What it is about dark evenings and chilly weather that makes us crave stodgy food? All day I have been thinking about hot buttered toast, warm muffins and other comforting delicacies. I’m trying really hard not to overdo it in the run up to Christmas, though, so in the end I made a pot of soup.
When I make soup I almost always use proper, home-made chicken stock. It is a habit I got from my mother, like putting every last bit of potato peel in the compost bin. I was amazed to read in a Delia Smith book recently that ‘few of us have time to make stock these days’. Honestly, it is not onerous at all and it makes a huge difference to the quality of the soup. It also makes me feel secretly rather virtuous, as if I really were a paragon of thriftiness rather than the kind of person who spends far too much money on books and coffee.
This is what I do. After stripping every last bit of meat from a cooked chicken, I stick the carcass in a large pot. Then I add an onion, halved but not peeled; a carrot, ditto; a couple of sticks of celery, including some leaves, and a few peppercorns. Next I cover the whole lot with cold water and bring it to the boil very slowly. The slow boil is something I learned from Lindsey Bareham’s fabulous book A Celebration of Soup which has an absolutely masterly chapter on making stock out of everything from vegetable peelings to tripe (not that I have ever tried the latter).
When the water comes to the boil some scum forms, so I skim that off, then cover the pan and let it cook at the gentlest possible simmer for an hour. Any longer and it starts to get bitter, whereas what you are after is a kind of delicate sweetness. I strain the stock through a sieve, allow it to cool and then stick it in the fridge overnight so that any fat can rise to the surface and solidify. The next day, after removing the fat I freeze the stock in 1 litre portions.
My basic soup recipe is as follows: sweat a chopped onion in a little oil, add 1kg of chopped vegetables, stir around a bit, then pour over 1 litre of stock. Parsnip, sweet potatoes and butternut squash are fantastic at this time of year, especially if you add some chopped fresh ginger to the onion. Boil the mixture for about 40 minutes with a lid on, season with salt and pepper and liquidise with a stick blender. Of course you can use water, or stock made from a cube instead, but I swear the proper stuff gives the flavour a depth you can’t get any other way.