I’ve never really understood the appeal of cold soups, except maybe real gazpacho eaten in a Spanish estancia surrounded by cork oak forests and roaming pata negra hogs feasting on acorns, but that is another story. For me soups are one of the ultimate comfort foods, rich, thick and soothing, served in rustic pottery bowls with chunks of rough brown bread. There is nothing better to warm body and soul.
Winter is the ideal season for making soup using root vegetables from the garden – celeriac, carrots, Jerusalem artichokes and perhaps a little cavolo nero or Savoy cabbage with onions, garlic and dried herbs from store in the shed. However on days when the wind blows and the rain is horizontal it is time to see what is lurking in the freezer.
I prefer to eat fresh rather than frozen vegetables, so freezing is just used to preserve some of the periodic garden excesses. At some point I always seem to have 12 cauliflowers ready at the same time or two rows of broccoli in full flower. Unfortunately, I have had little success in freezing either of these – the flavour and colour are good but the florets are too soft to serve as a vegetable. So they are destined for either soup or purées.
Producing a cauliflower soup which retains the delicacy of the vegetable without producing something that is bland or too rich has been a challenge, but I think I now have a recipe which works. The secret is a light touch, so if either bacon or cheese are added they have to complement and not compete or dominate.
I have found broccoli even more difficult so it usually gets chopped or puréed and used in quiches, souffles or vegetable lasagna. As for the soup option I’m still experimenting, but I have come-up with a version of a Nigel Slater recipe which works. The more robust flavour of broccoli can be difficult to handle, but as with all vegetable soups it is a case of balance.
I do not really subscribe to the notion that you can make soup of virtually anything and produce something which is both nutritious and enjoyable. I prefer to use good quality ingredients and in the croft kitchen this includes a rind of Parmesan or a heel of Serrano ham. The biggest dilemma usually concerns stock and when there is none in the fridge or the freezer do I resort to the dreaded stock cube? Usually no, but sometimes I will use low salt vegetable bouillon. Often it is water with an adjustment to the seasoning which can vary from extra herbs or spices to the magic of mushroom ketchup or pomegranate molasses and sometimes a squeeze of lemon or lemon zest.
Whilst vegetable soups may be mainstay of the winter lunch menu, our simple weekday suppers will occasionally feature a more robust, rustic version more cassoulet than soup. These may be purely vegetable based but can often include some strips of chicken, some good quality smoked bacon or chorizo. The variations are endless but the dish is built around a basic recipe of onions, garlic, beans and/or chickpeas plus whatever vegetables are to hand. So last week when the ferries weren’t running and the local shop had less than usual to offer, the basic bean hotpot came to the rescue. Unsophisticated, hearty and simple these dishes occur in a variety of guises in peasant cookery throughout Europe. So when I need inspiration for a simple warming supper the first stop is often Elisabeth Luard or Claudia Roden. Even if I don’t find the right recipe it will a good read.