Sunday, November 20, 2011

Bursting at the Seams

Quite a few things I'm wishing to 'discuss' this morning. Where do I start? Perhaps first reply to comments.
Pleased to hear you are recovering Urbanfarmgirl, and thanks to Les for letting me know the 'use-by' time once-opened port should be consumed. Not sure of the quality of the port we have, doubt it will be the vintage. Even so, port still seems to have a short shelf life compared to other fortified wines (such as sherry - or should that be consumed in a short time also?).

The second comment from Les in many ways confirmed something I was going to mention anyway. In yesterday's paper it said England was one of the post populated countries in the world (if you include Scotland and Wales it then moves lower down the list) almost as densely populated as India and several other Asian countries.
My home town of Leicester is now officially the first English town to have more (how do I put it?) 'ethnic' residents than 'true Brits'. And yes I know if anyone has a British passport this does make them legally British, but I mean born of centuries of British stock in this country (and for that matter with the Vikings, Romans, French et al who invaded our country around 1,000 or so years ago, who is to say we are 'true Brits' anyway. Possibly only the Celts are nearest and most of these tend to originate in Ireland, Scotland and Wales - with a few Cornish folk too.
Speaking of which, many Cornish people have Spanish blood in their veins due to many Spanish ships being smashed to smithereens on the Cornish rocks and so ended up living the rest of their lives in Cornwall.

So our country is now bursting at the seams, and it will get worse if more and more people come from abroad to live here (some illegally). With our National Health and benefits system, the money has to come from somewhere to feed and house them. Many of course come to seek work and have money to buy or rent property, but there are only so many jobs, and the more people there are the more unemployment there will be.
We have to give credit to our government for doing their best, even if it does mean we - as a nation - have to face cuts. Running our country is just the giant equivalent of us keeping a house full of guests (some uninvited) clothed, warm, fed and watered with no more income coming in.

Before I begin giving more 'trade secrets', think I'll give yesterday's cooking session a mention for this too was 'interesting'. Decided to make B a fruit loaf (as he loves them), so got a packet of brown bread mix, added a handful of dark brown sugar, a couple of teaspoons of mixed spice, a little extra butter, and about a mugful of raisins plus the water (and yeast of course). Surprisingly it turned out well. Seems to be missing something - maybe cinnamon, but does make lovely toast. Will keep on practising.

Decided to have another go at making scones using a different recipe to the one normally used. This worked MUCH better. The scones rose with fairly straight sides and the tops remained flat. Just what I was aiming for. After they had baked and cooled slightly I ate one and although slightly crusty on the outside (I should have covered them with a towel once they were on the cake airer - this would help to keep the crusts soft) they were very light in texture inside.

Strangely the recipe did not include sugar as an ingredient, but once jam and cream were on the scones, they didn't really need extra sweetening. The main thing I realised that this particular recipe could be used in several ways. As no sugar was included, the scones could then have 'savoury' additions: grated cheese, salt and pepper, mixed dried herbs etc. These could be eaten as scones in their own right, or popped on top of a casserole to bake (uncovered) as a 'cobbler'.
Also felt - because of the lovely 'crusty' top and base to the scones - that if rolled quite thinly it could make an alternative to the normal pastry we put on top of savoury pies. Worth thinking about as this would be much cheaper to make as this 'mix' uses only a quarter of the fat normally used when making pastry.

For anyone who wishes to have a go at making these scones, here is the recipe. One thing - as I didn't have buttermilk, used one heaped tablespoon of (home-made) Greek yogurt and blended it with milk (water would probably be OK) to the required amount. As it was did need a little extra liquid, so added a tablespoon more of milk when mixing.
One good tip I learned recently is that when we cut scones the dough needs to be fairly thick - (I found the easiest way is to measure with the index or first finger - placed on its side by the rolled out dough - it needs to be at least that thickness). Also - still allowing a bit of space between each - place the scones fairly close together on the baking sheet, then they will rise upwards rather than spread.
Can't remember who told me that - it could have been Eileen, in which case many thanks as it works.

With the recipe at the side of me as I write, have just noticed that I should have used plain flour. Oops! I used self-raising, but even with the two raising agents, it seemed to work just fine with none of the 'taste' of raising agent we get from bought scones.

Buttermilk Scones: makes about 8
8 oz (225g) plain or self-raising flour (see above)
1 teaspoon of baking powder (I used rounded tsp)
pinch of salt
1 oz (25g) butter or margarine
5 fl oz (150ml) buttermilk (or diluted yogurt)
half tsp bicarbonate of soda
Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Rub in the fat until like breadcrumbs. Stir the bicarb into the buttermilk, then mix this into the dry ingredients. You are aiming for a soft, elastic dough, but it shouldn't be 'sticky'. Add more liquid if necessary.
Knead gently on a floured board until the dough is smooth, then roll out to finger-thickness (see above) which is about 3/4" thick (don't know what that is in metric), Cut into rounds (how many you get depends upon the size of your cutter) and place on a greased baking sheet.
Bake at 200C, 4ooF, gas 6 for 10 minutes, then reduce heat to 180C, 350F, gas 4 and bake for a further 5 - 10 minutes or until the scones are golden on top.

Now we come to what is interesting the grocery trade at this moment in time, beginning with "more good news for retailers as sales of chilled ready-meals continue to rise. Up 15% last year. Up another 8% this time as shoppers swap eating out for eating in.....and - with a greater than ever level of global population diversity here in the UK, there's a real opportunity for retailers to seize the initiative".

Now although 'eating in' DOES work out cheaper than 'eating out', it still doesn't seem to have come to some minds that cooking the same dishes at home works out even cheaper than buying them 'chilled' and ready to heat/cook. But suppose people used to eating food prepared by someone else have to start somewhere.

At least one city (Birmingham) has now proposed strict measures to curb the number of take-aways. Existing ones are safe, it's only new ones that won't be able to get their feet under the take-away table.
An area in East London did something similar, "introducing restrictions to prevent takeaway 'cluttering' and banned them from opening near schools. Last February, Dominos Pizza appealed against the refusal of planning permission after it attempted to open near a primary school. And lost the appeal."

This has brought to mind something else read in our newspaper yesterday where the US are now calling pizzas 'vegetables', so that they can still be served in their schools.

Maybe not such good news for cooks, but certainly the 'health tsars' will be happy if the soaring cost of gelatine (up 20% since the start of this year) and also maize starch (that's cornflour to you and me) also up 34%. With these rises coming at the same time as sugar (said to have risen by as much as 50%) this will certainly affect the price of sweets (sales of confectionery have soared by 9.1% by value and 4% by volume, when last year sales were virtually static).

Can't quite make any sense of the above. We're all supposed to be aware of child obesity (and adult obesity as well I suppose), yet sales of sweets increase. Bearing in mind the way my Beloved ate a whole big tin of sweets in the 3 days after Halloween, probably adults are the main culprits. No wonder he keeps saying he needs to lose a lb or two (and then immediately goes into the kitchen to get himself another snack. I told him that to lose weight he needs to stop snacking, and he went off into a major sulk, really MAJOR!).

Last week mentioned how reindeer meat had been withdrawn from the shelves at Lidl, and a letter in the trade mag opened my eyes somewhat. Seems that to many people (especially those with children) reindeer is associated with Rudolph who represents the animal side of Christmas. After all, what would Father Christmas do if he had no reindeer to pull his sledge?

As the letter points out, reindeer have been herded by the Saami people of Lapland for generations, and as for moose in Finland - they are a pest. Numbers have to be controlled as they affect the timber industry and farming.
When people get outraged about reindeer consumption they should think about the economy in Lapland. It has two things - tourism and reindeer, and the reindeer still plays a major part in the livelihood of the Saami.

The way a country brings in income is by the sale of its products. We in the UK over the past years have lost many sales of our superb quality products because they are just now too expensive - either to export or purchase 'locally'. Instead we import cheaper versions, maybe from China (clothes, toys, etc. etc.) or food. It doesn't seem possible that food can be brought to us from the other side of the world (think of the transport costs) and yet still be sold to us at cheaper prices than home-grown.
It would be good if we could buy mainly British made (or grown or reared), but unless our exports and earnings improve, then it is unlikely we will be able to afford to.

The National Federation of Women's Institutes is aiming to put on the market a wholesome 15-strong WI Foods range. The range will include jams and chutneys, including English breakfast marmalade, and caramelised onion chutney (rsp. from £2.59). Biscuits such as butter shortbreads, ginger biscuits and triple choc cookies (rsp £1.79). They will also sell a range of flour: self-raising, wholemeal and strong white (rsp from £1.95). These will be sold at farm shops, garden centres, delicatessens, and also some of the larger supermarkets.
It is good to know that old-style 'good food' will be for sale, and the above gives us an opportunity to work out how much we could save if we prefer to have a go at making what the WI Foods call 'the closest thing to home-made' actually AT home in our own kitchens then it won't just be 'close' it will be the real thing.

More new products on the market. This time aimed at children. Miniscoff (love the name) already sells organic children's frozen meals (rsp £3.39!!) through Ocado, and is now planning to launch chilled meals into supermarkets, starting initially with frozen meals such as shepherd's pie, spaghetti and meatballs, and ocean fish pie for children between one and eight years old.
Apparently the ready-meal market for children's meals has had a steady growth.

Well, don't know about you, but it does seem that today mothers just can't be bothered to even start making the pureed first 'solids' for babies, so will continue to buy 'foods for kids' rather than caring enough to make meals from scratch. And I bet these mums are the first to complain that their 'food budget' won't stretch these days as far as they wish.

Now then, for anyone who wishes to try something a 'little bit special', the following might be worth a try:
Grant's Foods has launched a range of premium canned meats, including Venison Casserole. The company uses local (Scottish) suppliers for the ingredients for their gourmet range which also includes Chilli con Carne, Beef Bolognese, Minced Beef, Scotch Steak in Gravy, Irish Stew, and Boeuf Bourguignon. Best know for its canned haggis range, it has a haggis gift package that includes malt whisky, vegetarian and venison versions. No prices were given, but they sound great.

Don't believe this! "Paper wine bottles could be on supermarket shelves as early as next summer".... and "when the bottle is empty consumers can tear out the plastic lining and either recycle the the paper bottle or compost it". Isn't it just easier to take an empty bottle to the bottle bank to recycle?

When it comes to fish, some interesting facts. Firstly "mackerel prices soar as global catch is hit". Yet another article says "Fish isn't the first thing that comes to mind when pondering the state of the economy, but it is a surprisingly accurate barometer of the UK's economic woes".

"Last year, the chilled category (fish) was clinging on to growth. This year however, frozen fish sales have risen... while chilled sales have slumped". "There is evidence to suggest consumers are moving from chilled to frozen fish as a means to conserve income" says an analyst.
The article goes on to say "the average retail prices, including promotions, of three of the biggest-selling frozen species: cod, haddock and pollock, have fallen"

If you love flavoured cheeses (as I do), look out for the following 'festive blends' on the multi's deli counters: White Stilton with Chocolate and Ginger at Sainsburys'; Mature Cheddar with Christmas Chutney at Tesco (this chutney contains apples, onion, cranberry, currant, spices, and garlic - with a hint of rum).

Apparently the warm weather early in our year has boosted the potato crop, up by 3.5% in volume (the total crop stands at six million tonnes, according to provisional estimates by the Potato Council. Last year the total crop was 5.8 million tonnes). Interestingly this season, plantings were at their lowest since 2005 but the estimate average was the highest since 2002.
It would be interesting to know if readers home-grown spuds also exceeded their expectations.

Our onion production is also up, with an estimated total of 500,000 tonnes this year according to the British Onion Producer's Assoc.

Several pages were given over to Ocado, but not really of interest to consumers, more to other retailers who now have to find a way to fight this giant.
What did interest me was another article about pensioners. Apparently, in the next five years, for the first time in human history, there'll be more over 60's on the planet than over 5's.
The spending power of the 65 -74-year-olds us expected to have risen by 80% in the decade to 2015. Seems also that 68% prefer shopping in smaller stores closer to home than the larger supermarkets.
Catering for elderly appetites "isn't just about providing fresh, quality food...With a large portion of elderly shoppers living alone, it is also about providing food in portions that suit them and avoid food waste".
Things are changing - "This month Asda became the first national retailer to trial a range of frozen food aimed specifically at the four million people aged over 75 in Britain today. The 'On the Menu' range has been designed to offer maximum nutritional value in a smaller format to cut down on waste and help reduce the shocking statistics that one in seven over 65's in the UK are undernourished".
There is an advertising 'box' on the same page which shows samples of the above range: Savoury Minced Beef with Broccoli, Mashed Potato and Yorkshire Pudding. Or choose Gammon in Parsley Sauce with Carrot and Swede Mash and Baby Potatoes; or Chicken with Vegetable Casserole with Herby Dumplings. (price £2.29 for 250g/9oz). "Launched to fill the hole left by the closure of Meals on Wheels schemes across the UK, and currently being trialled in Asda stores in Dorset (which recently lost its Meals on Wheels).
The range is frozen to prolong shelf-life, packed with nutrients to address the startling fact that one in seven UK senior citizens in malnourished, and available in smaller portions to cater for elderly appetites."

Nice little article about 'times past and times present' written by a retailer: "In the 1980s people waiting until close to Christmas before they did their 'festive' shopping, and there was always a last-minute shopping rush the week before Christmas. Christmas Eve was like a rerun of the Charge of the Light Brigade as customers almost came to blows over who would get their hands on the last packet of Every Ready batteries left on the shelf.
In those days it was relatively easy to plan for the Christmas rush - we pretty well knew how many cocktail cherries we'd sell, how many tins of pineapple chunks to order and the number of crackers we'd need.
How things have changed. These days the customer is thinking about Christmas s soon as the kids go back to school after summer. And this, of course, has an impact on their grocery shopping habits.
In terms of financial stability, this year is probably the most worrying I can remember for the majority of my customers. The recession and fuel price increases seem to have been the only topics of conversation since the start of the year, but paradoxically...You know what? I think this Christmas period will be huge".

However correct the above quote may be, the reason we start planning for Christmas early is that the stores start loading their shelves with festive food far too soon, and so it is they who have planted the seeds of Christmas-yet-to-come into our minds. The moment we have stepped into the New Year no doubt Chocolate Eggs and Hot Cross Buns will magically appear on the shelves (but thinking about it, aren't these buns now sold all year round?).

It does seem in times of recession or depression (or whatever it is called) that people sometimes do go over the top. My mother - always the pessimist - insisted each Christmas should be 'the best ever, for next year could be hard times". This of course tended to make me feel more depressed than if she'd left things simple and said nothing.

It might well be that people do spend more than they can afford this year, but at least with so many stores now offering their goods at often less than half the normal retail selling price, we are fortunate in that respect, but even then we have to decide whether we really NEED what we buy.
Ideally, we should step back into our grandparent's shoes and make this Christmas far more a D.I.Y effort. Children will always remember (with affection) the way decorations were made at home (especially if they helped to make them). They will - in later years - tell their own children how good the food was that their Mum cooked for the Christmas meal (and others during the Twelve Days). Even Father Christmas can be persuaded to fill the stockings with old-fashioned gifts again: Chocolate 'money', a satsuma, a book, toy, some other small gifts, and always something that will stick out of the top.

Yesterday, after watching a TV advert with children, stockings and all sitting down to the festive meal, I actually shed a tear when I remembered the joy our own children got from finding a small but plump stocking hanging on the end of each of their beds, the thrill of a Christmas tree covered with many of their own hand-made decorations, the Christmas dinner (and all the lovely smells from the kitchen), crackers to pull and paper hats to wear. Hopefully a few weeks after a heavy fall of snow, then snowmen to build and snowballs to throw and sledges to scoot down hills on. Children never seemed to need expensive presents in those days, they loved everything they were bought - even if it cost only a few pence. Just wish those days and ways could return again. Let us hope they will.

Must mention one more thing I did yesterday. The previous day had decided to soak a jar of dried butter beans that I must have had for a couple of years. Left them soaking for a good 12 hours (maybe longer). The amount then looked ENORMOUS. Decided to cook them in my slow-cooker, but this was only able to hold two-thirds of the beans, my large saucepan only just managing to hold the rest.
These have now been cooked and today will have to find space in the freezer to accomodate them. Also need to 'invent' ways of using them. Am considering the fact that once blitzed in the food processor they could end up looking like mashed potato, so might be able to be used 'instead of' in certain dishes (like fishcakes, topping for pies etc). Certainly - if well seasoned - the blitzed beans can be made into a 'spread' or 'dip'. Any suggestions welcome.

Luckily I rose early this morning, beginning this posting at 6.45am in the hope it would be completed before Gill phoned. Unfortunately didn't quite manage it, but at least got most of it done, so that means not too long a wait to get it posted - which is right now!
Enjoy your day and the good weather we have been having. Apparently it is warmer here than in Jordan at the moment. So we should make the most of it. Please join me again tomorrow, and keep those comments coming.