EATING OFF THE PLOT – CHRISTMAS DINNER DECEMBER 2011

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As Christmas got closer I realised that I had most of the veg I needed on the allotment for our dinner. I had carrots, cabbage, shallots and squash; this meant I needed to buy brussel sprouts and potatoes. The week before Christmas my friend’s husband gave me a huge bag of potatoes, he and a friend had grown a field of potatoes locally. On December 23rd I went to the allotment to harvest the carrots and cabbages, of which I had green and red ones. There weren’t many cabbages that were ready but I managed to find a couple of green ones and a red one. The green ones were like ‘hispi’ summer cabbages – very fresh and cone-shaped. The carrots planted in the no-dig area were small with thick, grey mud wrapped around them, with a number of purplish worms. These hadn’t been planted until the autumn and so I couldn’t compare them to the ones I’d planted in the late spring. However, they were quite small and once I wiped some of the mud off I could see a number of holes and decay on the carrots. I wasn’t sure if this was due to wormholes or carrot-fly. Keith and his wife were also at the plots harvesting for Christmas. I dropped by and chatted to them and they showed me their purple brussel sprouts that I was fascinated by. They offered me a bag of them to try which I was pleased to do.

As we had had a roast dinner in November, I had ideas on how to make the dinner more colourful and veg focused. As the cabbage looks so tender, I decided to shred it for a ‘slaw’, along with grated carrots from the allotment. On Christmas day we first of all go for a walk up the hills and woods behind the house. As we have a footpath going up behind the house, the cat decides to come with us, for the whole walk. When we come back it’s definitely time for cooking lunch, we have a some snacks and I have some cooked veggie sos rolls but the boys have so much chocolate they’re not keen to have any right now, so I have a small piece whilst I cook. I’m looking forward to some Bucks Fizz, but again decide to wait until the dinner is ready.

The mud was so thick on the carrots I had to scrape them off with the back of a knife before I could scrub them. As I scrubbed them I could see a lot holes and I had to spend time cutting out the bad bits. In the end, a hand full of carrots leave only enough good produce for the slaw and the stuffing for the seitan roast.

The seitan roast was requested by my eldest son  as it’s his favourite vegetarian dish. It is something I learned to make at The Natural Cookery School. As it is literally made from flour and water, it is a very cheap dish. Whenever people ask me what it is, I’m always reluctant to explain as it can’t help but sounds unappetizing: it is bread dough that is soaked in water, then washed approximately 8-10 times to remove the starch. This leaves the gluten behind in a now, springy, stretchy dough that is boiled for approx. an hour in a tasty shoyu, garlic and ginger broth. At this stage the Seitan is now made, however, like meat, further processes can be done to it to match your favourite cooking styles. For the Christmas loaf, before it is been boiled in the broth, it is stretched out on a board and ‘stuffed’ with tofu, veg, rolled up and tied with string. I’d chosen marinated tofu, carrot sticks and garlic for the stuffing. A few years ago, when making this for Christmas dinner, I’d discovered that this boiled loaf could then be roasted in the oven to add a crispy texture that was very popular with the family. As I had allotment squash that I was going to roast, I decided to use a large baking tray that they could both sit on.

I’d made the stuffed seitan loaf on Christmas eve. Again, learning by experience, I didn’t let any of the starchy water go down the sink, as in a house with old pipes it doesn’t take much to clog them up. Therefore, after each wash, alternating with cold and warm water, I kept the water in a washing up bowl which was eventually emptied in a corner of the garden. On washing the dough, you have to gentle squeeze it together as there is a risk of it not keeping together, although I’ve never had that problem. The idea between the differing water temperatures is to shock the dough into sticking together. Wash after wash, the water turns milky, soft with the repeated squeezings, however you have to keep on until the dough becomes stretchy and the water is mostly clear. This takes about 8 washes. So although the process is time consuming, once you are confident in doing it, it is a cheap and simple enough way to make protein. On the finished article – the texture is much more ‘meaty’ than tofu, with more flavour. It also has a nice, light texture.

Anyway, I’d sat down and worked out the timings for the cooking, as well as the oven space, as I’d discovered when I last made a roast dinner, juggling oven space was quite an issue. I’d decided that we wouldn’t do Yorkshire puds this time, as we would have a substantial meal anyway. So the menu was:

Starters- Veggie Sos Rolls
Dinner– Seitan roast with roast squash and roast potatoes, served with Winter Slaw, steamed brussel sprouts with sultanas, steamed red cabbage and roasted brussel sprouts with shallots. Accompanied by Cranberry sauce and gravy.
Pudding – Christmas pudding and Yule Log, with Cider Brandy butter and Vanilla cream

A couple of days before I’d made the Christmas pudding from a recipe I’d developed about 7 years ago and has been declared by my mum to be ‘the best Christmas pudding ever’ – praise indeed. Anyway, it contains the usual dried fruit, breadcrumbs etc., but also has grated carrot and is soaked in orange juice. This year the grated carrots were from the allotment, it was a little tricky to grate these as the late carrots were poor quality, but tasty nonetheless. I used to buy a miniature Cider Brandy for lighting the pudding but the local shop no longer stocked them. This is made locally and was a cause celebre several years ago as they won the right to call it Brandy (rather than Calvados) at the European court. I follow them on twitter and have always wanted to buy my own bottle (for cooking with as I’m not a brandy drinker). It has been made famous by Hugh F-W for cooking uses. So I had earned loyalty points at my local Somerton shop and decided to buy a small bottle. The night before making the Christmas pudding I soaked the dried fruit in cider brandy topped up with orange juice. I made a large pudding along with a small pudding that I thought I’d take to my Mum, as I often do at Christmas.

I’d seen a Hugh F-W recipe for roasted brussel sprouts and decided that I had to try it out as I had all the right ingredients including some remaining allotment shallots:

Below is  a link to the recipe for roasted brussel sprouts by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall:

http://www.channel4.com/4food/recipes/chefs/hugh-fearnley-whittingstall/roasted-brussels-sprouts-with-shallots-recipe

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I decided to get the seitan and squash roasted first whilst I was chopping, shredding and grating the veg for the winter slaw. That way I could ensure they had got what they needed out of the oven, before I gave it over to the roast potatoes. For this I chopped the squash, removing the seeds and the skin, leaving them in large chunks. I’d poured a little olive oil onto the baking tray and then placed the seitan loaf and squash pieces on before sprinkling some salt and pepper on the squash. I put the oven to Gas Mark 6, expecting them to need about 30 mins before it could go onto the lower oven shelf. Once the slaw was made I scrubbed the muddy potatoes, before chopping them to size to be boiled for 5 mins or so. These pots are firmly textured that need a little more boiling than others before they roast. Whilst they are boiling, I get the baking pan ready with olive oil, garlic and rosemary that is warmed in the oven ready to use (here a multiple of ingredients are combined then seen as a single unit as it has a single use). I can also get the brussel sprouts ready for roasting, by firstly washing them and chopping off their outer leaves. By this stage the potatoes are ready for roasting. I remove the potatoes, keeping the hot water for steaming the greens. I arrange the potatoes in the pan, sprinkle a little more salt and then put them in the oven, to start with on the lower shelf. I have to keep an eye on the time, as in ten minutes the roast seitan and squash should be about ready and I will swap them over with the potatoes that need a good hot oven for successful browning and crisping.

During this time, I prepare the shallots that were left over from my crop. I’d used up the larger ones that I’d used like onions and was left with the small definitely shallot sized ones that firstly need peeling. I only have half a dozen of these, so the aim is to try out the recipe and add another layer of flavour to the meal. By this time, the roast seitan and squash is cooked perfectly, cooked and browned. I remove the tray, taking the potatoes up to the top shelf. I now know I have approximately 30-40 minutes before dinner will be ready. I quickly finish preparing the roasted Brussels and get them in the oven on the lower shelf.
I now give attention to the steamed greens and onion gravy. The red cabbage isn’t large and so is quickly washed and chopped large. Chopping the brussel sprouts takes time, as the outer leaves need to be peeled off individually. I have a few purple allotment ones to prepare and the supermarket bought ones as well. I’m a big fan of brussel sprouts; the boys happily eat them too and so make sure we have plenty. I place them in the steamer pan over the hot water, adding some sultanas to jazz up the dish. I now get my large iron frying pan on, whilst chopping onion and garlic for the gravy. I pour in some olive oil, add a bay leaf or two then the onion/garlic mix with a pinch of salt to release the sulphur, which makes the onions cook to softness. Once they’re soft, I add a tablespoon(ish) of plain flour, cook this in and then begin to add some of the steamer water. This needs to be stirred as it warms and thickens to prevent lumps. Once I’ve added enough water, I add a couple of teaspoons of mustard, stock powder and pepper. Again this needs adequate stirring to mix the ingredients thoroughly so that they combine with the liquid, onion mixture; merging, breaking down individual barriers to become a single entity called onion gravy, in which only the onion pieces can be seen to have individuality.
During this process the steamed veg is ready and turned off. I check the potatoes, turning them over to crisp on a different side. I stir the roasting brussel sprouts for similar browning. As the potatoes need only another 10 minutes, I place the seitan/squash tray back in on the lower shelf, propping the roasted Brussels on an up-turned cake tin on the floor of the oven. The table has been prepared with a candle/ivy centerpiece and I call in my younger son to help get out the cutlery, crackers etc., which he happily does. I had already made a salad dressing, which I’ve put on the slaw to get it softening. The cranberry sauce also goes on the table, whilst I begin the process of dishing out the dinner onto plates. As I cut the seitan, I can see that it has worked very well and call my eldest son into see it; he looks excited. However, once cut some pieces sort of fall apart, however at this stage I’m past caring! The boys choose not to have roasted squash as they’re not keen, I find this amazing as it’s probably my favourite taste on the plate, so more for me (as leftovers).
We open the buzz fizz and I make the boys weak ones, we toast, pull crackers and begin eating. I’m pleased that everything has come out successfully and looks how it should. However, I’m so hungry (and a little tired) that I have to control an urge to skip the cracker jokes and just eat. Instead I tell the boys that I just want to taste the seitan roast first, which they’re happy with. It is just right, with a great chewy texture, savoury flavour contrasted with the sweeter marinated tofu and carrot. I’m content with a good, successful dinner and can relax into the occasion. On eating I’m particularly in love with the roasted squash, its thick, savoury sweetness is so satisfying. The roasted brussel sprouts were finished with lemon juice that adds another layer of taste into the meal. The pots are great, the onion gravy tasty and I’m quite a fan of cranberry sauce too – why save it just for Christmas? My only doubt is the winter slaw – yes it’s tasty, fresh and a nice change, but on the Christmas dinner plate it seems too cold. A slight disappointment, but not the end of the world. However, it meant I got to use a range of allotment veg and we have a colourful display on our plates. We all eat up happily, with the boys having seconds of seitan.
I like a break between a large main and puddings when eating at home. The boys are keen to too, partly because they’re full but mostly because we’re doing present opening after dinner. We’d talked in advance that the boys would share the washing up today and luckily they’re keen to wash different things. I make sure everything is rinsed, so one washes the plates, cutlery and a few other things. Then the other washes the pans, baking trays etc. It doesn’t take too long and I’m very glad to have shared the work. I feel most of my work for today has been done and can now relax. This is important as preparing for this meal has taken a number of days.
Halfway through presents we pause to eat the Yule log, deciding to leave the Christmas pud until the evening, so that we can eat that as an evening meal (along with nibbles and snacks such as sos rolls or cheese and crackers, or of course, chocolate!) The Christmas pud needs to steam for half an hour to warm it up. I make some brandy butter which doesn’t look right as I only have margarine (won’t do that again). It doesn’t come out of the dish easily and becomes a mush, which won’t light after pouring cider brandy on it. On tasting it, I’m really disappointed as there is just too much cider brandy in the mix and not enough of the fruity flavour it usually has. By now my youngest has a stomachache and doesn’t want his, whereas the eldest keenly eats his. A week later I take a small Christmas pudding up to my mum. Without the extra cider brandy in the butter and the lighting of it, it is actually very nice. However, next year I’ll go back to my usual recipe with moderate amounts of the lovely Cider Brandy.
I’m pleased with using the allotment veg and not having to buy much for the dinner. During the following week I also enjoy making a tasty soup with the vegetable leftovers.

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4 thoughts on “EATING OFF THE PLOT – CHRISTMAS DINNER DECEMBER 2011

  1. Fiona Kirton says:

    Very inspirational and as another winter green can recommend Black or Tuscan Kale still standing and yummy now in Feb have had it all winter.

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