Wednesday, 31 December 2008

The last of the leftovers

I did a thorough blitz of the fridge this morning to find out what needed finishing up and what was beyond redemption (a turkey liver, and some rather manky parsley and spring onions that had slipped the net). That's not too bad but there's a fair amount of other stuff that will need using up over the next few days, most notably some very good goose stock, assorted bits of cheese and various root veg.

As we're already feeling stuffed and dying for some spicy fresh-tasting food I've decided to have a batch cooking session and freeze the results. On the agenda, a chestnut and lentil soup, a quiche (have already made one this Christmas) and a banana bread or cake. I might also freeze some of the stock for risottos and some breadcrumbs and grated cheese for gratin toppings.

I've managed to resist the temptation this year to stock up with those 'just in case' purchases that one rarely needs but need to guard against plundering the shops later this week for reduced Christmas goodies like puddings and panettone or cut price turkeys. Do we actually want to eat turkey or Christmas pudding again before next Christmas? Absolutely not. Do I need to nibble panettone after a week of stuffing myself? No, likewise.

And my new year's resolution? To keep my fridge and cupboards tidy. Tidiness is not something I'm noted for, my family will tell you, but it's impossible not to waste food unless you know where things are and when they need to be used up.

So have you made any food-related resolutions and if so, what are they?

Sunday, 28 December 2008

Finally I see the point of a veg box

Last night we finished the final veg in our veg box. Yes, I know I said I wasn't convinced by them but I have now identified the circumstances in which they come into their own - which is feeding the family hoardes over Christmas.

I didn't actually order one, I must confess. Someone from the veg box company Abel & Cole wrote and offered me a free one "as one of their favourite food bloggers" (obviously they say that to all the bloggers). Still, £15.95 worth of free fruit and veg is frugal by anyone's standards - who am I to refuse?

It contained clementines, bananas and (particularly nice) apples, potatoes, onions, carrots, parsnips, green cabbage, leeks and mushrooms. Enough of each to be useful although our youngest son is capable of demolishing pretty well all the potatoes at a single sitting. And he's stick thin which is grossly unfair.

I didn't do anything particularly unusual with them. Most supplied straightforward veg accompaniments to our Christmas meals. (No sprouts though which was odd, just before Christmas) We had garlic mushrooms on toast which you can find here on my student Facebook page, used one of the parsnips grated into the chestnut stuffing as we'd run out of carrots (rather good, actually) and made soup with the leeks.

Will I be ordering a veg box from now on? No, 'fraid not. I still prefer to go to the shops and see what's looking good rather than have a pre-selected box imposed on me and still reckon it's cheaper to buy fruit and veg direct. But if I was veggie, had kids at home and/or was working (as in going out to work rather than working from home) then I might. Which I suppose is a result for Abel & Cole.

Friday, 26 December 2008

Turkey leftovers

There is a large half-eaten turkey sitting in the shower. Why? Because it won't fit in the fridge, the kitchen is too warm and anywhere else my daughter's visiting cat would get at it. (It has already half-demolished our landlord's pot plant - the cat, not the turkey, obviously) The health police would of course be appalled but we didn't finish eating till 10 o'clock last night so there was nothing else to be done.

Today will be devoted to ensuring it doesn't go to waste or that we don't get driven mad by endless turkey meals. My usual strategy is to have it cold for lunch on Boxing day (By far the best meal of Christmas IMO) then to prepare little parcels of white and brown meat for other uses and make stock with the carcass.

My youngest son particularly likes the brown meat fried up till crispy with the leftover turkey gravy so that takes care of some of that. I usually make a rich turkey and mushroom lasagne or a korma like the chicken one I cooked on You and Yours the other day but if I can find some tarragon I may try and make the splendid jellied terrine in the book which comes from a food writer friend of mine, Andrea Leeman.

The stock makes terrific soup but is so rich it tends to overwhelm more delicate vegetables. I like it for a chestnut soup (I do have a few leftover chestnuts, happily) or a dark mushroom soup or risotto. It's good with lentils too.

Incidentally I managed - yet again - to buy a larger turkey than we needed, largely because the butcher had run out of smaller birds by the time I got round to ordering one. (Memo to self, order earlier next year). We usually stretch the turkey anyway by serving plenty of sausages as well as the stuffing so there really is no need for an outsize bird.

I did however manage NOT to buy a Christmas cake (my daughter made a chocolate one which has already been scoffed) or any dates, figs, nuts or excessive quantities of cheese or twice as many sprouts as we needed so the cost of Christmas is well down. And you know what? We didn't miss any of them.

How did your Christmas go? Any bright ideas for the leftovers?

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Don't panic!

With just over 24 hours to Christmas Day and even less till the shops close I have just two words to say to you. Don't panic!

Even if you have to nip out to fetch a few last minute ingredients like fresh bread or milk don't feel you have to sweep up everything else that's on offer in your wake.

The shops will be open again on Saturday, some probably on Friday. You more than likely have enough food in your fridge and freezer to last till January 27th, never mind December 27th.

If you find you haven't got something you need it's not the end of the world. Improvise, substitute or get a family member or friend to bring it with them.

Just do yourself a favour and avoid that final mad rush . . .

A very happy Christmas to you all.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Braised red cabbage

I really love braised red cabbage but, perhaps because it takes so long to cook, don't make it that often. However they had some at the farmers' market yesterday so I thought I'd make a recipe I used to make eons ago from The Penguin Freezer Cookbook. It went with our first really Christmassy meal of the holiday - roast duck (£6 from Somerfield) with roasties and red cabbage.

It fed four and there's enough left over for at least four more portions, maybe six. I've frozen it for a night when I don't feel like faffing around with vegetables. Ideally you should use a sharp apple like Bramleys but I had some slightly tired eating apples I wanted to use up which were fine.

Serves 8-10
2 tbsp bacon fat, duck fat, goose fat or 1 tbsp each oil and butter
1 large or 2 medium onions, peeled and finely sliced
1 medium-sized red cabbage
1 large clove of garlic, crushed
2 large or 4 smaller cooking or eating apples
4 cloves
1-2 tbsp soft brown or demerara sugar
150ml red wine + extra to taste.
Salt and pepper

Heat the fat or oil and cook the onion over a low heat for about 7-8 minutes until soft. While it's cooking cut the cabbage into quarters, remove the central core and slice finely. Stir the garlic into the onions then tip in the cabbage, stir thoroughly and continue to cook in a covered pan over a low heat until it starts to collapse and reduce in volume (about another 10 minutes). Quarter, peel, core and slice the apples and add them to the pan along with the cloves and a heaped tablespoon of sugar then pour in the red wine. (You can see from the picture what it looks like at this stage.) Bring to the boil then turn right down and leave over a very low heat or in a slow oven for about 2 - 2 1/2 hours, stirring a couple of times. Check for seasoning, adding a little more wine and salt and pepper to taste. Serve with roast duck or pork, beef or venison sausages or a beef stew.

(Incidentally the duck carcass, as you probably know, will make terrific stock)

Friday, 19 December 2008

My You and Yours chicken curry

If you were listening to You and Yours yesterday you'll have heard me making a chicken curry. It's an odd idea when you come to think of it, cooking on radio. There you are in the studio with a two ring Baby Belling - and a Fire Officer, in case the whole place goes up in flames. (You have to sign a contract which includes an undertaking to use no more than 1 tablespoon of oil!)

The Belling takes a painfully long time to heat up. I turned it on 20 minutes before the programme started and added the oil 10 minutes before we went on air but the chicken still didn't sizzle when it hit the pan. (Sound effects, as you can imagine, are critical. The rest of the time you have to tiptoe round trying not to make too much cooking noise during earnest discussions on more serious topics such as airport expansion)

The point of the exercise was to question whether it was cheaper to cook home made food than to buy it. The agenda of the programme seemed to be that it wasn't. I carefully costed my curry which came to £3.33 for two portions. The presenter pointed out that you could buy a ready made curry more cheaply in Waitrose, let alone a budget ready meal (75p) or a curry in a can (49p)

It was a curious attitude for such a programme to take. I would have thought, like Jamie, they would be all for encouraging people to cook from scratch. The point I made was that there was not only more meat in my curry but that it it tasted fresher and was healthier than most shop-bought versions. At least they admitted the end result was delicious!

The point I didn't have time to expand on is that it's a recipe that you could easily run up with leftovers (do try it with the Christmas turkey). If you're going to cook frugally you need to be flexible, cooking with what you have rather than going out to buy new ingredients. You could use an ordinary onion, for example, rather than spring onions or a combination of double cream and yoghurt rather than creme fraiche. You don't have to use turmeric if you don't have any though if you do it improves the colour. You could use another kind of curry paste - it doesn't have to be korma. And you can pay less for the coriander than I did if you buy it in an ethnic shop and still have plenty over for the rest of the week's cooking. Frugal cooking is all about improvisation.

Anyway if you want to have a crack at the recipe you'll find it on the You & Yours website, along with some other thrifty recipes from You & Yours listeners. I think I can safely say you'll find it better than a can ;-)

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Watch the prices of goods supermarkets are NOT promoting!

At first glance food prices seem to be easing with every shop offering dramatic discounts, particularly on those items that people will be looking for over Christmas. (Like smoked salmon) But have you noticed how the cost of items they're not promoting has been shooting up?

Yesterday, for instance, I found small (150g) pots of plain yoghurt selling in Somerfield for 74p - only 16p cheaper than the large pots. But many people living on their own wouldn't need a large pot. And now everyone's jumping on the Aldi bandwagon of having six fruit and vegetables at a knock-down price all other fruit and veg seem to be costing far more - including the quite ludicrous price that supermarkets charge for a tiny pack of fresh herbs.

It goes to show just how important it is to know what things normally cost and keep your wits about you when you shop. Have you spotted any examples of excessive price rises?

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Bought-in can be more frugal than home-made

With the family arriving at the weekend I’ve been starting to plan what we’re going to eat on and around Christmas Day. And the sad fact is that I could save myself money if I just descended on Aldi or ASDA and bought what we need. Christmas puddings, Christmas cake and mince pies are all cheaper to buy than to make from scratch. Aldi’s Christmas pudding costs just £2.99, their mince pies 89p. It costs less to buy their roast potatoes with goose fat at £1.29 than to buy a pot of goose fat to cook your potatoes in (let alone a goose . . )

Of course that’s not the whole story. There’s a pleasure in making and eating home-cooked food that ready-bought products simply can’t provide. My kids would all be outraged if I served up a packet sage and onion stuffing instead of our traditional chestnut one or deprived them of the pleasure of making mince pies together in the kitchen. I also want to support my local shops over the Christmas period to help them stay in business at a difficult time.

You're also more likely to overspend if you go somewhere where there's a load of cut price offers. Look at the people who've been thronging round Woolies. It's easy to buy far more than you need - and also a lot of pretty unhealthy food. But it is, I admit, a temptation and one to which I would probably succumb if I had to go in to work over the holiday period

So what are you doing - have you bought in your Christmas staples or are you making your own?

Sunday, 14 December 2008

A good, cheap starter

Funny how things go out of fashion. When I was young almost any restaurant you went to served a selection of hors d'oeuvres (literally 'out of the work' or in other words an addition to the main course). It was a way of extending and reducing the cost of the meal and using up leftovers and very tasty it could be too. You can still find similar dishes in France and Italy but rarely in England.

It's a tradition that deserves to be resurrected because it's a cheap way to entertain. Today we laid on three dishes for friends as a starter - just-cooked leeks dressed with a sharp vinaigrette, topped with chopped hard-boiled egg, a beetroot and yoghurt salad with dill and a Moroccan(ish) carrot salad with an orange dressing. My husband made the last two so I can't tell you what was in them (nor, almost certainly, could he - he's a great one for a pinch of this and a pinch of that) but here's the leek recipe, which is adapted from A Taste of Somerset by Andrea Leeman. All would be good for Christmas entertaining.

Leeks vinaigrette with chopped eggs and parsley
Serves 4-6
4-6 leeks, depending on size
1 tbsp white wine or cider vinegar
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp sugar
Freshly ground black pepper
2 hard boiled eggs
2 tbsp finely chopped parsley

Trim the ends and tops off the leeks, leaving some green. Cut lengthwise two thirds of the way down the middle and rinse thoroughly between the leaves. Cut into even-sized lengths (about 4-5 cm long) cutting the larger leeks in half. Put in a large shallow pan and pour just enough boiling water to cover the leeks. Bring back to the boil, cover and cook until the leeks are tender (about 3-4 minutes) Transfer to a colander with a slotted spoon or spatula and rinse with cold water. Leave to get completely cold. Whisk the vinegar with the salt, sugar and pepper and gradually whisk in the oil. Gently squeeze any excess liquid out of the leeks, arrange in a serving dish and spoon over most of the dressing. Arrange the chopped egg in lines down the dish (see pic) or simply scatter it over the leeks and sprinkle over the parsley. Spoon over the remaining dressing and serve.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Christmas bargain hunting at T K Maxx

As well as a weakness for food I have a fondness for kitchen kit so it probably wasn't a good idea to head off yesterday for T K Maxx. Actually it was sheer frustration at the prices in John Lewis which is supposed, as they oddly put it, to be 'never knowingly undersold' but which always seems pretty expensive to me. We were after a large cast iron casserole and most of the ones we were looking at were £80 even after a 20% discount, sparked by reductions at one of their competitors.

TKM didn't have cast iron casseroles but it had huge beautiful baking dishes for a song. The red one above, part of the Typhoon Vintage Kitchen range cost £6.99 for a dish which will easily serve eight (yes, it is upside down in the picture but I couldn't think of a better way of showing what a fabulous colour it was!).

I also snapped up four dinky red ramekins from the same range for £2.99 a pack of two instead of £8 a pack and a couple of really nice retro mixing bowls for £3.99 each. Oh, and a couple of James Martin knives reduced from £10 to £3.99 and £16 to £7.99. I generally mistrust celebrity chef-endorsed products but these were beautifully balanced with good non-slip rubber handles.

I justified all this extravagance at the time on the basis that they would make great Christmas presents but will be sorely tempted to keep them for myself . . .

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Leftover lamb

We had the tail end of a shoulder of lamb from the weekend to use up tonight. Could have curried it but there wasn't much meat so decided to make a pilaf. Very simple - fry a chopped onion, add spices, stir in rice, add twice the volume of stock and leave to simmer until the liquid is absorbed (about 15 minutes). Fry up lamb with more spices, add peas, herbs, whatever - something green. Fork through rice and tip on serving dish, top with lamb, a squeeze of lemon, more herbs and serve with plain yoghurt, chutney or sweet chilli sauce

The reason why these kind of leftover dishes are often so unappealing is that people tend to do one of two things. Either put the meat in with the rice while it's cooking in the mistaken belief that that's what's needed to cook it through thoroughly (It simply makes it unappetisingly squelchy) or fail to put in anything brightly coloured which creates a drab brown slop. I can't pretend my pilau was the most stylish dish ever - it was hurled together at huge speed - but it was pretty tasty. (The picture is of a platter for 2 btw in case you think we've got outsize appetites!)

Sunday, 7 December 2008

And now for frugal drinking!

I've been thinking for a while of starting a frugal drinking blog including beer, cider and other drinks as well as wine. It's actually the other part of my working life (I used to write a regular column for the Daily Mail!) but it never seemed to quite fit in with this blog.

It struck me though that it would be pretty useful, particularly in the current economic climate. We like to drink well but we don't spend a lot of money on doing so. I happen to think that drinks like beer and cider are underrated and that there are a lot of bargains out there that people don't know about or are unsure whether it's OK to buy because they don't know that much about wine.

So I've kicked it off, it's called Credit Crunch Drinking and you can find it here!

I hope you enjoy it. Do write and let me know how you get on if you follow my suggestions and share any tips or brilliant special offers you've spotted. (If you feel self-conscious about asking questions about wine, as I know many people do, you can always email me at

Thursday, 4 December 2008

So how much food do we REALLY need at Christmas?

Just as in England, the French papers are full of full page ads for Christmas food. And probably have been for some weeks. I guess the thinking behind these campaigns is to panic people into getting ahead with their Christmas shopping, keep reminding us of things we think we might need and then assault us with a whole raft of last minute bargains we can’t resist. The net result is that we all buy way, way too much, behaving as if we’re going to be subject to a month-long siege during which we will be unable to get to the shops.

Where I live in Bristol, I suspect I could probably go to my convenience stores on Christmas Day if I chose. Certainly I’ll be able to shop on Boxing Day. True, some ingredients such as fish and fresh vegetables are harder to find between Christmas and the New Year but I’m sure there will be something to eat.

So this year I’m going to make a resolution - to try to end up on January 2nd without my fridge crammed full of food that’s on the verge of going off.

How are you all coping with the non-stop 'spend, spend, spend' bombardment? Any good tips?

Monday, 1 December 2008

A frugal weekend’s eating

Off to visit my mother-in-law in France this week so we spent the weekend using up odds and ends from the fridge and freezer. On Saturday night I made a pea and lettuce soup which sounds pretty unseasonal but I like salad even in winter and this is a good way to use up the outside leaves

You simply trim and chop up a bunch of spring onions and soften them in a little oil and butter, chuck in a handful of lettuce leaves and some chopped parsley stalks, let them wilt then add about 200g of frozen peas, a cooked, sliced potato, a handful of parsley leaves and about 500ml of vegetable stock, bring to the boil and simmer for about 3 minutes until the peas are cooked. (You need to cook the potato first otherwise the soup will take too long and the peas will lose their fresh green colour). Cool for 5 minutes then whizz in a blender or food processor, return the soup to the pan then add another 200ml or so of stock or milk and heat through. You can sieve the soup if you want a smoother texture or whisk in a bit of soft butter or cream for a more luxurious taste. A squeeze of lemon juice doesn't go amiss.

With it we had some crostini topped with fromage fort, a brilliant French way of using the assorted odds and ends of cheese from the fridge. No exact quantities. I used a bit of leftover goats cheese log and Brie (both with the rinds removed and a rather sad bit of Appenzeller which had seen better days. You simply blitz a clove of garlic in a food processor, add the cheese (sliced or crumbled) and whizz till you have a smooth paste then add just enough white wine to give a spreadable consistency. Season with cayenne pepper, chilli powder or hot paprika.

There was enough soup left over for a couple of extra little cupfuls last night before a main course of a shepherds pie-like dish salvaged from the remains of last week’s braised beef topped with celeriac mash which I’d stashed away in the freezer. I must say it felt good not to be chucking out food this morning.

Communication may be spasmodic this week. Back next weekend, if not before . . .