Ribollita

This soup has no right to be as good as it is, given that the ingredients are basically cabbage, beans and potato. That it is so good is down to the first cooking stage, the soffritto, which creates the heady flavour-base from which this traditional Italian peasant food sings.

It is a perfect winter soup: delicious, aromatic and filling. Served alongside toasted crusty bread it is a meal in itself, and it’s even better if made a day ahead. Though it may seem strange to use three different kinds of cabbage, the contrast between them is startling: the white cabbage is sweet, whereas the kale and cavolo nero are slightly bitter.

Served in a traditional Tuscan way, the soup is finished in the oven layered with bread. To serve it this way, slice some crusty farmhouse or sourdough bread as thick as your index finger, toast it lightly and rub each slice with a cut garlic clove. Using a casserole or similar ovenproof serving dish, ladle a layer of soup in the bottom of it, top with a few slices of bread followed by another layer of soup. Continue until both the soup and the bread is used up and cook in a 180C/ gas 4 oven for 20-30 minutes until the soup is piping hot and the bread has soaked up all the juices.

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RECIPE serves 6-8

For the soffritto:

6 tbsp olive oil

1 medium carrot, finely chopped

1 large onion, peeled and finely chopped

1 large celery stalk, finely chopped

4 fat garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

2 tsp fine sea salt

a good grinding of black pepper

a large handful of flat-leaf parsley, leaves and stalks, finely chopped

the leaves from a sprig of rosemary, finely chopped

For the soup:

250g potatoes, any kind, chopped into 2cm dice

250g white cabbage, shredded

400g cavalo nero leaves (stalks removed)

100g curly kale (tough stalks removed)

2 tins of cannellini beans

1 litre chicken or vegetable stock, plus the water from the cannellini bean tins

To serve:

crusty farmhouse or sourdough bread, toasted and rubbed with garlic

6-8 spring onions, roughly chopped (optional)

a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil


METHOD

In a large, heavy-bottomed pan, cook all the soffritto ingredients (except the garlic) over a medium heat for around 15 minutes, stirring occasionally until softened and aromatic, add the garlic for the final 2 or 3 minutes of cooking. Don’t be tempted to skimp on the oil, it seems a lot but it is crucial to the final flavour and texture, and only works out at a tablespoon per serving.

Add the potatoes and shredded white cabbage and cook for a couple of minutes, stirring frequently, until the cabbage starts to wilt. Add the cavolo nero and kale to the dish and stir through.

Add the stock and water from the cannellini bean tins, bring to the boil then turn down to a steady simmer and cook for around 30 minutes until the vegetables are cooked through and the potato is just tender. Take one tin of the beans and set aside, the other tin should be mashed with a little of the cooking stock to form a thick paste.

When the soup is cooked, add the bean paste and the whole beans and cook for a further ten minutes to heat the beans through and thicken the soup. Correct the seasoning and either serve straight away alongside the bread, put it in the oven Tuscan-style (as above), or leave it to cool ready to eat the following day.

The chopped spring onions are a traditional Tuscan garnish, scattered over the top when serving, but you can omit them if you wish. Don’t omit the final swirl of extra-virgin olive oil over the top though, it adds a lush silkiness to the finished dish.

Sweet Potato and Broccoli Soup

We nearly always have soup available in our house; you never know when somebody might drop in, or when hunger pangs will bite. There are times though when I get caught out and I have to whip up something delicious in a hurry.

I was introduced to this unpromising-sounding but actually quite delicious soup by my sister-in-law. It’s one of Jamie Oliver’s, and the secret is no secret at all: use the freshest ingredients you can get your hands on. Oh, and harissa. Harissa is THE ingredient that lifts that soup from run-of-the-mill to exceptional. Make your own if you can, my recipe is here and it’s far better than anything you can buy in a supermarket.

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RECIPE serves 6, extremely generously

1 tbsp olive oil

1 large onion, roughly chopped

2 fat garlic cloves, crushed

500g sweet potato, chopped into 2cm cubes

750ml (approx) chicken or vegetable stock

200g broccoli, stalk chopped and florets detached

2 tsp harissa


METHOD

In a large pan, gently fry the onion in the oil for ten minutes until lightly golden.

Add the garlic and cook for a further minute, then add the sweet potato and broccoli stalk. Stir thoroughly then add the stock, sufficient to cover everything. Bring to the boil then simmer for 10 minutes until everything is almost tender, then add the broccoli florets and cook for a further 5 minutes.

Using a stick blender (or a jug blender, but be careful of the hot liquid) blitz the soup until smooth, adding a little more water or stock to loosen it if necessary. Season to taste.

Stir the harissa through the soup just before serving, alongside crusty sourdough.

Pea, Courgette and Basil Soup

This is another brilliant way to use a glut of herbs and vegetables, this time making use of our courgette and basil mountains. We are not growing peas this year, but we are fortunate to have a greengrocer who stocks peas in their pods so I bought a massive bag full.

It’s very quick, simple and heavenly, testament to the magic of just-harvested ingredients.

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RECIPE serves 6

30g unsalted butter

1 medium onion, chopped

2 large courgettes (or 3 medium) diced

1 fat garlic clove, crushed

1 litre of hot chicken or vegetable stock

1kg of peas in the pod, or around 400g shelled peas

a few sprigs of fresh basil


METHOD

Melt the butter in a large pan over a low heat, add the onion with a good pinch of salt, cover and soften gently for around 15 minutes.

Add the diced courgette and garlic, stir well and cook for a couple of minutes more before adding the stock and most of the peas – save a handful to put in whole at the end – with the basil.

Bring to the boil then cover and simmer for around ten minutes until the courgette and peas are tender.

Blitz using a hand blender – or in batches in a worktop blender – until smooth, season, then add the remaining peas. Bring back to the boil then simmer gently for a few minutes until the whole peas are cooked but retain their crispness.

Serve in bowls with a light drizzle of olive oil, or a swirl of double cream, alongside some toasted ciabatta or rustic bread.

Roasted Tomato Soup

At this time of year it can be hard to get hold of ripe, tasty tomatoes and even if you can, expect to pay through the nose for them. That means that this wasn’t exactly a good time for my lovely wife to request a big pot of tomato soup for her lunchtime meals for the next few days.

Fear not. I’ve been cooking long enough now to know that even the humblest, firmest, blandest tomato, if treated correctly, can reveal from deep within itself the most spectacular flavours. If you don’t believe me, then this recipe will be an eye-opener. I simply picked up a couple of cheap nets of B Grade tomatoes from my local supermarket, which cost just a couple of pounds altogether. I shudder to think how good this soup would be at the height of summer when tomatoes are at their best.

The trick is to slow-roast the tomatoes with a few aromatics, and to be brave with the garlic. When it is roasted, garlic takes on a deeper, richer palette of flavours, nothing at all like the pungency of the raw version. I used a whole head of garlic for this soup yesterday, and nobody in my house had bad breath last night.

You can, if you wish, add some double cream to this soup just before you serve it. In my opinion though, it is rich and creamy enough as it is.

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RECIPE serves 4 

1.5kg ripe tomatoes, halved

4 tbsp olive oil

1 large onion, sliced

1 whole head of garlic, cloves separated, peeled and left whole

75g tomato puree

2 tsp dried thyme

50g caster sugar

1.5 litres vegetable stock

a small bunch of fresh coriander, roughly chopped


METHOD

Heat the oven to 180C/ 160C fan/ gas3.

Place the halved tomatoes in a large, deep roasting tin, together with the onion, garlic cloves,  tomato puree, thyme and sugar, and drizzle the olive oil over it all. See the picture above. Using your hands, mix everything together, pushing anything that is likely to burn rather than caramelise (such as the ends of the onion slices) down under the tomato halves.

Roast in the middle of the oven for between 60 and 75 minutes, keeping an eye on it. You want the tomatoes and onion to start to brown and caramelise, maybe even char a little in places, but burning is not good.

When cooked, transfer the juicy, pulpy contents of the roasting tin to a large pot, add the stock and season lightly, then bring it to a simmer.

Remove the pot from the heat, and add the coriander. Leave it to cool slightly, then using either a stick blender or a worktop blender (in batches), blitz until it is smooth.

Check and adjust the seasoning and serve, drizzled with a little extra virgin olive oil, and/or perhaps a dollop of double cream.

French Onion Soup

I have recently been doing a LOT of experimenting with French onion soup. There are so many recipe variations out there, and so many claim to be the definitive version. Of course, there’s only one real way to decide which of them is best, and that is to make them. It has taken me three years to get to the point where my recipe delivers exactly what we in my family all love.

It has been a fascinating pastime: taking ideas from here and there, making small variations in the process and ingredients; it is surprising just how much of a difference a tiny change can make in a recipe. I’m sure that a few years down the line I will be making this slightly differently but that’s the beauty of any recipe, it is just a place on a journey.

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RECIPE serves 4

50g butter

1kg brown onions, peeled, halved and sliced 3mm thick

1 tsp caster sugar

1 heaped tbsp plain flour

3 tbsp dry sherry

2 tbsp picked thyme leaves

1.2 litres dark vegetable stock

1 French baguette, sliced on an angle

150g Gruyere cheese, grated


METHOD

Thinly slicing a large quantity of onions can be a real drag, but I use a mandolin for the job which makes it quick and easy.

In a large, heavy bottomed pan, melt the butter over a high heat then add the onions. Stir and toss thoroughly, and add the sugar. Keep your eye on the onions and stir every couple of minutes because you need to use a high heat, so you don’t want them to catch and burn. Using a lower heat significantly extends the cooking time (I have spent almost two hours caramelising onions in the past, it didn’t make any difference in the taste). The sugar aids the caramelisation process.

The onions will first turn translucent, then they will spend a long time not doing very much. Then, after maybe 20 minutes, they will start to turn golden and then caramelise; when this starts it can progress quite quickly. You will notice that the bottom and sides of your pan will blacken as the sugars are transformed, this is good because it is a storehouse of flavour… as long as it doesn’t actually burn! If it burns then your soup will be bitter, and probably inedible, so manage your heat and stirring carefully as you approach the end of the caramelisation stage.

When the onions have turned a deep, dark brown, add the flour and stir vigorously for a minute or so until the flour has been absorbed, then add the sherry to the pan along with the thyme leaves and again stir vigorously. The alcohol will burn off, and the liquid will de-glaze the bottom and sides of the pan, bringing all those sugars back into action. Add the stock, bring to the boil and simmer for ten minutes. The stock is an important, but not crucial, element. It is always best to use a good quality, preferably homemade stock, but if you resort to using bouillon powder it won’t make a massive difference – it is the onions which are the star of the show here. Test and correct the seasoning.

Meanwhile, heat a large grill to high, and toast both sides of the baguette slices. At this point you can ladle the soup into flameproof bowls, float a couple of baguette slices on top and sprinkle with the cheese before putting back under the grill so it all melts together. If you prefer, you can simply sprinkle the cheese on to the baguette slices and grill it like cheese on toast, before transferring the slices to the soup bowls.

If you prefer you can do a bit of both, everyone loves seconds after all, so it’s a good idea to have an extra plate full of toasted cheesy baguette slices on hand.

Five-Spice Butternut Soup

The winter soup season is upon us at last. I secretly yearn for cold winter evenings just so I have an excuse to make stuff like this.

This soup takes only slightly more effort to make than opening a tin of soup, and not too much longer either. It is well worth that little bit of effort in order to wrap yourself in the rich, velvety sweetness of spiced butternut squash.

It may only be a simple soup, but it is easily elevated to dinner party-worthy fare just by being clever with your garnishes. Rather than throwing the seeds from the squash away, just scrub them, toss them in a little oil and lightly toast them for a few minutes before scattering over the top, with a drizzle of pumpkin oil and a swirl of cream, and finished with the lightest dusting of five-spice powder.

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RECIPE serves 4

1 butternut squash, peeled, deseeded and chopped into 1 cm cubes

4 fat garlic cloves, roughly chopped

3 tsp Chinese five-spice powder

1 tbsp caster sugar

500ml chicken or vegetable stock

100ml double cream

flaky sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

To garnish:

toasted squash/pumpkin seeds

pumpkin oil

double cream

Chinese five-spice powder


METHOD

It doesn’t get much easier than this: in a large pan, put the squash, garlic, five-spice powder and sugar in with the stock and a little seasoning. Bring to the boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 20-25 minutes until the squash is soft.

Allow to cool for a few minutes, then transfer to a blender (or use a stick blender) and blitz until smooth. Add the cream and blitz for a few seconds more. Transfer back to the pan, warm gently until it is just below boiling point, check the seasoning and serve with the garnish(es) of your choice.

Moroccan Chick Pea Soup

Sadly, I have no idea where I first found this recipe. It’s a shame because it is absolutely delicious, very filling, quick to make and ridiculously low in calories. Somebody deserves credit for this dish, and though I have tweaked it over the years that somebody isn’t me.

You can vary the amount of chilli you put in depending on your own taste, but if you put in just one regular chilli, with the seeds, it will give you a background hum without being overpowering.  Don’t be afraid of using a good heaped teaspoon each of cumin, cinnamon and ras al hanout though, they provide the depth of flavour that makes this dish so good, and none of them are ‘hot’ spices.

Don’t overlook the final garnish of lime juice, za’atar and coriander. It raises the dish from the delicious to the spectacular. Diet food isn’t supposed to be this good!

Total calories per portion are 224 if you divide it among four people. If you are spectacularly hungry then you can eat half of it all by yourself  – that’s a challenge – and still have eaten less than 500 calories. That makes it ideal for anyone following the 5:2 diet.

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RECIPE – Serves 4 

200g dried chickpeas (or one 440g tin)

1 tbsp plain flour

1 tbsp fine sea salt

1 tsp of bicarbonate of soda

1 bay leaf

2 cinnamon sticks

1 tbsp olive oil

1 onion, finely chopped

2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

1 red chilli, seeds in, finely chopped

1 tsp chilli flakes

1 large thumb-sized knob of ginger, finely chopped

1 heaped tsp cumin

1 heaped tsp cinnamon

1 heaped tsp ras al hanout

200g roasted red peppers (from a jar is fine), finely chopped

2 tins of chopped tomatoes

400ml light vegetable stock

1 preserved lemon, pulp discarded, rind finely chopped

1 tbsp runny honey

50g couscous

a small bunch of coriander, stalks only, finely chopped

To garnish:

the zest and juice of a lime

1 tsp za’atar

a small bunch of coriander, leaves only, chopped


METHOD

The evening before, soak the dried chick peas in plenty of water (they will absorb a lot) with 1 tbsp flour, 1 tbsp fine sea salt and 1 tsp of bicarbonate of soda, stir well and set aside.

The next day, rinse the chick peas well, there should be no salt left on them. Put into plenty of water with the bay leaf and cinnamon sticks and bring to the boil, then simmer for 60-90 minutes until they are soft and tender, skimming off any scum if necessary. You may need to add more water as it evaporates. If you have a pressure cooker it will save you a lot of time, cook as per the instructions for your device (mine takes around 25 minutes).

Drain and set aside, removing the bay leaf and cinnamon sticks.

If you are using tinned chickpeas, use one tin; you won’t need the flour, salt, bicarbonate of soda, bay leaf or cinnamon sticks.

Heat the olive oil in a large pan, then gently cook the chopped onion under a lid for around 5 minutes, over a low heat.

Meanwhile, put the cumin, cinnamon and ras al hanout into a small bowl and add sufficient water to mix to a stiff paste.

Add the garlic, chopped chilli and chilli flakes, ginger and the spice paste, stir well, turn the heat up to medium and cook out for a minute or so until deeply aromatic.

Add the roasted red peppers, tomatoes and stock, mix well and bring to the boil. Turn down to a gentle simmer and cover with a lid for ten minutes.

Stir in the chick peas, preserved lemon rind and honey, stir well and season with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Tastes good doesn’t it? Just wait, there’s more…

At this point you can set the soup aside for minutes or hours, to allow the flavours to develop, deepen and mellow. Or you can just move straight on…

Five minutes before serving, add the couscous and coriander stalks, stir well and keep at a gentle simmer until ready to serve.

Just before serving, give it a final stir, remove from the heat then sprinkle the zest of the lime over the top of the soup, followed by all the juice. Do not stir!

Scatter the za’atar evenly over the top, and then scatter the coriander leaves over that. Once again, do not stir, the garnish will sit on top and retain its vivacity. Even when you serve, dip your ladle down to the bottom of the pan and come up underneath the soup to retain the garnish layer. It might sound like a nuisance, but your taste buds will love you for it.

Kipper Chowder

I get strange looks when I mention this dish, I’m not entirely sure why because it is just a variation on the Scottish classic Cullen Skink. I threw this together last night after noticing a few packs of kippers in the freezer that were somewhat past their best-before date – 2 years past it in fact…

Before you ask the obvious question, nobody died. Kippers are smoked herrings, and smoking a fish is of course a method of preservation. It obviously works.

I urge you to give this a go: the combination of the creamy broth, the smoky aroma of the fish and the mild onion tang of the leeks is delightful. It’s quick to make and only cost me 55 pence – the cost of a packet of flat-leaf parsley – everything else I needed to make this was already in the house.

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RECIPE – Serves 2 generously

1 tbsp rapeseed oil

1 large or 2 small leeks, trimmed, washed and finely sliced

250g floury potatoes (Maris Piper, Roosters etc) peeled and diced into 1cm cubes

2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

4 kipper fillets

2 tsp cornflour

850ml whole milk

2 bay leaves

a small bunch of flat-leaf parsley, chopped

a few chive stalks, chopped

the zest and juice of 1/2 a lemon

sea salt

freshly ground black and white pepper


METHOD

In a large saucepan, heat the oil then sweat the leeks over a medium-low heat, under a lid, until softened. This will take around 5 minutes.

Add the diced potatoes and garlic and cook for a further 3 or 4 minutes, stirring often.

Put the cornflour into a small bowl and add a little of the milk, stir thoroughly to make a thin paste. Turn the heat up and add the remainder of the milk to the leeks and potatoes, with the bay leaves. Pour the cornflour paste into the pan and stir thoroughly.

Bring the milk to a gentle simmer, stirring frequently, then cook gently for around ten minutes until the potatoes are just tender. The broth should be thick and creamy, coating the back of a spoon.

Meanwhile, take the skin off the kippers and chop the fillets into 2cm chunks.

When the potatoes are ready, add the fish to the broth, bring back to a simmer, then remove from the heat, cover and set aside for ten minutes. The fish will gently poach with no danger of it overcooking.

When ready to serve, add the chopped herbs and lemon juice. Stir thoroughly and check the seasoning carefully – you are unlikely to need much salt. Add a few good grindings of black pepper, and a little fresh ground white pepper as well (if you have it).

Serve with a little crusty bread, that’s all it needs.

Wild Garlic and Spinach Soup

Spring is here in all but name, and with it comes one of the first delights of the year: wild garlic. Easily identifiable and quite prolific, it smells and tastes like a mild version of the more familiar garlic bulb. For hints and tips on how to find and identify it, see here.

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The season is short, just a few weeks, and it is already out there so now is the time to gather a few bagfuls, search out as many recipes as you can and wow your tastebuds. It makes a marvellous pesto, just substitute wild garlic for the basil leaves, and I also blitz it up with a little olive oil to make a paste, which I then freeze in an ice cube tray to make handy drop-in condiments to enliven soups and light sauces.

Here is a quick and easy – and deeply delicious – soup recipe to get you started. It comes out a vivid emerald green and if it isn’t the freshest soup you will ever taste then I’ll eat my own arm.

To make it vegan just substitute 3 tbsp olive oil for the butter.


RECIPE – Serves 4

2 leeks, trimmed, washed and finely sliced

1 medium potato, peeled and diced

50g unsalted butter

a splash of olive oil

300g fresh baby-leaf spinach

200g wild garlic leaves

1 litre pale vegetable stock


METHOD

Melt the butter with a splash of olive oil in a large saucepan, add the leeks and potato and soften gently for 5 minutes or so. Add the vegetable stock, then simmer for 15 minutes until the potato is soft.

Add the spinach and wild garlic, put a lid on the pan and leave it for a couple of minutes to wilt down; you will probably need to do this a couple of handfuls at a time. When all the leaves are wilted, transfer it to a blender (or use a stick blender) to blitz it to a smooth soup. Check and adjust the seasoning, then serve. It’s as easy as that.

You can serve this soup with a poached egg on top, which adds a deliciousness creamy unctuousness and makes it suitable for a light lunch, or just with a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil and some toasted sourdough. You can also dress it with the flowers, which are edible and also delicious.

Porotos Granados

This is Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s version of Chilean squash and bean stew and it is absolutely delicious. The subtle mingling of sweet smoked paprika and marjoram is a real education in combining flavours, while the soft, almost disintegrating squash is like a big warm cuddle on a winter’s night.

This works best when made with fresh corn on the cob or tinned sweet corn. For some reason frozen corn just doesn’t do the job.

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RECIPE – Feeds 4

150g dried cannellini beans, soaked overnight (or one 400g tin)

2 tbsp rapeseed oil

1 medium onion, chopped

2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

1 tsp sweet smoked paprika

1 tsp dried marjoram

1 litre vegetable stock

1 bay leaf

750g butternut squash, peeled, de-seeded and cut into bite-size chunks

200g French beans, cut into 2 or 3cm lengths

the kernels from 2 sweetcorn cobs, or two tins

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper


METHOD

Soak the beans overnight in cold water. The next day drain and then rinse the beans well in running water. Place the beans in a large pan and cover with fresh cold water, bring to the boil and boil rapidly for 10 minutes. Reduce the heat, cover and simmer for 45-60 minutes or until tender. If you have a pressure cooker the job is much quicker; follow the instructions for your own device, but mine takes around 23 minutes to cook the beans.

Heat the oil in a large pan over a medium heat and gently saute the onions for ten minutes until softened and just beginning to colour. Turn the heat right down, add the garlic, paprika and marjoram and cook very gently for a couple of minutes, stirring frequently.

Add the rinsed beans, squash and bay leaf and stir well so everything is well coated, then add the stock and turn the heat up; bring to the boil then simmer for 15-20 minutes until the squash is tender.

At this point you can turn the heat off, cover it and allow the flavours to develop for a few hours – it tastes even better! However, you can move straight on…

…add the French beans and corn, simmer for 5 minutes, then season with salt and pepper.

The only thing required to complete this dish is a few slices of crusty wholemeal or sourdough bread.