Leek and Potato Soup

November 27, 2008

There are winter soups and summer soups. Cold ones and hot ones. But how many soups, I ask you, are this easy to make? This tasty? This nourishing? How many are this comforting, hearty and warming-to-the-very-bones?

I could go on but I’m sure you get the idea. There you are, you’ve been watching the news about all the terrible events in the world today. The attacks in Mumbai. The insurrection in Thailand. The dire state of the pound or dollar. And it’s raining outside. Not even a very interesting full-pelt kind of rain, just a dull, grey drizzle.

And you think to yourself – maybe you mutter it aloud – ‘I know. I’ll make some soup’.

So you wander into the kitchen and find a few leeks and few potatoes. You chop them up and add some stock. You notice it’s raining a bit harder now.

And then, before you know it, something really rather remarkable happens.

It happens just when you’ve ladled out a big bowlful of deep browny-green real food, and you’ve sat down in front of it in your favourite chair. It happens right then.

You weren’t expecting it. Perhaps you were half hoping it might happen but you hardly dared think it might do so for real. But it does. A small thing perhaps, but enough to change your world…

Just this. That everything – all that stuff that stressed you so much – it all goes a little bit out of focus.

leek-and-potato-soup-011

Out-of-focus soup. Made just for you. Is there any better way to soothe away cares?

Leek and Potato Soup, for 4
3 leeks (when trimmed these should weigh about 500g)
500g potatoes, peeled and chopped quite small. Or you could par-boil these.
50g butter (this brings out the flavour better here than oil)
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1.5 litres stock
100ml cream
dash lemon juice
1-2 tsp sugar
seasoning

In a large saucepan melt the butter and fry the leeks and garlic for a couple of minutes. Add the potatoes and cook for 5-10 more minutes until the leeks are translucent and the potatoes just cooked.

Pour in the stock, bring to the boil, cover and simmer for 10 minutes or so, until the vegetables are completely tender. Add the sugar and lemon juice.

Blend the soup. You can do this in batches in a food processor or with a hand-held blender, as I did.

Stir in the cream and add any seasoning you like. I sprinkled my soup with some chopped parsley.

Relax. Enjoy. Become a blur.

Now don’t groan. I know, I know, sprouts don’t seem like much to ring home about. But that’s where you’re wrong, you see, and this is the start of my one-man mission to prove it.

Christmas and the day after and the day after that don’t have to be deadly, with only another plateful of soggy vegetables to look forward to. It can all be so very, very different.

Take a look at this.

brussels-sprouts

These aren’t just Brussels sprouts. These are sprouts mingled with red onion, lightly charred (the burn’s the best bit, right?), spiced with cumin and chilli and lifted with just a tangy hint of balsamic vinegar. To be eaten with any of the usual Christmas Day stuff or on their own, as I did, out of the pan, with rye bread fresh from the Spence Bakery on Stoke Newington Church Street.

The recipe is (very loosely) adapted from one I found in an old issue of BBC Vegetarian Good Food Magazine – long defunct, sad to say. There they used shallots, which sound good too. I’ve made the recipe hotter, as is my wont. Well I have to. After all I’ve still got a bag of Thai chillies in my larder which I bought to make the Red Lentil and Carrot Soup.

Pan-Fried Brussels Sprouts with Red Onion, Chilli and Cumin Seeds
for 4 as a side dish
500g Brussels sprouts, trimmed and sliced in half lengthwise
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 red onion, sliced
1 red Thai (or any) chilli, sliced – with the seeds included
2 tbs olive oil
fresh ginger – about a cubic inch, grated
1 level tbs cumin seeds
1 tbs balsamic vinegar

In a large frying-pan, lightly fry the red onion, garlic and chilli just long enough for the onion to become translucent. Add in the ginger, the cumin seeds and the sprouts, and cook over a medium heat for a few more minutes.

Turn the heat down to the absolute minimum, cover the pan and cook for 10 minutes. Stir the sprouts occasionally so that as many as possible get that wonderful charred effect.

The sprouts should now be tender, with just a little bit of crunch left in them. Pour over the vinegar, sprinkle on some salt, stir well. Let the vinegar begin to bubble. You can sprinkle with some chopped chives or other herb if you have any to hand. But basically (and how long can this realistically take, 20 minutes?) you’re done.

Pasteis de Nata

November 21, 2008

pasteis-de-nata

Which I’ve found variously translated as cream tarts, custard tarts, or by dictionary.com’s translation service as ‘you graze of cream’. Which I suppose you do and it is and…well anyway they’re delicious.

I was given my first one ever by A (of good bike bad bike) earlier this week. It had a thin light shell of crisp pastry and a cool rich filling. It was so good that I wanted to make my own. So I researched a bit and found out that this was a pastel de nata  (pasteis being the plural). I then unearthed an old Sunday supplement with a likely recipe and found another couple on the Internet. It looked like I had it all sorted.

And then I got stuck. The recipes varied wildly. Some said a very low oven and some a roastingly hot one. Some said you had to cook the tarts for a maximum of 10 minutes and absolutely no more, while some said to give them a good 20.  Ditto with the amount of cream, milk and egg yolks in the custard. One called for vanilla pods, but there was no way I was splashing out on those at £3.99 a pop from my local supermarket. Essence of same would have to do. And far, far worse, nowhere could I find the little foil tart cases that seemed to be essential.

My difficulties were compounded by the fact I’ve moved flat recently and found there are various basic utensils we don’t have – I’d assumed they were kind of generic to kitchens. But no, in some places there are no rolling pins, so you have to use an Absolut vodka bottle; and neither is there always a sieve, which is why the icing sugar on the tarts pictured above has fallen in clumps.

What did I do? I made a cup of tea. That cheered me up and once cheered I could come to a decision. Which was that I would use my instincts, and improvise. A muffin tray would do instead of tart cases (and having decided that I promptly found a recipe that said it was essential to use one). I only had one muffin tray, so I would make 2 batches of tarts and try out a different cooking time on each one. As for the cream vs milk ratio dilemma, well I’d go for richness.

What I ended up with didn’t look much like the tartlet I had first tasted. But then, when I examined closely the pictures that went with other recipes, neither did they. These were puffier, more haphazard, more obviously home-cooked pasteis. But no matter. They tasted great, light but splendidly rich.

Pasteis de Nata
makes about 12

500g unrolled puff pastry
200ml milk
350ml double cream
4 egg yolks
50g caster sugar
50g plain flour
1 tsp vanilla essence
1 long strip of lemon peel
ground cinnamon
icing sugar

Set the oven to 200C. (In the end my vote is for more heat less time. Trying to cook these at 150C as one recipe suggested, left the pastry almost raw on the inside).

Roll out the pastry to into an oblong about .25cm thick. Then coil it up like a Swiss Roll. It doesn’t have to be too tight. I found it helped if you sealed the long edge with a little water to stop it uncoiling.

pasteis-de-nata

Cut the pastry into 3cm coils.

pasteis-de-nata-0081

Wet your fingers lightly and press your thumb into the centre of the coil and then begin to shape the pastry into little cups. Recipes said the cups need to be about .3cm thick, but I just went as thin as I could go, and it worked. You should make about 12.

pasteis-de-nata

Put the cups into muffin cases and chill (them, not you). 

Place all the custard ingredients into a saucepan, off the heat – the milk, cream, yolks, sugar, flour, lemon peel and maybe a pinch of salt. Whisk them up well. Cautiously turn on the heat and cook the custard until it becomes really thick, whisking all the time so that you don’t end up with scrambled eggs.

Spoon 1- 1.5 tbs of custard into each pastry cup. Cook the tarts for a little over ten minutes. My oven is fan-assisted though, so they may take longer in a conventional oven. Tastes vary over how brown the custard should become, but the pastry itself definitely needs to look golden at the edges.

Cool the tarts and remove from the muffin tin carefully – I went round the edges first with a sharp knife and then used a dessert spoon to lift them out.

Dredge them with cinnamon and icing sugar.

pomegranate

Looks lovely, but what do you do with it? 

This pomegranate, brought back from Cyprus, has been waiting patiently in the glass bowl in the hall. Waiting for inspiration to strike me. Which today, it did.

I knew I’d seen a picture of an Ottolenghi dish where he’d scattered the tiny pink seeds like jewels over something or rather, no idea what, something typically (and deliciously) spicy and Middle Eastern. So my thought was that I could do the same, why not? Over one of my favourite salads, lentils and spinach dressed with cream.

And then, since I had an aubergine in the fridge, that obviously would need to go in too.

Though I call this a salad, it’s really one of those salad-type things that you could eat hot, warm or cold. By itself, in a medley of salads, or as a side-dish. The bright colours and earthy tastes would warm up any lunch, but particularly a winter one.

Oh, and the pomegranate seeds aren’t vital, if you can’t find them. You could use cherry tomatoes – albeit for a slightly different flavour. ( And if you have the time and inclination, oven-dry these first. It’s so simple. Set the oven to about 90C, cut the tomatoes in half, put them on an oven tray spread with tin foil, sprinkle with salt, and bake for about 2 hours. That’s it. They taste intensely tomato-ish, like sundried tomatoes do. But better, because you did them yourself.)

aubergine, lentil and spinach salad

Aubergine, Lentil and Spinach Salad, with Pomegranate Seeds, for 4 
1 large aubergine
100g green lentils
2 red Thai chillies, sliced
1 fat garlic clove, minced
bunch shredded spinach (my bunch was 160g when bought and half that once de-stalked and sifted through)
6 tbs olive oil
2 tbs cream
1 tbs balsamic vinegar
salt, pepper

Set the oven to 175C.

To prepare the aubergine, slice off the top and bottom and then cut it in half widthwise. Those halves are then cut in half again lengthwise, and each quarter sliced lengthwise into 6 long pieces. So you end up with 12 sections, each about the size of a potato wedge.

Put the aubergine wedges in an oven dish with the sliced chilli, garlic, a good coating of salt and pepper and 2 tbs of the oil. Stir it all around thoroughly. The aubergines then go into the oven where they take 20 minutes (though my oven is fan-assisted, so they may take longer in a conventional oven. They need to be soft but not mushy).

Put the lentils in a pan of cold water, bring them to the boil and simmer for about 20 minutes. Like the aubergine, they need to be soft but not lose their shape.

Pour the rest of the oil, the cream and the vinegar into a bowl and stir well, or blend – though only for a moment, or the cream may start to whip up.

The cooked aubergines go into a bowl with the spinach and then the dressing is poured over them while they are still hot. Drain and rinse the lentils and stir those in too. Leave for a little while for the flavours to infuse and then scatter over the pomegranate seeds.

aubergine, lentil and spinach salad

carrot-and-lentil-soup-0121

Having been in Cyprus so recently, there was I thinking Mediterranean vegetables and barbecues and al fresco eating, and it wasn’t until yesterday’s walk in the park that I realised I was out of sync.

It wasn’t just autumn in the park, half the leaves were already on the grass. The tai chi guy was still doing his early morning stint but you wondered how long he would last. There are deer in that park and even they looked cold, their breath coming out in winter puffs of white.

And so my thoughts turned to soup, naturally. On a cold day it’s soup that makes you feel human again. It’s also cheap – really a handful of carrots, an onion and some lentils, cost next to nothing. And it’s one of the easiest foods to adjust: you just throw in a few more potatoes for extra padding, or beef up the flavour with lemon juice, salt or stock. A spoonful of tahini or miso may also be a good idea, often is.

So this is what I did. I fried the onion and garlic gently and just before they turned golden tossed in a couple of Thai chillies. These are those very small chillies and you need to go carefully with them. Two was an elegant sufficiency, just enough to give a comfortable glow.

Then I added the chopped carrots and fried those too for a few more minutes, being a firm believer that frying anything brings out the flavour. I poured in the stock, brought the soup to the boil and then left it to simmer for about 20 minutes while I did the washing-up. It was yesterday’s washing-up actually. I hate doing it late at night.

Then came my favourite bit, blending the soup. I have one of those hand-held whizzer-uppers. It used to belong to my grandmother, and it’s great for chasing after pieces of carrot. I also liked the way you could watch the whole thing turn bit by bit to a deep orange. Finally the coriander went in, the soup got another blast, and the orange became flecked with green.

I have to say, the soup was very good. I ate it once at lunch and then again in the evening with my flatmate D. We had a bit of baguette too (particularly crusty and fresh baguette from the Fresh and Wild store in Camden) and some basic green salad. Neither of us said very much at all, which seems to me the ultimate accolade for a meal.

Carrot and Coriander Soup, for 4
600g carrots, chopped
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
2 green Thai chillies, chopped, with the seeds
2 tbs basic oil
150g red lentils
1.25 litres stock (I made this up from water and Marigold bouillon powder, the only type worth using, in my book)
a few stalks fresh coriander
yoghurt (optional)

In a large saucepan fry the onion and garlic in the oil for a few minutes, then add in the chilli. After a few more minutes put in the carrots and when they are just beginning to turn lighter at the edges pour on the water, add the lentils, and bring the soup to the boil.

Now cover the saucepan and simmer for about 20 minutes. Stir the soup every now and then to make sure it doesn’t stick.

Blend it thoroughly, add the coriander and blend some more. It’s now ready to serve, with a spoonful of yoghurt if you want it. If you find the soup too thick for your taste – and it is so very creamy and thick, which I like, but then it’s your meal! – stir in more stock. I wouldn’t add cream or milk though, it’s quite full-bodied enough.

Bishop’s Finger

November 11, 2008

What is it with the British and Real Ale?

I used to think it was just nostalgia, in a similar vein to gentlemen’s clubs and scones for tea. And that the paid-up members of CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale, don’t you know) would be rather the kind of people who might belong to a Lord of the Rings Appreciation Society (the book, not the film). You know the type I mean, with a predominance of facial hair and brown cords. A liking for plaits (the men that is). Dressing up as Bilbo Baggins at every opportunity. Over engraved silver tankards of home-brew, considering earnestly whether Frodo was actually the illegitimate son of the Elf-Lord. 

Maybe it’s the names of the ales that put me off. What sort of drink is called Dog’s Bollocks? Or Lion Slayer for that matter, or Roaring Meg, or the tongue-twisting Boat Brewery’s Locky’s Liquor Locker Liquor? (Try saying that when you’ve had one or two.) Like the quaint villlage names of middle England (Much-Happening-in-the-Marsh, Little Piddling) or the hamlets of Middle-Earth, they sound ever so nice, but rather hard to take seriously.

As far as I was concerned, there was only one point to Real Ale. To get drunk quicker. Period.

I had my first encounter with local hops when I was about 17 and staying in Wiltshire with a school friend. It was my first really rural experience too and I remember how large the sheep were, so shaggy they were almost menacing. In the local pub everyone stared at us, of course, as we necked 5 or 10 pints each of something very dark and strong and flat.

We had a thing for pork scratchings at the time, I remember. The ones in this pub were so much the genuine article that they were covered with bristles, which we found a little bit too rural.

The purpose of the evening, naturally, was to get utterly and irrevocably pissed. I succeeded in this very well indeed, so well that the room actually went round and round, a phenomenon I’d heard of but never witnessed. It was quite exciting. And then I was sick, and slept and in the morning woke feeling hungry and very pleased with myself.

Which all in all, seemed like an interesting milestone of a memory but no incitement to explore ales any further.

And then I came across this and realised How Wrong I Was.

The Bishop

The Bishop

Otherwise known as Nun’s Delight. Number 4 in a poll by the Independent of the best British bottled beers (just below Waggle Dance and Summer Lightning). With a generous fruity flavour, says the Independent. Yummy, I say. Good with some strong English cheese, like Stilton. Certainly not a tipple to get drunk on, it’s too rich for that and why waste it?

I know you’re dying to ask, so I’m going to do it for you. Why is it called Bishop’s Finger? This bit is a tad cutesy, but there you go, we’re English and we do cute well…it’s called Bishop’s Finger after the finger-shaped wayside signposts in Kent (where it’s brewed) that pointed the way for pilgrims travelling to see the shrine of Thomas a Becket in Canterbury.

And it has it’s own charter (really!) and can only be brewed on a Friday (sorry, this is real Tolkien appreciation territory) by a head brewer using an antique Russian teak mash tun (honest!). And wearing a white druid’s robe and silver headdress.

Actually I made that last bit up. Ignore it. Hand on heart, Bishop’s Finger is the dog’s bollocks.

Cyprus Delight

November 7, 2008

a taste of the warm South

a taste of the warm South

Cyprus Delight. Doesn’t the name conjure up mouthfuls of delicate sweetness, rosewater, pistachios, and mint? Then again, maybe it doesn’t, since it’s probably not as famous over here as it’s twin Turkish Delight, though those Southern Cypriots wouldn’t thank me for saying so.

My box (you notice how possessive I am) comes very much from the Greek region of the island (from Larnaca airport actually, where I wiled away my last minutes and euros. And did you know that it’s one of the few remaining airports where people still dare smoke, openly, without shame and in the kafeneio, as they down thick sweet cups of black coffee – you ask for glyko, unsweetened is sketo –rather than outside the airport in the rain?)

Or instead of Turkish or Cypriot Delights we could call them lokum. The word may derive from an Arabic phrase meaning ‘contentment of the throat’. It just about sums them up. Exotic, intensely sweet – maybe too sweet for some people’s palates. Certainly not for mine.

This box, pictured above, comes from a quaint village, Lefkara,  on the slopes of the Troodos Mountains. The name means ‘white hills’, white because of the limestone. I’ve never been there, but I’m sure it’s full of fat and smiling villagers wandering about in clouds of icing sugar.

In his Narnia books, C.S.Lewis used lokum as one of the charms by which the White Witch beguiled the treacherous Edmund. The Turkish Delights she offers him are enchanted ( of course they are and you’d have thought he’d have realised that. After all she is a witch). “At first Edmund tried to remember that it was rude to speak with one’s mouth full, but soon he forgot about this and thought only of trying to shovel down as much Turkish Delight as he could, and the more he ate the more he wanted to eat…”

It sounds like any one of us aficionados. It’s a known and probably well-documented fact that it’s impossible to eat just one. They give you a little prong in the box, like a forked toothpick, so you can eat them daintily, if you want to, but after the first 3 squares stick together you’re bound to decide to use your fingers. Once you’ve gone down that route it’s only going to be extreme willpower (or other people’s aghast faces) that will stop you tilting back your head and emptying in the entire box. And then licking out the icing sugar. 

As you can see, I happen to like Cyprus Delight.

What I want to know is why sweet things are considered sinful? They make you fat of course, which may be a sin in some people’s book, and in that sense they lure you into the ways of the flesh, but then so does mashed potato with onion gravy.

It’s not the same for other religions. In an Indian ashram free boiled sweets are given out, or better still those Indian sweetmeats made from a whole lot of sugar, milk and ground nuts, steamed away until they form compact balls, dense and sickly-sweet. They’re called prasad, which is blessed food, offered to the Gods and then given (free) to the faithful to eat. Symbolically I suppose it’s food which is as good for the senses as the guru’s teachings are for the soul.

Which makes me think that maybe I’m not so bad for wolfing down Cyprus Delight while lying on my bed on a cold grey day in November. Certainly there’s not much else to do. And just maybe I’m also nourishing my soul. Maybe I am allowed to have my lokum and eat the whole box too.

I have found a recipe, from the queen of cookbook writers, Claudia Roden. However, on second thoughts and serious contemplation, I’m not going to give it to you. You can look it up yourselves if you’re that desparate, but my advice is don’t. Please don’t make it. Don’t make your own lokum. Anything concocted by amateurs like us is not going to be a patch on the real thing – and if it was, what a calamity! There would go all the mystery and romance. And don’t buy them in your corner shop either. They’ve got to be shipped over from abroad or found in a bazaar, wrapped up in that ornate box with the fancy writing, still smelling of lemons and almond flowers and sin.