Friday, June 10, 2011

Life Is What We Make It

Trying hard to recall the difference between 'then' and 'now', life does seem to have taken a turn for both better and - on the other hand - far worse since the 1960's. In the old days people were far more resourceful. If you wanted to improve your life you got up off your backside and made it happen. Now all people seem to do is stick a plastic card into a machine and buy far to much 'just to keep up with the Jones's'. Or perhaps today, this should be 'the Beckhams'.

Two of my favourite TV series were 'Little House on the Prairie' and 'The Waltons'. In the former, if I remember correctly, the family started life off in a small shack ('dirt' house was it called?), while Pa built a timber house for them to live it. Not really a house, just a room downstairs that was used as both a kitchen and living area, with a small room at the side for Ma and Pa to sleep, and a boarded floor under the roof, reached by a stepladder where all the children slept. Life then (as it still is now) was just a matter of having a roof over heads, clothes on backs, and food in bellies. A good-weather year meant good crops with money left over to perhaps buy another cow or another field, or new shoes. A bad year meant living off what food Ma had carefully stored away in the root cellar or had preserved.

The Walton's lived in a proper 'house', but had a family life of 'togetherness' that is rarely seen today. Again money was short, but the message came through - 'we don't need money to be happy'.

As a nation, we've now had half a century of living beyond our means (thanks to credit cards and the rest), so it's certainly not easy for anyone who is geared to living 'off the plastic', to get back to how life used to be lived, and even though it can be done, it is not easy when nearly everything can be paid by credit rather than by cash. Even I have to buy my online groceries used a credit card. Otherwise B pays cash when he shops (and he, like myself, has to get that from the 'hole in the wall' - this time using a debit card).

But money apart, when it comes to the real nitty gritty of domestic life, all we have to do to make ends meet is to take a step outside our box and just take a look at what we are doing (or rather not doing). For decades we have been led to believe it's find to throw stuff away, and so we have done. Perfectly usable stuff that would now be worth £££s to us if we could use it. The more resourceful we become the easier it is to make ends meet - and with any luck even overlap!

Apart from unravelling hand knitted garments (bought at a jumble sale) washing the wool to get rid of the kinks and then knitting it up into something else, or cutting worn out clothes into strips and pegging them to make rag rugs, or stitching up pieces of material to make patchwork quilts and cushion covers, and, and, and.... we could confine our activities to just the kitchen where most of our money seems to be spent on food (an packaging) with still quite an amount thrown away. Why do we discard citrus peel when it is easy enough to turn into into candied peel (200g tub 57p when purchased)? Why do we throw away our vegetable peelings when they can be turned into vegetable stock (normally bought in 'cubes')? Why do we throw away stale crusts when they can be turned into fresh or dried crumbs then frozen to use later (believe it or not we can now buy fresh breadcrumbs)? And why do so many people STILL throw away a chicken carcase (with meat still left on it)? Cooks in the past would NEVER do any of the above. Whether in a large mansion (where cooks were employed) or a small hovel, everything that could be used would be used.

Having servants actually saved money. The wage in the old days was almost minimal, and the work they did saved far more money than it cost to keep the servants in the first place. Every piece of clothing or linen that was beginning to show signs of wear was laboriously stitched and darned to last months (sometimes years) longer. Leather shoes regularly polished and re-soled to last a lifetime (same with all leather goods - suitcases, handbags, furniture). Collars and cuffs were turned as they became threadbare, and leather patches stitched on cuffs and elbows of jackets to either cover holes and wear and tear or to prevent them happening.
The cook used every last scrap of food ( the 'left0vers' from the top table often ending up as a 'hot-pot' the next day for the servants), not even a spoon of fat was wasted. Bones would be thrown onto the fire (because of the fat they burned well and saved on the other fuel).

The gardens of the large country houses always had a vegetable plot, larger mansions had a walled garden and greenhouses. Most fresh produce was grown by the gardener with perhaps the aid of an assistant, again their wages were less than the cost of the produce if bought. Sometimes the estate was large enough to have a 'home farm' so fresh milk, eggs, butter and cheese would be available for 'free', plus pork, beef, poultry, lamb, and probably also game birds and rabbits. But that was then and this is now, and even if we are working class and not 'gentry, we can do a lot within our own - much smaller - domain. Because the same rules apply. Make the most of what we have be it ground to grow things in, windowsills to hold pots of growing edibles, and a kitchen to carry on cooking in. Not forgetting to use the skills if not taught us by our parents, we can still learn from books/TV computers/night school.

Despite the fact that at the present time we don't need to scrimp and save (the state pension - at the moment -covers our overheads), this doesn't stop me carefully recycling every 'disposable' that comes my way. When a plastic tub (pref with lid) is emptied, it is washed and then (if a usuable size) stored to hold 'left-overs'. Egg shells are crushed to put on the soil to deter slugs (they can also be used to clarify stock). Empty coffee jars recycled as containers for 'dry goods'. Cardboard containers (with white inners) are cut up and kept for shopping lists/making notes/writing down recipes.
Empty (4 litre) plastic milk containers are rinsed out well and filled with water to keep in the conservatory and greenhouse to come to room temperature and use to water the plants. Empty lemonade bottles are cut in half to use a mini 'greenhouses' over the top of growing seedlings (helps also to keep away the slugs).

The bits of fat left on butter and marg wrappers are used to grease baking tins, and can also be kept to wrap up small oddments of food (as the paper is 'greaseproof'). Empty plastic food containers are kept to put under flower pots to trap any water than runs out, and the large ones used as plant 'pots' in their own right. Mixed Salad Leaves grow well in the large Value mushroom packs, as do radishes and many herbs.

Goes without saying all glass jars and bottles (with lids) are cleaned and stored to hold preserves, herb oils and vinegars. And yes, sometimes do find we have too many, but there is always someone who can make use of the surplus. The ones mentioned are the tip of the ice-berg, many more things 'saved' purely by habit that I can't now recall.

Each day I get a chance to 'make the most of'. Yesterday was reviewing my 'curry sauce' shelf, and finding there is now a good collection of different sauces - all in larger jars than needed for just two servings - will now be cooking a selection of curries over the next few weeks. As spicy foods are tending to upset my digestion at the moment, although the curry will be made in 'bulk', B only will be served his portion, the rest being frozen in individual (or even half portion) servings.

For readers who enjoy a curry, it is always worth making more than you need, for these usually freeze very well indeed, and the more varieties of curry in the freezer the better for then you have the makings of a 'thali'. This is an Indian 'special' (and one I always ordered when eating out - supposing they were on the menu), and consists of four small dishes, each containing a different curry (usually chicken, lamb, beef and either a veggie curry or a dhal, these also being assorted 'heats': mild, medium and hot). These will be placed on one large platter or tray, together with a bowl of rice, a poppadum or naan bread, and maybe even a bhaji. This in total as one serving. Bowls of pickles and raita to accompany.
So if there are a variety of curries in our own freezers - but only individual portions of each - this is a very good way to use them to make a 'thali' to serve to guests - as really only a large tablespoon of each different curry is needed per person. So worth saving small containers for. Just remember to write the name of the curry, the meat used, and its 'heat' on each box (I find a marker pen works well on plastic and can be easily be washed off).

Even yesterday I was aiming for no 'left-overs'. B had chosen a lamb shank for his supper (to be served with potatoes, peas, gravy, mint sauce and redcurrant jelly). I cooked a few extra peas and potatoes for my supper - to be eaten with the last of the very tasty (because it was free range) scraps from the bones cooked for stock - adding the last bit of gravy B didn't want (and very good that was too).
During the afternoon sorted out my fruit bowl and decided it was time to use up some Bramley apples that were beginning to ripen/soften. So made an apple and blackberry crumble (using the last of the b.berries in the freezer). Having read recently that an apple a day is good for us (allegedly helps to lower cholesterol) sat and ate all the peelings as I pared the apples. Getting rid of the waste in a healthy way I suppose.

There were four limes in the fruit bowl, some beginning to feel a mite dry, so today am planning to grate off the zest, squeeze the juice and add to the last lemon MaMade I have and make six pounds of Lemon and Lime marmalade. If potted up in 8 oz pots, this will make 12 jars which will last longer than if B is given a pound jar to work his way through. Whenever possible try to alternate between having a Lemon and Lime marmalade on the go, and an Orange and Ginger one. Have four orange MaMades on the larder shelf, and as no marmalades left from the last batch, will need also to make a batch of the orange as well. So simple to make, will make both today - probably the lot within one hour. Goes without saying the MaMade tins will be thoroughly cleaned and used to hold pot plants, or holes hammered in the base and used as a plant 'pot'.
B is out at the gym this afternoon, out at his 'social' this evening, so will be able to roll up my sleeves and get on without any interruption.

B has just brought me my morning cup of coffee and after offering him a choice of: liver and bacon (with potatoes and cabbage); ham, eggs, baked beans and chips; or cauliflower cheese, he has chosen the latter. That also makes it easy for me today (cook cauli in the microwave, pour over cheese sauce made with Bisto cheese sauce plus grated cheese mixed in, and grated cheese on top then browned off under the grill).

Yesterday discovering B had washed out an empty coffee jar reminded me I hadn't checked how much coffee we had left since the last time I ordered (which was many, many months ago having stocked up when 'the price was right'). We decant some of the coffee from a jar into a smaller container on the counter top (placed near the kettle), and that was full. In the cupboard was still one unopened jar.
Remembering when we first got married, all I drank was tea. Really disliked the flavour of coffee (and still don't like coffee made from fresh ground beans). Perhaps in those days there was no 'instant' coffee. Do remember the nearest I got to making coffee was using Camp coffee and the milk used was evaporated milk. Actually that really is quite nice.
Have I already said that empty coffee jars make good containers for 'dry goods'.

Rarely now I drink tea - and when I do it is usually in the afternoon and normally green tea - which gives a boost to energy and metabolism.
When Gill comes to stay she likes to drink plenty of tea so last time ordered a fresh pack of tea-bags and - as it was bogof - got an extra pack free (more than a pack - each like a small sack). So now I have loads of tea-bags, and it occurred to me that if I change to drinking tea instead of coffee, that would make the jar we have last twice as long, and also my sugar substitute tablets as normally I have 2 of these with a mug of coffee, but only one in a mug of tea. I can even drink tea without milk - so even more saving. Why didn't I think of doing this before? Just shows how habit can rule our lives and cost us twice as much while it is doing so.

But enough of my ramblings. On to replying to comments. One only that requires a reply (although thanks for the fishing tips from one) and today it is Woozy's request that has led me to give today a few more low-fat ones, this time savouries, and also some fish recipes she might be interested in. Not necessarily in that order.

First recipe a really interesting light meal or snack. Almost a 'fusion' dish as can see shades of Welsh Rarebit, Ploughman's Lunch, and (almost) sardines on toast, all in this one dish. Certainly different.
Grilled Fishy 'Rarebit': serves 4
4 chunky white fish fillets (about 1 lb/500g) total
sunflower or olive oil
4 slices thinly sliced ham (but not wafer thin)
2 oz (50g) Cheddar cheese, grated
1 shallot, grated or very thinly sliced
salt and pepper
4 slices granary bread (opt) - toasted and buttered
Remove skin from fish, and arrange the fillets in a single layer, slightly spaced apart, in a greased shallow heatproof dish. Brush with a little oil and place under a hot grill. Grill for 2 minutes, then remove and turn the fish over. Top each with a folded (scrunched) slice of ham. Mix the cheese and onions together and spoon/divide this between the four ham-covered fish, adding seasoning to taste. Place back under the grill and leave for 5 minutes, or until the fish flakes when poked with a knife - and the cheese also has begun to bubble and brown.
Meanwhile toast the bread and when the fish is ready, butter the bread, pop each fish fillet (and topping) on the bread and eat immediately. Alternatively serve the fish with cooked green veggies ( broccoli, peas etc), and potatoes. In which case omit the bread.

Next recipe is a peasant dish from the south-western part of France - so you can be sure it is tasty. Using Savoy cabbage, this could work quite well using lettuce, spring greens, or white cabbage. The beans could be any one of the numerous varieties sold in cans (but not the 'baked' beans). See no reason why we need to use only white fish for this dish, probably salmon or mackerel couldn't work just as well. My suggestion is use this recipe as a guide, then adapt as the need arises.
The recipe says that this basic 'cabbage stew' - in France - is served with anything from duck to fish, so worth filing away to use another time with another 'protein'. An alternative to white wine (in a savoury dish) is to use white wine vinegar sweetened with a little sugar)
Cabbage and Bean Stew with White Fish: serves 4
1 oz (25g) butter
4 rashers smoked streaky bacon, chopped (or lardons)
1 onion, finely chopped
2 ribs celery, chopped
2 carrots, diced
1 tblsp fresh thyme leaves
1 Savoy cabbage, shredded
4 tblsp white wine (see above)
half pint (300ml) chicken stock
1 x 410 can flageolet (or other) beans, drained and rinsed
salt and pepper
2 tblsp olive oil
4 fillets white fish (about 1 lb/500g) skin left on
2 tblsp plain flour
Melt the butter in a large frying pan and fry the bacon for a few minutes, then add the onion, celery and carrots and cook for about 10 minutes until beginning to soften (but not brown). Add the thyme leaves and cabbage, and cook for a few more minutes until the cabbage has begun to wilt (if using lettuce this happens almost immediately), then pour in the wine and simmer until evaporated. Add the stock, beans and seasoning to taste, then cover and simmer for 10 minutes (5 if using lettuce).
Spoon into a heated serving dish and keep warm whilst cooking the fish.
Using the same pan (wiped clean with kitchen paper), heat the oil. Season each fillet, and dust the skin side with flour. Fry the fish in the hot oil, skin side down for 4 minutes until crisp, then turn and cook the underside until the fish is cooked through (timing depends on thickness of fish).
To serve: divide the cabbage stew between four individual dishes and place a fish fillet on top of each.

Next recipe uses both salmon and white fish fillets, although with the price of salmon at the moment, it might be worth choosing a cheaper fish. It doesn't HAVE to be two different fish used, but if you can - then worth it.
Otherwise use the total weight of fish in the fish of your choice. It's the other ingredients that provide the flavour, so worth using what the recipe suggests.
Although we normally use lemon when adding flavour to a fish dish, orange works equally as well as you will find in this dish.
Roasted Tw0-Fish Dish: serves 4
14 oz (400g) thick, skinless salmon, cut into four
14 oz (400g) thick skinless cod, cut into four
2 oz (50g) raisins
2 tblsp olive oil
zest and juice of 1 orange
salt and pepper
2 red peppers, deseeded, cut into chunks
1 yellow pepper, deseeded, cut into chunks
1 oz (25g) flaked almonds
2 tblsp parsley (pref flat leaf) chopped
Put the fish and raisins in a bowl with half the oil and all the orange zest and juice and season well. Toss gently so the fish is coated in the marinade, then cover and leave for at least half an hour (2 hours if poss).
Meanwhile, put the peppers in a small roasting tin, drizzle with remaining oil, season to taste, then toss together then roast in the oven for half an hour (200C, 400F, gas 6). Remove tin from oven, place the fish and raisins on top of the peppers and pour over the marinade juices. Scatter the almonds over the top and return to the oven and cook for a further 12 - 15 minutes or until the fish is cooked through. Serve immediately with the chopped parsley scattered on top as garnish.

Now come a few low-fat savoury suggestions. Some are just 'nibbles', others can be more a snack or even a light lunch or supper dish. Take your pick.
First recipe is intended as 'buffet fare', but ready prepared will keep in the fridge for a week, so could be used by fewer numbers on a 'cut and come again' basis. As you have to eat 12 slices of this to take in 9g of fat, then this has to be a winning low-fat edible.
An alternative to using peppers and onions, is to use a low-fat flavoured (herb, garlic, or chive) cream cheese, or flavour a plain low-fat cream cheese to your taste, adding flavours of your choice. A recipe for cheese spread is also given today.
Spicy Rolls for Dipping: 6 servings or 72 slices
8 oz (225g) reduced fat cream cheese, softened
8 oz (225g) reduced fat soured cream
6 spring onions, finely chopped
4 oz (100g) bottled/canned green chili peppers, chopped
6 x 12" (30cm) flour tortillas
1 lb (450g) salsa (home-made or bought)
Mix together the cream cheese, soured cream, onions and peppers. Spread one-sixth of the mixture onto one side of each tortilla, then roll up (Swiss roll fashion) and wrap tightly in cling film. Chill in the fridge overnight. To serve remove the cling film, and using a sharp knife cut each roll diagonally into 1" (2.5cm) slices. Serve with salsa as a 'dipping sauce'.

Two cheese 'spreads' (can also be used as dips) follow. Either could be used with the above recipe. The first is made with roasted garlic. Not everyone likes garlic, but this is something else. After roasting whole cloves, when these are squeezed, out pops a lovely garlic paste that tastes very sweet, with hardly any garlicky flavour at all. There is only 1g fat per 2 tablespoons. Ideally, roast the garlic when the oven is on to cook something else.
Roast Garlic Cheese Spread: make 12 oz (350g)
1 whole bulb of garlic
8 oz (225g) reduced fat cream cheese, softened
3 oz (75g) fat-free mayonnaise
Remove the papery skin from the garlic but leave the bulb as - is. Sprinkle with a little water then wrap in foil. Place on a baking tray and roast for 50 minutes at 180C, 350F, gas 4 (or slightly less time at 200C)
Separate the cloves from the bulb and squeeze each into a bowl, discarding the skin. Work in the cheese and mayo, and when well blended, cover and keep in the fridge to use in the above recipe, or as a 'toast topper', or a dip.

Cheese and Herb Spread: (amount and g's as above)
8 oz (225g) soured cream
4 oz (100g) reduced fat Cheddar cheese, grated
1 shallot, grated
2 tblsp chopped fresh parsley
half tsp dried thyme
half tsp dried rosemary leaves, chopped
half tsp ground black pepper
Just mix the lot together, then cover. Will keep for up to 4 days in the fridge. Use as a topping for cream crackers or the tortilla recipe above. Can also be added to hot drained pasta to melt down as a 'sauce'.

The next 'man-size' snack, when served with a fresh salad and crusty bread then turns into a light lunch or supper dish. Although the ordinary large flat (open) field mushrooms can be used, the Portobello mushrooms (being the large open chestnut mushrooms) are far more 'meaty'. Because of the oil in the pesto and fat in the cheese, possibly even in the olives, each serving containes 9g of fat, but this is very low when compared to other dishes.
Mushrooms with Goat's Cheese: makes 4 servings
8 oz (225g) red pesto (tomato and basil sauce)
4 large mushrooms (pref Portobello)
4 oz (100g) mild goat's cheese, cut into 4 pieces
2 tblsp finely chopped black olives, stones removed
1 tblsp chopped fresh parsley
Spread the sauce over the bottom of a 9" x 9" (23 x 23cm) shallow ovenproof dish. Remove stems from mushrooms (if any - these can be chopped later and added to another dish using mushrooms), and place the mushrooms on top of the sauce, cap side down, gills side up. Place a piece of goat's cheese on top of each mushroom and sprinkle evenly with the olives.
Bake at 180C, 350F, gas 4 for 30 minutes or until hot and the cheese is bubbling.

When it comes to diets, there are so many different ways we can lose weight. We can choose between cutting the calories (but within the boundaries eat much of what we like) or we can forget the calories (a bit) and just reduce the fat and sugars we take in. So it's not surprising that many 'diet' books have recipes that seem to contradict one another. For instance today I found a Garden Vegetable Soup recipe that "is chock-full of goodies, and the servings are generous". Per serving will give us 186 calories, 6 g protein, 23 g carbohydrates, 91 g (!!!) fat, 560 mg sodium, and 5 g fibre.
Compare this to a soup recipe on the preceding page. "Creamy Carrot and Potato Soup". Although this contains more calories, more protein, more carbos, it has far less fat (only 8g), sodium and fibre per serving.

This seems to prove that reducing fat doesn't always mean we also reduce the calories. But of course it does help with our cholesterol level.
I end with one 'healthy' soup recipe. A 'complete' meal that (per serving) is 267 cals , 26g protein, 19g carbos, 10g fat, 681mg sodium, and 2g fibre.
Although it contains salmon - this is the canned (therefore much cheaper) and the rest of the ingredients are what cooks normally keep in their kitchens. If you have fresh salmon, this could first be poached then skinned, and added to the dish as if it were the canned. This could also me made with oddments of fish (as in Fish Pie Mix), that have first been poached. You could omit the turnip if you wish, or use diced carrot. Anothr veg that goes well in a Chowder is sweetcorn kernels.
Salmon Chowder: serves 4
1 large potato, peeled and diced
1 turnip, peeled and diced
1 onion, chopped
1 rib celery, chopped
1 bay leaf
18 fl oz (450ml) water
1 x 340g (12 oz) can salmon, drained
8 fl oz (225ml) buttermilk
8 fl oz (225ml) low-fat natural yogurt
half oz (15g) butter or marg
2 tsp Tabaso sauce
salt and pepper to taste
Put the potato, turnip, onion, celery, bay leaf and water into a pan and bring to the boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook, uncovered for 15 minutes or until the veggies are tender.
Keeping the heat at lowest, stir in the rest of the ingredients, and simmer for about 5 minutes or until heated through. Remove the bay leaf. Serve hot.

Apparently it rained on Wednesday night as I discovered when I went to water my tubs - they didn't need any. Last night, when I went to bed heard the rain pelting down, so again no need to water. And they say the Midlands and East are now counted as having 'drought conditions'. So perhaps - after all - we are the lucky ones here in Morecambe. Gave the greenhouse plants a good watering (although they didn't really need it) so that means I don't have to do them today, although my courgette plants really do need transplanting into the ground (more likely large boxes).
My pea shoots (grown from supermarket dried peas) are flourishing, and I sit it the greenhouse nibbling the tips I keep picking off - they never get as far as the salad waiting in the kitchen). Even the small lower leaves taste just like fresh peas. Takes me back to my youth when I used to sit on the garden bench, shelling peas picked by my dad, peeling the membrane from the pods and chewing those. Nothing quite like the taste of freshly picked home-grown peas (and pods). Don't forget that a very good soup can be made just using the pea pods.

So that's my 'diary' for today. Am expecting a Lakeland order to be delivered today - that's another bit of 'retail therapy' I am looking forward to. The big sheets of brown paper they using as packing are all carefully folded to be later ironed and used as wrapping paper (or for using a few layers thick for lining hanging baskets). Have ordered some of the parchment lined foil (one of Lakeland's newer products) which has had a good write up. Apparently it can be folded to make disposable baking tins (foil outside, paper inside - so they don't need greasing/lining). Very useful when we don't have a tin of the right size. Also ordered some non-stick foil. So often I cover something with foil (meat/fish etc) and then it gets grease all over the underside and ends up being thrown away. Now hope to be able to just wipe it down and re-use (although possibly only the other way up). Have 'treated' myself to a few bits and bobs that I suppose I could do without, but being Lakeland products, all will be really useful.
As paid by credit card, this money won't be taken off my bank statement until next month, so will have time to scrimp and save through thrifty cooking to pay for it all. Well, that's the idea anyway.

Having been given a hand-bag sized diary earlier in the year, rarely find a need for it - especially now my medical appointments are six months between instead of monthly. Have decided to write down each day the main meals served (mainly B's) as although I try to serve a different 'meat/fish' each day, often forget what the exact dish was. So being able to view a week at a time, should be able to provide a much wider variety of meals.
Not that I can recall what I made at the early part of this week (although suppose I could find out by looking on my blog), but do remember Tuesday was Chicken Kievs with salad, Wednesday was Kippers with salad, Thursday was Lamb shank and the rest. Pudding were also remembered and written down.
Today will be cauliflower cheese and no doubt Apple and Blackberry crumble (although might freeze most of what was left and make a trifle instead). But it will all be written down, and be interesting to find out if it is possible to keep up the high quality of dishes that can be served whilst still being able to keep within a fixed budget.

Most things are possible once we set our minds to it, and life - as they say - is what we make of it, WE being the operative word. No point in leaving it to someone else anymore - we just can't afford the luxury. But then home-made (and well thought out and properly cooked) meals ARE a luxury, far better than we would buy for a much higher price. So not only is life what we make of it, it can be a truly good life. Or dare I say it Good(e) Life?

Keep those comments rolling in. Roll on tomorrow when it is 'Barefest Day' (the day Bare 'village' in Morecambe throws its cap over the windmill and all sorts of festivities happen). Let us hope the weather stays fair for the outdoor events. But even before I venture out tomorrow, will first be here sitting writing about what has happened today. Hope you can find time to join me.