Friday 24 December 2010

My cut-price Christmas turkey

As you can see I managed to get my cut-price turkey - just. I had a moment's panic when we went to Sainsbury's at 3pm and found there wasn't a single turkey left.

But Waitrose had several including this under half price offer on a 5.5kg organic bronze which was reduced from £57.77 to £27.19. I could have got a cheaper one still for about £9 from their Essentials range but this seemed too good a deal to pass up. Some more free-range birds came out as I was queuing to pay.

The checkout assistant told me that last year the last turkey in the store - an outsize organic bird - had been reduced from £74 to £5.99 just before they closed at 7 o'clock so if you hold your nerve - or are prepared to cook something other than turkey if you miss out - you can probably get one cheaper still. But I'm pretty pleased with my bargain.

Have a very happy Christmas everyone, however you spend it x.

Thursday 23 December 2010

Anti-flu soup

Having sailed through the winter so far without a cold I've fallen victim to one just before Christmas. Isn't that always the way? The only consolation is I'm not alone. Practically everyone I know is coughing and spluttering including most of my family.

In a vain attempt to ward it off I made what I hoped would be a healthgiving onion soup. It didn't work in the end but it made me feel a lot better at the time and - who knows - I might have been more lurgified still without it.

It's basically a French onion soup with extra garlic and without the croutons and cheese which makes it lighter though you can obviously add those at the end if you have time and/or are feeling more robust. I also used French onions - one of those strings of Brittany ones - which I think improved the taste and texture as they're not as wet as English ones though obviously you're not going to set out on the ice looking for an onion man if you're feeling like death.

Onions, like garlic, have anti-bacterial compounds and are a recognised method of treating colds and flu according to this site although getting any definitive answer on health out of the internet is always an uphill struggle. But I seem to remember reading it elsewhere.

Onion, garlic and thyme soup
Serves 2-4

5-6 medium-sized onions, preferably French
3-4 cloves of garlic
1 tsp finely chopped fresh thyme leaves or 1/2 tsp dried thyme (optional)
3 tbsp olive oil
About 15g butter
800ml vegetable, chicken or beef stock
Salt and (preferably) white pepper though if you're stuffed up you may not be able to tell the difference

Peel and finely slice the onions and garlic. Heat the oil in a large saucepan or casserole, tip in the onions, garlic and thyme, stir and cook uncovered over a low heat for about 20-25 minutes until the onions have completely collapsed and begun to colour. (It will depend on the onions and how fast you cook them how brown they get but it's better to keep the heat low. Having said that I cooked them in the top oven of the Aga.) Pour over the stock, bring to the boil then turn the heat down and simmer for about 15 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Serve in warm bowls, adding some grated cheese if you like. To make it more of a meal, top with baked bread slices and grated cheese and return to the oven or melt under the grill.

I'm sure I've asked you this before but do you have any favourite ways of dealing with lurgies?

Saturday 18 December 2010

Cutting the cost of Christmas food shopping

With the weather being so atrocious at the moment you may be simply grateful to get out and find anything in the shops but I’m going to suggest a strategy for cutting your Christmas food shopping bills. Which is not to shop with a preconceived idea about what you’re going to cook and just see what's on offer.

There is admittedly a danger that you’ll just snap up every bargain you find but if you buy things that will keep or which you can freeze you can pick up some really good deals as I’ve done a couple of times over the past week.

Last weekend I picked up some packs of game casserole in Waitrose, normally £4.69, reduced by 20% to £3.75 then slashed to 99p each to clear. We used them to make a game pie filling which we served with what I call floating pastry lids rather than as a pie, a trick that speeds up the cooking process, ensures your pastry remains crisp and can even leave you a couple of lids for leftovers.

Then this week I hit the jackpot in the Co-op with a leg of lamb for £4.94 which will do for dinner for six sometime over the Christmas period.

I also picked up an 800g pack of mince for a lasagne or a batch of bolognese, a 700g bacon joint for £2.50 which should feed four with lentils or butter beans and a Bury black pudding for 49p which the two of us had for lunch yesterday with a potato, apple and onion fry (all from ingredients already in the cupboard)

Tonight we’re going to have chicken casserole based on a £2.19 pack of Freedom Food chicken thighs with a 73p pack of chestnut mushrooms. OK, it will be zipped up with some leftover wine or cider and a little cream but it’ll still cost us no more than a couple of quid a head.

We’ve also decided as there are probably only going to be three of us on Christmas Day to take it to the wire and leave our shopping until the afternoon of Christmas Eve and simply see what we can pick up. That may result in us having a chicken or a joint of pork rather than a turkey but we can still make a stuffing and all the trimmings that go with the traditional Christmas lunch and I don’t think we’ll enjoy it any the less.

I admit I don’t always shop like this but occasionally it’s good to see how little you can manage to live on especially over Christmas when the pressure to spend far more than you need on food is at its greatest.

It's not as if we're laying in for a 10 day siege. (Well, unless you're unlucky enough to be snowed in). The shops will be back open again on Boxing Day and the chances are you've got enough in store to survive till the New Year even if they weren't. We certainly have.

How do you handle your Christmas food shopping? Do you find you tend to buy more than you need or have you developed strategies for keeping the cost - and waste - down?

Saturday 11 December 2010

Is it worth baking your own cakes?

I baked a really brilliant cake last weekend. No credit to me - I'm not a great baker - but the recipe came from my friend and erstwhile commissioning editor Sarah Randell, who is.

Sarah has been brought up in the Delia school of patient and exhaustive recipe testing - she used to work on Delia's books, hence the unusual credit on the front of her own new book Weekend Baking. (Delia almost never gives endorsements for cookery books.) She's now the Food Director of Sainsbury's magazine (which is where I worked for her) and tweets as @sarahbonviveur for those of you who are on Twitter.

The cake's particularly delicious taste owes a great deal to the amount of dried fruit in it and the agave nectar, a natural fructose sweetener. It's an ingredient you might well not have at home which got me thinking about the cost of baking.

No doubt about it, it costs more to bake your own cakes than buy them ready made, particularly fruit cakes. They obviously taste much, much better, make the kitchen smell great, give you a glow of satisfaction and probably feed more people than a shop-bought cake - but those people will probably eat far more than they would of a shop-bought cake as well.

I know baking is more about love than economics but what is the frugal cook to do? Adapt the recipe to use ingredients you already have for a start. Sarah already suggests a range of different nuts so you could use what you have, toasting them first if they've been hanging around the cupboards for a while. I didn't have prunes so I used apricots and figs instead which was lovely. And I didn't give the cake its final crust of crushed sugar lumps but used the demerara sugar I had instead.

The other strategy is to find another way to use the ingredients you have had to buy, such as the agave nectar. The most obvious being to make another cake and as we're not mad about conventional Christmas cake I plan to make this again instead. (Sarah suggests that if you want to make the cake more celebratory you can brush warm, smooth apricot jam over it and decorate it with small dried apricots and pecan halves.) And there are shedloads of suggestions if you Google 'agave nectar recipes'.

There's also the question of tins. I didn't have the 18 cm square tin that Sarah recommended so used a round 21cm tin instead. It made the cake slightly shallower than it should have been but it was fine. If you're an infrequent or inexperienced baker it's easy to fall into the trap of feeling you have to buy a new tin every time you make a cake. There's a useful chart on how to adjust the size you use here. (I should ideally have used a 20cm round tin)

Anyway, try it - for Christmas or not - it's a really great recipe.

Sarah's Simple Fruit Cake
Serves 12

100 g ready-to-eat dried apricots or figs
125 g stoned, soft Agen prunes
125 g shelled pecan nuts, almonds, hazelnuts or walnuts, or a mixture
150 g butter, softened
125 g light brown soft sugar
175 g self-raising flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
150 g sultanas
juice and zest of 1 orange
juice and zest of 1 unwaxed lemon
2 tablespoons agave nectar (or runny honey)
2 pure cane rough-cut sugar cubes, roughly crushed

an 18-cm square tin, 7 cm deep, lined with baking parchment and buttered

Preheat the oven to 150˚C (300˚F) Gas 2.

Using scissors, snip the dried apricots and the prunes into small pieces. Roughly chop the nuts.

Put the butter and sugar in an electric mixer (or use a large mixing bowl and an electric whisk) and beat until combined and fluffy.

Sift the flour and cinnamon into another bowl.

Add the flour mixture and beaten eggs alternately to the butter and sugar, whisking on a low setting all the time.

Using a large metal or wooden spoon, stir in the chopped fruit and nuts, the sultanas, orange and lemon juices and zests and the agave nectar. Mix well.

Tip the mixture into the prepared tin and spread it evenly with a spatula.

Sprinkle the crushed sugar over the cake, then bake in the preheated oven for 1 1/4 hours. Leave to cool in the tin.

Recipe taken from Weekend Baking by Sarah Randell, published by Ryland Peters &Small £16.99.

Do you regard the cost of home baking as an issue? If so how do you keep down the cost? Do you ever feel it's simpler/easier to buy a ready-made cake or does the pleasure of baking your own generally outweigh that?

Friday 3 December 2010

Chilly con Carne

I don't know about you but this weather is making me crave rib-sticking soups and stews and I suddenly really fancied making a chilli or - maybe more appropriately - Chilly con Carne.

I was thinking of making this south-west American version (in the rather messy, quickly snatched photo, above) which I included in my beer book An Appetite for Ale and which uses chopped rather than ground beef. What clinched it was finding a one and a half kilo joint of top rump in the Co-op reduced to £3.72 instead of £9 odd a kilo for braising beef. (There was even enough left over to make another stew.)

My original (for which I've given the recipe below) used a mild chile called Chile Molido from Santa Fe which gives a particularly good rich texture but as I didn't have any left I used a tablespoon of mild chilli powder, a heaped teaspoon of sweet pimenton, a teaspoon of hot pimenton and about the same of some smokey ground chile I brought back from Chile earlier this year. (You can buy Chile Molido aka New Mexican Red from the Spice Shop in Blenheim Crescent or online if you want a more authentic south-western flavour)

I also used 2 tins of kidney beans rather than cooking them from scratch because I couldn't face going out in the cold to buy some!

Serves 6

For the beans
250g dried red kidney beans
1 bayleaf
1 tsp epazote - a Mexican herb which is often used for cooking beans (optional)
A few black peppercorns

Or use 2 x 400g tins of red kidney beans

For the chile
5-6 tbsp sunflower or other cooking oil
800g-1kg braising steak, topside or top rump, whatever's cheapest
2 onions (about 250g in total), peeled and roughly chopped
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
1 heaped tbsp tomato paste
5-6 tbsp chile molido (or a mixture of mild and hotter chile as described above - about 2-3 tbsp in total. You want something, ideally to give it a smoky edge)
1 1/2 tsp ground cumin
1 level tbsp plain flour
300ml beef stock
175ml lager (optional - you could just add extra stock but it gives it an edge)
1 tbsp cider vinegar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Soak the beans overnight in cold water. Drain them, cover with fresh cold water and bring to the boil. Skim off any scum and boil hard for 10 minutes then turn the heat down and add the bayleaf, peppercorns and epazote if using (it flavours the beans and makes them less flatulent!). Cook for about an hour to an hour and a quarter until the beans are tender, topping up with boiling water as necessary. Set aside till the chile is cooked.

Meanwhile pat the meat dry, remove any fat or gristle and cut into very small cubes. Pour a little of the oil into a frying pan and brown the meat in batches, transferring it to a casserole as you complete each batch.

Add the remaining oil (you’ll need about 3 tbsp) and fry the onions until soft but not coloured. Add the crushed garlic, cook for a minute then stir in the flour, 2-5 tbsp of ground chile (see above) and 1 1/2 tsp cumin.

Cook for a few seconds then add the stock and lager, if using, and bring to the boil. Pour the sauce over the meat, stir well, bring back to the boil then turn the heat right down and simmer for 2 hours or so till the meat is tender adding a little water if the sauce gets too thick.

Drain the beans and add to the meat and cook for another half hour. Taste the sauce and add a few drops of cider vinegar and a little more chilli powder just to lift the flavour. Serve with baked potatoes and homemade coleslaw or corn or wheat tortillas and an avocado salsa.

* Actually if you can leave this overnight and reheat it it tastes even better. Like most stews.

What's your favourite way of making chilli? And favourite way of serving it?