gherkin soup

Gherkin Soup

gherkin soupI have several loves in my life. Black eyeliner. Slow cookers. Carmex. But my heart really belongs to gherkins. Just say the word to yourself. It’s delightful to utter. It looks comical to write. And you get to decide how deep your relationships with people will be depending how they feel about them in burgers.

I always keep a jar in the house and have to ration myself from crunching through a gherkin every time I open the fridge (and yes, I know pickling preserves them. There’s just more room in there.) I garnish sandwiches with them and add them to salads, but I’ve never cooked with them.

Like most people, by late August, I’m in courgette apathy. Allotmenteers have gluts of them, but for fodmappers like me, this lasts all year as they are one of the few vegetables I can eat.

Staring glumly at a courgette on a chilly August lunchtime, I wondered how I could perk things up a bit. Deciding soup would be more acceptable than turning the heating on, I used a jar of gherkins to add some bite and interest to the whole thing. My Polish friends might clutch their pearls in horror at how inauthentic it all is but it tasted great and made courgettes interesting again.

Gherkin Soup (serves 2)

  • 1 large courgette, grated
  • 1 large potato, grated
  • 1 parmesan rind or 25g grated parmesan
  • 1 anchovy fillet
  • 450ml stock (vegetable or chicken)
  • 100g gherkins, chopped finely
  • 25g fresh dill or parsley, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon sour cream

This is so easy and quick, writing the recipe out as a blogpost definitely took longer than cooking it from scratch (and I’m a speedy writer!)

Peel the potato and grate it and the courgette on the largest hole of a box grater and put into a large saucepan and cover with the stock. Add the anchovy fillet and the parmesan rind if you are using it. I stash mine in the freezer in a Tupperware until needed.

Simmer for about 10 minutes until the veg is soft and the anchovy has dissolved. I’m still working on a homemade fodmap friendly stock as it’s the place I miss the depth of onion the most, but I’m using the Knorr Touch of Taste one from a bottle. It’s onion and chicory fibre free for fodmappers and the least cheap roast chicken crisp flavoured commercial one I’ve found. Stop me if I sound too like Marco Pierre White though…

Fish the parmesan rind out and add in the chopped gherkins. Chuck in the grated parmesan if you’re using it instead and carefully blitz the soup with a stick blender, remembering hot liquids expand.

Add the chopped dill (I went fancy and added the parsley too. Mint would work if you are a dill-phobe) and stir in the sour cream and serve. It’s the perfect late summer soup, all fresh and tangy but warming and soothing at the same time. I’ve made it twice in a week which means my gherkin usage is about to fill my whole recycling bag singlehanded, but who cares when it’s this good?


potato soup

Cream of Potato Soup

potato soupFor some reason despite more or less worshipping at the shrine of the spud, I have never made a potato soup without adding either leeks or kale for caldo verde. In fact I’d never heard of cream of potato soup until I moved to England and saw packets of the Erin stuff in Irish sections of the supermarket and discovered it was thought of here as quintessentially Irish.

So when I checked out Ocado’s Irish shop for an event with them and Bord Bia for St Patrick’s Day, I was amused to see that they don’t stock this but lots of things I really do think of as Irish. I decided to make my own cream of potato soup though to be sure and top it with soda bread croutons, fresh dill and smoked salmon to make sure no one confused it with the packet stuff.

Cream of Potato Soup with Soda Bread Croutons (serves 4 to start)

For the soup:

  • 1 large onion
  • 25g butter
  • 500g potatoes
  • 650ml vegetable or chicken stock
  • 100ml buttermilk
  • salt and pepper

For the soda bread:

  • 225g plain flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar
  • 250ml buttermilk

To serve:

This is a very simple dish with a surprising amount of flavour from very few ingredients. I know I’ve described it as cream of potato but I forgot to buy any so I used the leftover buttermilk instead and the slight tang works brilliantly, so if you use cream, don’t skimp on a squirt of lemon juice too.

Finely slice the onion into half moons and allow it to soften into a sticky caramel tangle in butter over a low heat for about 30 minutes. Or use a batch of my slow cooker caramelised onions from the fridge where they last up to a month.

Peel the potatoes and cut into inch chunks. Add to the pan of onions and pour the stock over it all, seasoning well. Simmer on a low heat until the potatoes are collapsing around the edges for about 25 minutes. Use a handblender to blitz it all into a smooth soup.

It will thick and almost gluey at this stage but don’t panic. Add the buttermilk and blitz again and the texture will lift into a sleek soup with an almost foam like texture to the surface.

While the soup has been cooking, you’ll have been making the soda bread. I do buy mine for a emergency stash in the freezer, but having finally found a source of decent buttermilk, it seemed a shame not to make my own farls here.

Heat a dry heavy bottomed frying pan on the stove. Put the flour in a large bowl and add the sugar, salt and bicarb. Gradually add the buttermilk, bringing the dough together to a lump that shouldn’t be sticky. You may not need all the buttermilk. The acid in it activates the bicarbonate of soda and allows the bread to rise, so if you only milk, don’t forget to sour it with a splash of lemon or vinegar.

Flour the worktop and place the dough on it, pressing it into a circle with your hands until it is about an inch thick. Cut into four pieces or farls and cook two at a time in the dry frying pan giving them about 7 minutes on each side. Flip them over if they start to burn. Repeat with the remaining farls.

To make the croutons, split the farls in half and cut into small cubes. Add some oil or bacon fat to the frying pan and add the cubes to it and fry until the croutons are crisp and golden. Drain on some kitchen roll.

Serve the soup in shallow bowls scattered with the hot croutons, thinly sliced smoked salmon and chopped fresh dill. It probably doesn’t reheat well due to the buttermilk, but as there were only clean bowls from my guests, I’m not sure!

tripe soup

Slow Cooker Mondongo

tripe soup

I am a person who gets hangovers. Even as a teenager when everyone else around me seemed to be able to drink cheap vodka mixed with battery acid on an empty stomach and bounce right back, I was suffering. Not for me the two aspirin and a can of full fat Coke trick. I need to lie on a bed of gossamer, sipping angels’ tears from a cut glass goblet while eating crisps and waiting for the day to pass to put it all behind me. No amount of practise has ever really helped, although occasionally a ball of mozzarella eaten like an apple before bed can stave the situation off completely.

Therefore I am constantly on the hunt for hangover cure stories. I think that I’m one old wives’ tale or anecdote away from the hangover Holy Grail. I’ve tried the whole vitamin B before going out rumour, the milk thistle phase of the late 90s, the Gatorade by the bed trick, even the suggestion of mixing the liquid from a jar of gherkins with some soda water and downing it (spoiler alert: this is not the answer to any question, unless this question is ‘how I could feel immediately worse right now?’)

I think I know now nothing will ever be my ultimate answer, but that I can simply use this quest as a way to try new things along the way, which is how I came to know about sopa de mondongo or tripe soup. A Mexican-American friend online mentioned it once for its hangover curing qualities but still feeling scarred from the pickle juice, I screwed my face up and refused to even think about eating tripe even when I wasn’t feeling delicate. Read more

Lamb and lentil soup

Spiced Lamb, Lentil and Tomato Soup

Lamb and lentil soup

Every summer I buy lamb mince with the intention of making kofte with it and every summer I panic and decide that kofte are incredibly difficult to make and I’ll ruin them*. I find myself looking at a bag of lamb mince slightly nervously and then I just make meatballs. Again.

This time I happened to have been flicking through Purple Citrus and Sweet Perfume by Silvena Rowe and had seen a soup involving lamb mince and lentils and thought I could finally branch out of my meatball rut.

Unfortunately I went out and drank a couple of glasses of red wine before coming home to cook it for dinner and failed to notice that Silvena’s recipe was actually for rice, lamb and lentil soup until I had a third glass of wine and couldn’t be bothered to follow the recipe. I took inspiration at that stage from Keith Floyd and went for just making it up as I went along. The result was bowls that were scraped clean and no hangover from the wine either. That’s quite a soup.

Spiced Lamb, Lentil and Tomato Soup (serves 4)

  • 400g minced lamb
  • 1 teaspoon onion seeds
  • 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
  • ½ teaspoon kirmizi pul biber or smoked chilli flakes
  • 1 onion, finely diced
  • 3 cloves garlic, finely diced
  • 200g red lentils
  • 1 x 400g tin chopped tomatoes
  • 500ml chicken stock
  • salt and pepper
  • fresh mint to serve

This is a very easy soup to make. Start by heating a dry frying pan on a medium heat and add the onion and cumin seeds. Allow to fry until they start to smell aromatic. It should take about 30-45 seconds. Watch them with an eagle eye or they burn and become bitter. Tip out of the pan onto a clean plate.

Return the pan to the heat and add the lamb mince. Fry it off until the fat starts to come out of it and then add the toasted seeds back in along with the paprika and pul biber. Stir it all well and cook through completely. It should take about 10 minutes.

Remove the cooked lamb from the pan and using the fat from the lamb which is now infused with the lovely spices, sweat the onion and garlic over a low heat until they becomes translucent. This will take about 12 minutes.

While the onions and garlic do their thing, boil the lentils for about 10 minutes in salted water. Drain them once they start to look softened and return them to a large pan. Stir the lamb and sweated onion and garlic through it all and then season well. Red lentils need a generous hand with the salt cellar for me.

Tip the chopped tomatoes into it all and stir well. Add the chicken stock and simmer it all for 25 minutes until the lentils swell up and the soup thickens. Keep an eye to make sure the lentils don’t burn or start to boil dry. They have a habit of that if left to their own devices. You might need a slug or two more of stock.

Serve the soup in deep bowls. Chopped fresh mint scattered on top and stirred through as you serve complements the smoky spicy flavours of the dish perfectly.

I loved this soup. Easy, flavoursome and incredibly filling, it makes the lamb go a long way and made a real change from my usual lentil based soups which tend to be a little worthy for my real enjoyment. Lots of flavour is obviously what I was missing up until now!






Two very different Christmas leftover soups


Happy New Year! Well, that’s Christmas over for another year. The tree’s gone, the decorations are down, and the last hints of spice in the air are fading fast. Miss South and I made the most of the season in our respective locations… both making Christmas puddings for the first time; cooking up a great main meal and seasonal accompaniments; and getting creative with leftovers. After all, getting good mileage from leftovers is one of the best things about the holiday season, isn’t it?

Here are two recipes for Christmas leftover soups, based on main dishes we’ve previously posted about over Christmas. Both have proved their worth (and have been road-tested with others) and provide a good way of taking your leftovers in a different direction. After all, If you’re going to splash out on a large cut of meat, make sure you make the most of everything around it… from boiling liquid to bones. You can’t beat a warming soup in winter: it’s the best form of central heating around, and a great way to make ingredients and flavours go a bit further. Whether it’s a thick, hearty black pea and spiced beef soup, or the exotic joys of a fragranced Vietnamese-style pho bo, you should find something to whet your appetite.

Black pea and spiced beef broth (serves 6-8)

Black pea & spiced beef soup

Although it’s not based on a traditional recipe, this is a very northern dish in heritage and at heart. It’s got mixed Irish and Lancashire parentage, but I reckon a variation on this would feel equally at home in large swathes of Nordic or Eastern Europe too. It’d certainly keep the cold at bay. The spiced beef I used here followed our previously published recipe, which was based on Niamh Shields’. It’s established itself as a family tradition over the last three years!

We’re predisposed to pair pulses and pork on the blog as they’re natural BFFs, but here the sensuous spiced notes and savoury stock of the beef and its broth work really well with the dusky black peas* (not black-eyed peas).

Miss South and I first experienced black peas, parkin and cinder toffee on Bonfire night on a farm above Rochdale in the mid 1990s; that combination of frosty air and scaldingly-hot peas was a happy and formative memory for us both. When I moved to Manchester a few years later I visited Bury market and enjoyed the pleasures of a styrofoam cup of peas and black pudding on a winter morning (tip: you can fashion a spoon from a black pud link by biting the end off strategically).

Dried black peas

*Black peas (aka maple or pigeon peas) are a bit of a rarity outside of East Lancs and the South Pennines, and I’m conscious many readers might not’ve heard of them before. They’re delicious, and deserve to be better known. They’re on sale just over the West Yorkshire border here in Todmorden around Bonfire Night, but you might struggle to get them out of season, never mind outside the region. Even most of my books on regional British specialities (Andrew Webb, David Mabey, Laura Mason & Catherine Brown etc) don’t mention them; and while Mark Hix does in ‘British Regional Food’, he mentions the Lancashire black or parched pea alongside a differently cooked Lenten ‘carling’ or ‘carlin’ from Tyneside and the North East. (if you want to know much more about black peas, I’d suggest this well-researched and comprehensive piece here).


  • 1 fresh chilli
  • 1 red onion
  • 2 litres stock / liquid from boiling the spiced beef brisket
  • 250g dried black peas (you can substitute with marrowfat or other dried peas, but the taste is quite different)
  • 6 medium sized potatoes (I used Maris Pipers)
  • (optional) salt and pepper to taste
  • A sprinkle of finely sliced beef per person
  • A dollop of sour cream

This recipe assumes you’ve cooked the spiced beef already. Ensure you retain all the liquid you’ve boiled the beef in: it should last, properly covered in a cool place, for a few days. You may want to strain it through a fine sieve or some muslin, as you’ll likely get some bits from the ground spices at the bottom of the pan.

Start the day before, by soaking the black peas in a large bowl, covered in water with plenty of room for them to swell up. Add a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda to help soften them. Leave the peas to soak overnight. In the morning, rinse them well.

I had around 3 litres of stock from boiling up the spiced beef: I reduced this by a third so it was more intense. It was quite savoury; with the sugar, salt and spices really coming through strongly. I was concerned it’d be too strong, but those wee peas soak up liquid and flavour.

Cover the previously-drained peas with fresh cold water, bring to the boil and then boil hard for 10 minutes, before simmering for a further 30 minutes. Meanwhile sauté the finely chopped red onion and chilli slowly in a heavy-based pan, so it softens and starts to melt down.

Rather than continue to simmer the beans on the hob, I decided to make the soup itself in the slow cooker, but you could easily keep it in a pan. However making meltingly soft black peas is particularly good in the slow cooker as it’s self-contained and cheap as chips to run for hours. I left everything bubble for a few hours, then threw in the peeled, chopped potatoes for 30 minutes. Once they’d softened and cooked, I used a hand blender to process the soup, keeping it rough and textured rather than a smooth purée. Another 20 or so minutes just to soften everything down, and it’s ready to ladle into bowls.

Ideally serve with a dollop of soured cream, and sprinkle with chopped matchsticks of the leftover spiced beef on top. Garnish with some finely chopped chives or some flat-leaf parsley for a dash of colour.

Pho bo (generously serves 4)

Home-made pho bo

My first taste of a decent pho was when Miss South took me to one of the Vietnamese places on the Kingsland Road in London about ten years ago. I’d heard it was one of the best breakfasts known to mankind, and I was smitten on the first slurp. I’ve been going to Vnam Café on Oldham Road in Manchester since it opened to get my hit in the north, but making your own is extremely satisfying, and a great way to get the most from beef bones. In fact this was so good we made it twice within the space of a fortnight last Christmas (as my girlfriend and I had two family Christmas meals; one in Manchester, the other in Belfast). Both times we used beef forerib which we’d roasted as a joint for the main meal. This is the kind of recipe which can certainly improve with specialist ingredients, such as Thai basil, but we didn’t adhere strictly to this prescribed recipe either time, and it tasted fantastic. I’d defy anyone to turn their nose up at this after a night on the tiles over the Christmas period. Just don’t plan a big lunch if you have it for breakfast…

It’s based on this recipe which I suggest you follow; I’ve added some personal notes below. I’ve enjoyed Andrea Nguyen’s Viet World Kitchen blog for years, but it was her recipe for pho which prompted me to finally buy her wonderful book ‘Into the Vietnamese Kitchen’, which I can highly recommend. Her additional tips on making pho are as useful as the main recipe. However there’s no set rule for making this soup, so feel free to substitute or ad lib if required.


For the broth

  • Beef bones (in this case, from fore rib, but anything large and preferably with marrow is good)
  • some nuggets of fat from the beef
  • 300g brisket or similar beef cut
  • 2 mid-size onions, halved
  • 6-8cm ginger, sliced lengthways
  • 5 star anise
  • 6 cloves
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 4 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 1.5 tablespoons rock salt
  • 3 tablespoons rock or palm sugar

For the finished bowls

  • Noodles (ideally flat rice sticks, but we used rice vermicelli first time, and something like dried ramen next)
  • Fresh mint and coriander leaves, torn roughly
  • Beansprouts
  • Birds-eye chillies, sliced thinly
  • Beef (we cut thin slices from the cooked rare rib meat, and poured the hot broth over)
  • Scallions (spring onions), sliced and briefly blanched to take the edge off them
  • Limes, cut into wedges
A key tip for the start; char your ginger and onions. Slice them, then hold them over the gas flame on your hob until they char nicely round the edges. This gives a lovely richness to the broth. Then add salt, spices, sugar, fish sauce, bones and the cut of braising beef to the pot. First time I made this, I used normal granulated sugar. Second time, at our mum’s, we used rock sugar…and it was so much better. Alternatively you could use some panela, or at least some sticky muscovado to give more depth and aroma to the sweetness in the broth.
Bones, beef, salt. sugar and spice

First time, I used the slow cooker to make the broth overnight to allow all the flavours a chance to meld and mix wonderfully. Plus, the aroma you’ll wake up to is something else! At our mum’s we simmered the stock for several hours in the evening in a cast iron casserole, then let it cool overnight, before giving it some more time in the morning. This quicker cooking time was balanced out by being able to use more beef bones, giving a richer stock. However if you can, use the slow cooker for maximum flavour impact!

Strain the dark, delicious broth to remove any bits of spices and aromatics. You’re wanting to retain just the liquid. If you’ve used any braising cuts of meat in the stock you can retain it ready for a sandwich, shredded. Then put the broth back on the heat to keep warm.

The magic of pho for me is that tantalising counterplay between the slowly simmered, aromatic broth and the crispy fresh ingredients in the bowls. It’s bright and fresh, yet deep and complex. So ten minutes before you’re ready to serve, cook your noodles til al dente; then douse them in iced water to arrest their cooking further. Place them at the bottom of a deep, wide bowl; then add bean sprouts for crunch (I’ve also added mandolin’d carrot for brightness and bite). Add the meat, then pour over the hot broth. Let each diner garnish accordingly with fresh herbs, slices of chilli and scallion, and perhaps a squeeze of lime juice to taste. Happy slurping! Read more