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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

Twice as nice… our daily bread

It’s said man cannot live on bread alone. Considering this statement, I’m surprised organised religion remained so popular for so long on our wee island, when you think what a cracking range of Irish breads there are (veda, potato bread, soda farls and wheaten bread amongst others). I’m all for a bit of decent bread, slathered with butter, rather than some dour sermonising or happy clapping. I’ll probably be smitten down by the hand of a deity for saying that, but at least I’ll go with a smile on my face and a full tum…

Sundays are ripe for laziness*, cooking, and loafing around the house. Today’s mission was to make a decent and homely wheaten bread, to help counter the autumnal blues outside. However we’d been out drinking in Leeds yesterday (sampling some great ales from Leeds and Ossett breweries amongst others), and after a late night and a fuzzy head this morning, something special was required for breakfast first.

I’d planned to make baked eggs, following the recipe from the Parlour Café Cookbook. These have rapidly established themselves as a brekkie standby, not least because they’re so easy to cook. Their simplicity belies their deliciousness. I swapped the Parma ham from their original recipe with some slivers of locally hand-crafted air-dried ham from my friends at Porcus. Their rare-breed pork is heavenly, and I’m privileged enough to get samples of their splendid ham from time to time. These were perfect to line the ramekins, before cracking a hen’s egg in each. But I felt I needed something a tad more substantial to accompany these, so I made some potato bread – a family favourite – for the first time ever.

As Miss South’s previously explained, it’s meant to be made with leftover mashed potato, but that’s rarer than hen’s teeth in my house, so I quickly cubed and boiled up a few spuds, ran them through the potato ricer, then mixed in some plain flour & a knob of butter to create a light dough with a bit of bite. Proportions may vary depending on how waxy/floury your spuds are, but normally you want 4 to 5 times more flour than mash. Miss South’s said it before and we’ll say it again: potato bread is dead easy… it takes a Herculean effort to mess it up. A perfect compliment to any kind of ham and eggs…

Wheaten bread, otherwise known as brown soda bread, is another one of those wonderfully yeast-free breads we love back home. As with soda farls, the secret is the baking soda which helps it rise. You can buy it in many supermarkets, ready-made and branded courtesy of Paul Rankin; and both it and the more well-known white soda breads are gaining popularity on this side of the water. No wonder, it’s both healthy and oh-so-tasty. The ever-reliable Dan Lepard popped up on Women’s Hour’s “Cook the Perfect…” last week with his own take on it, and this spurred me on to do it the North/South way…

We’re a bit more old school in our family, and the core ingredients for wheaten bread are normally just flour, buttermilk, baking soda, and a pinch of sugar. Wheaten bread’s at least as easy to make as potato bread, especially if you have some Northern Irish wheaten bread mix to hand (thanks to my mum for bringing some across this summer). Of course, you can instead use a good mix of plain and wholemeal flour instead… but try and use as coarse and bran-heavy a mix as possible, as this really contributes to the flavour. In a mix, the baking soda’s already in place, so today all I had to do was add buttermilk and sugar.

I’m lucky enough to be able to get buttermilk in my local Morrisons, but I hear it’s hard to source in many parts of the country, so you can use full-fat milk and sour it with some lemon juice, or mix in some live yoghurt instead. Use roughly 3 parts flour to 2 parts buttermilk… in this case I used 500g of flour and about 330ml buttermilk, with a teaspoon of caster sugar just to bring out that nuttiness of the bran even more.

Mix it all up until you get a nice dough, not too sticky or overworked. Then normally I’d roll it out into a roundish shape, about 1″ / 3cm thick, before scoring the top into quarters. I dusted it with a little plain flour, but it’s also good finished with some chopped rolled oats.

As I was mixing the dough I realised I’d not made this for far too long; in fact since I went to Rotterdam to visit friends from all over Europe and enjoy a good shared meal. My Italian mate knocked up some fantastic food, so I thought it’d be right to bring a decent Irish loaf to add to the mix. Most people smuggle addictive substances out of the Netherlands: I may be the only person to have smuggled a loaf of wheaten bread in!

This is a bread with instant gratification in mind, with no leavening or proving required. I baked this straight on the shelf in a pre-heated oven, rather than on a tray, for 35mins (200C/400F/Gasmark 6) straight. Once it came out, sounding hollow when tapped, it had to sit and cool down on a wire rack. This is one of my strongest kitchen memories as a kid. I used to hang around, greedily watching while my mum baked glorious bannocks of wheaten bread, but the hardest part was waiting for them to cool, far too slowly, on a wire rack, with a tea towel covering them. As I found out today, self-control still isn’t one of my strong points when it comes to wheaten bread, even after all these years. We succumbed while the bread was warm enough to melt great slatherings of butter.

Simple and effective with good butter, though I had a last-minute hankering for a bit of blue cheese, which works so well with the nutty sweetness of the bread. Cashel Blue would be the natural Irish choice, but I was able to pick up some very decent Jervaulx Blue instead, which I enjoyed along with a pot of Yorkshire Tea. Living just inside West Yorkshire, it seemed a perfect choice. It also makes superb toast. If you’re looking for something a little more special, slices of buttered wheaten bread alongside some good Irish smoked salmon, finished with a sprig of chervil, a squeeze of fresh lemon juice and some cracked black pepper is to die for.

*”Oh wheaten it be nice…” with apologies to the Small Faces…