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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Butternut squash and pumpkin soup with a thyme and taleggio tart

Argh I’m drowning in a sea of recipes I keep meaning to post here. There are recipes from the summer in my backlog!! Really nice recipes like roast sea bream with salsa verde or an indian chickpea curry we had for the first time in Scotland back in June. Also our favourite blueberry muffins, a windfall apple cake and the fish curry Lewis makes for the whole family every year in France. But alas! The mood to write, she is not there as Hercule Poirot, for whom I always have time, might or might not say.

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To start, here is a recipe for butternut squash and pumpkin soup. Very ‘in’ right now, I’m sure you’ll agree, seeing as it’s proper autumn with the damp and the rain and the leaves. We are greatly enjoying stomping through the leaves this year. The pic above is Lexie posting her birthday party invites, although I had to tell her they were birthday cards for her friends. She wants to keep all her precious Peppa Pig invites for herself and also wants to do the pinata on her own!! This is an easy soup and Lexie loved it when she was weaning onto solids. I’d make it super thick and she’d feed herself (also I never did this but you could easily freeze this into ice cubes for quick baby meals). Now Lexie hates butternut squash so has to be coaxed into having a couple of mouthfuls, or dabbing her cheese toastie in the soup.

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A blob of gorgonzola or another blue cheese is heavenly in this soup and I keep meaning to fry a little pancetta to add on top. A dash of cayenne pepper/chilli powder, a swirl of creme fraiche and some chopped coriander works well too. This recipe is also a good way to make pumpkin taste nice (pumpkin really isn’t that nice on it’s own). Definitely roast the squash first for a richer, more flavourful soup. The pic above is the first time Lexie saw a pumpkin and the other pic is of her helping me buy lots of squash and pumpkins last year – little cutie pie!

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Because I’ve been making this soup for years and find it a bit boring I thought I’d add the recipe for a delicious thyme and taleggio tart. I can’t remember when Lewis first made this for me. It was definitely in the early years of our ‘long term relationship’ (that’s an ‘in’ joke) and it’s a staple from his family. It’s sooo easy and sooo good, a pimped puff pastry job – do try this! Using the same principles you can make a variety of tasty tarts – some that I’ve tried include cherry tomato, basil and goats cheese, very nice. Also a butternut squash and feta tart, a variation of this salad. 

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Finally we’ve gone a bit nuts for autumny crafts in our house now that Lexie is almost 3 and actually a joy to do crafts with (as opposed to when she was 2 when really all I should have done every day was build a massive tower of soft bricks, give her a Timmy Mallet style mallet and set her loose to destroy!). We’ve got leaf ghosts, egg carton spiders and bats, hedgehogs made out of paper plates or conkers, fingerprint or popcorn trees, I could go on.

Butternut squash and pumpkin soup

Prep: 5-10 mins
Cook: 20-30 mins
Budget: Less than £5 (£1.50 butternut squash, £1 pumpkin, £1 parsley)
Ease: Easy
Serves: 2 – 4 depending on portion size Ingredients:

  • A butternut squash and a pumpkin, halved
  • 1 sliced onion
  • Chicken stock
  • Chopped parsley
  • Olive oil and butter
  • Salt and pepper

Roast the squash in pieces (skin on) drizzled in olive oil and sea salt. Try to roast it for at least an hour, until it is all soft and squoodgy.

Gently fry the onion in the olive oil and a little butter for 10 mins. When the onion is soft add the peeled and deseeded butternut squash/pumpkin and cover with stock – as much as you want depending on if you want a thin or thick soup.

Bring to the boil then simmer for 15 mins. Use a juzzer thingimibob to puree the soup et voila, presto, listo, done.

This soup is lovely with a nice cheese toastie or served with a good cheese plate. We often have it with comte cheese.

Thyme and taleggio tart

Prep: 5 mins
Cook: 20-40 mins
Budget: £6 (£3 taleggio, £1 thyme, £1.50 puff pastry)
Ease: Easy
Serves: 4-6 depending on portion size

  • 1 sheet of bought puff pastry
  • 2 onions
  • Lots of butter
  • A few sprigs of fresh thyme
  • Taleggio cheese

Preheat the oven to 200-220c and roll the puff pastry out onto a greased baking tray or a tray lined with greaseproof paper. Score the edges about 2cm apart to make a border (I never do this and it’s always fine, just leave a bit of a border if you want).

In a separate pan, gently fry the onion in lots of butter until soft and translucent, at least 10 mins of frying and don’t let it brown. When the onion is done spread it over the puff pastry and dob pieces of the taleggio on top.

Finally sprinkle the thyme sprigs all over the tart. Lots of thyme is good. Brush the pastry border with a little melted butter (again I never do this and it’s fine without), pop in the oven, and bake for about 20-30 minutes until the pastry is puffed and golden. You can turn the heat up if you want it to cook quicker/be more golden.

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.

Two dresses, some tulips and a cauliflower soup

It’s been a week for flowers and dresses. I couldn’t resist getting some beautiful tulips from the market and we have small branches of apple blossom dotted around our flat. Lexie likes shaking them and making the blossom “snow” on her head.

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Inspired by the new season I’m finding myself wearing dresses, drawn to anything floral or white and crocheted. Two ebay finds that have delighted us this week are this little Laura Ashley number for Lexie (99p!) and a Whistles dress that I will probably wear at my wedding – I love it!

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Continuing on the white theme, I also made the most delicious scallops with cauliflower the other day. The recipe is, as always, by the beautiful Mimi Thorisson whose book: ‘A kitchen in France – a year of cooking in my farmhouse’ is now available to preorder – hurrah!! This was wonderful, light and fresh despite the copious use of butter. The cauliflower was probably my favourite element – I adore cauliflower. As there are only two of us and there is only so much cauliflower one can eat at a time – even for an aficionado like me – I used less than half of it for this recipe. I needed to make something else with the rest… hmm decisions decisions.

I thought about cauliflower cheese but didn’t really fancy it. I love Lewis’ Indian spiced cauliflower he serves as part of a ‘Rice and Three’ vegetarian curries – the other two are usually sag aloo and dal. But I don’t know how to make this (there is still some cauliflower left so his recipe will probably be on the blog next week). As it’s still quite chilly despite the blue skies I decided on my mum’s cauliflower soup. This is a delicious and simple creamy soup that we ate with cheese toasties and, in Lexie’s case, a sombrero.

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I should add that my mum is the worst person in the world to ask for a recipe. For example: “Mum how did you roast this amazing pheasant?” (which includes brandy and flambeing in the cooking)… Mum: “I put it in the oven.” When I asked her how to make this soup, she replied: “Like every other soup.” Lewis and I think it’s hilarious to do ‘my mum’ impressions when cooking. Me: “Lewis what are you doing?” Lewis: “Cooking hmmmpfh!” etc etc.

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The pic above is us out in our new dresses and old denim jackets. Lexie turned to me aghast that day and said: “Mummy where our coats!!!!” She was right, it was far too cold to be out without proper coats.

Cauliflower soup 

Prep time: 5 mins
Cooking time: 30 mins
Budget: Under £5 (£1.50 cauliflower, 20p potato, £1 milk, 20p onion)
Ease: Easy
Serves 4

  • 1/2 cauliflower head, cut into florets
  • 1 potato, peeled and cubed
  • 1 small sliced white onion
  • Chicken stock cube
  • 1 cup milk
  • Olive oil
  • Butter
  • Salt and pepper

Gently fry the onion in a little olive oil or olive oil and butter for 10 mins. Add the potato, cauliflower and stock cube, cover with water. Cook for 20-30 mins then blitz in a blender. Put the soup back in the pan and gently heat. Add a cup of milk and a little knob of butter and stir in. Season to taste and serve.

Butternut squash tagine

I’ve never managed anything like the Atkins diet but I’ve had phases of eating very healthily (no croissants or cake! Lots of pulses and veggies!). I learnt this recipe during one of those spells and it’s happily remained in my repertoire because it’s tasty and Lewis really likes it.

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It’s adapted from an Ottonlenghi recipe which means it’s delicious but has a bonkers list of ingredients! It’s actually really easy to make and very cheap once you’ve invested in the required condiments (ground coriander/ginger etc). When weighing out the spices I always make a separate mix and keep it in a jar to use for next time to help make this recipe simpler. Lexie loves the cous cous and will only eat the squash if we tell her it’s turnip because she “don’t like squash mummy.”

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Butternut squash tagine

Serves four
Prep time: 10 mins
Cooking time: 20 mins
Budget: £5-10 (£1.50 butternut squash, £3 fresh herbs, we had all the other spices but roughly £1.50-£2 per spice, £1 cous cous)
Ease: Easy

  • 1 large onion, thinly sliced
  • 4 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 50g butter
  • 800g peeled butternut squash or pumpkin, cut into 2.5cm dice
  • ½ chilli, thinly sliced – leave out for kids
  • 4 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
  • 1 bayleaf
  • 3 cardamom pods
  • 1 tsp ground coriander
  • ¼ tsp ground nutmeg (have left this out before when didn’t have it and was fine without)
  • ½ tsp ground ginger
  • ½ tsp ground turmeric
  • Small pinch saffron (have left this out before when didn’t have it and was fine without)
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • ½ tbsp honey
  • Salt and pepper
  • Chicken or veg stock
  • 4 tbsp fresh coriander, roughly chopped
  • 2 tbsp pinenuts, roasted and roughly chopped
  • Cous cous

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In a large, heavy saucepan, sauté the onion in oil and butter for 10 minutes, add the squash and cook for a few minutes. Add the herbs, spices, honey, salt and pepper, cover with stock (or add a stock cube and cover with water so squash well covered) and simmer for 20-30 mins. It really won’t need more than 30 mins and do check the squash after 15-20 mins – squash cooks really quickly and can disintegrate – the squash should be soft but not collapsing. The sauce should have thickened slightly by now – if it’s too runny, increase the heat to reduce. Stir in half the fresh coriander. Prepare the cous cous as per the packet instructions. Dry fry pine nuts (get a frying pan, heat on stove, add pine nuts and fry until slightly changing colour – try not to burn!). Serve the tagine over couscous and garnish with pine nuts and the rest of the coriander. For kids I fish out the bigger spices like bay leaf/cardamon/cinnamon stick so they are not surprised by random cardamon pods or cinnamon bark!

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Lentils with chorizo

When I was little my dad and I absolutely loved my mum’s lentils with chorizo. She could never understand how we could get so excited about lentils which represent to her the poverty of growing up in post Civil War Spain – endless stews of lentils or chickpeas, eking out whatever meat was available. “Are you sure you want lentils?” She’d ask: “What about a lovely roast pork or chicken?” But we’d always want the lentils and spend ages trying to distract each other so we could steal more lumps of chorizo from the other’s bowl.

After another day of drizzly rain we went for a quick run around the square, came back and put on Ay Carmela!, my favourite Spanish Civil War revolutionary song from Rolando Alarcon’s album, and had steaming hot bowls of lentils with chorizo! Rhumbala rhumbala rhum ba la!

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This stew is very cheap, nutritious and delicious which must be pointed out as it can look a little like brown sludge. It keeps for about a week in the fridge and, as with all these stews, tastes much better the day after you make it. Lexie absolutely loves it and it’s probably her second favourite dish right now (although she won’t touch the chorizo!! #sonotmydaughter). In my view the chorizo makes this dish and I always make it if I have any pork leftovers as they are delicious chucked in too. But I should say it’s tasty even with no meat so if you are veggie just leave out the bacon/chorizo etc and use veg stock. It’s similar to the sausage lentil casserole I’ve posted before and I’ll add a French variation at the end taught to me by my 97 year old granny-in-law.

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Lentils with chorizo

Prep time: 5 mins
Cooking time: 45-1 hour
Budget: £5-10 (£1 lentils, 20p onion, £3 chorizo, 30p potato, 30p carrot, £3 bacon)

  • Green lentils – half a packet serves 4
  • 1 peeled potato chopped into big chunks
  • 1 peeled carrot chopped into big chunks
  • 1 peeled and chopped white onion
  • Chorizo chopped into chunks – 1 little one or half a big one
  • 2 rashers chopped bacon
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 chicken stock cube
  • Leftover pork (roast or pork chop) – optional
  • Olive oil

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Fry the bacon and onion in a little olive oil in a casserole dish – I used a Le Creuset. Add a little salt to help the onions release their juices and fry gently for as long as you can be bothered. The idea is to make a sort of sofrito with softened not browned onions so I usually fry gently for 10 mins, turn it off covered for 10 mins then fry again for another 10. Then add the green lentils, bay leaf, stock cube and chopped carrot. Cover with double the amount of water, bring to the boil then simmer partially covered. After 20 mins check the water, top up if need be as lentils guzzle water, then add the potato. Cook for another 20 minutes, check the water again then add the chorizo and any leftover pork if using. My mum sometimes boils the chorizo for 30 seconds in water before adding to remove excess oil but I don’t often bother. Simmer for another 10 mins and it should be ready – all lovely and brown and sludgy! You really have to believe me on this one! Serve with some lovely fresh bread.

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  • French variation – exactly the same recipe but omit the potato and chorizo (you can still add pork leftovers). Cook for 40 ish minutes then just before serving add one tbsp of dijon mustard and stir around. Delicious served with chipolatas!

Baked porcini mushrooms

As I said the other day, all this wet weather is making me fancy mushrooms – mainly on toast (fried in olive oil with garlic and parsley, maybe a splash of wine) or on pasta. Since I’m in London and can’t go foraging with my family in a Basque forest the next best thing is of course Borough market which luckily we live right by. I wanted to try something different from the usual suspects (chestnut and button mushrooms). I also wanted to do a non-pasta dish!

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I decided to make this baked porcini River cafe recipe because it sounded delicious and very easy. We had it with veal saltimbocca and rosemary, garlic and lemon roast potatoes. It’s lovely but next time I might try it with balsamic instead of lemon for a bit of sweetness. It’s definitely a starter/side dish not a main!!

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Baked porcini mushrooms

Prep time: 5 mins
Cooking time: 8 – 15 mins
Budget: £5 – £10 depending on cost of mushrooms (Salad £1.99, pancetta £3, mushrooms £2, herbs £1.50, lemon 30p)

  • Porcini mushrooms (in pics used portobello)
  • Pancetta cubed
  • 1 clove garlic minced
  • Sticks of thyme
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and pepper
  • Rocket salad or similar
  • Lemon (or balsamic vinegar)

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Preheat the oven to 180/gas mark 4. Clean your mushrooms by cutting off the end of the stalk and wiping with a kitchen towel or old toothbrush (here are more tips on how to cook and clean mushrooms – don’t wash them!! Makes them soggy!). Put the mushrooms in a baking tray, stalk side up, and drizzle with oil. Stick the thyme into the stalk and sprinkle the cubed pancetta and garlic on top of the mushroom. Pop in the oven for 8-15 mins. Once done serve whole or sliced on rocket salad (or ‘a bed of leaves’ if you prefer…). Season and drizzle with extra olive oil and either lemon juice or balsamic vinegar.

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