Soups for September and the start of school

Well the start of school nursery actually. Lexie is now going for two and a half days which is about the limit for both of us. It has all gone very well. Lexie’s school is sweet and small, her teachers are gentle and kind (and much calmer and more patient than me!).

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It’s lovely for me to have the time alone with Finn and lovely for Lexie to be challenged/entertained in a way I can’t provide. She has a sociable class and has already found her feet making some friends – Helena and Sarah in particular – the three little monkeys.

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The flip side is that at home she’s behaving like a despot, very wilful and disobedient, but apparently that’s all part and parcel of having to be so well behaved at school, the kids get home and just go fluruugh.

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We are very much adjusting to this new routine and I’m still struggling during the witching hour. Finny needs to be home a good half an hour before Lexie is really ready, either for his afternoon nap or for some wriggle time before supper. Often when we get back, he is overtired and clingy which makes prepping dinner more stressful for me. He has a penchant for throwing himself at my feet sobbing every time I step in kitchen. It’s not as cute as the pic below let me tell you!

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So, as I’m very often preparing their dinner with him in my arms, I’ve been getting more organised and trying to have a few meals ready to go in the fridge that just need heating up. (I’m not sure what my problem is with the freezer. I just don’t use it. Need to get over that!). These tend to be an easy salad for me, a tomato pasta sauce and lots of soups. Mainly because they are baby friendly, nourishing and easy to heat up quickly. Also soups, like stews, tend to improve in flavour after a couple of days so they are good to prepare in advance. Plus it’s the start of Autumn which is the perfect season for soup, as we all know.

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The next few posts are therefore dedicated to our current favourite soups. I featured the obvious contender, butternut squash soup, last Autumn, although I’m on the look out for a better recipe if anyone can share one? My best, most autumnal offering is this pretty and nourishing minestrone, full of leafy greens, butternut squash, tomatoes and beans.

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It’s based on a minestrone I’ve been raving about every since we had it at Petersham Nurseries. I do a spring version and also a winter version which is basically the same as this one replacing the squash with potato. I always feel better about life after this soup (ha ha that sounds ridiculous! Maybe a better comparison is it’s a bit like a relaxing child free lavender scented bath or a good nights sleep. No that’s just as silly. It’s a nice bowl of soup. There you go).

It’s definitely better to make it a day in advance. It’s not difficult but it’s not one you can rush (unlike my cream of tomato soup which is ready in 15-20 mins). Lewis and I have it with a good drizzle of olive oil, lots of parmesan grated on top and with sourdough bread toasted and rubbed with a bit of garlic and more olive oil. The kids have it with bread and for Finny I juzz it in the blender. They are both complete tomato fiends, they love tomato pasta, tomato soup, cherry tomatoes and this minestrone.

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Autumn minestrone

  • 1 bunch rainbow chard
  • 1 bunch cavolo nero
  • 1 carrot
  • 1/4 or 1/2 a butternut squash
  • 1 red onion
  • 1 stick celery
  • 2 sprigs of thyme, leaves stripped and roughly chopped
  • Salt and pepper (leave salt out for babies)
  • Olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, sliced
  • 1 tin cannellini or haricot beans (can also use borlotti or chickpeas)
  • 1 tin cirio plum tomatoes
  • Chicken stock (real chicken stock makes a huge difference here but you can use a cube or veg stock, or even broth from beans if using dried beans)
  • Parsley

Prep the veg by chopping it all into small pieces roughly the same size. So slice the celery stick in half then slice into 5mm rounds and do similar with the carrot and onion. Also do this with the stalks of the chard then dice the peeled butternut squash into smallish cubes. Slice the leaves of the chard into similar 5mm rounds and set aside. Slice the green part of the cavolo nero away from the white stalk and discard the stalks. Then slice the green leafy cavolo nero into bits as per the chard leaves.

Gently sweat the onion, carrot, celery and chard stalks for a good 15-20 mins in the olive oil. Then add the garlic, thyme, parsley stalks and butternut squash and sweat for a further 5 mins. Add the tin of tomatoes, turn up the heat and break them up a bit with a wooden spoon.

Add the chicken stock, bring to the boil, then simmer, partially covered for 20 mins. Then add the chard and cavolo nero leaves and cook for about 10 mins adding more water or stock if needed. When the soup is about done, add the drained tin of beans and heat through.

Serve this soup with a good drizzle of olive oil, some chopped parsley and some grated parmesan. Toast sourdough bread, rub half a clove of garlic over the toast then drizzle with more olive oil.

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Prawns with giant butterbeans

“Bees’ll buzz, kids’ll blow dandelion fuzz
And I’ll be doing whatever snow does
In summer
A drink in my hand, my snow up against the burning sand
Prob’ly getting gorgeously tanned
In summer.”

Yes SUMMER!! And I’ve actually been humming that snowman song from Frozen all day. Last year I wrote a summer bucket list of things to do. This year we wrote it together and Lexie’s contributions made me so happy. Running through fountains, having picnics, eating ice cream and going on holiday were all on her list.

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Here is a dish I make all year round but I especially love it in summer followed by nothing more than a bowl full of cherries (I’m channelling Nigel Slater there). I think it’s originally from Gwyneth Paltrow’s cook book and you can get the giant butter beans from Brindisa, Ocado or any big M&S. It’s especially lovely as a lunch for one with sleeping or absent children!

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You must save the prawn heads to make as a stock which is fantastic for making a paella style seafood rice (recipe to follow).

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Prawns with giant butterbeans

  • about 3 or 4 prawns per person
  • 1 jar of giant butterbeans per 2 people
  • 1 bunch watercress salad
  • 2 lemons
  • olive oil
  • 1 clove minced garlic
  • salt and pepper

Start by marinating the beans. Rinse and drain them and put in a bowl with a generous drizzle of olive oil, the minced garlic, salt and pepper to taste and a good squeeze of lemon.

Also marinate the prawns in olive oil, salt and a squeeze of lemon. Then heat a pan so it’s very hot and chuck the prawns on. It’s good if they colour but do check and reduce the heat so they don’t burn. I seem to set off our fire alarm every time I fry prawns. They should take roughly 3 mins per side to cook.

Once the prawns are done place on top of the butterbeans and serve with watercress salad and a slice of lemon.

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Banana and chocolate cake

I’m on a hunt for a good banana bread recipe. I’ve tried a couple of recipes and none are quite hitting the mark. This one is totally delicious straight out of the oven but it’s definitely more of a cake than a ‘bread’. It was wonderful for a little afternoon tea but the next day I found it too moist. You should be able to spread banana bread with butter!!

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It’s based on a Nigel Slater recipe we changed because we didn’t have the right sugar and I couldn’t be bothered to grate the chocolate. I should add Lexie loved this cake – both making and eating it! She was great at mashing the bananas with a fork, cracking open the eggs and helping me break the chocolate (i.e. trying to eat as much of it as possible).

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Banana and chocolate cake

  • 250g plain flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 125g soft butter
  • 235g brown sugar (we used demerara which is pretty crunchy but it was tasty!)
  • 400g peeled weight of ripe bananas
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • loaf tin, 24 x 12 x 7, lined with baking paper
  • 1 big bar of milk chocolate

Preheat the oven 180/gas 4. Cream together the sugar and butter. Beat the eggs and add the vanilla extract then add this to the sugar/butter mix.

On a plate mash the bananas with a fork so they are still a bit lumpy. Break the chocolate into large chunks and mix into the banana. Add all of this to the sugar/egg mixture.

Mix the flour and baking powder then slowly sift and fold this into the mixture. Pour the mixture into the baking tin and bake in the oven for about 50 mins. Use a knife or a strand of spaghetti to check it’s done by skewering the middle of the cake – it should come out clean. If it’s still gooey, cover with foil and bake for a few more mins.

Once it’s done let it cool for 15 mins then remove from the tin. Let it to cool a little longer then remove from the paper and serve in thick slices.

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Asparagus (or courgette or pea) carbonara

I’m rushing to get all my asparagus recipes written up. The ‘asparagus’ collection if you will. Here’s a tasty carbonara that’s lovely with asparagus but also good with courgettes or peas. Lexie likes cracking eggs so this is a good recipe to make with her, although Finn is too little to have raw egg.

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I usually make this with penne or spaghetti but recently have made it for Lexie using my favourite kids pasta Stellette, little stars that cook in 5 minutes and are suitable for baby Finn to eat. Chifferi rigati which is like mini macaroni also cooks in 5 mins.

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Asparagus carbonara

  • 2 egg yolks
  • bunch of trimmed and washed asparagus, sliced into 5mm rounds, or peas, or sliced courgette
  • 75ml double cream
  • 30g grated parmesan, plus more to serve
  • olive oil
  • salt and pepper
  • a sprigs worth of fresh thyme leaves, chopped
  • 2 crushed garlic cloves
  • handful of chopped fresh parsley
  • pasta (roughly 250g)

Blanch the asparagus for a minute or two, drain and set aside. Heat a little oil in a pan and fry the bacon with the thyme leaves so it’s nice and crispy. Just before it’s done add the garlic and asparagus. Mix the egg yolks with the cream and parmesan and season with salt and pepper. Cook the pasta and when cooked and drained, add to the bacon mix. Finally stir in the egg mixture off the heat and serve quickly, ideally on warmed plates if for grown ups, with extra parmesan.

Elderflowers and roses

There are roses everywhere. Varying hues in all the back gardens – deep reds, yellows and peach in ours, a vibrant fuchsia next door. Delicate white and pink blooms climb up the gates of the old church in the square. Given we don’t venture far right now, these new flowers make our daily walks all the prettier as we literally stop to smell the roses.

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On Saturday morning we were forced out of the house by Lexie who was doing acrobatics at 7am. We went on a little nature trail to see the aforementioned roses and find ‘treasure’…. a cat or squirrel, perhaps a puddle… (here are some pretty nature trail free print outs). I was beyond happy to discover a huge clump of fragrant elderflowers at the end of the square.

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Back home we roped dad into making elderflower cordial. Lexie proved herself most adept at this task and she particularly enjoyed pulling off any little bugs. We tried a River Cottage recipe and found it to be lovely. Here’s what they recommend: “The sweetly scented, creamy-white flowers of the elder tree appear in abundance in hedgerows, scrub, woodlands and wasteland at the beginning of summer. The fresh flowers make a terrific aromatic cordial. They are best gathered just as the many tiny buds are beginning to open, and some are still closed. Gather on a warm, dry day (never when wet), checking the perfume is fresh and pleasing. Trees do differ and you will soon get to know the good ones. Remember to leave some flowers for elderberry picking later in the year.”

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Elderflower cordial

For about 2 litres

  • About 25 elderflower heads
  • Finely grated zest of 3 unwaxed lemons and 1 orange, plus their juice (about 150ml in total)
  • 1kg sugar
  • 1 heaped tsp citric acid (optional)

Check the elderflower heads removing any insects and put the flower heads in a large bowl with the orange and lemon zest.

Pour 1.5 litres of boiling water over the elderflowers and citrus zest. Cover and leave to infuse overnight.

Strain the liquid through a piece of muslin and pour into a saucepan. Add the sugar, the lemon and orange juice and the citric acid if using. Gently heat and dissolve the sugar and simmer for a few minutes.

Use a funnel to pour the hot syrup into sterilised bottles. We sterilised by pouring boiling water into Kilner bottles, draining then leaving to air dry but we plan to drink the cordial quickly. Seal the bottles with swing-top lids, sterilised screw-tops or corks.

Here’s how to make the Twinkle, a great elderflower cocktail: Put 25ml vodka (or gin) and 15ml elderflower cordial in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake then pour into a champagne coupe and top up with fizz. Garnish with a strip of lemon peel.

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Asparagus risotto

I almost called this post ‘an ode asparagus’. My mum calls her downstairs neighbour ‘Margarita Broccoli’ because whenever she babysits for her, broccoli is for dinner. Well we could totally be ‘Phillipa Asparagus’ and ‘Carmen Asparagus’ because that’s pretty much the case for us. Obsessed.

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Now British asparagus is in season we are definitely eating it every day. Most often as a simple asparagus tapas or my favourite asparagus soup with poached eggs. As I’m getting a bit puritanical about making stock from scratch (which means Lewis makes it), asparagus risotto has become a new delight to add to our asparagus repertoire. It’s ok with a stock cube but miles better with proper homemade chicken stock. Lexie absolutely loves this risotto which says a lot as I have to negotiate to get her to eat an asparagus spear or the soup.

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I thought I had my recipe down pat but, after reading the Sunday Times new food columnist Florence Knight, I tried adding lemon zest which worked really well. Her asparagus risotto also features mint which I didn’t try but I think peas and mint could be a nice addition here. She also featured a delicious herby salad which is exactly what my mother-in-law makes, a good lettuce, simple oil and vinegar dressing with lots of fresh herbs from the garden. Perfect for after the risotto with some nice cheeses.

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In other news… Lexie has learnt how to ride a bike. She was gifted a big girls bike by her idol Etty and a top balance bike from her cousins. Lewis and I debated whether she should have stabilisers with Lewis in favour of sticking with the balance bike – so the right call. She still can’t quite brake so we do loops around the local park with Lewis running behind her, but still riding a bike properly at 3 1/2 is pretty amazing. I had a little moment yesterday and told her I was sad she was growing so fast (she also likes being told she’s big). Quick as a flash she replied: “Ah mama, I’m still only 3!” To which I said: “But you’re not my baby anymore.” Her reply (my heart breaks): “I’ll always be your baby mama!!” I’m surprised she didn’t capitalise on the moment to ask for the banned Ipad! Smart as a whip this girl.

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Then Mr Finny McMoo, my little Fatty Arbuckle, now 6 months, is scoffing three meals a day and almost crawling. I almost said happily scoffing but actually he’s grumpy, frustrated he can’t move or eat as fast as he’d like (check out grumpy Finn below). He’s very different from Lexie at the same age and definitely boisterous! Both my babies have been smily and jolly but they are not those fat happy buddhas that sit contentedly surveying the world. As much as I don’t want to wish this time away, I’m slightly looking forward to him being on the move so he’s happier, or being able to sit up properly so he can go in the high chair. Or to the day I can go out with a little pack of sandwiches and snacks and keep him occupied with those!

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Asparagus risotto

  • 2 or 3 shallots, chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 bunch of asparagus, washed, trimmed and sliced into 1cm or 5mm rounds
  • risotto rice (1/2 box maybe a bit less? Adapt to your needs)
  • chicken stock (1L?)
  • salt and pepper
  • olive oil
  • butter
  • parmesan, grated
  • 1/2 glass white wine
  • 1 tbsp lemon zest
  • handful chopped parsley

Start by softening the onion in the olive oil gently for as long as you can be bothered, at least 10 mins. Don’t let it brown. Add the garlic just before adding the rice. Then once the rice is in, add a splash of white wine, sizzle and reduce the heat.

Add the asparagus then slowly start adding the warmed up stock, stirring gently all the time. Keep adding the stock and stirring until the risotto is done. It should take about 20 mins.

Just before serving stir in the lemon zest and parsley, also half of the parmesan if you wish. Serve with extra parmesan.

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Strawberries and cream

One of my favourite things to do in June is eat buckets of strawberries with sweet cream, ideally watching Wimbledon. Heaven. This is barely a recipe but it’s so good I’m posting it anyway. British strawberries are everywhere at the moment and they are so delicious it’s worth waiting once a year for this treat.

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Strawberries and cream

  • punnet of strawberries, washed and sliced if preferable
  • 1 tub of double cream
  • caster sugar
  • packet of good quality shortbread biscuits

Whip the double cream, slowly adding sugar once it’s started to thicken. Keep tasting so you add the amount of sugar you like. Once the cream is thick serve a big dollop of it with the strawberries and a shortbread biscuit (or two!) per person.