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spring, easter, table, place setting, eggs, primroses

It’s been bitterly cold for what seems like weeks. At first, it was fun; we watched the snow fall from the cosy comfort of the sofa, we took the husband’s godson sledging, we threw snowballs, we watched the snow fall some more and fantasized about transport chaos and snow-days. Then reality set in. No amount of blankets and scarves could keep out the fristy, frosty, freezingness of it all. We cranked up the central heating, we wore dressing gowns over our clothes. We drank industrial amounts of hot chocolate. Still we were cold.

But today, oh today the sun shone. I haven’t seen that yellow orb for months. I emerged from my cocoon, blinking; my eyes unused to daylight and skipped to the high street to buy some spring flowers.

I know we have a long way to go until Easter, but I hope you’ll indulge me in a little fantasy. For I am waving goodbye to winter. Behold the eggs and feast your eyes on the yolk-yellow accessories.

Like everything in the LoveRichCashPoor household, this spring scene costs very little. I picked up the primroses for £1.50 each and my craft cupboard did the rest as it’s still packed to the gunnels with leftover bits from the wedding. The paper the primroses are wrapped in still has the price on, so I know that it cost £1.50 per enormous sheet; I used three small strips. The twine was a Christmas present.Thanks bro.

spring

The eggs are old, bought at a craft fair about five years ago, but they are a cinch to make: just carefully pierce an egg shell with a needle at both ends, blow its innards into a bowl, run some water through to rinse, pat dry, spray paint them in a lovely duck-egg blue and, when dry, flick a paintbrush loaded with brown paint in their general direction. Sit them in raffia nests and ta da! Luckily, I have a huge bunch of raffia – also leftover from the wedding – and I found these cute little chicken and rabbit clips in the cupboard  too, bought in Suffolk a few Easters back.

Roll on spring…

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danish pastries: apple, blackberry and bay pastry with maple glaze

The Third series of The Killing has started and that can only mean one thing: I am back in the grip of my obsession with all things Scandinavian. I would love to go to Copenhagen, but that is not likely to happen any time soon, so instead I am swooshing my decidedly Scandinavian hair around (seriously I’ve been told on three separate occasions this week that I have Scandinavian hair?!) and eating all things Danish.

First up, Danish pastries. As per my general aversion to baking, these barely qualify as patisserie as I didn’t make my own pastry or my own jam. Jam making is one of those things that I yearn to do and one of the many things spurring me on to complete my saving mission. For where would I store a jam cauldron and half a dozen jam jars in my flat, not to mention the finished product? I already have a strict one in one out policy with tinned tomatoes. Still, if I did make jam, I would make blackberry and bay – for a start blackberries are free; easily plucked from plentiful brambles even in the city and a gentle flavouring of bay leaf cuts through the sharp-sweetness beautifully for extra warmth and depth.

At any rate, this is a deliciously simple recipe that can be knocked up in 20 minutes – perfect for last minute guests as there’s next to no mess involved, so you can whip these up without messing up the kitchen and, as long as you have a couple of apples knocking around, some jam in the cupboard and a roll of pastry in the freezer, you won’t even have to nip to the shops. They also fill the house with the scent of hot jam as they bake. If that’s not a welcome, I don’t know what is.

Serves: 5 (2 each)
One roll of puff pastry (I keep a stash in the freezer. It defrosts at room temperature in less than half an hour)

2 apples

Half a pot blackberry and bay jam

Maple syrup for glazing

Icing sugar for dusting
Pre-heat the oven to 200C. Grease a couple of baking trays and set aside. Roll out your pastry and cut into 10 squares. Dollop a globule of jam into the centre of each square, making sure to leave the edges clear.

Fill a large bowl with cold water, then core and finely slice the apples – try to keep the slices as thin as you can get them. Pop each slice into the water as you go to stop them from turning brown (if you have a lemon, squeeze a little juice in the water for good measure).

When you are ready to assemble, scoop up four or five apple slices, dab dry and arrange into a fan, then pop them on top of the jam.

Bake in the oven for approx 15 minutes until the pastry has risen and turned golden brown. With a pastry brush, slap some maple syrup over each pastry so they gleam and glisten in the light. Finally, dust with icing sugar and serve lukewarm.

lamb stifado

I wanted to try something a little different for Bonfire Night this year; usually I make a chilli con carne—but it’s time for a change. Still, there are some fundamental rules when it comes to a winter party dish: it should always be something hot, of course—that’s a given—but it also needs to be able to look after itself, quietly simmering away as you greet your guests and furnish them with drinks. You can then dole it out as and when required, safe in the knowledge that it won’t spoil and latecomers won’t have to make do with a chilled, slightly congealed supper.

This is all conjecture – I had the flu this year, so no party for me, much less standing in the freezing cold watching fireworks, however much I may have wanted to. Instead, I am celebrating Diwali, that joyous festival that lights up our life as the days grow shorter.

A curry would be the obvious choice for a Hindu celebration, but instead I chose this warming stew, inspired by a dish I once tried in a Greek restaurant in Primrose Hill. Sadly, the place no longer exists. Luckily, the flavour is still fresh in my mind: rich, velvety sauce spiked with warm spices with an aniseedy tang. Traditionally, of course, a stifado is made with beef, but somehow lamb feels more ‘Greek’ to me – plus the butcher was doing a special: I got a kilo of stewing lamb for just £6. I know, quel surprise!

Serves: 6

500g stewing lamb (ask your butcher what would be best)

12 shallots, peeled

A handful chopped celery

1 can chopped tomatoes

1 stick cinnamon

Half a bottle red wine

1 star anise

2 cloves

1 tsp oregano

A sprig rosemary

Half a tsp freshly grated nutmeg

1 tbsp red wine vinegar

200ml stock (I used lamb, but use whatever you have)

2 tbsp tomato purée

In a large casserole, brown the lamb on all sides and set aside. Then brown the shallots and celery. Pop the lamb back in and quickly add all the remaining ingredients. Stir well, bring to the boil, then turn the heat down low and leave to simmer for at least two hours, stirring occasionally. Simples!

Top tip: to peel the shallots, drop them into a bowl of boiling water, cover and leave for five minutes – drain and rinse in cold water and the skin should just slide off.

purple power: aubergines big and small for bonfire night

You couldn’t dream up a more British celebration than Guy Fawkes night, or Bonfire night as it’s commonly known. The French have Bastille Day, the United States have July 4th. Both mark the day when the establishment was overthrown, the triumph of successful revolution. In England, we celebrate the failure of anarchy, a plot foiled. Admittedly Fawkes’ intentions weren’t exactly to steal from the rich to give to the poor, entrench human rights in a written constitution or usher in democracy, but still.

Still, dubious roots aside, Bonfire night has to be the most fantabulous celebration of the year. For a start, no one has really worked out how to flog stuff for it. It’s a marketing department’s nightmare; a whole celebration with no bottom line benefit. Ha! Sure, locked fireworks cabinets appear in supermarkets, garages (gas stations) probably shift a few more bags of logs and hawkers stock up on glow sticks to flog to the crowds but there is no ‘Happy Bonfire night’ card, no big gaudy display of tat you don’t need and aren’t even sure you want. The closest you’ll get is a BOGOF deal on bangers (sausages, my non-British friends). It’s just pure, unadulterated fun, free from Hallmark sabotage and phrases like ‘bottom line’. My beloved Bonfire night flies in the face of corporate bullshit and that is why it is so special. Oh, and did I mention the fireworks?

As for Bonfire night food, it’s a time of year to indulge your childhood campfire fantasies. Sausages, jacket potatoes and marshmallows, all cooked over the fire and it’s better than a barbecue because everyone expects it to be cold and damp.

This year, inspired by a recipe Adolfo and I improvised over the ‘summer’, I thought I’d try something a little different: aubergines (or eggplants as they are known across the pond). The advantage of this recipe is that you can make it with the tiniest fire and therefore the tiniest of gardens – a disposable barbecue would work. And for very little effort and even less skill, you get something that tastes exquisite. The flesh becomes a melt-in-the-mouth smokey sensation. An explosion of taste.

Serves: as many as you need to

A selection of aubergines (eggplant) – whatever shapes and sizes take your fancy: allow 1/2 a large or 3 baby aubergines per person

A good glug of good olive oil

A sprig of rosemary, leaves stripped from the stem

2 cloves garlic, chopped

A generous pinch of sea salt

chiminea: bonfire night aubergine

Lay the fire like a good girl guide (not that I would know, I was neither good nor a guide) with a pile of newspaper swirls, covered by a teepee of kindling with a log or two poised and ready over the top (or just cheat and use firelighters!).

Come on baby light my fire: aubergines

Light and nurse to get a good flame going then let it burn until you have a bed of red-hot embers and a steady, gentle flame licking around your logs.

Gently heat the olive oil, rosemary and garlic in a frying pan until the aromas start to rise and scent the room, then set aside to cool.

Prick all the aubergines with a knife or skewer. Tear off a large strip of foil and pop an aubergine or two in the centre – I did two big aubergines per piece, or a handful of the littlies.

Test the oil to check it’s cool enough to handle and spoon over the aubergines, making sure to include some of the rosemary and garlic on each sheet. Give each aubergine a good rub to make sure it’s completely coated in oil and then scrunch the foil up and over the aubergines to make a little parcel. Pop another layer of foil over your parcel—better safe than sorry!

aubergines cooked on a wood fire

Hopefully by the time you’ve done this, your fire will be well and truly on its way. Pop the foil parcels on the embers as close to the flames as you can get them without putting the fire out and/or burning yourself. This is what barbecue tongs were made for.

I’m afraid cooking times are a little sketchy on this one. It’s really a case of size matters: both in terms of the fire and the aubergine. You should be able to hear the oil start to sizzle, and then enjoy a natter and a glass of wine something-completely-responsible-and-appropriate-for-someone-who-is-tending-a-fire before you have to worry—but do have a little check once in a while —we’re talking a ballpark of 15-30 minutes. I’d say check every 10, turning the aubergines inside the parcel if needs be. The skin should wrinkle, the flesh soften, the structure collapse. Sprinkle over the salt and tuck in!

aubergines cooked on open fire

Hungarian goulash, Halloween ghoulash

Yep, I’m still nurturing an unhealthy obsession with Halloween and all-things autumn. In my defence, it is October now and at least I’m not banging on about you-know-what (whisper it, Christmas). If my enthusiasm is starting to grate, I suggest you check back post Oct 31! That is, unless you dislike Bonfire night, in which case, why are you reading this exactly?

Did anyone else read/watch The Worst Witch when they were little? It was my very favourite film for a long time and surely must be responsible for my love of this time of the year. I desperately wanted to be a witch when I grew up (insert your own sarcastic comment here). This was pre-Harry Potter so it was a little more unusual as aspirations go. Unfortunately here I am, 30 years old and still no nearer to flying or transforming people who irritate me into toads but the one thing I can do is stir a huge bubbling cauldron… although, don’t panic, I left the eye of newt out of this potion recipe.

Oh, and I’m sorry I couldn’t resist the pun on goulash.

Serves: 6

2 red onions, chopped

2 red peppers,  stalk and seeds removed and chopped into chunky strips

2 yellow peppers, stalk and seeds removed and chopped into chunky strips

1 orange pepper, stalk and seeds removed and chopped into chunky strips

1 pack of thin-cut pork loin steaks (there were five in my pack, on special offer in Waitrose), cut into bite-size pieces

1 tbsp flour

2 tsp smoked paprika

Half a tsp cumin

1 red chilli, whole

1 bay leaf

Salt and pepper

Oil for frying

2 tins chopped tomatoes

A small bunch of coriander, chopped

Sour cream, to serve

Fry the onions and peppers in a casserole until the onions are golden brown and the peppers slightly softened, then set aside.

Pop the pork pieces into a freezer bag and pop in the flour, paprika and cumin. Season and shake to coat the pork. Heat some oil in the casserole you used to fry the onions etc and seal the pork. Pop the onions and peppers back into the casserole, then pour over the tomatoes. Prick the chilli with the tip of your knife, then lob it in with the bay leaf. Bring to a simmer then leave to bubble away for a good hour or so, until the peppers are melt-in-your-mouth soft, the pork is tender and all excess liquid has evaporated.

Sprinkle over the coriander then serve with rice and sour cream.

fall table - autumn decorations for harvest festival or halloween

I dearly love, and seize upon, any excuse to celebrate. Especially if it involves decorating. Or eating. Or both.

But it seems positively ages until Halloween. Eons. Too long, in fact, for this impatient soul. But we had eight guests due to join us for the inaugural roast of the year at the weekend and I wanted to get into the autumnal spirit. And so to Clissold Park to gather a satisfyingly crisp pile of dip-dyed fallen leaves, the shiniest of conkers and their spiky shells. A pumpkin and a squash, who have been spared the pot temporarily while I rejoice in my fall fantasy, complete the picture along with two splendid heathers, displaying every graduation of orange from ochre to burnt umber. Like Christmas, autumn deserves a riot of fabulous jewel-rich shades. It is not a time for pretty pastels and cool whites.

But the star of the show has to be the rescued runner. This is my precious chiffon of many colours. The self-same chiffon that was irredeemably paint splattered and ripped during the works and can no longer serve as a net curtain, but is too pretty to throw away.

And how much did it cost for total autumn immersion? £2.50 for the heathers, £3 for a pair of Halloween candle-holders that gripped me with their promise of better days to come while I was feeling in need of good cheer in Waitrose and £2.50 for the pumpkin and squash. £8 in all, which I will justify thus: it is less than a really nice bunch of autumn flowers and will last a lot longer. Plus, I will be eating the pumpkin and squash, the Halloween candle-holders will last forevermore and the heathers will sit nicely in my rather sad and defeated-looking borders. And it has made this rather tired, rather emotional and almost defeated blogger keep the smile on her face for another day. Bring on Halloween!

fall table - autumn decorations for harvest festival or halloween

conkers, horse chestnut

I hereby declare that it is officially autumn. For the first time in months this morning, I didn’t want to leave the warmth of my bed. There was a real bite in the air, I shivered as I pulled on my dressing gown and cast a sideways glance at the heating dial as I passed on by. (Okay, it was actually the husband’s dressing gown – why is it that other people’s cosy clothes are so much better than your own? I always nick my mum’s jumpers too!)

Jogging was too much of a shock to the system. I made Jo walk instead. All the better to take in the fallen leaves, the conkers already spilling from their prickly cases. Their shiny, smooth chestnut shells too enticing to ignore. When did this happen? I’ve been in London too long.

Next, the virginia creeper that engulfs our garden wall will turn a bright, intense red. The prunus leaves will fade to burnt umber, then the leaves will wither and fall, carpeting our little garden as the blossom did in spring.

There’s a wind that whispers new boots, sparklers, woollen gloves and pumpkins. Candlelight, catherine wheels and cosy blankets. Red cheeks and noses but no more roses, autumn’s here. Autumn’s here.

But I shan’t be bowed. I’m with Keats on autumn: it’s the king of seasons. And for the record, the heating’s staying off until October.

To autumn
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
   Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
   With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
   And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
      To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
   With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
      For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.
Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
   Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
   Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
   Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
      Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
   Steady thy laden head across a brook;
   Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
      Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.
Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?
   Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
   And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
   Among the river sallows, borne aloft
      Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
   Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
   The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
      And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
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