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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A nourishing vegetable curry… and a baby!

I’ve been pondering how to return here. With an overspill of events since early autumn to catch up on, not to mention the backlog of recipes still from the summer, where to start? With the most important news of course…

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My son Finn was born on the 2nd of December. Having spent most of September and October rueing the unseasonal heat, I was delighted in bitter November when the wind began to howl, the trees became skeletons and it finally got cold. I’m so happy Finn was born at the start of December, at the beginning of this frozen month, and just before the Christmas festivities began in earnest.

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Now he’s here it’s like he was always with us, as is the way with babies. I feel complete and also delighted to no longer be pregnant. He’s a beautiful, blue eyed boy. Looks remarkably like his sister did as the picture below shows. Very strong, very sweet and growing exponentially, especially considering he’s been plagued with viruses since birth. The love came instantly this time round.

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Obviously we are exhausted! To the bone. He has colic, poor little boy. It is really hard. So the first recipe I’m noting is from the food parcel delivered by my mother-in-law the week after he was born. A gentle vegetable and chickpea curry, delicately spiced and laced with coconut milk. It’s comforting, nourishing and also a good January dish being both warming and good for the body and the soul. It’s easy to make a huge vat of this for freezing or for quick suppers and it’s mild so suitable for little ones. There is a one off investment in the requisite spices, after that this recipe is as cheap as chips. She first made us this when we arrived for a stay at her house in the Scottish highlands, perfect after 12 hours of travel culminating in a 3 hour drive with a screaming child. When she asked us what we wanted in the food parcel it was my first choice (Lewis wanted fish pie). She says the spicing comes from a Nigel Slater recipe. Pic of curry to follow and I don’t know why the pics are so massive on this post – sorry!

Vegetable curry

Prep: 20 mins
Cook: 45mins – 1hr
Serves: 6
Budget: £5-10 assuming spices not included

  • 1 or 2 tins chickpeas, rinsed and drained
  • 2 medium onions, chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 3 red chillis (or less if wanted), chopped
  • 3 carrots, peeled and chopped
  • 2 tsp coriander seeds
  • 6 cardamon pods
  • Groundnut oil (or sunflower/vegetable oil)
  • 15 curry leaves
  • 1 tsp black mustard seeds
  • 2 tsp turmeric
  • 500g tomatoes, roughly chopped
  • 1 large sweet potato (new potatoes are nice too instead), peeled and in chunks
  • 1 red pepper, thick slices
  • Spinach, rinsed
  • Vegetable or chicken stock, 750 ml
  • 1/2 or 1 tin of coconut milk
  • Handful of chopped fresh coriander

Grind the coriander seeds in a pestle and mortar. Remove the seeds from the cardamon pods and also grind.

Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed pan and gently cook the onions and garlic until soft.

Stir in the curry leaves, mustard seeds, ground coriander, turmeric, cardamon seeds and chopped chillis. Fry for a few mins then add the carrots and cook on a low heat for 5 mins.

Add the tomatoes, sweet potato and peppers then pour in the stock. Bring to the boil and skim off any froth that comes to the surface, then simmer gently for 20-30 mins, stirring from time to time.

When the veg is nicely tender but not overdone the curry is ready. Stir in the chickpeas and when they are warm add the coconut milk.

Finally stir in the spinach which should wilt instantly in the heat then garnish with fresh coriander and serve with rice.

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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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Asparagus soup with poached egg on toast

There has been a chill in the air all of this week. We’ve been spending a lot of time indoors which I always find a struggle. At home Lexie seems to need constant attention. Why is she incapable of playing by herself? Ever? It drives me nuts! In an attempt to do something fun with her that wouldn’t end in (my) tears, we built our first fort. Thankfully it was a success, though it took a while to convince Lexie she didn’t have to put all her toys and clothes in it. Does anyone else’s child love stuffing everything into places? Lexie is obsessed with cramming things into her suitcase/bag/oven/Sylvanian camper van.

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Another soup recipe from me today. It seems fitting for the chilly weather. It’s from the Jamie at Home cookbook which is divided into seasons. Under spring falls my great love asparagus. I’ve tried all the recipes in this section and the standout winner is this creamy asparagus soup with poached egg on toast. It is really delicious and tastes so luxurious despite the lack of cream and butter.

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The book tells me asparagus is one of the most nutritious vegetables you can eat, full of vitamins and folic acid. It is also a diuretic and a good liver cleanser (although I think this soup is lovely with a nice glass of white burgundy). Lexie really enjoys eating this and helping to make it. She likes making soups as our handheld blender is broken so I have to use the magimix and she gets to press the button. She also loves poaching the egg, helping me crack it into a little bowl and stirring the water to create a vortex.

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Asparagus soup with poached egg on toast

Prep time: 5 mins
Cooking time: 35 mins
Budget: £5 (£3 asparagus, 20p onion, 20p celery, 50p leek, £1.30 eggs)
Ease: Easy for the soup – medium for the poached egg
Serves: 4

  • 1 bunch of asparagus, rinsed, trimmed of edges and chopped into 2cm pieces
  • 1 sliced leek
  • 1 sliced onion
  • 1 sliced stick of celery
  • Chicken stock cube
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 egg per person
  • Bread – ciabatta is nice for this recipe

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Gently heat a little olive oil in a saucepan and add the onion, celery and leek with a little salt. Sweat gently for 10 minutes without browning. Add the asparagus, stock cube and top up with water. You can make this soup as thick or as thin as you like depending on how much water you add. Cook for 20-30 mins. When it’s ready whizz it in a blender and season to taste. A word of warning – once I made this in a rush, didn’t sweat the vegetables and cooked it for just under 20 mins. The result was like eating the leftover stringy pulp from a juicer! So definitely respect the cooking times!

My method of poaching eggs is not foolproof and doesn’t always work (I mean doesn’t always look pretty). Use the freshest eggs you can and crack them into bowls – one bowl per egg. Boil a small saucepan full of water and add a small splash of vinegar and a tiny bit of salt. Reduce the heat so the water is simmering and create a vortex by swirling a spoon around the water. Pour the egg into this simmering vortex and leave for 3 minutes. If doing more than one egg make sure you pour it into a different part of the saucepan at the same time – I’ve never done more than 2 at a time! Start toasting the bread and when the egg is done, remove with a slotted spoon and place on the toast. Serve the soup either as Jamie does, with the poached egg and toast resting on top of the soup or, as I do, on the side.

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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.

A spring risotto for Poppy and Lexie

Poppy is one of Lexie’s very few ‘younger’ friends. My daughter definitely likes the older kids! They probably get on because they are both born wrigglers who never ever sit still. It’s pretty hard to find a picture of these two that isn’t blurry.

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Both of them love risotto so whenever they have dinner together either Katie, Poppy’s mum, or I make it (although sometimes, to avoid cooking we take them to the Tate Modern for the brilliant £3 kids fish and chips).

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All the magnolias and camelias are in full bloom right now. It’s so beautiful and makes me so happy. I’ve been filling our flat with camelias and visiting my mum in Chelsea which is awash with bursting magnolias. In honour of all this blossom and Poppy and Lexie’s budding friendship, here is a simple risotto for spring.

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Kids love risotto – it’s so easy for them to eat and ideal for little ones who are weaning as the rice sticks to the spoon and their fingers. Risotto is a great vehicle for lots of different veg – I’ve added some variations to this recipe at the end. Making this I listened to the Jungle Book’s I wanna be like you. Poppy and Lexie are such little monkeys and it seemed apt given how the littler ones always want to be just like the bigger kids.

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Simple spring risotto

Prep time: 5 mins
Cooking time: 20 mins
Budget: £5 (£2 bacon, 60p leek, £1.50 parsley)
Ease: easy
Serves 2

  • 1/2 sliced leek
  • 1/2 chopped onion
  • 2 rashers chopped bacon
  • 1 clove sliced garlic
  • 1 cup of frozen peas
  • Handful of fresh chopped parsley
  • Risotto rice
  • Chicken stock cube
  • Grated parmesan

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Heat olive oil in a pan and add the onion, bacon, leek and garlic and sweat for about 10 mins on a gentle heat. Add the risotto rice and start introducing the stock. For proper risotto I add a splash of wine and let it sizzle down before adding the stock a cupful at a time, stirring the risotto all the time. But for this version I just chuck a stock cube in and top up with hot water from the kettle every 5 mins or so, stirring it a bit. After 15 mins add the frozen peas. The risotto should be done after about 20 mins. Stir in the parsley and serve with grated parmesan.

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  • A classic risotto is mushroom. Fry onion, bacon and garlic as per above. Add the rice and stock and after 10 mins add the sliced mushrooms. Nice with lots of parsley.
  • I often make risotto with leftover roast chicken. Same recipe as above and add the leftover chicken 5 mins before serving.
  • I love courgette and pea risotto – the same recipe as above maybe leaving out the leek and adding the courgettes after 10 mins of cooking. This is nice with basil and/or a tiny bit of fresh chopped mint.
  • I also really love asparagus risotto – same recipe as above (except I don’t usually do bacon with asparagus risotto, not sure why), adding chopped asparagus after 10 mins of cooking.
  • Butternut squash risotto is popular but not really my cup of tea and Lex doesn’t like squash but I thought I’d mention it for inspiration.

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