Friday, 26 December 2014

Things I learned about frugality this Christmas

Christmas is the time of year most of us have a blowout. Then in January we suffer from withdrawal symptoms; alcohol-free January, diet January, how-on-earth-will-the-money-last-the-month January.

But I did manage to cut a few corners this Christmas, spending-wise.
  • Make your own Christmas pudding and adjust the recipe to whatever needs using up or is on offer. I made a 'tropical' pudding with dried pineapple, mango and papaya we'd got at a bargain price from Aldi, instead of the usual raisins and mixed peel, and it worked really well. And I have seven more puddings in the freezer for next year. (You can tell I like Christmas pudding.)
  • Make your own Yorkshire Pudding. Very, very easy, and frugal not just because you're using basic ingredients that cost relatively little (okay, it does use quite a lot of eggs), but also because if you've roasted a bird or a joint, you use the already hot oven right at the end of cooking to bake the pudding. (I also like to add two egg yolks to the recipe to make it even richer.)
  • I discovered that leftover Yorkshire Pudding goes just as well with bacon and maple syrup, or marmalade, or jam, as it does with beef and gravy!
  • Roast vegetables don't have to be boring, and are incredibly easy compared to trying to boil sprouts, peas, and so on. This Christmas I had parsnips and carrots tossed in olive oil with cumin and honey, as well as roast potatoes. (Boil them for ten minutes - no more - to get them started before you put them in the oven, and you'll get nice fluffy soft insides.) But you can roast anything - tomatoes for instance, courgettes and aubergines... it's a healthy way of cooking and brings out intense flavours.
  • I'd bought quite a few people gifts at car boots and charity shops through the year. That sounds awful, but if you know people well, you can often find nicer presents that way than in the high street shops. For instance, a relative who has a collection of spinning tops got a sweet hand-made top that we picked up at  car boot, and my father nearly always gets a second-hand book on boats or local history (though I have to phone him up to check he hasn't got it already). And one of the presents I was most pleased with was a friend who was decluttering and gave me a lovely leather biker jacket.
  • We had Asti spumante instead of champagne, for once. It's not as high in alcohol, which was popular with the drivers, and it's sweeter which was popular with quite a few people, and it has just as many bubbles.
  • Home made sweets can be a much nicer gift than store bought. Chocolate tiffin cake is easy to make and can be nicely decorated; I used white chocolate to drizzle across the top. You just need to make sure you have a little tinfoil container to hold it, and wrap it nicely, and it looks really impressive - the art of presentation is important. Home made jam is also a nice present as long as, first, it's good jam, and secondly, it's nicely presented (a circle cut out of cloth with pinking shears, and a ribbon to tie it over the jampot lid, make a huge difference).
  • We cracked the walnuts and hazelnuts we scrumped from the hedgerows. We forgot to get any chestnuts this year (there's a wonderful place where sweet chestnut trees line the road, and you can pick the nuts off the tarmac, but it's a few kilometres away and we didn't get there in time), so we had to buy some.
  • We drank our home made liqueur after dinner. It gets better the longer it keeps - we have some two year old limoncello that has really developed, and a five year old vin de noix.

Friday, 14 November 2014

DIY Cheese (originally posted on my 'Say Cheese' blog)

It had to happen. I saw a cheese-making machine at a car boot sale. Time to move from being an avid consumer to making my own cheese. Three euros was my in-price. That gets me the machine, with its glass insert, and a plastic 'faisselle' or strainer-thingy inside that.
Recipes abound on the internet and all are slightly different. Some start by using a petit suisse or a fromage blanc from the supermarket as a starter. Some use rennet, some use lemon juice, some use vinegar. I've tried it all ways and it doesn't seem to make a lot of difference.
There is a kind of magic to a natural process. Making perry, or beer, or wine, through fermentation; watching your bread rise as the yeast starts pushing air out through your dough; making your own yogurt (which, in fairness, you could also use this little machine for - a cheesemaker and a yogurtmaker are not very different, it's basically a matter of keeping your milk at a constant, warm temperature).
The magic of this process is putting the milk in just before dinner time, seeing the milk just a bit thickened by the time you go to bed, and coming down early in the morning to see solids starting to clump together.
It tastes good. Light, creamy, full, fresh.
Even better, I've learned how to make ricotta. You take the whey, boil it with the addition of about another half its volume in fresh milk, add a little lemon juice, and leave it to do its thing. Strain it out, and there's the ricotta; not as creamy as what you get from the supermarket (actually I found the addition of a little creme fraiche made it taste better, but the texture was still quite granular), but wonderfully soft.
This works out much cheaper than buying cheese from the supermarket. I'm basically using three litres of regular milk to make around 750g of curd cheese and another 250g of ricotta. The amount of electricity used is very small, and in fact if you wanted simply to use a bowl kept in a reasonably warm place rather than a cheesemaker, you could.
The next step, if I want to take it, will be to buy some cheese moulds from Tompress (superb if expensive supplier of all kinds of kitchen and smallholding equipment) and dry out the fresh cheese for longer storage. But at the moment, we're eating all the cheese I produce fresh, in just a couple of days, and very nice it is, with chives and a little salt, or with sugar, or served up with fruit, or used in a vegetable gratin.
We all need a little magic in our lives. For so little investment, and so little effort, I now have some cheesemaking magic in mine.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

My new ebook - Packed lunches for gourmets

I couldn't believe it when I read that someone had worked out you could save £100,000 over your working life by taking a packed lunch into work. That's a sizable slug of money. That's more than most people's pension funds!

The trouble is that packed lunches can be incredibly boring. I worked with a guy once who ate the same cheese sandwich every day, every week of the year. (I really, really hope he ate something different on holiday. But I rather fear he may have gone off to the Costa del Sol with two weeks' cheese sandwiches in a Tupperware box...)

And of course packed lunches take a bit of time to organise and make up.

So I've put together an ebook which does two things.
  • It has some ideas on how to make life easier for yourself, for instance by using the same ingredients different ways throughout the week.
  • And it has lots of ideas for different packed lunches, including sandwiches, salads, soups, and desserts - all of which are easy to make and don't require a Cordon Bleu education.
It's available on Smashwords if you're interested, and you can read the first couple of chapters for free.

The tomato glut begins!

Our cherry tomato plants are just delivering the first trusses of bright red fruit. From now on, we'll have more tomatoes than we can cope with - the same as every year. Add to that the gradually ripening Andean horned tomatoes, the plum tomatoes, and the big beefsteaks, and we have a tomato challenge on our hands.

Short-term, roasting tomatoes is a good way to extend their life in the fridge. I roast or grill cherry tomatoes whole, and larger tomatoes halved, scattered with olive oil and salt, and sometimes with thyme or oregano; 160c to 180c is enough to get them nicely done. Roast tomatoes make a rich and dark flavoured soup, add flavour to any salad, work well with couscous and other roast vegetables.

Sun-drying preserves them for longer, though they're not then as easy to use - you'll need to rehydrate them before you cook with them. No sun? A low oven (140c or lower) for a long time, or a food dehydrator, works equally well. Halve the tomatoes and lay them skin down. Sun-dried tomatoes can be packed in a glass jar and covered with oil, though they don't keep as long - I do that to a single batch at a time and use the jar up within a week or so.

Tomato sauce is another way of using up excess tomatoes. A good tomato sauce needs the tomatoes to be peeled and deseeded, and then boiled till they are very soft and slightly reduced. Tomatoes don't have to be the only ingredient; you can add onions, garlic, pepper, harissa or chili if you like a hotter flavour, and herbs; a very nice tomato sauce adds a little ginger (I prefer to add stem ginger, with a little of the sweet syrup, though you could use fresh root ginger or powdered ginger if you wanted). You could put the tomato sauce in glass jars and providing you boil them for a while, and put a bit of oil on top of the surface, they'll keep, but frankly it's less hassle (and more safe) to freeze the sauce.

Don't restrict yourself to using the sauce on pasta. Watered down a bit, it makes good soup - add other vegetables, or pasta, or use up your stale bread by chopping it and adding that to the soup. It also makes a good sauce for risotto rice or for a pilaff - use it instead of stock (again, watered down a bit).

By the end of the season, there will be green tomatoes, too. It's far too early to think about those right now... but when we get there, green tomato jam, or green tomato rings dipped in polenta and shallow fried, will help to use them up. Right now, though, it's the red ones that I've got to use up... bursting with juice, I'm looking forward to my first ones straight off the plant, opulent, and warm with the morning sun. Mmmmm.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

A glut of strawberries

There's a glut of strawberries in local shops at the moment. Lovely, particularly when we can get them cheaply at the end of the day. But of course they don't last. What can we do with a glut of strawberries then?

First things first. As soon as you get them home, go through the batch and take out any that are going mould. Mould spreads quickly and will ruin them in a matter of hours if you leave them at room temperature.

Oh yes, stick'em in the fridge. Now, what should we think about doing with our loot? In the longer term:
  • They don't freeze all that well. They go soft. That's okay, though, if you want to use them in sauce, in ice cream, in cakes, or mixed up with fromage blanc. But for just eating, as they are... not good.
  • Cook them up into a compote and they'll last a few days more in the fridge. Simply add sugar - the fruit will make its own juice, you don't need to add water. I usually cut the strawberries, add sugar, and let them macerate for an hour or so at room temperature before I start to cook - you'll be impressed at how much juice comes out of the strawberries.
  • Simply macerating them in sugar and/or alcohol extends the fruit's life. Once you've done this you can leave them a few days in the fridge.
  • Dried strawberries.Halve them and stick them in the oven at about 100c - really low, slow heat is the key to this process - if you don't have a food drier.  Make sure you start them off cut side up, otherwise you'll end up with a gooey mess. 
  • Strawberry vodka. Chop up your strawberries and pour vodka over them. We make ours in large Kilner jars, which have the advantage that it's easy to mix the ingredients by simply turning the jar end over end a couple of times. After a week or two (or three...) strain off the liqueur; you can add sugar syrup if you want a sweet liqueur rather than a flavoured vodka. None of the recipe books tell you this, but you can now eat the strawberries (Lay them out in a baking tray and pour melted white chocolate over the top for a wicked and messy-to-eat treat.)
  • Strawberry jam works too... but for me, it's a last resort. Setting point is tricky, and we have so many other fruits to make jam with.
And right now?
  • Make strawberry smoothies with yogurt, or strawberry milkshakes.
  • I love strawberries with grilled halloumi cheese - put them on the grill when you turn the halloumi over to do the second side, and add some balsamic vinegar for a very wicked warm salad.
  • Eton Mess - bashed up meringues and strawberries and cream. 
  • Eat them fresh with balsamic vinegar and black pepper.
  • Roast them slowly with rum or armagnac.
  • Use them in a cheesecake.
  • Use them to dip in mascarpone cheese.
  • Just eat them!