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Warming winter insulation

Squash and cauliflower soup

Ah, how I love the simple, comforting nature of a good home-made soup on a cold day. As the mercury’s plunged again this week after the unseasonal warmth over Christmas and New Year, I’ve been slipping back to the wintery cycle of roasting, making stock, and then cooking up quick and delightful vats of soup. As well as being a simple, wholesome task, it’s also a great way of using things up in the kitchen.

I rarely follow recipes for soups… you can’t go far wrong with most combinations as long as you use your taste and nose… although an exception to the rule was a fabulous Butternut Squash, Ginger and Apple soup. This was from my favourite Parlour Café Cookbook (which has just been awarded ‘Best First Cookbook in Scotland’ at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards… congratulations!) and was sweet, velvety and savoury all the way. Generally though, I make it up as I go along, but when the results are really good, I do note them down… so here are a couple I’d like to share.

One lazy Sunday lunchtime a couple of weeks ago, when it was freezing outside and the kitchen windows were all steamed up, I decided we needed some warming soup. We’d had a gloriously rich evening meal the night before, so something a little more simple was the perfect foil to this.

I’d bought one of those cute wee striped squashes around Halloween, and it had sat patiently on the sideboard, imploring me to use it in something. Squashes are great emergency food, lasting for ever. Today was its calling, so I cut it into eighths, and placed it and the florets of about half a cauliflower head on baking tray, drizzled some olive oil over the top, and placed it in a mid-temperature oven (the oven had already been on for a spot of baking a quick wheaten bread.)

Cauliflower and squash

Cauliflower’s been making a comeback in Mister North’s kitchen recently. When we were kids cauliflower only came in two ways: boiled (normally something we’d have at our granny’s) or as cauliflower cheese. I loved both, but it’s a veg which I realised I’d been sorely neglecting when the Hairy Bikers shone a spotlight on the humble cauli in the first series of the Great British Food Revival. I’d made a cauliflower purée the night before, so had a spare half a head to use.

As the veg was lightly roasting, I sweated down some shallots in butter, then added a couple of chopped potatoes to soften. Braving the rain, I nipped out and cut a good sprig of rosemary off the bush; washed it and threw the leaves into the pan. Everything sizzled and softened – the heady aroma of rosemary oil and shallots pervading all of downstairs – and once the spuds felt soft to touch, I threw in five home-made hare stock cubes. Some cooks think life’s too short to make stock ice cubes, but for me it’s a boon to be able to lay my hands on a selection of real stock in small, easy-to-measure quantities.

Taking stock

By then the veg in the oven was looking and smelling pretty fine too, with the cauli florets taking on just a hint of roasted colour, so they got tipped into the pan while I cut the skin off the squash and cubed it. Stir it up, simmer it down. A good shake of smoked paprika was next, the warming scent wafting up from the pan. Finally a decent splash of double cream, and a quick garnish, using up the last of the garlic chives which had grown lackadaisically on my windowsill since late spring, added a flash of colour. I paired it up with some freshly-baked wheaten bread, still warm from the oven: just perfect for wiping the bowl clean.

Winter soups 4

 

A couple of days later I bought a duck from Lidl – specifically so I’d have a decent stash of duck fat for roasting veg over Christmas – roasted it simply, made a load of stock from it (which set into the most wonderful lustrous thick jelly) and enjoyed the meat in sarnies. When that was suitably diminished I used up the rest in one of my standby big noodle soups: duck, rice noodles, cucumber, carrot and spring onion, shot through with star anise and chilli.

Duck noodle soup

And finally, here’s one of my favourites. When I posted this a few weeks ago on Twitter, the consensus was that it’s not worth making your own, as the tinned version is just perfect. Just add a swirl of cream or a knob of butter, and a generous helping of freshly ground black pepper. What is it? Heinz Cream of Tomato Soup… a true taste of childhood and still one of the best quick standby meals I can call upon…

Winter soups 1

Venison, bullets and spears

As it was Valentine’s Day (or more precisely the evening before, and I didn’t yet know what delights would present themselves at Guestrant) I fancied doing something a little more glamorous for a dinner for two, and wanted to explore a couple of whimsical thoughts. Luck and judgement conspired to help create something a wee bit different and classier than my normal fare… in this case venison steak, butternut squash bullets, spinach and potato gratin, and steamed asparagus tips.

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Feeling Hungary

Mister North’s recent trip to Hungary made me very very envious as a weekend of beer, pork and paprika is definitely something I would revel in. I decided to create a little Magyar magic at home and make goulash with the lovely looking tube of gulyáskrém he brought me…

Paprika in a tube...

Strangely I loathe, despise and abhor peppers, yet I adore paprika. Something about the drying and grinding of peppers to obtain this rich intricate spice seems to remove the taste of a regular bell pepper that I hate so much. I’m not quite sure how that works, but I’m very glad it does, since avoiding the unexpected addition of peppers is the bane of my life when eating away from home. Such is my hatred of these vile fruits that I try to avoid walking past them in shops in case I get a whiff of them. At risk of sounding like the princess and the pepper, I can even tell if you used the same knife for peppers and and didn’t wash it before moving on to something else. It is impossible to cut peppers up small enough that I won’t notice them in a dish…

Yet I add paprika to everything I possibly can. Along with anchovy sauce, black pepper and Maldon salt, it is my essential can’t live without it food flavouring. I tend to fill up the famous La Chinata tins with cheaper tastier paprika bought from my local Portuguese deli and I like to keep all types in the spice cupboard, but favour the sweet paprika most generally.

Keen to try the new spicy paprika cream Mister North had provided, I set about finding an authentic sounding goulash recipe that didn’t involve adding in strips of bell pepper. This was quite difficult to find as many of those that omitted peppers relied on other ingredients like dried ceps to make life more awkward and expensive. I eventually found what I was looking for thanks to the lovely Liz at Gastronomy Domine and set about making a paprika infused, pepper free stew to tantalise the taste buds!

The recipe is very easy to follow. I used goose fat to brown the meat since the Hungarians are the most goose obsessed nation on earth. Everything was easy to come by and apart from an exploding tube of tomato puree, everything was straightfoward. I was making the goulash for about 3-4 people, but used the same amounts of paprika as Liz suggested anyway. I also deglazed the pan with some red wine as that was all I had to hand. This rich heavily scented stew was ready for the oven about 15 minutes after starting. I popped it in for 2 hours and settled down with a glass of red wine as delicious aromas filled the house.

Ready for the oven...

A few hours later, I pulled this stew out of the oven and realised I had turned the oven up too high and carbonised this round the edges! Luckily the meat and sauce were fairly easy to salvage and once I’d added some lemon juice, it all looked deliciously thick and tasty. Rather than make the nokedli mentioned in the recipe, I served this slightly singed stew with some plain pasta.

Ready to eat!

And it was delicious! Rich, deep paprika-y flavours with just the right amount of tang from the tomato puree and the lemon juice and a slight warmth from the gulyáskrém. Surprisingly it was quite light to eat on a warm night despite its reputation for being a heavy dish. The meat was a bit tough from my mistake with the temperature, but tasty enough to do justice to the sauce. I will definitely be making this lovely paprika spiked stew once more…I’ll just double check the heat of the oven first!