Saturday, 21 February 2015

The Soups a Bit Thin...

Fact- I really love soup. No matter the weather, even when it’s boiling hot I can still manage to wolf down a steaming bowl of soup. In all my years on this earth I am yet to find a soup I didn’t like. Although the variety of fresh soups available now is immense there are countless benefits of making soup at home. For starters it’s simple, great value and incredibly versatile. Whatever you can find on offer in your local supermarket, even if it’s slightly past it’s best, can usually be turned into a pretty decent soup. It’s a perfect way to get down a few of your 5-a-day too. The possibilities are literally endless. Carrot & coriander, chicken noodle, French onion, broccoli & Stilton, consomm√©…I could go on for hours! 

Often on a Monday I clear out the fridge of the last remaining vegetables and make a batch of soup that will feed me for the whole week. If you keep stock cubes on hand and have a root through your store cupboard, you're bound to find loads of  herbs & spices or ingredients that will give your soup a boost. Such as pesto and dried oregano for an Italian twist, fish sauce, chilli & lime if you fancy a bit of Thai or honey, harissa paste & cinnamon for a Moroccan flavour. I will happily eat the same soup for a week, each day I add something different to vary it a little. Extra fresh herbs & chilli, sliced chicken or prawns leftover from the previous evening, grated cheese & croutons. Any I don’t eat just goes in the freezer in labelled pots ready for defrosting when I want it. Have it at home, take it to work or share it with a friend a batch of homemade soup will never get thrown away I guarantee it. Just remember to taste and season well when making it, bland soup isn't going to win you any friends! 

Whenever eating out in a restaurant with my Dad, if someone is to order a dish that requires a finger bowl he will always remark on receiving it "Oh look, the soups a bit thin." It's something I used to cringe at but I now even when he isn't there I find myself saying it too. A reassuring memory much like soup has become for me. Before I started to cook my soup fix would usually be from a tin. I was a bit of a fussy eater as a teenager. A stint at an incredibly strict primary school with terrible meals and zero tolerance to leaving any of your lunch had left me rather dubious of food in general. I think the amount of lumpy smash and mystery meat i'd choked down had given me the fear of cooked meals. My poor Mother would have to put up with me turning my nose up at a delicious home cooked meal and instead opting for something 'safe' from a packet, jar or tin.  I absolutely loved Heinz tomato soup; I used to eat it with grated cheddar cheese, lots of black pepper and triangles of sliced white bread to dip in. Always triangles, never squares, it tastes different- I promise. I'm happy to say that I grew out of that fussy stage, I now love my Mothers cooking, but I never grew out of Heinz or soup in general. 

For me Heinz tomato soup was as much an integral part of my childhood as Baywatch on Saturdays and Home & away followed by Neighbours after the school day was done. As familiar as playing Mario Kart for hours on end and choosing ridiculous email names on Hotmail. The ones that shame you for years to come. As satisfying as reading Point Horror books by the shelf load and managing to stop the tape right at the point when the song ended when recording the Top 40 on a Sunday.

Its consistency and familiar orange hue saw me through many a bout of illness or teenage heartbreak when chewing real food felt like too much effort. Even now that I am all grown up and can cook the most complicated of dishes it is what I crave whenever I’m knocked of course or feeling a little under the weather. So here’s my recipe for tomato soup, I wont lie it’s no Heinz but then why would you want to replace it when it’s just so good as it is (and counts as one of your 5-a-day)? Everyone should have a recipe for really good tomato soup, I think this is it, and hopefully you will too.

Proper Tomato Soup
Makes about 10 portions, easily halved if you have a smaller pan
Can be frozen

Make this when tomatoes are in season or if you have a local farm shop you can normally pick up a huge bag for about a quid. If not use tinned instead. But don’t bother roasting them first.

About 2.75kg ripe tomatoes, halved
2-3 fat cloves garlic
fresh thyme sprigs, leaves pulled off
1 red chilli, sliced
fresh oregano, lots.
Fresh basil lots.
2 chicken stock pots. Or use veggie if you’re that way inclined, chicken is better though, everyone knows that.
About 2 tbsp cider, red, or white wine vinegar
1 heaped tbsp. brown sugar
50g tomato puree
Freshly grated nutmeg
1 large onion, diced
1 large carrot, diced
2 sticks celery, diced
really good shake of Worcestershire sauce
100ml milk
50g light soft cheese
50g grated Parmesan cheese
salt, black pepper
olive oil

1 Heat oven to 180C/160C fan/gas 4. Lay your halved tomatoes on 2-3 big lined baking trays. Slice half the garlic. Scatter on, with the thyme, chilli & some of the oregano. Season well with salt & pepper. Drizzle on half the vinegar. Roast for 1 hour.

2 Meanwhile heat a little oil and a good pinch of salt in a very large pan. Sweat onion, carrot and celery until really soft. Add the rest of the garlic, crushed, the rest of the vinegar, oregano, sugar, puree, Worcestershire sauce, and some black pepper. Stir and cook until caramelised.

3 Add the roasted tomatoes and juices from the pan. Add the stock pots with enough water to just cover. Simmer for 30 minutes. Blitz with the basil, milk, soft cheese & Parmesan. Add extra water if too thick. Taste, season, fall in love. Have with a cheese toastie for proper comfort food bliss.

I usually eat this for a whole week at one go, so to stop it getting boring I chuck in something different to each portion I heat up (see pics). Try chicken, roasted veg, cherry tomatoes, prawns, fish, mozzarella, basil, chillies, rocket, pasta (but not all at once).

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Baking Hearts (Again)

So it seems as Valentines Day rears it’s ugly head the shops are becoming full of heart shaped tat and sickly sweet sentiments of love once again.

My early memories of Valentines Day were not too fond. I went to an all girls secondary school, so you would think I would’ve been safe from the mandatory exchanging of cards and overpriced rubbish but alas you would be wrong. Very wrong. Our school would join forces with the local boys grammar and to mark the occasion we would be allowed to purchase a rose on the week running up to St. Valentines. This would be delivered to our chosen stud at some point through the day. In return they could do the same for us. That meant an excruciating 8 periods of lessons where you were delightfully reminded that no, you were not the object of the local hotties affections. No likey - no lighty. There was always that one girl who would get hundreds of the bloody things. Seriously she wouldn’t even be able to fit on the bus home. I won’t lie, and anyone who has access to the wealth of pictures of the secondary school me would probably agree, I was no supermodel as a teenager. Suffice to say I was never in danger of putting Interflora out of business.  However I developed a good sense of humour, besides the girls that were beautiful as teenagers never developed much of a personality, well not at my school anyway, they just relied on their looks to get them through.

Fast forward a few years and my dislike of Valentines day is still present, even though the rose roulette is a now a distant memory. I just can’t get into the spirit of the “organised love.” I find it soulless and without any real sentiment. I feel like an over fattened goose, on the road to becoming a foie gras parfait, force-fed with hallmark messages of fake romance. Yuck! Plus the overpriced set menus that fill every single restaurant get on my nerves. The conveyer belt of sittings that they try to ram in, in order to create more revenue, removes any chance to linger with your loved one anyway, really what’s the point? In my opinion it’s a day designed to make people feel bad. Single people feel terrible, people in couples feel pressured to pull out all the stops, or disappointed when their partners don’t. The girl/boy who gloats about how much their partner has spoiled them is usually the one who gets treated like dirt all year around anyway. Again, what’s the point? And don’t even get me started on anyone that actually gets engaged on Valentines Day; pass the (heart shaped) bucket please.

However Valentines Day is here to stay so instead of harbouring all these feelings of angst I have decided to take my own joy from Valentines Day. Besides I can’t let a perfectly good excuse to dust off my heart shaped cutters and bake up something beautiful go to waste. Here’s what I plan to do, and you can to, should the mood take you. Make your Valentine someone unexpected this year. Your 'Un-Valentine' could be the lonely old man you always bump into in the post office, the auntie you always forget to thank for your Lynx deodorant set at Christmas. The postman who always finds the time to smile and say hello or your brothers awkward friend who everyone knows is getting nothing this year. That way you can make someone smile who never expected to. This isn’t ‘jumping through hoops’ kindness that we are shepherded into believing is the right way to behave, simply to avoid a bollocking from our other halves. Instead it’s just a simple token of generosity and good will towards a fellow human being. Plus who knows, maybe you’ll even be on the receiving end of an unexpected Valentines treat this year.

Happy Valentines Day!

Giant Valentines Jammy Dodger
Show me someone who dislikes shortbread biscuits and strawberry jam and I’ll show you a very surprised emoji face. This is simplicity at it’s best.

250g pack butter, at room temperature
100g golden caster sugar, plus about 2 tbsp for dusting
1 tsp vanilla extract
250g plain flour, plus a little for dusting
140g ground rice
400g strawberry jam
1 tbsp cornflour

1 Heat your oven to 180C/160C fan/gas 4 with shelves in the middle and lower third. Line a 20cm square tin with baking parchment. Place the tin on another sheet and draw around it; this will form the template for the top. Turn the paper over and put on a flat tray, you should still be able to see the outline. If not your pen is rubbish. Use a better pen, see it now? Great. Continue.

2 Beat the butter, caster sugar and vanilla with an electric whisk, until pale and fluffy. Stir in the flour and ground rice using a spatula then get your hands in and knead to smooth dough. Halve the dough, and press one half into the base of the tin.

3 Roll out the remaining dough on your sheet of prepared parchment (allow yourself to say here’s one I prepared earlier) to fill the square, trim to neaten a little but be warned it will spread so you’ll have to do this again after you’ve baked it. Stamp out a line of hearts, then two more, (see pic). Put the hearts on the tray too, extra biscuits!

4 Bake the base on the middle shelf and the top on the lower for 20-25 mins, until pale golden and sandy. Once cooked remove and immediately re stamp the hearts out as the biscuit spreads while cooking, trim to the square shape. Cool fully.

5 Mix the cornflour with 1 tbsp of cold water until combined put in a pan with the jam and bring to a boil, simmer until thickened then sieve into a bowl. You can leave out this step but it makes the jam thicker and glossy. Once cool put the base on a serving plate, spread ¾’s of the jam on top. Spread out leaving about 4mm border, as the jam will spread out with the weight of the top when you put it on. Gently lift it on, it will probably crack, mine did, but just do your best to gently put it back together, you’ll cover it up with sugar in a min, goody more sugar!!

6 Brush the top with a little water and then scatter on the rest of the golden caster sugar, spreading it out to cover the cracks (if you have some). Spoon the ¼ of the jam that’s left into the heart gaps and use the other end of the spoon to spread the jam out so it fills the holes up more and looks more even. Give to your un-valentine!