Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Something Christmassy

Mince pie

A happy June, courtesy of Denstone Hall Farm Shop, Staffordshire

The Auntie Anne household has a tradition at this time of the year of 'happy months'. We try to eat at least 12 mince pies over the holiday season to ensure that we have 12 'happy months' in the coming year. (I'm at six so far.. I have a way to go yet)

The mince pies are supposed to come from different places.

This year we've had a go at making our own mincemeat. This late in the season you don't have to worry too much about it going off. Most of what goes into it is already dried or otherwise preserved anyway.  It'll keep for a couple of days in the fridge.

This is a truly Auntie Anne recipe and how I normally cook - there are no weights or measurements. Have a go and play it by ear.

Start with an apple and cut it in half and take out the core. Then grate it roughly into a bowl. Don't worry about peeling it - but give it a wash first. Chuck in a good helping of mixed dried fruit (sultanas, raisins and currants) and a handful of candied peel.

Very few of these ingredients are essential. I used dried apricots instead because I didn't have any peel.

I also added some bashed up walnuts but any old nuts would do and you can leave out the nuts completely if you want.

Spice it to taste. All or any of the following would do: ground cinnamon, ground cloves, ground allspice, ground nutmeg.

Add some shredded suet or vegetable equivalent.

Now add a squidge of orange juice and a very hefty measure of brandy.

Stir well, cover and stick it in the fridge. Then use it however you fancy in mince pies. (Big ones, individual ones, lattice topped ones, star-shaped ones, anything you like!)

Happy holidays!

Tuesday, 11 October 2011


Auntie Anne tried something new at the weekend - vanilla salt. To be honest, it was fairly disgusting. It's not obvious why anyone would think vanilla salt was a good idea. But vanilla does have lots of exciting uses and you might be surprised at some of them.

Vanilla is the seed pod of an exotic orchid. The best stuff comes from Madagascar. The pods are dried and cured to give them their characteristic dark, slightly shriveled look. But inside are thousands of tiny seeds that hold the flavour.

It's the second most expensive spice in the world, after saffron, because its cultivation has to be done by hand and is very labour intensive. But real vanilla tastes divine.

If you decide to make your own ice cream (maybe I'll do a recipe for that some other time) it's invaluable. You can flavour ingredients for it in many different ways. You can boil a pod in milk (for gelato) or steep one in cream, or you can split the pod and scrape out the seeds (as in the photo above). That will give you that trendy 'spotty' effect that shows you've used real vanilla.

Don't throw away the pod when you're done. Even if it's been boiled you can re-use it in a number of ways. Just dry it by dabbing it with some kitchen towel. If you split it first, try not to dislodge too many of the remaining seeds.

Pour some caster sugar into a clean, screw-top, jar and push the vanilla pod into it. Within a couple of weeks the sugar will have taken on the flavour. Use it to make cakes and sweets and just keep topping up the sugar until you notice the smell is fading.  That will take quite a while. Depending on how much baking you do, it should last a year or so. *

Buy some really nice Ceylon tea bags (or whatever your favourite type is that's not already flavoured) and treat them to their own tea caddy. Add the used vanilla pod to the caddy and seal it up for a couple of weeks. After that you'll have delicately scented tea that will impress whoever you serve it to.

Wrap the used pod loosely in some muslin or treat it to one of those voile bags that they sell to put wedding favours in. Slip the bag into your knicker drawer and you'll find your undies come out smelling sweet! *

Try vanilla in:
hot chocolate
rice pudding
French toast (eggy bread)
soups (specially ones with sweet things like parsnips)
salad dressings

* You can do that with lavender seeds too, if you like that sort of thing.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Cawl - it's Welsh for soup

Yummy soup
Auntie Anne has been to Wales and tasted some very yummy soup called lobscows, but it's also sometimes known as cawl.  (pronounced 'cowl')
A nice bit of brisket
Basically it's a thickened vegetable stock with pieces of meat, usually lamb or beef. You can either start with a piece of meat, such as neck of lamb, or a bit of brisket, and boil it with vegetables to make a stock; or you can make a basic veg soup and add bits of meat to it afterwards. 
Cut out the fatty bits from the meat
It's a great way to use up leftover meat and to make sure you don't waste tail-ends of vegetables in your cupboard.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Bramble vodka, damson gin and other yummy booze

Today was warm and sunny and perfect for hedgerow harvesting. Here's my haul from my locality. There's blackberries, haws, wild plums and elderberries.

There were also some sloes:
Some of these things are going to be turned into a hedgerow jelly (with the help of some crab apples that aren't in the photos) but the rest will be yummy drinks by Christmas. Here's how to make bramble vodka.
Bramble, for those who don't know, is a country name for blackberry.

Start by washing a big jar that can be sealed. Rinse some blackberries and put them in the jar.
Add enough sugar to cover them well. About like this:

Now chuck in a bottle of cheap vodka. The cheaper the better. You really don't need posh stuff for this recipe.
Now give the jar a good shake until the sugar has all dissolved. Leave it somewhere cool and dark. It will need a good shake once a day for a week, once a week for a month, then whenever you think about it for another couple of months. In three months or so you can decant it into fancy bottles. Just in time for Christmas.
The same method works with gin and sloes, or (as in the photo) gin and damsons.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Comfort food

There's something about the food you remember from your childhood.  It can be very comforting to return to it as an adult. One of my favourites was what used to be called 'spuds and onions in the pan' because it didn't need a fancier name.

Start by slicing up some potatoes and onions. New potatoes won't work in this dish. Wash the spuds well and slice them. Don't bother to peel. Slice the onions into rings.
Put about two teaspoons of cooking oil in the bottom of a heavy-bottomed frying pan. Layer the onions and potatoes, starting with onions. Season it well with salt and pepper and add about 200ml of water. Put a lid on the pan.
If you don't have a lid - use a plate! Put the pan on a medium heat and let it simmer for about 10 minutes. Check regularly to make sure it hasn't boiled dry. Test the potatoes from time to time to see if they're cooked.  It'll take about 10-15 minutes depending on how thickly you've sliced the spuds.

When the spuds are cooked, take the lid off and boil it rapidly to reduce the liquid. It's done as soon as the onions start to stick. See the picture at the top to see how they should look.

Goes well with a thick slice of corned beef, or a couple of rashers of bacon.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

(Healthy-ish) cheesecake

The Auntie Anne household is exclusively diabetic so we're always on the hunt for sugar-free treats. (To cut a long story short we have to watch our cholesterol too, but this isn't a medical blog so go elsewhere if you want to know more about that bit.....)

So we bought some sugar-free ginger biscuits at a food fair and- to be honest - they were awful! We thought about pouring custard over them but that seemed a bit feeble so here's what happened:

Bash the biscuits into crumbs. (Stick them in a plastic bag and hit them with a rolling pin). Melt about an ounce of butter. Yes, it has to be butter. Low-fat spreads don't hold their shape. This is the only naughty bit in the whole process! Add the crumbs and stir around until they are well covered, then press them into the bottom of a serving dish.

 I also put a collar of greaseproof round it because this dish is quite shallow.  If you want to turn out your cheesecake at the end, use a loose-bottomed dish. Pop it in the fridge to set while you make the topping.
Next mix a 250g pot of light cream cheese with a good dollop of natural yoghurt. The exact amount you need will vary with how thick it is. If it's too runny you don't need so much. But look at the picture for a rough guide.  Also add a couple of tablespoons of artifical sweetener. (If you're not diabetic you can use icing sugar.)

Split a vanilla pod and scrape out the seeds. Add the seeds to the cheese mixture. DO NOT DISCARD THE POD. There are things you can still do with it!

Give the cheese mixture a really good stir then pour it onto the biscuit base.  Put it back in the fridge to set, preferably overnight. Make a nice pattern on it if you like or you can just spread it thusly:


Sunday, 10 July 2011

Paella - how to make use of great seafood

It's seafood season - the mussels and clams are excellent right now and so we made use of some of them this week.

For two people you are going to need:

About half to three quarters of a pound of mixed mussels and clams (see below for preparation)
8 prawns
About two thumbs' worth of chorizo (chopped)
Some bits of cooked chicken
Onion (finely chopped)
Bell pepper - any colour you like (finely chopped)
A pinch of saffron
Olive oil and cooking oil (about a tablespoon altogether)
A couple of tomatoes (chopped)
250g (6oz) of paella rice (or any other kind except basmati really)
A good glug of white wine
Half a pint of chicken stock
Lots more water
Chopped flat-leaved parsley
Some lemon wedges for garnish

A big, heavy-based frying pan & a large pan with a lid.

Mise en place
Start by doing all your preparation. Trust me, it'll make life easier. Chefs call it 'mise on place' but don't let that put you off.  Having everything handy makes for a better dish because you don't stress out midway.

Chop up your onions and peppers and tomatoes and parsley first. Put your lidded pan on the stove with a glug of white wine and a small amount of chopped onion and some chopped parsley and a bit of cooking oil in it.  Put the frying pan on a bigger stove-ring and add the oils.

Prepare your prawns: take the heads off and peel off the main part of the body skin and legs. You can leave the tail bit on if you want to be cheffy but it doesn't matter. DO NOT THROW AWAY THE SHELLS! See below for what to do with them.

Prepare your clams and mussels. (see below)

When you've chopped and peeled and prepared you can turn on the heat under the frying pan and add the onions and pepper and saffron and tomato. Fry gently until the onions soften. Add the rice and fry for a little longer until it starts to look translucent. At this point you can put the heat on under the other pan. Then you can add the chorizo and the chicken to the frying pan.

Two quick stirs and then add the wine. When it starts to bubble start to add thestock. Put it in a little at a time and stir it all round until it begins to absorb into the rice. Keep adding and, when you run out of stock, add water. Keep it bubbling until the rice is soft and edible. (try a single grain from time to time to check)

Meanwhile, add your prepared clams and mussels to the lidded pan and turn up the heat. About 30 seconds later give the pan a good shake and lift the lid up. The shells should be starting to open. Give it another 30 seconds and try again. Do not cook for more than 2  minutes! Take it off the heat as soon as they're open. Discard any that don't open.
Cooked mussels and clams
Add the peeled prawns and stir the mixture till they start to turn pink. If your rice isn't cooked yet you can add the mussel and clam juice.
Add the prawns

Once the rice is softened, add the cooked clams and mussels to the pan. Stir in the rest of the chopped parsley. Decorate with lemon wedges and serve immediately.

Buy live prawns and clams from your fishmonger. If you are sold them in a plastic bag, put a hole in it to ensure an oxygen supply. Keep them as cool as possible on your journey home. As soon as you get home throw them into a large bowl or bucket of water with some salt added and a teaspoon or so of flour.
When you need to prepare them, you don't need to do much to clams other than rinse them and throw out any that aren't closed. Give them a good shake. If any of them remain open when you give them a hard rap with your knuckles, throw them away. Use a sharp knife to scrape off any barnacles from the mussels. The mussels have a furry bit that sticks out from the inner curve of the shell. It's called a beard. Use your knife to pull this away.

As soon as you've scraped and beard-pulled they're ready to use.

Put any peelings and heads into a small pan with a good grinding of black pepper, a squeeze of lemon juice, a hefty glug of white wine and some water. Boil them for about 10 minutes. Let it cool and then bash the shells up with a potato masher to extract all the flavour. Strain it into a jug and let it cool completely and then freeze it for use later.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Start collecting now to save money later

For the next few weeks start collecting used jars and bottles. Don't put them in the recycling. Find a corner in your kitchen (mine's in the cupboard under the sink) to stash them away. Make sure their lids fit and then put them (unlidded) into a lot of cold water so that the labels soften and can be peeled off. Take the labels off, put their lids back on, then store them away.(If any of the labels fight with you, don't waste too much energy. Put that one in the recycling and go on to the next jar.)

The next few weeks- up till about the end of October - will bring a glut of things that can be turned into jam, pickle and interesting alcoholic drinks. Buying new glassware costs a fortune. A decent sized jam jar will knock you back a couple of quid from that fancy shop in the High Street (yes - THAT one.)
If you're the kind of person who likes those fancy hats on your home-made jam you might like to start looking out for a yard or so of cotton cloth at your local market too.

Every time you go shopping for the next few weeks buy one of the following: sugar (for jams and chutneys), white wine vinegar or cider vinegar (for pickles and chutneys) and half bottles of cheap gin or vodka (for sloe gin and bramble vodka)

Recipes will follow as the seasons progress.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

A gardening trick

This is a little trick that I learned from my dad. Don't waste your money on compost pots to plant out your seedlings. Use the inside tubes from toilet rolls to sow a couple of seeds and, when the plants are big enough, plant out the whole thing. The roots will make their way through the cardboard as it rots away.

Friday, 29 April 2011

Salad does not have to be boring...

Or how to get your family to eat vegetables without complaining.

Now you might be lucky and your family might be happy to tuck into their five-a-day without objecting, but veggie lovers like Morris (see left) are few and far between. So here's some ideas of how to increase their consumption wthout a battle.

Interesting dressings
The other night Uncle K decided to be helpful and bring home pizza for dinner. 'Nice', you're thinking. But it was a chicken tikka pizza. So to stay in keeping with the flavours I made a couple of Indian themed salads:
Coronation lettuce
Shred up whatever lettuce you have - I used a little gem. Mix some low-fat mayo with a little curry powder and lemon juice. Dress the lettuce with the mayo.
Chop up some cucumber. Chop up some fresh mint or coriander (or both - that works too) Chop up a garlic clove very finely. Mix them all together and smother in some plain yoghurt.  (This is almost the same as the stuff you dip your poppadoms in at the Indian restaurant).

Chinese dressing
Mix equal amounts of sesame oil and soy sauce. Add some sesame seeds if you have them and a few chilli flakes. Serve over cold cooked veg such as mange tout peas or baby sweetcorn (like you'd get in Thai or Chinese food)

Disguising vegetables
You think they always notice?  No they don't.
(Scroll down to the bottom of this page for a simple recipe for basic chilli.)
Serve it with side dishes to increase the veggie goodness.
(DIY wraps. Put everything in bowls on the table and let them help themselves)
Mango salsa
Chop up some fresh mango and add chopped fresh chilli, lime juice and fresh coriander. This also works well with tomatoes, pineapple, nectarines or practically any fleshy fruit.
Squash up a ripe avocado. Add crushed garlic, finely chopped chilli and lime juice. You can also add finely chopped onion if you like and some finely chopped tomato (take out the seeds before you chop the flesh) Dress with shredded coriander leaves.
Flash-fried peppers
Slice up some green or red bell peppers very thinly and a small onion into similar shaped pieces. Get some oil VERY hot in a wide frying pan (not too much) and fry the strips very quicky, just long enough to make them go a bit floppy and start to brown on the edges.

Stir fries
You can add any kind of veg to a stir fry and if you make the meaty/fishy bits big enough it all goes down together. Onions and mushrooms are a good bet. They seem to be less offensive to most people (except those with allergies). Tinned sweetcorn is good too. They don't seem to see that. 

Make soup with vegetables and a good chicken stock. Blend it to a uniform colour then add meaty bits. (leftover chicken, bacon strips etc) They won't notice that the base is vegetarian!

How to make a basic chilli
Serves 4
Start with 250-300g minced turkey (low fat and much healthier and cheaper than beef)
Two large onions
One or two green chilies (chopped. leave out the seeds if you don't like it too spicy)
Two garlic cloves (chopped)
Tin of tomatoes
Squirt of tomato purée (optional) 
Tin of cooked pulses (red kidney beans is traditional but any old beans will do. Even baked beans make a good chilli)
Chicken stock or water
Salt and pepper
Cooking oil
Seasonings - any or all of: worcester sauce, tabasco, chilli powder, nam pla (fish sauce), more pepper

Chop your onions finely. Throw about a tablespoonful of oil in a pan and fry the onions till they start to go transparent. Add the chopped chillies and garlic. Stir it round a couple of ties then add the mince. Fry until the mince starts to brown. Season with salt and pepper. Add the tin of tomatoes and the tomato purée if you're using it. (It helps the colour)  Stir it in and then add stock or water to bring the liquid level up just to cover the meat. Put a lid on the pan, turn the heat down low and let the mixture bubble gently for 20 minutes or so.

By now it should be looking sort of like chilli. If not, check there's enough liquid in the pan and adjust accordingly, give it another stir and put the lid back on and leave it bubbling for another 10 minutes.

Add the tin of beans. If you're using kidney beans or similar, rinse them first. If it's baked beans just chuck the sauce in as well. Stir and taste. At this stage you can add any or all of the seasonings so that it tastes how you want it to.  Just keep adding stuff and tasting till it's how you want.

And voilá.  The finished product contains a good portion or portion and a half of vegetables each and I promise they won't realise as they tuck in. With side dishes it becomes three or four of the five-a-day in a single meal!

Monday, 25 April 2011

Cocktail jellies

For something a bit different why not make your favourite cocktail into a jelly?
Auntie Anne's favourite is a raspberry daiquiri.

 You will need:
A tin of raspberries in juice
Lime jelly  (jello if you live in the US)

Drain the raspberries and reserve the juice.
Make up the pack of lime jelly according to the instructions but include the juice in the 'cold water' stage.
Divide the raspberries between four cocktail or wine glasses, Pour a single measure of rum over each portion.
Top up with jelly and leave to set.
For a bit of extra fun, add a cocktail umbrella.

Alternative cocktails
Irish coffee - Pour a measure of irish whiskey into four glasses. Use packet gelatine to set a pint of strong, sweetened coffee and divide between the glasses. Once it's set, top with single cream.

Mojito - Use white rum and lime jelly. Stir in chopped mint.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Presentation is everything

So all you have to serve up are a few simple ingredients? Well don't make them look boring and emphasise the fact - go for the pretty option. It takes just as long to slam them on a plate any old how as it does to lay them out nicely. And I promise that they'll taste better this way. Eighty per cent of eating is done with the eyes and another ten is done with the nose.

So there you have it. Blueberries, yoghurt and maple syrup. But made pretty.

Monday, 18 April 2011

A week by the sea

Auntie Anne has recently returned from a self catering holiday and it seems like a good idea to let you know what was packed for the trip - and why.  We always take a hamper with us so that we don't have to
worry too much about finding something to eat in an area we haven't got to know yet.
The trip was for a week at the seaside and we checked before we went that there would be a good supply of seafood. Sorry to anyone who doesn't like ocean fodder - this will be a distinctly fishy post!

The supplies box contained:
tin of tomatoes
bottle of easy drinking red wine
bottle of dry white wine
small bottle of olive oil
small bottle of cooking oil
small bottle of white wine vinegar
dried mixed herbs
curry powder
dried chilli flakes
'longlife' orange juice  (aka UHT)
pack of dried spaghetti (or other pasta shapes if you like)
jar of cockles
tin of olives with garlic
'longlife' milk
jar of marmalade
jar of home made chutney

We also checked what was left in the house that wouldn't last the week. So there was some fresh food in
the box too. We took an onion and a couple of tomatoes and the remains of a head of garlic with us.
There was also a carrot or two and a large courgette.

On the journey we found a grocer's and bought a bunch of flat leaved parsley, a large lemon, some
cucumber, button mushrooms, loaf of bread and some fresh fruit.

First night we were there we hadn't found the local pub yet (and it didn't serve food when we DID find
it) so we made spaghetti vongole.   You can buy proper vongole with their shells still on if you like but you don't have to.  In a smallish pan put some finely chopped onion and a bit of cooking oil, a crushed garlic clove or two and a pinch of dried chilli flakes. Sweat the onion until it starts to turn transparent and throw in a couple of chopped tomatoes. stir it round a bit and add a good glug of white wine. Drain and rinse the cockles then chuck them into the mix.

Meanwhile boil some pasta. When it's done, pour it in the pan with the rest of the mix and stir it round a couple of times. Turn into a couple of large, warm bowls and sprinkle it with chopped parsley,

The following morning, breakfast consisted of a fresh fruit platter with coffee and toast and marmalade.

That day we visited the local fish market and came back with big raw prawns, small smoked prawns, a couple of scallops, roll mops, potted shrimps and a crab. So dinner was easy. Seafood selection. Fry the big prawns in butter and garlic. Clean and slice the scallops crosswise to give you flat disks of meat. (The fishmonger will clean them for you if you don't know how.)  Fry with sliced mushrooms and some garlic.
Smoked prawns in a dish. Crab on a plate. Roll mops on a plate. Potted shrimps warmed up and served in a small heatproof dish. Chunks of bread, butter, tomato salad, cucumber salad. Lemon wedges. Help yourselves.

Leftover crab
There was some crab left. So I bought a small pot of cream and another bottle of white wine. Chop half an onion and boil it in a good slug of white wine to remove the alcohol and reduce to about half the volume. Add a good squeeze of lemon juice and a pinch of curry powder then lower the heat. Stir in the crabmeat - don't let it boil now. Finish it with some cream and a sprinkling of parsley.  Chunks of bread and butter. Yummy!

The carrots ended up being grated and turned into a salad to accompany some local cheeses. The courgette was sliced thinly, steamed for a few minutes, plunged into cold water, drained, then dressed with a vinaigrette made from olive oil, white wine vinegar and a pinch of dried herbs, salt and pepper.

Thursday, 31 March 2011

Don't be afraid to experiment

This is a 'before cooking' view of a dish of sage and onion parsnips. We were heading off on holiday a couple of days after this was taken and I didn't want to have to buy anything new that might go to waste because we didn't have time to use it. 

I'd planned chicken and chips. It was a couple of leg portions of chicken that I'd frozen earlier (when I cooked a chicken a couple of weeks earlier). I defrosted them and gathered the remains of some spuds out of the cupboard. Then I had a gather up of what was in the fridge - two parsnips, half an onion and three tomatoes that had seen better days.

Here's how
Turn the oven on to 200 C to warm up. Put the chicken portions in a heatproof dish. Slice the spuds into chunks, place in a roasting tin and sprinkle a bit of cooking oil over them. Add some seasoning if you fancy it. Celery salt's good. Smoked paprika is too - though it might not go with the parsnips. Just a bit of salt and pepper would be good if you like. 

Cut the parsnips into chunky bits, slice the onion, chop the tomatoes. Put everything into an ovenproof dish and sprinkle it with a very small amount of oil. Add ground black pepper and some sage. (Sage and onion is perfect to go with chicken.)

When the oven reaches temperature, put the chips in and set a timer for 10 minutes. When the timer goes off, put the parsnips in and set the timer for another 10 minutes. When that one goes off put the chicken in and set the timer for 20 minutes. 

When that goes off stab the parsnips to see if they're cooked. If not, give it another five minutes and check again. Keep an eye on the chips to make sure they aren't burning. And there's your dinner.

I made this mixture because those were the ingredients I had. You can mix more or less any selection of veg and pick a different herb as you fancy.


Friday, 18 March 2011

Quick and easy: Soda bread

 Ever run out of bread and can't be bothered going shopping? Well this is the ideal stuff to solve your problem. Today I give you


You will need:
1lb flour (any old kind really. I mix plain and self raising)
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
4 teaspoons baking powder (or two each of bicarbonate of soda and cream of tartar)
1 oz margarine

10 fl oz (half a pint) milk, soured with 1 tabsp yoghurt

Switch on your cooker to 200C.
Measure out your dry ingredients then sift them into a large bowl.


Rub in the fat. And here's a useful tip. DON'T use both hands. If you use your non-dominant hand (my left) to hold the bowl and use your dominant hand to rub in the fat, if the phone rings, or someone comes to the door, you have a clean hand to use!

Next pour in the milk. You can add it all. I promise it won't be too wet. You might just need a dribble extra. Mix it in with a knife.


When it looks like this, turn it onto a floured board and knead it gently for no more than a minute.Shape it into a round and flatten it a bit before setting it onto a floured baking tray.

A pizza tray is perfect for cooking bread. After all, that's what pizza bases are.  Using a sharp knifecut a big cross in the top. You will see it start to rise straight away.

Bake it for 30 minutes till it goes brown. It will spread out like this. You should be able to slice it but ripping it apart is probably better. Great with cheese, meat, pate, jam, or practically anything that goes with ordinary bread!

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

I make a good soup

Introducing Potato Pete. He was a character from WWII who was designed to help people make more of the food that was available to them. Back then it was because enemy action prevented boats from bringing in supplies of foreign foods. These days it's useful to know because money's tight and getting tighter by the hour.

Luckily spuds are still cheap and plentiful and the weather's still cold enough to appreciate a bowl of soup. Soup's easy and even if you don't use potatoes as the main ingredient you can still use them to thicken other types.

1 onion, peeled and chopped
2 medium potatoes, peeled and chopped
1 pint of stock (any kind)
1 tablespoon of flour
Glug of cooking oil
Salt and pepper
A few dried herbs (any you like)

Heat the oil in a heavy based saucepan and add the onions and potato. Fry gently for a few minutes until the onions start to soften. Add the flour and continue cooking for another minute or so. Stir well with a wooden spoon while you are doing that. 

Now add a splash of the stock and keep stirring until it blends in. Keep adding the stock a little at a time until it's all in the pan. If you don't add it a bit at a time and you don't stir well it will all go lumpy.

Sprinkle in the dried herbs and add salt and pepper.

Cover the pan and simmer the whole thing for about 20-30 minutes until the potatoes are soft. Allow to cool slightly then put it through a blender. Serve with a swirl of yoghurt or a sprinkling of grated cheese and a good chunk of bread.

* You can add any kind of vegetables you like at the frying stage. Leeks work well in place of the onion. Carrots give an interesting colour. Celery is good. Sprouts are great - add a few chopped walnuts at the end and see how that tastes.

* If you don't like the finished soup colour, put it back in the pan, add a squeeze of tomato puree and cook it for another couple of minutes.

* If you've used a meat stock you can add chopped meat after the blender stage. Heat the soup thoroughly before eating. Chicken is good. Use sage as your flavouring herb and you'll have a hearty bowlful!

* You can also add chopped cooked vegetables after the blender stage. Cooked pulses go well at this stage too. Small tin of chick peas or similar.

* Add some tomato puree to the blended soup and simmer for a couple of minutes then throw in some cooked pasta shapes. Small ones work best.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Rhubarb season

You're all aware that I'm a Yorkshire lass, right? And there are plenty of yummy things that come out of Yorkshire: the best fish and chips in the world, Yorkshire pudding; Taylor's of Harrogate tea; Betty's chocolate cake; lots of stuff. But at this time of the year it's rhubarb. It's a vegetable - yes it is! - that grows profusely in a triangle of the world based around Wakefield. This time of year it's forced (that means it's kept in the dark to make it grow quickly and tall and sweet) and it's sometimes called champagne rhubarb.  The best thing you can do with it is turn it into crumble:

4oz self raising flour
2oz butter or margarine
2oz sugar (or sweetener equivalent) plus about a tablespoonful for the rhubarb
3 or 4 sticks of rhubarb

Rub the butter into the flour until it looks like breadcrumbs (that means using your fingertips, a bit like you would if you were snapping your fingers, to mix the fat into the flour) then stir in the sugar.  Wash and trim the rhubarb to get rid of any leafy bits and the weird shaped bits at the bottom. Cut it into 1" lengths and put it into an oven proof dish. Sprinkle a bit more sugar over the rhubarb. Pile the crumble on the top and put it in a preheated oven (200C)  for 20-30 minutes until it's browned on top. Serve with custard.

Friday, 4 March 2011

How to save money when you're out shopping

Last night was shopping night. The vastness of my local superstore always looms scarily and I need to prepare myself for the onslaught. Everything about a supermarket is designed to make you spend more than you intended. The lighting, the store layout, the width of the aisles, the product placement, all have been carefully thought out by psychologists to encourage you to buy, buy, buy.

So you have to have your wits about you when you enter a supermarket and there are a few tricks you can use to help hang on to your hard earned cash!

Make like the Scouts: Be Prepared!
First of all you need to plan your meals and know what your staples and favourites are. If you want to have ready meals in your freezer that will save you money on bought ones and take-outs then you have to know what you can do and what will keep.

You need to keep an eye on how much space you have in your freezer. That huge bag of salmon fillets might work out at less than 50p each but unless you have room to freeze them you're going to end up throwing them out.

Beware of the BOGOF
When you set off for the supermarket make sure you have a list. Know what you want, how much you need, and stick to it. You think that BOGOF celery looks like a good deal? Well, firstly, do you LIKE celery? Enough to eat two whole heads of it in a week? Because it'll go off if you try to keep it much longer than that. But if you're planning to make soup to freeze, then it's a bargain.

In my case it's a waste of time, effort and cash to have deals on biscuits. They usually WILL keep longer than a week - but not in my house. I shall just end up having one with every meal and maybe just another little one, and perhaps a couple before bed? And before I know it I've eaten two whole packets in spite of my good intentions to make them last a month. This is no way to save money.

Bargain or bum?
By all means check the bargain bins and Oops shelves. But don't buy things unless you can use them. A couple of packets of near-their-sell-by ham is great if you're catering for the cricket team tea tomorrow. What are you going to do with them otherwise? (OK - I make sandwiches for packed lunches and freeze a week's at once but even I get fed up with ham if I have to eat it every day.)

You might find after bank holidays that the bargain shelves have some rare treats on them. Supermarkets buy in lots of luxury goods for festive seasons because people want to spend more on long weekends. But they can't shift things after life goes back to normal and the prices are exceptionally good because they need the space. I've picked up quite a few jars of anchovies for less than a pound that way.  What do I do with anchovies?  Wait till I do Storecupboard 3!
And is it a bargain? 'Was £3.45, NOW £3 is only a good deal if you actually want the contents of the pack. If you're buying it just because it has an old price crossed off you've just wasted £3!  Even worse - some supermarkets will offer you 'was £3.45, now £3.40'. Perhaps not.

Take a look around for the things that you DO buy and watch out for bargains on them. Don't be too tied down to your list. For example, if it says roast beef for Sunday lunch but they're offering duck at a really good price, leave the cow till next week and indulge yourself.

There's a reason you haven't heard of them
Don't buy brands you don't recognise just because they're half the price of the things you usually get. Unless they offer you a taste of them and you're sure they are just as good. I promise you that the second (and sometimes third) packet will sit at the back of your cupboard uneaten. If you really want to try something new just buy ONE packet - however good the offer looks.

How's your maths?
It seems obvious but check prices! That's a 500g box of something for £1.20 and it's reduced from £2.50 so that's a big saving, right? No, not if there's a 300g box next to it for 60p. (I'll wait while you work that out) And always check that the 'buy three for only £1' deals actually work out cheaper. Believe it or not people have been known to fall for '30p each or three for £1'.

Above all, keep a rough check on the cost of your trolley load as you go round. You know how much you have to spend and you can stop before you reach it. Add it up as you go along. Work to the nearest 50p and always round up totals. That way you'll get a pleasant surprise when you come to pay. If you haven't got everything on your list but you've over spent, decide NOW what you can leave behind. It's too late once it's gone through the checkout and you're facing the bill. You planned to spend £50 but the total says £76? You have no-one to blame but yourself.

It's not all that bad
OK so I won't end on a nasty nag. You CAN find some real bargains when you want to as long as you're careful. If you're flexible with your cooking you can take advantage of things in season. If you know that jam season is coming, buy a box of sugar each week so you can stockpile it for when you need it. Same with Christmas. Buy one thing extra a week from September onwards and you'll have a great store and won't be facing a huge shopping trip when the streets are heaving.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Store cupboard 2: Easy meals

This time it's mostly tinned stuff and packets

My last post on the store cupboard turned into a bit of a diatribe about herbs and spices and they are all very well but you can't rustle up a quick meal out of nothing but herbs. So I thought this one might be a bit more substantial.

The idea of a storecupboard (well MY idea of a storecupboard) is that it should help you to create good food when you need to. Everyone has those days when they don't fancy what they planned to eat, or they didn't get to the shops or someone turns up unexpectedly and needs to be fed.

That's when the storecupboard comes into play. Some of the things I keep in my cupboard are:

Dried spaghetti and pasta shapes
As long as you've got these, some decent olive oil or butter and your herb selection you can always eat.  Pasta is simple and you can throw almost anything on top of it to make it fancy.  At the least you can boil it, sprinkle olive oil over it and give it a good grinding of black pepper. Anything beyond that is a bonus. Got dried oregano and basil? Chuck them in too. Tail end of some parmesan cheese in the fridge? Grate that over it as well. (And never EVER use that nasty ready-grated stuff in the tubs. It smells of vomit and adds nothing to a meal except unpleasantness.)

Also included in this section are dried noodles. Medium egg noodles are always good and are perfect for under a stir fry of leftover veg.

Basmati is good if you like curries and it's also a good stand-by for most rice dishes. Risotto rice is handy because you can turn practically anything into a risotto. Tin of peas. Browned onion. Mixed leftover veg. Chicken bits. Fresh tomatoes.
Otherwise just plain old long grain will do. 

Tinned tomatoes
Now you're talking. At their simplest you can chuck them onto a couple of slices of toast and give them a good slosh of brown sauce or worcester sauce. But if you've got them and pasta you're made. Simmer a tin of toms with a few Italian herbs and flavours (basil, oregano, few chilli flakes, garlic salt, black pepper) and, if you have them, any of the following: some sliced mushrooms, chopped cooked veg, leftover cooked meat such as ham, olives, anchovies or other fish, handful of prawns, fruit at a pinch, pineapple might work. Give it about 10 minutes or so on a low heat and if the tomatoes are staying too whole give them a bash with a wooden spoon.
Chuck it over cooked pasta. Yummy.

They also brighten up lots of mince-based dishes like cottage pie, chilli, lasagne, bolognese, moussaka etc. It's a great way to hide veg in meals if you have reluctant eaters too.

Baked beans
They're a staple. On toast with a little cheese grilled over the top. Over a baked potato. Used in chilli in place of red kidney beans. Added to mince to bulk it out and make it a little healthier.

Tinned olives can be added to pizza or baked into bread or just served on their own as a nibble if people turn up unexpectedly.

Other tinned veg
Whatever you like really. Some pulses are handy - chick peas, borlotti. You can use them to bulk out other things or as the base for a curry. They take ages to cook from dried so a tin or two is much easier.
Sweetcorn: Tinned sweetcorn is wonderful stuff and unlike a lot of veg it doesn't lose its flavour. Goes into salads, fritata (like an omelette), served on the side of practically any 'meat and two veg' kind of meal, mixed with leftover chicken bits and some mayo for a sandwich filling.
Something fancy is always handy too. I keep artichoke hearts and palm hearts. They make wonderful starters with a bit of virgin olive oil and a hunk of bread. They also go well on pizzas and the Italians also put artichokes in ham sandwiches.

Tinned fish
A tin of tuna, mackerel in some sort of sauce, smoked oysters or mussels, white crab meat, prawns.  Open the tins. Put the contents into a load of small dishes and you have tapas almost straight away. Jug of wine, loaf of bread, tin of olives, bowl of mayo. You're made.

Tinned meat
I don't care what anyone says you can't beat a Spam fritter. But a tin of corned beef is always handy too. Mash it up with some leftover spuds and a bit of fried onion, fry it gently until the mixture browns a bit and you've got corned beef hash.

Extra bits
A couple of pints of "plastic" milk

You know the sort I mean. The stuff in boxes. It lasts for ages and you've got the making of custard (as long as you have custard powder in the cupboard too. I always have). In fact here is a recipe for quick steamed sponge pudding to go with it.

The base for lots of things - not least soda bread, which can be made in about 40 minutes and is so easy you wouldn't believe! But you can also rustle up pancakes as long as you've got an egg and some milk, or buns, or all sorts of stuff. And it's good for thickening soups and sauces.  If you can only run to one bag make it self raising.

Baking powder
You can't make scones without it. Or soda bread. Or quick steamed jam sponge. It's cheap and handy.

Dried yeast
Be brave. Follow the instructions on the back (there's almost always bread instructions on the back of yeast packets) and make some pizza bases. You'll love yourself for it.

Well it goes without saying really doesn't it? And besides - we covered it in storecupboard 1.

Good extra virgin olive oil
If you've been paying attention you'll have noticed olive oil mentioned a couple of times already. There is virtually nothing you can eat that won't be enhanced by a drizzle of good olive oil over the top. (OK - maybe not chocolate cake, but you know what I mean)

Buy in a medium sized jar and keep it in your fridge. Goes really nicely under cheese on toast. Great for sandwiches. Wonderful with a tinned veg as a starter. Egg mayo - retro but yummy. (Boil an egg. Peel it. Slather mayo over it. Sprinkle lightly with cayenne pepper. Serve with brown bread.) Mixed half and half with yoghurt as a cold sauce base.  Add more or less anything you like. Finely chopped onion, curry powder, anchovies, use your imagination.

Friday, 25 February 2011

Auntie Anne's quick steamed sponge pudding

You remember those gorgeous gooey sponge puddings you used to have when you were little? Well they haven't gone away.
What's gone is the old way of making them. Back in the day you used to have to plan about three hours in advance because they needed hours to steam. Not so any more.
And if you insist on using those nasty gram things you can work out the maths yourself!

Home made jam - perfect for sponge pudding!

You will need:
3 oz self raising flour
1.5 oz white bread crumbs
Pinch of salt
Teaspoon of baking powder
2 oz margarine (low fat spread is fine)
2 oz sugar (or equivalent in substitute if you aren't allowed it)
An egg
A bit of milk

Sift the flour and baking powder and salt together into a bowl. Add the breadcrumbs and sugar and stir.
Rub in the fat. Break the egg into a small dish and beat it a bit with a fork. Add it in and give it a good mix.
Now add the milk a little at a time until you get a mixture that will drop off your spoon easily.
Grease a small bowl or a couple of mugs. Put a large dollop of jam in the bottom and put the pudding mixture on top.
Now stick it in your microwave. If you've got a fancy 1000 watt one it should take about three minutes. If it's less than that, adjust your time accordingly.
The mixture will rise nicely and you'll be able to see when it's cooked.
Turn out the pud onto a plate and add extra jam if you like it very sweet.
Pour custard over it and enjoy.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Weekend soup

Yesterday morning we went shopping and when we came back from the supermarket we put everything away, as usual. Of course, as always happens, we had to move out the old bits to make way for fresh food.

As usual I turned the leftovers into soup for lunch. It's quick, easy and, if you were planning on throwing the old food out, free!

You can make weekend soup out of any old raw and cooked vegetables but this one consisted of:

Half a head of chinese leaf (it was Chinese New Year during the week and it didn't fit in the stir fry)
The tail end of a swede
An onion

I chopped it all up then threw it into a saucepan with a tablespoon of oil and a couple of cloves of garlic. (Start with raw vegetables only. If you're including cooked ones they go in later.)

First thing to do is sweat it all down until the veg starts to wilt and the onions start to go translucent.
 When you've done it right it will look sort of like this: (That dark green stuff is lemon thyme that I happened to have around.)

Then you need to add some thickening.  If your leftover vegetables included potatoes you won't need to do this bit because the starch in the spuds will do it for you. If not, add some flour and then cook it for a couple of minutes longer, stirring it all the time so it doesn't stick to the bottom of the pan.

Once it starts to look thick and sticky you need to add liquid. You can add either water or stock. Add the cooked veg at this stage if you're using them. Add enough liquid to cover the veg. Bring the whole thing to the boil and then turn down the heat to a simmer. Let it cook for about 10 to 15 minutes then taste it. If it's short on flavour add something to make it tastier.  This one was a bit thin so I added a sprinkling of Chinese five spice powder and a good splash of soy sauce. (But you can add chilli, curry powder, herbs, Worcester sauce, leftover meat, tomato puree, celery salt, anything you like.)

Once you're happy you can blast it through a blender. You might find you need to cool it down before you do, then heat it up again before you eat it. Pour it into bowls and if you want to be really swank you can swirl in some cream or yoghurt and sprinkle it with a few fresh herbs (like in the top picture).

You see - there IS such a thing as a free lunch!