Chopped fruit, British-grown peas and herbs go into our vegan centrepiece.

Cheap treats for Christmas

From homemade mincemeat made with windfall fruit, to brining meat and tasty vegan loaves – here’s how we did Christmas on a budget with a thrifty approach to every ingredient.

When my daughter was small, my mortgage was £10 a month more than I had coming in. The desperate scrabble to keep things going soon developed into something I call ‘domestic capitalism’ – acquiring the means of production, and then pumping my feeble resources for maximum value. This means planting, growing, repurposing, recycling, and making. Reimagining everything that comes into the house as raw material.

So, we still had a feast. Mulled punch and wine are easy to make, infusing orange peel, cinnamon, cloves, star anise and a big spoon of brown sugar in a pan warmed on the wood burner.

Our starter of chestnut sprouts has become traditional: the pre-boiled veg and nuts lightly pan-roasted, then tossed in crème fraîche and topped with toasted pine nuts, hazelnuts, or crispy bacon trimmings.

Hand-painted marzipan fruits make wonderful decorations on baked gifts.

Presents to family and friends were buttery Elizabethan fruit breads, sourdough Scottish Bannocks – or, something tiny fingers loved to make, little recycled cereal-box trays filled with reused crunchy tissue and hand-painted marzipan fruits.

Every orange, even now, that enters the house is peeled before it’s juiced or eaten. I dry the peel beside the fire or candy it as a by-product of syrup making. Candied and then chopped, it goes into baked goods. Dried, I grind and use it powdered instead.

Homemade mincemeat uses up windfall apples.

We still make mincemeat using apples and blackcurrants from the garden. The apples are misshapes and windfalls and the currants are cordial-making waste. I cover them in cheap brandy to preserve them, and they last until you’ve used them up – literally years.

Our ham was a £3 bacon hock, boiled and baked, studded with cloves, and basted in a glaze of spiced honey, ground ginger, mustard powder and marmalade. Now, we still do the same thing, but start with a Riverford pork joint, brining it before it’s baked. And turkey? Turkey crowns are legless turkeys. So any butcher selling the crowns will have a big, beautiful turkey leg lurking for you somewhere. Ask, and they will find!

A vegan loaf with Carlin peas is affordable and full of flavour.

Brining is easy. It gives a super succulent meat, and shortens cooking time, so saving fuel. It’s basically soaking the meat in a solution of salt, spices, herbs, and sometimes sugar, depending on what you’re trying to achieve. For a turkey leg, I use 50g of sea salt, a couple of bay leaves, crushed garlic cloves, and a cardamom pod in a litre or so of boiling water, weighing it down and turning it as needed, for 24 hours. To turn pork into ham, the brining period is two days per kg, so do remember to plan ahead.

To ‘hammify’ pork, I use 80g Himalayan pink salt and 100g brown sugar to two litres of filtered water, adding mace, bay leaves, cloves, stick cinnamon, and crushed black pepper. I leave it submerged in the brine for two days per kg, so a 500g joint will be ready in 24 hours, conveniently timed to accompany the turkey leg on the next stage of its journey, filling the oven and saving fuel. When it’s time to roast the meat, pat it dry and then coat in your favourite glaze or buttery herb coating.

But you’re vegan? Well. Instead of carb-heavy stuffing, I make a protein rich sage-and-onion vegan loaf using carlin peas and a gram flour batter. It’s luxurious, with chopped apricots and prunes, and the vegans around our table have to fight for their right to a slice, but that’s fine, because at roughly £1.00 per person, there’s plenty to go round.

Here’s my recipe:

Vegan slice

To make two side portions or one large main portion.

Smooth batter made from:

2 rounded tbsp gram flour

3 tbsp cold water

Half tin or 200g cooked Carlin peas

1 tsp coarsely chopped fresh orange peel

Small handful chopped dried apricots and prunes

Two large fresh sage leaves, chopped

2 tbsp rapeseed oil

Salt and pepper

Ground cinnamon to taste 

2 cloves garlic, chopped

1/2 small red onion, thinly sliced

Combine everything except the batter in a bowl, and then stir in the batter before transferring to a mold or tin lined with baking paper. A lidded pudding basin would also be perfect, and the slice could then be steamed and cut up like a Christmas pudding. Cover with baking paper, weight down, and put in the fridge for a few hours or overnight. It can then be baked in the oven or in a water bath, still covered to retain moisture. I cook mine inside a Dutch oven on top of the wood-burner, so the fuel is free. Once it’s firm to the touch, it’s done. It will go well with a light miso gravy as a main dish.


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