Stir up Sunday and beyond...
Whether you've been cringing every time a Christmas advert comes on or you've merrily (albeit crazily) put up your tree already, you have to admit that from Stir Up Sunday, the lead up to Christmas is officially here.
It seems to go against everything we've been taught in the kitchen, to keep a cooked pudding mixture for four weeks or more in a dark corner and then happily serve it up to our families. But that's what Christmas is all about, after all - doing all the things we shouldn't (eating and drinking a week's food in a day; horticulture in the living room, etc). The real Christmas message.
However, thankfully, by the time we cook it again and eat it on the big day, the Christmas pudding will be as drunk as most of us, having been 'fed' whichever liquor of choice every week to make it nice and strong.
I'm a big fan of the mini - it's the solution to the Christmas pudding dilemma (to serve or not to serve). Admittedly, it's not groundbreaking as dilemmas go, but in need of attention, if only to stop either mass wastage or poor, little disappointed faces crying: 'But we're not having Christmas pudding?'.
If you make mini Christmas puddings you can cook them to order, serve only the people who want it and offer different kinds of pudding, including an alternative for the tradition-dodgers. I've gone for a Heston-inspired Candied satsuma and cinnamon pud plied with sherry, as well as a Cherry, chocolate and kirsch number. I'm making both of them together for a dinner party, but you could choose to do either one or swap some ingredients to make various different flavours.
Oh, and don't worry if you've missed Stir Up Sunday (24th November this year), you can make them a week or so later, but I'd give it at least a week between the first steam and the second.
Mini candied satsuma and cinnamon & cherry, chocolate and kirsch Christmas puddings
(Takes 3 hours & 15 mins, plus standing overnight, to make 12 puddings)
450ml boiling water
300g caster sugar
1 cinnamon stick
10 chestnuts, roasted*, shelled and food processed finely
Zest and juice of 1 orange
100g dried cranberries
50g Opies black cherries in kirsch, using 90ml of the Kirsch
100g dried berries and cherries
10 dates, stoned and chopped v finely
1 Bramley apple, cored and grated
2 tsp grated whole nutmeg
130g breadcrumbs (3/4 of a half baton, food processed finely)
150g vegetable suet
150g Fairtrade dark brown soft sugar
100g plain flour
2 tbsp honey
20g piece of fresh root ginger, peeled, half in thin strips**, half grated
6 squares of dark chocolate
12 x 11cm ramekins
2 large, high-rimmed frying pan
In a small saucepan, boil up 400ml of the water, turn the heat to medium and pour in the sugar. Stir continually until the sugar dissolves, adding the cinnamon stick, then keep on a rolling boil until the bubbles take on a slight golden colour. Add the satsumas and turn the heat down to a low-medium bubble. Simmer for 1 hour, turning the satsumas around occasionally and adding 50ml boiling water to the pan halfway through.
After an hour, the syrupy water will have reduced down. Take the satsumas out to cool completely (this will take about half an hour), then boil up in water for 30 mins. Drain and leave to dry, then refrigerate for tomorrow.
Get two, medium-sized bowls, preferably different colours, so it's easier to tell which is which. In the first, put the chestnuts, orange zest and cranberries, and in the second put the black cherries and dried berries and cherries, then divide the dates, apple, raisins and nutmeg equally between the two bowls. Add the sherry to the first bowl and the kirsch to the second and thoroughly mix both with separate wooden spoons. Cover each with cling film and leave overnight, in a dark, cold place.
The next day, in two large bowls, again different colours, divide the breadcrumbs, vegetable suet, dark brown soft sugar, plain flour and honey equally. Add the strips of ginger to one bowl, along with the soaked chestnut mixture, and the grated ginger and the soaked cherry mixture to the Other. Add a beaten egg to each bowl and mix each thoroughly.
Cut the chilled satsumas into three each, then divide the first mixture into six of the ramekins, adding a satsuma piece to middle of each and smoothing down the tops to level. Repeat with the second (cherry) mixture, but add a square of dark chocolate to the centres instead of the satsuma quarters.
Cover each ramekin with foil and divide between the large frying pans with boiling water filled up to just below their tops (keep the different types separate). Simmer, covered, for 2 hours, checking regularly to see if more water is needed. The pan mustn't dry out.
Let the puddings cool, then unwrap and discard the tin foil. Rewrap in clean tin foil and store in a couple of cake tins (again, keep the different types separate).
Grab a glass of sherry. Christmas is officially here.
Each week, carefully unwrap them, pierce the tops a couple of times with a fork and sprinkle 1 tsp of sherry or kirsch over each.
To cook on Christmas Day, steam in the same way as before but for 1 hour. Turn out onto a plate each and serve with Sloe gin cream (recipe to come).
* If you can't find an open fire, roast the chestnuts on a flat tray in an oven set to 200C/gas 6 for 30 mins
** Use a vegetable peeler to get the ginger into fine strips
Spring: Please remember to eat responsibly
There's been quite a few headlines created about pork production and the treatment of pigs just lately. Like a lot of the different sectors or food groups within the food industry in the UK, cheaper and on-the-surface more efficient producers and ways of producing food have be sought outside of the UK. But as we take on the stance of 'out of sight, out of mind' of course issues like animal welfare, sustainability and the upkeep of the local economy and British farmers come back and slap us in our weary faces.
The image they prefer to put on sausage packets
Not a great start to the season
As Spring kick-started, a video emerged of alleged violence and cruelty towards pregnant and adult pigs at award-winning farm El Escobar in Murcia, Spain, with the workers, unknown to the owner of the farm, using iron bars to beat the animals, stabbing them to death with swords and torturing pregnant pigs to death – and then boasting about it.
Another video nasty came to light the month before in February, implicating Walmart, whose people bring us our "Asda price". The Humane Society of the United States' film appears to show one of the supermarket's pork supplier's facilities with pigs bleeding or suffering from injuries in cages so small they could barely move. We have been informed that the video also shows a newborn piglet having its tail and testicles cut off, apparently without any anaesthetic.
But there is good news
Unfortunately there are many more examples and these include some UK firms as well. But, thankfully, there are some normal people left in the world and they are actually influencing corporate businesses. Hooray! In what seemed like a massive Valentine's message to sows everywhere McDonalds – one of the world's biggest purchasers of piggie products – announced on 13th February 2012 that it will require its pork suppliers to get rid of gestation pens (metal cages typically two by seven feet, where full-grown pigs can't even turn around) by May 2012.
And Compassion in World Farming – the campaign that aims to peacefully end all cruel factory farming practices – has introduced a new award to its suite of Good Farm Animal Welfare Awards called The Good Pig Award.
Award winners must have a policy, or a five-year welfare commitment, for their sows and meat pigs to achieve a full Good Pig Award. The criteria address issues of confinement, lack of “manipulable materials”, tail docking, teeth clipping/grinding and surgical castration. Try not thinking about that the next time you bite into that sausage.
Though, although cruelty can never be justified, it's hard to adhere to various regulations as a producer battling against cheaper sources, while facing the pressure we, as their customers, put on them to produce cheap food with a value.
"Looking after animals requires competence, consistency and dedication," says David Woolfall, farming director Brydock Farms, which was awarded a Leadership in Good Pig Welfare Award in 2011. "Our team has delivered on all fronts, 52 weeks per year for the last 10 years, in developing and operating this system, sometimes in the face of severe Scottish winter conditions. We look forward to working on future projects with the Food Business team at Compassion in World Farming."
Compassion says it recognises that and offers resources to help at every step of the way to achieve the award status. Resources include a series of information sheets on each criterion of the award, case studies of producers demonstrating best practice in high welfare systems and ongoing support and advice.
In 2011, Compassion awarded eight producers that are making tangible benefits to pig welfare with a ‘Leadership in Pig Welfare’ award and more than 248 thousand sows and meat pigs are set to benefit each year as a result of these award winners’ policies alone. Compassion is looking forward to awarding those taking even further steps with a Good Sow Commendation, a Good Pig Commendation or a full Good Pig Award for being both sow and meat pig friendly.
And so, although this Spring blog was looking a little depressing, here we have our positive new beginning. But it's important that we all remember this is just the start towards a new way of thinking when it comes to all kinds of food and how it is produced. Producers feel the pinch as much as we do and we must realise that as we squeeze them for lower prices – prices that are sometimes so unrealistic that they are below production cost – as part of this keenly felt right for cheap food that eventually something's got to give. We are all responsible and our food and producers both deserve respect. So, Happy Spring – please eat responsibly.
Autumn: My neighbour the fox
It’s turned out to be a funny old year for the seasons. There have been quite a few record early starts especially for strawberries, apples and asparagus, and as you would expect seasons have been cut short as well, making it a particularly bad year for some. It is a real reminder that we rely on the weather to provide our food, even if it is a covered crop or animals reared indoors. The cattle and crops still recognise the weather patterns and follow the natural order of things. And if it’s sunny in March, then that asparagus spear is going to rear its head.
It was the beginning of September and the pear tree in my garden was literally so laden with pears that they were dropping from the branches and on to the gravel. I could almost hear the tones of disapproval filtering in from my next-door neighbour.
Yes, it is a waste to let the pears rot on the ground and no, my fantasy land where the cute urban foxes get to have a midnight feast with them is only ever going to have a shred of truth to it (replace pears with chicken carcasses). But it’s a busy life, I reason away to myself. I don’t have the time (or the stomach for heights) to get a ladder (which I also do not have) to go pick the pears at the top of the tree and so they fall. Plus, Eastenders is on.
Then I start to lament (obviously a poor episode). The unfortunate pears: a year of surviving the elements, the pests and the predators, to come from a delicate flower to a fully ripe pear, and now to rot on the ground.
So I decided to take a stand (for all the pears out there) and start preserving. It was touch and go from the start, balancing a couple of crates together (and you thought I was going to buy a set of ladders) and reaching on tiptoes to grab the pear bounty*. After getting most of the leaves from the tree along with various forms of bug life down my top – I think my neighbour would have preferred me to leave her to the sounds of the pears thudding on the ground – I had more than enough to start the jelly trials.
At first, it does seem like such a lot of effort (and sugar) to put into something you can pop down the road and pick up in a shop for a couple of quid, and when you realise that the fruit needs pectin to set and turns out to look more like a urine sample (albeit a very worrying one) than something you’d offer your neighbour as a peace offering, you just want to give up. And well, it is an effort. But when you get used to everything, everywhere being sticky, and the satisfying golden bubbles rise from the pan like a witch’s cauldron, it’s all worth it.
If more of us made the most of our food – from using up every part of the animal, including cheeks, ears and brain, as they do in a lot of other countries, to making the most of our harvests and using the weirder sized fruit and vegetables – there would be a lot more to go round, and it’d be cheaper. Same thing with preserving. After various dubious concoctions, I made four good jars of Pear & Ginger Jelly from my £1 odd bag of sugar. Not only is it your own way to make the seasons last, it's a unique product on your dinner table. Try out my recipe below**.
* Do not try this method at home, and more importantly, if you do and it goes wrong, do not blame me. ** Don't worry, it's not the one that looks like a sample.
Pear & Ginger Jelly (for the foxes to eat with cold meats or cheese)
500g pears, cored and quartered, with enough water to cover
500g granulated sugar
5cm piece of fresh root ginger (half to be chopped into two; the other half to be grated into thin pieces with a vegetable peeler)
60ml liquid pectin
Juice of a quarter of a pink grapefruit
- Prepare ingredients as described above and place two clean empty jars in the oven preheated to gas mark 2.
- Place the pears and boiling water in a large pan (with room for that amount of mixture again so it can get all bubbly) and add half of the root ginger in two blocks (you will remove this later so no need to peel, etc). Simmer for 15 minutes or until the pears become soft and then mash with a potato masher away from the hob.
- When the mixture is all mashed up, pass it through a sieve, making sure all the juice that can come out of the mixture has and discard the remains in the sieve.
- Put the remaining liquid back into the pan (make sure if this is the same one, that it has been thoroughly washed out) and simmer along with the remaining grated ginger and the sugar.
- Bring to the boil, add the pectin and grapefruit juice and stir continuously. Keep the mixture at boiling point or just under (considering the size of the pan) for 10 minutes, still stirring.
- Allow jelly to cool for a couple of minutes and then pour into the jars, sealing the jars shut with lids. The jelly will keep for six months in a cool cupboard.
Winter: The season is here...
Seasonal Dinner Parties is here to guide all sorts of budding cooks, from the reluctant to the experienced, through the UK seasons in the art of the dinner party. Dinner parties are meant to be enjoyable for everyone involved – yes, even the host – but sometimes it gets a bit much for even the most knowledgeable of home cooks.
It’s a common scene: you haven’t had time to whisk the meringues, the entrées are nowhere near ready, you’ve just realised the red wine for the Coq au vin is still in the shop and then the doorbell goes. You end up resenting your oldest friends/in-laws/work colleagues (delete where applicable) eating your half assembled nibbles and drinking your wine, while you shut yourself in the kitchen, trying to talk yourself out of a nervous breakdown.
Well, the agony is over. With SDP you can take as much or as little advice as you please to guide you through. On SDP you will find a SDP Menu for each season, along with a SDP Shopping List compiling all the ingredients you need to buy. There’s also a SDP Dinner Party Plan giving you the time to prepare and cook step by step – allowing time to welcome your guests and that all-important mingling time – as well as the individual corresponding SDP Recipes.
As most will know, cooking by each season’s rules is crucial. Eating seasonally makes the most of what our food producers in the UK and further afield have to offer and supports the local economies. What’s more, the food is more likely to be fresh and it brings us back to the way the food chain should be - making food reasonably priced, more convenient and accessible. Combining some of the newest ingredients with some of the old-time favourites and cookery methods, SDP will refresh your nights in and impress your guests without you having to spend a fortune. It will also offer you a little insight into the many important producers there are in this country, keeping your tables full of food. Take a look at the SDP Producer Spotlights for extra bits and pieces to interest your guests with.