Domestic Goddess

No-one who knows me would ever accuse me of being a “domestic goddess” – in fact, the mere idea would probably reduce my nearest and dearest to paroxysms of giggles – but I do have “moments” where the spirit of Vesta (Roman goddess of hearth and home) is prominent. I enjoy good food and wine, so I do try to produce edible meals for myself (and others on occasion) but though I can cook if I have to, I regard cooking and baking as a necessity rather than a hobby.

It’s only fair to admit that I also sometimes fail miserably, presumably in those moments when Vesta has wandered off to investigate what’s happening in the kitchen next door. The Vestal Virgins guarded her sacred flame, so I suppose one shouldn’t be surprised at burnt offerings. My granddaughters are convinced that I can only cook fish fingers – a prejudice left over from their childhood. Certainly no hankering for Granny’s cooking and baking there!

Today was one of my good days, and I’m rather sad that I had nobody here to share my delicious meal and allow me to show off my prowess.  Will I be able to reproduce it? Who knows! It was a very simple recipe. I had some fat and juices left over from a roast chicken last Thursday, that had been stuffed with butter, onion and a whole bulb of garlic, so this was already a very tasty base for my gravy. This time, I just had some chicken breasts to cook.

I seasoned them with herbes de Provence, paprika and salt, seared them in the fat, added the juices and some red wine, covered the pan and left it to simmer for half an hour or so – it might have been 40 minutes, since a friend called me in the middle of the cooking. Time isn’t so important with this kind of coq au vin. Then, just before serving I added a good dollop of crème fraiche to the jus. It was accompanied by a mixture of courgette, sweet red pepper and tomato sautéed in olive oil, also seasoned with herbes de Provence, and I had just one glass of the red wine left (a merlot from Ticino) to wash it all down.

I did invite the friend who called to come over and share it with me, as there would have been plenty for two, but she had already had her lunch. I confess not only to licking the spoon, but also the plate in the confines of my kitchen: none of that delicious gravy was going to waste today! The rest is in the freezer.

I’m not quite sure what has happened to me over the last seven or eight days: Vesta must have moved in, I think! I started last Monday by daring to go out shopping for the first time, clad in mask and gloves, and bought groceries to last me for the week. So domesticity was on my mind. Maybe Vesta slipped in then? Or do I have an orderly guardian angel?

On Tuesday, my apartment struck me as being messy so I tidied up and moved a cupboard from my living room into the hall, replacing it with a small round table that had been standing in the corner. That freed up a mirror that had been hidden behind it. It isn’t a large cupboard but the living room suddenly looked quite a lot bigger without it.

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Once it was in the hall, however, I needed to change some pictures and ornaments around … and so it went on. The cupboard displaced a set of leather suitcases containing hats, scarves, gloves etc. and these went into my bedroom. Moving furniture disturbed the spiders and revealed dusty cobwebs, so of course that meant vacuuming and dusting, so the whole living room got spring cleaned and I collapsed exhausted.

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On Wednesday, I did a thorough job on kitchen and bathroom, did three lots of washing and cleaned all the windows.

 

 

Thursday saw me busy with the hall, and thence to the bedroom, with a little more furniture changing places and more cobwebs leaping forth. Two easels and several blank canvases emerged from behind the curtains, so another incentive to get my paints out. The most time-consuming task was really to sort and tidy up all the stuff that just gets put down temporarily and becomes piles.

One wall is bookshelves, which were also crammed with stuff that had no business there, including 5 decades of correspondence and even some exercise books from my schooldays.

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These have now been archived in the basement (that’s another story!) but of course I was side tracked into reading some of the old letters and seeing myself as a thirteen-year-old reflected in the school books. Yuck!

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This explains why I never really knew much about Magellan’s voyages of discovery …

By Friday, the bedroom was finished and I rewarded myself with a nice salmon steak and spinach for lunch – in spite of another friend informing me that “you’ll never find a good restaurant putting spinach with salmon”. Really? I think they go well together.

On Saturday, I tackled the last chore, which was sorting my jewellery out. I don’t have anything of great value, but it was mostly in little boxes so I just forget what’s where and end up wearing the same all the time. I also need a good place to keep it. Now it’s neatly arranged in “caskets” where I can see everything at a glance and my necklaces are visible, strung up on my bedside lamp. Pieces I’ll never wear again are ready to be handed over to the charity shop or to my great-granddaughters to dress up in.

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After my efforts I felt justified in relaxing on Sunday, feeling very happy and comfortable in my neat-as-a-pin home, and grateful to the Lord for motivating me and giving me all the energy I needed. Perhaps I should also add: thank you, Vesta, for helping me become a real Swiss housewife!

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Eating English

All home-grown local produce at David Austin Roses, Albrighton nr. Wolverhampton. Wholesome and delicious!

Gault Millau has awarded high scores to a fair number of restaurants within dining distance of my home here in Switzerland (some even within walking distance), and the new edition (2020) of their guide continues to affirm that – apart from finding the cash – there is no reason for me to worry about being disappointed when I’m eating out locally. https://www.tagblatt.ch/ostschweiz/gault-millaudas-sind-die-besten-restaurants-in-der-ostschweiz-ld.1157563

It’s a different matter when it comes to eating out in England, which can be very hit-and-miss. My recent trip to old and new haunts involved many meals out, from pubs to country inns and posh restaurants via a catering college, and I surprised my hosts and guests by privileging traditional dishes or those only found in the UK. On the whole, I was impressed by the quality of the food.

I wanted fish and chips, steak and ale pie (with Stilton cheese in it), a cream tea with real clotted cream, sticky toffee pudding and banoffee pie. With proper custard, not vanilla sauce. Okay, that’s a lot of calories and more than enough carbs, but with attention to the rest of my diet, I managed to include all of the above plus a very copious mixed grill (including black pudding), roast beef with Yorkshire pudding, and a gorgeous lamb shank in my various outings without actually adding any more pounds to my (admittedly) already overweight frame. A tasty high tea – with pork pie, English cheeses and sausage rolls among other things – provided by a food loving cousin ticked many of my boxes!

I had, in fact, made a list of such delicacies, just for fun – it started with a decent cuppa and a nice G&T, but I had forgotten how trendy gin has become, so was slightly fazed when asked “What kind of gin would you like?” and saw the rainbow assortment on the shelf behind the bar. I’m an old fashioned girl: good old Gordon’s or Beefeater is fine by me – I want my gin to taste of gin and not of rhubarb, lavender or liquorice, no matter how much I enjoy those flavours by themselves.

There were some foods I had completely forgotten about that were an unexpected delight – malt loaf and Coronation chicken with a jacket potato spring to mind – and then I discovered some that were new to me, but which were delicious.

The first of these was the dessert served at the aforesaid catering college in Stafford. It was the first day for the new intake of students, who stood stiffly to attention in a well-scrubbed, shiny-faced line backed up against the counter looking as if they were facing a firing squad. Could they possibly be over 15? Some of them, including the minute maiden who served us, didn’t look more than ten or twelve. We were a party of three, alone in the large dining room, and outnumbered four to one by the potential staff, so we should have been the ones who were intimidated!

The starter and main course were good, but the dessert was delicious: a lemon posset with sugared almond shortbread. None of us knew what a posset was, but were very pleasantly surprised and even happier when the “manageress” gave me the recipe (from BBC Good Food). It’s a very light lemon cream, sweet but tart, and the shortbread was melt-in-the-mouth. Well done, you rookie cooks! https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/3090678/lemon-posset-with-sugaredalmond-shortbread)

The second was a traditional local speciality from North Staffordshire, and I am totally flummoxed as to why I didn’t know it, and why it hasn’t become more wide-spread. Scottish oatcakes are famous, but Stoke oatcakes are an entirely different entity.

Traditionally made at home and sold from the windows of small terraced houses directly onto the street in the Potteries town of Stoke-on-Trent, they look like a thin pancake or crêpe with a savoury filling – mine had mushrooms, tomatoes, cheese and bacon. Nowadays, that tradition has died out (the sad march of progress) but I enjoyed my very first Stoke oatcake at the eatery in Trentham Gardens, so a beautiful setting as well as a very satisfying lunch. The recipe and some of the history can be found here and these definitely deserve to be better known. https://www.instructables.com/id/North-Staffordshire-Oatcakes/

And oh yes, just for those who are unfamiliar with the history of sticky toffee pudding and banoffee pie, which appear on the dessert menus of virtually every pub in the country (and can vary from divine to nauseating, so be warned!), here is some interesting information.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sticky_toffee_pudding and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banoffee_pie

If you want to try them yourself, follow one of the good TV cooks’ recipes such as Mary Berry, James Martin or Nigella Lawson – and don’t overdo the sugar!

Ding-Dong Merrily Mince Pie

There’s snow on the ground, and the mountains are dazzling in the bright sunshine, with a deep blue sky behind them. Yesterday was St Nicholas’ day, my little wooden nativity and angels inherited from Mom are up, and the Advent candles are all ready. What’s missing? Seasonal fare.

IMG_1960The supermarkets are full of Germanic Weihnachtsgebäck and Stollen, and my granddaughters are baking their own, but I’m on a high fat/low carb/low sugar diet. Supposed to be. I have resisted making or buying any gingerbread, cakes or biscuits and am feeling fairly virtuous.

However, nostalgia urges me to produce something British for Christmas. I didn’t feel up to making a rich Christmas fruit cake this year, and as I’m the only member of the family who enjoys Christmas pudding there seems little point in running around trying to get suet outside of the UK. The absence of suet here also led me to think that I wouldn’t be getting any mince pies, either, although the family do share my love of those calorie bombs and if I could make some, they would happily eat them. But like suet, ready-made mincemeat is not generally available here.

Then – Mary Berry to the rescue! She has an online recipe for mincemeat made with butter, and indeed, goes so far as to say that she (the queen of baking) actually prefers the taste of butter, and then adds: “I no longer use cellophane tops or wax paper. I simply use clean sterilised screw-top jars saved from bought marmalade or jam.”

For some reason, although we can get dried cranberries and several kinds of raisins and sultanas, here in Switzerland currants are not so current and we have to go to the health food store for those. I couldn’t find muscovado sugar, either – but does it really make such a difference? I spent a small fortune on all the other ingredients, and a very happy half hour mixing it up and making it nice, then pop went the weasel into the jam jars that had fortuitously avoided being recycled.

I’ve made mincemeat before, many years ago, to an old recipe that I believe is at least 100 years old dating from the days when you had to stone the raisins and chop the suet yourself. It also has orange marmalade in it. As I recall, it involved putting the jars of mincemeat in a slow oven to ensure it wouldn’t go mouldy. Mary Berry’s version is made in a large saucepan and simmered for 10 minutes, which she maintains is adequate to prevent any deterioration. I’m not quite sure about that, so mine is being kept in the fridge.

My idea was to make a few mince pies for a potluck Christmas party coming up, and some more for our family Christmas Day, and maybe give a jar or two away as presents. However, the quantities in Mary’s recipe only stretched to three jars, and of course I have to sample my product before thrusting it upon the world at large.

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NOTE that I deliberately abstained from adding a dusting of castor sugar!

Personally, I prefer shortcrust pastry for my mince pies because puff pastry leaves little room for the filling, as it tends to ooze out as the pastry puffs up: I can squeeze more into a shortcrust pastry case. Unfortunately, while I could always produce melt-in-the-mouth pastry in England, here in Switzerland the flour is less refined (or something) and the pastry turns out heavier. So I cheated and bought some readymade puff pastry from the supermarket, and made a dozen pies. They looked good, but I had to make sure they also tasted right. Yes, though they could have done with a more generous filling. I had to eat nine of them to be sure my mincemeat was OK. So much for my low carb/low sugar diet.

Tomorrow, I’ll make another batch of mincemeat so I can give some away.
Thank you, Mary Berry! (How do you stay so slim?)

 

A Trip To The Village

Very seldom nowadays do I actually sit down and write a letter or card. Even birthday greetings are despatched digitally in most cases. However, yesterday I wrote to an old friend who disdains e-mails. I addressed the envelope and affixed two stamps, to make sure the postage was sufficient, placed my letter inside the envelope and sealed it. I then placed it on the shoe cupboard by my front door together with my mittens to make sure I wouldn’t forget it.

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Today, I put the letter in my coat pocket and set off for the post office. On the way, as I was negotiating some steps, I was hampered by my hair falling in my eyes when I looked down, so I decided to pop into my hairdresser’s and get her to cut me a porthole in my fringe. This “pop” developed into a brief social visit, and as I left her salon and was passing the grocery store next door, it occurred to me that I needed to replace the milk that had turned out to be sour at breakfast this morning.

So into the little supermarket I went, remembering in my tour of the shelves that I also needed butter, eggs, mayonnaise and some fruit. I had to hunt for the mayonnaise, which drove the butter out of my mind, but I did get milk, eggs, mayonnaise, apples and pears so four out of five – that wasn’t too bad.

Next door to the grocer’s is the butcher’s.  Aha, my grandson-in-law is celebrating his birthday next week, and I know he likes this butcher’s homemade smoked venison sausage called Salsa. Salsiz is a kind of Swiss salami-type sausage, a speciality of the region where I live (Graubünden), and is listed in the database Culinary Heritage of Switzerland. 

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Photo from Wikipedia

Switzerland may be small, but my grandson-in-law lives in the canton of Thurgau more than 100 km away, separated from me by mountains and lakes, in a canton where they don’t make Salsiz. Six delicious Hirschsalsiz, please – and I can tick his birthday present off my list. A lovely local red wine – maybe a Bündner Herrschaften – will go well with that. Perhaps one of our local mountain cheeses, too? GIL will be very happy, and there should be enough Salsiz to share one with his children.

My little shopping bag is getting heavy, so I decide to leave the wine and cheese till tomorrow since the shop I want to get it from is on the other side of the village. My feet turn towards home, and I am ready for a nice cup of tea when I get in. Shoes off, hang coat up, unpack, kettle on, tea in pot – ah, that’s good. Sit down with my cuppa and – hang on, wasn’t I supposed to be going to the post office? What for? Oh dear. The letter is still in my pocket!

Ad Hoc Lemon Chicken Casserole

IMG_0364Once again, Sunday lunch crept up on me unawares. That is, I had stuff in the deep freeze and fridge but no carefully thought out “this goes with that” according to a planned schedule of recipes as recommended by guides to being a good housewife. So my preparation today was more like speed dating than matchmaking.

Chicken, that good old standby, goes with almost anything and I always have some chicken breasts for the days where I feel uninspired. There were also four mushrooms looking rather pathetic in the middle of the fridge, with beetroot, celery, broccoli, a red pepper, carrots and parsnips lurking in the veggie drawer. Fresh herbs remaining on the shelf are parsley, mint, rosemary and basil.

On the kitchen counter a dish with lemons and tangerines has been providing a decorative splash of colour for a couple of weeks, and I realised that their skins were beginning to harden. Alert: use-by date probably yesterday! There are innumerable appetising recipes for lemon chicken, mostly with chicken thighs, but as usual I ended up combining several to accommodate my ingredients. The mushrooms, beetroot and parsnips are still in the fridge, ready for another day’s dinner.

Someone recently was advertising an app for students wanting simple recipes, where you enter a list of ingredients and up pop delicious dishes. That seems unnecessary to me – Google or Jeeves will do the same and a bit of imagination can make it an individual speciality.

Our Sunday lunch was very tasty, and probably provided us with enough vitamin C to protect us against colds all through the winter. In fact, it was probably also quite low in calories, too, an additional bonus. And finally, like all casseroles and stews, washing up is kept to a minimum.

Lemon Chicken Casserole

  • 2 chicken breasts, split through the middle into butterflies
  • 1 red pepper
  • 1 carrot
  • 2 large potatoes
  • 1 stick celery
  • 3 lemons
  • leaves of 2 sticks of rosemary
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 2-3 tablespoons honey
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • salt and pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 200°C/ gas mark 6. Mix the juice of 2 lemons with the honey, oil, butter, rosemary, crushed garlic, salt and pepper, and heat to a fragrant-smelling sauce – I did this in the microwave, to save washing up a saucepan. You could also use the zest of the lemons and probably add a dollop of mustard and soy sauce. I suppose you could also add a chicken stock cube or thicken the sauce with flour. I didn’t so I don’t know if this would improve it or not.

Place the chicken pieces flat on the bottom of a roasting tin or casserole dish and pour the sauce over. Cut the 3rd lemon into 8 wedges, and place evenly around the chicken. Dice the potatoes and vegetables and add to the chicken.

Cook for at least 50 minutes until the potatoes are cooked. This casserole can actually stay happily in the oven as long as you like: mine was there for almost 2 hours. I added a few broccoli florets at the end (quickly cooked in the microwave) for extra colour, flavour and vitamins.

My only problem with this dish was finding a wine to go with the strong lemon taste. Or rather, no problem: just no wine!

Celtic Cakes

Apple trees have rewarded their owners this year with a very rich crop, so I was pleased when my cousin turned up laden like a packhorse with a heavy bag on either side, full of pickings from her trees. Nobody knows any more what variety these are, but they make very tasty baked apples, apple pies and crumbles. There were also two enormous spherical courgettes, most welcome additions.IMG_0241

I peeled, cored and sliced for a good half hour and produced enough stewed apple to make a pie, a crumble and fill a plastic container for the freezer. Being in a domestic goddess mood, I made extra crumble mixture, intending to store the surplus in a jar in the fridge until it was needed, but my good intentions were thwarted by a post on Facebook from Wales for Welsh cakes.

My crumble mixture included porridge oats and ground almonds, which are not in the original authentic Welsh cakes mix, and my mother suggested adding a drop of rum – I suppose whiskey would be more fitting for the Scottish accent, but rum goes with the dried fruit. Quantities aren’t precise. You can vary the proportion of oats and nuts, as long as you keep approximately double the amount of flour mixture to fat. I also have a heavy hand with the spices, adding extra cinnamon and nutmeg, but that isn’t to everyone’s taste.

These would originally have been made like drop scones on a griddle, and if you have one you can have fun making these. If unexpected guests turn up, especially if they have children to lend a hand, and you have no cake to offer you could whip up a pan full in no time. Keep them small, and they cook very quickly in a heavy-bottomed frying pan, but you do need an eagle eye to ensure they are turned over before they burn. If you are using a non-stick pan, the butter isn’t really necessary but it does enhance the flavour.

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When they are ready (crispy on the outside, a bit soft in the middle, but do make sure they are cooked through) let them cool. They should keep for about a week in an airtight tin, but that is only hearsay: ours barely survived cooling, and indeed more than one was eaten still warm.

Welsh cakes with a Scottish accent

4 oz (125 g) margarine or butter
4 (125 g) oz SR flour
2 (60 g) oz porridge oats
2 (60 g)oz ground almonds
3 (100 g) oz sugar
2 (60 g) oz raisins (or any other dried fruit)
tsp mixed spice
1 egg
I tsp rum
pinch salt
little milk to bind if necessary

Mix flour, oats, sugar and nuts and rub fat in to make a crumble mixture,
Mix in currants and add egg and rum. Mix to a soft dough – consistency of short crust pastry – adding a splash of milk if it’s too dry.
Roll out to about ½ “ thick, cut into rounds with a pastry cutter and cook in a heavy-bottomed frying pan with a little butter (not too hot – don’t let them burn!) until golden brown and cooked through. About 3 minutes each side. Allow to cool on a wire grid and store in an airtight container.

Salmon with Blueberry and Ginger Glaze

This was our Sunday lunch, with runner beans and pea beans straight from our neighbor’s allotment, carrots and potatoes. Definitely one that will be repeated, and I love the fact that this recipe doesn’t specify quantities: just a couple of handfuls of blueberries, as much or as little fresh ginger as you like, and a dollop of honey. Taste as you add, and the final article stays true to itself. Easy and delicious, and one to impress guests.

The Truly Educated Never Graduate

I promise, this recipe is not as fancy as it sounds. You may be asking, “What made you pair blueberries with salmon?” Well, like most females, during the summer I start to think, “You know, I should work out more. And I should eat healthy foods too!” If you go online and start skimming the various websites on healthy foods and diets, you almost always see salmon and blueberries on the list of foods you should be eating at all times. I’d used berries in glazes before. I knew salmon paired well with ginger and ginger paired well with blueberries. And while the transitivity property of food does not always apply, I decided to give it a shot. [For those who don’t know what I mean by the transitivity property, it’s basically “if X goes with Y and if Y goes with Z then X goes with Z.” Doesn’t usually…

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Lamb Shanks Abroad

My son-in-law has pointed out that a lamb shank goes under the truly fanciful name of souris d’agneau in French: rather a large mouse, I must say, but Wikipedia tells me it’s because of the oval shape of the meat around the tibia.  I suppose the bone sticking out represents the tail.

I already knew that it bears the vaguely aristocratic name of Haxen von Lamm in German – for those unfamiliar with this language, names with a “von” in the middle indicate the higher ranks of society – or the more humble term Lammschenkel. This led me to google the cut in other languages, and to my delight I found the wonderfully unappetising stinco d’agnello in ItalianLam skank (Danish) and lamschenkel (Dutch) bridge the gap between English and German. It’s a cordero in Spanish and a ramushanku in Japanese – a clear attempt at reproducing the English name with a Japanese accent that has inadvertently turned the lamb into a ram. None of these can compete  with the French though: what a poet that butcher must have been who first thought to compare a lamb’s leg to a mouse.

Happy Eastertide

 

Image1321Owing to a slight error of communication we are sharing one lamb shank between two this happy Easter Sunday. It’s a suspiciously large one; “lamb” is defined as a sheep under 12 months of age that does not yet have any permanent incisor teeth. Since all I have is the lower thigh of this particular animal, I can’t check its teeth, but I hope it will prove to have enough tender meat between the outside fat and the inside bone to feed us both. To be on the safe side, I wrapped it in foil with plenty of vegetables – carrot, parsnip, courgette, tomato, garlic – well seasoned with herbes de Provence and extra thyme and rosemary, and it cooked very slowly in its juices with a swig of white wine and some olive oil.

It crossed my mind that if sheep had legs like humans, the cut below the knee would be a lamb’s calf – now that could lead to some confusion.

Celebrity chefs have their recipes for this, all with slight variations that they claim will make the finished dish especially tasty, and I had intended to marinate our little leg – or ankle – in wine overnight, but forgot. Not to worry: that leaves us all the more wine to drink. It is accompanied by mint sauce of course, since we are in England, and at my mother’s request a very large dollop of onion sauce and some roast potatoes.

Thisl sounds very nice, as does Jamie Oliver’s version. I’ve said it before: I can’t follow recipes, I always do something that isn’t in the instructions, or leave something out, and most of the time it works out OK. And this certainly was good!

Lamb is traditional on Easter Sunday because of the association with Jesus Christ as the sacrificial lamb that takes away the sins of the world, the Paschal or Passover Lamb. A few years ago, the church of which I am a member organised a Seder meal on Good Friday, with detailed explanations of each item in the Jewish tradition, and including aspects from the New Testament fulfilling the Old. It was an extremely moving experience, and well worth repeating, though too complicated to go into here. However, it has made me reflect on our traditional ways of celebrating Easter, which is retreating more and more into the pagan festival of Eostre/Ishtar, especially in the multicultural UK.

I have eaten my portion of Easter lamb, and am now turning my attention to a chocolate egg and a bunny, symbols respectively of new life and fertility. Happy Easter, everyone

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