Thursday, December 26, 2013

Let Us Begin...

Firstly, let me say a heartfelt THANK YOU to all who sent comments, greetings etc, over the last few days.  Have these to read through (there are a lot), and will send replies tomorrow.  Today's blog is just having a bit of 'me-time' and getting back into the swing of things, mainly starting our new 'challenge'.

It's been a funny sort of Christmas.  Didn't start too well as on the Monday, when we had arranged to collect our daughter and then go off to meet our son at a restaurant some miles away, we left early to allow for traffic, but not early enough.  Normally it takes less than 15 minutes from our house in Morecambe to our daughter's in Lancaster, but on Monday - due to nose-to-tail traffic almost all the way, and in pouring rain - it took one hour 15 minutes!!  We phoned the restaurant to tell them we'd be late, and fortunately as we could then drive down country lanes to reach it, we were not hampered by traffic, but the weather was atrocious, high winds and lots of rain, some of the roads nearly covered by water.

Three of us chose the Turkey Dinner 'with all the trimmings', and when I received my plateful (it wasn't help yourself), saw there were no Brussels sprouts.  Whimpered to the waitress that there HAD to be sprouts with a Christmas dinner, and she said the chef had forgotten to put them on the plate.  We did have a few green peas, and one broccoli floret.  Anyway we had nearly finished our meal before the sprouts arrived (I don't think he had intended to include them, so had to cook them).  The 'bread sauce' turned out to be mashed potato, and suppose - in a way - I was disappointed with the meal, although everyone else said they enjoyed it.  It was me (just being a cook) that found fault - knowing home-cooked would have tasted MUCH better.  The nice thing was that it was cooked FOR me, not by me, which was a treat in itself.

When we left the restaurant - the rain still pouring down - we drove over to wait by our son's car to exchange pressies .  Mad emptying of the back of his car - it turned out they had forgotten to pack the box that contained our gifts.  It was still in Essex!   They will be returning to Lancashire for Burns night, so we will meet them again and hope he remembers them this time.  It was almost worth this happening as seeing the look on his face, and his "Sorry, Mum" reminded me so much of his 18th birthday when he had celebrated with friends by going to a pub and having a drink, and had a bit too much.  He looked and said exactly the same then.  How it took me back.

We had Christmas lunch here on the 25th, but a simple one as we'd already had the proper one on Monday.  Cooked a rack of lamb (DR's that had been frozen for months but still in date and was SUPERB).  Daughter and B had these (3 small chops each), with new potatoes, roasted vegetables, and peas.  I made myself some lamb meatballs in a creamy sauce.  They had Christmas Pud for afters, I chose cheese and biscuits.   Different but good and a pleasant meal all told.

Incidentally, although I normally cook and serve the small potatoes in their skins, this time I boiled them - still with the skins on - and after straining, cool enough to handle, was able to very easily peel off the skins.  A lot easier than all that scraping of skins beforehand, and this way helped to keep all the vitamins in the veg.  Several minutes before serving, placed them in a steamer to heat through and then tossed them in butter and sprinkled them with a little bit of coarse (Welsh) salt.

The rack of lamb I cooked the D.R. method, and it works so well.  First sear the lamb rack in a little oil for a total of 6 minutes (on all sides - this difficult because the bones hold the meat away from the pan on one side, so put the rack skin side down in the pan and kept spooning the hot fat over the rest as it cooked).  The oven was preheated to 80C (yes, as low as that), the roasting tin also heating up, then the rack of lamb put into the hot tin, and placed in the oven to cook for 60 -75 minutes.  By then it is perfectly cooked with the flesh light pink in the centre.  If cooking for a dinner party, and the meal served slightly later than intended, after cooking (as above) the heat can be reduced to 60C and the lamb will hold in perfect condition for a good 30 minutes longer.  Once cooked, it is then carved into single chops and served immediately.

 My own meal was meatballs in a creamy sauce, and the recipe used cashew nuts, soaked in boiling water for a few minutes, then strained and blitzed with cream before stirring into the stock (already in a pan with the meatballs).  I did not wish to use the few cashew nuts I have left, so thought that  peanut butter might be a good substitute, but then this would have turned the sauce into something like a 'satay'.  In the end, added ground almonds to the cream and these were perfect, thickening the sauce in the same way as the cashew nuts would have done.  I'll do that again.

Apart from my 'proper' Christmas gift, my daughter gave me a couple of free brochures (more like books as they were big ones) and have to say I liked these best of all the gifts that I'd been given - why?  Because one was a big Booth's catalogue, full of foodie pictures, prices of the festive food they were selling, even some recipes. The other was the 'Showguide & Recipe collection" from the London GoodFood Show.  Lots more lovely recipes, and with Booth's able to know how much each food item sold would cost to buy.  Every time I see a price on something my mind then falls into gear and I begin working out how much it would cost ME to make the same.   An instance,  Booth's Treacle Tart (in their Divine Desserts section) to feed 12 = £20!  Oh, how I enjoyed the moment, knowing I could cook the same for probably less than £2. 

Watched a recent Jamie O (repeat) of his money-saving meals.  Well, he may think that £1.75 is not a lot to pay for one portion, but me - being me - immediately starts trying to come up with 'just as good' meals that cost £1.50, £.1.25, £1, or even less.  That's what (my) cost-cutting is all about, going one (two or three) steps further.  It can be done.

This year I used four insulated serving dishes that I'd bought to use at the social club.  Normal size for family use, and different sizes.   First they need to be filled with very hot water, then lid left on for them to heat up.  Pour the water away and then fill with the chosen foods - lid back on and the food stays hot for at least 4 hours.  So in the smallest one went the peas, the next one up went my rice, the third had the meatballs and sauce, the fourth had the spuds.  The roasted veg had to be served in an other bowl, and the lamb chops separately on a hot plate.  Replacing the lids after serving certainly kept the food piping hot, and I'm so glad I bought them (and remembered to use them).

As always, B does the washing up after the Christmas meal, and it was his intention to do it, but he felt very tired after his meal and so went to bed until early evening.  He is - at the moment - doing the washing up, but there isn't that much as I cleared up as I went along, just the food containers and our three sets of plates/glasses etc.  B seems a bit out of sorts recently, forgetting things, seems to be a bit 'not-with-it' more than normal, and always wanting to sleep.  He is having a check up in January, so hope the doc can find out the problem.

Odd really, but all through Christmas I couldn't wait until Boxing Day - the start of this new 'challenge'.  Not really 'new', it is one I do every year at this time....just using up what food we have, either left-overs or in store.  But each year it is approached in a slightly different way, although aiming to achieve the same results (and perhaps better than each of the previous years).

Forgot to mention that I'd ordered a Walker's Pork Pie from Tesco.  When we lived in Leicester we always had a Walker's pie at Christmas.  My mother loved them and when we moved to Leeds we would always request that Gill (who visited us often) and my sister-in-law (who always came for Christmas) would bring us a Walker's pie.  We think they are the best pork pies made. 
So - although not certain these were the same Walker's pies - I sampled the one delivered, and it was the proper Walker's.  Was so thrilled.  Needless to say it was eaten within a very few days (I managed to save a quarter of it for myself).  Do hope they continue to sell them.   But during the challenge I will - of course - have to make my own.

What's even better is that I've got a refund from Tesco because a few of the items ordered I could have bought cheaply elsewhere, so what with all their vouchers and offers, I've again managed to save quite a lot of money, and not exceeded my normal monthly expenditure.

There was one query from Cheesepare that is best replied to today as he is asking if I'm doing the same challenge as at the start of this blog (when I made all the food purchases late 2006, with the challenge carrying on during the first couple or so months of 2007 - some details can be see via Archives).   At that time I worked on a budget of £250, buying all the food in advance (except from the milkman who delivered daily, but what was bought from him was paid out of the budget).  Enough food to last 10 weeks without doing any more shopping-in-store  (and even some left but then I had to go to hospital for nearly 3 weeks, so was not able to finish the challenge properly, but near enough). 

This time I already have many foods in store that have been purchased over the year.  The most recent have been stocking up with a few canned products (tuna, sardines, chopped tomatoes, baked beans), some dried foods (flour, bread mixes, Beanfeasts, pasta....), UHT milk and cream, cheeses in the fridge, and carrots, small (and large) potatoes, parsnips, cauliflower, onions, celery, peppers. and salad veg: iceberg lettuce, cucumber, tomatoes, and some sugarsnap peas and spring onions for B's stir-fries. 

Being a 'cook' I do have a good selection of bottled sauces, and other 'tracklements', as well as 'back-up' of things like English Mustard, Branston Pickle, capers, and a few jars of other things that are on a higher shelf that I've not got around to using yet (and forgotten what there is there).  No doubt they will all be very useful in the weeks to come.

What I'm hoping to do is work out the cost of each meal made, starting with 'buying' the ingredients from myself as though I was going shopping each day (as we all used to do in the past).  That way I'll be able to find out just how much money we really need to feed ourselves well.  At least well enough not to feel deprived.

Am feeling quite guilty even thinking about cooking a proper meal considering the terrible weather conditions we've had over the UK.  Many homes flooded and others without electricity over Christmas.   Yesterday and today the weather is very calm, but another low-pressure area due to arrive tomorrow, again bringing more of the bad weather.  Parts of America (and Canada) are having very low temperatures, snow and ice, and possibly we may have the same in a few weeks, so worth making sure we have all the necessary foods (that will store) to keep us warm and comfortable should the big freeze happen here.

Thankfully, one of the most warming meals, and the very best start to the day, is a bowl of hot porridge.  Porridge oats are very cheap (a little goes a long way when cooked) and I've got a couple of kg bags ready and waiting in the larder (plus one on the go).  So that's how the challenge has begun, porridge for breakfast, soup (for me) for lunch (B will probably have toast and marmalade - his choice), and supper yet to be decided.  I'll work out the cost of it all, and keep a daily record.

It's not as though I'll need to stretch my mind this early on as much of the time we'll be finishing off the left-overs, eating Christmas cake with cheese etc.  Normally it would be at least a month before my stocks dwindle down to needing (at least some fresh) to be replaced.  However, being cautious from the start, working out if (at least) some ingredients could be stretched to make two meals, not just one, means that food in store will last longer.   So I'll be leaving out quite a lot of the hard cheese to get even harder, this will then grate up finer, can be used instead of (or with) Parmesan, and I'll always have grated cheese (fine and not so finely grated) to add that 'little extra something' to meals.

Things that need to be done within the next couple or so days are:  make another batch of marmalade (we are down to the last jar), cook a big pan of vegetable soup - enough to reheat.  Make Sticky Toffee Pudding (it freezes well), maybe even a Treacle Tart (and some cheese straws using up the pastry trimmings!).  As ever, I can't decide until I get into the kitchen (my cookery mind doesn't begin working properly until I'm in there), so you'll have to wait until my next blog to find out.

Do hope you all had a lovely Christmas and none of you had any problems due to the weather.  We have been lucky in that respect (other than on Monday when driving conditions were dreadful).  I'll be re-reading the comments sent and will give replies (where applicable) tomorrow.  Hope to 'meet' up with you then.  TTFN.