Saturday, November 10, 2012

Countdown to Christmas

Watching the AWT Christmas cookery prog on Food Network yesterday was amazed at how lightly they consider the cost of the table decorations shown by Linda Barker.  "Only £40" said AWT.   Is it me that is 'dirt poor', or do people still have this amount of money to splash out to 'decorate' the table?

Lack of money does not mean that we have to deprive ourselves of the pleasures of Christmas.  Again I feel it is more a matter of attitude that is the problem, especially after I realised (only the other day) that it is only those over the age of 60 who have experienced the 'hardships' that older folk know all about - by hardships I mean not only war-time rationing, but the old way of working hard (and even harder) to make our way up the ladder of life.   'Living within our means' was how it was then. 'Younger' people have never experienced this way of life,  so what I call 'affluence', is what they consider to be the norm. 

It was after the war when everyone was encouraged to buy as much as possible to build up the nations economy, with the help (!!!) of credit cards etc, that people became used to a much better standard of living (even though they got into debt).  Us 'older folk' feel this was something to be grateful for, but not not necessarily expected to be always as good, they remember that life goes in swings and roundabouts.  It's just that this up-swing has lasted longer than most. 
Those 'younger' (with early childhood being in the 60's where a more 'luxurious' standard of living had arrive, will feel that life has always been that good, and with the advancement of technology it gets even better, so anything less will give a feeling of deprivation, giving the feeling of taking several steps back, when really the pendulum has just swung back slightly, and not even right over, for remembering 'how it was', I still feel we are better off than ever we were in my youth (and by this I mean as a nation).

In the 'old days' we made our own decorations, cooked our own Christmas fare, and made a lot of the gifts that we would give.  Even now more pleasure can be gained from both making and receiving anything 'home-made' ('home-made' sounds more expensive when it comes to food, and 'hand-made' when it comes to craftwork).  Knowing that someone has taken the trouble shows they have given more love and care than if they just 'shopped'. so by doing thiw we gain in many ways (both financially and enjoyment).  Nothing to feel deprived about at all.  Why aren't we more pleased?

Young children really love to help making decorations.  In fact one of my earliest memories (I can shut my eyes and take myself right back to the moment, even visualise it) was when I (aged about five) sat in a chair making paper chains as fast as I could whilst my Dad hung the ones made across the room from corner to corner, looping them over the central light.  We can still make paper chains, the best ones being 'free' - from strips of paper cut from those umpteen coloured sheets of 'flyer's' that come through the letterbox over the year.  Flour and water makes a good paste (or use egg white) to glue the ends of the strips together.

'Baker's clay' (two parts of cheapest plain flour to one of salt, then mixed together with enough cold water to make a stiff dough) - this can be rolled thinly and cut into shapes to hang on the Christmas tree, or where you will.  'Baked' in a slow oven (to dry out), they can then be sprayed with gold or silver glitter, or just painted with poster paints (or food colouring). 

Kitchen foil, cut into very thin strips, then wrapped round a ballpoint pen or something of similar thickness - this can then be slid off and hung on the Christmas tree, and these 'shiny spirals' will spin round with any movement of air round them.  A 'tree' can just be a leafless thin branch with plenty of twiggy bits at the top, that can be sprayed with gold/silver, or draped over with plenty of glittery kitchen foil. 

This year am planning to turn my four tier cup-cake holder into a 'Christmas Tree'.  Not yet sure how I will go about it, but it is the right shape, and if I can get my camera and comp to work together again, I will put up a photo.

What we have to remember with the traditional Christmas Dinner, is that is just a meal, and no need to eat any more than we need, just because it is there. Much of the pleasure of the meal can come from attractive presentation rather than serving a lot of food.
A turkey breast would probably work out cheaper than a whole turkey (but it depends on the supermarket and how many servings needed).  Potatoes (cheap enough) served both roast AND mashed (normally we would only serve one of these), bread sauce (again cheap) is another tradition and helps to fill a gap.

If you have clementines or satsumas, then carefully slit the skins round the centre of the fruits and ease off the shells to make 'cups', then fill each with cooked peas.  Each portion of peas will probably be slightly less than 'help yourself', and the orange cups really give a festive look to the meal.  There is nothing like a bit of colour to lift our spirits.

Other traditional veg (Brussels sprouts, carrots, red cabbage...) also not too expensive, and packets of bought stuffing mix (or home-made from scratch) cheap enough, this mixture I like to roll into small balls to bake in the oven along with the sausages and bacon.  I like to buy a few long thin sausages, then twist each into three or four to make tiny ones.  One small ssausage per person is enough when you think of what else will be on the plate.  Rashers of bacon are also cut into two, each piece rolled around my finger and held together with a cocktail stick.  Again, one per person BECAUSE if we use normal sized dinner plates, then there is not much room left once the turkey (or other chosen meat) and veggies are served.  The more variety of foods served, the smaller the helpings should be.  (Don't forget the cranberry sauce and the gravy).
So we don't have to go mad and buy more than we really need of anything.  Just think 'normal sized meal' with just a few tiny additions, then serve it as attractively as possible.

We don't have to eat turkey at Christmas, and I'm not suggesting we buy beef (even more expensive).  A cheaper 'meat' would be a large chicken and glaze this with honey so it comes out of the oven with a golden brown crispy skin after roasting.  This looks SO good, and with orange 'cups' of peas placed round it, a pile of stuffing balls at one end, and sausages an bacon rolls at the other,  that's almost a feast before we start on the veggies, and all the trimmings.

As ever I'm writing down the pictures that constantly light up my mind as I write, rambling on as more 'visuals' come to mind.  Let's hope you have 'got the picture' that Christmas does not have to be expensive when we put more thought into it.

Thanks to Les for his comments.  It would be good to see the 'Christmas Display', but as I'd be tempted to to buy something, better I stayed away from things like that, however it could give plenty of ideas for those who are 'craft-minded' and prepared to go back home and copy some of what they have seen.

Have not read that book you mentioned Jackie.  As B has now going to the Morecambe Library again to get books to read, I'll ask him to see if he can get a copy there for me.  Yesterday he brought back several more books and one was about Alan Sugar (autobiog?), and that is one I will enjoy reading myself.

The weather has turned very cold again, but although it rained most of last night, now we have blue skies with no clouds, so let us hope it stays a lovely sunny and dry day.  However cold it is, it is always much more pleasant when the sun is shining.  I've felt much colder when the temperature is (slightly) higher and outside is damp and cloudy.

Today am giving some recipes for dishes that are either 'meatless', or easy to make.  The idea is that if we have the ingredient to hand (and am hoping most readers will have), then recipes such as these can save a great deal of money as we can 'use it up', rather than 'go out and buy'.

First recipe is a dessert, one that is perfect to serve after a curry dish.  When we make our own yogurt, this works out even cheaper, although we do have to allow time for the yogurt to turn into 'curd cheese'.  When we haven't saffron, we have to omit this or add a tiny drop of yellow food colouring.  The sugar should be 'raw cane sugar', but I would use demerara or a soft light brown sugar, but as the sugar is there for sweetness, then ordinary caster would be almost as good.
2 pints (1ltr) plain yogurt
8 cardamom pods
pinch of saffron
1 tblsp rosewater
4 oz (100g) demerara sugar (see above)
2 tblsp cashew nuts, chopped
2 tblsp raisins, chopped
chopped pistachios for garnish (opt)
Put the yogurt into a muslin bag and hang up over a bowl to drain overnight.  The 'solids' are then similar to curd cheese.
Crush the cardamom pods and discard the shells. Grind or crush the seeds as fine as possible, then add them to the curd cheese.  Dissolve the saffron in the rosewater and also add this with the rest of the ingredients.  Mix well together, cover, then place in the fridge to chill.
Serve garnished with a few chopped pistachios (opt).

Sausages are becoming much more expensive (don't even bother to buy the cheap ones).  So this vegetarian version of Scotch Eggs might be one well worth trying.  If you have assorted nuts in your larder you could use one or any mixed together, ground down finely, or omit the nuts and use grated cheese instead. If you wish to add extra flavouring such as Worcestershire sauce, then please do. It should not be necessary to bind the mixture (egg coating) with egg, but if you feel it needs it then just use the yolk or white of an egg (thus saving the other part for another dish).
Scotch Eggs:
4 oz (100g) mashed potato
1 onion, grated
4 oz (100g) nuts, ground finely
1 tblsp sunflower oil
1 tblsp tomato paste/puree
pinch dried mixed herbs
1 teaspoon Marmite
ground black pepper
3 eggs, hardboiled
1 egg, beaten
4 oz (100g) fine dry breadcrumbs
Mix the first eight ingredients together, adding egg or liquid (water or milk0 to help bind if necessary,
Coat the hard-boiled eggs with the mixture, as evenly as possible, then dip each into the beaten egg and then in the breadcrumbs.  Double dip if you wish to make a really crunchy coating, then fry in hot oil (pref deep fry) until golden brown all over.

Here is a recipe for a French Salad that can make use of seasonal veg, including several frozen veg if you wish (you can always add more variety or different vegetables according to what you have).
Although a chilled salad is normally served on warmer days, this one can make a good accompaniment to something hot such as grilled steak or fish, hot Cornish Pasties,  Chicken Kiev, or Toad in the Hole (am sure you have other ideas).
French Vegetable Salad:
1 lb (450g) new (salad) potatoes
1 lb (450g) carrots,
8 oz (225g) fresh or frozen green/string beans
half a pint (300ml) frozen peas
1 small cauliflower
1 cucumber
vinaigrette dressing (recipe below)
chopped fresh parsley
3 - 4 tblsp capers
Cook the potatoes (leaving them unpeeled) until tender, then when drained and cooled, peel away the skins carefully, then dice the flesh.
Cook the carrots, and when tender, drain and dice.  Also cook the beans and peas, then drain.
Separate the cauliflower into florets and give them a short boil, they need to end up fairly crisp.
Peel the cucumber, then dice the flesh.
All that has to be done then is arrange the vegetables on a large serving platter - as attractively as possible (by this I mean don't put the 'whites' - cauliflower and spuds - side by side, alternate whites with the orange of carrots and the green of the beans and peas).  Drizzle over the vinaigrette dressing, chill well, and when ready to serve - garnish with the parsley and capers.

This classic vinaigrette dressing is superb, far better than those sold in bottles, and as most cooks have the ingredients to hand, we should make it far more often.  The ingredients can be blended together by hand (with the aid of a whisk), but more easily made if the lot is blended together in a liquidiser or food processor.   Save the surplus in a lidded (clean) jar and it will keep for several days in the fridge.
vinaigrette dressing:
4 tblsp white wine vinegar
2 tblsp lemon juice
1 tblsp mustard (pref whole-grain or Dijon)
sea or rock salt and black pepper
6 tblsp olive oil
1 tblsp honey
1 clove garlic, crushed
Mix all the ingredients together well, preferably in a blender.

Final recipe today is a Greek dish, traditionally made using vine leaves, but cabbage leaves make an excellent substitute, and we all have cabbage in our fridge (at least I do).
While this is a fairly basic recipe, we can improve the flavour immensely by placing garlic cloves, bay leaves, lemon slices, and/or pieces of cinnamon stick tucked between the cabbage rolls while it is in the oven.  To prevent the leaves from drying as they cook, baste them with a little lemon juice diluted with water (half and half) (or you could cover with foil and let them steam.  If you have them use fresh herbs - a teaspoon of each when chopped.
Stuffed Cabbage Leaves:
about 12 cabbage leaves
4 oz (100g) long grain rice (pref brown), cooked
1 onion, finely chopped
1 - 2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 tblsp olive oil
half tsp dried oregano
half tsp dried dill
juice of 1 lemon
1 tblsp tomato puree
1 tblsp flaked almonds
1 tblsp Parmesan cheese, grated
Blanch the cabbage leaves by dropping them in boiling water for 2 minutes (no longer). Then drain.
Fry the onion and garlic in the oil for 1 minutes, then add the rice and other ingredients (not the cabbage).  Cook for 5 minutes over low heat, stirring often, then leave to cool (use as the filling).
Take a pair of scissors and cut away the lower tough part of the leaf stem from each of the cabbage leaves, then place a level tablespoon of the filling on the leaf just above the top of the cut.  Fold the leaf over to the centre before tucking in the sides, the roll up completely to enclose all the filling and making a neat, tight bundle.
Pack the cabbage 'bundles' tightly together in a casserole, then pour over 2 tblsp of olive oil and bake at 180C, 350F, gas 4 for about 40 minutes or until tender.  See above for suggestions for adding extra flavouring to this dish.

Whether or not we choose to splash our cash a bit more when buying food (and drink) to serve over the twelve days of Christmas, we can make things a bit easier for ourselves as we still have a few weeks to go before the final shop, and by serving dishes such as he above, we can save quite a few £££, freeing those much-needed pennies to help us celebrate. 

When we eat well most of the year, then a Christmas dinner isn't that much different (other than the family gatherings which help to make the festivities so enjoyable).  By 'depriving' ourselves of 'treats' (as some of us do during Lent), this means when the great Day arrives we ill then be able to enjoy our laden plates of good food that much more.  It is always better to have something to look forward, and why eating food only when they are in season makes much better sense.  For one thing they taste so much better 'fresh', and we never get the chance to become bored with them (as so often happens nowadays when almost everything is available all year round).

Oh dear, a mass of white cloud has appeared above the houses I can see through the window in front of me - does that mean the sun won't shine any more today?   Anyway I'll be too busy in the kitchen to be concerned about that, but do hope that all readers who are planning a weekend in the fresh air managed to avoid any bad weather.  Just wrap up warm.
Blog may be later tomorrow (depends on what time I get up), as being Sunday, Gill will be having her hour-long phone call from 9 - 10am.  But a blog will be published tomorrow as long as the comp behaves itself and nothing else puts a spanner in my works.  Hope to see you then.