My university pals came to stay. We did that thing everyone does at Christmas with their family, where we all revert to our childhood script. Except we reverted to our young adult script.
I was always a young fogey, hating clubs and absinthe. So just like back in 1999, I sent organisational emails, picked people up from the railway station, called cabs and booked tables. I also cooked the food. I spent much of my free student time moaning that I was REALLY BUSY whilst avoiding bending the spine of the one book I had to read per week (yes, I studied English) by cooking big roast chicken dinners with all the trimmings. (Three types of potatoes anyone? Essential in my book).
I got chatting to a girl from Halifax the other day. It was a revelation. We found that both Leicester and Halifax have similar Christmas traditions. Now I know it’s still August, but given I am wearing ski boots and have had to crank up the thermostat so my baby’s hands don’t freeze at night I’m just going to go for it and jump straight into a Christmas blog post. Here’s the way Christmas works and me and the girl from Halifax.(Her name was Rachel by the way and she was very nice and also so young as to not remember Ally McBeal.)
You fill the fridge to bursting either the day before Christmas or two days before. You can ONLY do this by arriving at the supermarket (usually Morrisons) at approximately 6am, waiting outside with a trolley until the security guard unlocks the doors. Then you need your strategy; decide what’s most important to you. Is it the ham? Is it the sprouts? Or the double cream? Because on the off chance that something runs out you need to decide what you can most live without. Then, when you’re allowed in, you run. Run like the hills! This is it, your one chance to get Christmas food shopping right and thus earn the love and respect of your family.
You bring the bounty home and stuff it into the fridge. This often involves much sighing and repacking of said fridge. You must not be able to see the back of the fridge and food stuffs MUST obscure the fridge light. Then you set out all the treat food on a snack table. This should include either Roses or Quality Street chocolates, some form of salted nuts (cashews if you’re feeling posh, peanuts if less so), Twiglets and Matchsticks. Nobody is allowed to eat these until Christmas Day. In fact if anyone so much as looks at them the matriarch of the house bares her teeth and warns everyone off opening anything without her permission.
On Christmas Eve you order a curry or a Chinese. You have to do this as you’re not allowed to eat anything from the fridge, snack table or cupboard. Strangely this obsession with saving everything for the Big Day does not extend to booze.
When the Big Day arrives you obviously eat yourselves silly and then all stare in wonder at how you’ve over catered again. You then try and palm everyone who comes to the house off with turkey, coleslaw, cake and trifle. They refuse. They have their own food mountain to distribute. Diet starts 1st Jan.
Onto the recipe. This week it’s a very pleasing rosemary and mustard chicken stew. Now I know everyone says they like savoury recipes on the blog. I receive so many messages and comments asking for more week night suppers. But then when I do post them people vote with their feet and are less likely to share them, like them, retweet them etc. So it really is the case of people thinking they want healthy stuff, but secretly just being all about the cake, and pastry. And biscuits. So maybe make this and then try one of the other sweet recipes below. Debit, credit and all that.
Lots more recipes like this in my book, Recipes from a Normal Mum, out now… on Amazon, with The Book People, at Sainsbury’s, Morrisons, Waitrose (where it’s book of the month), The Book Depository and many smaller outlets.
Three years ago: Teacher’s pet chocolate and hazelnut oaty biscuits and Spelt loaf
Four years ago: Restorative chicken and leek risotto
Rosemary & Dijon chicken stew
Serves 2 – 4 depending on hunger
This recipe is easy and adaptable so do as you wish with it – add stuff, take stuff out, just keep the rosemary and mustard.
Heat the oil in an oven and hob proof casserole dish (I used my Le Creuset wedding present one) on your hob. Also preheat the oven to 180C/gas mark 4.
Fry the chicken thighs skin side down in the oil until lightly browned then add the onion and mushrooms. Stir and allow to brown for 5 minutes or so on a low to medium heat. Add the olives, garlic, pepper, rosemary and potatoes and stir well. Boil the kettle then pour over the chicken and veggies until it just covers the top. Add the mustard and stir. Remove from the hob and leave to bake in the oven (with the lid off) for 40 minutes until the chicken is cooked through and tender and the water has reduced. Do keep an eye on it and have a poke at regular intervals as some ferocious ovens will render the chicken rather chargrilled (see pic).
I served this with green beans and it was frankly, really rather lovely.
I’m making friends again, in that mode where making connections feels all important. I did it when pregnant with my first son. With my second, born just two years later, I couldn’t do it. I hadn’t the energy and the first lot of post natal pals were all consuming. Hence son #2 has very few friends of his own and for this, yes, I feel guilt.
So here I am trying to pave the way by sending emails to new hypno birthing friends, with a sense of trepidation and a hopeful glance at my phone, refreshing my emails to see if they’re replied. It’s like the first day of school again.
Here’s a recipe that reminds me a bit of being at school, though this pie’s not served with soggy cabbage this time.
Chicken & mushroom pie
Heat the oil in a frying pan and add the onion, celery, mushrooms and water. Fry on a medium heat, stirring constantly until the water has all evaporated and the vegetables have browned a little. Remove from the frying pan and pour into a bowl.
Make the cheese sauce by heating the butter in a saucepan until melted then adding the flour and whisking vigorously until smooth. Leave on a medium heat for about 1 minute to cook the flour off, then add the milk gradually, whisking all the time. You will have a very thick white sauce. (The thick quality is important, otherwise you might end up with a soggy bottomed pie.) Remove from the heat and add the cheese and black pepper. Mix well and pour over the vegetables in the bowl. Stir, cover and refrigerate until completely cold.
Preheat the oven to 200C/gas mark 6. Roll the puff pastry out into a large rectangle, about 3mm thick, using a well floured rolling pin. Transfer to a baking sheet lined with non stick baking parchment. Mix the cold chicken into the vegetable and cheese mixture and place onto one side of the rectangle, leaving a 2cm edge free of mixture at the sides. Sprinkle with black pepper. Paint the sides of the rectangle with egg yolk and then fold the pastry without any mixture on, over, on top of the filled side, as if closing a book. Press the edges down.
Paint the top of the pie with egg yolk and bake for about 40 minutes until the pie is golden all over. Serve hot with green beans or peas. This is also delicious for lunch cold the next day.
Some great tips on how to carve your chicken like a pro.