Hi folks, and a Happy New Year!
It’s been a while, but I have some lovely food to share with you, so please forgive me.
Things have been a bit turbulent here- I’m currently dealing with some health problems. In short, my GP suspects diverticulitis and I’m having some blood tests (and later, physical exams) to confirm this. It’s painful when it flares up, and the pain makes me really tired (but also too uncomfortable to sleep properly). It also makes my tummy swell up until it’s rock-hard and two dress sizes bigger, and completely steals my appetite sometimes. The last time it was this bad, I lost a stone in about six months.
This time, however, I’ve actually gone to the doctor and he’s taking it seriously. I’ve had two courses of antibiotics, which help some people. Not me (yet), but I’m hopeful. I’m finding coping techniques and foods which I can eat when I’m feeling poorly. For pain relief, I take long, very hot baths, keep warm, drink plenty of cold water, and watch Bob Ross videos. His soft voice and beautiful landscapes make me really relaxed, and when I relax, all the muscles in my back unclench, the pain starts to dull, and I can get some decent sleep. The first time I watched one of his videos was a revelation. Mr Scrumptious put it on as I was writhing on the sofa during a painful attack. I was asleep about halfway through the one-hour special.
I’m not going to issue diet advice for diverticulitis here because I’m not a nutritionist or a doctor. And frankly, I don’t have a clue what helps and what harms for myself, so I’m not dictating to anyone else. As a general rule, we in the West don’t eat enough fibre, but before you make any radical changes to your diet, seek some medical advice. (Proper qualified medical advice, from someone who went to uni for a decade or so, not from some yoga-posing wellness blogger)
If you’re suffering, go and see your GP, but also know you’re not alone, and it’s not every day, and for most people, it’s not forever. I’m happy to hear from and respond to people who are going through it. There are also some great support groups online.
Anyway. Food. Christmas dinner was lovely, but I didn’t take pictures- I wanted to eat my Christmas dinner and spend time with Mr Scrumptious.
I’ll give you the rundown. It was just the two of us, we like a quiet Christmas. We don’t drive, so we don’t visit relatives. Trains at Christmas are terrible.
We had turkey, which I bought frozen in Lidl in October for around £8. It lived in our freezer, and then I took it out three days before Christmas to defrost in the fridge. We also had duck fat roast potatoes, home-rolled pigs in blankets, braised leeks (recipe another time), crispy roast parnsips, stuffing from Mr Scrumptious’ mum, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and peas. The potatoes, parsnips and sprouts came from Mr Scrumptious’ dad’s allotment. We had tonnes of leftovers for picking, and also for turkey curry and pasta alla carbonara.
For those of you who panic about Christmas dinner, don’t. If you’ve done a roast dinner at home before, it’s the same process. If there’s only two of you, consider a chicken, especially if you’re not so good at handling tonnes of leftovers, or have a small oven. Beef and gammon are also great alternatives, and are easier to carve. There’s no need to get a turkey if you don’t want to!
For pudding, we had a ready-made Christmas pud I ordered months ago from Approved Food, my homemade Christmas cake, and my mince pie cake thing (it still needs a proper snappy name). This consists of a layer of pastry in a baking tray, a layer of mincemeat, and a thin layer of cake mixture. It’s so much easier than fiddling about cutting and crimping individual mince pies. You pelt it all in and then you can use a sharp knife or a pizza wheel to cut it once it’s done. I lightly blind-bake the pastry, but not fully. It’s okay for it to be a bit squidgy, especially if you’re using puff pastry. I cheated; I bought the mincemeat and the pastry. But we ate the mince-pie-cakes hot, so that’s fine. You have to draw the line somewhere at Christmas. There’s a lot of pressure to be that perfect person who hand-dips their candles and plucks the turkey themselves. I don’t hold with that crap. You want to have a nice dinner and day with friends, family, or your partner, not be some sleep-deprived zombie martyr!
New Year’s Eve was a lovely evening for us. We had a few friends over, the kind of friends who’re so close they’re family. I made a HUGE traditional Italian ragú bolognese with white wine, carrots, and celery as well as the usual tomatoes and minced beef. It simmered away on the stove for a good four or five hours and was beautifully mature in flavour when I plated up. I served the ragú with linguine, as I didn’t have any tagliatelle in the house. Ragú bolognese is best served with a flat pasta like tagliatelle or linguine, not spaghetti.
On the side, we had a green salad, homemade red pesto focaccia, roasted garlic, and some antipasti my friend Anna brought over.
There was plenty for five adults and a little one, and enough to have some the next day for dinner too. Leftover bolognese is just the best! Especially when it’s all been served out, and you take some fluffy homemade bread and clean the pan with it. The Italians call this scarpetta.
The next event after New Year was Mr Scrumptious’ birthday. It’s not a big one, so we didn’t go all out, but I did make one of his favourite dinners- mushroom risotto. I used to follow the Jamie Oliver recipe, but I found it’s not all that accurate when it comes to how long the rice needs to be fried for. Also, it makes heaps of risotto, which isn’t ideal for just two people, and it spills out of the pan. So I’ve adapted, and I tend to eyeball the quantities, which works out pretty well. I use:
A stick of celery, finely chopped
An large onion, diced, or two smaller ones
A glass(ish) of white or rosé wine
Just under a pint of vegetable or chicken stock, as you prefer (I use vegetable stock)
A couple of shallots, if I have them
4-7 cloves of garlic, depending on my mood, crushed.
A punnet of mushrooms
Arborio rice, about 150g. Ish. More or less.
Plenty of olive oil
- Tip the diced onion and celery into a pan and fry in olive oil over a medium heat, until starting to clarify.
- Add the arborio rice and fry for several minutes, until the grains are starting to glow. I don’t know how else to describe it. Something happens to the light as they start to get done. You’ll need a heap of olive oil, which you can add as you go along.
- After the rice is fried, tip in the wine and turn up the heat to drive off the liquid. Stir until the wine is completely evaporated. Then turn the heat straight down.
- Begin to add the stock a very little at a time, making sure the liquid is completely absorbed before you add any more. Don’t worry about the rice sticking or burning, the oil will take care of it. If the rice seems to be sitting in a kind of pasty liquid, you’re adding too much stock at a time. Fry off all the remaining liquid, and when you begin adding stock again, do it more slowly.
- Continue adding stock until it’s all absorbed and the rice grains are nice and soft when tasted. Let the risotto rest for a while while you prepare the mushrooms.
- Chop your mushrooms up small and fry in the butter, with plenty of black pepper and thyme. Crush the garlic and add to the mushrooms. Fry until silky, then tip the entire contents into the risotto pan and stir in until well-distributed.
- Give the whole thing a minute or two on a low heat to warm through, then serve it up!
I like mine with a simple salad, Mr Scrumptious likes his straight (we’re still working on the salad thing).
For dessert, we had a bit of this beauty
A coffee-and-cream liqueur cake (Kahlua and Baileys), watered with some more Kahlua.
I used my favourite trusty coffee cake recipe from BBC Good Food, chucking an extra shot of Kahlua into the mix before baking. I would cook the cakes at a slightly lower temperature than they recommend, and use a tiny pinch more baking powder.
After baking, I livened it up a couple of days later with a liberal sprinkling of Kahlua to help moisten the mix. I’m on the hunt for a pipette to make this job easier and more even. At the moment, I haphazardly drizzle with a teaspoon, and hope for the best.
Then I iced it with this Baileys buttercream. Again, I’d suggest a couple of tweaks to the published recipe. I’d add a bit more sugar to help stiffen it. And, if you’re piping the icing on, let it sit in the fridge for a while. I found it was way too runny to pipe properly without chilling first, but it set nicely after I popped it into the fridge. There’s just enough Baileys to give it a bit of kick. Taste after you add each spoonful. If you like it a bit milder, stop at three tbsp instead of the four called for in the recipe.
Naturally, we enjoyed it drizzled with a last little bit of Kahlua (after the candle-blowing-out ceremony).
As you might have gathered from our cake alone, Mr Scrumptious and I are not doing Dry January. This is my final note for this blog, and I have to confess that Dry January or DryAthlon really gets on my nerves.
The problem is not alcohol, the problem is the way we use it, and our low quality threshold for the stuff we drink. I defy you to have a bad relationship with a decent middle-range Tokaji Aszú. Firstly, you’d bankrupt yourself first (it’s well worth it, this stuff is amazing), and also, I’m not sure it’s possible. A wine this rich and deep has to be respected. It has to be savoured. It’s not for necking down. I did that early on, and I felt robbed. Nowadays, I can sit and cuddle a glass of Tokaji for the better part of an evening. It forces you to reflect on the pleasure you derive from it. It also has a fairly low alcohol content, but still feels potent, maybe because of its complex flavour, or perhaps because of its slightly syrupy consistency. Tokaji turned me from a plonk glugger to a wine wanker. We enjoyed some Tokaji last night at Mr Scrumptious’ birthday dinner, and it was a real treat. I also feel that there is a major gap in the market for grown-up soft drinks. Schloer can only get you so far, and it really is far too sweet to be consumed too often. Aranciata and limonata are good alternatives, but they can quickly get pricey, usually due to the rather attractive Kilner-type bottles they’re often supplied in.
Dry January makes having a January birthday a real pain for Mr Scrumptious, especially when coupled with all the other ridiculous juice ‘detoxes*’, diets, and other absurd hardcore initiatives people embark on in January. *If you need to detox, you need to do it in a clinic, with medical supervision. Detoxing from anything other than a serious alcohol or drug addiction is bollocks.* If you genuinely can’t indulge for health reasons, you have my sympathies, but if you’re just trying to signal your virtue, knock it off.
Masuma Rahim wrote a really good, balanced article this time last year on Dry January and strict diets after New Year, which I would recommend to anyone interested in the topic. For the love of yourselves, people, find decent food, decent alcoholic drinks, decent non-alcoholic drinks, and enjoy your life.