Category Archives: Soups

A peck of peppers, anyone?

Pepper and chilli harvest

The weather has been unremittingly awful this September so far, so much so that it feels as though it’s a good month later! Whereas normally I’d be taking my pepper and chilli plants out of the conservatory in October, I found myself emptying them today as they were covered in whitefly and the atmosphere is so damp, they were starting to cause mould growth on the windowledges and windows – yuk! I experienced this once before when I went away on holiday in late September and forgot to leave the window vents open: damp + plants breathing meant my window ledges were green by the time I got home! Nothing that a spot of bleach couldn’t cure, but still – not very nice.

Time to take out those plants that have finished (aubergines, sadly – although they’ve been super-productive this year, so I can’t complain), harvest any ripe fruit on the chillis and peppers, and spray the rest of the plants with soft soap outdoors. I had intended bringing them back in having washed all the surfaces down, but in the end, they got so wet in today’s torrential rain that I’ve left them out; it’s unlikely to freeze, I think, and I really don’t want the same problem again. This is the issue with using a conservatory for cropping plants: when they’re in full flow, it’s fine, but as they start to go yellow and die back, you really don’t want to look at them any more. Fortunately, the basil plants are still looking good and should continue for another month or so.

So what to do with all those peppers? The chillis will be dried and stored in a basket for autumn/winter use, but the peppers won’t keep for long. In the end, I decided on a roast pepper & tomato soup that I’ve been meaning to try for a while from the Covent Garden Soup Book, an old favourite of mine.

Roasted Red Pepper & Tomato Soup – served 5-6

Roast pepper and tomato soup

6 red peppers, halved and seeds removed
8 tomatoes, skinned and halved
glug of olive oil
handful of basil leaves
1 tsp sugar
1 fat garlic clove, chopped
1 onion, chopped
1 litre vegetable stock
seasoning
dash of balsamic vinegar to taste

Pre-heat the oven to 180°C/Gas 5. Place the red peppers skin side up in a large roasting tin. Add the skinned tomatoes (I usually place them in a bowl and add boiling water, leave for a couple of minutes, then drain off the water, after which the skins should peel off easily), cut-side up and sprinkle with sugar, chopped garlic, chopped basil leaves, a glug of olive oil and seasoning. Roast for 50 minutes to 1 hour until nicely charred around the edges.

Meanwhile, cook the onion in a large pan with more olive oil until softened (15 minutes or so). Add the roast vegetables, then the stock and bring to the boil. Cook for 5-20 minutes to allow the flavours to meld, then cool in the pan. Liquidize in two batches and add a dash of balsamic vinegar to taste.

Another absolute classic I try to make every year when I harvest my own fruit is Delia Smith’s classic Piedmont peppers – if you haven’t experienced them, I can only recommend you to try – so good! It turns out that this is originally an Elizabeth David recipe, so has a fine pedigree. When you taste them, you’ll realise why….

Delia’s Piedmont Peppers – serves 4 as a starter
(but scale up or down as you require!)

Piedmont peppers

4 red peppers
4 medium tomatoes
8 tinned anchovy fillets
2 cloves garlic, chopped
handful of basil leaves
black pepper
olive oil

Halve the peppers lengthways, keeping the stalk on. Place skin side down in a large roasting tray. Skin the tomatoes (I don’t always bother, I must admit, but if the skin bothers you, please do!), quarter and place two quarters in each pepper half. Snip the anchovy fillets into small pieces and distribute between the peppers. Add the chopped basil and garlic, season with pepper and drizzle with olive oil (the original recipe suggests 1 dsp per pepper half, but I just pour by eye). Roast in the oven at 160°C/Gas 4 for 50 minutes to 1 hour, until starting to char round the edges.

Serve as a starter or a summer salad, with plenty of good bread to mop up the divine juices.

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A citrussy sort of week…

Shed and clematis

Citrus fruit have featured heavily in my cooking this week; I’m not quite sure why. They seem to go with the delicious produce I’m bringing home from the allotment at the moment: fresh spears of asparagus in particular. It’s still extremely dry everywhere, worryingly so for early springtime, so the asparagus harvest isn’t huge yet, but quite enough for a solo diner to feast every couple of days – decadence indeed.

I brought a handful of spears home on Wednesday and just fancied something really simple to accompany them. From out of the blue, I had a notion to make hollandaise sauce, although I’ve never made it before. Could you make it for one, though – I only had one egg, so I very much hoped so! Cue a quick online search, which brought up the recipe below, from a blog called And Here We Are – worked a treat, and definitely child’s play to make. I was lucky enough to have organic eggs from my friend’s hens – hence the lovely, golden colour. I served it with roast asparagus, linguine and chopped flat leaf parsley – just divine.

Linguine with Roast Asparagus & Hollandaise Sauce – for one
(but multiply upwards to feed more!)

For the hollandaise sauce:

1 egg yolk
1 tbsp hot water
salt
1 tsp fresh lemon juice
1 tbsp butter
freshly ground pepper

Put the egg yolk in a small bowl and whisk with a small hand whisk – I like these, but you could use a small balloon whisk too. Then whisk in 1 tbsp hot water and a pinch of salt. Finally add 1 tsp fresh lemon juice and 1 tbsp or thereabouts of butter.

Place the bowl in a steamer insert over a pan of gently simmering water and keep on whisking until it thickens to a lovely creamy consistency.

Hollandaise sauce

Remove from the heat, but you can leave the sauce standing over the hot water to keep warm while you prepare whatever you’re serving it with.

In my case, I’d been roasting asparagus in olive oil (10 minutes in a hot oven at 200°C fan, Gas 6), and had the linguine on to cook at the same time. I simply served the drained pasta with the roast asparagus, topped with hollandaise and garnished with chopped parsley. Absolute heaven….

Roast asparagus with pasta and hollandaise

More lemons came into play this weekend when I was pondering what sweet treats I could make relatively quickly before my parents came over for an early lunch on Saturday. My mother and I were heading out shopping for wedding outfits for my son’s July wedding, leaving my father at home, dog-sitting and sports viewing. A quick lunch of homemade granary bread, Delia’s leek & potato soup (puréed, rather than the chunky version I usually make) and Italian lemon & almond cookies fitted the bill perfectly. We may not have found an outfit, but lunch was delicious 🙂

No lemons in the soup, of course, but the leeks at the allotment are fast pushing up their statuesque seed heads, which means I’m trying to use them up. I also need to free up the bed for the next rotation, although courgettes and sweetcorn/squash are next in line and I’ve only just planted the seeds in the propagator, so I do have a few weeks yet….

Velvety Leek & Potato Soup – serves 6

4-5 leeks, finely chopped and well rinsed
2 medium potatoes, peeled and diced
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 sticks celery, chopped
50g butter
1 litre chicken stock (or use vegetable stock if you prefer)
275ml milk
1 bay leaf
Salt & pepper

Melt the butter in a large pan and add the chopped onions, potatoes, leeks and celery. stir well to mix, add the bay leaf and then leave the vegetables to sweat over a low heat, covered, for about 15 minutes. Add the stock and milk. bring to the boil, cover and cook for 20 minutes until the vegetables are soft. Leave to cool, then whizz in batches in a liquidiser until smooth. Reheat to serve with good bread.

Back to the lemons, and specifically these ricciarelli, soft lemon & almond cookies. I had four egg whites in the fridge, left over from last weekend’s tiramisu, and though I toyed with the idea of macaroons, I didn’t have time to make them, leave them to stand and allow to cool before filling. This recipe had caught my eye in Sainsbury’s April magazine, so I doubled the quantities (it uses just two egg whites) and gave it a go – impressively light and citrussy, oh and gluten-free, of course, which is always good to know. I shall be making these again….

Soft Lemon & Almond Ricciarelli – makes 20-24

Lemon and almond cookies

250g caster sugar
Grated zest of 2 large lemons
250g ground almonds
2 tbsp flaked almonds (plus a few more to sprinkle – optional)
4 large egg whites
150g icing sugar, sifted
4 tsp lemon juice

Line 3 baking trays with baking parchment.

Place the caster sugar in a food processor with the grated lemon zest and pulse until well mixed. Tip into a large mixing bowl and add the ground almonds.

In another bowl, whisk the egg whites with 50g icing sugar until they form stiff peaks. Fold the sugar and almond mixture gradually into the egg whites, adding the lemon juice as you go, until evenly combined, then finally fold in the flaked almonds.

Place the remaining 100g icing sugar on a large plate and drop heaped tablespoons of the mixture onto the sugar, one by one, rolling them around with your fingertips until coated all over. Be warned: this is a messy process, but it does work – you may need to add more icing sugar towards the end if you run out of dry powder.

Transfer them to the lined baking trays with a spatula and space well apart; the original recipe suggested 6 on each, but they didn’t spread as much as I thought, so you could definitely get away with 8 or 9 on each tray. Sprinkle with more flaked almonds if you like. (These weren’t in the Sainsbury’s version, but I like the added crunch.) Sprinkle with any remaining icing sugar, then bake at 140°C fan, Gas 3 for 15-20 minutes until a very light golden brown, with a slightly cracked surface. Leave to cool on the tray, then enjoy with a cup of tea and a happy smile.

Tulip Sapporo and philadelphus
Tulip Sapporo against the gorgeous Philadelphus coronarius aureus (golden mock orange)

Putting the zest back into February

snowy-day-in-the-woods-feb-2017

Well, February hasn’t been much of an improvement on January so far. We even had a smattering of snow yesterday, not enough to transform everywhere into a magical winter wonderland, just leaden skies, bitter wind and uniform greyness. Yuk.

Needless to say, there’s still nothing doing in the garden, although this is the perfect time to get on with ordering/buying seeds, potatoes and dahlias for the summer and indulge in a little wistful poring over the catalogues, online or print, to while away the grey days. I’ve been buying my seeds as I see them on offer in local garden centres, often half-price at this time of year, but still had to order a few specials online, like the Ammi visnaga from Sarah Raven, and squashes Crown Prince and Squashkin (a butternut/ Crown Prince hybrid from Marshall’s that sounded too tempting to miss!). I haven’t been overly impressed with the potato selections on offer in my local gardening emporia this year, so ended up ordering those online too: Jazzy from Thompson & Morgan, and Anya, a lovely waxy, salad variety I’ve had before and enjoyed, again from Marshall’s. They came ultra-quickly and are now chitting away in eggboxes in the conservatory – so I suppose that’s some progress!

I couldn’t resist ordering new dahlias too; not sure where I’m going to put them, but I’m sure I’ll find room – and there’s my son’s wedding to grow flowers for this year, of course! This year’s additions are Indian Summer, a spiky scarlet cactus variety, Labyrinth, a fabulous pastel peach confection (I did try this one last year, but with no success; fingers crossed it comes up this year) and Mel’s Orange Marmalade, another extravagant cactus type, purely because I loved the name and couldn’t resist the marmalade colour and fringed, almost marine-like petals.

Despite the lack of action in the garden, miserable weather is always a good excuse to spend time messing about in the kitchen and what better ingredients to use to add some zing to a grey day than citrus fruit? It’s the peak season for citrus just now, so my morning ruby grapefruits are extra-delicious and lemons and limes are plentiful. A neighbour, who I cat-sit for when they’re on holiday, very kindly brought around a big pot of home-made Seville orange marmalade on Friday and I even managed to buy my absolute favourite citrus fruits, blood oranges, in Lidl yesterday – they only have a very short season, so all the more reason to snap them up when you find them!

blood-oranges

So what did I make on this cold winter Sunday? First, a carrot, orange & ginger soup to add a touch of sunshine to a chilly lunchtime. Then I finally got round to using up some egg yolks that have been sitting in the fridge since last weekend, when I used the whites in a pineapple & coconut meringue roulade for my younger son’s birthday celebrations. Five egg yolks is quite a lot to have hanging around, especially when you’re cooking for one. The usual contenders of custard, or pastry, only use one or two yolks and my standby gooseberry & crème fraiche tart is best made in summer with fresh, not frozen gooseberries (too much liquid) and for a party to boot! A colleague on Foodie Translators had posted a tempting-looking recipe for lemon bars, based on a recipe by the Barefoot Contessa on the Food Network, which sounded interesting, but used whole eggs. Researching further found an article in the Guardian by Ruby Tandoh, in which she makes lemon curd with just the yolks – and thus an idea was born….

First, the soup though. I make several variations on carrot soup, including carrot & coriander and a carrot & lentil from an ancient M&S cookery book. Both excellent, but if you fancy something both citrussy and slightly spicy, this really hits the spot.

Carrot, Orange & Ginger Soup -serves 6-8

carrot-orange-ginger-soup

750g carrots, peeled & chopped
1 large onion, chopped
2 sticks celery, chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 orange, juice and grated zest
1 cooking apple, peeled and chopped
1 2.5cm piece root ginger, grated (I store in the freezer and grate from frozen)
50g butter
Salt and pepper
1.25 l chicken stock (or you can use vegetable stock if you prefer)
Few sprigs thyme, leaves only

Melt the butter in a large pan, then add the onions, garlic and celery. Sweat gently for 5 minutes or so while you prepare the carrots and apple, then add to the pan with the grated ginger and thyme leaves. Continue to cook for a few more minutes, then add the grated orange zest and juice. Pour in the stock, season and bring to the boil. Cover with a lid and cook for 30 minutes, or until the carrots are tender. Leave to cool slightly, then purée in a liquidiser until smooth. You may need to add more stock at this stage, depending how thick you like your soup – or you could add cream or milk if you prefer. Garnish with coriander or parsley if you have any; otherwise eat as it is and enjoy your little bowl of sunshine!

Needless to say, I had to tweak the Barefoot Contessa’s lemon bar recipe to suit the five egg yolks I had lurking in the fridge, so I more or less halved the quantities, cut down the sugar content, and went from there, adjusting as I went. I was delighted with the results, tangy yet buttery at the same time, but you might wish to tweak further!

Lemon Bars – serves 12

lemon-bars

125g butter
50g caster sugar
150g plain flour
pinch salt
Grated rind of 1 lemon

5 egg yolks
200g caster sugar
Grated rind of 3 lemons
Juice of 3/4 lemons (110-120ml juice in total)
50g plain flour, sifted

Put the first five ingredients, for the shortbread base, into a food processor and blend together until mixed and starting to form a ball. Remove, knead together lightly and press into a greased 17.5cm (7″) square tin. Prick with a fork, then bake in the oven at 160°C, Gas 4 for 15-20 minutes until light golden.

Meanwhile, make the filling: blend the egg yolks, sugar, lemon juice and zest and flour with a hand whisk, then pour over the cooked shortbread base. Return to the oven for 25 – 30 minutes, or until set. Leave to cool, then dust with icing sugar and serve with a nice cup of tea. Amazingly good!

The Humble Cauliflower

allotment-harvest

Before this year, I’d never grown a cauliflower. It’s one of those vegetables that, rumour has it, is very tricky to grow – and consequently I’ve never tried! After my abortive attempt at Romanesco last year, though, I thought I’d give cauliflower a whirl – not least because I’d received a free packet of Cauliflower Snowball seeds with my pack of goodies accompanying the bumper Gardener’s World edition that comes out with the 2-for-1 garden visit card each spring. I sowed them at the end of May, as I do all the brassica tribe: a late May sowing gives them time to germinate in seed trays, before pricking out a month or so later, then planting in their final positions down at the allotment at the end of July/early August at the latest, when the broad beans/early potatoes come out of the ground and free up some beds.

This year, my brassicas included old stalwarts purple-sprouting broccoli and cavolo nero (kale), plus calabrese and the new kid on the block (to me at any rate), cauliflower. I always net my brassicas to protect them from the dastardly pigeons at the allotment – and if I can I use Enviromesh too in a bid to thwart the even more pervasive cabbage white butterflies. Inevitably some get through, so you always have to be on the lookout for caterpillars when you harvest homegrown calabrese and cauliflowers – added protein!

brassicas

After the failure of the Romanesco last year, I was amazed when I lifted a corner of the Enviromesh tunnel a few weeks ago to check on the plants and found sizeable heads of cauliflower and calabrese. Success! Unfortunately, as is often the way, they are all ready at once, so I’ve been giving them away to family and friends – and using them in my own kitchen, of course.

I’d heard of the cauliflower crust pizza in the wake of the gluten-free and healthy eating craze, but probably wouldn’t have been tempted to experiment had my foodie son not tried and enthused about it. With a couple of plump cauliflower heads in the fridge, now seemed like the ideal opportunity. I hunted around online for suitable recipes, as you do, and the BBC Good Food version seemed like a contender, so here it is, tweaked to the ingredients at hand as ever:

Cauliflower Crust Pizza – serves 2-3

cauliflower-crust-pizza_cropped

1 medium cauliflower
50g ground almonds
1 egg
1 tsp oregano
Seasoning

1 tin chopped tomatoes
1 large onion, finely chopped
Olive oil
1 handful fresh basil
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 tsp sugar
1 tbsp tomato purée
Seasoning
1 large aubergine
125g grated Cheddar cheese

Blitz the cauliflower in a food processor until rice-like (you may need to do this in two batches) and microwave for 4 minutes, then tip onto a clean tea towel, cool slightly, then squeeze out all the water (I save the juice for stock – or for the soup below!). Mix with the ground almonds, 1 egg and the oregano and pat out on a greased baking tray. Cook for 15 minutes at 200°C.
Meanwhile make a tomato sauce by gently frying the onions and garlic until softened, add the tomatoes, sugar, tomato purée and basil and cook down for 15-30 minutes until a nice, thick consistency.
Slice the aubergine thinly and grill the slices in batches under a hot grill, brushed with olive oil, turning as the first side browns. Spoon the tomato sauce onto the cooked pizza base, add the grilled aubergine slices and top with grated Cheddar cheese and a drizzle of olive oil. Return to the oven for a further 10-12 minutes.
Eat hot – and marvel at how the crust mimics a standard pizza base and really doesn’t taste like cauliflower – amazing! And delicious, needless to say!

The discovery of my cache of cauliflowers happened to coincide with a few chillier days, so making soup seemed like a good idea. I’d made Broccoli & Stilton Soup before, with great success, but never cauliflower, and my usual scouring of the recipe books and various online sources didn’t yield quite what I had in mind. The end result was a cobbled-together mix of various recipes, mainly Jamie Oliver and Nigel Slater. It certainly hits the spot.

Cauliflower Cheese Soup – serves 6-8
cauliflower-cheese-soup_cropped

1 large cauliflower, broken into florets
2 onions, chopped
2 sticks celery, chopped
1 large carrot, diced
1 small potato, diced
1 clove garlic, chopped
50g butter (or olive oil if you prefer)
1 litre vegetable stock
Milk to taste
Grated nutmeg
2 bay leaves
1 generous tsp wholegrain mustard
Seasoning
100g Cheddar cheese, grated

Cook the chopped onion, celery, carrot, potato and garlic in butter for about 10 minutes until softened. Add the cauliflower and continue to cook gently for a further 15 minutes or so. Add the vegetable stock, bay leaves, seasoning and grated nutmeg, bring to the boil and simmer for 20-30 minutes until the vegetables are soft. Stir in the mustard.
Allow to cool slightly, then whizz in a blender, in batches, until smooth, and transfer to a clean pan. At this stage you can add milk if the consistency is thicker than you’d like. Stir in the grated cheese and warm gently before serving with fresh bread.
Freezes beautifully, like most soups – if anything, the flavour is often even better after a spell in the freezer!

allotment-cloches

Decadence is Growing Your Own…

Whitecurrants

Strange though it may seem, there are times when growing your own fruit and vegetables can seem like the height of decadence. When else would you feel inclined to have fresh raspberries on your breakfast every day for a month, or feast on asparagus ’til it comes out of your ears?! At shop prices, or even farmer’s market prices, these luxury items tend to be perceived as special treats – yet, if you grow your own, you can indulge, in season, whenever you like – or freeze for later, of course. That’s one of the reasons why it’s always worth growing the kind of things that tend to command luxury prices in the shops, if you can find them at all, that is – asparagus, soft fruit, mangetout and sugarsnap peas, broad beans…. the list is endless. And that’s to say nothing of the environmental benefits of homegrown produce in terms of organic cultivation, food miles saved – and the taste of crops grown and eaten within hours of picking – bliss!

This week saw me with so many mangetout and sugarsnap peas that I made some into soup – sacrilege to many, I’m sure, but when you have plenty, why not?! It’s a recipe I’ve been cooking for years, all the years I’ve been growing peas, in fact, originally from an old Cranks recipe book, but tweaked slightly, as is my wont. It suggests serving it chilled, but unless you live in a very hot climate, I prefer serving it hot – and freezing for an instant taste of summer on cooler days.

Mangetout Soup – serves 6-8

2 medium onions
450g mangetout or sugarsnap peas
2 small potatoes
50g butter
1 litre vegetable stock
200ml milk (or adjust to taste)
Handful of fresh mint leaves
Seasoning

Chop the onions and sauté in butter until transparent. Trim the peas, removing any strings if using sugarsnaps or older mangetouts, chop roughly and dice the potatoes, then add to the pan with the chopped mint. Sauté for a few minutes, add the stock, season and bring to the boil, then cover and simmer for 20 minutes.
Allow to cool slightly, then purée in a blender in batches. Sieve into a clean pan – this is one soup that really does need to be sieved. I’ve tried it without and you can’t get rid of the stringiness of the pods, no matter how carefully you trim them beforehand.
Add milk until the desired consistency is reached. Much depends on the size and consistency of your potatoes and how thin you like your soup!
Reheat to serve – also freezes well.

Another favourite way of cooking mangetout or sugarsnaps straight from the garden – other than deliciously raw in salads! – is with a tangy lemon dressing. This was inspired by Delia Smith’s summer vegetables in her Summer Cookbook and uses any summer vegetables you happen to have lying around, lightly steamed or microwaved and tossed in a lemon dressing with fresh herbs to serve.

Summer Vegetables in Tangy Lemon & Dill Dressing

Summer veg with lemon dressing

Mangetout peas
Sugarsnap peas
Courgettes
Baby carrots
Shallots or bulbous spring onions
Broad beans
Juice and zest of 1 lemon
6 tbsp olive oil
1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp wholegrain mustard
Handful dill, chopped (and/or mint)
Salt and pepper

You can use any young summer vegetables you have to hand for this recipe, which is why I haven’t specified quantities – it’s entirely up to you. Prepare the veg as usual, then steam or microwave for 4-6 minutes. If using carrot or onions, start them off first, then add the rest for the last 3-4 minutes. You want them just tender, definitely not cooked through.
Meanwhile, prepare the dressing by placing the juice and zest of the lemon in a jar, then adding the olive oil, sugar, crushed garlic, mustard and seasoning. Shake to emulsify, then taste: if too sharp, add more oil.
Turn the vegetables into a serving bowl, add enough of the dressing to coat and toss while still warm. Sprinkle over chopped dill and/or mint and serve lukewarm or cold the next day.

Summer veg salad with prosciutto

If you have any leftover new potatoes, this is delicious served for a lunchtime Summer Vegetable Salad, mixed with the potatoes and some chopped prosciutto crudo, adding extra dressing if required. I even threw in a handful of whitecurrants for an extra fruity je ne sais quoi when I made this last week.
The perfect summer lunch, just right for the current unexpected spell of hot weather….

Poppy in the meadow 2016

Season for Soup

The wet weather continues into the New Year: hail, constant rain, thunder, gloom…. it’s enough to make you not want to venture out at all. Thank goodness for dogs, or I probably wouldn’t! Definitely not the time for gardening, or for the allotment for that matter – my sole forays down there are to harvest the few crops that can withstand the onslaught: cavolo nero, leeks, parsnips, rocket and herbs. Even the raised beds are waterlogged, if that’s not a contradiction in terms, and taking cars into the entrance turning circle is a definite no-no because of the inevitable mud bath that would result. I did manage to pick my first purple-sprouting broccoli, though, this weekend, so the mild weather does have some benefits; delicious it was too, with a beautiful piece of baked cod from the fish van in the village, topped with homemade tartare sauce.

This is the weather for comfort food, and soup has to be right up there with the best. The first long week back at work after the Christmas holidays is notorious for colds and sniffles, as well as a marked disinclination to revert to normality. A warming bowl of soup is often just what you fancy to soothe scratchy throats, clear aching heads and generally warm the cockles of your heart. At this time of year, I’ve often finished the stocks of frozen soup I squirrelled away in the summer and autumn months of plentiful produce, so any soup I can conjure up with my own vegetables is a bonus. Leek and potato soup is one stalwart, using the leeks that always do so well for me and my potatoes stored in hessian sacks in the garage. Minestrone is another favourite, using leeks, fresh winter herbs and cavolo nero to top up store cupboard staples. The final winter standby is yet another variation on tomato soup, but this time using tinned tomatoes. As long as you use good stock, the lack of fresh produce needn’t be a problem; a few minutes chopping and hey presto, you can bring instant cheer to a dull day!

Leek & Potato Soup – serves 4-6

Leek & Potato Soup

1 tbsp butter

1 tbsp olive oil

1 medium onion, chopped

3 large leeks, washed and chopped

350g potatoes, peeled and diced into 5mm cubes

1 litre homemade stock ( I use chicken, but vegetable is fine too)

Salt and pepper

1 bay leaf

2 tbsp parsley, finely chopped

Heat the oil and butter in a large pan and gently fry the onion for 5 minutes. Add the chopped leeks and potatoes and cook for a few minutes until well coated in the oil and butter. Pour in the stock, season to taste and add the bay leaf. Bring to the boil, cover and simmer for about 20 minutes until the vegetables are tender. Finally stir in the parsley and serve piping hot with fresh bread or cheese scones. Freezes well too.

Cheese scones

You can liquidize this if you prefer, but I prefer the chunky, broth-like texture. There’s such a high potato content in this soup that it can go a little glutinous if blended.

Minestrone Soup – serves 6

Good glug of olive oil

2-3 rashers streaky bacon, snipped into small pieces (or omit for vegetarian soup)

1 large onion, finely chopped

1 clove garlic, chopped

2-3 celery stalks, chopped

3 carrots, diced

1 small red pepper, diced

1 small red chilli, seeds and all, finely chopped

1 tin chopped tomatoes

2 leeks, chopped

150g cavolo nero (or cabbage), hard stems removed and shredded

1 bay leaf

1 tsp dried oregano (or use fresh rosemary or thyme, or even basil in the autumn)

1.5 litre good homemade chicken stock (or vegetable if you prefer)

50g dried macaroni

1 tbsp tomato purée

Seasoning

2 tbsp parsley, chopped

Heat the oil, then gently cook the bacon, onion, celery and garlic for a few minutes until starting to soften. Add the diced carrots, pepper, chilli and leeks and cook for another 5 minutes or so. Add the tinned tomatoes, swilling out the can with a little water to extract all the juice. Add the tomato purée, bay leaf, oregano (or herbs of your choice), season and cook gently for another 5-10 minutes. Add the stock, bring back to the boil, then cover and simmer gently for an hour or so. Then add the cavolo nero (or cabbage) and the macaroni and cook for a further 30 minutes. Stir in the chopped parsley just before serving.

Good served with chunky fresh bread or toast and cheese. A real meal in a bowl! All these winter soups really seem to intensify in flavour after freezing, so making these large quantities is a real bonus, even if you’re just cooking for one or two.

Tomato & Lentil Soup – serves 4-5

4 rashers streaky bacon, snipped into pieces

Glug of olive oil

1 large onion, chopped

1 clove garlic, finely chopped

2 sticks celery, chopped

1 red chilli, finely chopped (optional)

125g red lentils

1 tin chopped tomatoes

1 tbsp tomato purée

Few sprigs fresh thyme, leaves removed

Salt and pepper

1 bay leaf

1 litre chicken or beef stock (or vegetable if you prefer)

Gently fry the bacon, onion, celery and garlic in the oil until golden. Add lentils and cook for a few minutes, then add the tinned tomatoes, tomato purée, thyme leaves, bay leaf, red chilli (if using) and seasoning. Bring back to the boil and cook for 30-45 minutes until vegetables are tender and lentils are cooked. Allow to cool slightly, then liquidize. Adjust consistency by adding more stock, milk or water if necessary and reheat to serve.

I should perhaps issue a disclaimer here: once you’ve started making your own soup and realised how easy it is and how much tastier (and cheaper!) than bought soup, it’s really hard to go back. You have been warned! I started making soup when I first got married, over 30 years ago and haven’t looked back since. The freezer is usually well-stocked with soup and stock and that’s just how I like it!

Clivia miniata - a welcome shot of colour in the conservatory
Clivia miniata – a welcome shot of colour in the conservatory

Waste Not, Want Not

Sheffield Park pools

Inspired by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s excellent programme, Hugh’s War on Waste, on television recently, I thought I’d share some of my favourite recipes for using up leftovers. It’s always been a theme of mine, ever since I first had a house of my own and a beginner’s vegetable garden – having gone to all the trouble of growing your own, it always seems criminal to waste it! Plus, money was tight in the early days, so wasting food was doubly questionable. Delia Smith’s Leftovers section at the back of her “Complete Cookery Course” was my bible, along with Jocasta Innes’ “The Pauper’s Cookbook”, dating back to my student cooking days. Delia’s cottage pie and rissoles were stalwarts of my early forays into cooking and Jocasta’s chapter on programmed eating, based on cooking a joint or a casserole and then using the leftovers over the following days, seemed to make perfect sense. It still does! I often think the leftovers from a joint can be almost as good (if not nicer!) then the joint itself; think roast chicken followed by a chicken & ham pie or a chicken risotto, with plenty of stock to make soups over the coming weeks…. Or a gammon joint, followed up by ham and tomato pasta, a delicious quiche or as a pizza topping, plus ham and lentil soup for the freezer…. I pride myself on being able to stretch a joint for at least two, if not three meals after the main event and not including the essential stock. Definitely no scope for waste!

Halloween pumpkins

A couple of weeks ago my son and his American girlfriend came home for the Halloween weekend, bearing not one but four pumpkins! The intention was for them to decorate them for the Halloween festivities, and for my elder son and his girlfriend to do their own too. Unfortunately they didn’t get home in time, so I had two rather large pumpkins going spare. My own squashes down at the allotment have been a miserable washout this year, with only two smallish pumpkins to show for a whole season of growth – I blame the late start and not enough days of sunlight. Anyway, although the large orange pumpkins you buy at Halloween don’t have quite the depth of flavour of the home-grown squashes, I had no intention of letting them go to waste!

Cue several roast pumpkin risottos (see Butternut Squash, Leek & Bacon Risotto for the basic recipe), a delicious oven-baked pumpkin, tomato & feta frittata and the following soup recipe, adapted from October’s Waitrose Food magazine.

Roast Pumpkin, Apple & Stilton Soup – serves 6-8

½ large pumpkin, peeled and chopped into 5 cm chunks

4 Cox-type apples, peeled, cored and quartered

1 tbsp chopped sage leaves

1 tsp ground cinnamon

4 carrots, peeled and cut into 2 cm lengths

2 sticks celery, cut into 2 cm chunks

2 leeks, sliced

1 onion, chopped

1 clove garlic, finely chopped,

2 red chillis, finely chopped

Olive oil

25g butter

1 l vegetable or chicken stock

125 g Blue Stilton, crumbled

Milk or extra stock or white wine to taste

Pre-heat oven to 200°C / Gas 4. Toss the pumpkin and apple on a large roasting tray with the cinnamon, chopped sage and olive oil to coat. Roast for 35 minutes until tender and golden.

Meanwhile, melt the butter and a dash of olive oil in a large pan. Add the onion, garlic, leeks, celery, carrots and chilli and cook over a gentle heat for 8-10 minutes until softened.

Add the roast pumpkin and apple to the pan with the stock, bring to the boil and simmer for 20-30 minutes or until tender. Allow to cool slightly, then liquidise until smooth (in batches). Add milk or extra stock (or a dash of white wine!) until the desired consistency is reached. Add the crumbled Stilton and reheat to serve.

Still on the waste avoidance theme, I often end up with brown, spotty bananas in my fruit bowl and have a number of delicious ways of using them up, so I really have no excuse for them ending up on the compost heap. One such recipe is Banana Cream, simplicity itself and also delicious with perfect yellow bananas if you can’t bear to wait. Banana & Cherry Buns are another delicious use for past-their-best bananas – cooking bananas somehow transforms them into another taste dimension. One thing I don’t advise is following the advice of a certain TV chef and freezing brown bananas whole, then whizzing in a blender for instant ice-cream; I tried this the other day, admittedly with bananas that I’d put in the freezer and forgotten about for quite some time, but the resulting mix tasted revolting – like cold banana mush, just as you’d expect really!

These recipes I can vouch for, however: a perfect use of over-ripe fruit!

Banana Cream – serves 2-3

Banana cream

2-3 ripe bananas

Juice 1 lemon

125 ml double cream

125 ml natural yogurt

1 tbsp caster sugar

Chopped walnuts, grated dark chocolate or blueberries to garnish

Chop the bananas into a bowl with the squeezed lemon juice and 1 tbsp caster sugar. Mash roughly with a potato masher. Stir in the yogurt until blended. Whip the double cream until the soft peak stage and fold into the banana mixture. Spoon into 2-3 sundae dishes and top with a garnish of your choice.

Banana & Cherry Buns

175g butter, softened

150g caster sugar

175g self-raising flour

2 eggs, beaten

1 ripe banana

Lemon juice

125g glacé cherries, finely chopped

Preheat oven to 180°C fan, Gas 5. Place 24 bun cases in bun tins. Mix butter, sugar, flour and eggs together using a hand-held mixer until the mixture is light and creamy. Mash the banana in a small bowl, adding lemon juice to stop it browning. Fold in the banana and cherries. Spoon into the cases and cook in the preheated oven for 15-20 minutes until golden brown and springy to the touch. Absolutely delicious warm from the oven with a cup of tea – although the banana flavour intensifies the longer you leave them – allegedly! They certainly don’t last long in my house…

Now I just need to find homes for all the windfall apples under my allotment trees – I’ve picked loads, given lots away, advertised them on Facebook and e-mailed my fellow plotholders to help themselves, but there are still lots on the ground. Sorry, Hugh….