Monday, 31 December 2012

My Big Fat French Christmas

I realize I'm a bit late with this Christmas leftover post- it is New Year's Eve- and most of you have already used up all the turkey and gravy and veg. Indeed, some of you have already told me about your turkey curries, Boxing Day buffets, Chow Phan and soups.

My Christmas was a bit different this year - as we spent the week in Provence and had a Franglais Feast instead of the usual menu.

Gardianne de Taureau
Christmas in the South of France begins with the Gros Souper (Big Fat Supper) on Christmas Eve, followed by midnight mass and then a family meal on Christmas Day (often a stew such as Gardianne de Taureau or Daube).

Torchlight procession to mass
We decided (and French family members and friends grudgingly agreed) to have the best of both worlds : torchlight procession to mass on Christmas Eve, mass in Provencal but no Gros Souper- Christmas dinner on the 25th instead.

To start we had foie gras toasts, snail vol aux vents and champagne (no leftovers there.)


For the main meal, we had roast veal and a roast guinea fowl stuffed with chestnuts and all the trimmings- including of course and much to the chagrin of les francais: roast parsnips and brussels sprouts, cranberry sauce and bread sauce. All washed down with loads of the local wine.

Chateau Virant

Dessert was another matter.

13 Desserts

The culmination of the Gros Souper is traditionally The 13 Desserts.

Now thirteen might seem a little excessive- as indeed it would be if they were made up of puddings like profiteroles, Black Forest gateau and mince pies- but in fact these are just little tastes: nuts, fruit, dried fruits, nougat, sugared almonds and so on. (Of course we did add Christmas pudding to the list.)

You nibble these after dinner- and then they keep for the rest of the week as your puddings. A sentiment I appreciate.

I undertook to make one of the crucial elements- pain d'epice ( a dark spiced gingerbread loaf.)

I searched for the recipe online - and made a creditable loaf. I was struck however as to how much it resembled an old family recipe from home - the ginger cake recipe featured below is from a family cookbook circa 1955. The only difference was that I added butter rather than 'Trex' (let's avoid too much hydrogenated fat), some extra mixed spice,  and honey rather than treacle (treacle being impossible/extortionate to source in Southern France.) Either way this is a foolproof cake, simple, involves no patisserie skill, and keeps for ages- it's wonderful with butter on or (apparently, according to Frenchmen, dipped in morning coffee.) My kind of cake recipe.

Ginger Cake Recipe (click to enlarge)

Fab food- but what was left over?

We had parsnips and carrots, bread sauce, potato gratin, large quantities of meat and stuffing, gravy and -unsurprisingly- brussels sprouts to use up.

Guests had been invited - so we decided to do a 'Best of Les Restes'- leftover meal.

Main course was Boxing Day Pie: a delicious confection of guinea fowl, stuffing, parsnips and carrots, mixed into a bechamel sauce, thickened with leftover bread sauce and then baked in a rough puff pastry pie.

Boxing Day Pie with Bubble and Squeak

You can of course make this pie with any leftover roast, veg,  stuffing, pigs in blankets, whatever- give it a try!

To accompany it, we had Bubble and Squeak made from the sprouts mashed with the gratin and fried in patties in a little olive oil.

Who would have thought that a duo of Frenchmen would wolf down brussels sprouts without realizing - and compliment the chef on the dish! I barely had time to take a photo as everybody was already digging in!Take note if you have children who won't eat their greens!

Sadly, all good things come to an end at some point, and we have now returned to Blighty for the New Year.

Luckily, the cheery woman on the Easyjet desk (no sarcasm- she was delightful) only weighed our hold luggage. Our big fat Franglais stomachs would surely have incurred a fine!

And a Happy New Year!

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Use it up!

Just time to squeeze in a quick blog before Christmas.

Talking of squeezing things in, I imagine most people are making room in their fridges and freezers for the Big Shop this weekend.

Time to use up all those little bits and bobs that I have been encouraging you to keep throughout the last few months: vegetables, breadcrumbs, leftover casserole, ends of cheese etc

I've given over quite a bit of blog space to soups and stews so far this winter- and so won't spend time on that now except to say, you can't beat a good vegetable soup or curry to use up the contents of your vegetable drawer or freezer basket.

Bronze Vegetable Curry

However, a leftover classic - Bubble and Squeak- comes a close second if you have veg awaiting sentence in your fridge.

Cold mashed potato is pretty much essential for this dish, but sweet potato works well too. Take what leftover cooked veg you have in the fridge: potato( of course) , broccoli , onion or leek, swede, etc. Blitz the greens and mash everything together with the potato, season well and shape into patties. Dust with flour and fry in hot oil until golden on both sides. Serve hot with a poached egg on top.

Bubble and Squeak
Good enough to dress up for a restaurant meal.
Posh Bubble and Squeak

If you have a few pieces left from a garlic loaf, blitz these up and use them as a gratin topping for vegetable bakes, pasta bakes or fish. Or make cheesy breadcrumbs with the little ends of cheese I've been exhorting you to save in the freezer and use in the same way.

Blitz that garlic bread
Grilled Plaice with Crunchy Topping

Grated cheese- especially if it is a mixture of different cheeses- can be used up as a topping for pizzas, with any leftover ham,vegetables, olives now.

Frying Pan Pizza

Leftover casserole can be made to go for another meal: make individual pies with shortcrust pastry and fill with a spoonful each of meat or top with puff pastry for a pot pie.

Pot Pie
Meat Pies

Finally, don't forget to use up any leftover pastry ( and cheese ) in cheese straws or twists for canap├ęs,  leftover tortillas baked in the oven with seasoning for dipping chips and leftover pitta or naan bread for nibbles.

Has that made some room? I'll be back with many a post- Christmas blog- so don't even think about throwing away leftover Christmas dinner until you check here first!

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all my readers!

Friday, 14 December 2012

Slowing Things Down

I know it's nearly Christmas when everyone is rushing around like bluebottles to get everything done in time, and the idea of doing anything slowly seems impossible - but there is a way to take your time and get everything done too.

If you have a slow cooker- and Santa's sleigh might well be carrying a few of these around this year- you can save effort but still eat well (and cheaply). You can buy inexpensive cuts of meat like pork shoulder, ox cheek or tail, lamb shanks or duck legs and then , with just a few minutes preparation you can put your meal on to cook whilst you resume the rushing around.

I've had one for a year now and it is brilliant.

Brown the meat first
Add vegetables and cooking liquor
Casseroles are the easiest and simplest dish: brown your meat before putting it into the slow cooker, add the vegetables of your choice and the stock or cooking liquor of your choice (red wine, white wine, beer, cider, water, stock or juice), put in enough to not quite cover the meat,  switch it to high for a short while ( an hour or so) then low for as long as you want:

Coq au Vin
Bean and lentil dishes cook beautifully too- no problem with chewy pulses.
Bonfire Baked Beans

Sausages with Lentils and Vegetables

Rich Beef Stew
You can roast meat too- hand of pork (shoulder) or gammon are particularly good. They need very little liquid. Gammon roasts well in just a glass (250 ml) of orange juice for example.

After 6 hours or so, the meat falls apart - you could almost eat it with a spoon.

Fancier dishes can easily be achieved- like braised duck legs in vermouth: Brown the duck legs in a dry frying pan until the fat starts to run out readily, (one duck leg per person),then two glasses of vermouth and a bay leaf go into the slow cooker with the duck, cook on high for an hour or two and then low for another couple of hours. Good enough for any dinner party.

Braised Duck Legs in Vermouth

You can also make a big pot of  beef mince ragout- and then use it for quick and easy meals through the week (like bolognaise, chilli con carne, lasagne, or chilli chips !)

Chilli Chips

Beef Mince Ragout

I've only made one pudding so far in the slow cooker- but it was a good one- coconut rice pudding with mulled wine fruit compote: 1 cup of rice (I used arborio but long grain is fine), two cups of coconut milk or 1 carton coconut cream and 1 cup skimmed milk, 100 g of sugar, a grating of nutmeg and a tsp of cinnamon. Cook on low for 3 hours. Meanwhile, simmer a choice of red and orange fruits in a half glass red wine or red vermouth, add a splash of orange juice, some cinnamon and nutmeg and keep warm until you are ready to eat the rice pudding. Very festive.

Coconut rice pudding with mulled fruit

I had a big family party coming up so cooked a 'pulled' pork casserole a week in advance, froze it in the slow cooker casserole and then heated it up on the day. Take note though- if you have a plastic knob on the lid, it won't stand up to the oven temperatures- as I discovered. Luckily we could unscrew the blobby melted bit and screw on a new knob from an old pan lid.

Check your slow cooker is oven proof!

It's not just food leftovers that get used up in our house !

By the way, the casserole was unharmed- and much enjoyed by all.

Pulled Pork Casserole

Friday, 30 November 2012

Stone Soup and Other Great Soup Recipes

Product DetailsI used to love to read this classic tale to my children: how the cooking pot with nothing in it except water and a stone gradually builds into a delicious soup.

For some reason, I remembered it the other day - and then I got to thinking about soup in general. As you do. Especially when it's cold and wet and wintry.

Recently, I asked family members what they considered my best dish- my culinary forte- and the answer came back resoundingly- "Soup!"

And it's true- there's nothing I like better than looking in the fridge on a Friday and seeing what's left in the vegetable drawer, and whether there's any leftover cooked veg to use up- and then making my weekend soup.

So- playing to my strengths- here's a blog all about potage, chowder, sopa, broth and all things soupy!

Now, to be completely purist- before you make a great soup you need a great stock- and this is a wonderful way of using every last bit of a chicken or duck carcass for example and using up vegetable peelings and bits and bobs.

Every one of my soup recipes however works just as well with a stock cube, except perhaps the Chinese-style clear broths which really benefit from a homemade stock if possible.

Making stock is child's play if you have a slow cooker- and simple (but more adult) too if you have a pressure cooker. If you don't, then using a good quality stock cube is far kinder on the environment and your fuel bills.

Making stock from a carcass
 For  home made stock, put the carcass of a chicken, duck or turkey into a crockpot or pressure cooker. Add parsley, bay leaf or bouquet garni, celery leaves and a few stalks, carrot peelings, a chopped onion, some peppercorns and a tsp salt.
Remove the bouquet garni
Simmer for at least 4 hours or more if you can (or pressure cook for 30 minutes.) Cool and strain and remove the bouquet garni. Keep any meat that you can now pick off the carcass to put into the soup later.

You can use this meat stock for any number of soups- here are some of my regulars: thick chicken and rice, golden vegetable, spiced parsnip or butternut squash or pumpkin, asparagus veloute, celery, leek and potato.

Choose your garnish carefully- poppy seeds, pumpkin seeds and sprinkles are lovely, as is a swirl of creme fraiche, or croutons, chopped parsley and chives, a little cooked rice or pasta.

Pumpkin or Squash soup
Golden Girl Soup
Thick Chicken and Rice

Mushroom ravioli broth

Using the clear broth makes a wonderful Chinese-style soup: I add chopped spring onion, some  spinach leaves or bok choi, finely shaved carrot, sweetcorn or finely sliced mushrooms as below. Or  float some ravioli in it Italian-style.
Chinese-style soup with Dumplings

 The basic principle for my thick soups is always the same- sweat your vegetables in a little sunflower oil, add the stock, simmer for 30 minutes or pressure cook for 10. Blitz with a stick blender.


If you prefer to use a vegetable stock, there are some soups that really benefit from this such as Spiced Tomato Soup and the love child that it begat when partnered with butternut squash -

 Bloody Mary Butternut Soup.

Spiced Tomato Soup

Bloody Mary Butternut Soup

Ingredients:  two tins chopped tomatoes (if you can get the ones with added chilli or arrabiatta so much the better), one finely chopped onion, one finely chopped green pepper, 1/2 butternut squash chopped, 1 tsp red wine vinegar, 1 tsp sugar, dash Worcestershire sauce or Tobasco, splash of vodka (optional), 400 ml stock.

Sweat the onion and pepper in sunflower oil until translucent, add the squash and coat in the oil. Add the vinegar (and vodka if you like it), and then the tomatoes, sugar, hot sauce, and stock.

Simmer or pressure cook until squash is tender. Blitz - and adjust seasoning, add more Tobasco or salt and pepper to taste.

Final type of soup today is a laksa- or my version of it.

This is a meal-in-a-soup: noodles in a coconut and vegetable broth - with salmon or chicken or prawns or whatever you like to top it with.

Using the rest of the butternut squash from the last recipe- sweat the flesh in a little sunflower oil and then add a dessertspoon of curry paste. When coated, add 1/2 a tin of coconut milk, then 300 ml of stock and a heaped tablespoon of peanut butter or Thai peanut sauce. Simmer until the squash is tender and then blitz. Bring back to a simmer and add 2 portions of egg or rice noodles, two chopped spring onions and two big handfuls of spinach or bok choi.

If you are using prawns, simply add them to the laksa 1 minute before serving and heat them through, if you are using salmon- cook it through in the microwave for 4 minutes per fillet or steam or fry or however you like to prepare your salmon. The same with chicken- use cooked chicken or poach or steam chicken fillets to accompany your laksa. Yum!

Don't forget to accompany your soup with something fitting- spring rolls or dumplings or prawn crackers for oriental soups, crusty bread or garlic bread for vegetable soups- or why not make cheese scones, olive cakes or biscuits to dunk (recipes on the blog if you search).

Cheese scones

Cheese and tapenade biscuits
Olive cakes

You could add a stone too of course.

Friday, 23 November 2012

The Party Dress 'Diet'

"Christmas is coming and the geese are getting fat."

And they're not the only ones.

It's always at this time of year-round the end of November- when thoughts turn to party clothes and looking good for the festive season.
Last year, I got round the Little Black Dress problem rather ingeniously by buying a BIG black dress, so I looked lost and small within it. That won't work two years in a row.
This year however- something weird is happening. I've lost a bit of weight- and it seems to be staying away. How come?

I put it all down to two astonishing tips- and despite having a rocket scientist in the family, I haven't needed his help to find them out.

1. Eat well
2. Exercise more.

That's all there is to it.

The exercise is up to you- but eating well needs a bit more explaining.

I always thought I ate well- and these blog pages are testament to my life as a bonviveuse but recently I was introduced to the Eat Well Plate as a concept for meal planning- and it really got me thinking about how much fat and sugar was in my diet and how simple it would be to increase the lean protein, carbohydrate and above all - the fruit and vegetables (which are a cornerstone of my frugal feasting but need to be more so.)

The principle is easy- plenty of fruit and vegetables, plenty of carbohydrates ( you can increase this amount for other members of the family with higher energy needs), small amounts of lean protein, small amounts of fat and dairy and a tiny amount of sweet or treat.

As you plan each week's meal, think about how it would look on the Eatwell Plate. Or print one off from the net and stick it on your fridge.

For example, mediterranean vegetable pasta with smoked bacon would have equal amounts of vegetables and carbs, a small amount of protein and fat. Perfect. Even better with a side salad or extra crusty bread for hungry teenagers or sportifs.

Meat lasagne ingredients 'Eatwell-style'
Meat Lasagne and Veg
 A meat lasagne however would be a bit heavy on the protein and dairy but with lots of side vegetables it can still be a healthy meal
Vegetable curry

Butternut squash curry with basmati rice and cucumber raita errs this time on the side of the vegetables  but is still a satisfying meal

Bloody Mary Butternut Soup 
Use the rest of the squash for homemade vegetable soup with bread, mushroom pate or cheese and a side salad.

Use the leftover peppers from your pasta dish in Stuffed peppers with paella and green veg :
Paella Stuffed Peppers
Rolling the pork meatballs in cabbage leaves

Then make baked cabbage with lean pork in tomato sauce:

Braised Endive with Ham and Cheese
Or braised endive with ham and cheese:  (great with garlic bread)

Also stuffed jacket potatoes with cauliflower cheese, or tuna or bacon and salad

Jackets and Salad

And chorizo patties ( using the rest of the lean pork mixed with chorizo sausage) with tabbouleh, flatbreads and autumn slaw:

Chorizo Patties

Autumn Slaw

That's 9 to be going on with- enough for a week or more and none of them expensive.

Red fruit crumble
You can balance things up with fruity puds, like fruit salad and crumbles.

Fruit Crumble

I've been eating like this deliberately for a while now - and the weight is steadily dropping off.

Give it a go.

So, this festive season there's going to be at least one bird who is dressed and ready to party !