Before Christmas 2021 is a distant memory I decided to do a round up of my highlights and tips for bringing joy into the world – a post advent calendar, if you like, since moments of high anticipation and glad tidings need not be confined to the festive season.
On the 1st day: Mariachi comes to town
Starting with a bit of mariachi fun I had with some pumpkins left over from Halloween. See what I did there? In case anyone wants to recreate similar (and why wouldn’t you?!) I used some South American terracotta wind chimes that had become tangled beyond repair as sombreros for the mini gourds.
On the 2nd day: Feeling ginger
Having been admonished as a teenager by my mother, for incinerating my first attempt at a Christmas cake and wasting expensive ingredients, I steered clear of a repeat performance for decades. Several years ago I came across a rich, ginger fruit cake recipe from Waitrose and ever since have had requests for it. The bevvy of dried fruits is soaked overnight in ginger wine before stirring in generous chunks of crystallised or stem ginger. I top it with an almond paste made from ground almonds and concentrated apple juice and decorate with dried fruit. With a modicum of restraint it lasts well into January and slabs of it make a great festive gift. Satisfying all round.
On the 3rd Day: A bit of kiwiana
Each time I get down the driftwood Christmas tree from the loft and assemble the branches (never the same configuration 2 years running) I am transported to the beaches and rock pools of the South Island of NZ, the cloud and wave formations of Rabbit Island. These shells artfully polished and without a grain of sand to get into your beach sandwiches.
On the 4th day: Well stocked
There’s little to beat that feeling when you are stocked up and all those infinite ways with veg stretch out enticingly ahead of you. Fresh produce, especially locally grown is the gift that keeps on giving, hope and joy in vegetable form, eeking out every Brussel sprout – shredding it, steaming it, roasting it – making a puree, a salad, dipping into garlic mayonnaise – just not keeping on the boil until next Christmas!
On the 5th day: Life is a minestrone
It’s always the right time for Roberta’s good bread, good soup, good cheer – her forever legacy my dear. Cheers big ears for a never absent friend. This year saw me putting the festive into a minestrone with a handful of pasta Xmas trees. Not just your slimy pasta shapes that look impressive in the packet yet lose all form and function in the cooking, these are like proper little knitted Christmas jumpers of a pasta and add great texture and flavour to a sauce, soup or stew. A talking point about proper Lanky goodness and humour from the folks at The Nowt Poncy Food Company.
On the 6th Day: Mum’s first heavenly birthday
Lunch in honour of my mum whose first heavenly birthday fell on the shortest day of the year, 21st December. She enjoyed a punctuating snack at any time of day so this small plate of an old favourite delicacy of Mushroom and Nut paté, with stilton cheese and slices of miniature pixie loaves in all their perfection fit the bill. Like the tiny Hovis loaves from a bygone Bolton bakery and as much a treat now as then. Happy Birthday Betty.
On the 7th Day: I think I’m going back
Sometimes you shouldn’t go back to a favourite haunt that has changed hands, but in the case of The Lancrigg Country House Hotel in Grasmere, going back can be better, or at least just as good. New life has been breathed into this oldie but goldie. It has lost none of its charm whilst moving with the times, delighting folks since Dorothy and William Wordsworth hung out there. The Lake District remains a special place.
On the 8th Day: Carvetii coffee
On a snowy day in December it proved worth diverting off the beaten track to CarvetiiCoffee roasters in Threlkeld, Cumbria where there was a not so flat white on the mountains. The loveliest people and produce makes for a great roast. They are specialists and it is not hard to see why their business is thriving in Threlkeld.
On the 9th Day: Nut roast and don’t spare the trimmings
It’s compulsory with me for Sarah Brown’s Cashew & Mushroom Roast to make an annual appearance. The recipe is a tried and tested cert and there is still room for variation by using sweet potato or celeriac instead of a mashed parsnip layer. This year I seasoned the mash layer with cumin and black garlic paste, piled it onto the roast mixture, topped with a layer of sautéed mushrooms and swaddled all in a pastry case before baking. Served, no stinting, with all the trimmings. I made a double amount of the roast mixture and so also made a nut loaf. Hot or cold this makes a great sandwich with some chutney or mustard – the veggie alternative to the leftover turkey sandwich. Pastry case, or bread though – not both, even at Christmas!
On the 10th Day: In praise of the potato
Not that I am ever likely to tire of a roast potato, but just in case … here is an unctuous dish that requires little more prepping and cooking than a roastie. Use a mandolin to produce wafer-thin slices of potato. Layer these alternately with finely chopped onion. Season each and every layer well with sea salt flakes and coarsely ground black pepper, top with fresh or dried chopped thyme and sage. Pour over about 250 ml of cow’s or creamy oat milk, dollop with brie, camembert or other oooozy cheese and bake for an hour at 180 degrees C until you can wait no longer.
On the 11th Day: Getting fresh
Somewhere amongst the Christmas carb fest and rich food of celebration it is not unusual to crave some freshness in the form of winter salads. Plenty of festive reds and greens to provide vibrancy and texture, whether simply chopped, shredded, sliced and grated or oven roasted with oil and garlic. A festive platter in themselves.
On the 12th Day: Gujuarati Rasoi ahoy
New Year’s Day called for thinking out of the box (the take-away box in this case), ringing the changes and setting the tone for doing things differently in 2022. A plant-based New Year’s Day feast with friends courtesy of Gujarati Rasoi who have a track record transporting recipes and traditions in vegetarian Gujarati food across time and continents, and are now sharing their food heritage and delivering flavour to savour across the UK. Completing, assembling and serving the pre-prepped ingredients means you get some of the credit too.
The year was walked off and a new one begun in the local park and pond reflecting back and taking the spirit forwards. Stepping out and making time for new memories ahead …