The restorative power of Northern Irish vegetable soup

After a prolonged period away from the hob, and, reluctantly, from this blog, I am finally back in action. We have had some tough times, but I have re-donned my apron and am once more capable of brandishing a wooden spoon and feeding our family.

And it seems like perfect timing, as it’s definitely my favourite period of the year for all things culinary. The weather has turned chilly, and we’ve stocked up with root vegetables in preparation for autumn and winter warming meals.

I have already knocked up a pot of my dad’s stew this week and then my mind turned towards one of my favourite tastes of home – vegetable soup. A version of this is made all over NI using one of its homegrown products, about which I have blogged before, a unique fresh vegetable soup mix which is sold in every supermarket.

It’s a combination of very simple ingredients, including carrots, parsley and soup celery and means that a healthy veg soup is a doddle to make.  Making it while living in England is slightly less of a doddle, but still very simple. The main thing you need to remember is to soak your lentils etc overnight.

Even though I cannot find a good English soup lentil mix, our celtic cousins in Scotland have come to the rescue with Great Scot vegetable broth mix. It’s sold in our local Asda in handy little 125g sachets which are the perfect size to make one big pot of soup.

Great Scot vegetable broth mix

Great Scot vegetable broth mix

Each sachet is a perfect mix of pearl barley, yellow and green split peas, marrowfat peas, split lentils and vegetable flakes.

And after it has soaked, all you need to do is rinse it and cook it in a pan for 40 minutes or so with vegetable stock and a hearty portion of chopped carrots, fresh parley, celery and leek.

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As is traditional at home, I like to add a few whole potatoes and a bit of shredded chicken in there too. Hot and steaming with a chunk of buttered bread, it makes for a pretty unbeatable bowlful for lunch or an evening meal.

I am certainly looking forward to replacing sarnies with it for my packed lunch at work tomorrow.

 

 

A discovery of wild garlic inspires pesto – and a bit of experimentation with a soup

Whilst at home recently, the unusual and unexpectedly good April weather meant that we spent a lot of time outdoors in parks, forests and at the beach.

And one of those trips, to a popular area of Donegal in the south of Ireland, led me to the biggest patch of wild garlic I have ever seen. We rarely come across it in England, and the sites where it grows are closely guarded secrets, so it was a real surprise to walk along a certain path and come upon tons of it.

 

I couldn’t help but pluck a few handfuls to take home to cook with – when such a golden foraging opportunity presents itself, it would be a fool who didn’t take advantage of nature’s bounty. Aside from a soup many moons ago, I don’t recall ever having cooked with it, and I was keen to see what I could come up with.

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After washing what I’d carried back and weighing the leaves, I realised that I had enough to make both a pesto and a soup. I was most keen to sample a wild garlic pesto, so made that first. Pesto is one of those things which is so easy to make at home and so versatile to use. A little jar of homemade pesto makes a fantastic gift and many cooks would delight in a more unusual jar than, say, one made with basil.

I whizzed up the leaves with a number of ingredients including walnuts and olive oil, ending up with two jars of chunky pesto. Their trial with pasta and on bruschetta etc awaits!

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The remainder of the leaves were the perfect amount for a soup. Surfing cooking sites, I found a recipe for a soup which had as its base courgettes. When I made a batch, however, it was tasteless – a gutting result when there was a household awaiting a spoonful to sample. 

I tapped into my soup basics and started with the addition of some vegetable stock – the recipe had called for water and nothing else. Things were looking up, and then I remembered one of my favourite Covent Garden Soup Co soups, courgette and brie.

The soup’s garlic content was not obvious or overpowering, and the addition of the brie seemed to complement it well. A final dollop of the cream which was leftover from Sunday dessert, a little more whizzing and seasoning – I felt like Remy in Ratatouille as he leapt over a saucepan chucking in this and that to save his soup – and finally, thankfully, a more pleasurable tasting had been achieved.

Sitting down to a bowl of it, accompanied by some wheaten bread, made for a very satisfactory lunch indeed.

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A few of my favourite (soup making) things

Yup, the rest of the office is on a diet but I have turned to soup because of my fatigue with sandwiches. The latter have become so dull that I can barely bear to tuck into them these days, no matter how hungry I am.

My trusty key pieces of soup-making equipment have therefore been in action frequently in the last few weeks as I take something warming, comforting and nutritious to my desk. I can’t do without my stick blender and my New Covent Garden Food Co Book of Soups. The book was given to me by a best friend for Christmas one year when they spotted its lamb and Guinness number and thought it would be just up my street.

Funnily enough, it is one of the soups I still have never made, despite owning the book for nearly 8 years! I’ve been too busy obsessing over the roasted parsnip and parmesan and the kumara sweet potato chowder.  

I have many favourites from its pages and yet I still have a lot of fun finding something new in there – as I did a few days ago. Finding myself with some red peppers and goat’s cheese in the house, I made just that soup. And I found that, as usual, I could tinker with the recipe – halving quantities and not having quite enough red pepper – and things still turned out beautifully.

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It is a wonderful thing to find a cookbook in which you completely trust and a piece of kitchen equipment you value highly, for that matter. A lot of the CG soups can be made in one pan, and then blitzed in the same pan with a stick blender which is what we time-pressured mums really want.

It’s one of the things in the kitchen I think has worked out as the cheapest by far, re cost per use. When you consider that it saves time and effort moving things from A to B to blitz them and back again, in addition to turning a bit pot of chunk into smooth and velvety deliciousness, it’s a must-have for any home cook.

And it was a key ingredient in ensuring the silkiness of my latest experiment, a soup inspired by one my good friend Lou ate on a trip out. When I saw her post about a terrific cauliflower and parsnip soup she’d eaten, I thought first, oh, never had that before, and secondly, could I rustle up a bowl?

I used milk and a little bit of rice to thicken it and it was divine. Lou agreed that it’s a keeper.

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A trip to the local Riverford farm proves fruitful

I couldn’t believe it when I found out that one of the Riverford farms – the British company which produces fantastic veg boxes – was a mere 20 minute drive from our house.

And, what’s more, they were having a family pumpkin day, with stalls, tasting, cookery demos and lots of other events – ferret racing anyone?!

So off we headed, arriving bang on time in a convoy of other similarly excited families. We jumped out of the car, clad in wellies and waterproofs (which, thankfully, were not needed) and then it was just a question of where to start.

The economics of a fortnightly delivery of organic, seasonal vegetables have really appealed of late and it made me even more enthusiastic when I saw the extra goodies than can be delivered with your box. Montezuma’s fantastic chocolate, yes please. And the eggs come from one of the thousands of chickens who live on the farm.

We tasted and tested and purchased – I snapped up the romanesco, some kale and a bag of the farm’s potatoes, in addition to some sweet treats. The ginormous scones from Hook’s Baker Boys were irresistible! As were Riverford’s own mince pies, which were out for sampling – their box’s promise of “buttery” goodness was no fib.

Staff were on hand to explain the farm’s involvement in the Big Worm Dig and I had a lot of fun with the three year-old searching through soil for worms and then identifying which ecological group they belong to.  

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We headed home with supper too – some bread and one of the acclaimed Riverford soups. A number of these won awards at the Soil Association Organic Food Awards this year, including the butternut squash and bacon chowder and the cauliflower and coconut masala soup. 

Our evening meal was the organic tomato, bean and chorizo soup, which comes in a 750ml tub. We found this size perfect for two adults.

In addition to its named ingredients (the beans are haricot), it has the sweetness of red peppers and a lot of heat courtesy of the paprika, both sweet and hot smoke varieties. It was beautifully hearty, chunky and warming, full of goodness and perfect for an autumn evening’s meal. We’ll be seeking out this one again. 

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Back in business with the world’s easiest homemade vegetable soup

Apologies for the radio silence – a procedure on my back, a family week away and work crises have kept me occupied.

But I returned to the solace of the stove this week. I had time to make some lovely autumn  suppers, and I was also keen to use the pack of soup vegetables that I’d brought back from a trip to Ireland (good old Dunnes Stores). I do not know why similar packs aren’t sold in supermarkets here as they make even a novice cook really confident in their ability to knock up a really healthy soup. Yes, they contain basic ingredients which you could easily put together yourself, but that’s not the point of convenience food, of which they are an A-star example. Image

Simply chuck the mix in a pan with some vegetable or chicken stock, simmer and that’s it. And, if you fancy it, you can pre-steep some dry soup mix (lentils and pulses, again, sold in a handy soup packet) and bung them in too. I use a Scottish brand which I also bought in Ireland.

At home in Northern Ireland, this soup was always served with boiled potatoes – one or two were placed in the bowl – and some shredded chicken left over from the roast which had provided the chicken stock. It reminds me of cold nights coming in from playing outside to a steaming bowl of it, or sipping it from a polystyrene cup at a fireworks display.

A picture of the soup in a bowl doesn’t communicate how amazingly appetising it is, but, believe me, it’s lovely. I think I am going to have to start campaigning the supermarkets to stock soup mix in the fresh sections here.