Getting the menus sorted

For me, time spent flicking through recipe books is nothing short of an indulgence.

Tell me we’ve got guests for dinner or lunch or a mid-morning coffee and cake session and I’ll take that as my cue to reach for the recipe books and start dreaming up the best menu to serve our guests.

Invariably I get it wrong. I’m usually way too ambitious, letting fantasy overtake the reality of my project management skills. Timing is an issue. Kitchen layout another deciding factor. As much as I’d like to think I can whip up a refreshingly zingy starter, followed by an exquisite main finishing off with a low-key but satisfying desert, I know I have to keep things as realistic as possible. If I don’t I’ll spend hours in the kitchen away from the guests. I’ll be stressed. I’ll almost certainly sweat a lot. I’ll snap at everyone. It’s just not pleasant.

That might be why me and The Significant Other have agreed that this year will be a quiet Christmas. Last year we hosted a family Christmas which although successful did take its toll on energy and enthusiasm. Admittedly this was in part down to the fact that the table we had rented for the big meal wouldn’t roll up the stairs to the newly decorated ‘den’ like we’d originally hope it would. But it is the tyrannical optimism Christmas cooking shows on TV force upon an unsuspecting audience that transforms what appears on TV as pleasurable process into nothing short of stressful catering project. It’s stressful. It’s a massive responsibility. And it’s something everyone should avoid doing at every cost.

And yet there’s something so incredibly seductive about the pictures of Nigella’s christmas parties, or the simple homelife promises of Rachel Allen’s Favourite Food. Even Delia Smith’s proud use of Times New Roman in her original Christmas cookery book is something to warm the heart and make me want to run to the kitchen. I find temptation irressistable. That’s almost certainly why we end up inviting people to come eat at Christmas even though I know when the day comes I’ll worry about what needs to be done and, at the end of it, feel like I’ve spent the entire day in the kitchen. Jeeze, cooking is a complex thing.

Yet despite that complexity, we have succumbed again and this year.

We’ll be entertaining guests on four separate occasions. Menus have been drawn up for (almost) all of them, which in turn demanded an unexpectedly yet still relatively pleasurable flick through Gary Rhodes’ Time to Eat recipe book. The last time I had that book in my hands was the day I unwrapped the gift from my parents on Christmas Day. I looked on the pictures of post-gym Gary Rhodes squeezed into an ill-thought extra-small t-shirt and remember the vague sense of unease I had appreciating the pictures in the presence of my mother. “Bloody hell, Gary Rhodes has been working out” I’d said out loud.

Two years later, I’m finally looking through the recipes and insodoing noticing how Rhodes doesn’t quite so striking – more a bit weird in that ridiculously over-small t-shirt – and how there’s quite a few quite useful things in there. Should be useful for the thing we’ve got in between Christmas and New Year. The fact I’m reminded of a previous Christmas by flicking through the book as we prepare for another Christmas occasion only serves to warm the heart. All this as the snow falls in our road before Christmas. Gosh.

So this evening it’s been a 2lb loaf tin full of Chicken Liver Pate at the same time as soaking the beef and pork mince in desert wine and brandy for Delia’s Country Pate. Then there’s the roasted peppers which, if I get it together tomorrow, will need deseeding and soaking in garlic infused olive oil. Can’t wait.

The presents have been bought. The decorations are all up. Oh, and did I mention the snow is falling? My God. It all seems too good to be true.

Christmas: Mother better eat the picalilli

Mother better eat the picalilli, originally uploaded by Thoroughly Good.

A pungent combination of white wine and malt vinegar gently simmering on the hob is producing a gaseous nightmare in the kitchen. It is, consequently, completely out of bounds on matters of health and safety. Thus, I remain in the lounge warmed by a glowing fire updating on this year’s Christmas preparations, waiting for the toxic smell to dissipate.

This is the final phase in a weekend production line which has seen the kitchen window-sill fill up with jars of marmalade, Christmas chutney, cucumber pickle and lethal chilli jam. The last part of this year’s Christmas hamper is the piccalilli.

Had I been born female, I am almost certainly someone who would have chosen to live in the country so as to be able to join the Women’s Institute. My pickles and preserves would have been the stuff of legend had been able to join the WI.

Previous years have seen me knuckle-down for the Christmas holidays indulging a slightly odd interest in candle-making. Refusing to get sucked into purchasing all of the vital equipment, I gingerly melted candle-wax and stearin in a bain-marie and poured the resulting mixture into old ramekins. The results were reasonably successful, although a search deep in the under-stairs cupboard would reveal a number of unlit candles, possibly because those I tested didn’t burn terribly well.

Following my own advice, I’ve embraced pickling and preserving in the run up to this year’s festive season.

There’s something reassuringly therapeutic about the whole process. First there’s the research – hours spent curled up on the sofa reading over recipe books or browsing the internet.

What quickly became apparent reading over Gary Rhodes’ New British Classics (the place to go for piccalilli), Delia Smith’s Cookery Course and this month’s BBC Good Food magazine was that the process of preserving in advance of Christmas is only any fun if there are some unsuspecting people to give the finished product to.

Imagine the hideous situation where your first batch of marmalade looks good in the jar but, but the first taste confirms it isn’t up to much. Then you find yourself lumbered with a cupboard of reasonably attractive looking preserve which should really have a warning label on it: Don’t Eat This.

That’s when a distribution network is vital. If you’ve made fourteen jars of the stuff at least you can experience the joy of gratitude on thirteen other people’s faces when you dish it out in the weeks before Christmas. At least that you’ve only got the one jar to get through or throw away if it doesn’t turn out to be terribly good.

With a distribution network decided upon (mine started off being quite grand but has quickly been de-scoped to feature only my parents – my sister, if she’s really lucky) there is, inevitably the need for a test-phase.

The piccalilli I spoke of earlier was tested a few weeks ago. Sadly, I failed to dry off the cauliflower and cucumber sufficiently well. Hence the two oversized jars in the fridge have vegetables sitting in a yellow sauce with a layer of water sitting on top. Believe me, they don’t look very appetising.

Still, it provided me with the opportunity to go through the process early and thus legitimately extend the Christmas preparations earlier than in previous years.

But perhaps the thing I’m most looking forward to – and perhaps what has driven this surprisingly pleasurable process over the past few weeks – is the opportunity to serve up what my own mum did when I was younger.

When I was in my teens it was my mum who would set aside two days before Christmas day to start cooking and baking like a demon, making cakes and Christmas puddings and jams and bread before placing the results of her handiwork in a festively decorated box. It was then left to me and my older to distribute the gifts amongst various lucky recipients in the village.

Both of us hated the task, partly because we weren’t necessarily the best company for one another but also because I wanted to be at home following the very full tele-viewing schedule I had drawn up using the Radio Times. Delivering food parcels to recipients in the village was not something I wanted to be doing.

Obviously, things have changed somewhat now. The growing realisation that I’ll probably never be very good with money has shifted focus. I realise now I’ll never feel comfortable aimlessly wandering around a shopping mall for hours so I can shuffle home laden with ridiculously oversized bags. I want to derive pleasure from my Christmas giving.

I’ve spent too many Christmases agonising over whether I’ve got the appropriate value present for a particular individual, worrying whether I’ve got too much or too little, or thinking about how big that credit card bill will be in the new year.

Now, as the kitchen window-sill fills up with jars of goodness for this year’s Christmas, I stand back with my arms folded and the pungent gases in the kitchen gone and feel just a little bit smug.

Next Sunday I’ll deliver a box full of stuff I’ve made for my mum. She tells me her diabetes won’t be a problem for any sweet stuff I have in mind. Apparently the drugs work really well.

And frankly, it doesn’t matter if she doesn’t like them or can’t eat it. If the jars remain unopened in a cupboard before they’re thrown away, I won’t care. It’s the process of making and giving the stuff I’m interested in. And, if she’s tasted one and realises she can’t eat them without risking a diabetic coma, she can always give them to someone else. I won’t mind.