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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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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Beef stew

Beef stew, beef stew, whatcha gonna do? Whatcha gonna do when beef stew comes for you… This was a massive in joke with my boss back when I had a 9-5 office job. At random times, including at big meetings, he’d pick a word from the current conversation and ‘whatcha gonna do’ it. For example ‘business plan, business plan, whatcha gonna do when business plan comes for you’ and so on. We thought it was hilarious. Our co-workers perhaps, at times, found it a bit wearing. Ha ha ha us. (If this is completely baffling watch this… specifically 0:24… see what we did there?)

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So… beef stew! I know two recipes for this. One my mum taught me which is a variation of her lamb casserole but with beef instead of lamb and a tin of petit pois instead of flageolet beans (can I just add that tinned peas are utterly delicious. Lewis loooves them and they are very common in France and Spain, less so here I think. A fab Spanish recipe is to fry some bacon or slivers of jamon serrano with a little garlic and maybe some onion, add the drained tin of peas and a little stock and fresh parsley – delicious with a fried egg.)

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As my mum’s stew is quite rich and I’m still craving light and healthy foods (not long now, due date 9th December, eek!) I plumped for this one instead. The recipe is from Jane Clarke’s Yummy Baby book which is full of baby and toddler friendly recipes for the whole family. I’m a big fan of this book, my squash and feta salad is from Yummy Baby and so is my staple daal that hopefully I’ll post here soon. This stew is a little lighter with more veggies. I love it and so clearly does Lexie. We made it the other day for the first time this year. Her response as follows: “It’s good,” pause, “it’s super yummy,” another pause. “I really like this… ooh look a carrot sausage!” More pausing, “Thank you for making this mummy.” !!!

Beef stew

Prep time: 5-10 mins
Cooking time: 3 hours
Budget: £10-15 (£5 beef, £7 wine, £1 mushrooms, £1 courgettes, £1.50 shallots, £1 celery, £2 bacon)
Ease: Easy
Serves 4-6 Ingredients:

  • 800g braising or stewing beef in large pieces
  • Olive oil
  • 50g diced bacon or pancetta
  • 12 shallots, peeled but left whole (or 1 chopped onion)
  • 2 sticks roughly chopped celery
  • 2 medium carrots, peeled and thickly sliced
  • 4 chopped garlic cloves
  • 750ml red wine
  • 1 tbp tomato puree
  • 1 bouquet garni (sprigs of rosemary, thyme and flat leafed parsley)
  • 12 mushrooms, sliced if large
  • 2 medium courgettes thickly sliced
  • Pepper

Preheat the oven to 180C/300F/Gas 2. Season the beef with ground black pepper and heat olive oil in a frying pan on a high heat. Fry the beef in batches until well browned then put in a casserole dish, like a Le Creuset. Add a little more olive oil to the frying pan and add the bacon, shallots, celery and carrots, frying until golden. Add the garlic, cook for another min, then tip everything into the casserole dish. Put the frying pan back on the heat and pour in half the red wine. Bring the the boil and scrap up all the bits at the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon. Pour this into the casserole, adding the rest of the wine, the tomato puree and the bouquet garni. On the hob, bring the stew to the boil then cover with the lid and cook in the oven for 1 1/2 hours. Then add the sliced courgettes and the mushrooms and put back into the oven for another 1 1/2 hours. Once done, the meat will be wonderfully soft and should fall apart on the fork. For extra veg you can add a few frozen peas before serving and some fresh parsley to garnish. This is delicious with boiled potatoes, or rice, or some buttered pasta.

Lexie’s tomato rice

I was going to call this ‘Basque vegetable stew’ – sounds a bit better than marrow stew which essentially what it is. Then Lexie started calling it ‘tomato rice’ which is a much better name. This is sort of a ratatouille, sort of a piperade and I remember my mum teaching me how to make it.

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Lexie is going through a weird hardly eating anything at all phase – literally three mouthfuls and she says she’s done. It’s quite challenging! But she really loves her ‘tomato rice’ and yesterday actually asked for it so I thought I’d share the recipe here. We always have it with rice and fried eggs. It’s really easy to make with kids – Lex slices the veg and pours the tomatoes into the pan, she loves stirring the pot and also helping to fry the egg (we gently break the egg into a bowl then she pours it into the pan and I fry it). Make a big batch of this on the weekend and you’ve got an instant veggie packed meal ready to go for the rest of the week.

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(I need to update this post with some pics of said tomato rice. Until I do here are some pics of Lex in her new little Indian girl outfit. She’s very keen on a Peppa Pig themed birthday party this year… erm…. so I preempted and bought her this costume. Success! She loves it and now wants a Cowboys and Indians theme. Am I a bad mother because I don’t want her to have a Peppa Pig party?)

Lexie’s tomato rice

Prep time: 5 mins
Cooking time: 1 hour
Budget: £5 (£1.50 peppers, £1 marrow, £1 tinned tomatos, £1.50 eggs)
Ease: Easy
Serves: 6
Ingredients:

  • 1 marrow or 2 big courgettes – cut in half and sliced into crescents
  • 1 red pepper, sliced
  • 1 green pepper, sliced
  • 1 yellow pepper, sliced
  • 1 onion, sliced
  • 1 clove sliced garlic
  • 2 tins of tomatos, drained
  • 1 chicken or veg stock cube and water
  • Salt and pepper
  • Sugar (equal to salt so maybe 1 tsp)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Chopped parsley
  • Rice
  • Eggs
  • 4 tbsp olive oil

Fry the onions gently in olive oil in a heavy bottomed pan or casserole dish for 10 minutes. Make sure they don’t brown and season with salt to help release the onion’s juices, as my mum always says. Then add the peppers and fry for another 10 mins. Then add the marrow and fry for another 10 minutes before adding the drained tins of tomatoes, sliced garlic, bay leaf, stock cube and water. Add a little more salt and the equivalent sugar. Cook partially covered for 30 mins – 1 hour until you are happy with it. Sprinkle on the fresh parsley and serve with rice and fried eggs and some nice bread to mop up the juices. This tastes better the next day and keeps well in the fridge for about a week.

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Lamb stew with flageolet beans

We’ve gone from the wettest January in 250 years according to the press to ‘Wild Wednesday’ with ‘Red Warning’ winds hitting Britain. In the Basque country when the sea waves are this big it’s called temporal. Whenever it’s stormy here my mum tells me about how much more ‘impresionante’ temporal is in San Sebastian and how people go out of their way to witness it. So far today she’s told me about temporal at least 3 times…

We’re staying in then! I’ve a mountain of laundry to conquer (including a bag of dry clean only knitwear I just realised our machine can wash perfectly on a cold wool setting!! HIGHLIGHT OF MY DAY! NOT BEING SARCASTIC). I made a nice minestrone for our lunch and, because I remembered to marinate the meat last night, this lamb stew is currently bubbling away on the stove for our dinner, while we listen to Lena Horne’s Stormy Weather on the stereo!

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It’s one of my mum’s staples and she also does a similar stew with beef which I’ll share soon. It’s very rich and gorgeous – Lexie likes it but I give her a small portion and often water her sauce down a little. It’s also another brown recipe from me! I’m turning into the brown pot lady! I’ve got a bright orange butternut squash tagine coming up as well as my cousin’s hake and clams in salsa verde. This blog will soon be a rainbow I promise! (Couldn’t resist this pic again!)

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Lamb stew with flageolet beans

Prep time: 10 mins plus 4 hours + marinating time
Cooking time: 2-4 hours
Budget: £10 (£4 lamb neck, 60p onion, 30p carrot, £1 rosemary, £2 tin flageolet beans, £2 bacon)
Ease: easy
Serves 4

  • 2 pieces of lamb neck fillet or similar cut of lamb for stewing – cut into pieces
  • 1 white onion, peeled and chopped
  • 1/2 carrot, peeled and sliced
  • 1/4 stick celery, sliced
  • 2 tbsp roughly of olive oil
  • 2 big glasses of red wine
  • 1 stick of rosemary
  • 3 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/2 carrot
  • 2 rashers streaky bacon, chopped
  • 1 stock cube – chicken, lamb or veg
  • Plain flour for dusting lamb
  • Salt and pepper
  • Tin of flageolet beans

Marinate the meat for 4 hours or ideally overnight in some olive oil (2 tbpsn), a big glass of red wine, salt and pepper, garlic cloves and a stick of rosemary.

Heat the oil in a heavy bottomed pan (I used a Le Creuset). Take the lamb pieces out of the marinade, reserving the liquid to add to the stew later, dust lightly in flour and place into the hot oil. I used to be crap at browning meat – the trick is, as Hugh Fearnley says: “Remember you are looking to burn…” This info from his MEAT cookbook is the business:

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Once the meat is browned, set aside on a plate and add a big splash of wine to the pan. Turn the heat up and use a spatula to scrape up or ‘deglaze’ all the meaty bits. After a couple of minutes pour the winey bits into the marinade.

Put more oil in the pan, heat then add the onion, carrot, celery and bacon. Season and cook gently for ages to make the sofrito (very softened onions, not browned). When the sofrito is ready add the meat and juices that have been released while it’s been resting. Then add the marinade liquid keeping the garlic cloves but removing and chucking the stick of rosemary. Add a bay leaf, the stock cube and top up with lots of water – the lamb should be well covered. Bring to the boil and then simmer for 2-4 hours. From time to time check it’s not drying out and if it is just add more water. 10 mins before serving open, drain and rinse the flageolet beans and add to the stew. Season to taste and serve with lots of fresh crusty white bread. This stew is also nice with boiled new potatoes instead of flageolet beans or even rice – but not chips or roast tatties!! Nooo – it’s too rich for them!

(Here’s a pic of our sole outing of the day at dusk so Lexie could have a scoot around the square and look at the moon!)

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EDIT: We’ve just eaten the stew – it was bloody amazing!

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Chocolate mousse

My favourite restaurant in Paris is called Le Square Trousseau. It’s so beautiful. The original zinc bar has featured in lots of movies and the food is classic and incredible – garlic snails, steak and chips, steak tartare, confit duck, lemon sole – as are the wines (Drappier champagne, Morgon reds). They always have an ‘all you can eat’ chocolate mousse on the dessert list which sounds quite naff but is so divine! You get a huge bowl of chocolate mousse to share regardless of the size of your group and you pay for what you eat – it’s heavenly.

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After a particularly stressful evening trying to get our daughter to sleep Lewis surprised me with a tray of chocolate mousses. He’d made them as I’d been trying to settle her. Amazing! And totally delicious (although I had to wait for them to chill before I got to eat them!). He adapted Simon Hopkinson recipe from the gloriously retro ‘The Prawn Cocktail Years’. We now leave out the rum and coffee – I ate one and found it impossible to sleep so… This also proved to be the perfect dessert for my celebratory birthday dinner with old school friends I rarely see without children!

(Quick note: I’m keen to try this chocolate mousse recipe – maybe without the salted caramel – when I do I’ll update this post and compare.)

Chocolate mousse (serves 4)

Prep time: 20 mins
Cooking time: 6 hours or overnight in the fridge to set

  • 200g good quality dark chocolate
  • 4 tbsp water (or 3 tbps expresso coffee and 1 1/2 tbps rum)
  • 25g butter
  • 3 large eggs – separated

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Break the chocolate into bits and place in a bowl with the butter and water. Suspend bowl (as in not in contact with) over a pan of simmering water. Let the ingredients melt stirring gently from time to time.

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Once melted remove the bowl from the pan and stir the egg yolks in one by one. Beat the egg whites until they are fluffy. Take 2 tbpn of egg white and fold into the chocolate mixture. Then fold the rest of the egg white in with a metal spoon until it’s completely mixed.

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Pour the mixture into little ramekins or glasses, cover with cling film and leave in fridge to chill for 6 hours or overnight.

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Jamaican lamb curry

It’s my birthday! My favourite birthday dinner is steak and chips. But it’s been chips overload of late and it’s so rainy and grey I wanted this delicious Jamaican lamb curry instead.

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The first time I had this was at my brother-in-law’s with top quality meat from the Ginger Pig. He adapted it from Levi Roots Goat curry. It is A M A Z I N G and super spicy. This is a cheap dish as it uses lamb neck but it does take ages to cook and has many different stages of prep so we always make it the day before we’re having it (by we I mean Lewis). If you leave out the scotch bonnet and reduce the curry powder it’s ok for kids. Or just give them eggs on toast, put them to bed and eat the proper version mwah ha ha! (That is my ‘eating delicious curry’ face – oooh!).

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Jamaican lamb curry

Prep time: 4 hours including marinating time
Cooking time: 4 hours

  • 1kg lamb neck fillet (on or off the bone) – mutton is nice too
  • ½ a lime
  • 2 tbsp mild curry powder
  • 2 tbsp all-purpose seasoning
  • 6 tbsp sunflower or groundnut oil
  • 425ml vegetable stock
  • 1 onion – roughly chopped
  • 2cm piece of root ginger – finely chopped
  • 1 hot red chilli (ideally Scotch bonnet) – seeds left in, chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves – finely chopped
  • 10 allspice berries
  • ½ a red pepper – deseeded and cubed
  • ½ a green pepper – deseeded and cubed
  • 2 spring onions – green part only, roughly chopped
  • 2 tbsp chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • 2 tbsp chopped fresh coriander
  • Salt and pepper

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Wash the meat and pat it dry with kitchen paper then put it in a large bowl with the lime juice, curry powder and all-purpose seasoning. Leave to marinate for 4 hours in the fridge. Heat a large non-stick casserole or heavy-based saucepan until it is very hot, then add the oil. When the oil is very hot, put the lamb in and turn the chunks over with a wooden spoon to coat the meat in oil. Cover with a lid, turn the heat right down to very low and leave it to just simmer for 45 minutes. Keep checking the pot to make sure the meat isn’t getting scorched on the bottom. I massively burnt the meat the first time I made this so keep a close eye on it! Lewis says about this: “It’s a tricky recipe and needs attention. The first 2 hours are done on a low low low heat. The lamb literally steams in the gravy, no sizzling whatsoever except right at the start when you sizzle it in a hot pan, but very briefly then turn the heat right down.” (This was a text response to me texting “I want to make the curry but am scared of burning it again!!”)

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After 45 minutes, add 150ml of the stock, bring to the boil, turn the heat right down, cover and leave to simmer. After another 45 minutes, repeat this with another 150ml of stock and cook for a further 45 minutes. Add the onion, ginger, chilli, garlic and allspice and stir gently. Add the rest of the ingredients and stock – bring to the boil.

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Turn the heat down again, cover and cook for another 2 hours, stirring from time to time. Keep an eye on it and add more stock if it seems dry. Once done it should be fragrant and glistening. Serve with rice and lots of water because it’s S P I C Y!

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