Category Archives: Soup

In search of lost soup

I know, I know, it’s been a million years. But, as a quick glance at the previous two posts will reveal, there have been reasons. But I refuse to be beaten by an ill-advised foray into draft beer at a festival.

So I’ve had to adapt. Lactose, in the form of milk, cream and most forms of soft cheese, is emphatically out. I have to be careful with fat. But everything else is fine, including wine (and for someone who spends time editing wine books, that’s a big plus). Current wine find? I can’t quite believe it, but Tesco’s ‘Finest’ Soave Superiore Classico is amazing value for money.

And the whole thing got me thinking about food I really enjoy. Not about great glistening mounds of roast pork, huge piles of meringues stuffed with cream: they belong in the past. But about things which I can really enjoy without fear of sparking anything off. Bread. Beautiful sourdough, crisply crusty and delicious; soda breads, sharp and tasty, breads flavoured with carraway, olives or herbes de Provence. Roast chicken, sans, naturally these days, the skin. Soups… and the latter prompted me to remember a soup which I once loved very much indeed.

I was a baby bookseller in London, paid very little. My friends, almost without exception, were in similar straits. I used to go to a – well, what was it? Not really a restaurant. A canteen? That’s more like it. It was run by a church, not sure which one, but it was vegetarian, as was I at the time. (They weren’t Buddhist; I was queueing to pay when one of the precise young men on the till killed a fly. ‘That’s not very Buddhist,’ said the man in front of me, mildly. ‘I am NOT A BUDDHIST!’ yelled the cashier, going red in the face and clenching his fists; he was hurried away by a companion. So, not Buddhist.) It was in a basement, and I remember it as dark and cosy and a favourite haunt of a potter friend.

We used to go there regularly, and I was always overjoyed if a particular soup was on the menu. It wasn’t, often, but come the colder months it could be found more reliably. I’ve messed with trying to recreate it, but I think I’ve finally got there.

Potato and dill soup
(serves 3, or 4 with more liquid)

I tsp vegetable oil
2 medium onions, chopped
2 large cloves of garlic, finely chopped
500g potatoes, partly peeled and chopped (floury: Maris Piper are ideal)
1 bay leaf
800ml vegetable stock
1 tsp freeze-dried dill tops (if using fresh, add more)

Warm the oil in a heavy-bottomed pan, and sweat the onion down; don’t let it catch. Then add the garlic and the potatoes and swirl them around in the softened onions. Add the bay leaf and the stock and bring to the boil. Then lower the heat and simmer the soup for about 12-15 minutes, or until the potatoes are nice and soft. Then add the dill and cook for another minute. Remove the pan from the heat and blend the soup: it should be smooth and thick, so it’s probably best to use a stand rather than a stick blender. Check for seasoning, and serve with crusty bread.

(Add extra liquid at the blending stage, if wished – but go easy. My failed recreations were often too watery.)

I am so pleased that I’ve got there – the bay leaf made all the difference. And it tastes almost as good as it did when I was  a 22-year-old impoverished bookseller, sitting on a communal table in a dark basement and putting the world to rights in my lunch break.



Raving about ribollita

I’m still dealing with the great Snowdonia kale mountain, which looks dangerously as though it’s about to run to seed. So much for my ‘hungry gap’ filler. Better pick it and eat it, then. And I know just what to do with it.

ribollita in progressOne of my all-time favourite ways to use the cavolo nero which grows so well in my garden is in the Italian soup ribollita: ribollita because it’s ‘reboiled’ – cooked one day, reheated and eaten the next. And the day after that.

What am I saying? It’s not Italian, it’s Tuscan. I’ve been doing a bit of research and have come to the conclusion that there are as many versions as there are Tuscan grandmothers.

There are four constants: kale or dark cabbage, some sort of dried or canned bean, olive oil and bread. One person’s nonna used potatoes; another thought that putting them in was a crime. Someone else refused to believe that you could have a ribollita without the addition of sausage. The identity of the beans caused a debate too: borlottis, or cannellini beans? What about tomatoes? Obligatory, or an offence?

So I turned to my collection of recipe books, and found an equal variety. One has a version which includes both potatoes and sausages, and suggests using any white beans, including butter beans. River Cafe have a fabulous recipe which goes for cannellini beans, no potatoes or sausage – only it serves 10. Anna del Conte’s recipe from Classic Food of Northern Italy has chillies in it (cannellini beans; no to sausage, yes to potato, yes to tomatoes). I’ve found another which adds chard and bread to a basic minestrone, and the minestrone has bacon in it as well as pasta and wine (surely not). I’ve found a recipe from another well-known food writer which oddly has no greens. That’s definitely not ribollita, but it may be an editing error.

I give up. But not on ribollita, because if I do give up on that the kale plants will uproot themselves and come marching into the house like triffids. So I’m doing my ordinary ribollita: no sausages, no potatoes, no pasta, no chillies, no wine (well, maybe a splash), no bacon; borlotti beans because I’ve got some in, and tomatoes just because.

serves 4

1 small head of celery
1 tbsp olive oil
3 carrots, peeled and chopped into roughly 1-cm pieces
2 small red onions, peeled and chopped
2 large cloves of garlic, crushed
a good bunch of flat-leaved parsley
250ml passata, or 1 x 400g tin tomatoes, drained and chopped (set the juice aside)
a huge armful of cavolo nero – about 750g untrimmed, 500g trimmed
1 x 400g tin of borlotti beans

To serve: good bread – it can be a day old – and more olive oil

Trim the celery well and remove the strings with a knife, then chop the sticks finely. If the leaves look good, finely chop a few of those too and put them to one side. Heat the olive oil in a large casserole or pan (with a lid) over a low to medium heat, and add the chopped celery, carrots and onions. Put the lid on and allow the vegetables to cook until soft, but don’t let them colour up. Add the garlic when the vegetables are almost ready; it – especially – must not burn, and then add the parsley and celery leaves (if using), stir them in, and cook everything together for a couple more minutes. Add the passata and continue cooking for another half hour or so – check to make sure the soup isn’t catching during this time; add a little water if necessary.

While the ribollita base is cooking, trim the cavolo nero. Discard any thick stems and, above all, any caterpillars (eek – surely it’s too early!), and then chop it into fine strips – it looks like a vast amount but it cooks down. Drain the borlotti beans and rinse them; put half the tin in a small bowl. Add the cavolo nero and the rest of the borlottis to the ribollita, and then top up with water, but be careful – this is a very thick soup (this is where you can add a splash of wine). Bring the heat up and simmer the ribolitta for 20 minutes or so.

Mash the remaining borlotti beans up with a fork and add them to the pan; cook for a further 10 minutes. If you want to be authentic – and it’s worth it for the depth of flavour – take the soup off the heat and leave it overnight, in the fridge if your house is warm (if you can’t wait, cook it down until the soup is very thick). Check for seasoning before reheating, then cook it until there is very little liquid left. Break up some stale-ish bread and stir it into the ribollita just before serving. Ladle the soup into bowls – it should be too thick to pour easily – then add a good drizzle of olive oil and serve.

ribollita ready

And it’s yummy. Especially on a day like today when the mist is down, the drizzle is persistent and yesterday’s promise of spring was a cruel joke from the weather gods.

chickens for soup...

On comfort food and chicken soup

I have not been very well and, while I haven’t felt an awful lot like eating, it takes more than a nasty virus to stop me thinking about food.

The Sick Lady(This is me. Oh, all right, it isn’t. I’m in jeans. And I’m not getting any sympathy at all.)

I have had a horrible cold, followed by bronchitis. OK, none of it’s very serious when compared to what some of my friends are going through, but it’s thoroughly unpleasant. And of course the infectious nature means I’m steering clear of people, particularly a couple of friends who are immuno-supressed at the mo.

I have been distracting myself with thoughts of comfort food. Not, until recently, eating that much of it, and I admit my interpretation might be a little eccentric: for some reason taramasalata doesn’t often crop up on lists of foods that make you feel better. I’ve been having a lot of mashed potato and chicken soup – not together, eeeugh – which is possibly unsurprising, as I clearly remember someone once describing mashed potato to me as the gentile equivalent of chicken soup. Comfort food. But chicken soup also does you good. Mashed potato? Not the same. Nobody ever called mashed potato ‘gentile penicillin’.

Chicken soup helps – and this is really true, backed up by some serious science which must have been fun to do if the researchers were allowed to taste – with colds and coughs. It is not a myth; it’s reality. It has anti-inflammatory properties. Yes, it improves hydration; yes, it helps your ‘nutritional balance’ – but, and more significantly, yes, it accelerates ‘mucosal clearance’. Perhaps doing the research wasn’t so pleasant after all…

chickens for soup...Over the years I’ve had a bash at all sorts of variations on the chicken soup theme, from great chunks of chicken in cock-a-leekie (yum) to home-made chicken stock in an avgolemono (also yum). Oh, yum to the lot of them – well, except from some rather bizarre-tasting tinned things, that is.

But when I talk to some of my friends about making chicken soup, the general consensus – and there are some very honourable exceptions – is that it’s too much faff. But it doesn’t have to be, unless you want to go into overdrive and Eastern-European shtetl-based stereotypes and boil up a raggedy old fowl for several hours first while playing the fiddle on a roof.

So here are a couple of simple chicken soup suggestions with some variations – written out generally as most of them are designed to be riffed on, as it were. And both of them involve the remains of a roast chicken (you can bake a couple of chicken thighs if the two-legged mice have been at your cold chicken while you weren’t looking). Both are designed to serve two, though they can easily be stretched further.

First, my simple roast chicken soup:
Strip all the meat from a roast chicken carcass; there are usually some pieces left over which nobody quite fancies. Remove the skin and any bits of gristle from these, and put them to one side – ending up with a small pudding-bowl full of meat. Put a little oil in a pan over a medium heat. Peel and finely chop a medium onion, two carrots, two sticks of celery. Add to the pan and cook gently until transparent – do not brown. Peel a medium-sized potato and add that, then add the chicken and enough chicken stock (ideally, but good vegetable stock also works) to cover. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer until all the vegetables are soft. Check for seasoning, adjust the thickness by adding some boiling water if necessary, then blend the soup. Serve and start feeling better.

• Omit the carrots;
• Use a couple of slim leeks instead of the onion;
• Add two chopped cloves of garlic in the last minute or so of cooking the onion, carrot and celery;
• Add a little smoked paprika at this stage (but not with the garlic: hmm? Nope, too much – for me, anyway);
• Don’t blend the soup, or blend some of it and then return it to the pan to reheat.

And a quick Chinese-style chicken soup:
You need some good-quality chicken stock for this – about 600ml – as well as the bowl of chicken bits. Put the stock in a pan and bring it to the boil (skim if necessary). While it is coming to the boil, finely chop about 150g mushrooms, a clove of garlic and a piece of fresh ginger about 2cm square. Cut four thick spring onions into fine diagonal slices, and shred a couple of small pak choi. Add the garlic, ginger, mushrooms and chicken to the boiling stock and cook for five minutes. Then add the spring onions and pak choi. Simmer for a couple more minutes, check the seasoning, and serve.

• Add finely chopped chillies. Or chilli. As many and as hot as you dare (that will scare the cold bugs away). Add with the mushrooms, garlic etc.
• Add a dash of Tabasco.
• Try using Chinese dried mushrooms – about 25g, rehydrated in boiling water for 20 mins, then drained and chopped.
• You can add a beaten egg for the ‘egg flower’ effect and some extra nutritional oomph. When there’s barely a minute to go, beat an egg well and drizzle it into the cooking soup over an upturned fork. Don’t stir; remove from the heat and serve.
• Or add a few noodles. A few.

You can freeze the first one – beautifully. Not the second, though; it needs to be fresh.

Interestingly, the chemical composition of a good chicken soup is remarkably close to that of a drug (acetylcysteine) which is sometimes used to treat bronchitis. I have bronchitis. I clearly need chicken soup. NOW. I’m off to get some chicken thighs and get stuck into making more.

Jan Steen, Fat Kitchen
Jan Steen – Fat Kitchen



The soup addict is back, with sweet potatoes

That’s it. It’s blowing a hooley outside, the car’s in for its annual service, the stove has been lit despite the general mildness (it’s getting damp, too), and I’ve made the first soup of the season.

I do like cold soups – there are a couple of recipes here – but to me there is something profoundly wrong about serving soup, especially a warm soup, in summer. I know, I know: get over it, what about avgolemono, shorbat ads? My response is that it gets cold around the Med too, and that’s the time for soup. It’s certainly colder here, so I went looking for inspiration. I fancied something a bit different; I’ve got plenty of squash in, but there’s also plenty of squash soup in the freezer already. Plus (and I know this is silly), I wanted the variety of using bought ingredients. I’ve been using squash and tomatoes and beans and shallots and spuds for months. I wanted a change! I wanted exotica!

What I got, when I finally made it to the Co-op rather late in the day, was a sweet potato. And a red pepper.

IMG_0492sweet potato and red pepper soupI like a sweet potato soup, and red pepper goes well. But I still craved something a bit unusual, and sweet potato can be (surprise, surprise) a little too sweet. Obviously onions, garlic – but what about something to give a bit of oomph? A squeeze of lemon? Coriand-– no. Chillies, make a really hot soup? Nah, but maybe on the right lines. So I toyed with the idea of adding some pimenton dulce for the smoky taste, but in the end decided I didn’t want to overdo the whole capsicums thing. Then I hit on it: smoked garlic.

I know, very noughties. But I had a serious smoked garlic habit at one time, and I used it a lot – in marinades, in casseroles, in dips. It’s not that easy to get now, almost impossible round me and definitely impossible in the Co-op on a wet Monday night, but you can get smoked garlic paste and smoked garlic powder, and I had some in. Time to experiment…

Sweet potato and red pepper soup with smoked garlic
serves 3-4, depending on portion size and how thick you like your soup

1 medium to large sweet potato
1 large red pepper
1 medium onion
1 tsp rapeseed oil (or other neutral oil)
2 small cloves of garlic, chopped
1/2 tsp smoked garlic powder, or to taste – but not more than 1 tsp
700-900ml vegetable stock

Peel and chop the sweet potato into chunks no larger than 2cm; deseed and chop the pepper and finely chop the onion. Put the oil in a heavy-bottomed pan over a medium heat, and add the onion. Cook very gently without burning for about 10 minutes, until the onion is soft and transparent – this is sometimes easier with a lid on the pan. Add the chopped garlic and cook for another minute, then stir in the smoked garlic powder, mixing it in well. Add the sweet potato and the red pepper, and stir them round too. Then add enough stock to cover and increase the heat. Bring the soup to the boil, reduce the heat and simmer until all the vegetables are soft. Blend the soup and adjust the thickness with a little water if you wish; reheat if necessary.

The best thing about this? Not just the taste, which I love – but the fact that it sent me into my store cupboards in search of possibilities. I felt a bit like Howard Carter peering into Tutankhamun’s tomb: ‘What can you see?’ ‘Wonderful things…’ Watch out for recipes involving amchoor powder, a chermoula spice blend, barberries, vast quantities of ras-el-hanout, za’atar, black cardamoms and graines de paradis. Maybe not all at the same time, mind.

Hot weather soups

Today the title of this post seems a little optimistic, but I’m hoping I can entice the warmer weather back by stating it as a fact. Well, it might work…

I am, without any doubt, a soup addict but at this time of year even I go off them a bit. After I abandoned a bowl of mushroom soup the other day I decided I needed an cold alternative, and one that wasn’t gazpacho. So I turned to one of my favourite books, Lindsay Bareham’s Celebration of Soup, and there were a few interesting suggestions, though not a lot – but many of them foundered on the fact that I’m lactose intolerant. I have to avoid milk and cream, and though I could now take a tablet which would enable me to digest lactose, many years of white liquids making me ill means I contemplate them with distaste (but yoghurt is fine; the bacteria in yoghurt help generate enzymes which digest lactose; go yoghurt).

cold soupThen I went back to some of my other, often older, books. An obvious choice, and a version of which does appear in Soup, was a Middle Eastern one, a classic which crops up in many sources: cucumber, yoghurt, garlic, mint. A lot of the versions I found used cream, like Lindsey Bareham’s, so I decided to go back to the absolute basics and see if it was really necessary…

Cold cucumber, mint and yoghurt soup
(serves 2, generously)

a sliver of butter
1 tsp olive oil
2 shallots, peeled and chopped
1 cucumber, peeled, deseeded and chopped
1 clove of garlic, peeled but whole
a good handful of fresh mint, chopped
500ml natural yoghurt
salt and white pepper

Melt the butter with the oil in a heavy-bottomed pan over a gentle heat. Add the shallots and allow them to cook – without browning – for a few minutes and then add the chopped cucumber. Cook for another 5 minutes, stirring and checking that there’s no hint if browning, and then add about 300-400ml of water – enough to cover. Cook, very gently, for 5 minutes more. Keep checking that there’s enough liquid and add a little more if necessary. Add the chopped mint and cook for another 10-15 minutes, or until the shallot and cucumber are really soft and the liquid has cooked well down.

Put a sieve over a large bowl and empty the vegetables into it; remove the garlic clove and discard it. Work the soup through the sieve with a wooden spoon. Discard any bits which won’t go through – there shouldn’t be much – and scrape any pulp off the bottom of the sieve into the bowl. Test the soup base; by now it should be tepid. Add the yoghurt and stir it in (a whisk is useful) until it has a texture similar to single cream; thin with a little water if necessary. Check for seasoning, cover the bowl and chill in the fridge for a minimum of 2 hours.

(Removing the garlic after cooking is optional. Including it can make the soup taste overwhelmingly garlicky, but if it’s mild you could leave it in – chop it roughly before cooking, though.)

mintI grow a lot of herbs, and currently have six different mints; for this soup I used a mixture of spearmint, garden mint and a Moroccan mint, plus something described as ‘chocolate mint’ on the label. Happily, it doesn’t taste remotely of chocolate…

I also grow lovage, and that gave me an idea for another soup, made along the same lines:
celery and lovage soup.

I won’t bother to write out all the method again, as it’s essentially the same. For two, I used a whole head of celery, including the leaves, and 4 shallots; no garlic. I trimmed the celery but didn’t de-string it before chopping. I cooked these gently down, this time using a neutral rapeseed oil, and needed to add more water so they didn’t catch; they also took longer. I added a good handful of chopped lovage leaves after 25 minutes, and cooked the vegetables for another 10. The pushing through the sieve produces more pulp for discarding – mostly celery strings as far as I could see – and I had to be careful when scraping the pulp off the bottom of the sieve as some of the strings worked their way through at the end. I didn’t need quite so much yoghurt to get the right texture this time. This celery and lovage soup has a delicious, almost lightly curried flavour, and I ground some black pepper over it before serving rather than adding white pepper before chilling. Yum.

Very refreshing, and doubtless there’ll be more experimenting before the summer (HINT, weather gods) is over. I can’t do without my soups.

I can do without some things, though. Several of the authors of the older recipes I uncovered in my ridiculously large collection of cookery books obviously felt that subtle colour wasn’t good enough. Personally, I don’t see lots of green food colouring as a necessary soup ingredient (eek)…

Unseasonably cold? That means soup!

As a gardener, I do keep a sort of record – and so I know that it’s often chilly and stormy at this time of year, here on the west coast of Wales. I’ve often ended up having to replant things which I was rash enough to put in the veg beds, and I generally have the last fire in the woodburner about now. This year, however, I seem to have forgotten all that and have been taken by surprise. My immediate reaction, though, wasn’t to go out and chop logs. It was to make soup.

I don’t tend to have soups in summer; it seems wrong, on some sort of fundamental level. Don’t get me wrong; I like cold soups but it seldom occurs to me to make one. Whereas it’s almost the first thing I consider for lunch on a cold, rainy, windy day – in May. Grumble.

So I hit the recipe books and notes in search of inspiration, given that I’d also just come back from Aldi with a supply of veggie bargains. No more shopping; time to adapt and improvise and come up with something which would work. Because it is, ostensibly, spring I went to various Italian recipes – Italian food somehow seems less depressingly wintry than what’s happening outside – and ended up with a variation on an old favourite…

One word: I usually have home-made tomato and herb passata in the freezer; it’s a godsend if you grow too many tomatoes, as I always do (they’re as bad as the beans). By now I’m gearing up for the new growing year, and am keen to use what’s in stock; I’ve got another three boxes of this to go. But a bottle will do just as well, though adding a little basil would be good.

Emergency Minestra di Ceci
serves 4

Soup yum1 small red onion
1 banana shallot
5g butter
1 tsp olive oil
3 sticks of celery
2 small carrots
1 red pepper
350ml tomato passata
1 x 400g tin of chickpeas
1 bay leaf
1 sprig of thyme

Peel and finely chop the red onion and the shallot. Put the butter and oil in a heavy pan or casserole and heat them gently, then add the chopped onion and shallot. Sweat them over a low heat for 5 minutes or so, making sure that they don’t catch. Chop the celery and carrots finely while the onions are cooking, and then add them to the pan too. Continue cooking for another 5 minutes or so, until the onion and shallot are transparent and softening. De-seed and chop the red pepper, also finely, and then add it to the pan as well. Continue cooking for another 5 minutes, still making sure that nothing is burning by stirring regularly (and keeping an eye on the pan, of course).

Add the tomato passata and increase the temperature; add some water to bring the level of the liquid up to cover the veg. Drain and rinse the chickpeas. Put the bay leaf in the soup and pull the leaves off the thyme and scatter them in as well. Bring the soup almost up to the boil, then lower the heat and simmer it for about 10 minutes, or until the carrot and pepper are beginning to get nice and soft. Tip in the chickpeas and cook for a further 5 minutes or so – longer if you want the chickpeas to disintegrate slightly; you may need also to add a little more water to get the soup to the consistency you prefer, but it should be thick. (If intending to freeze portions, bear in mind that they will be cooked more when reheated and don’t overcook the chickpeas at this stage.) Add seasoning to taste and serve as soon as the vegetables are done to your satisfaction, accompanied by chunks of bread.

not a good ideaNow I have the freezer bulging again. Nothing better than soup for freezing. And nothing better for freezing gardeners than a bowl of hot soup.

But there’s a lot that’s better for cameras than trying to photograph soup while it’s actually cooking… happily the new camera seems to have recovered. Not sure about me, but there you go.

Even more on the soup front

I am so glad that I made up a load of chicken stock, and that I firmly believe that a freezer without soup in it is just an unreasonably cold box full of the re-useable remains of natural dyeing sessions (that’s just me, possibly). Toothache turned into agony and agony turned into a removed wisdom tooth, and all I could manage for several days was soup. Soup and yoghurt. The latter got boring. The former, happily, did not.

carrot soupSo here are my two soups made at the same time as my stock, soups which gave me the left-overs to transform into stock and which stopped me starving to death in the last week. Exaggerate, moi???

The first is a spicy riff on carrot soup. I often make it, because carrots are frequently such good value, and – of course – because I love them. I’ve recently made a classic carrot soup, carrot with ginger, carrot with a little lemon, carrot with fresh coriander, carrot with chicken, carrot with – well, you get the picture. But carrot soups can sometimes be rather – not bland, exactly, but perhaps less warming than I wanted this time. So I set to work to tweak my basic recipe, and I do like the end result.

Carrot, coriander and cumin soup
serves 3-4, depending on consistency

I large onion, chopped
1 tsp vegetable oil (often rapeseed – check ingredients and go for it if it is)
a scrape of butter
1 large stick of celery, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
2 small potatoes
500g carrots, chopped
1 tsp coriander seeds, ground
half tsp cumin seeds, ground
200ml chicken stock
750ml liquid (water or vegetable stock)

Put a large pan over a gentle heat. Soften the onion in the oil and butter, keeping the lid on so that it doesn’t colour. Cook until transparent – about 5-10 minutes. Then take the lid off and allow the onion to colour a little for a minute, and add the celery and garlic. Peel the potatoes, chop them up and add them too. Lower the heat, add the carrots and the spices and stir everything together. Put the lid back on and cook for a further 10 minutes or so – check during this time to make sure that nothing is catching; the potato is particularly susceptible.

Add the chicken stock and cook for another 5 minutes, then add liquid to cover. Bring to the boil, then knock back the heat and cook for a further 10 minutes or so, until everything is soft and the liquid is much reduced. Blend the soup and add some more liquid to get the preferred consistency. Reheat, season and serve.

soup2And now for soup 2.

This second soup is based on one of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s recipes – but heavily adapted to suit me and what I had in the cupboards (there was no way I was going anywhere other than the dentist with a face like a football).

I used to put pulses in my soups a lot but have recently fallen out of the habit; I don’t know why. I think I’m back in it now!

Leek and bean soup
serves 3 hungry people

3 leeks
1 tsp olive oil
a scrape of butter – about half a tsp
a sprig of thyme
1 bay leaf
1 x 400g tin of flageolet beans (haricot beans can be used instead, or any white bean)
2 dried chillies, seeds shaken out
a pinch of dried herbes de Provence
100ml chicken stock
2 tsp tomato purée
water to cover

Trim the leeks, slice them lengthways and then chop them. Put them in a large bowl of water and sloosh them about to shake off any soil. Warm the oil and butter in a pan. Lift the leeks out of the water with a slotted spoon and add them to the pan, then add the leaves from the thyme and the bay leaf. Put the lid on the pan and cook the leeks down for about 5 minutes. Drain the tin of beans and chop the dried chillies finely.

Add the beans and chilli to the pan, then add a pinch of herbes de Provence as well. Stir everything together and add the chicken stock; then add the tomato purée and water to cover. Increase the heat and simmer the soup until everything is tender. This should not take long but if it seems a little thin, increase the heat again and cook some of the liquid off. Check for seasoning and serve.

Now I’m dreaming of what I will eat when I’m able. Bacon sandwich!

Tomato soup – the best comfort food ever?

I’ve been soooo busy. Not quite sure what I’ve been doing (apart from my tax return), but I’ve been rushed off my feet. And last weekend I suddenly had to give lunch to seven hungry spinners. Spinners of wool, ahem, not spinners on bikes – but they get just as hungry. Soup had to be one answer; it so often is at this time of year… and raiding the freezer had to be another.

Now, I admit it, I’ve a weakness for at least one tinned soup – tomato. Who hasn’t? Well, apart from people who either don’t like tomatoes, can’t eat tomatoes or who, as in my case, are lactose intolerant – my favourite, Heinz, has milk in it (‘dried skimmed milk, milk proteins’ to be exact), as many do. And most of the prepared tomato soups also are high in an ingredient which I don’t use in mine, and which is finally getting the negative press it deserves: sugar. Half a tin – half a tin – typically contains nearly 10g of sugar, 2 teaspoons. Yikes.

tomato and red pepper soupSo I recently set to work to produce as credible an imitation as I could, given certain variables, and I think I finally got there. As a result I had lots of single-portion containers stashed in the freezer, and boy did they come in handy. They weren’t all identical, as I’d been experimenting with different ways of thickening the soup, but they were close enough to work together well – and I just had enough for my starving spinners.

So here’s the recipe, and with the two most successful alternative ways of thickening the soup given: using a potato or some cannellini beans. For the latter, you can (of course) use dried beans instead of the tinned ones given in the ingredients; soak 120g overnight, then rinse and cook them until they are just soft before adding to the soup.

Tomato and red pepper soup
serves 4

1 tsp olive oil
1 large white onion, chopped
1 stick of celery, finely chopped
2 red peppers, de-seeded and chopped
2 large cloves of garlic, crushed
2 x 400g tins of chopped tomatoes
1 x 400g tin of cannellini beans, OR
1 potato, about 150g
half a tsp sweet smoked paprika (pimenton dulce)
a few thyme leaves
salt and black pepper

Warm the oil in a large casserole or pan over a medium heat and add the chopped onion. Stir it in, then put the lid on and sweat the onion for about 5 minutes; check that it isn’t catching. Then add the celery, the peppers and garlic and cook, lid off, for a further couple of minutes.

Add the tomatoes (if using whole tinned toms instead of chopped ones because that’s what you’ve got in stock, break them up in the tin first). Drain and rinse the cannellini beans, if using, or peel and chop the potato, and then add to the pan. Finally add the paprika and the thyme leaves, then stir everything together. Fill the empty tomato tins with water, swirl round to collect all the tomato juices, and add them to the pan too.

Cook, uncovered, for 20 minutes or until the peppers are soft; add a little more liquid (boiling water or hot vegetable stock) if the soup looks as though it’s going to be too thick, but try and wait until after blending because this soup is best quite thick, and it’s difficult to judge when it’s still in chunks. Blend the soup until it’s smooth, and then add more liquid to get the consistency you prefer. Reheat the soup, check for seasoning – and serve with some chunky wholemeal bread.

(On the sweet smoked paprika – it’s getting easier to find, but the most frequently stocked smoked paprika is the hotter one. The really useful sweeter version can be bought economically online if necessary, and a tin will last for ages.)

Squash soup for a stormy day

The weather forecast is terrible; it sounds as though the end of the world is coming. In such circumstances I have one response (er, apart from a tendency to say ‘yeah right’ and ask if it’s been reported anywhere other than in the Daily Express). That’s to make vast quantities of soup. I’m not at all sure what the connection is – I like soup in summer too; a hot day and some chilled cucumber soup – but it seems to be inevitable. I shall just go with it and fill the freezer. Freezers.

SquashIn late November I met up with some friends at Machynlleth market. It’s one of the best markets near me – well, it’s quite near, about an hour away – and is often worth a trip. Plus there are some good places for coffee and some rather nice shops, but one of the big draws for me is the vegetable stalls.

There are several, and they are generally excellent. One is a particular favourite, and I picked up a beautiful Crown Prince squash for 80p, along with some romanesco and a heap of succulent banana shallots. I often grow squash but, depressed by recent poor invisible harvests, I failed to plant any this year. Clearly a mistake, given the good summer, but that’s gardening for you. This stall had several different varieties, all looking beautifully autumnal, but I plumped for the Crown Prince because it tastes gorgeous and keeps well. It certainly has, and this seemed the perfect time to turn it into soup.

There are all sorts of variants on the theme of squash soup. Some recommend roasting the squash first, but in general I find that this can make the soup a bit oily – for me, anyway. Maybe I’m too generous with my olive oil when roasting the chunks of squash, but I have tried it with very little and – well, neh. I’ve used lots of different recipes recently, some I’ve been editing and some I’ve just been trying for pleasure, but for me this simple version stands head and shoulders above the rest. However, you do need a well-flavoured squash (roasting can compensate for one that is less than thrilling); all, alas, are not the same. Butternut is probably the most reliable one, and one that is also easily available. That’s if you’ve not grown any Crown Prince, something I plan on rectifying next year. I’ve given two alternative flavourings, as well…

soupSquash Soup with sage or nutmeg
serves 3 to 4

1 medium squash
1 tsp olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
100ml good chicken stock
water or vegetable stock
1 small sprig of fresh sage or a few grates of a nutmeg
salt and black pepper

Using a heavy knife, chop the squash into slices or sections. Trim the skin off the squash sections, remove the seeds and chop the flesh into chunks about 2cm square (you should have about 650g of squash pieces).

Put the olive oil into a large heavy-bottomed pan and warm it over a medium heat. Add the onion, turn it in the oil and put the lid on the pan to sweat the onion for about 5 minutes. Check that it isn’t burning, giving it a good stir, then allow it to colour slightly – and add the garlic and put the lid back on for another minute or so.

Add the squash to the pan and turn it in, mixing everything together. Add the chicken stock and enough liquid to cover – go easy, because the thickness of the soup will depend on the type of squash and should be adjusted later (some squashes can turn out to be surprisingly watery, and adding lots of liquid at this stage would result in a thin soup). Add the small sprig of sage or some freshly grated nutmeg. Bring the soup to the boil then lower the heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove the sage sprig (which should hold together; if not, fish out any large leaves too) and continue to cook until the vegetables are soft. Blend the soup, and then thin it to the required consistency with water or vegetable stock. Reheat, season with salt and plenty of black pepper, and serve.

Some recipes suggest toasting the seeds and adding them as a garnish. However, they are better dried, and I prefer to lightly toast some pumpkin seeds in a dry frying pan and scatter those over the top. You can always dry the fresher seeds out for next time (or not).

OK, weather, you can do what you want now – and a simple bowl of soup will also be very welcome after all the richness of Christmas food, too. Maybe I’d better make more!

Soups unite against the cold – pea and ham

I love soup. I’m a bit of a soup head, really; always have been, always will be. And it always, always astonishes me when people don’t make their own, because producing great soups is so quick, so easy and so affordable. Soup also freezes brilliantly, so you can make oodles and store the rest (though use heavily spiced soups promptly; spices can intensify). Admittedly some ready-made soups have a strong comfort factor – Heinz tomato being a case in point – but you can make much, much more, and with greatly reduced expenditure, and without any strange ingredients when you do it yourself. I don’t need extra ‘milk proteins’ with my own soup, for instance, and accidentally discovered a more-than-passable version of the Heinz fave while trying to factor those out (red pepper is key, BTW). I don’t need modified maize starch, added caramel or high levels of salt, either, and my butternut squash soup will contain a lot more than 12% butternut squash, and 0% additional preservatives. Grr.

There are some soups which, undeniably, might take a little longer than 30 minutes to cook, notably those involving pulses. But there are ways round this, such as cooking them while you’re doing other things or – for heaven’s sake – using tinned pulses or a pressure cooker, the latter not as terrifying a prospect as it once was. It’s not rocket science, and it saddens me deeply when I hear someone on the radio, as I did the other day, bemoaning the fact that they miss their grandmother’s soup. Takes too long to do, apparently, and the presenter agreed. It was pea and ham. How sad…

pea and ham soupSo, with ‘killer snow’ in the forecast (thanks, Daily Express), what better time could there be to come up with a quick and easy pea and ham soup? One that doesn’t involve buying a packet from the supermarket, either. No sodium triphosphate; no dextrose, no added ‘beechwood smoke’ whatever that is, no tricalcium phosphate, etc., etc – plus I know the ham it contains is ham I’d be happy to eat and not some miscellaneous bits of pig, only appetizing if you can’t see them ‘raw’.

Let’s not forget the aesthetic element, either. It’s a beauty – satisfying to the eye as well as the palate. Perfect for this time of year, with the sky suddenly darkening and sleet rattling on the window (maybe the Express was right). Even if it failed completely to help me with the crossword.

Pea and ham soup
serves between 4-6, depending on how thick you like your soup

2 small potatoes
1 small onion or 2 large shallots
1 tsp rapeseed oil
1 small pinch of salt
900g frozen peas
100ml unsalted chicken stock
75g ham offcuts from the supermarket deli counter

Chop the potatoes (leave the skin on) and the onion fairly finely. Warm the oil in a heavy pan over a medium heat, and add the chopped vegetables. Give them a stir in the oil, making sure they don’t stick, and add a small pinch of salt. Cover and leave for a couple of minutes, then add the chicken stock and stir.

Add the frozen peas, cover the pan again and let the peas defrost in the heat and begin to cook. Then add water to cover – about 750ml – and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat to a steady simmer and cook for 5 minutes. While the soup is cooking, pick over the ham pieces, removing excess fat as much as possible. Chop the pieces and add them to the pan, then continue to cook for a further 5-10 minutes, until everything is cooked and heated through thoroughly – note that it’s important not to overcook the soup as it will lose the gorgeous green colour. Blend it by hand, preferably, giving it a rough texture, and thin to the required consistency with water if necessary. But it is best nice and thick!