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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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.

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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A minestrone for spring?

Is it summer? Is it spring? Is it winter? The weather is particularly doollally at the moment. I’m writing this with the heating on wondering when I can pack our winter clothes away. Equally my peonies from the market are in full bloom and the kitchen is full of english asparagus and strawberries… I think this minestrone is a good compromise. It’s packed full of new season veg and I’m looking forward to warming up with a bowl of it later.

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I also have to express a new fondness for peas, one of the ingredients in this soup. It turns out Lexie is a master pea podder and will sit happily for an age, podding away. I think we will be eating a lot of peas this month!

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The recipe is adapted from one in the Petersham Nurseries cook book (I need some new cook books!). It is easy but it takes a little time to prep the veg. Given it will improve overnight, I recommend making the base of the soup including the tomato stage the day before. Then all you have to do is reheat and add the last min veg for 10 mins.

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A minestrone for spring

  • 1 stick of celery, halved and sliced into 5mm strips
  • 1 carrot, peeled and chopped as above
  • big handful of peas
  • 1 bunch of asparagus, trimmed and washed, sliced diagonally also 5mm
  • 1 red onion, chopped
  • proper chicken stock (ideally)
  • small bunch of rainbow chard, leaves stripped and washed, stalks sliced into 5mm rounds
  • 2 cloves of thinly sliced garlic
  • 3 charlotte or new potatoes, peeled and diced
  • 1 tin Cirio (or another good brand) tomatoes
  • small bunch chopped parsley
  • parmesan
  • olive oil
  • salt and pepper

Sweat the onion, celery, carrot, potatoes and chard stalks in a little olive oil in a heavy bottomed pan for about 10 mins. The aim is to soften not to colour the vegetables.

Add the garlic followed by the tomato and cook for a few more minutes. Heat and add most of the stock so the veg is well covered and simmer for 20 mins.

Then add the chard leaves as well as the asparagus and peas and more stock if needed. Simmer for another 5-10 mins until the veg is tender. Season with salt and pepper and serve with chopped parsley, a drizzle of olive oil, lots of grated parmesan and some good sourdough bread.

(This last pic of my pouty Lexie at the flower market. She’s also like this crazy weather. It’s up to 4 seasons an hour with her at the moment – sunny spells interspersed with some epic gales!)

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Yummy griddled chicken with sweet potato and purple sprouting broccoli

Hooray for these lighter days and all the pretty blossom on the trees. Given leaving the house with my two little ones is still an ordeal, I’m overjoyed that afternoons in the big garden are now feasible (on my first attempt at a picnic in March, it took us 40 mins to get out, a bird promptly pooed all over Finny including his hands… then it started to hail!). The two ancient cherry blossoms are in full bloom and we love lying underneath them making wishes.

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As I keep saying there are lots of recipes I keep meaning to add here. By a mile the yummiest thing we’ve eaten recently is this delicious griddled chicken. It’s a Lewis recipe (if I haven’t made it obvious, most of the best recipes on this blog are from Lewis and he does a lot of the cooking also! Thanks Lewis!! SuperChef!). It’s our version of the flattened chicken in my current favourite cookbook: Kitchen Memories and we have it with purple sprouting broccoli and sweet potato as suggested by the book (following their recipe), although it would be great with anything – in a hot chicken sandwich, with rice – it’s super versatile. You can leave the chilli out for kids. This recipe also works with grilled chicken thighs (pictured below)

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Yummy griddled chicken

  • 1 or 2 flattened chicken fillets (get the butcher to batter the chicken to about 1cm thickness or do it yourself)
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 1 lemon cut into wedges
  • 1 tbsp chopped fresh thyme and/or rosemary leaves
  • Chopped fresh parsley
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 sweet potatoes, peeled and sliced into quarters lengthways
  • 3 smashed garlic gloves, no skin
  • 1 tsp dried red chilli flakes (optional)
  • Sour cream (optional)
  • 2 chopped fresh red chillis (optional)
  • Salt and pepper
  • Purple sprouting broccoli

Marinade the chicken in the olive oil, herbs, half the lemon juice. Season with pepper (not salt) and leave covered for about an hour.

Preheat the oven to 180C. Put the sweet potato in a baking dish with the garlic, thympe leaves, pinch of dried chilli and enough olive oil to coat them and season. Bake for 35-40 mins turning occasionally. They should be slightly caramelised on the edges when done.

Parboil the broccoli for about 2 mins, drain then toss with olive oil and season. Or lightly fry a clove of garlic in olive oil, add the parboiled broccoli and fry for a couple of mins adding a good squeeze of lemon and salt and pepper. Both ways are nice.

Heat the griddle pan until smoking hot. Season the chicken with salt, place on the hot griddle and leave to cook for 4 mins then turn and cook for another 4 – 5 mins. Check it’s done then remove from the heat and leave to rest for a few mins.

Serve the chicken with the sweet potato and broccoli and a wedge of lemon. If you want add a spoonful of sour cream and scatter the fresh chilli and parsley over the top.

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Vongole for Valentines!

Ha ha naff title of the day! For last year’s Valentine’s post we made these silly heart shaped biscuits that didn’t really work. The origami message hearts were fun too but this year I’ve gone even simpler, what with having a baby and all. Some pretty cut and stick hearts…

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Along with some heart shaped balloon cards for Lexie to colour in and glitter. Obviously I’m biased but how amazing is her penmanship? (I love the heart where she obviously couldn’t be bothered anymore on the right below.)

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We’ve also been listening to ‘love’ music (in particular this song) and I’m contemplating trying some sable heart shaped biscuits with Lexie this afternoon because sugar cookies really don’t taste very nice. For us big people I’m leaning towards having spaghetti vongole. This has become my recent favourite ‘special occasion’ recipe and we had this for my birthday in January. (We tend to cook the same recipes for important days – Christmas/New Year’s Eve or birthdays – usually crab linguine or steak and chips.)

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As my favourite blood oranges are also in season I’m dreaming about some sort of campari blood orange cocktail for the aperitif, ideally with a plate of iberico ham from Borough market. The classic campari cocktails are the negroni or, my personal favourite, the sbagIiato (which means ‘mistake’ – apparently invented when a barman added prosecco instead of gin into what was supposed to be a negroni). Both of these would be nice with a splash of blood orange. As we don’t have any gin or vermouth I’ll probably make blood orange campari spritzes. This is a take on a cocktail my wonderful neighbour used to make for me 2 summers ago. We’d sit supping these delicious spritzers with our feet in the paddling pool in our communal back garden while our little toddlers splashed around – bliss! I’ll also ask Lewis to make me his yummy chocolate mousse pots for desert.

Blood orange campari spritz

Get a glass and add a shot of campari, a shot of white wine, a shot of blood orange juice. Stir and add some ice then top with fizzy water and stir again. This can be a tall or a short cocktail. Enjoy!

Spaghetti alle vongole

  • 500g small clams
  • spaghetti (dried)
  • knob of butter
  • 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 3 fat cloves of garlic, finely chopped
  • ½ medium-hot red chilli, finely chopped
  • 100ml dry white wine
  • Small bunch of flat-leaf parsley, roughly chopped
  • Zest of ½ a lemon and a spritz of juice
  • Salt and pepper

Rinse the clams in cold water and scrub a bit. Then put in a large bowl, cover with cold water and salt generously. Leave for 10-20 mins – my family say this is to make the clams feel they are back home in the sea. Then drain and rinse well to remove any grit.

Put the spaghetti into a large pan of salted boiling water and cook until al dente.

Meanwhile, put half the butter and all the olive oil in a large pan over a medium heat and soften the garlic and chilli.

Add the drained clams, and turn up the heat. Pour in the wine, cover and leave for a couple of minutes until most of them have opened. Discard any that are still closed. Add the others to the garlic/chilli pan.

Drain the spaghetti and add to the pan along with the remaining butter. Toss well and leave for a minute, then stir through the chopped parsley, lemon zest and juice, season to taste and serve.

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