Food for the soul
Soups – extremely comforting, nutritious and dirt cheap. Yet you can make them into something special with a little know-how. Here are some family hand-me-downs from the war, a North African-inspired invention, plus an unusual baked soup from Italy – don’t be put off, it’s gorgeous.
Cauliflower and Cheddar cheese soup
An emergency recipe to clear space in the freezer for Christmas food. The cauliflower in question was Amsterdam, grown and frozen last spring and the cheese a 30 per cent reduced fat variety – it holds on to its cubed shape in the hot soup better.
- 1 medium cauliflower
- 2 onions
- 1.75 pints/1 litre chicken stock (doesn’t matter if it’s made with stock cubes in this instance)
- Sprig of rosemary
- 4oz/100g 30 per cent less fat mature Cheddar cheese, cut into small chunks
- Freshly ground black pepper
Cut the cauliflower into florets, peel and chop the onions and rosemary. Add these to a pan with the stock, bring to boil and simmer for 10-15 minutes.
Cool slightly, then blitz in a food processor or hand blender until smooth.
Add the cubes of cheese and black pepper, heating until the cheese has half melted (you should still have soft blobs visible in the soup).
Soup in the style of Arezzo
If I had to choose one country’s cuisine above any other, it would be Italy. Not the ubiquitous pizza or lasagne, but its wealth of regional styles and dishes.
I’d advise anyone with an interest in food or cooking what they grow to invest in La Cucina (The Regional Cooking of Italy), compiled by the Accademia Italiana Della Cucina (The Italian Academy of Cuisine). This is the real deal – more than 900 pages and 2,000 recipes, with history, customs and traditions.
If you want to know the definitive way to braise your donkey steaks or what to do with your leftover chamois, this is the book for you.
This Arezzo soup oddity cooks in the oven. It’s great (if pungent) made with leftover garlic bead with an added layer of sautéed mushrooms, and a good way to use up your store of onions.
- 2lb/1kg onions, sliced
- 2oz/60g butter
- 2pts/1litre veg broth/stock (best made with fresh vegetables)
- Salt and pepper
- 20 slices rustic bread
- 8 slices Fontina cheese (Gouda or Gruyère will do)
- Fresh Parmesan grated, to taste
Sauté the sliced onions in the butter until soft. Add the onions to the broth and simmer for about 10 minutes, adding salt and pepper.
Line a large ovenproof dish (or non-stick roasting tin) with half the bread and spoon over half the onions and broth.
Add the Fontina slices, then another layer of bread and broth. Sprinkle generously with Parmesan.
Bake in the oven for 30 minutes at 175ºC, gas mark 4.
Wartime cream of mushroom soup
This goes back to the heady days of my mam’s memories of mushrooming near Morpeth, Northumberland just after the war. I still have a few friends who do it, but I wouldn’t trust myself to avoid toadstools. In the old days, it was milk instead of cream (or you used the top of the milk).
Use field or Portobello mushrooms instead of button ones if possible, for a richer darker colour and flavour. The potato acts as a thickening agent. I added garlic, shallots and soy sauce to the original recipe – which was also lumpy, with no electric hand blenders.
- 2oz/50g butter (or 2 tablespoons of olive oil)
- 2 cloves garlic, crushed
- 2lbs/1kg mushrooms, roughly broken
- 1 large onion, diced
- 6 shallots, diced
- One large potato, diced
- Salt and pepper, to taste
2 pints home-made chicken stock
- 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce or soy sauce
- half a pint of cream (single or double – if you’re on a diet, use semi-skimmed milk)
- 1/2 teaspoon dried parsley
Melt butter in a stock pot and on a medium heat, cook garlic, onions, potato, shallots and mushrooms, stirring occasionally, until softened and liquid comes out of the mushrooms – about 5 minutes.
Season with salt and pepper. Add the hot chicken stock, Worcestershire sauce or soy sauce and parsley.
Bring to the boil and simmer for 20-30 minutes. With a hand blender, process the soup until smooth. Add the cream, check the temperature and serve with rustic bread.
Make do and mend cream of lentil soup
This is a delicious soup for hard times. It’s also very adaptable – use the white roux sauce as a base for whatever you have.
The recipe was given to my Gran, pictured, at the beginning of the Second World War by a chef in a Whitley Bay hotel. It was a favourite, as it didn’t use up many points or coupons.
Here you see my mam helpfully shouting ‘All clear’ to the neighbours just as the bombs start raining down.
My mam and I tend to enrich the basic recipe with full-fat milk or cream at the end and mixed herbs. My Gran served it with plain dumplings cooked in the soup.
- 8oz lentils
- Diced carrots, sliced onion, celery flakes (or chopped fresh celery)
- Salt and pepper
- 6 level tablespoons plain flour
- 1.5oz margarine or butter
- Half a pint of milk
Place lentils in a large saucepan and cover nearly to the top of the pan with cold water. Bring to the boil and skim off any scum that rises to the top.
Add diced carrots, sliced onions, celery flakes (or chopped fresh celery), pepper and salt.
Simmer until the veg are tender, topping up liquid if it becomes dry. To thicken, in a small pan, make a roux with six level tablespoons of plain flour and one and a half oz of margarine.
Melt together and mix over a low heat until smoothly blended.
Gradually add about half a pint of milk, blending into a smooth sauce. When it is mixed and almost boiling, add the roux to the soup, bring back to the boil.
Cream of butternut squash soup
Not one from my ancestors’ cookbooks, as squashes were a thing unknown until recently. However, it’s a very close relation to the cream of mushroom soup.
My gran did make a ‘root veg soup’ when she was hard up – slow-cooked turnip, carrots, potato, parsnips and onions in stock.
- 1 butternut squash, cut in half and deseeded
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 2 onions, diced
- 1 large potato, diced
- 1 garlic clove, crushed
- 1 teaspoon harissa paste (Moroccan chilli/tomato paste)
- 2 pints/1 litre home-made chicken or vegetable stock
- 4 tablespoons double cream (or milk, if on a diet)
- Salt and black pepper
Heat oven to 200C/180C fan/gas 6. Wrap each half of squash in foil and roast for 30 minutes or so, until flesh is tender.
Heat oil in a stockpot, then add onions, garlic, and potato. Cook on a low heat for 15-20 minutes until the veg are completely soft.
When the squash is cool enough to handle, scoop spoonfuls into the pot, then add the hot stock and the cream.
Process with a hand blender until smooth. Gently reheat, then season to taste.
Red pepper and tomato soup (Moroccan style)
This soup was made up on a snowy January day when I wanted something warming – and I had a lot of red things in the fridge.
The yoghurt makes it creamy (you could use cream), but the harissa/smoked paprika combination gives it a kick.
- Olive oil or oil from sun-dried tomato jar
- 2 red onions, sliced
- 2 long sweet red peppers, sliced
- 1 large red-skinned potato, thickly diced, skin left on
- 1 large carrot, thickly diced
- 300g (12oz) tomatoes (cherry left whole; regular size quartered)
- 500g (20oz) carton passata
- 2 sun-dried tomatoes, chopped
- 1 heaped teaspoon smoked paprika
- 1 heaped teaspoon harissa paste (or more if you like it hot)
- 2 pints home-made stock (beef, chicken or vegetable)
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 250g (10oz) natural yoghurt
Gently fry the onions, peppers, potato, and carrot in a little olive oil (or oil from sun-dried tomato jar) until softened – about 10 minutes.
Add the tomatoes and cook for 5 minutes, then add sun-dried tomatoes and the carton of passata and bring back to the boil.
Add the smoked paprika and harissa paste to taste.
Add the stock. The soup may look watery – it needs to concentrate its flavours. Bring to the boil, then simmer with the lid off for a couple of hours, stirring occasionally, until the liquid level is about 1cm (0.5″) above the level of the solids. (You can see the soup’s reduced by about 5cm (2″) in the picture by the level on the pan.)
Blitz with a hand blender until completely smooth, then season to taste and add yoghurt. Heat through again and serve.
‘Pitmen’s’ soup or Creme Vichysoisse
This basic recipe comes from the Second World War when my grandad was billeted at RAF Acklington in Northumberland.
My Gran christened this ‘Pitmen’s’ Soup, as the miners were always bringing in leeks and potatoes to the pub where she played the piano.
I found an almost identical recipe from the 1970s, but ‘poshed up’, with the addition milk/cream and chives, blended and chilled, to become Creme Vichyssoise.
It’s ideal for using up the last of your leeks and freezes well.
- 3 medium leeks
- 1lb/500g potatoes, skins on or peeled (if using unpeeled, soup is better blended)
- 1oz/25g butter
- 1.5 pints/750ml chicken stock
- Salt and pepper
Cut off roots and green tops from leeks and wash thoroughly. Cut into half-inch rings. Cut potatoes into 1″ dice.
Melt butter in a shallow, wide pan and cook leeks gently until soft. Add potatoes and stock and simmer until potatoes are cooked but not broken. Season well and blend if desired.
For Creme Vichyssoise, add a little milk or cream, chilled and sprinkle chopped chives on top to serve.
Cream of tomato soup – diet or blowout
This is a great diet soup if you make it with skimmed milk, or be totally decadent and use cream.
- 1 box Basic Tomato Paste, defrosted
- Milk (skimmed, semi-skimmed or whole), or cream
- Fresh basil
- Salt and pepper to taste (remember the sauce has already been seasoned)
Blitz the tomato paste with a hand blender until smooth.
Add milk/cream until the consistency you like has been reached, check for seasoning, then serve with torn fresh basil on the top.
Eat with lots of fresh rustic bread – cheesy varieties are particularly good.
Runner bean and bacon soup
- Slug extra virgin olive oil
- 1 pack of bacon lardons (smoked or unsmoked)
- 1 large onion, finely chopped, or large bunch of chopped chives
- 300-400g runner beans, any strings removed, roughly chopped
- 1 litre good-quality ham or veg stock
- 1 heaped tablespoon flour
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon, or one of dried
- Half a small glass of port
- Optional: small, well done diced potatoes, added at the last minute.
Melt the butter in a pan over a medium heat and cook the lardons for five minutes, then add the onion and cook until it is soft and the lardons are well coloured. (If using chives, just wait until they wilt.)
Stir in the flour, cook for a minute, then slowly add the stock.
Bring to the boil, stirring and add the beans and tarragon.
Simmer uncovered for 15 minutes, then add the port, cook for a further five minutes.
Liquidise with a hand blender, check the seasoning, reheat if necessary and serve, adding the potatoes if you are using (a bit like croutons).