soup

comfort by numbers

 There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –
Emily Dickinson

I am not good at winter afternoons, especially after the clocks have changed.

When the nights start closing in early I need quick fixes that don’t demand a lot of energy or thought.

Enter my soup formula.

A bowl of home-made soup when I am in for lunch at this time of year has become almost essential. It’s a hug in a bowl, a practically instant comfort food with no guilt attached.

It’s much cheaper than the posh cartons you can get in the shops and much more delicious than the canned stuff.

It’s also incredibly simple – so much so that I’ve reduced it to a formula.

1 onion, sweated in a little oil + I kg vegetables + I litre liquid + seasoning

x 30-40 minutes on the boil

=

soup

I think it’s quite hard to get this wrong. I have made lots of concoctions from odd combinations of veg that just happened to be a bit past their best and rarely had one I didn’t like.

You can tart up this basic formula all sorts of ways, depending on what you have in the house and how creative you feel. A stick of celery, chopped and added at the onion stage always improves the flavour.

The liquid can simply be water. If I have it in the freezer, I use chicken stock; most often I use Marigold vegetable bouillon, dissolved in boiling water.

I prefer smooth, thick soups so I always liquidise the mixture. I use a stick blender for minimal washing up.

These are a few of my favourite mixtures, the ones I go to again and again to bolster me against a grey winter afternoon.

Pea
The easiest soup in the whole wide world is a bag of frozen peas boiled in an equal volume of water for about 15 minutes and then liquidised. You can even skip the onion stage of the formula as the peas work fine without it. With judicious amounts of salt and pepper, this actually gives you several bowls of proper, comforting soup.

You can make it a bit more interesting by adding a handful of chopped mint, a swirl of olive oil or – a tip I read in a Nigella Lawson book – by boiling it with a Parmesan rind for a subtle saline kick that gives an added depth of flavour.

Butternut squash and/or sweet potato
Some chopped ginger sweated with the onion gives this added layers of warmingness.

A big handful of chopped coriander leaves stirred in near the end is also delicious.

Some home made soup, especially the ‘what I had left in the fridge’ variety, can be a rather uninspiring shade of khaki. This one is the opposite – it’s the shockingly bright orange of autumn beech leaves that more or less dares you to go on feeling miserable when you are looking at it.

Today's formula: 1 onion + a few chilli flakes + 1kg chopped butternut squash + i litre veg stock = comfort in a bowl

Today’s formula for lunch: 1 onion + a few chilli flakes + 1kg chopped butternut squash + 1 litre veg stock = comfort in a bowl

Carrot
This is sweet and earthy. I think it works best if you include a medium-sized potato in the total weight of veg.

A fat pinch of dried sage goes well. You can also use orange juice for part of the liquid, although in that case I’d omit the sage and use fresh, chopped coriander instead.

For an even more nutritious soup you can add a handful of lentils to this: it’s what I always gave our children when they were run down and sniffly towards the end of a long school term. You’ll need to increase the amount of liquid as the lentils absorb a lot.

Celeriac and thyme
I wouldn’t do this on a completely miserable day  because the celeriac can be a bit awkward to peel and you have to remember not to let the flesh stay exposed to air for too long or it goes brown. But it really is worth the (slight) extra effort. The secret is to add absolutely masses of fresh thyme leaves near the end of cooking. I haven’t tried it with dried but I think that could work as well. As with the carrot, I think a potato is needed to give the finished product a really velvety texture.

Curried parsnip
An old favourite that my mum used to make when anything spicy was considered quite daring in England. I use a tablespoon of curry powder, stirred into the softened onion, and about equal quantities of parsnip and potato. No longer daring, just comforting.

I’m always looking for new combinations – leave me some suggestions in the comments if you like!

 

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three

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.

I do have a picture of some stock cooking but it's not very pretty, so here's some borscht I made earlier in the year

two

It was cold, wet and grey in Todmorden yesterday but I still came away completely inspired – as I always do. Todmorden, a market town in west Yorkshire, is home to the brilliant Incredible Edible project and the folk who are the driving force behind it have a saying: ‘We don’t do negative.’ Just what I needed to hear.

The town has been through a period of decline but is now forging a new identity from the simple but radical starting point of growing food for everyone to share. Today I spoke to a wonderful woman who works full time without pay on spreading the incredible edible message. Then I visited a self-confessed ‘city girl’ who has discovered a passion for growing vegetables and built a whole new network of friends since she took on one of the 30 raised beds that her son’s school makes available to parents.

I can't write about Todmorden without including a vegetable picture. This cabbage was growing in one of the community beds outside the college.

Finally, I called on a couple of farmers who are passionate about animal welfare and have a flourishing business selling meat direct to the public. Not only that, they also work with the local secondary school to help deliver a BTEC in Agriculture, which has engaged many young people who were finding the mainstream curriculum had little to offer them.

In between, I feasted on Mexican bean soup in the wonderful Bear Cafe. Thank you, Todmorden – you’re a tonic for anyone fighting the winter blues.