Now that Halloween is over, the anticipation of Christmas festivities has moved to centre stage, with shops already sparkling with decorations and gifts. It’s clichéd, I know, but I really do love autumn and winter, especially now, in this little post-Halloween, pre-Christmas limbo. Crunchy leaves in vibrant red, copper and bright gold litter the ground outside, waiting to be walked in, kicked about, enjoyed, and jumpers and boots have made a convincing comeback in my wardrobe. There aren’t daily frosts just yet, but I can’t wait to see the beautiful silver spray of delicate, glittering lace over leaves and spiders’ webs in the morning sun. I don’t think I have long to wait. This morning I had to de-mist the car windows with the heating on max for a good 5 minutes before I left for work.
On chilly days like these I crave warmth: cosy jumpers, my snuggly duvet (leaving it gets harder each morning now), and cups of hot chocolate almost too hot to hold. I cradle them gingerly, while I wait for the hot choc to cool down enough to drink. While I sit at work daydreaming of duvet days, I comfort myself with (what else?) foods filled with autumnal flavours and spices.
Spices and herbs are absolute heroes when it comes to flavour. They can transform a meal from ‘alright’ and ‘nice’ to ‘amazing’ and ‘wow’, and the right ones can add so much heart to a wintry dinner. Comfort food is one of my favourite things about this time of year, and I definitely can’t go without a list of staple ingredients and spices in my cupboard. Along with the popular ones for this time of year (cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger), I also love paprika & chilli, and blends like jerk or Cajun spices.
I often find myself adding in a tsp of extra flavour here and there, especially when using recipes I find in books and online. Like Mum, I am terrible (or great, depending on your outlook) for adapting and changing recipes to suit my taste. For me, each recipe is a blank canvas to be decorated the way I like it – and spiced up where possible!
For some recipes, like roasted veg, it’s so easy to change the feel of the whole thing simply by changing the spice mix, and it all tastes so good! Spices aren’t just adaptable either. They can make or break a recipe too – without the spice, festive favourites like mulled wine and mince pies just wouldn’t be the same.
Because I use so many different spices – and a lot of them – I tend to stock up on larger packs rather than the jars you get in the supermarket. Not only do these last me longer, but they’re often better quality and value too. Mum’s favourite spice outlet is Fox’s Spices https://www.facebook.com/FoxsSpices/, and I can see why. The spices are great value and really good quality too. They have a shop in Stratford Upon Avon, but you can order over the phone too. This said, if you’re testing out new flavours, it’s a good idea to buy a small amount first before you take the plunge on a big box of something you really don’t like.
The other key thing is how to store them well. Spices like cool dark cupboards and tightly sealed containers. This will help to preserve the flavour and strength of the spice for much longer. Also, always use a dry spoon to measure out your spice. This did seem like a given to me, until I saw brown-tinged sugar from repetitive dunking with a wet coffee spoon at work once. – The horror! So while I won’t point any fingers, I’ll repeat. Dry spoon, always.
Spoon lecture over, let’s move on to the good stuff. I’ve put together a ‘meal plan’ of dinners I would eat in an example week to give an idea of what I’m eating around now, though this definitely isn’t exhaustive! It’s just a little inspiration.
Monday – Jerk roasted veg with rice and beans
Mondays are always vegetarian (though I’m increasingly expanding this to other days too). Sometimes the simple recipes are the best, and in the case of roasted veggies, that is definitely true. My favourites are sweet potato carrots and potatoes, but you could add peppers, onions, tomatoes, cauliflower – anything you want really!
You will need:
2 sweet potatoes
2 medium white potatoes
4 small carrots
2 tbsp jerk spice seasoning
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp red wine vinegar
3 cloves garlic
salt & pepper
Preheat the oven to 180˚C.
Wash the veg and cut the potato ad sweet potato into large chunks.
Parboil the veg for 10-15 mins, until a knife will easily go the through the chunks.
In a roasting tray, add the oil, vinegar and jerk spice. Crust the garlic under the flat side of a knife blade and add this too. Mix together.
Drain the veg and add to the roasting dish. Mix well to coat in the spices.
Roast in the oven for 45 minutes, or until the edges of the veg are browned and crispy, and the insides are soft and fluffy.
I like to serve this with plain boiled rice, with a few beans mixed in for some extra protein. Yum!
Tuesday – Pie
I don’t really mind which kind of pie – as long as it has a crunchy, flaky pastry top I can douse in think gravy and smother with mash, I’m sold. I’m working on a new recipe for steak pie, which be up soon, but in the meantime, there is a chicken and mushroom version here. It should always be served with lots of veg and gravy, and of course, some buttery, creamy mash.
To make the most of my mash, I have a couple of tips with help make it just a bit more wonderful:
1. When boiling the potatoes, I always cut them into fairly small pieces, and cook them until they’re on the verge of falling apart. This helps to stop you getting lumpy mash (no one wants that!).
2. Add about 25g of butter and about 100ml milk when mashing for extra creaminess (this is for 2-3 people – if you’re making more mash you’ll need to add a bit more).
3. Mash well. It’s more effort, but the longer and more thoroughly you mash, the lighter and more lump free the potatoes will be. Mash heaven!
Wednesday – Smoky Chilli with rice and cheese
I love chilli con carne. It’s one of my absolute favourites and I could eat it every single week. Scrap that. Every day. I love the rich sauce, the smoky flavour – this is comfort food at its best. The recipe on my blog uses a dried ancho chilli, and I really do think this makes all of the difference. Mum introduced them to me earlier this year, and I haven’t looked back since. They come dried, and can be re-hydrated by soaking in boiling water for a few minutes, and absolutely make this recipe. I can’t explain it – but if you try with and without, you’ll see the difference. You can get them in Tesco in packs of 3 by the spices section, or from Fox’s Spices (see link above). And then of course, serve with plump long grain rice and plenty of grated cheese.
My recipe for this chilli is here.
Thursday – Crispy Ginger Prawns with stir-fry veg
This is one of my favourite way to eat prawns. Every mouthful is crispy, sticky and sweet, and the ginger goes so well with the seafood. It’s different to the standard autumn comfort food, but really is delicious and so quick to make! Serve with some stir-fried veggies and noodles for a speedy week night dinner.
Friday – Giant Pasta Shells (stuffed with ricotta, spinach and basil, with a spicy tomato sauce)
What a mouthful! (And I don’t just mean the name of it…) These are delicious little parcels of cheesy goodness and are so moreish! This recipe uses the giant pasta shells that always come in Italian packaging (and with Italian cooking instructions – challenge accepted!). While you can buy the smaller shells, these really don’t work in the same way, and would take years to fill with cheese…
You will need:
250g giant pasta shells
300g ricotta cheese
½ tsp nutmeg
Fresh basil leaves
400g tin of chopped tomatoes
1 tsp dried chilli or crushed chillies
Clove of garlic, peeled and crushed
1 tbsp of olive oil
1 tsp dried oregano
Preheat the oven to 180˚C.
Boil the pasta shells for 10-12 mins, or until they’re soft enough to fill.
Meanwhile, put the chopped tomatoes, chilli, garlic, olive oil and oregano in a pan.
Mix well and bring slowly to the boil, then turn down to low and simmer for 15 mins.
Mix the ricotta, nutmeg and parmesan together in a bowl.
In each pasta shell, carefully line it with a spinach leaf, a basil leaf and some of the cheese.
Fill all of the shells put them in an oven proof dish, and cover with the tomato sauce.
Bake for 20 minutes, and enjoy.
Saturday – Fake-away Curry Night
I absolutely love curry, but it’s so hard to find one with a decent section of vegetarian options. While I’m not a full-time vegetarian (yet), it’s actually nice to have something so rich and heavy be a bit lighter without the meat. And I love a potato and cauliflower curry. My curry sauce recipe will work with veggies or meat, and can be frozen for future usage for an even quicker curry night. You’ll also know exactly what’s in it, and there’s a lot less oil than in takeaway versions. (You can thank me later!)
Sunday – Honey and Mustard Glazed Ham with Cloves
This is a perfect alternative to a Sunday roast (and amazing at Christmas too! – but more on that later) It’s really easy to do, but so effective. The ham is boiled for 2 hours in a large pan with chunks of carrot, celery and onion, a few herbs and peppercorns. It’s then drained, glazed with a honey and mustard mixture and studded with cloves, before roasting for 20 minutes. It’s sticky, gooey sweet deliciousness. And the glaze makes an amazing gravy.
Full recipe will be up soon – watch this space!
What do you crave this time of year? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.