January. Month of melancholy, short days, dark mornings, cold drizzle, cloddy earth, bare trees.
There’s not much in the veg patch and the chickens have stopped laying. Christmas is but a dim memory, and many may slump into a gloomy depression.
And yet, looking carefully at the ground there are new shoots emerging and little bulbs forming. Soon there will be hellebores, and narcissus, and new shoots of rhubarb. The sun, low in the sky, offers tantalising glimmers and an often ethereal light, and there can be hope of new beginnings and better fortunes; a sense of closing the door on all that was bad in the old year and starting a new chapter.
In the kitchen I’m thinking about healthy eating having over indulged as usual over Christmas. It seems to me Christmas and New Year can feel like one long round of meat gorging. And we Brits love to do meat with our meat! So we stuff a bird with another bird, or we cook a ham as well as a turkey, or at the very least we add bacon wrapped sausages to our meat feast. So eating less meat in January just seems to happen naturally. Eating more frugally, more vegetarian based meals, or with only a bit of meat as accompaniment rather than the main event. There’ll be some meat free dishes in the Recipes section. In season are some great cabbage family members – sprouts, cavolo nero, kale – and roots – beetroot, celeriac, swede, parsnips, turnips – and I’ll post some great little weekday simple suppers based on those. Also in season are many fish and shellfish – low in fat, high in essential oils, tasty, nutritious and worthy! So I’ll get something fishy up there too. And of course it’s Seville orange season. So preserving is on my mind too.
In the Christian calendar we celebrate Epiphany, and then begin the journey to Easter via Christ’s presentation in the Temple, and the Annunciation (or announcement) to Mary that she would give birth to Jesus. In the Prayers section there’ll be prayers reflecting on the new year, on the major topical issues affecting our world, and thematic prayers for those seeking solace, or forgiveness, and prayers of thanksgiving.
December. Month of waiting and expectation. The first flurries of snow whipping children into bundles of freezing excitement and commuters into Scrooge-like grumpy old men. Christmas lights begin to twinkle and there’s a palpable sense of anticipation in the air…It’s Advent.
But amongst the excitement there can be real sadness too. For those who’ve lost loved ones this time of year, Christmas can never be the same, and for many there is fear not joy in family get togethers, and anxiety around the sheer expense of it all.
The snow which looks so beautiful on the church rooves will be deadly for those sleeping out on the streets, and thoughts turn to giving. What can we give? What can we do? Crisis at Christmas do wonderful work and there are so many ways to support them not just by donating money. 50 years after Ralph McTell first penned ‘Streets of London’, the legendary singer-songwriter has re-recorded it with a choir made up of Crisis clients from across Britain, and guest vocalist Annie Lennox. A 99p download goes straight to Crisis…
In the kitchen things are warming up with Christmas spices and scents.
Cinnamon and cloves, star anise and citrus peel; mulling wine for Carols by Candlelight, and mince pies baking in the oven. The Christmas cake is made and is now being fed weekly with a capful of brandy, or whisky, or whatever I can find! And planning for the big day begins. This year I’ll be serving Confit Duck Legs and my Fennel and Coriander rubbed Pork Belly along with all the usual trimmings. Crispy duck skin and pork crackling and meltingly soft duck and pork meat. What’s not to love?
Of course, the season of Advent is the first in the church year and a time when we prepare to celebrate the feast of the Nativity, the birth of Jesus Christ.
700 years before Jesus was born, the prophet Micah said, “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.”
And the prophet Isaiah said, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.”
And just as was prophesied Jesus was born to Mary, a virgin, in Bethlehem, and the rest is history, as they say! So as we go though Advent – perhaps opening chocolate calendars, perhaps rushing around with all the shopping and decorating, perhaps dreading the day itself – may I encourage you to slow down a moment? To wait a while in God’s presence. To marvel at that first Christmas day. To reconnect with the reason for the season. Otherwise what’s it all about?
Let me wish you a very Happy Christmas and a peaceful and blessed New Year
..with love and a prayer..
November. Month of bonfires and fireworks. Dark nights and darker mornings. Yorkshire Parkin, Toffee Apples and sausages cooked on sticks in the fire. Rib sticking, unctuous, deep, dark stews… and dumplings perhaps.
October. Month of grey skies, fading light, clocks turning back, conkers underfoot and a lingering melancholy. The leaves so bright and colourful begin to fall, revealing grim bare bones beneath and many want to dress up in grim bare bones…if only it were funny.
But all is not doom and gloom. There are joys and sweet treasures in damp Autumn walks – the shiny glisten of horse chestnuts, memories of strings and childhoods long gone; newly ploughed fields rise and fall, their deep brown ridges showing off the fertility within, and beaded cobwebs hang languidly from bejewelled hedgerows.
In the garden centres, supermarkets and farmers fields pumpkins abound. Many will be destined to have cruel faces carved in them but stop a while at the farm shop and choose from dozens of winter squashes and plan a lovely soup. We seem to have borrowed so much from the United States and whilst I love the abundant availability of pumpkins and winter squash, I don’t love the celebration and commercialisation of Halloween.
But in the kitchen I’ll be celebrating the pumpkin with soups, risottos and pasta fillings. Winter squashes seem to have an affinity with melting cheese so are great with winter carbs – rice and pasta. Fill ravioli with a butternut squash puree, and serve with a sage butter and grated parmesan. So simple, so delicious! Or finish off a pumpkin risotto with a punchy blue cheese – creamy and oozy.
And to make a simple soup really special? Hollow out a large pumpkin using the flesh to make a soup (I’ll throw in a recipe this month), then serve the steaming soup in the pumpkin topped with frazzled chorizo and grated aged Gouda. Replace the lid and take to the table and let your guests “Ooh!” and “Aah!” as you take off the lid revealing strings of cheese and glorious soup. I once did this with an indoor firework pierced into the pumpkin lid, only revealing the contents once the firework had finished. Sadly I don’t have a picture of this, but I urge you to give it a go!
Whether Halloween originated as a Pagan, Celtic, or Christian festival, October 31st is also Reformation Day, commemorating the day in 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of Wittenburg Church. Luther was confronting corruption within the Roman Catholic church which was promoting doctrines like the selling of indulgences, the treasury of merit, purgatory, and salvation through good works. In its place, the Protestant Reformation represented the doctrine of justification – that is salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.
Romans 3:20-21 says: “20 Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin. 21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. “
And remember, if October is a time of darkening days and a celebration or trivialisation of dark forces, remember Jesus is the Light of the World. Whoever follows Him will never walk in darkness, but have the light of life.
September: Month of timetables renewed, schedules rescheduled, routines resumed. Back to school, back to college, back to uni, back to work, back.. back.. back.. all freedoms given up, all summer gains relinquished.
Warm days end sooner and vests give way to cardigans, short sleeves to long, exposed legs to covered.
Soft rains seem to be toughening, long days are definitely shortening, and Sunday evenings become “early to bed nights” again. There’s a touch of regret in the air for the end of the summer, occasionally replaced with the secret smile of Autumn’s beginning. Leaves are just beginning to turn and soon we’ll be marching forwards into crunchy leaves, muddy boots and crackling log fires. But not yet…. So there’s a melancholy betwixt and between – one season ends but another is not yet in full flow.
In the kitchen thoughts turn to warmer dishes – spices and chillies adding appeal and greater depth of flavour to whatever’s roasting. Summer fruits give way to apples and pears, and blackberries and sloes fill the hedgerows. Damsons and cobnuts take us back to a bygone era, old fashioned ingredients that seem to belong to a more rural and rustic September past. Butternut squashes and pumpkins ripen and cure in the veg patch ready for soups and risottos as we slide into October. Nature’s larder seems full.
Correspondingly in the church we celebrate Harvest Festival – a time of thanksgiving for what God has provided and a time to give back to those more in need in the community. Whether you celebrate harvest or not September is a great time to collect items for your local food bank. They will come under increasing pressures as temperatures drop and more households need help.
Many churches also celebrate the feast of Matthew, apostle and evangelist. Follower of Jesus and author of one of the four gospels, Matthew is said to have witnessed both the resurrection and the ascension. Matthew’s intention in his writing is to prove to the Jews that Jesus Christ is the promised Messiah and so, more than any other gospel writer, he quotes the Old Testament to show how Jesus fulfilled the words of the Jewish prophets.
Psalm 67 v 6 says, “The land yields its harvest; God, our God, blesses us.”
August. Month of explosive growth in hedgerows and vegetable patches, waist high weeds in unattended verges, leafy tunnels over roads created by trees overloaded with greenery; parents begin to run out of ideas for entertaining children, and church pews are emptier than usual.
In the hedgerows blackberries and crab apples offer opportunities for early preserving whilst fresh acorns and conkers remind us that Autumn is only around the corner. And whilst it might be cool and it might be rainy buttercups and wild flowers cheer us running riot on the roadside.
Tomatoes have ripened, even outdoors, offering sweet jewels and bursts of high flavours; daily harvests of different shapes, colours and sizes – pair them with basil from the windowsill and buffalo mozzarella and the best extra virgin olive oil you can get! For salad dressing recipes see here. The courgettes will still be going strong and if you’re not careful you’ll have marrows on your hands. If you’re lucky enough to have a greenhouse and grow aubergines and peppers then you have a full ratatouille going on in your garden.
If you’ve a second flush of rhubarb I’ll be sharing a Rhubarb and Strawberry Jam recipe – it has a beautiful, clear salmon pink colour and tastes really fresh on your toast or in your Victoria sponge. And if it has to be crumble I can recommend Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s crumble recipe which includes oats and ground almonds and is very good.
In Anglican and Catholic churches August celebrates the Transfiguration of Christ, one of the great bible miracles, unique in that instead of being performed by Jesus it happens to Jesus. Referred to several times in the New Testament, Jesus and three of his apostles, Peter, James, John, go to a mountain to pray. On the mountain, Jesus begins to shine with bright rays of light. Then the prophets Moses and Elijah appear next to him and he speaks with them. Jesus is then called “Son” by a voice in the sky, assumed to be God the Father, as in the Baptism of Jesus. The appearance of Elijah fulfills an Old Testament prophecy by Malachi and the setting on the mountain is presented as the meeting place of the temporal and the eternal, with Jesus himself as the connecting point, acting as the bridge between heaven and earth.In Matthew chapter 17 we read, “There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.”
Long before I had ever read those words I experienced an encounter, or a vision – call it what you will – of a Jesus figure just like that: shining, irridescent, open armed. It was like an invitation. I knew there was nothing actually there, but I could see a figure and I knew it was Jesus. I didn’t speak of it for years fearing people would think I was bonkers, but now I’ve reached a sense of ease with it. Just as I am at ease with some of the tension that exists between faith and science. I don’t know how; I don’t understand; but I do believe.
And if God says, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” then that’s what I’m going to try do.
July. Month of long, lazy days, the sun high in the sky, noisy pub gardens, barbecues and Wimbledon; churches serving cream teas and strawberries and cream everywhere.
Summer has definitely arrived and thoughts turn to holidays, faraway shores, azure skies and turquoise seas; ditching the diet and relaxing the rules.
The courgettes have got into full swing and we’ll be needing to revisit and rediscover the myriad of ways of serving them. Their flowers look so pretty and beg to be stuffed with ricotta and herbs, or battered and deep fried, sprinkled with crunchy sea salt. The veg patch really begins to burst at the seams – broad beans, chard, baby beets, new potatoes, cherry tomatoes – a real rainbow for the table and feast for the senses.
French beans and runners are now yielding their flowers to dangly green worms and soon we’ll be overrun with them too. Get the blackcurrants before the pigeons and you can contemplate making Cassis or blackcurrant ripple ice cream, and redcurrants and blueberries provide a beautiful addition to a pavlova.
In church terms we’re now in a period of “Ordinary Time” – a chance perhaps to reflect on where we are; to reflect on the role church plays in society; a time to consider how we can be more Christ-like to the world in which we live. How are we using the gifts we have been given? Do we glorify God with the way we run our lives? For me this is always difficult – I seem to be particularly good at messing up, and losing the Christian plot. But there are two verses that I always find encouraging so I give them to you here:
Jeremiah 29:11 says,“ For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
Philippians 4:13 says, “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.”
I hope they encourage you too. Happy July.
June. Month of blue skies, swifts swooping, fledgling birds emerging from their nests, trees fully clothed, teens taking exams, teachers and mothers just hanging on till the end of term.
Long light evenings tempt us out to share a drink with friends and for a brief while we become a bit more relaxed, a little more “Mediterranean”. It may even be summer. Some years the hottest days are June days and we wonder if they will last through July and August.
Gardens are in full flower and in the veg patch the baby broad beans are ready – try blanching them and serving on toast spread with a mild goats cheese and a lemony vinaigrette – and first early potatoes appear from warm soil ready to be served simply with butter and chives or a salsa verde. Fresh young peas are delicious simply podded & eaten within minutes of picking. With an aperitif on a warm evening nothing beats their sweet green liveliness. In the markets soft fruits abound and begin to taste properly of themselves; glorious doughnut peaches, cherries and strawberries – eat them at every meal – with yoghurt at breakfast, in salads at lunch, and naked or with cream for evening dessert. Dip strawberries & cherries in chocolate for a sweet treat. All seems possible, all seems permissible in this delicious month of June!
In the church we celebrate Pentecost. The birth of Christianity, the early beginning of the church, the time when the Holy Spirit came to the 12 disciples just as Jesus had promised. What a wonderful gift we have? The Holy Spirit who in dwells; who convicts us and gives us strength; our guide in life and the confidence of our faith.
June 2017 is turning out to be a horrific month in the U.K. There have been terrorist attacks, devastating fires, and political chaos. Let’s cover it all with prayer. In churches, in small groups, in private prayer.
Jesus said, ” For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” Matthew 18:20, so let’s pray with great fervour and compassion for the pain and the suffering this month.
May. Month of flowers blooming, sun warming, and chickens brooding; lighter moods, bank holidays, RHS garden shows and busy garden centres.
Anything seems possible, the mantel of winter is long since forgotten, and we look forward to summer with renewed hope, as if for the first time discovering the pleasure of sunlight touching skin. Spring blossom may be almost past but instead baby fruits begin to appear, tiny cherries, gooseberries, blackcurrants. The herbs are fresh and verdant, beautiful chive flowers dancing on the breeze, mint thrusting up strong and carelessly, thyme flowering daintily, oregano bold and reliable.
Rhubarb is still performing and the Rhubarb Gin has been made. It is quite sweet and could be drunk on its own although caution is recommended! Such a pretty light pink, mixed with a deeper pink rhubarb syrup, some lime, an egg and a couple of drops of vanilla it makes a beautiful cocktail, we have decided to call Rhubarb and Custard.
With the chive flowers we’re making chive flower vinegar, a lovely addition to the store cupboard and lovely for salad dressings. Other herb vinegars will no doubt follow suit. Asparagus and Jersey Royals are abounding in greengrocers and supermarkets alike and with the abundance of eggs I’m thinking of asparagus, new potato and herb frittatas making lovely light lunches.
Christians will celebrate the Ascension this year in May (with Pentecost coming shortly on its heels at the beginning of June.) The Ascension represents Christ’s glorification and exaltation following his resurrection from the dead, the time when he is reunited with his Heavenly Father, resuming his rightful place. It is the beginning of a new phase of ministry through His church, empowered by the Holy Spirit.
“6 So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” 9 And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” Acts 1: 6-10
April. Month of lengthened days, brisker steps, glorious sunsets and peach tinged sunrises, feathery clouds, flourishing hedgerows and chattering dawns.
The light has a new openness to it, inviting us out, as if to spiritual contemplation, and it stirs from deep within a corporeal admission of awe at the wonder of creation. The hedgerows are burgeoning with Blackthorn blossom, and the undergrowth is full of fresh nettles looking good enough to make into soup, not yet defiled by animal or traffic. In the garden ornamental cherries are making deep and meaningful promises with buds so much darker than the blossom that will follow, and plum trees are displaying their first delicate white blossom buds.
Spring has definitely sprung full on and with a warmth around the edges of the days thoughts may turn to summer, but beware! Whilst there’s work to be done in the vegetable beds old Jack Frost may still yet nip at tender plants, undoing the work done in greenhouses and coldframes.
With the rhubarb in full growth I’m thinking about rhubarb gin, followed by boozy pies or crumbles made with the gin infused pink stuff. I’m planning a favourite spiced lamb shoulder for an epic Easter feast. If you can find wild garlic in shady spots – often by rivers – then use it in fabulous pestos or stir fries, or with those nettles in a mild hedgerow soup. There may be the first of the Jersey royals – fabulous in warm potato salads with tender purple sprouting broccoli shoots – or simply dressed with butter and mint alongside a grilled trout fillet.
And Easter tells us the main Christian story, what it’s all about. It’s not about a manger, or a miracle, it’s not about a teacher and his disciples, it’s not about a donkey or the palms or even raising the dead. It’s all about the cross. So with deep solemnity we contemplate and share in Jesus’s last supper or Passover, with deep sorrow we bow our heads at Jesus’s agony on the cross, and with the deepest joy we praise God for the good news of the resurrection, and His promise of salvation to all who believe.
In John 5:24 Jesus says, “Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life.”
March. Month of lightened hearts, budding shoots, flowering bulbs, colour at last, bluer skies.
The air feels lighter, as if stretching its shoulders after months being hunched up, the edge has gone off it, and we imagine it’s Spring proper. Hellebores and narcissi tell us it’s Spring, the chickens are back to regular laying and we’re overrun with eggs once more. Yet the risk of snow is not past, and even with 11 hours of daylight the hedgerows still have some work to do.
Thoughts turn to spring cleaning and there’s an urge to declutter after the hunkering down of Winter. Out with the candles and in with the flowers. Fling open the curtains and the windows as well, breathe deeply, relax, Spring is just around the corner.
In the kitchen I’m already thinking of lighter dishes – less stew, more fricassee; less steaming, more stir-fry. And salads may emerge again from winter hibernation – not the light and frothy salads of summer, but more robust, interesting slaws and salads with carbs, perhaps warm or with warm additions. Perhaps we’ll get the first of the purple sprouting broccoli and serve it simply – pan fried with butter, garlic and lemon, or dip it, like soldiers, in softly boiled eggs. I’m already thinking about spring lamb although it may be a tad too early for that.
In the church calendar it’s the beginning of Lent, time of fasting and reflection as we run down to Holy Week. Kicking off with Ash Wednesday, Lent represents the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the desert, and its purpose is to prepare the Christian heart through prayer and repentance and other acts of atonement. It’s a time for spiritual discipline, daily devotion, a time to draw near to God. It can be solemn although not uninspiring, a time to think deeply about what it means to be Christian; what it means to follow Christ.
“Now is the healing time decreed for sins of heart and word and deed, when we in humble fear record the wrong that we have done the Lord.” (Latin, before 12th century)
February. Month of nascent hope, damp skies, hanging air, sodden ground, flooded fields.
It’s mostly grey, yet tinged with the faintest blue. Still light beyond 4.00p.m. adding length to the day, time for more jobs and a little hope to the soul. The low sun creates colour at sunset. The chickens have noticed the additional light and now and then pop out the odd egg. Feathers begin to puff out and scarlet combs deepen, standing tall. And in the borders worms abound for chickens and pigeons alike. Robins visit often.
It’s time to start thinking about seed sowing. Seed catalogues arrive, tempting with their perfect produce, promising far more we can deliver, teasing with abundance spilling out from every page. What will we grow this year?
In the kitchen new hope brings experiments. Chinese New Year at the end of January got me thinking of cooking takeaway style favourites and so there’ll be my experimental version of Char Sui Pork – sticky, sweet, and lush. And having recovered from the excesses of Christmas and survived a more frugal, worthy January, it’s time to bake again. Everything in moderation of course, but a brownie here and a biscuit there will not do much harm, so there’ll be recipes for those. In season, parsnips, and winter squashes; celeriac, swede and other root veg are still around so I’m thinking warming roasts, gratins and braises with those. And whilst it’s still cold there’ll be more winter warming stews and casseroles, maybe a game style pie with venison still in season. For lighter suppers I’m heading to the fishmongers – perhaps I’ll pick up the last of the mussels, clams or cockles and make a seafood broth, or some lovely skate wings to poach and serve with a brown butter. And there will definitely be blood oranges and forced rhubarb in there somewhere!
In the Anglican church calendar February is a period of “ordinary time”; so a time to reflect on what is going on in the world, to ask the question, “What would Jesus do?”, to consider Christian themes of forgiveness and grace, and to learn how to be better disciples of Christ. On Valentine’s day I’ll be thinking about the real meaning of love, and trying to get to grips with the magnitude of God’s love. So this month’s prayers will reflect on that love and those Christian themes and worldly issues.