Archive for the ‘soup’ Category

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A Bundanon postcard (& some soup)

April 15, 2013

april 9 morningI write this with a deep peaceful sigh from the midst of a three-week writing retreat at Bundanon, the pair of properties given to the people of Australia by the painter Arthur Boyd and his family, on the Shoalhaven River a couple of hours south of Sydney.

It’s the second time I’ve had the great fortune to be here. I first came over ten years ago, when I was working on my second novel, The Submerged Cathedral – a book that turned out to be very much about landscape. Then, as now, I found the landscape here creeping not only into my work but my psyche. This time the effect is even greater I think, because while last time I worked in a large studio facing a different direction, this time my view, all day every day, is this one: the greenest paddock you have ever seen, often complete with kangaroos and wombats. The kangaroos oblige with a morning and evening ballet performance, and the wombats – enormous things – putz around after them.

I arrived at Bundanon after a busy month, having travelled from Adelaide Writers’ Week almost straight on to the fabulous Shanghai International Literary Festival and then very quickly to the Snowy Mountains Readers and Writers’ Festival, talking all the way.

I am exceptionally lucky to keep being invited to speak at these events, and it’s grand to meet readers of my books. At the same time, there is something that doesn’t really sit right with me when I do a lot of it. For one thing, I grow very quickly tired of the sound of my own voice. Writers are often rather introverted people, and so the performance aspect of speaking in public – as I have been doing for almost 18 months now, having published two books within six months of each other (d’oh!) and spoken at 15 literary festivals as well as assorted libraries and bookshops in that time  – can start to erode your sense of who and what you are if you do too much of it.

It also means – for me anyway – that the creative well is all but dried up. All that hyper-stimulation and exploration of the outside world means the inside world of my head, where my new novel should be dwelling, has become a rather hollow, empty place. All I have been hearing is my voice banging on and on and on, instead of sitting quietly and listening, which is the only way I can find my way into writing.

bundanon8All of which means that arriving here, to this view, with absolutely no requirement that I use my voice to speak at all, was even more blissful than I would ordinarily have found it. And while I’ve been keeping in touch with home and friends by email (and Twitter, which is where I learned of this lovely surprise last week) at least four days can go by at a time without having to open my mouth to speak. But it’s not only the quiet that is so restorative.  I’m absolutely sure the actual view – that wall of green – has as much to do with it (a hunch seemingly validated by this research into “restorative environments”). 

bundanon6I’m in what’s known as The Writer’s Cottage, just a stone’s throw from the artists’ apartments and studios occupied by other residents – more often visual artists, but this time several other writers, all lovely people. A Musicians’ Cottage is a little further away, set back among the trees. The whole place is such a generous gift – with Arthur Boyd’s studio and the family home a stroll down the hill, and open every Sunday for visitors. It’s a stunning place to visit, so if you’re ever in the Shoalhaven area you really should come to see for yourself.

I’m just starting week three, and have been slowly sinking back into my new novel. It’s both a joy and a challenge to be so immersed in it – when you finally get what you want, the result can be confronting. “Oh, if I only had three weeks of pure isolation for work on my novel!” can quickly turn to a terrified “Oh my God, three weeks of isolation to work on my novel?” once you sit down to the blank page and the blinking cursor once again.

my living & work roomAnd that’s where one’s small daily routines become so precious, especially cooking and eating. The morning coffee drunk while watching the roos, the lunchtime fridge scavenge, the evening glass of wine while cooking dinner, then the meal itself. Mine have most often been eaten one-handed from a bowl, while reading,  reading, reading in a comfy chair by lamplight – and it all takes on a great deal more ritual significance than at home during a normal working week. Even washing the dishes has become a pleasant diversion, what with the sink installed beneath a window that looks out on to a whole other view of stunning green, this time bushland…

wombat sunday april 14 2Then it’s early to bed, and the best sleep I have had in years (interrupted only by the odd bit of thumping and shrieking from a wombat rumpus under the house once or twice, and one night, the sad moans of some yarded cattle down the way), then up early to start again, sitting down with the quiet mind, the blank page, my imagined world and that view.

This evening’s dinner is a new soup I’ve made up this afternoon, inspired partly by a mention my husband made of a sweet potato soup he made at home last week, and partly by the happenstance combination of veg in my fridge, and partly by the welcome return of some cool damp weather. I feel like one of these wombats, shouldering my way back into the long-missed burrow of my writing life. And, even though it’s kind of dark in here, I like it.

Bundanon Soup

  • olive oil
  • 2 medium sweet potatoes,  chopped
  • 3 medium carrots, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 leek, finely chopped
  • 1 red onion, finely chopped
  • 3 cm  lump ginger, finely chopped
  • ½ bunch parsley, stems finely chopped & separated from leaves, also chopped
  • ½ a celery stick, finely chopped
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp ground coriander
  • 1 birdseye chilli, finely chopped
  • ½ tsp turmeric
  • 600 ml chicken stock
  • salt & pepper
  • a little fresh mint, finely chopped
  • lemon juice & zest
  • a dollop of natural yoghurt – optional
  1. bundanonsoupFirst, I tossed the carrots and sweet potato in olive oil and roasted them till richly browned and caramelised, because – well, because generally I need a good reason not to roast things and couldn’t see one here.
  2. While they’re roasting, sauté the onion, leek, ginger, garlic, spices, chilli and finely chopped parsley stalks in more olive oil along with the spices till the veg are soft and the spices fragrant. 
  3. Add the roasted veg and the chicken stock and simmer over a low heat until the carrots & sweet potato have fallen apart. I don’t peel mine, but you can if you wish. If you don’t have stick blender, the sweet potato skins might be too chunky for some, but I like a bit of rustic roughage!
  4. When you’re about ready to eat, add the chopped parsley leaves and mint, season well with salt and pepper, a good squeeze of lemon juice and a little zest, and turn off the heat.
  5. Pour the second glass of wine, spoon the soup into a deep bowl, add a dollop of yoghurt and another mint leaf or two, take up your Alice Munro (or Hilary Mantel or Elizabeth Strout or James Salter, all of which I’ve been riveted by here – except maybe the Salter which although brilliantly written is giving me the 70s Love God  Great Man Writer heebiegeebies a bit), settle into your comfy chair and enjoy your evening. 
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From offal to octopus

December 21, 2011

I’ve been doing loads of food writing lately:  a couple of features for national magazines coming out in the new year, as well as a blog post for the wonderful Kathryn Elliott which I’ll put up here shortly. And I am about to start checking the first pages of my book about cooking coming out in May – all of which is very gratifying but has left little time for hanging round here, my most comfy corner of the internet. Coming back here is kind of like flopping on the couch in your trackydaks after being out in the grownup world…

One of the mag pieces was another foray into the world of offal  (I’ll let you know when it’s published so you can read the whole horror show then if you like), an attempt to overcome the aversions I spoke about a while back. And while I certainly received a comprehensive innard education this time round and the experience was well worth it, I’m afraid I haven’t yet been seduced over to the dark (in)side.

There was one excellent side effect though – cooking this stuff gave me a few ideas for new (offal-free!) dishes to try. The kidney I made from Stephanie Alexander’s recipe, for example, came with a truly delicious spinach in a marsala sauce, which I would never ever have come across if I hadn’t been forced to go there for the K-word. And while my tripe was not something to write home about by any stretch – again – the braising liquid and other ingredients were incredibly good. The whole time we ate it I was thinking how good it would be with octopus instead of tripe, and so I made it at the earliest opportunity. And my oh my, it delivered.

Braised octopus is one of those dishes you need to eat before you can fully understand its appeal – it’s good simple peasant food with layers of kickarse flavour, but a lovely sumptuous texture as well. A few weeks after I made ours we dined with the Empress who served the most delicious ‘French-style braised octopus’ from a Kylie Kwong recipe that’s handily online here. One of the things I have always loved about our Empress’s cooking is her confident, natural flair with a really simple dish. This one she served with a green salad and some excellent sourdough, and nothing could have provoked more blissed-out groans from the table. Lord it was good.

The other great thing about octopus (apart from its unnerving intelligence, capacity for problem-solving and using tools, not to mention camera theft – they really are going to take over the world, you know) is that it gets the thumbs up for sustainability, unlike nearly every other kind of fish and seafood we eat. And – bonus of bonuses – it’s cheap.  I am about to embark on life as a full-time student next year, which I suspect means this blog will be taking on a whole new shade of Dining Broke frugality, given that the vast bulk of our household spending goes on food and wine … so occy dinner is de riguer student food methinks.

Anyhow, here’s my version of braised octopus, mangled together from various recipes – the photo doesn’t show the white beans, which were an addition to leftovers the next day, but were so good I’m putting them in the final recipe.

Who says offal never gave me anything?

Braised baby octopus with chorizo & white beans

  • 3 rashers bacon cut into chunks
  • 1 large onion, roughly chopped
  • 1 head garlic, cloves roughly chopped
  • 1 stick celery, finely chopped
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 400ml or more red wine
  • 2 tbsp dried oregano
  • 1 bottle (700g) tomato passata
  • 1 litre chicken stock
  • 2 red chillies, split
  • 1 kg cleaned baby octopus
  • 10 halved cherry tomatoes or equivalent small tomatoes, roughly chopped
  • Half to 1 chorizo sausage, sliced & fried
  • 1 cup (or more) cooked /canned & drained white beans
  • Salt & pepper

  1. Heat some oil in a heavy based casserole and fry the bacon, onion, celery and garlic till soft, with bay leaves.
  2. Add wine, oregano, passata and stock and bring to the boil. Add octopus and simmer for 30 minutes.
  3. Stir in chopped tomatoes, white beans and chorizo rounds and cook gently for another 15 minutes or until octopus is tender.
  4. Check seasoning and serve in shallow bowls.

Have you made a version of this? Or do you have another cephalopod favourite you’d like to share?

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Use your mussels

August 7, 2011

It’s not often that Tim Winton gets together with my mother-in-law and Jared Ingersoll in our kitchen, but that’s what happened this week.

Tempted as I am to leave it at that, let me explain …

You may recall a little while ago I made this incredible – and, technique-wise, rather elaborate  – crab bisque from an Ingersoll  recipe. Soon after that we dined with Annie, my husband’s mum, who is a great cook and made the most delicious mussel soup for us (serving it from her beautiful old tureen). Annie’s bisque was just as velvety and rich as our crab version but, it seemed, involved rather less work. Getting the meat out of a mussel is rather easier than taking a hammer to a crab and picking out the shell, let’s face it, and I resolved to try it some time.

Meanwhile, returning home after a writing retreat, this week I checked out the Sustainable Seafood Guide produced by the Australian Marine Conservation Society – of which writer Tim Winton is patron (you really didn’t think I would be able to pull it all together, did you…).

I’m sorry to say that the SSG is a very depressing little booklet – you can buy a copy, or see the online version here.  Hoping for a few tips on the most ecologically sound fish to eat, I was completely stunned to find that almost every type of seafood I have ever eaten is on either the danger list (‘think twice’) or basically completely unsustainable (‘say no’). 

According to the AMCS we should Think Twice before eating wild version of prawns (also farmed ones), barramundi, blue eye trevalla, Balmain bugs, dory, flathead, lobster, ocean perch, among many others.

Even worse, the Say No list includes farmed Tasmanian salmon (or Atlantic or smoked salmon), imported farmed prawns, farmed barramundi, snapper, orange roughy (we knew about this one and haven’t eaten it in years), wild scallops, wild swordfish, farmed trout, wild tuna of various kinds, imported canned tuna, farmed yellowtail kingfish – among others.

Although wild fish populations are being decimated, if you were under the impression you were protecting the environment by eating farmed fish, as I vaguely was, think again.

As the AMCS and the excellent resource Good Fish Bad Fish explain, farmed fish are often  produced in open sea cages with potential for serious pollution and fish escapes into the wild, along with transfer of diseases into wild fish populations. Fish in sea cages are primarily “carnivorous species with significant reliance on wild fisheries to supply feed” – and up to 5kg of fish meal from wild sources is needed to produce 1kg farmed fish.

Other farming involves semi-closed aquaculture systems – like prawn farming – in which water is exchanged between the farm and a natural waterway. These pond systems are often located adjacent to waterways, where coastal wetlands and mangroves are reclaimed for development, resulting in “a vast loss of habitat which is critical for the juvenile stage of many species”. They can also pollute surrounding waterways, and like the cage fish, often rely on wild species to feed the stock.

More acceptable farming methods are the closed aquaculture systems – land-based ponds where there is no risk of pollution to open waters (although wild fish are still often used for feeding) – and “passive-feeding” open systems using sticks, ropes, racks and cages but natural feeding. The latter is used for oysters (hooray!), mussels and other filter-feeder species.

The Good Fish Bad Fish site is rather more cheering than AMCS site, with a brilliantly designed ‘seafood converter’ to push your dinner in a more sustainable direction. However, I can’t help but wonder if turning to the more flexible Good Fish Bad Fish because we don’t like the AMCS advice is simply burying our head in the sand of the sea floor even more. (That said, the GFBF site links to the AMCS site and other resources quite comprehensively, so they are on the same page.)

So far, so deeply dispiriting. But there is some good news –  there are lots of delicious seafood species on the AMCS  ‘Better Choice’ list – including various species of wild mahi mahi, moonfish, leatherjacket, King George whiting, oysters, mussels, squid, calamari, cuttlefish, octopus.

All of which brings me – slowly, I know! – back to my mussel soup. Inspired by Annie’s soup,  Tim’s commitment  and Jared’s recipe (as well as the quite magnificent lobster-topped soup tureen I was given by Annie and my lovely in-laws L&B for my birthday – thanks guys!), I adapted the crab bisque  to come up with an easy and very delicious spicy mussel version.

Before the recipe, a quick note on the texture – on this first attempt I began by using the mouli, then the stick blender, and finally the food processor, but the result was still a little fibrous, especially with strings of celery somehow escaping all pureeing methods. Next time I am going to simply puree all the vegetable and mussel mix before adding to the stock, which is what I’m advising in the recipe below. I would love to hear if you try it, and how it goes.

Spicy mussel bisque – serves 4

  • 1 teaspoon each cumin, caraway, coriander seeds and half a teaspoon fenugreek seeds
  • 1/3 cup soft brown sugar
  • pinch chilli flakes
  • salt and pepper
  • 150ml vegetable oil
  • 1.5 large red capsicums, seeded & chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, squashed
  • 2 ripe tomatoes, chopped
  • 1 stick celery, roughly chopped (it may be worth peeling this first if you can be bothered)
  • 1 medium fennel bulb, roughly chopped
  • 1 red onion, chopped
  • ½  bunch coriander, leaves & stems separated
  • 1.5kg black (or ‘blue’ mussels)
  • 600ml chicken stock (I used homemade  – if you use packaged, lay off the seasoning of the soup)
  • (optional) 2 tablespoons Yalla harissa – I love this stuff and keep a pot of it in the freezer at all times for digging into to add extra kick to all kinds of dishes. If you don’t want or can’t find this, you could perhaps double the spice mix and chilli at the beginning for some extra kick

Method

  1. Toast the spices in a dry frying pan until fragrant, then grind in mortar & pestle or spice grinder.
  2. Heat a deep roasting tin in the oven or on the stove top and when hot, add the oil and all the vegetables except coriander leaves.
  3. Sprinkle the spices over the vegetables with the sugar, chilli flakes & seasoning and mix well and roast in a moderate oven for about 1 hour.
  4. Meanwhile, scrub and de-beard the mussels, then place in a covered pan over a medium heat with a big glass of white wine for about 10 minutes, or until the mussels are opened. Remove them from the pan to cool, reserving the cooking liquid.
  5. When the shells are cool enough to handle, remove the meat from the shells and set aside.
  6. When the vegetables are soft, smell good and are a little coloured, remove from oven.
  7. Transfer the vegetables and the mussel meat into the large bowl of a food processor and puree till smooth – or keep it coarse if you prefer a more rustic texture.
  8. In a sizable pot add the stock to the mussel cooking liquid, then add the puree and simmer gently for about 15 minutes.
  9. Add the chopped coriander leaves and harissa if using, stir to combine, and serve with crusty bread.
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Risky bisqueness

June 6, 2011

Smash it up: Jared Ingersoll’s crab & harissa soup

The other weekend Senor and I were looking for a punchy little entree to accompany a roast lamb dinner for friends, and he happened upon Jared Ingersoll’s recipe for this crab soup.

Unusually, the recipe involved roasting the blue swimmer crab along with other ingredients for a whole hour in the oven.  Simple enough, you think, and it is.  The only demanding bit  is that periodically through the cooking you are required to take ‘a heavy mallet or a rolling pin’ to the crab, smashing it to simithereens.

Have you ever used a mallet to smash a crab shell? I haven’t, but I have sat across the dining table from Senor and our friend Ms J years ago while they went beserk with a hammer on a mud crab as Mr J and I cowered in fear, doing our best to shield ourselves from crabby debris.  I recall that there followed many weeks of picking crab shell off  Mr & Ms J’s paintings and nearby soft furnishings  (I recall, too, Mr J’s and my anxious glances at one another on seeing how powerfully – and gleefully – our respective spouses wielded the blunt instrument).

Suffice it to say that if you want to make this soup, you must prepare for a splatter fest, given that the smash-up here involves not only crab but a soupy mix of roasted capsicum and onion and tomatoes.  I started out trying to prevent crab on the ceiling by leaning over the pan and hoping my apron would take the brunt, but eventually I just gave in and bashed away with the rolling pin, picking bits of crab and roasted capsicum and tomato off the walls and my face as I went, pitching the bits back into the pan as best I could. I even confess to a certain amount of pleasurable abandonment to the process after a while.

The hardest part of this recipe is not the bashing, but the last step. After you’ve whizzed the mixture (which by now includes fish stock)  with a stick blender to mash it all up as best you can, it’s mouli time. I have never used a mouli before, but bought one specially for this dish (I’ve been trying to think of an excuse to get one for a while now) and I would say that it would be almost impossible to make this soup without one – or without some other way of sieving the mixture so that, as Jared instructs, you “take time to squeeze out as much of the soup as you possibly can; only stop using the mouli when you are left with a dry crumbly mixture on top”.

If all this sounds like one giant headache, it kind of is. But the result, I must tell you, is pretty fantastic: a deep, velvety, richly spicy soup. The quantity, which looked small when we finally had the soup finished, was just right – it’s so rich and luscious that a little goes a long way. This recipe comes from the book Sharing Plates, which is full of good stuff including our favourite orange and quince cake recipe and is accompanied by a recipe for zucchini fritters that we’ve not yet tried.

Unfortunately we forgot to take a photo of the final result, so you’ll have to imagine for yourself  a rich mahogany-coloured, velvety-looking soup in a little white ramekin and a sweet, spicy, roast crab aroma in the air.

Jared Ingersoll’s crab and harissa soup 

Ingredients

  • 3 blue swimmer crabs (we didn’t kill our own although the recipe calls for live ones)
  • 1 teaspoon each cumin, caraway, coriander seeds and half a teaspoon fenugreek seeds
  • 1/3 cup soft brown sugar
  • pinch chilli flakes
  • salt and pepper
  • 150ml vegetable oil
  • 3 red capsicums, seeded & chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 4 ripe tomatoes, chopped
  • 1 red onion, chopped
  • 1.5 litres fish stock (I used half packaged fish stock and half homemade chicken stock)
  • 1 bunch coriander
  • a few sprigs of mint and of parsley
Method
  1. Clean and quarter the crabs, removing the finger-like gills but keeping the brown meat if there is any.
  2. Toast the spices in a dry frying pan until fragrant, then grind in mortar & pestle or spice grinder.
  3. Sprinkle the spices over the crab with the sugar, chilli flakes & seasoning and mix.
  4. Heat a deep roasting tin in the oven or on the stove top and when hot, add the oil and then the spiced crab mix.
  5. Mix everything together well, bung in the oven for about 20 minutes.
  6. Remove pan from oven, mix in the remaining ingredients and continue to cook in the oven for about an hour, periodically bashing the shit out of the crab with your rolling pin or hammer, as discussed above. I think I did it about three or four times during the whole process.
  7. When it smells good and everything is soft and a little coloured, put the pan on the stove top and add the stock, simmering gently for about 15 minutes.
  8. Transfer to a saucepan and whizz with stick blender, then mouli as thoroughly as you can, as described above. I checked obsessively for shell, thinking there was no way the mouli could get it all, but found no shell at all. I would still suggest warning your guests about the possibility, however.

If this sounds good to you, I would love to know if you make it – probably best for a day when you have a few frustrations to pound out. And in the meantime, I would love to hear any other crabby tales you might have to tell.

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A cool change: heatwave cooking

February 17, 2011

Well, the first real heatwave of the summer hit us with full force on the first weekend in February. I have never felt so hot in my life as I was that Saturday, when the temperature where we were, at beautiful Killcare just north of Sydney, reached 42 degrees Celsius (that’s over 107 F) for most of the day. According to the weather boffins, it was the sixth successive day that the Sydney area had reached sweltering 30-plus temperatures, representing the hottest week in 150 years. Pheeeew….

Sharing a beach house with some friends would appear to be the best thing to do on such a weekend, but that Saturday even the sea breezes worked like an oven’s fan. We swam, once or twice, but the sand was so hot the only way to deal with it was to run, full-pelt, with shoes on, to the water’s edge or risk significant burns to the feet. Then it was a matter of staying in the water for as long as possible, then doing the bolt back across the sand to the car. Our strategy for the rest of the day was to lie around in our bathers, periodically standing under a cold shower and not drying off until the heat forced us back into the shower.

At one stage we were forced to dress and visit the very sweet Hardys Bay RSL club for their air-conditioning, and though the aircon was struggling mightily, it helped for a couple of hours – despite even the club’s fridges breaking down because of the heat, they made do with buckets of ice for drinks.  When we eventually made for home at around 6.30pm the car’s thermometer reported the air temp as a deliciously cool 37 degrees C!

Needless to say, not a lot of cooking took place that day. Luckily, very early that morning before things went crazyhot I had made a pea, cucumber, leek and mint soup, and left it chilling all day. We ate it late that night with cold cooked prawns plonked on top. I think it was possibly the only thing we could have eaten that day with any pleasure.

Not long afterwards, all four of us dragged mattresses and cushions outside to the wooden deck of our little house, doused ourselves from head to toe in mosquito repellent, set up two electric fans and pointed them at ourselves, and tried to sleep. Quite an adventure, and we provided much amusement for passing neighbours the next morning with our little war hospital on the front deck.

Then later that day, a cool change came gusting gloriously in, and we were saved.

What did you eat, if you were in similarly overheated dire straits that weekend? Or if you’re elsewhere in freezing climes, what have you cooked to fight the cold? Love to hear your extreme temp cooking stories.

Meanwhile, here’s the soup – try it next time it’s stinking hot.

Chilled leek, pea & cucumber soup with prawns

A cooling summer lunch or light supper. Unlike many cucumber soups, this one contains no cream but is quite filling. Serves 4

Ingredients

Olive oil

2 leeks, finely chopped

8 Lebanese cucumbers, peeled, seeded & chopped

½ bunch dill, chopped

1 litre chicken stock

½ can cannellini beans, drained & rinsed

1 cup frozen green peas

1 tablespoon chopped mint

12 cooked prawns, peeled (tails left on if desired)

Pepper & salt

Method

  1. Fry leeks gently in olive oil till softened.
  2. Add cucumber & dill and cook for a few minutes.
  3. Add chicken stock, cover and simmer for about 20 minutes or until vegetables are very soft.
  4. Remove from heat, add frozen peas – they will quickly soften & help cool the soup.
  5. Add cannellini beans.
  6. Puree soup with a stick blender or in food processor until smooth or desired consistency – can be rustically thick.
  7. Check seasoning – depending on the saltiness of the stock, salt may not be required.
  8. Cool and then chill in refrigerator for several hours. Can be served at room temperature, but is best served quite cold.
  9. To serve, ladle soup into bowls, top with three prawns per bowl and scatter chopped mint over the dish.

To make this for Vegos, obviously, just skip the prawns and use veg instead of chicken stock. Very refreshing.

 

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Good golly it’s cauli

October 23, 2010

I have shared my love of cauliflower with you not so long ago, but last week I discovered a new way to express my undying adoration, in the form of cauliflower soup.

After the pickled pear sensation that came via Skye Gyngell’s book to accompany her cauli soup, I decided to follow her lead. Ms G, as is her wont, does a funky glam makeover of a basic cauliflower soup, adding gorgonzola and creme fraiche and the relish. Looks amazing and I’m sure tastes incredible. But as I am an old hag of simple tastes, I did it without the bling – and the cauli did its magical flavour trick once again.

From almost no ingredients at all came the most deliciously creamy, nutty, rich and silky soup. I am totally hooked. I added a tiny bit of leftover seeni sambol (as mentioned here), but the pickled pear relish would work perfectly of course, or just nothing at all.  (And for those of us who might be trying to stave off the inevitable end-of-year gluttony bulge this soup must be a total winner because it’s so rich and satisfying, but as I find all calorie talk about as interesting as conversation about real estate or mobile phone plans, let’s never speak of it again.)

Anyway. Here tis. Tell me if you make it and if it’s as good as I think, or whether I have gone cauli crazy.

Cauliflower soup

  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • olive oil
  • 2 small onions, diced
  • 1 medium head of cauliflower broken into small florets
  • 4 sprigs thyme
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1litre chicken or vegetable stock
  • Salt & pepper
  1. Heat the butter with a good glug of olive oil. When the butter starts to foam, add the onions and sauté over low heat for a few minutes until soft.
  2. Turn up the heat, add cauliflower and sauté for about10 to 15 minutes, turning regularly so it has a chance to turn golden all over.
  3. Add the stock and herbs, then turn down the heat and simmer cauliflower until very soft.
  4. When cauliflower is falling apart, puree the soup with a stick blender or in batches in a food processor till thick and creamy.
  5. Season with sea salt & pepper.

 

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Bitter is better

October 13, 2010

This week I learned something new: sweetness counteracts bitterness.

Ah, lessons for life, you might be thinking. But I’m talking about soup.

Now you all probably knew this sweet-bitter thing years ago, but I didn’t, and am constantly surprised by how happy the discovery of such a simple thing makes me.

My adventures in bitterness began when leafing through the fabulous Bistro Cooking by Patricia Wells (given me by the Empress, so it must be good), I came across a recipe for watercress and potato  soup. Sounded delicious, and it was, but only once I’d managed to figure out how to balance out the bitterness. Not sure what I did wrong, because Patricia mentions nothing about bitterness. It could have been the cress itself, of course.

Or it could be that I am what’s known as a supertaster, as explained to me by the Parsnip Princess ages ago during her research for a story on tastebuds for Good Weekend magazine, when I was one of her guinea pigs sucking on small strips of paper with various odious flavours.  “Hmm, looks like you could be a supertaster,” she said, peering down at her notes. “Well,” I laughed modestly, “I always secretly thought I perhaps might be a just little superior-” , but that’s when she interrupted: “It’s not a good thing.”

Around a quarter of people are supertasters, apparently, which means we have more tastebuds than the rest of you, resulting in distorted sense of various flavours (and as the princess  informed me – a little too smugly I thought – chefs are generally not supertasters). One of the flavours we most over-detect is bitterness. Now, please don’t tell any of the bakeoff contestants about my supertasting deficiencies, and in fact I have doubts about my status, because according to this site supertasters are supposed to dislike coffee and dark chocolate, both of which I adore. So who knows.

But whatever the status of my tastebuds, the fact remained that my watercress soup was too bitter. I didn’t think the stems were woody so didn’t discard them, but perhaps a few more needed chucking. I got online and discovered that the way to counteract bitterness was to add sugar, so that’s what I did. Seemed odd to put sugar in a soup – but it did work. Still, depending on one’s particular fondness for bitterness, I thought even a little more sweetness might be needed. That’s when I remembered Skye Gyngell’s pickled pear relish.

Skye Gyngell, you will recall, is the author of this fabulous book and one of my favourite cookery writers. She adds this relish to several things including the cauliflower and gorgonzola soup in the link above (more on cauli love later).

I made the relish, with a little adaptation in the cooking time, and added a dollop to my next bowl of watercress soup. The combination was absolutely startling. The bitterness of the soup was still there as a kind of dusky undertone, but the caramelised, sticky relish gave the whole dish a kind of bejewelled zing  I absolutely loved. So, supertaster or no, I have decided that bitter is better so long as there’s a little bolt of complex sweetness somewhere along the line. Here’s the combination for you to try yourself. Love to hear if you try it, and what you think.

Pickled pear relish – adapted from Skye Gyngell’s recipe

  • 2 tablespoons dried cranberries
  • 1 tablespoon currants
  • 75 ml red wine vinegar
  • 2 pears
  • 1 apple
  • peppercorns (I used only a single peppercorn of this beautiful Tasmanian native pepperberry given me by my sisters recently – I have never gotten into fancy peppers or salts, but this is brilliant stuff, very hot and slightly fruity and chewy. You use about a tenth of the normal pepper amount.)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 25g butter
  • thyme
  • 1 stick cinnamon
  • olive oil

1. Soak the dried fruit in the red wine vinegar for  a few minutes to soften.

2. Core and roughly chop the pears & apple, leaving the skin on.

3. Melt butter over a low heat and toss in the fresh fruit, cooking for a few minutes before adding all the other ingredients and cooking till very soft.

Now, the recipe says to cook for a further 8-10 minutes, but I cooked it over a low heat for much longer – around 45 minutes  – until the fruit was soft, adding olive oil now and then when it got too sticky. Perhaps my pears weren’t ripe enough – the recipe says to use very ripe pears – and so the long cooking was needed to get the fruit very soft. But it also made for a lovely jammy, sticky relish. Remove the cinnamon stick at the end before putting into a sterilised jar and keeping in the fridge.

Watercress & potato soup a la Patricia Wells

  • 2 bunches watercress
  • 50g butter
  • 1kg potatoes, peeled & cut into 2cm cubes
  • 2litres chicken stock
  • salt & pepper

1. Wash & pick over the watercress, discarding any woody stems & leaves that are past it (and watch out for tiny slugs – they won’t taste good). Roughly chop the cress.

2. Melt butter in a large pot and add the cress, cooking for several minutes until thoroughly wilted.

3. Add potatoes, stock & salt to taste (if using shop-bought stock, watch the salt until later).

4. When potatoes are very soft, whizz the soup with a stick blender or food processor till smooth.

5. Serve with a dollop of the relish, and swoon.

V: Simply swap the chicken stock in the soup for vegetable.