Saturday, 31 December 2016

January - Resolutions and Recriminations

If January had a face it would be that of a wizened old crone.  After the brightness of December, the anticipation of the Christmas festivities, the jollity, the excesses and the bright twinkly Christmas lights, the world retreats to a dreary gloom.  We can’t even cheer ourselves up with a food treat because parsimony is the byword for January as we attempt to make up for December’s gluttony.  The only bright spot on the horizon is that the afternoons will start slowly drawing out by the end of the month.  There’s always the hope of a little snowfall to change the palette of grey – lying snow will throw up a bit of welcome light at night and make a change of scene for the days.

The Christmas decorations have gone away, the last of the pine needles have been vacuumed up and the last of the mince pies, Christmas cake and turkey have been consumed.  January’s kitchen treats are going to have to be light and low calorie. 

Since we have to be careful what we eat this month, we need food that’s both low on calories but full of flavour and satisfying.  While it’s far too cold and dreary to be thinking about salads proper, a spelt (or barley) salad will bring a reminder of the summer to come, serve while the grains are still warm to keep the chill off and bring out the flavours. 

Soups too are a handy fall-back this month.  Fill up on veggie-thick, fat free soups and it won’t seem such a dreary chore.  Soups are such a lovely way to warm up on cold days.  This lovely minestrone soup can be prepared the night before working days and just re-heated with the pasta when you come home from work. 


Fish is a useful meal when we’re watching the calories too.  This lovely Venetian baked fish is really full of flavour and very satisfying, the drizzle of olive oil won’t break the diet, but you can leave it out if you prefer.

Puddings are going to have to be light too, or hard earned!  Soft fruit compotes are a handy fall-back, and lovely if you can make them with fruit frozen from last summer.  Serve them with fat free yoghurt for a guilt-free treat.  A rice pudding is a nice treat, but make it with skimmed milk rather than full fat, and cut down on the amount of butter and sugar too.

Good walks every day will blow away the cobwebs and bring some much needed daylight onto our skin.  Of course, the icy pavements, salt and antifreeze are a hazard to be aware of this month, especially for those of us with dogs.  Being towed along an icy pavement by a four legged companion intent on getting as much distance under her feet in as short a time as possible is always entertaining!  I escape danger at every turn this month.

By the end of this month the days will at last start to show the earliest signs of drawing out.  We’ll be hanging onto the last dregs of daylight by our fingernails by 5pm – but it’s a start!

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

The Twelve Leftovers of Christmas

Christmas, the season of good cheer and gluttony.  After all the hard work in the run-up to Christmas, this little housewife doesn’t believe in lifting a finger beyond defrosting, re-heating or vaguely assembling ingredients in the days between Christmas and New Year.  If she could get away with it, she would see the inside of the supermarket for the duration either! 

With a bit of forethought, planning and some advanced prepping and cooking, you can join me in my well-earned holiday.

In no particular order, here are my leftover superstars:

Bubble and squeak 

A Boxing Day tradition, this is a lovely lunch before taking off for an afternoon at the beach blowing off the cobwebs and topping-up the mermaid blood.  This requires nothing more than chopping up the leftover cooked veg from Christmas Day in a little turkey, goose or duck fat – it’s Christmas, push the boat out!

Sausage and turkey pie with sage and onion stuffing

This is a lovely way to use up some of the leftover turkey and stuffing.  True, you will need to skin the sausages and roll out the pastry, but the results will be worth this bit of effort – trust me!

Golden turkey and vegetable soup

All this beauty requires is a bit of leisurely peeling and chopping of root vegetables and then you just pop the casserole in the oven for the magic to happen.  This is a lovely welcome-home after a long cold walk.

Brussels sprouts with bacon and Stilton

This is an absolute superstar of a dish and it requires no more than peeling and slicing some sprouts, chopping up some cooked ham, forking a bit of Stilton and stirring in a pot of cheese sauce. 

I make it to use up leftovers, or as a stand-alone meal, but it would make a lovely side-dish to any meal.

Broccoli, leek and Stilton gratin

This is another simple assembly job if you have leftover cooked broccoli.  If not, 10 minutes boiling won’t be too arduous and can be done ahead of time.  It’ll be worth that bit of effort!

Turkey Tettrazini

Strictly speaking this doesn’t come under my assembly- line Christmas rules, but if you make and freeze the sauce and the pasta before Christmas then all it needs are some cleaned, sliced mushrooms and the leftover turkey stirring in.

Turkey and Ham Pie

Again, this doesn’t fit the assembly-line ethos, but you can make and freeze the sauce ahead of time to save doing it on the day.  I’d still be inclined to make the mashed potato on the day though, potato doesn’t do terribly well in the freezer.

Quiche Lorraine

Aside from rolling out the pastry, this is simplicity itself and a lovely way to use up a bit of cooked ham.  If you have some Stilton to spare, fork a bit of that in as well – it’ll be worth the sacrifice!

Chicken tortilla soup

This is such a treat at Christmas, after all the rich food this is a lovely fresh soup and makes a complete contrast, it’ll be well worth the bit of extra effort required. 

Stilton stuffed chicken breasts

This only falls under the leftover category if you have leftover Stilton, but if you do then it’s a lovely way to use some up.

Pan haggerty

This is a very calorie-laden dish, but a lovely way to use up some cooked ham – and it is Christmas after all!

Salmon Pasta Bake

Again, this is a sauce that you can make ahead of time and stash in the freezer ready for when you need it.  It’s a lovely way to use up some smoked salmon, or cooked salmon.

From my home to yours, Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

December - Advent and the start of Winter

Hello and welcome to December in all her gaudy glory!  Despite being buried in the middle of winter, December arrives like the brightest star promising festivity and colour to bring cheer to the darkest month of the year.
I love all the pretty magazines showing perfectly decorated homes with brightly lit and nicely co-ordinated Christmas trees.  My house looks like the bad taste fairy turned up and cursed us – and I wouldn’t have it any other way!  My treasure chest of assorted Christmas Tree Tat holds so many happy and precious memories; the sad looking pipe-cleaner fairy that saw better days more than twenty years ago and dates from when I was about 7 or 8 years old; the tatty tin foil poinsettia that came off a Christmas cracker in the mid-80’s that my Grandmother gave to me saying “here you are, you can put this on your tree”.  That was the last Christmas she saw and I’ve faithfully brought it out every year since, it always reminds me of her and never fails to make me smile.  There have been new ones added to the collection over the years, from various holidays we’ve had or to commemorate various events.  Holly pops has several of her own now too.

That’s the thing with Christmas, the past and present mingle as we make new memories and add new traditions to the ones we hold dear.   A current favourite at HH Towers is the Advent treat of a mid-afternoon cuppa and a mince pie, which gets upgraded to a slice of cake from Christmas Day onwards.  December is such a terribly civilised month, mid afternoon cups of tea and pretty bone china!  Last Christmas I treated myself to a Royal Albert Christmas cup, saucer and plate set, there is nothing like doing it in style!

December’s evening walks are a pure joy too, with the pretty twinkly lights brightening up the windows of the homes we pass along the way.  I love those walks most of all.

In the kitchen we're busy making the last of the goodies that will see us through to Christmas and then into the New Year.  This little housewife doesn't expect to have to lift a finger to do anything more than some foraging in the freezer, gentle re-heating or vague assembling of ingredients!  With enough forethought and careful shopping this is easily achieved and we get to have a holiday too.  The Christmas cake is being nurtured like a newborn, not quite four-hourly feeds but not far off it either!  It'll be marzipanned in the second week of the month and then iced and decorated a few days before Christmas.  Waiting to cut into that is always torture!

I can never forget the first ever Christmas cake I made, when I was aged 11 at school.  We'd carefully made our cakes and had to leave them at school to finish baking, our teacher was going to go back up later that evening to get them out (I know, what on earth was she thinking!) - she went home, fell asleep and they all burned.  We marzipanned and iced them, stuck little plastic figurines and fir trees in them - but they were burned beyond redemption.  I cried bitter tears over that cake - that was 41 years ago now, but I remember it vividly!

When I was younger (and far less wise) I used to polish and scrub the house to a sheen in the run-up to Christmas.  My kitchen floor always had a new mat too, for some obscure reason!  Those days are now long gone and I aim for a general sense of order and a good helping of Christmas cheer rather than surgical clean; a good dust and polish before the Bad Taste Fairy arrives and a lick and a polish until she comes back to restore order is plenty!

Christmas is a time to enjoy yourself, to be around the people you love and to do the things that make you happy.  Having a perfectly decorated home, enough food to feed advancing armies and enough drink to float entire navies are nice to have, but absolutely not essential and if they stress you out and take you away from spending time with your family - are they really worth doing?  Now I'm a bit older, life has beaten me around a bit and I'm a lot wiser I realise that the things that really matter at Christmas absolutely cannot be bought.  The things that matter most to me are the little routines and traditions that make me happy and remind me of happy times with people who are no longer here in body, but very much here in spirit.  All the diamonds in the world can't match the pleasure I get from digging out the old Christmas decorations and sitting down with a mince pie and a snowball while watching It's A Wonderful Life!

This year for Christmas, I wish you the most precious gift of all - happiness, peace and a lifetime of happy memories.

Monday, 14 November 2016

Sprouts and Bacon with Stilton

I came up with this lovely 'recipe' last Christmas as a way of using up the last of the Brussels sprouts and cooked ham. 

Using a tub of cheese sauce makes this a real convenience.  You could make it as a side dish to a roast dinner too - a sort of cauliflower cheese meets sprouts and bacon!  If you can find the purple sprouts as well as the green, this would make a real showstopper.

You could make the cheese sauce from scratch, or open a tub of supermarket cheese sauce - the Tesco Finest cheese sauce gets top marks from me.

Then simply slice the sprouts, chop the bacon or ham and combine with the cheese sauce, season to taste and fork in some crumbed Stilton before turning into a baking dish. Pop in a hot oven and cook until, bubbling.

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

November - Gunpowder, Treason and Plot

Remember, remember the fifth of November – gunpowder, treason and plot ....  So begins firework season.  Back in the day it was two or three days at the most, then it was a week – these days it stretches to three or four weeks meaning those of us with nervous pets spend early November under house arrest.  When I was little our neighbours used to pool together and build a big bonfire and share the fireworks among us all.  It used to be much more fun, all the adults and the children together enjoying themselves and then tucking into hot dogs and mugs of warming soup.  It all seems to be so sad these days with families holed up in their own gardens, it’s not the community celebration that it used to be.

Hopefully November will bring us the first frost and some properly chilly if not downright cold nights.  Ladies of a certain age love these cold nights, husbands not so much but that’s what spare bedrooms are for!

November is also when the serious Christmas planning kicks off with list upon list being drawn up – it’s like a military operation!  Cards, letters, gifts, broad menu planning and shopping lists form the backbone of the HH Towers Christmas

On the home front, November is probably the busiest month of my year.  The freezer gets a big clear out to make space for the Christmas baking – sausage rolls, cheese scones and the several dozen mince pies it will take to see us through Advent!  I take a ‘little and often’ approach to baking so that I’m not tied to the kitchen and sick of the sight of pastry before the month ends!  !  I usually get the pickled cabbage, onions and beetroot bottled up in November, ready to be opened at Christmas.  These days I make my Christmas cake on the last Sunday in November, Stir-Up Sunday.  I love the feeling of connectedness that comes from knowing that others are similarly occupied in their homes with their own preparations for the big day.  I like to give the homestead and good clean through in November too, so that by Christmas everything looks shipshape and shiny ready for Santa’s visit! 

Sausages in Guinness

Now that the clocks have gone back to GMT, the nights are drawing in significantly and sunshine is in very short supply.  On sunny days I still like to sit outside with a cuppa ...... and a blanket!  Our late afternoon walks are now a gloomy torchlit affair, but the welcoming glow of the lamplit windows we pass along our way makes up for it.  The welcoming glow of my own kitchen window as we return home is the best of the lot!

The best thing about November nights for me, are my cheeky night time treat of a warming mug of Ovaltine.  It takes me right back to my childhood, sitting in front of our open fire in my brushed nylon nightie and cardi (it was a 70’s thing!) with my fluffy slippers on and Dad banking the fire up to see us through the night.  Happy memories!

Cranberry Meringue Pie

Aside from the big Christmas bake off, we’re moving into casserole and stew season now - we need some serious comfort food to get us through these dark days!  We can even start thinking about steamed sponge puddings – nothing could be easier to make but they do need some time steaming on the hob.  By the end of November my favourite ingredient will be hitting the shelves – cranberries.  I just love the cheery red berries and use them in as many things as I can because they’re only available for such a short time.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

October - The Season of Mists and Mellow Fruitfulness

October is Autumn Proper; if it were a colour, it would surely be orange.  From the colour of the leaves on the trees at the beginning of the month, the piles of leaves on the ground as they drop, the golden glow of the slow sunshine off the wet ground and the lake on our morning walks and the pumpkins that mark Halloween at the end of the month, there’s no getting away from Orange.

Starting with the last dregs of summer, hanging on by its fingernails, by the end of the month it will be a dim and distant memory as the darkness and chills take over. The light 4 tog duvet will be exchanged for its 9 tog counterpart and the annual central heating battle will have begun!  The clocks will be going back to GMT at the end of the month, heralding dark evenings and, for the commuters among us, a long dreary dark homeward journey at the end of the working day.

This is when our cosy homes come into their own though.  Lamps on timers make a welcome-home glow for the weary worker, and lamplit windows against dark wet evenings always seem so cosy and comforting.  Even rainy dog walks are cheered by the return to our cosy home, despite wet and muddy towels draping the hallway radiator and muddy pawprints on the hall carpet!  I don’t think there are many things more rewarding than warming up after a cold, wet walk with a cuppa and my towel-swathed companion asleep at my side.


In the kitchen, comfort food season is on its way.  Soups are thickening and pasta bakes and risottos warm us up from the inside.  We can even begin to think about proper puddings and hot custard.  Rice pudding is a firm favourite and always reminds me of the ones my grandmother used to make.

Out in the garden, by now the spring bulbs will all have been planted and we can start tidying up and emptying out pots ready for next year.  As the leaves are falling, raking and tidying is a never ending task, especially with a dog who likes to distribute them as far and wide as she can!

Saturday, 3 September 2016

The Happy Housewife's Year : September - Summer's End and New Beginnings

Hereford 2015
I suppose it’s odd to start a new beginning in September, but I’ve always thought of September as a chance to start over.  No doubt it’s a throwback to those long ago school days, but the end of summer always seems to be a natural conclusion to the year. 

The long anticipated holiday is a thing of the past; the Summer plans made so long ago have either come to fruition or been abandoned as a lost cause and the outdoor living season is drawing to an end.  It’s time now to settle down to Autumn, make the most of the last of the sunny warm weather at home and get ready for the cooler months ahead.

In nature too, we’re in a transition.  The harvest is more or less gathered, farm, garden and on a foraging.  The summer birds and geese are preparing to take off for warmer climes as the year settles in for the quiet wind down to Winter.  The gardens too are winding down as everything retreats for the colder months.

The hot sultry days (the few that we had!) and sleepless nights of July and August are behind us, leaving us with (hopefully) pleasantly warm, sunny days and cooler nights.  The evenings will begin to draw in noticeably now – especially as we reach the equinox, meaning cosy evenings at home curled up with a book or some trashy television to entertain us.

September is the last of the foraging season for me.  The blackberries will be going over
Blackberries August 16
soon; the Old Wives advised against gathering after September 19th - no doubt, because by then they are all fly blown and maggot riddled!  They’ve been ripening since the beginning of August and I have plenty stashed in the freezer for crumble season.  I might be lucky enough to gather a good batch of cobnuts, if I can get to them before the squirrels.  The hedgerows and trees are groaning with rosehips and rowan berries for those inclined to turn their hand at jellies.  Soon the sloes will be ready for picking, although the longer they are left on the tree the better.  They are ideally an October crop but competition tends to be high among the sloe gin makers and they rarely last that long here!  According to folklore, they shouldn’t be picked until after the first frost, but a day or two in the freezer does the same job.

On the domestic front, after months of flicking a feather duster around, September usually sees a concerted attack of dusting, polishing, vacuuming into the furthest reaches and window cleaning.  The annual spider migration has much to do with this newfound interest in housework as everywhere I turn, I’m surrounded by cobwebs!  A few days’ neglect can turn the house into something Miss Faversham would recognise!   The summer duvet will be probably put away by the end of the month, the flannel sheets will put in an appearance shortly afterwards too ....... even if I have to have all the upstairs windows open again to keep me cool at night!!

Blackberry Crumble
Kitchenwise, the last of the preserving has been done until next year so we have plenty of goodies stored up to see us through the winter months.  September will probably see our last barbecue of the season, unless we have a very dry October.  The new gas Man-Aga we bought has been worth every penny.  It’s so much more convenient than the charcoal ones we’ve been used to so we’ve taken to barbecuing at every opportunity.  The Bacon Wars I’m engaged in with my lovely neighbour were ramped up when we started barbecuing gammon steaks!!  By the end of the month soup season will have begun in earnest, I love soups and could happily live exclusively on them!  I restrict myself to making one batch a week, with the leftovers being stashed in the freezer for another day.  September is also when crumble season begins; served with a swathe of cool creamy custard at the beginning of the month, we’ll be having thick hot custard by the end!

In the garden, we’ll be having a general tidy up and a session or two to plant up the winter bulbs.  Last year I decided to plant Crocus and Snowdrop bulbs directly into the lawn.  They are always such a cheerful flower and always make me smile; they were a lovely treat to see in the barren garden in March this year.  I’ll plant up another swathe this year too, hopefully in the years to come they’ll naturalise and spread to give a lovely carpet of Spring flowers.  I wish I’d done it years ago!

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Cheesy Broccoli and Rice

I can’t claim any credit for the provenance of the recipe - it’s a Delia, but I do claim the shortcuts as my own!

I love my freezer, and I love my leftovers.  I’m always stashing Ziploc bags of cooked rice, cooked pasta and tubs of cheese sauce for quick meals on lazy days.  This one was put together to use up some leftover cooked broccoli from the day before and is simplicity in itself. 

Quantities depend on how many you are cooking, I think in terms of about 1/3 cup a person. 

This is really nothing more than a simple assembly job!  Defrost a bag of cooked rice (Camargue red rice is flavour of the month here at the moment) and tip into an ovenproof dish.  Top with the cooked broccoli (par cooked would be better if you’re making this from scratch) and then with the cheese sauce.  Add a grating of cheddar and parmesan (if you have it to hand, if not good old cheddar is just as good) and then pop into the oven.  I cooked mine at 200oC (400oF/gas mark 6) for about half an hour – until the cheese is bubbling and the dish is hot right the way through.

My cheat hero ingredient! 

Delia’s original recipe is here :

Baked Chicken and Rice

This recipe is testament to the miracles that can occasionally come out of the kitchen thanks to some frantic fridge raiding and seat of the pants cooking!

I was out walking Holly one sunny Saturday morning when the call came – “cricket’s off, I’m going fishing and I’ll be back in time for tea”.  The poached egg on toast I’d been planning for my tea was never going to satisfy a non-dieting and hungry fisherman so cue some frantic mental stocktaking of the fridge and freezer contents.  It was a huge hit, so much so that I was coaxed into making it again the following week.  The first time I made it I used up some leftover frozen chicken from the freezer, but I’ve made it with fresh chicken breasts since which was almost as good.  If I’m honest, the smaller chunks of leftover roasted chicken worked better, but that’s just a personal preference.

For two people I used :
2 sticks of celery

1 medium carrot

½ a leek (or all of a very small one)

1 small carton of chestnut mushrooms (approximately two cups when chopped)

Knob of butter

¾ - 1 cup of rice – I used a mixture of Camargue red, wild and white basmati rice

About a cup or so of leftover cooked chicken, or two whole chicken breasts.

1 ½ - 2 cups of chicken stock (double the volume of the rice you used)

Finely dice the celery, leek and carrot and add to the butter in a small frying pan over a low heat.  Clean the mushrooms and chop half of them finely and add to the frying pan.  Coarsely slice the remainder of the mushrooms and add those too, together with a seasoning of ground black pepper and sweat gently for 10 – 15 minutes.

Add the rice to an ovenproof dish and make up the stock – I like Knorr stock pots best for this sort of thing.

Turn the vegetables together with their buttery juices into the dish with the rice and combine together, pour over the stock and season with salt to taste.  If you’re using leftover cooked chicken add this to the dish as well now.  If you’re using fresh chicken breasts brown them first in a little butter, season with a little salt and pepper and then add them to the dish.

Cover with foil and bake at 200oC (400oF/gas mark 6) for about an hour, until the rice is cooked and all the stock is absorbed.  If you like, you can uncover for the last 10 – 15 minutes to finish browning the chicken.

Monday, 8 February 2016

Good old Minestrone Soup

The winter storms are rolling and rolling across my increasingly sodden and wind lashed world.  In desperation, I turned to the Mediterranean for comfort, and to remind me that once there was a less harsh world!  By stroke of luck, I found a beautiful big bulb of fennel while I was grocery shopping which led to this lovely recipe.  As with all my recipes, this isn’t cast in stone – use what you have and leave out what you don’t!

For four good serves I used :

1 cup of chopped onion

1 bulb of fennel, diced

3 stalks of celery, chopped

1 large carrot, diced

½ medium swede (approximately one cup) (rutabaga)

2 finely chopped cloves of garlic

A good handful of chopped green beans (frozen works as well as fresh)

1 400g tin of Italian tomatoes

1 pint of vegetable stock (use Knorr stock pots if you can find them)

2tsp caraway seeds

Salt and pepper to taste

½ cup soup pasta (or broken macaroni, spaghetti etc)

Preparation is simple – peel and chop the onion and sauté in a little olive oil while you prepare the rest of the vegetables.  After about 10 minutes, add the garlic, fennel, celery, carrot and swede and sweat together for 10 more minutes.  Add the tin of tomatoes and the stock and give it all a good stir.  Season to taste and add the caraway seeds.  Give the soup 20 minutes simmering – until the vegetables are tender.  Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary (you might need several tastings, I did!) then add the soup pasta and cook for 10 more minutes.

Serve with lovely crusty bread, or slices of parmesan toast (toast a few slices of crusty bread, sprinkle with grated parmesan and grill until crispy and golden).

I apologise for the quality of photographs, the real ones are stuck on my SD card as my computer won’t recognise it!  I’ll update the blog post as soon as I can with the real ones!

I’d like to dedicate this recipe to my lovely Dad, who loved a good soup.  I wish I could have shared it with him.

Barefoot in Bologna

This is another one of my favourite cheat sauces.  Glorious Barefoot in Bologna, a really tasty sausage ragu.  I often use it as a sauce with good chilled ravioli or tortellini.  

You simply need to thin out the tub of ragu with a little chicken stock and season with a little salt and pepper to taste, quickly cook the pasta parcels and then arrange in a dish before adding the sauce.  Add a good snowfall of grated cheese (parmesan mixed with cheddar is my favourite) over the top before popping into a hot oven for 25-30 minutes, until the sauce is bubbling and hot through.  This is a lovely, quick after-work dinner for next to no effort.

Cheat Ingredient : Cheese Sauce

Cheating is all about knowing which corners to cut, and which packets and tins to buy.  If it’s good enough for Delia, it’s good enough for me!

This is one of my favourite cheat ingredients, and this particular brand one of the better ones.  To be truthful, I haven’t made a cheese sauce in more years than I care to remember, not since these tubs of good cheese sauce hit the shelves in the 90’s!

Cheese sauce is a particularly useful ingredient.  I always use it to top lasagne; when you’ve spent an hour making the meat sauce, making a cheese sauce can be enough to tip you over the edge!  This is the shortcut to make.  No-cook pasta sheets are another handy shortcut.  Back in the day I’d have one pan going to make the meat sauce, another cooking lasagne sheets and a third for the cheese sauce.  By the time I’d done all the washing up I often couldn’t face eating it!

Cauliflower cheese is a favourite, and with a tub of cheese sauce it’s next to no work at all.  I cook the cauliflower (and often broccoli for a bit of colour) briefly before decanting into an ovenproof dish, topping with the cheese sauce and some extra grated cheddar and finally popping it into a hot oven to finish.

A tub of cheese sauce can also make very short work of mac and cheese, especially if you have some leftover bacon or cooked ham hanging around.  Then it’s nothing more than a matter of thinning out the cheese sauce with some milk and a quick assembly job.