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O Christmas Tree

Christmas Is Here!
Finally I can stop baking and start roasting.

Evidently sauerkraut and mushroom pierogis are a Polish Christmas Eve staple, so I thought I'd give them a go as this year's starter with a piscine twist.

I decided this year we'd also try a spiced cranberry and apple stuffing as recommended by Mum and Delia Smith. What could go wrong?

Things we (re-)learned this Christmas:
  • Sauerkraut and mushroom stuffed filo pastry parcels are much too fiddly for a Christmas starter.
  • Mum's favoured spiced cranberry and apple stuffing is far too tart and practically inedible in any quantity. Just goes to show you can't trust anyone these days. Maybe next year I'll have a go with a potato-based stuffing for a change?
  • Kurt's new gas oven still cooks a 10lb (pre-stuffing) goose in under 4 hours.
  • Kurt really needs a meat thermometer.
  • You can leave the crusts in your bread sauce, but I still say it's a bit weird.
  • Don't forget to add the leftover goose to the pilaf - it's the whole bloody point!
  • No one eats liver paté at Christmas - no matter how seasonal it is.
  • You can never have too much bacon.
  • You can have too much cheese.

Pre-Christmas Leftovers

Paul and Rosy came by to help me eat up the last of my pre-Christmas leftovers, and to trial potential Christmas starters.

I'd originally planned to test pumpkin and amaretti ravioli as part of my annual pumpkin fiesta (as a possible Christmas starter), but didn't get around to it, so we had them today. Along with a first run at sauerkraut and mushroom file parcels - the eventual winner.

A big pot of tarragon-flavoured mussels handy since I needed some mussel stock for the file parcels! and home-made vanilla ice cream with cocoa-meringue to follow completed the meal plan.
You wouldn't believe the washing up, though my flatmate Peter now does. Must be the difference between a three- and four-course meal.

Things I learned today:
  • Don't feed almond biscuits to someone who's told you they have a nut allergy. Idiot!
  • If you have a lot of leftover mussels and sauerkraut, you can do worse than cook them up with some pasta
Now if you'll excuse me - I have a lot of baking to do before Christmas...

Amaretti Biscuits
sweet veg
The original recipe calls for cooking the cookies at 160°C/325°F/Gas 3 for 15 minutes, but that simply wasn't happening for me, so I turned my oven up to 180°C/350°F/Gas 4 which cooked them in the advertised time. But I'm finding they come out crunchier if left for longer at the lower heat say 25 to 35 minutes as David Lebowitz suggests.

Makes about 20 biscuits

  • 340g/12oz ground almonds
  • 340g/12oz caster sugar
  • 4 eggs, whites only
  • 30ml/1fl oz amaretto liquor
  • butter, for greasing
Preheat the oven to 160°C/325°F/Gas 3.
In a large bowl beat the egg whites until soft-peaking - the consistency of softly whipped cream.
Mix the sugar and the almonds gently into it. Add the amaretto liquor and fold in gently until you have a smooth paste.
Place some baking parchment on a baking sheet lightly brushed with butter. Using two dessert spoons place small heaps or quenelles of the mixture approximately 2cm/¾in apart as they will expand whilst cooking. Bake in the oven for approximately 25-35 minutes until golden brown.
Really tasty, though you need to bake them until they're edging towards caramel brown if you want them at all crispy. They keep very well, and gradually harden if anything so bake them early if you're thinking of incorporating them into pumpkin ravioli.

The Spoils of Autumn
Super Moon

I had a lot of seasonal leftovers to eat up, what with Christmas coming and all. Pumpkin mostly. Lots of pumpkin. Plus some Cavolo Nero.
So today I had a quick dinner of homemade (defrosted) herb sausage with a rich onion gravy, onion and cavolo nero with horseradish and cream, and boiled potatoes dressed with sage butter to keep me going.

Onion Gravy
sauce veg
Following Fiona Becket's method is great for making a decent gravy when you don't have roast juices to use, but you do have some decent stock.
Thoroughly caramelising the onions, as for French onion soup, gives the soup excellent body, and a smooth gravy results from straining them back out again.

Serves 4

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 100g butter
  • 1-2 onions, sliced
  • de-glazing liquor of choice I used Grand Marnier and Cognac
  • 3 tablespoons plain flour
  • 1 pint/500ml stock
  • flavourings of choice
Heat the olive oil and the butter then add the onions and cook over high heat, stirring regularly, until they begin to darken. Turn down the heat and cook gently, stirring frequently, until thoroughly caramelised, but not burnt, as if you were making French Onion Soup.
You can add bicarbonate of soda and a little sugar to the onions to speed up this process.
Add the flour, and stir until cooked and separating a little from the fat, then de-glaze the pan with liquor, then add the stock gradually, whisking thoroughly at each step.
Press the gravy through a sieve to remove any lumps and the remains of the onions, add any flavourings you like wine, cider, port, fruit juice, etc, adjust the consistency, season, serve.
Excellent, though I suspect it largely depends on the quality of your stock.
Of course mine was superb!

Pumpkin, Pumpkin, Pumpkin, Dark Side

    Pumpkins retire
    as Fall fog rolls in from the Forth,
    my desire is always to save some.
    Oh cull of Hallow's Eve.
To the tune of Mull of Kintyre

Having secured my annual pumpkin collection before the stroke of midnight on Hallowe'en I was equipped to raise the ghosts of pumpkins past in the shape of yet another Pumpkin in a Chicken in a Pumpkin™.
I repeated the tasty stuffing I used in my Classic Pumpkin except that I processed up hazelnuts instead of the chestnuts. To be honest I thought them too grainy despite being chopped quite small (which seems to be a persistent feature of the nut) and as usual the stuffing ended up unnaturally soggy.

I'm starting to think that next year I might approach the whole thing from a more pot-roast direction - after all it ain't really a roast chicken, so much as a poached one. I should stop fighting this, I suspect it's where the moist succulence of the chicken all comes from anyway, and abandon traditionally stuffing the chicken at all (I could always cook a stuffing separately which is usually better anyway). Perhaps surrounding the chicken with vegetables and stock, or just sticking in a few bits of fruit - apple chunks maybe? It would stop me worrying so much about the build-up of liquid in the pumpkin. Though it's a good idea to keep it to a minimum lest the squash split and spill liquid all over your oven.

Anyway, it all turned out nicely enough - Alex One and Caroline kindly came around to help me eat it. I served it with mashed herbed potatoes, glazed carrots with sage Nice! and creamy mustard Cavolo Nero which I bought to have another stab at kale and pumpkin soup with my anticipated leftovers.
They also tried out my liver dates with a garlicky mushroom salad. They really liked the salad!

Things I re-learned about making Chicken in a Pumpkin:
  • Chicken cooked in a pumpkin is fabulously moist.
  • You can keep the excess liquid to a minimum by leaving off the pumpkin lid for most of the cooking time - perhaps put it on at the beginning and the end.
  • Occasionally suck out surplus fluid from inside the pumpkin with a turkey baster and use it for the gravy.
  • It's not the end of the world if the chicken is too small for the pumpkin. It will poach all the same just don't try to fill the gap with stuffing, it'll just turn soggy.
  • It's just impossible to tell how much space there will be inside a pumpkin until you've opened it up. Buy extra!

Yet Another Pumpkin in a Chicken in a Pumpkin
main fowl
Might be time to retire the pleasantly alliterative, but unpleasantly soggy pumpkin stuffing for a pot-roast poaching approach.
Maybe next year?

Serves Everyone

  • a chicken
  • a pumpkin
  • some stuffing
Cut the top off the pumpkin and scoop out the insides. Discard.
Make the stuffing.
Preheat the oven to gas mark 9.
Give the chicken a blast in the oven to crisp up its skin. I keep doing this - no idea if it helps. It might make more sense to remove the skin altogether? Stuff the stuffing into the chicken and the chicken into the pumpkin. Put the pumpkin in a casserole dish large enough to hold the contents in case the pumpkin explodes, put the lid on the pumpkin and put the whole thing in the oven.
Reduce the oven temperature to Gas Mark 5-6.
Bake for hours until the chicken (and stuffing!) is cooked, removing the lid when it all gets too wet inside, and turning down the oven if the pumpkin starts to char.

Peel open a bib in the side of the pumpkin and serve slices of the chicken and pumpkin flesh.

Make stock for your Christmas gravy with the leftover chicken carcass.
As always, tastier than it looks!

Liver Pâté

Well, I've been feeling a bit liverish this past week.
That may have something to do with the 2kg of frozen livers I've had to consume after first deciding, while staring aghast at a ludicrous £2 charge for 100g of Port and Liver pâté in my Local Fucking Supermarket™ on a shopping trip for lunchtime sandwich fillers, that I really needed to try making my own.

So I started trawling for chicken livers amongst the butchers of Musselburgh, where I work. For my sins. On the plus side there are actually three butchers here - a minor miracle considering the rate at which poundshops are breeding but unfortunately only one of them seems to do any actual butchering. As far as I can tell the others simply re-sell prepared cuts of meat which they buy in bulk. Much like my Local Fucking Supermarket™. So really, what's the point? When I once suggested to one of these ersatz meat shop-keepers that I intended to cure my own bacon he responded with disbelief. I think he genuinely didn't know it was possible to obtain bacon by any means other than in industrial quantities from a factory in Denmark.
Anyhow, this actual butcher regularly but infrequently supplies one of his customers with chicken livers, and happened to have frozen some in anticipation. Unfortunately this customer buys them in 2kg batches (for what the butcher didn't say), so that was the only option on offer.

Sensing my reluctance at such an over-purchase (the pâté recipe I had in mind called for 350g) the butcher reduced his already-ridiculously-low price from £5 to £4, and eventually I just didn't have the heart to say no.
Since then I've been cooking and eating quite a lot of liver ;)

I've had liver sandwiches for lunch every day for the past two weeks, and for dinner; liver and baked potatoes, and more varieties of liver and pasta than I care to remember. I even went so far as to drag in my accommodating new flatmate Peter.
Welcome aboard Peter.

It turns out that a good liver pâté is dead easy to make and liver parfait makes quite a good topping for baked potatoes.

Bacon and Chicken Liver Pâté
snack meat fowl
I adapted this from John Torode's recipe in Chicken, mainly by adding port.

Makes about 600g

  • 400g chicken livers
  • 250g softened butter
  • 200g pancetta or streaky bacon
  • 1 largeish onion, chopped perhaps 300g
  • fresh thyme leaves
  • 2 tablespoons brandy
  • 100ml port
  • freshly grated nutmeg
  • clarified butter, to cover optional
  • salt and pepper
Check the chicken livers for any greenish stains and cut them off as even a scrap will make the pâté bitter. At the same time pull each lobe away from its connecting threads.

Heat 80g of the butter in a large non-stick frying pan until just foaming. Add the bacon and the onions, add the thyme, season well and cook for 8 to 10 minutes or until the onions are soft and the bacon is thoroughly cooked.
Remove with a slotted spoon and put into a food processor.
Reheat the pan with more butter if necessary. Add the livers and fry quickly until cooked but still quite soft in the middle, about 2 minutes.

Increase the heat, Add the brandy and carefully ignite it with a match, tilting the pan to spread the flames across the livers. Season with a little salt, pepper and grated nutmeg, remove and add to the food processor.
Deglaze the pan with port, bubbling it away until you have only a couple of tablespoons remaining, then scrape the pan into the food processor.

Blend everything in the food processor, then pass the pâté through a coarse sieve as well.
It's essential for a smooth pâté that you press it through a sieve, but you'll find it damn hard work - there'll be a lot of fibre. Unfortunately there's no easy way around this, unless you've found some kind of mechanical sieve, so you'll just have to persevere. It's easiest doing this with the back of a wooden spoon or ladle and one of those conical sieves. I also found it difficult getting the pâté to purée in the processor (though I did use a blender), so you might have to add more port and a bit of melted butter too.
Return the pâté to the food processor and blend in the remaining 170g melted butter. Check the seasoning then press the pâté into a ceramic crock or individual pots and chill well.

The surface of the pâté will gradually oxidize - that is, it will darken in contact with the air. If you wish to avoid this, cover the pâté with a thin layer of clarified butter once it's in the pot/s.
Quite magnificent.
I reduced the relative quantity of bacon (and onion) from John's original, You might try using smoked bacon too, but probably in even smaller quantities.
Christmas Pâté
I made a Christmassy version using:
  • 400g duck livers well, slightly more, but who's counting?
  • 200g smoked pancetta
  • 300g shallots
  • ¼ cup sultanas covered with cognac to soak
  • ¼ cup dried cranberries covered with strawberry* vodka to soak
Cut the larger half of the fruit into halves and soak overnight, drain them off and add the liquor to the frying bacon and onions to flame off as above.
Cook the fruit briefly in the reduced port (just to heat through), drain, and set aside to stir in whole at the very end.
Very Festive!
* It turn's out that what I found in an old demijohn with the label mostly rubbed off was not, as I thought, Strawberry Vodka. According to Angus they don't do a strawberry version, but only a raspberry one. So that's probably what I used.

That'll Dufour Me
Just Another Ruined Castle

A Dufour 425 optimistically named Pollyanna to be precise.

We, or rather Peter Mackie's and Sam Peckers, organised her charter out of Dunstaffnage and through the Sound of Mull for a nice long weekend of cooking, eating and sailing for six of us.
Thanks guys!

As the designated ship's cook on our four-day, three-dinners-with-two-on-board voyage I paid particular attention to my universal rules for successful Cooking On Boats while developing our menu. Even the rules I broke.

The Sea Is Not To Be Trusted
As any sailing fule know, the sea is a treacherous mistress so it pays to avoid as much onboard food preparation as possible by doing it all ashore.
Thus our first meal aboard consisted of my own interpretation of a seafood chowder prepared at home and sealed into my large stock pot with Sellotape. Or sticky backed plastic as it is inelegantly known to a generation of Blue Peter viewers. Don't forget to remove the Sellotape before reheating!
For dessert I also pre-made a baking-tin-load of individual sticky toffee puddings that only required reheating in the oven. The main difficulty they presented having successfully driven them across the country, was transporting them intact aboard the boat. There was a definite point on the pontoon when I was seriously afraid the whole tray was about to blow out of my hands, to the great amusement of the rest of our heartless crew. A situation not improved by my careful fashioning of a cling film aerofoil covering.

I must admit to defying another cardinal cooking rule by accompanying the chowder (rather well, I thought) with an oven-baked loaf of soda bread:
The Oven Is Not To Be Trusted
A boat's oven is useful for keeping things warm (like breakfast - ladies!), reheating sausage rolls or pastries or possibly cooking things securely wrapped in tin foil but don't even think about using it to roast a dinner. The temperature, heat distribution, and vagaries of the gas supply are eager to ruin anything even slightly sensitive.
Fortunately soda bread is quite forgiving of temperature and rises with the activation of its bicarbonate of soda content more reliably than do fickle yeast cells. I also reheated my sticky toffee puddings in the oven, but reheating is specifically allowed, so that's alright then.

Meal number two needed to actually be prepared on the boat, so I followed the best practice:
Treat It Tidily Stupid
Organise your dishes so that everything cooks sequentially going into pots, pans or the oven as you prepare the ingredients - so choose recipes wisely. This avoids the disaster of an unexpected tack (unexpected to the cook, obviously everyone on deck knows perfectly well what is going on, but to them you slave in an invisible magic kitchen) dumping all your bowls of lovingly prepared components into the bilges. The best way to arrange this is to have one large pot for browning/crisping/frying and a large warming dish securely lodged in the sink. Cook each batch of ingredients as soon as they are prepared in this pot, then decant to the warming dish when done, freeing the pot for the next batch. Return everything from the warming dish to the pot at the end for their final simmering/stewing/burning.
Beef Bourguignon lends itself perfectly to this kind of single pot preparation - I served it with mashed potatoes which I first baked in the oven (which makes for richer, tastier mash and avoids the need for another giant pot of boiling water rolling around the galley).
And some green beans which I cooked in a giant pot of boiling water.

Handily both meals also followed an essential rule for shipboard harmony:
All Meals Must Contain Bacon
A generous supply of bacon in their diet acts much like Valium on the crew mood. Lack of bacon can lead to unrest and even mutiny.
Actually this is rather more of a personal rule, perhaps not quite so applicable to vegetarian voyages. Perhaps.

Absolutely NO Flambéing on board in the Skipper's Presence
On reflection, the proximity of that porthole's curtains should have argued against having flaming rum bananas with butterscotch sauce for dessert. Fortunately the sauce was very well received and the skipper didn't notice a thing.

Always Have a Backup
Not just a good rule for cooking - it's a good rule for all of your sailing. Maybe a good rule for life!
Since The Sea Is Not To Be Trusted it's a good idea to have at least one backup meal in case you run aground, or get blown out to sea. I chose a pasta with smoked salmon and cream cheese dish, all the constituents of which keep reasonably well. Of course, when it proved surplus to requirements, as the designated chef I was able to take the ingredients home and try the dish out for myself. It would have been delicious!

My favourite non-cookery related bit of the sail was helming Pollyanna between Lady's Rock and Lismore island in an unreliable easterly wind against a stiff tide running Northwards. A much stiffer tide than any of us had managed to predict from the tidal atlases aboard.
As I admired the astonishing disagreement between the chart plotter's Heading and COG tracks I gave some thought to how often I'd been in the position of having to pick the best course through a narrow channel or entry, and what would be a better strategy than just aiming for the middle and hoping for the best. It occurred to me that navigating to avoid the worst-case outcomes might be a smarter plan. In this case the place I definitely didn't want to end up would be being forced to tack mid-way through the gap and risk losing way while being swept energetically towards Robert Stevenson's lighthouse on Eilean Musdile!
Accordingly I made sure to hold the passing tack until I was almost on the skerry before bearing away - much to Scot's consternation.
Hopefully no one else noticed our anxiety!

Other things I learned on this trip:
  1. Don't attempt to berth sideways onto the end of a narrow pier lest you crush your less agile crewpersons - approach sternwards.
  2. Don't let women cook your breakfast or you'll be waiting for it one bacon rasher at a time.
    Later you might get an egg.


I mean seriously, how could it BE any worse?
... Cue raptors!

The most entertaining moment in the campaign?
A vast fleet of Westminster troughers, herded up to Scotland at the taxpayers' expense to campaign for the continued obeisance of an unthinking British populace, emerge blinking into the harsh sunlight of Glasgow city centre...

They have come here to explain to the wayward Scots why it is in their own best interests to bow down to their distant imperial masters, but are unexpectedly waylaid by the mischievous subversion of a Celt and a boom box in a rickshaw.

Watch in wonder as this veritable army of political weevils all towing their identikit wheelie suitcases and accompanied by their sycophantic press retinue are harried down the entire length of Buchanan street to the strains of John Williams' famous Star Wars leitmotif The Imperial March.

Delight in the bemusement on their over-indulged piggy faces at such unprecedented resistance as they struggle to contend with this gloriously irreverent satire on their self-important arrogance, vanity and conceit.

I give you:

Post Scriptum:
In the end the vote was no.
I'm disappointed but relieved.
Wine in the Mouth, Love in the Eye
Beef Wellington Crust

      Love comes in at the mouth
      And wine comes in at the eye;
      That's all we shall know for truth
      Before we grow old and die.
      I lift the glass to my eye,
      I lick you, and I sigh.
William Butler Yeats
Or words to that effect.

Another short stay in Eyemouth. This one not short enough, however.

We planned a simple overnight visit - in and out on our way to Lindisfarne, but the sea had other ideas. It rose into mighty crests which burst heavily into the harbour entrance for two days preventing us from leaving. We were particularly put off by the sight of a trawler being almost rolled onto the beach by an enormous wave which broke across it as it cockily put out to sea.

Then just when we thought it was finally safe to leave and made our way out through the swell, a series of massive waves rolled in at just the wrong moment pitching our boat so much that our companions still ashore claimed they could see our propeller!
We did get down to Holy Island for a day though. A very nice day too, so it all worked out.

To sustain us during our elongated stopover, and compensate for our persistent failure to book ourselves a table at the fabulous Churches seafood restaurant, I made the most ridiculous ship-board meal I could think of for our last dinner - a beef wellington!
Bet you haven't had that on a boat before?

Eyemouths lamentable lack of digestible restaurants is easily matched by its dearth of food shops. It does boast a decent butcher (yep, just the one), who also grows potted herbs out back and is happy to hand a few over with your surprisingly expensive order of meat. I don't imagine the local demand is large.
Otherwise there is a fantastic baker, a greengrocer with unfathomable opening hours that I assume exclude any daylight, and the standard Local Fucking Supermarkets™.
One of which did, in fact, stock a fresh herb. It was coriander. I did visit them on a Tuesday, so perhaps they stock a different herb on other days. Thank God for the butchers eh?

Memorial Camping Trip
The Walking Tree

On the anniversary of Mum's death my siblings Kurt, Karen and I met up for a camping weekend near Samye Ling - the Buddhist centre where last year we scattered her ashes, so we could eat some of our family's traditional spaghetti bolognese (for which I sacrificed one of my precious, precious remaining tins of Campbell's condensed oxtail soup) in its natural environment: A sulky silence in the great outdoors.

I enhanced the recipe a little - I ground up my own beef mince You really can't trust that pre-ground stuff you know; it's where they hide the horses. Not to mention the lips and arseholes. and ran a little chorizo through too for some extra flavour though it would be better fried separately. I did desperately try to find some of that enormous two-foot-long spaghetti that used to be the only stuff you could buy, to make the experience as authentic as possible, but all my Local Fucking Supermarkets™ have simultaneously decided not to stock it any more, so that was that.
(I Later, too late, randomly discovered some packets in my local fucking Lidl™ which I suppose is a sad comment on the parlous state of this nation of shops.)
Unfortunately I also forgot to add the mushrooms to the sauce: much to Kurt's delight - he doesn't like fat mushrooms; too squeaky!
Kurt: Mum's recipe doesn't use mushrooms.
Us: What recipe?
Kurt: From her recipe book.
Us: What recipe book?
Kurt: Er...

And thus was revealed Mum's secret recipe book that Kurt has been hiding for all these years!
Apparently she wrote down the instructions for a bunch of our favourite dishes when Kurt first moved away from home and had to start cooking them for himself.
Somehow he just forgot to mention it to any of us later.
I've updated the section of my Olde Recipe Booke to reflect this new treasure trove, but there's also one or two gems that were a surprise to me - like this red cabbage.
Who knew? Well, apart from Kurt, obviously.

We camped at Honey Cottage Caravan Park in the Ettrick valley near Selkirk, a pretty beatiful area actually, well provided with terrific walks, walking trees, midges and a complete absence of phone signal. I sensibly took my mosquito net hat with me, but Kurt was forced to improvise with the underwear to hand.
I don't see it catching on!

I took the opportunity to chum Kurt and Karen back down to Bradford and stock up on Spicey Cottage curries and those delicious Pakistani honey mangoes, they being in season just now.
It was there that we inexplicably managed to upset Karen enough to send her home in a huff. Who knows how - she's a girl.
Same time next year Karen?

Red Cabbage
side veg vegan
Via Kurt's secret recipe book.
Dunno where she got this one - not from me!

  • 1 small red cabbage
  • 1 large onion
  • 1 eating apple
  • 1 wine glass Marsala wine or port
  • dash vodka or brandy
  • bouquet garni
  • 2 bay leaves
Remove stalk and chop cabbage.
Chop onion & apple.
Put in lidded casserole with herbs & wine. Add salt & pepper to taste.
I (this is Mum talking) usually add just a dash of vodka or brandy, or whatever I get hold of first.
Cook at Gas Mark 4 until tender - about ¾-1 hour.
Seems pretty racy for one of Mum's recipes. I haven't tried it, but provide it here for your delectation.
Curry Prolapse
Beetroot Curry

Anal prolapse? Nope, just the after-effects of a particularly vigorous beetroot curry.

Quite a tasty one too as it happens.
Friday night I settled in to a nice long bath with a crate of Marstons and one of my frozen Spicey Cottage Karahi Goshts. I need to whittle them down since I'll be getting the chance to replenish my supplies soon enough when the family get together to observe the anniversary of Mum's passing. As usual I made up a batch of yoghurt sauce to go with, and as usual when I sobered up the next day and cleared away the empties I'd ended up with loads left over.

So I went through the fridge and made curries with whatever I found there, including those beetroots which still haven't made it into macaroons. I borrowed the beetroot curry recipe, but the sweetcorn is all my own work.
Very tasty they were too, though I say so myself.

Just don't peer too closely at the toilet bowl the next day ;)

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