If you read many “foodie” blogs, you’ll see that foraging seems to be something you need to do, or you are just Not Keeping Up. Now, I love fresh food but I am not going to start foraging. “Pick your own mushrooms” they say. Really? REALLY? How do you know they aren’t toadstools? How do you know your foraged risotto al funghi won’t kill off your nearest and dearest? There is a huge risk differential between snaffling a few blackberries to add to an apple pie and deciding you are qualified to distinguish between a delicious mushroom and a fungus which at best, will give you a night to remember for all the wrong reasons. I love nettle risotto but my nearest green space is Brompton Cemetery and call me a wimp if you like, but somehow I just don’t fancy eating something picked in a Cemetery (and there is the small matter of it being illegal to take flora from there).
In Italy, they do things differently and many pharmacists are qualified to pronounce on your foraged fungus (no, not the kind on your feet, although they do that too). There are also helpful signs near popular foraging sites warning you of the toxic fungus to be avoided, although how do you know those signs are comprehensive? Just because something doesn’t appear on the sign doesn’t mean it’s safe. Oh, I know, I’m a wuss but blame 35+ years of working in insurance – risk assessment is an ingrained habit.
My aversion to foraging does not, however, mean I need to miss out on recipes containing ingredients traditionally thought of as foraged. The lovely folk at farmdrop.com have recently added a seasonal goodie which I just love: wild garlic. I am pretty well addicted to garlic in most forms and this has given me the seasonal opportunity to experiment with it and look into its history.
It amused me to see that its Latin name is allium ursinum due to it being a favourite of the European Brown Bear who, after emerging from hibernation, would dig it up and feed voraciously, as it grew early in the spring. Bears, in all their variations, are by far and away my favourite animal so it’s another reason for me to have a soft spot for this plant. In the absence of being able to keep a bear at home, I’ll happily settle for a dog, preferably an Italian Greyhound…but I digress.
This garlic is widespread over Europe but its similarity to Lily of the Valley, which is toxic, has led to a few cases of death through people confusing the two. I’m not sure I understand why as the flower forms are completely different and what about the smell? Crush Lily of the Valley and you get a light, pleasant fragrance that reminds me of Diorella. Crush wild garlic and it’s a whole different fragrance, unused, as far as I know by M. Dior. Just reinforces my aversion to amateur foraging, though.
Wild garlic is seasonal between April and June in the UK, so do make the most of it. I chop it into butter for the ubiquitous garlic butter or to drizzle over roast cod or chicken. The leaves (which have a slightly milder flavour than the bulb) can be used in a salad or added to a leafy green vegetable. The pretty white flowers make a lovely garnish, a change from the nasturtium, but I think my new favourite is this soup. Spring weather can be so unpredictable that I never feel a hot soup is unwelcome around about now and last weekend, when the weather here DID change rapidly and in the wrong direction, this was especially welcome. My slightly fanciful name references the Latin name and also the startlingly intense green of the finished soup which begs finishing with the contrasting colour of cream or creme frâiche – or indeed the flowers.
I have been, as they say, unavoidably absent from these pages for the last few weeks as the builders began the work on the London flat and I had forgotten how much a big refurb project can take over your life. And it’s not the big stuff like choosing the kitchen and the bathrooms; it’s the small stuff. I was sitting on the Tube, quietly trying to read Jay Rayner and listen to Bach (what a pair) and I happened to glance up at the advertising. Normally quite safe, as the habitués of that space seem to mostly be wifi providers I’ve never heard of and dodgy looking money transfer outfits. Not this time; now I was invited to consider how meaningless my life would be without electrical sockets that have built in USB ports….what? Genius. Straight on to the builder, who has the patience of a saint. So you see, I haven’t been safe from the damned project even on the Tube. and I am trying to find all kinds of displacement activity to avoid choosing new door furniture. And tiles. And timber flooring. And paint colours…..so talking about the ugly sister of the vegetable world is a delight.
A few weeks ago, I mentioned celery, the Cinderella of the veg world, so let me introduce you to the ugly sister: celeriac. Honestly, it has a face only a mother could love, but it is, in this country at least, the unsung heroine of the vegetable world. I was delighted a couple of weeks ago to receive in my farmdrop.com order a complete plant, as per the picture. This was completely unexpected as normally in the UK, one only gets a trimmed root, which while less startling than the complete plant, still looks a bit like a turnip with a hangover. There the resemblance ends.
Every bit of a complete plant can be used, although there is a fair bit of waste when one trims the root. If you’re lucky enough to own a compost heap, then that isn’t a problem but it is important to trim off every bit of hairy root and any yellowing stalks or leaves. The stalks aren’t really bold enough to use raw, as in cultivation, the energy has gone into creating the lovely big root, but they are fine for using in soups or risotto (excellent in the latter with a morsel of Gorgonzola). The leaves can be used as a herb, so again good in soups, stuffings, risotto and with lentils, quinoa or cous cous.
The root, which is really the focus of this piece, makes wonderful soup but one of my very favourite things to do is put a whole celeriac, cut into chunks, under a roast chicken, mixed with garlic and thyme. I also put a couple of chunks inside the cavity with thyme and half a lemon, salt and pepper. When the chicken is done, keep the bird warm and put the roasting tin with all the celeriac and garlic gunk over a low flame (if there is a lot of fat, just pour most of it off), mix it up with a wooden spoon (the celeriac and garlic will be very soft by now), gradually add as much white wine as will make a deeply savoury sauce and simmer for a few minutes stirring all the while. A few green peppercorns won’t come amiss and although I have tried it with a spoonful of creme fraiche, for me, that’s gilding the lily. This isn’t a sophisticated dish but is very satisfying and people who have eaten this have always asked for the “recipe”. I think, however, that it is so simple as to barely qualify as a recipe, so it’s here and not written up as a recipe proper.
I also love celeriac incorporated with potato mash, but it does retain more water than potato, so I always steam it if I’m going to mash it. It’s also great as part of a platter of roast root veg; in particular it seems to pair and contrast well with roast parsnip (another less than lovely looking vegetable). Above all, it is stupendous in soup and the recipe that follows is wonderful. I can claim no credit for this, as I discovered it in the staff canteen where I worked; the chef was so pleased to have someone ask for a recipe you’d have thought it was his birthday. I have tweaked it a bit to please our palates more and despite the slightly unlikely combination of ingredients, do please give it a go. I promise you, it’s fab.
Serves: 4 normal people or 2 greedy ones Cooking Time: about an hour
2 tbsp butter
900g of celeriac root, peeled and chopped roughly
750ml chicken or vegetable stock
juice of a lime
2.5cm piece of fresh ginger, peeled and grated
1 tsp lemon or ordinary thyme leaves, chopped finely
1 green chilli deseeded and chopped
small bunch of fresh coriander, separated into stalk and leaves
250 ml full fat milk (if you insist on using semi or skimmed milk, make something else)
75g creamed coconut
grated zest of the lime
Heat the butter and add the celeriac, cover and cook gently for about 10 minutes but don’t allow it to brown
Add the stock, lime juice, ginger, (lemon) thyme , chopped chilli and coriander stems
Bring just to the boil, cover and simmer for about 30 minutes
Add the milk and simmer uncovered for about another 15 minutes; you’re looking for the liquid to reduce but never boil
Remove from the heat, add the creamed coconut
Use a stick blender until you have a smooth soup; flecked with green from the chilli and coriander stems
Season as you please and garnish with grated lime zest and chopped coriander leaves
If, like me, you’re not too keen on coriander as a herb (love the seeds), use flat leaf parsley instead. Also feel free to use a different chilli and in fact, I have made this with dried crushed chilli. Both of these changes will alter the flavour slightly, but of course, it is still a delicious, warming soup that is a bit different.
I will come right out and say I love celery and its root, celeriac. Love them to bits and happily crunch away on both of them. But they have a bad reputation; the stalks seem forever associated with the deprivation of a rigid low calorie diets, and celeriac usually evokes a puzzled look and a comment about how ugly it is.
Wrong, just wrong. Good celery is a staple ingredient for soffritto in Italian cooking and mirepoix in the French canon but the critical word there was “good”. I am sorry to say that so much of what is sold in the UK comes from Spain and is weak, feeble and hollow. Honestly, I’ve had Spanish celery – and Israeli come to that – you could use as drinking straws. The stalks shouldn’t be hollow and yellowy, and a good head of celery will feel quite heavy for its size. Oh and smell fresh and very celery-ry.
It is true to say that there is both green and white celery, but don’t mistake pathetic yellowing specimens for the delicious blanched Fenland celery that can be had in the UK during November and December. This has a strong distinctive flavour and like asparagus, has a short season, so do make the most of it while we have it.
Green celery is available more widely but UK grown, flavourful celery seems mostly available September to April and I have it my fridge most weeks during that time, with an interregnum for the Fenland crop.
This unsung hero is just so useful; I put it in risotto, lentils, soups, quinoa, couscous, stews and casseroles, not to mention cutting short lengths, filling with Gorgonzola and dusting with paprika. I know it sounds a bit Abigail’s Party, but I love it! It also earns a place on a cheese board with grapes and figs, which frankly I prefer over biscuits after a meal. I also use the leaves chopped up as one would a herb, but go gently as the celery flavour is very concentrated here.
Anyway, the celery I had from https://thefoodassembly.com/en/assemblies/8012/products was just gorgeous and although a fair amount was eaten with the lovely Slipcote cheese, I had enough left for this lovely soup which has a distinctly celery flavour and is creamy in texture, without needing the addition of any dairy (although you can add it if you want to!).
1 medium onion, peeled and chopped into small dice
1 small clove garlic, chopped finely
2 small/1 medium potato, peeled and chopped into small dice
150g celery stalks, chopped into slices about 0.5mm wide
1 slim leek, washed, sliced in two lengthways, then sliced into slender half moons
leaves stripped from two sprigs of fresh thyme
1 heaped tsp Marigold reduced salt bouillon
1 litre hot water
salt and freshly milled black pepper
Heat the butter and oil in a heavy based saucepan and add the onion and garlic
Allow to soften but not colour and add the remaining vegetables and thyme
Soften for about 15 minutes but do not allow to colour
Add the Marigold powder, mix in and then slowly add the water
Season and mix well, bringing to a simmer but don’t let it boil
Simmer gently with the lid askew for about 30 minutes until the vegetables are soft and can be easily squashed against the side of the pan
Cool slightly and use a stick blender to process until smooth; the addition of potato will give the soup a very smooth, almost creamy texture so you don’t have to add dairy to finish the soup
My favourite finish are garlic croutons and in the picture, you will see a small swirl of Jersey milk, but in truth, it was gilding the lily.
This freezes well, but freeze minus any dairy you might want to use.
Well that was another miserable Spring Bank Holiday weekend; cloudy, cold and uninviting generally. Something had gone wrong with my quartermastering and I opened the fridge yesterday to unused fresh peas and fresh broccoli. Perhaps I should call this blog the aspiring watchful cook, as there are times when I get things wrong, but I guess now the difference is that I do something edible with the excess, rather than just throwing it away. Anyway, peas and broccoli: we’d already had risotto over the weekend, so my default soup making inclination kicked in. It was also another miserable day, not just grey and cold but absolutely chucking it down; I was drenched when I went out, so the comforting process of soup making seemed just right for the day – honestly if it wasn’t for leaves on the trees, you’d have thought it was November.
In terms of ingredients here, use what you have; I had the ordinary broccoli, but you could use sprouting and you can use frozen peas, too, but add them just before you add the stock, rather than sweating them in the butter and oil. I used both chives and flat leaf parsley as I had fragments that needed using up; I did think about mint and if this had just been a fresh pea soup, I think that would have been good, but I was wary about the combination of mint and broccoli. It also occurred to me afterwards that if I had had left over pancetta or prosciutto, that could have been crisped up and added as a topping, but I didn’t so I didn’t, if you see what I mean!
I love making soup and it is a default when I open the fridge and am faced with left over broccoli or pretty much anything. This soup is so delicious, however, that I encourage you to buy asparagus just for this. You can sometimes find sprue, which is thin, weedy stuff that would get sand kicked in its face on the beach, but is fab for soup making and is cheaper than the muscly stuff you need for cooking naked (the asparagus, not you….but I’m not here to judge). Markets are better hunting grounds for this than supermarkets and keep your eyes peeled, especially towards the end of the season. The quantity is fairly arbitrary, as you can just adjust everything else dependent on how much “grass” you have. I usually make soup in an ancient and much loved Le Creuset 20cm casserole, but as long as whatever you use has a thick base, use what you have. In terms of finishing the soup, my preference is Ivy House Farm (ivyhousefarm.com) Jersey single cream (available from farmdrop.com) and a miniscule amount of finely chopped chive, but this is good with yogurt or creme fraiche and parsley. I have tried this with mint, thinking it was a summer herb and might complement the asparagus well. Horrid: what was I thinking. Only thing I would caution against is swamping the wonderful asparagus flavour by using too much of any of your preferred finishes. Oh and I don’t think this works as a chilled soup either, but try it – you might think differently!
750 ml hot vegetable stock (Marigold or Kallo is fine)
chives or flat leaf parsley
cream, yogurt or creme fraiche
salt and freshly ground pepper
Add 1tbsp of oil and 1 tbsp butter to pan and add shallot and garlic, keep heat low to prevent colouring and soften, added a modicum of salt at this point
While this is happening, chop the stems into pieces about 1cm long, after snapping off and discarding any woody ends
Add to the pan and stir around cooking gently without colouring; add some freshly ground pepper at this point and then add the stock
Partially cover and simmer for about 25 minutes; the asparagus needs to be soft and the liquid to have reduced by about 20% in order to concentrate the flavour
Turn off the heat and allow to cool slightly
Blend to the point that pleases you: sometimes I like a very smooth soup, other times, I like to see a few green chunky bits bobbing around. If I want it to be very refined (not often!), I will sieve it but for me, adding refinement also risks removing some precious asparagus flavour
Serve into warmed dishes, stir in your choice of dairy and sprinkle lightly with finely chopped herbs
Serves four as a starter or two for a substantial lunch with Ballymaloe Bread. This also freezes well if frozen prior to adding the cream and I quite like having some squirrelled away for those cold summer days that we inevitably get in the UK.
When our British weather sends us something miserable, is there anything more comforting than a bowl of homemade soup? Is there anything else that tells us that life isn’t that bad and it will get better? (OK, so wine or chocolate work here too) After all, think of the theme of so many of the advertisements for bought soups; they usually focus on the homely theme or on the fresh and natural aspect. So far, so good – until you read the ingredients or check the cost. Not so good.
I read recently that tinned soups are one of the biggest offenders for salt and as for ingredients, I am speechless (not a frequent occurrence….). What on earth are Wheat Flour, Citric Acid, Modified Cornflour (modified how?), Polyphosphate and Sodium Phosphate doing in soup? Fresh soups are by far and away less offensive on the ingredient front but that is unfortunately reflected in the price.
It is possible to easily avoid these dilemmas by making your own. It is so easy to make soup, it almost criminally simple and once you have the Foundation Recipe under your belt, you can use whatever ingredients are seasonal, well priced, or just what you fancy!
Before I dive into the Foundation Recipe, I want to just make a few comments on the ingredients I have listed:
I soften my onion, carrot and celery mixture in olive oil, unsalted butter or a mixture of both. It depends on the flavour I want to achieve; you’re free to use what you like, including sunflower oil. Personally I avoid rapeseed oil as I can always detect it in a soup (or indeed in most dishes) and I dislike it.
Note too that the ingredients I just listed are not mandatory. I pretty much always use an onion (or shallot if I want a more subtle flavour) and frankly, carrot and celery isn’t always needed. I find it helpful to just take a moment before I decide, to imagine the end flavours I want to achieve; if it doesn’t include carrot or celery, I don’t use them.
Stock is a fraught subject that can bring normally calm, restrained cooks to scarlet-faced fury. Yes, it is lovely if you can always have homemade chicken stock to hand and if you have had a roast chicken and you have the time, yes, make some. But, please, don’t stress about it, or even shy away from making soup simply because your freezer isn’t stocked with homemade stock! It is perfectly acceptable to use bought stock (Waitrose and Truefoods both produce excellent stock without salt) and I always have Marigold Organic Reduced Salt Bouillon Powder and Kallo Organic Very Low Salt Vegetable Stock Cubes in the cupboard. That Swiss brand or the three letter brand – don’t even go there. Have you read the ingredients?
Garlic – love it, so it finds its way into most of my soup. If you don’t like it, don’t use it but might I plead with you to give it a gentle try in at least tomato soup?
OK, sermon over, let’s get started. I have tried to give very clear instructions here and if I have over done it and trespassed into the “teaching my grandmother to suck eggs” territory, sorry, but some of you might never have done this before and I am a tad evangelical about the numerous benefits of homemade soup!
In terms of cost, this comes at about £1.29 and can serve four as a first course or two for lunch as a single course. This compares well, I believe, with about £1.89 for 600m of fresh tomato soup in the supermarket. Yes, tinned tomato soup is cheaper, at about 99p for a well-known brand. But does it really taste of tomato?
Now, moving on to other flavours. You can make soup from pretty much any vegetable, pulse or bean. Let’s say you want lentil soup: soften the soffrito as above then instead of tomatoes, add a couple of handfuls of red lentils and perhaps cumin and a scrap of dried chilli flakes. You might need more of the stock at this stage and also, lentils are devils for catching on the bottom, so keep the flame low and stir frequently, while the soup simmers lazily, with the occasional plop. You might want spinach and broccoli soup, so add washed broccoli florets, let them cook for about 10 minutes and then add washed, torn spinach, cooking for another ten minutes or so. This is splendid with a scrape of nutmeg and a generous amount of cream and in my mind, does need blending before adding the cream.
You can experiment, vary and play with this foundation recipe to your heart’s content. The only thing I would say is try to keep it seasonal and use left over vegetables, too. They just need less simmering. I did try to make something once with left over roast potatoes. Don’t. Just don’t. Horrid. Oh and taste, taste, taste as you go, and if you do succeed with roast potatoes, let me know!
1 medium onion, peeled and chopped into 0.5mm dice
1 medium carrot, peeled and chopped into 0.5mm dice
1 stick celery, chopped into 0.5mm dice and if it’s a bit stringy, swipe a potato peeler down it to whisk away the strings
This combination is called a soffrito in Italian cookery. I know it exists in French cookery too, but a) I can’t remember the French word for it and b) my heart is in Northern Italy and particularly in her kitchens!
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp unsalted butter
1 (or more) cloves of garlic, finely chopped, or crushed under the blade of a knife (see over in My Kitchen under Techniques for how to do this)
I tin Italian tomatoes, chopped or whole - no matter - but they MUST be Italian
a few sprigs of fresh thyme
1 tbsp Italian tomato puree
1 litre chicken or vegetable stock - see above
salt and freshly ground pepper
Take a pan or flameproof casserole with a thick, heavy base. I use an ancient and much loved 20cm Le Creuset which has been with me for more than 30 years
Put it on a low heat, add the oil and butter then the soffrito, stir and allow to soften until everything becomes soft and fragrant
Under no circumstances allow this to burn, so you might need to be a bit hawk-like at first, until you understand how your pan and flame perform together
You can add a modicum of salt at this point, but go easy
Add the garlic and soften that too, but again no burning, as burnt garlic is just horrid
I like to add the thyme at this point and to be honest, don’t always bother to strip the leaves off the stems; they will fall off in the process of cooking and just remember to fish out the stems before you blend
Add the tin of tomatoes all in one go; if they are whole, mash them up a bit with a wooden spoon
Add the tomato puree and then the stock, using at this stage probably about 750 ml, and stir everything round
Add a few grinds of pepper, partly cover the pan having brought the contents to a gentle simmer
Leave it for about 20 - 25 minutes, stirring occasionally to ensure nothing catches on the bottom
The soup should reduce a little during this process, which helps to concentrate the flavour
Turn off the heat and let the soup cool a little
This is the point at which I like to blend a soup, usually using a trusty Kenwood Stick Blender which is just so easy to wash up (just remember to fish out the thyme stems!)
You can of course, use a conventional blender or food processor, and indeed you can leave it chunky and rustic
After blending, it may appear quite thick so just thin it out with the remaining stock
To finish, swirl in some cream, yogurt or creme fraiche and top with a sprinkle of finely chopped chives or parsley