Saturday, 30 December 2017

Cranberry sauce with Chianti and Aperol

cranberry sauce for Christmas

Our kitchen smells wonderfully festive - of cinnamon, cloves and  orange zest - as the cranberry sauce is cooling in a jar for tomorrow's dinner. We have invited friends over to celebrate the new year's eve with us.

In Italy we had a traditional local Christmas meal, with a pasta dish for starter, and the main which included lentils as one of the side dishes for good luck... It was a lovely meal, but later in the evening as I was looking at the photos of Christmas meals posted on Instagram, I was moaning to myself (an ungrateful creature that I am) that I wanted all those delicious roast potatoes, pigs in blankets, cranberry sauce, red cabbage and even brussels sprouts. I didn't miss a Christmas pudding or cake, I think the Italian cakes are superior.
We brought Christmas crackers with us though, as Eddie loves paper crowns and silly jokes.

So, tomorrow I am cooking the whole caboodle, with a turkey crown, a ham in marmalade, roast potatoes, carrots with parsnips, brussels sprouts with chestnuts, pigs in blankets, stuffing etc. Our guests will bring the dessert.
I don't know if Italians eat cranberry sauce. In over 20 years of visiting Italy, I have never come across any cranberry sauce there. Typically we have a mostarda di frutta with a roast or cold meats, which is a beautiful condiment of jewel-like preserved fruit in mustard. It looks gorgeous but has an acquired taste. I can only ever manage a little bit, as it is pretty hot.

I love cranberry sauce, it is fab to jazz up a cheese sandwich, or cold meat cuts.

I have tried cooking it with different types of alcohol - port, white wine and red wine (see my old post for cranberry sauce with white wine). This time I fancied trying a little bit different, and used both Chianti and Aperol.

best cranberry sauce

Cranberry sauce with Chianti and Aperol
300g fresh cranberries
juice (100ml) and zest of 1 large orange
a 1/3tsp ground cloves
a cinnamon stick
50ml Chianti
50ml Aperol

Place the cranberries in a pan with red wine wine, caster sugar, orange juice and zest, ground cloves (on a tip of a knife) and a cinnamon stick, bring to the boil. Lower the heat, add Aperol. Simmer gently for 10 minutes, remove from the heat and spoon in a sterilised Kilner jar. Once cooled, put the jar in the fridge.
This sauce will keep in the fridge for a week.

If you don't have Chianti or Aperol, use port, or white wine. I think sloe gin might be a lovely alternative too.

best cranberry sauce

There is a big variety of ready-made cranberry preserves of all kinds on the run to Christmas, but making your own cranberry sauce is easy-peasy and the aroma wafting from the kitchen is delightful.
If you make your own cranberry sauce, do you add any alcohol (and which one)?

best cranberry sauce, festive spices, Christmas menu

Friday, 29 December 2017

The keeper of lost things by Ruth Hogan

Just a few days before Christmas I was telling my friend, that I should stop buying paperbacks, at least for a while, as in the last year I bought well over 50 paperbacks, and hardly read any of them. I should stop looking at the tempting emails from The Book People and avoid book aisles in Sainsbury's where you can find such fabulous bargains.
And then what did I do? I popped into The Works shop which has opened a couple of weeks ago in town, and bought three paperbacks for a fiver. I could have bought many more though, as there were lots of thrillers, history books and cook books which called to me "Buy me, buy me, you know you want to..."
Yes, my name is Galina, and I am a bookaholic. Not sure I want to be cured though.
Cured or not cured, I really need to cull my shopping habits. So, my resolution for January is not to buy a single book. Until I read at least five paperbacks and take them to the charity shop, I am forbidden even to look at new books.

The Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan was one of the three books I bought at The Works. It was on my to-read list for a while, as I remember reading very positive reviews. The endorsements on the cover call it charming, exquisite and wonderful.

I picked it to take with me to Italy, to read on the flight, hoping to get distracted a little bit from panic (I hate flying).

I enjoyed the story of the keeper of lost things - Anthony Peardrew - who couldn't resist picking up random objects people lost, labelling them and inventing a story behind each item.
Years ago, he has lost his fiancee Therese who unexpectedly died of a heart attack. He also lost a keepsake from her, for which he couldn't forgive himself.
Rescuing lost objects becomes an addiction. He tries to find their rightful owners, though unsuccessfully. In the meantime, his stories get published, and his collection of lost things is spiraling out of control.
His stories are mostly sad and miserable, and at times bordering on bitchy: in a green hair bobble story he talks of "a school full of chip-fed, benefits-bred kids, most of whom already believed that the world owed them a council flat, a baby and the latest pair of Nike trainers". Meaw.

When he understands that he is running out of time, he leaves his house and all its treasures and tat to his secretary/assistant Laura. He also leaves her a task to try to reunite the lost objects with their owners (a bit cheeky, if you think, since he didn't manage to return a single thing).
His treasures range from mildly meaningful objects like a single glove to outright tat like a piece of puzzle, or a hair bobble with plastic flowers.

While eccentric Anthony appears to be an endearing, if a bit doolally gentleman, Laura is one of those people who have no purpose in life.
She married young to a jerk, divorced him, but never managed to move on. She is insipid and lifeless.
The inheritance spurs her to do something different with her life.

With the help of the dishy gardener Freddy she starts writing a website The keeper of lost things.
And then there's Sunshine, a girl next door with a Down's Syndrome, who decides to befriend sad Laura. Sunshine's parents seem to be happy for someone else to keep her company all day. At first Laura tries to avoid this very intense friendship, and who wouldn't?!
Sunshine comes to visit Laura every day, and though she knows that Laura hides from her, she still insists on coming. Sunshine is psychic, but is lacking social skills.

Then there is a parallel love story of Eunice and her boss Bomber, their pet dogs and an abysmal sister Portia. Portia is the caricature, a Cruella de Vil, with literary aspirations, who writes fan-fic, and doesn't have a single redeeming feature.
The story line of Eunice and Bomber will eventually be entwined with the main protagonist's quest. They would make a perfect couple, who understand each other and share love of movies, dogs and pastries, but their union is purely platonic.
Eunice's unrequited love is another story of loss and grief.

The story is charming, with an old-fashioned feel to it, and rightly appeals to the readers of The Lady magazine. It is also sentimental and slightly contrived in parts, when all the story lines conveniently come to a neat ending. I disliked the supernatural element of the story, with the sullen ghost of Therese locking doors and playing music non-stop.

I wanted to love this book, I truly did. In a way, I enjoyed it, as it was different.

Have you read The Keeper of Lost Things?

Top ten recipe posts of 2017

2017 was a difficult year for us as a family, with lots of ups and downs, actually more downs than ups. Blogging was less of a priority for me than before.

We're just back from a week of holidays in Italy. While it is wonderful to spend time with my in-laws, the holidays always turn out to be more work than rest, as for our elder son any break from the routine is bordering on a catastrophe. Every time we go abroad, I tell my husband that it was the last time we've travelled together, but somehow he managed to talk me into going to Italy again.

At the end of the year I usually look at the stats for my posts written through the year, to see which posts have been the most popular ones. Typically, my food and drink, book and toy reviews do quite well, with Mini Stretch Scooby toy review taking the laurels of the most popular non-food review post.
Writing a food-inspired blog, I'm curious to find out which of my recipe posts got the most interest.
And so here are my top ten most popular recipe posts of 2017:

No.10 Grilled courgette and Scamorza salad is a vegetarian recipe for cheese lovers. Since discovering the Italian smoked scamorza cheese earlier this year, I've been buying it quite regularly.

vegetarian salad, healthy meals

No.9 Oreo Cheesecake
I had to laugh, reading a thread on Mumsnet some time before Christmas, where many MN-ers were bashing the Oreo cookies, calling them the spawn of the devil. As you might know, we do love Oreos here. This Oreo cheesecake didn't last long.

bakes with Oreos, recipes with Oreos

No.8 - Strawberry Cake was the result of trying to do a spring clean in the kitchen, and getting rid of odds and ends, including half a box of cake mix and remains of a strawberry jam.
Strangely enough, it sneaked its way into top ten recipe posts.

cake mix recipes, delicious cake

No.7: Asparagus, kale & Dolcelatte pasta is a healthy vegetarian dinner. The recipe is very easy, and my mind boggles as to why it made it into top 10.

healthy vegetarian pasta recipe

No.6 Boiled Fruit Cake which is made with fruit soaked in strong tea. It is a twist on a classic boiled fruit cake recipe.

fruit cake, cake for tea, cakes made with tea

Ferrero Rocher brownie bites which are a very satisfying chocolatey treat.

best brownies

No.4 Banana oat cookies are quick and easy to make, and are lovely with tea of coffee.

what to do with an overripe banana

Getting to top three:

No.3 I give you Oreo Brownies, and very lush they were too. Eat your heart our, Oreo haters! :)

bakes with Oreos, best brownie recipe

No.2 Beef biltong stew for Mr Matekoni was inspired by the 17th book in the much loved series No.1 Ladies Detective Agency by A.McCall Smith. 

Mma Ramotswe's recipes, beef stew

And no.1 - Italian Meatballs with Mozzarella. This recipe is a proper comfort food, perfect for cold winter dinners.

comfort food, winter recipes

So, looking at the stats: the cakes win overall with 3 recipes, plus 2 brownie recipes reached the top ten. Clearly sweet recipes do not lose their popularity. From savoury: 2 vegetarian recipes and two recipes for meat eaters, now the latter was a big surprise for me.

Wishing you all a happy new year!
Thank you for reading my blog, hoping you will be back for more recipes and reviews in 2018!

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Snowball fights and bread'n'butter pudding

The snow was supposed to arrive over two weeks ago, but the British forecast is not always reliable, so when I read the snow was due the next day, I thought Yeah, yeah, of course... But for once the forecast was correct, and the snow did come. I went to the kitchen in the middle of the night to get a glass of water, and realised the ground was covered with white. It kept falling down in fluffy snowflakes.
Eddie was ecstatic. He's been talking about building a snowman for the last couple of winters, alas, we didn't have enough snow to build even a snow mouse. Off he skedaddled in the garden to play in the snow. He had convinced his Dad to join him, and even Sasha decided to get out for 15 minutes, but then sensibly went back home, into the warmth and comfort.

Our garden was transformed, painted white.

My guys were playing in the snow, I watched them from the kitchen and smiled, making bread and butter pudding. I don't often cook it, but it's a great comfort food, especially after running in the cold.

All the quantities are approximate. I used about 6 slices of Warburton's Medium sliced bread (bigger size pack).

Remove crusts from the bread, and butter on one side, then cut into triangles.
Place them, overlapping each other, in a buttered baking tray, and scatter raisins, dried cranberries and chocolate buttons. Cover with more buttered slices.

I used Planters Fruity Chocolate crunch mix (omitting peanuts) from the last DEgustabox, but just raisins and/or chocolate buttons will be fine too.

In a medium sized mixing bowl beat together 2 eggs with 100g caster sugar, 100ml single cream.
Pour the batter over the bread and let the mix soak for at least half an hour.
Put the baking dish in the oven preheated to 180C. Bake for about 35-40 minutes.
Sprinkle with the icing sugar. Serve hot. If you have some single cream, it's even better.

comfort food

winter recipes

I'm not sure if I might have a chance to write before Christmas, and think of having a blogging break.
Wishing you all a merry Christmas!

Monday, 11 December 2017

Ravensburger Perplexing Puzzles no.9 - Retro Revelry 1000-pc jigsaw puzzle

Christmas gifts

For a jigsaw puzzle fan no Christmas would be complete without a new puzzle. If anyone can make a flawless jigsaw puzzle - it's Ravensburger. In the past years I have enjoyed many a Christmas-themed puzzle - see my reviews for Santa's Christmas Party or The Christmas Cupboard.
This year, when offered a selection of puzzles for a pre-Christmas reviewing, I couldn't resist going for a different range - Perplexing Puzzles - which has all sorts of themes going on, from Cooking Up a Feast to Haberdashery, from Crafty Yarns to Glittering Gemstones... Each one is a joy to assemble.

Perplexing Puzzles Retro Revelry is the 9th in the series. What I loved about it is that it is a trip down the memory lane. I was a child in the 1970s, but remember quite well the psychedelic colourful kitsch interiors and patterned designs of the time.

best jigsaw puzzles

The nostalgic photo taken by Devon-based photographer Greg Shepherd is the homage to the 1970s wild parties, with lots of booze and cheese and pineapple snacks on toothpicks. Incidentally I recently served this vintage party appetizer to our guests, and we were all reminiscing about what we ate in those days.

The photo shows a vintage cocktail bar, genuine 70s style wallpaper, a pineapple ice bucket and a fabulous design chair...
There is the sun burst clock - now very retro and collectible...

There are soda syphons, a home bar, from where cocktails of all colours were served.

This high quality 1000 piece cardboard jigsaw puzzle measures 50x70cm when finished. It is suitable for ages 12+ and is made of strong premium grade cardboard with linen finish to minismise flare.

I've been working on this puzzle last month, watching Alias Grace on Netflix, when kids were at school. This is most likely my last jigsaw puzzle of the year. There is just a week left until school holidays start, and then I won't have any me-time to relax.

This colourful puzzle will make a great gift for any jigsaw puzzle fan - for Christmas or any other occasion.

Disclosure: I received this puzzle for the purposes of reviewing. All opinions are my own.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Butternut squash and feta salad

vegetarian salads

Whenever these days I ask what he would like for dinner, my husband is requesting something meat-free. Fine with me, I am happy to oblige, though it does mean an advance planning. I find it easier to cook dinner with meat or fish, unless it's a soup or a salad.
I don't have many purely vegetarian cook books in my collection, as I prefer to buy books on either baking, or on national cuisines (and avidly avoid any celebrities from outside the culinary world like Pippa & co).

One of the books which caught my attention is "More from the accidental vegetarian" by Simon Rimmer. It was on offer from The Book People a while ago. I confess I didn't quite know who he was, until I bought the book. I've never watched Something for the Weekend.
It is an inspiring book, full of delicious recipes. I like Simon's attitude, he doesn't evangelise vegetarianism, he just offers a selection of tasty recipes which happen to be vegetarian.
Not sure why there is a chapter on desserts. Most desserts are vegetarian by nature (meat and fish-free) anyway. Not many of us cook puddings with lard or suet these days, so unless specified I would presume a dessert to be a vegetarian dish (even jellies these days are made with vegetarian gelatine).

One of the recipes I bookmarked was for a pumpkin salad with cheese. I didn't have any fresh pumpkin or Yorkshire fettle cheese, so had to improvise.
Butternut squash is a good substitute for pumpkin, and feta is another staple for salads which is easily available.

Butternut squash and feta salad
a packet of butternut squash wedges (385g)
3tbsp olive oil for roasting + 2tbsp for dressing
125g feta cheese, cubed
about 3tbso pine nuts, toasted
a handful of rocket and spinach salad
a handful of olives (I used feta-stuffed olives)
3 radishes, thinly sliced
100g peas, cooked from frozen
Fennel and garlic crostini (optional)
1tbsp maple syrup
2tbsp olive oil
1tbsp cider vinegar
1tbsp fresh lime juice
1tbsp fresh parsley, chopped

Cube the butternut squash wedges and place them on a big baking tray. Drizzle olive oil over them and season with sea salt. Shake the tray so that the cubes are coated with oil evenly. Bake at 180C for about 20+ minutes until the squash is soft, but still holds its shape.
Roast the pine nuts for 5 minutes on a separate tray.
Cook peas in boiling water for about 3-4 minutes, then drain.
Assemble the salad: first put the salad leaves, then add the squash cubes, feta cheese, olives, radishes, peas and scatter pine nuts over. Add crostini or croutons if you like.
Make the dressing and drizzle over the salad.

vegetarian salad recipe

In this recipe I used Filippo Berio Fennel & Garlic Crostini, baked with extra virgin olive oil, which were delivered in the latest food box from Degustabox. The crostini are crunchy and flavourful, and will work well in a variety of salads or soups.
You can obviously swap them for any croutons you have, bought or homemade, or skip altogether, if you count calories or are on a gluten-free diet.

vegetarian recipe

Last Christmas I won a huge hamper of Filippo Berio goodies, including several jars of olives. I just realised that I still had a jar of olives stuffed with feta at the back of the larder shelf, and it nearly expired.
For this reason - clearing the kitchen and using nearly expired olives + the end of the pine nuts' bag - I am adding this recipe to #KitchenClearout linky run by Cheryl from Madhouse Family Reviews.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Jack's Peach and Chickpea Curry

budget recipes, vegetarian curry, vegan curry

My guilty pleasure (or at least one of them) is having a good reading session on Mumsnet, when I am in bed with my mini ipad. A few days ago I came across a thread, discussing Jack Monroe's book A Girl Called Jack. Gosh and golly, who would have thought that a recipe book would provoke such passions.
Though I have a vast collection of cook books, I don't have any of Jack's books. I did have a very quick look at her first book years ago, so can't really say much about it.
I'm not really her target audience because though I enjoy vegetable dishes, I'm not a vegetarian or vegan.
Reading the bun fight thread on the merits and worth of Jack's book, a mention of a peach and chickpea curry piqued my curiosity. I thought: wait, that sounds intriguing.
Off I went to Jack's blog Cooking on a Bootstrap and found the recipe for peach and chickpea curry. And I really loved the sound of that. It is easy, and supposed to be a budget recipe.

With all the Christmas gifts shopping (we need a whole lot of presents for teachers and TAs, especially those who work with our elder son at special needs school), I need to find ways to budget better than I'm doing at the moment.

I bought most of the ingredients in Waitrose (it's the nearest supermarket), so the prices might be lower if you shop elsewhere.

I had a tin of Cirio chopped tomatoes, olive oil and spices at home, as well as rice.
Tinned chick peas - £0.58, peach slices in syrup £0.79 (both Essential Waitrose range), a pack of fresh red chillies (reduced to 45p), 1 carrot 13p, 1 bulb of garlic - 50p, 1 onion at 36p. The most expensive bit was a pot of fresh flat leaf parsley at £1.31. A total of £4.15.
You will need just 1 clove of garlic for the recipe and only 1 chilli, and I used just a little bit of parsley.
It is enough for 3-4 servings, depending on your appetite.
Tinned peaches are a secret ingredient in this dish, they add a lovely sweet taste. The textures and flavours are varied as well from silky soft peaches to slightly crunchy chickpeas.

For the recipe and step-by-step please visit the link above.
I added a chopped carrot to the recipe, cooking it with chopped onion and spices. I also added a couple of chopped tomatoes and a teaspoon of Sri Lankan Masala spice mix.
In this recipe I used Cirio chopped tomatoes, but if you count pennies, a less expensive tin of supermarket own tomatoes will work.

I can make less expensive meals, like soups, for example, carrot, lentil and orange soup is tasty and pretty cheap to make. Overall, this meal was not as cheap as I thought it might be, but it's still pretty good, and I will be definitely cooking it again.

I had this curry for lunch today, and loved it.

vegetarian curry, vegan curry

As for the chillies, I've been a good girl, and chopped all three, putting two of them in mini jars in the freezer so that they will be ready for the next time I need some fresh chillies.

Adding this recipe to #KitchenClearout linky run by Cheryl at Madhouse Family Reviews, as I used a tin of tomatoes from one of the earlier-in-the-year food boxes and old-ish spices.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

November Degustabox

We are always looking forward to our Degustabox delivery, which arrives every month and is full of foodie surprises. This monthly food and drink subscription box is an excellent way to discover products which have only just appeared in the shops or those which might have been around for while, but you haven't had a chance to try them yet.
Thanks to Degustabox, I have found new favourites to add to our shopping list, including some products which I probably wouldn't have tried otherwise.

Each time the box arrives, it's a total surprise. You get a good selection of foods and drinks.
If you haven't tried Degustabox subscription box yet and would like to have a go, I have a whopping £7 off discount from your first box (and you can unsubscribe any time) - just use a code 8EVI8 when you place an order.
What did we receive in November Degustabox? Let's have a look.

The current food box has a good selection of sweet and savoury products.

Kallo Organic Stock Pots are a handy product to have in the pantry. Made with organic, natural and high quality ingredients, the stock pots add flavour to a variety of dishes.

Available in three flavours - chicken, beef and vegetable - these stock pots will enhance many of your family favourites, from soups to stews, from pasta dishes to risotto.
I use it in soups (for example, chicken soup with lentils and vegetables)

as well as in a mushroom risotto.

midweek meals

Rio Mare Tuna in Olive Oil is another product to add to the kitchen pantry. Made with best tuna and selected olive oil. Use it in a variety of salads, add to a baked potato, or cook soup.

I used this tin of tuna to cook Pearl barley tuna soup.

The English Provender Co Caramelised Red Onion Chutney has been around for quite a few years. It is a great addition to any cheese board, or cheese sandwiches.

Sweet onions also work well with pastry. I have written about this chutney over 4 years ago, have a look at savoury croissants with caramelised red onion chutney and goat's cheese.

Filippo Berio Classic Pesto is a versatile sauce for a big variety of pasta dishes, and beyond.
Cook turkey steaks with parmesan and pesto crust or pesto pancakes, add to bread and make baked pesto bread as an accompaniment to pizza instead of garlic bread, mix into dressings for salad, or add a tablespoon of pesto to plain boring hummus to jazz it up. The possibilities are endless.

As a reviewer, I've received three products from Filippo Berio, but subscribers will get only one: Filippo Berio Classic Pesto, Filippo Berio crostini or Rio Mare Italian Tuna.

Ryvita Multigrain Rye Cakes are made with popped wholegrain rye. They are naturally high in fibre and low in fat, making them a healthy snack. Add your favourite toppings and enjoy!

Weetabix Additions Apple & Raisin is a new product in Weetabix range. It is made with 100% whole grain, apple and raisins, and a hint of cinnamon. The apple flavour is not very prominent.

Taylors of Harrogate is an independent family tea and coffee company from Harrogate. Their single origin coffee explores extraordinary flavour from the world's great growing regions.
We have tried Cacao Superior Colombia flavour in Nespresso capsules, and it was tasty. Haven't opened the big bag of ground coffee yet, but when we have a big company on new year's eve, it will keep us going into the early hours.

Planters Fruity Chocolate Crunch have introduced two indulgent nut mixes this season. Planters Fruity Chocolate Crunch is made with crunch peanuts, juicy cranberries and creamy milk chocolate buttons. A lovely festive snack.

Propercorn Perfectly Sweet Popcorn is hand-popped corn, sprinkled with unrefined Fairtrade sugar for a sweet, caramelised flavour. Tonight is our home-movie night. I bought the latest DVD of Spiderman: Homecoming, and all the snacks are ready for the evening fun.

Cadbury Picnic Bites are moreish nobbly nibbles of crispy wafer, chewy caramel, crunchy peanut and juicy raisins, covered in Cadbury milk chocolate. I opened the bag to sample, and might have eaten most of it. I think the Instagram hashtag #Iwillnevergoonadiet is invented for me.

The Jelly Bean Factory Super Sours come in 9 delicious flavours to tingle your tastebuds. These gourmet jelly beans are made using natural flavours and colours. They are also gelatine free, gluten and nut free, thus suitable for coeliacs and vegetarians.
If you find them too sour, use them as decorations for festive cookies and cupcakes.

Vanilla cupcakes with jelly beans

Festive cookies

There were two drinks in the box:
Dalston's Fizzy Apple - a fizzy soda, packed with Jonagold, Idared and Bramley apples from farms in Kent. I haven't had a chance to even try it, but my husband enjoyed it.

ALO claims to be the only quality proven brand of Aloe vera drinks in the UK market today (though I suspect Holland & Barrett and other health food shops might dispute the case, as they sell a variety of aloe vera drinks).

Overall, it has been another great selection of foods and drinks, a mix of established and new brands.

Disclosure: We receive a monthly food box for the purposes of reviewing. All opinions are our own.