When visitors visit your Croydon home over the next few weeks, I'm sure you'll be able to welcome them with the smell of freshly baked mince pies, offer a warming glass of mulled wine and if needs be, rustle up a hearty meal at the drop of a hat...
No, me neither. And all the hints and tips in the world are unlikely to achieve the fantasy of a perfect Christmas, but there may be a few things that can help.
Before you start thinking about what you need to get IN for Christmas, take a look at what you need to get OUT. In the last couple of weeks, I have served up some, shall we say 'interesting' food combinations (battered fish, sprouts and potato wedges anyone? Burgers and Yorkshire pudding?) Some have been more successful than others, which have occasionally gone straight into the bin. But I hate waste and therefore had to try. I now have an almost totally empty freezer all ready and waiting to be filled with this year's crop of goodies.
Next stop the fridge. Last years's goose fat, maybe not - it's Christmas, I'll splash out on a new one. Get ruthless. Opened jars of jams and pickles should be stored in the fridge to prevent mould forming, but not for several years! Ideally, give your fridge a weekly clear out and don't keep the half bottle of barbeque sauce if you ONLY use it for barbeques! Don't waste unused fresh cream. Freeze in ice cube trays to use in cooking.
Cupboard time. Most packet foods, rice, pasta, sauces etc have a pretty long sell by date, but if the price ticket says 1s 4d (and yes, I did find one) you probably should get rid. Honey, syrup, sauces and mustards etc don't keep forever. My rule of thumb is if its less than a quarter full and I havent used it for a month I throw it (apart from alcohol of course - it's a natural preservative!)
Baking ingredients such as flour, sugars and dried fruits are best stored in airtight containers. They stay fresher longer and are less likely to spill. Even so, if the last time you baked, you made mince pies, you should probably still check for weevils! To keep biscuits and cakes fresher for longer, place a piece of bread in the tin with them.
Spices don't last forever - ideally they should be replaced every six months as they can lose their flavour. This year's mulled wine could be disappointing if you use last year's spices.
Similarly, fresh foods just don't keep like they used to. Add an apple to a bag of potatoes to stop them sprouting. Carrots and parsnips will last up to a week longer if stored in an airtight container. Most vegetables will last longer if left whole as they lose less moisture. Mushrooms, ginger and garlic should be kept in the dark - a brown paper bag is fine.
When choosing grapes, gently shake the bunch. If the grapes fall off the stems they are not particularly fresh. Buying fruit individually is not only normally cheaper, but you can make sure you don't find that one mouldy satsuma lurking in the bottom spreading its fuzz to the others. Citrus fruits should be stored at room temperature to keep them juicy. If you're using them for squeezing, roll them firmly on the kitchen worktop before juicing.
A good kitchen clear out is very theraputic and certainly in my case always ends up with half a bin bag full of rubbish. Now is the ideal time to do it - after all, you're going to need lots of space for the nuts, dates, chocolates and other 'essentials' of the coming weeks!