.

I turn to your diary for December 1st and see that you, too, feel the change in the air. 'Unlike so many other meals, Christmas cannot be left to chance. Planning, rarely part of my kitchen life, is essential.' The reason you give is that 'you tend to remember every Christmas'....and that 'every dish that fails or disappoints will be mentioned at every Christmas from now till kingdom come.' I think you are perfectly right here. I still recall very well the turkey from a friend that was still being plucked at nine o'clock Christmas eve and that was so huge that we had to fairly ram it in the Aga to make it fit.

You serve up a warming dish of mashed cumin and paprika-spiced parsnip croquettes in a tomato sauce enlivened with sherry vinegar (page 473) to chase out the  cold on a bone-chilling evening. I hadn't noticed the cumin in here before but am keen to give it a go now. I seem to have made several cumin-based recipes lately in a bid to ward away the fog of colds that seem to pass endlessly around at this time of year. Some say 15 raw garlic cloves works a treat, and i expect it does if you want to be billy-no-mates.

Bored with the usual Christmas cake you concoct a version of the french Buche de Noel that is more to your liking. There is something distinctly naff about the arrangement of two swiss rolls pretending to be a log - as made by every girl guide doing their cookery badge in the 70's. Your version contains a homemade  praline - a festive 'crown of glistening, caramel-coated hazelnuts' and a butter cream made with Nutella (pg 476). I will, of course, be making the TRADITIONAL version. And, as is traditional, it will probably still be sitting there half - eaten until well into January. Perhaps if there were not small children around who consider it their right to decorate it, i could possibly get away with it. Maybe in a few years time...It's not as if it's most people's first choice from the table anyway, but then it does have its uses when someone drops by unexpectedly.

Best wishes for a stress-free run up to Christmas,