Tag Archives: recipe

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.

 

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What to do when you’ve too much yoghurt…

I shouldn’t succumb to BOGOF offers. I inevitably end up with too many of something or too much of something, and a general inclination to give the extras away. My new resolution is to practise restraint and moderation in the face of offers that are too good to be true (and designed for families of 18 anyway). But in the meanwhile I checked the dates on my bulk buy of yoghurt and discovered that two large pots were on the edge. So what could I do? Make more yoghurt, obviously, but I already had too much (curse you and your buckets of amazing Greek yoghurt, Lidl). Then I remembered. I’d not made it for ages.

Yay! Soda bread!

Once upon a time there was a little local dairy near here, run out of an extension to the owner’s house. However, that closed some time ago and since then I’ve not been able to get buttermilk. But you can use yoghurt instead, and in the face of the yoghurt lake I decided not to be a purist. And the result was – well, though I say it myself, yummy. One thing, though: take the yoghurt out of the fridge about 30 minutes beforehand.

SODA BREAD
500g wholemeal flour (or half wholemeal, half spelt)
1 level tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 level tsp salt
400g plain yoghurt
and maybe a little milk.

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees C, 180 fan / GM 6.
Mix the flour, bicarb and salt thoroughly. Then add the yoghurt, and a little milk if necessary, and mix it all together with your hands until you have a soft but not alarmingly sticky dough. Knead it a little, gently, and then form it into a round loaf on a baking tray. Cut a deep cross in the top.
Bake it in the oven for 45 minutes, but check it after 35; it may be ready. If it sounds hollow when you tap on the underside, it is.

Eat it on the same day or freeze it in chunks; it goes stale quickly. This is generally not a problem…

PS: it’s especially good with home-made – and therefore not too sweet – marmalade. Nom.

Greengrocer glories

We have a new greengrocer! I can’t quite believe it, but there it was – a man putting up a sign above a shop in Eldon Square, Dolgellau. Did it say ‘greengrocers’? I wasn’t quite sure I’d read it properly, so changed out of my sunglasses and moved closer, risking life, limb and being run over by a 38 bus. Yup: greengrocers.

A couple of days later and I was back in Dolgellau. A friend excitedly told me that the greengrocer had opened, and we popped in after we finished work. I admit that I had to stop myself from going mad, but I did quite well nonetheless:

grocer haul

That’s a huge sweet potato (just under a kilo – really), a magnificent aubergine, a bundle of lemon grass, a bag of French shallots and a couple of onions. No idea what I was going to do with any of them, but I couldn’t resist. Planning? What planning? Moi??

I quite enjoy doing this, buying what looks good instead of buying what I need to make X or Y, and I really enjoy the trawling through the cookery books that follows. I knew that I didn’t want to make such a perfect specimen of an aubergine into a dip like moutabal / baba ghanoush (smoked under the grill and puréed), and nor did I want to lose it in something like a ratatouille or curry, though I do have a lovely dry aubergine curry I make regularly – but this was just too fat and glossy to be used like that. I wanted it to stand out. In the end I based a dish on a recipe from Nigel Slater, with added za-atar, but it was – in my opinion – a bit too oily. I need to work it.

That left me with the sweet potato as the remaining ‘main’ ingredient, and I knew what I wanted to do with that: try and make the roasted sweet potato ‘chip’ work.

The problem is that sweet potatoes are extremely difficult to get to crisp, unlike ordinary spuds. I have read several explanations for why this is, some scientific, some bonkers, some completely barking (I just cannot believe that the phase of the moon at cooking time is critical), some based on vagueness or inaccuracies such as ‘they contain more water’: no, they don’t, not significantly, and it depends on the variety – of both. Moisture is key, however.

There are all sorts of solutions online. I’ve tried some – parboiling, soaking – and have found no difference other than making them worse, but I wanted to try another. If you’ve ever tried making sweet potato chips (or wedges), you’ll know that they generate a lot of steam which does not help them crisp up at all. Some of that needs to be let out. Size is also a factor – the bigger, the less likely they are to crisp up. The edges may burn, but the middles will be really soggy. They’re never going to be like roasted ‘ordinary’ potato chips, but they can be better than I’ve managed so far. I’m not going to say that I’ve cracked it, but I think I’m as close as I’m going to get. Opening the oven door may be counter-intuitive, but…

IMG_2010Now, they need a dipping sauce, something to cut through the sweetness. Greek yoghurt with a little Tabasco stirred in is lovely; a sharp salsa is messy but good; a raita made with grated cucumber, mint and Greek yohgurt is best. Well, for me… and they were served as part of a tapas-style assortment.

Roast sweet potato chips
serves 2

1 very large sweet potato (or 3 or so smaller ones)
2 tsp oil (I used garlic-flavoured rapeseed oil from Blodyn Aur, but olive is fine)
1 tsp sweet smoked paprika
a sprig of rosemary
a sprig of thyme
lemon wedges (to serve)

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees C, 180 fan, GM6. Find the biggest baking sheet you have, or get two smaller ones – the sweet potato pieces need to be spread out in a single layer.

Peel the sweet potato and cut it into long slices. Cut the slices into chips, never thicker than 1cm, and a maximum of 4cm long. Toss them in kitchen paper to dry off some of the dampness that the chopping generates.

Put the oil and paprika into a large shallow dish or bowl and mix them together. Add the sweet potato pieces and stir them gently around, making sure they are coated in the mixture. Then spread them out on the baking sheet so that they do not touch – some people have found that lining the tray with baking parchment first also helps, but don’t use greaseproof paper as that keeps the moisture in. Put them in the oven for 10 minutes.

Open the door carefully and allow the steam to escape. Then close the oven and cook for another ten minutes. Take the tray out, turn the chips over if it’s possible to do so without breaking them, and scatter the herbs over them. Return the tray to the oven and bake for a further 10-15 minutes. Serve immediately with a squeeze of lemon, salt and pepper – oh, and if you pile them up in a small dish, they’ll just go soggy again (I know this… ahem).

sweet potato

What next, I wonder? I’m going with the flow and seeing what they have in, and what looks good. For some bizarre reason the selection of fruit and veg at the Co-op in Dolgellau is rather patchy (it’s fine in Barmouth, not that far away), and the Eurospar is the other side of town – not that handy, depending on where you are. But this new greengrocer – Youngs – is slap in the middle, right by the bus stops. Worth supporting!

 

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.

Ribollita
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.

Variations:
• 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.

Variations:
• 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

 

 

For the love of kale

There’s something so dreary about the word ‘kale’. Trying dragging it out – kaaaaale. Depressing. Boring. Dull. Virtuous. Farty. Tough.

Wrong, it’s none of those*. And at this time of year, it’s a godsend to the vegetable gardener. We’ve had a couple of sharp frosts and right now it’s trying to snow – again – so my kale is in prime picking condition.

IMG_1332This year, I grew it by accident. Almost.

It’s a toughie: it withstands conditions like these in 2010 (the kale is the leafy lump, foreground, right), and shrugs off the worst effects of the weather, laughing all the while. It can be eaten to the stalk by caterpillars during the summer but spring right back in winter. Nothing, but nothing, kills it. And as a result, I’ve suffered from kale-glut syndrome.

The symptoms are easily recognisable: a freezer full of frozen kale, a tendency to put kale in everything, to contemplate making kale ice cream and flavouring chocolate mousse with it, a desire to be really close friends with everyone and give them presents. Of kale. So last year I decided I wouldn’t plant any, and stuck to my resolve. (Shh. I missed it. A bit.)

Earlier this year I was inveigled into taking home some small cavolo nero plants at the Green Fair and plant swap in Penrhyndeudraeth. I didn’t want to, but I most emphatically did want to get rid of some tomato seedlings in exchange, so I took a tray. I shoved them in a corner of the veg plot and left them alone. The caterpillars didn’t; they had a fantastic time. But I remembered that a bare kale stalk can mystically regenerate, and left them in. They’re now the only thing standing, and they are DELICIOUS.

cavolo neroBut what do you do with kale, even if it is the sophisticated cavolo nero, given that the kale ice cream was not a hit?

This little lot is being shredded and added to a stir fry this evening. It’s also been in stews and baked with pasta, and it’s been in a lovely Tuscan ribollita in the past, though not yet this year. There are lots more possibilities, too, and of course it can take really strong flavours and stand up to them, face them down, even. Watch this space.

My latest favourite is a pasta sauce. The recipe came from an Italian neighbour and was scribbled on the back of a receipt from the local farmers’ co-op (once my shopping receipts urged me to try perfumes; this one’s slogan informs me that ‘quality bull semen is now in’). It was pinned on my kitchen noticeboard for ages but has finally made its way safely into my notebook. It serves one, due to unreasoning prejudice in the kale stakes.

Orachietti con cavolo nero
Serves 1

80-100g orachietti
a big handful of small cavolo nero leaves
half a tsp olive oil
1 clove of garlic, crushed
6 anchovies
chilli flakes, to taste

Put a large pan of slightly salted water on to the boil. As soon as it boils, add the orachietti. Time it – when the water returns to the boil, allow the orachietti to cook for half the time specified on the packet (this usually means about 5 minutes). During this time, chop the cavolo nero and discard any tough-looking stems. Add the leaves to the orachietti once the 5 minutes have elapsed, and allow it to cook for the rest of the specified time – generally 10-12 minutes in total.

Warm the oil in a small frying pan over a gentle heat. Add the garlic and the anchovies, and break the anchovies up with a wooden spoon. Add the chilli flakes and stir – cook very briefly.

Drain the pasta and cavolo nero well, and return them to their warm pan. Tip in the contents of the frying pan, stir everything together and serve immediately, with plenty of black pepper. Enjoy!

kale

* Confession time. Honesty makes me admit that kale can be difficult. Pick the wrong variety and cook it wrongly, and it can be every single one of the negative things listed. I once sowed an obscure heritage kale out of interest and respect for generations of north-of-Scotland crofters, and it was possibly one of the toughest things I’ve ever grown. It was beautiful to look at, very prolific, and shoes, it would have been fine for. Eating – meh…

In praise of pickled onions

I’m soooo boring. I was playing ‘last meals’ with a couple of friends – you know, what would your last meal be if you were on death row (crime unspecified but possibly involving murdering some eejit politician) and yes, I know it’s tasteless but let’s just say drink had been taken. Lobsters were mentioned. Foie gras came into the discussion. And then I let the side down – or up, depending on your point of view: perfect bread, butter, great slab of strong cheese, preferably a well-matured farmhouse Cheddar or Cheshire, and pickled onions. Good ones. Great ones. Home-made ones.

This may have been because I’d just been lucky. For some reason, pickling onions have been thin on the ground this year, and because I had onion white rot in the garden (AGH!) I didn’t have any small onions or excess shallots of my own. But then I saw some, lurking in the gigantic new Waitrose (hooray!!!) in Chester. Grab and go. Grabbed the last two packs, paid and went, actually.

onions for picklingThey were a bit of a disappointment, to be honest. I knew it was late in the season, so I knew I was talking a chance but hey, this was Waitrose: they should have been perfect. And they weren’t; some had definitely gone off, and many more were a bit soft. It’s best to pickle really hard onions, but beggars who buy their pickling onions in Waitrose can’t be choosers, so I had to make do with what I’d got, pick through them carefully and hope I’d got enough for one giant jar.

And I had, and I can’t wait – but I know I must. Believe you me, they’re worth it. So here’s my pickled onion recipe, for next year. Starting with my own spiced vinegar, because I find the commercial ones rather harsh and dominant. Oh, and I double brine my onions, which takes a couple of days or so.

Pickling vinegaronions detail
1 litre cider vinegar
1 heaped tbsp cloves
2 sticks of cinnamon, 10cm long
1 tbsp black peppercorns
2 tsp allspice berries
a couple of blades of mace

Put everything in a pan (not aluminium) and bring the vinegar just to the boil – there should be no bubbling. Decant everything into a bowl, cover it and leave it to infuse for at least a couple if hours (I tend to leave it overnight).

For the pickled onions
1.5kg pickling onions
350g salt
900ml pickling vinegar
3.6 litres water

Pick over the onions and throw away any which are starting to rot (sigh). Put the rest of the unpeeled onions into a large bowl, add half the salt and water, and stir everything together. The onions will float; weigh them down into the brine by putting a plate on top. Leave them like this for 12-18 hours.

Now for the second brine. Drain the onions, then top, tail and peel them (this will be a lot easier than it would have been if you peeled them at the very start, thank goodness). When peeling them, discard any rubbishy layers, layers of onion that are a bit too soft or starting to look a bit ropy (thanks, Waitrose). Put the peeled onions into a clean bowl, maybe a slightly smaller one this time, with the rest of the salt and enough water to cover them well. Stir and weigh down the onions as before. This time, leave them for 24-36 hours. (The best point to make the pickling vinegar.)

Sterilize a large jar in the oven – just heat the oven with the jar in it at a low level for about 20 minutes. Allow the jar to cool, and then pack the onions in firmly. Drain the pickling vinegar well through two layers of muslin – or an old, clean tea towel – and, using a jug, pour it into the jar until the onions are completely covered. Seal the jar well, and put it in a dark cupboard; forget about it for at least six weeks.

wait, wait.

And, at the end of that time, make sure you’ve got some really lovely bread and an ace mature Cheddar. Or whatever floats your own particular pickled boat…

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.

Chutney time!

There’s something about making chutney. I end up feeling virtuous because I’ve used up the last of my crop – inevitably, green tomatoes are involved –

tomatoes

and there’s a beautifully stocked cupboard to admire. Well, OK, it’s a box or two under the stairs but I still come over all Laura Ingalls Wilder: ‘Oh, Ma, come quick and see! There’s so many things!’

Over the years I’ve experimented with all sorts of things: fresh chutneys, chutneys that are directly Indian in inspiration, traditional ‘British’ chutneys, chutneys using unusual or foraged ingredients (elderberry: very good). I’ve come to the conclusion that I like the lot. Cold meat, baked potato and chutney, oh yeah. Chunks of warm home-made bread with strong cheddar and chutney on the side, even more oh yeah. I’ve amassed a small library of recipes, some of which are sketchy in the extreme and some of which slide into picccallli territory (oh no).

I have now come up with a basic formula and just play around with it. It’s simple: 2kg vegetables / dry ingredients; 250g soft light brown sugar; 250ml cider vinegar and 125ml water. Spices to suit what I’m doing. I can fit this into my biggest Le Creuset casserole, and end up with (roughly) seven 300g jars (I eat a lot of Gaea’s wonderful Kalamata olives, and the empties are ideal).

steam risingThis year my two kilos were made up of 700g assorted tomatoes, mostly green; 350g finely chopped white onion, 200g sultanas and 750g apples (peeled weight). I added two chopped chillies and three scant teaspoons of tamarind paste, and made up a spice bag with cardamoms, plenty of coriander seeds, dried ginger, a few cloves and cumin seeds. That went in, followed by the sugar and the liquid, and I filled the whole kitchen with steam.

cookingI bring it to the boil, then reduce the heat to a good simmer. It cooks down for maybe two hours, maybe longer, depending – but the consistent thing is regular stirring to ensure that absolutely nothing sticks, whatever ingredients I’m using.

I check it more frequently as it reduces and changes colour, and soon it becomes more and more rich (and smells delicious). I know it’s ready when I draw a wooden spoon through it along the bottom of the casserole, and it leaves a clear trail – the inside of my Le Creuset is white, making it really clear. I’ve had my jars, freshly washed, drying out and sterilizing in a low oven, and the lids have been in boiling water.

Fighting the urge to change into a Little (Li’l?) Pioneer frock (happily, there’s no longer any Laura Ashley in my wardrobe), I start potting.

chutney jarsFirst, I retrieve my jam funnel from wherever I put it last time I used it. This was inevitably months ago, and the search can a) take time, ideal for cooling the chutney a little, and b) reveal all sorts of interesting things, like a pastry rings and an espadrille which had fallen behind a drawer (??). Then I carefully fill the jars, pop the lids on and, when they are cool enough to handle, I tap them firmly to fill up any gaps. Well, some gaps.

And then they disappear into the box under the stairs to mature. They need to be left until Christmas at the very least, and preferably until this time next year; earlier, and they are but a pale shadow of what they will later be. It takes time to develop a real depth of flavour.

I tend to use the Garden Club’s summer show as a marker, because that’s when I go prospecting, pulling jars out and tasting to determine which one has the honour of being entered into one of the most keenly contested classes. I only won a third this year – possibly because I’d eaten most of last year’s Apple, Date and Ginger and only had half a jar left:

IMG_0489

I really couldn’t enter half a jar and had to put in the Green Ginger (green toms, courgettes, apples, onion, LOTS of ginger) even though I knew it needed more time. The AD&G is delicious, but unfortunately I can’t find the notes – they’re probably in the drawer with the other espadrille and the pastry rings, hang on while I go and look… and maybe the notes for my orange chutney from 2012 will be there too.

I know I should be more organised, but for me part of the enjoyment of making chutney lies in never making the same ones twice. It’s impossible anyway, as far as I’m concerned. This year, for instance, I didn’t have as many green toms as usual and my apples ripened incredibly quickly; last year I had left-over courgettes to go in, and even a few beans. I believe in going with the flow when it come to chutneys. Plus I won’t know what this year’s contribution is really like until next August. Good, I hope. Fingers crossed!

Summertime tart

I do pastry. I do bread, too. But I can’t do cakes – or rather there are a limited number of cakes which I can do, and which work well. But something like a Victoria sponge? Touch and go. However, pastry – no problems. So when I know people are coming round I don’t make a cake, I make a tart. Or perhaps I’d better call them flans, to avoid any sniggering at the back. Nope – tarts they are, and tarts they will remain. Or tartes, since the origin of mine is indisputably French.

tarte aux brugnonsThere is something about a slice of fruit tart served on bone china, with a healthy dollop of cream or Greek yoghurt. It somehow feels special, more special than a slice of Victoria sponge – given the nature of my sponge, this is not surprising, mind. So when I knew I had people coming round and spotted that the Co-op had suddenly received a consignment of white-fleshed nectarines and were selling them off cheaply for some reason (I’m not complaining), I felt the call.

So what about pastry? Is it phenomenally difficult? I don’t think so, but then there are people out there who wouldn’t believe that a grown woman could mess up a Victoria sponge. There are all sorts of stories about chilling your hands in cold water or – I kid you not – wiping ice cubes over the surface, and lots of people have unorthodox methods that work for them. You do need to keep pastry cool, of course, but my hands aren’t particularly chilly, my worktop is unbrushed by ice cubes and my pastry still works. Just chill it (man). As long as the pastry is a fine crispy shortcrust, it doesn’t really matter how it’s made.

Anyway, here goes, my fruit tart made with pâte brisée, a version of the classic French shortcrust which I have found works really well. In the UK, it’s usual to rub the fat into the flour first; in France you don’t. I go for the British way because I just hate breaking up raw egg with my fingers (eeeeuuh).

Nectarine tart with almonds
for a 23cm loose-bottomed tin

For the pastry:
50g butter, at room temperature
125g plain flour
I small egg

Make the pastry first, because it needs to chill for 30 minutes and will be baked blind, anyway. Put the butter into a large bowl and cut it into small pieces with a knife. Sieve the flour into the bowl and then rub the two together with your fingers until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs – this always takes longer than you think. Then add the egg, break it up with a fork and mix it in well. The pastry will come together gradually into a soft dough but don’t knead it like bread, just press it together gently and add a little very cold water if necessary – but it probably won’t be. Form it into a ball, put it into a clean bowl and cover it with clingfilm. Chill in the fridge for 30 minutes.

Pre-heat the oven to 200 degrees C, 180 fan, gas 6 and grease a loose-bottomed quiche tin. Lightly flour the worktop and take the pastry out of the fridge. Warm it up in your hands a little to soften it, then carefully roll it out into a circle, changing direction and turning it over; keep the worktop floured while doing so. Lift the pastry up, over the rolling pin, and carefully drape it over the tin. Then gently manipulate it into the corners and folds of the tin (patch any gaps; dip a pastry brush in milk and stick a new piece of pastry on top). Trim off the excess, ready for baking the case blind. Prick the bottom of the pastry and line it with a generous circle of greaseproof paper, tip a load of dried pulses or baking beans on top of the paper and bake for 15 minutes. Set it aside to cool for 10 minutes, then remove the baking beans and paper and let the case cool completely.

tarte 2For the filling:
80g butter
80g vanilla sugar
1 large egg, beaten
2 tsp Amaretto (optional)
100g ground almonds
1 tbsp flour
5 small nectarines

Pre-heat the oven to 200 degrees C, 180 fan, gas 6.

Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Gradually beat in the egg, adding a little of the flour as you do so. Then stir in the Amaretto, ground almonds and the rest of the flour; mix everything together well. Put this mixture into the tart case and level it down. Cut the nectarines into slices and put them on top of the filling in a circular pattern, saving the smaller slices for the inner circles. Then sprinkle a little more sugar on top and bake the tart in the oven for 10 minutes. Lower the temperature to 180/160/gas 4 and cook for another 20 minutes or so – check towards the end to make sure the fruit isn’t catching (a little caramelising is fine; burning is not, ho ho, don’t ask me how I know).

Serve warm (rather than hot) or cold. Cream or good Greek yoghurt served on the side is wonderful. Sigh.