Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Cottage soup

This is the first soup I learnt to make, when I was 18 years old and living in the nineteenth century, in a wonderful sprawling house in Cheltenham, with the sudden responsibility of running a household and caring for two women - one a temporary invalid, the other just very elderly.  I loved it. I spent almost all my time cooking, I had an apron, we had tea at precisely four o'clock every day and I'd very politely bellow "Earl Grey or Lapsang Souchong?" at my elderly charge, and all the lamps in the room would be lit, like Arabian nights. The grandfather clock in the upstairs hall gonged the hours. In the afternoons, over the washing up, I sang "Don't go chasing waterfalls..." and occasionally entertained the vicar. You'll hear more about that house, and that time, but for now, the soup.

This is one of the recipes for the cooking-for-one meal plan. The recipe's so simple I'm almost embarrassed - it's really just a pound each of onions,potatoes, carrots, and  tomatoes, with water or stock and some herbs - but it's stayed as a stalwart, it's as soothing and familiar as ratatouille, and it even delighted my most foodie friend, to my astonishment. It's also a brilliant one for newbie cooks, so here goes: recipe in short, followed by heaps of detailed pictures specially for newbies.

Cooking time: 30-45 mins + a bit of chopping time
Feeds: 4-6 (fridge 1 and freeze 2 if you're cooking for one)


  • 50g butter (about a fifth of a block) or ghee - or oil, for vegans
  • 2 onions (about 500g) or celery, or both, chopped (chef trick for chopping onions)
  • 2-3 potatoes (about 500g), chopped into cubes of about 1-2 centimetres / half an inch
  • 3-4 carrots (about 500g), grated
  • 2 tins of chopped tomatoes (400ml each)
  • whatever woody herbs you have - rosemary, marjarom, and oregano are good (you can chop them or put them in a string bouquet garni)  If you don't have fresh herbs, just use dried.
Melt the butter gently in a big pot and pop in the chopped onions and potatoes. Fry them gently so the onions soften and the potatoes get a bit of colour / release potatoey fragrance. (I use that time to grate the carrots.) Stir in the grated carrot, and let it all fry gently some more until the carrots give lovely carroty fragrance. Pour in the chopped tomatoes, add any extra water to make sure everything's covered and can swim around a bit, and add the herbs. Heat it to a simmer and then let it gently simmer for 30-45 mins until everything's cooked. Not to hot, otherwise the tomato seems to turn a bit sharp.

Variations - you can use any alliums in place of the onion, any roots in place of the potatoes, any cooking fat - I recently made this with lamb fat left over from a roast, and it gave the whole thing a wonderfully meaty smell without any actual meat. You could also throw in some lentils, pearl barley, or what you will, to give it more bulk.

And now! In pictures!

All the ingredients, ready for action. I weighed the groups of veg, and each group weighed 500-600g, which is about right, but don't worry if one group is a bit underweight or overweight - you don't need to start chopping veg in half to get the exact weight, it's a very loose recipe. The herbs I have are thyme and rosemary, because that's what's in the garden. I'm also in the fortunate position of having some lovely chicken stock - that's optional - you can use any stock you have or just water.

Check your pot size: those quantities will make about 3 litres of soup, so if your pot can't hold that much, use one less of each vegetable.

 Hair tied back, and radio on. No-one likes hair in their food.

 My prep station all set up: clean surface, wooden board, sharp knife, and a bowl for peelings.

Chop the onions - remember the chef trick.  On the left, you can see the onions in their various stages of chef-trick onion-chopping, with a close-up on the right. (In reality I'd peel them all at the same time, but I left the peels on those ones to remind you of the process.) They don't need to be chopped super-fine, but no bigger than one cm / half an inch.

 The first time you're cooking a recipe, do all the chopping in advance and put each prepped ingredient on plates or in bowls, ready for cooking. As you get familiar with the recipe and your chopping speed increases, you can chop and cook at the same time for this recipe, as each ingredient wants a bit of time in the pot before the next one is added.

If the potatoes have "eyes", just chop them off - they're trying to start growing, but that's fine. (Green potatoes aren't good; potatoes with eyes are fine.)

No need to peel the potatoes! If their skins are really tough, then you can, but mostly it's fine not to. Chop the potatoes into squares of about one cm / half an inch. Hold the potato on its side, then slice it into two or three slices. Lay the slices on the board, then chop lengthways and widthways, about the same thickness.

 Again, no need to peel the carrots unless the skin is positively leathery. Don't chop the end off either - you're going to hold on that while you grate them.

If you have any other veg to throw in, prep that too. I've got a few sticks of celery - always a winner in soup - so that's getting chopped up to go in.

All the veg is prepped - time to melt the butter / ghee or heat the oil in a nice big pot, on medium heat.  

While it's melting, grind in a generous amount of pepper. Most spices like being fried a bit, and pepper's a spice, so I fulfil its wishes.

 Onion first, as always in cooking: it should sizzle a little when it goes in, but not hiss like an enraged snake. If it hisses like an enraged snake, drop the heat. Stir it all well.

Each ingredient gets about 3-5 minutes of cooking time after it's added, which is why I cook and prep at the same time. But if you've done all your prep, sing each ingredient a little song. Most pop songs are about the right length. Onions are particularly fond of melancholy, tearful songs.

Stir every couple of minutes, but not obsessively.

After a few minutes, the onions are smelling all lovely and oniony, and they're going a little bit soft and a little bit translucent, but not brown, and I add the (optional) celery. If you're using celery, and have done your prep, this is the moment to reflect on a celery-themed song. Or you could stare into the pot and enter a hypnotic celery-induced state. The trick is not to rush them, let each veg have its moment of glory before the next comes rushing on stage.

Potatoes in and give them a good stir, and my it's starting to look and smell fine... 
You'll probably want to stir every minute, now, as the starch from the potatoes can make them stick to the bottom. (Some pots are more prone to sticking than others.)

 This is a good moment to put the kettle on, with your weirdly elongated hands. Boil two litres of water - you may only need one, but just in case.

Once the potatoes have had their 3-5 minutes and are releasing lovely potatoey aroma into the air, add the grated carrots, and stir in well. 
No more prep to do right now, and the carrots need their turn to have a few minutes, so this is the perfect time to...

Clean up as you go! Rinse the board, knife, grater, bowl, plate, anything else; it's all only touched veg, so it just needs a good rinse in hot water. And wipe down the surfaces.

The carrots are looking and smelling ready - softer in texture, and a softer orange.
Gather the final bits...

Two boxes (or tins) of tomatoes and your herbs.
Cut open the boxes - you're using the lot, so no need to make a silly little pouring spout, just behead them completely.
And tie the herbs up with string, or, if you don't have string, some cotton. (String is just easier to tie.)

Throw all the tomatoes into the pot and if you have stock... 

... add that now too. Mine's still frozen, which isn't ideal, but I'm not that fussed. It'll melt and heat up quickly enough, and it's very reduced so it's not a huge amount, so it won't cool down the pot too much.

 Stir it in well. You can see you've already got some liquid happening, from the tomatoes, the stock, and from the veg releasing a bit of liquid, but we need more, which is why you boiled the kettle.

 Pour water into the pot until the veg are completely covered and can swim a bit. That should be about 1 - 1.5 litres. Don't worry about the exact quantity: if it's too little, you can add more later; if it's too much, you can let it simmer longer to reduce more.

 Add a teaspoon(ish) of salt

Final touch: your herbs! Throw them on and...

 push them gently down into the liquid.

Now you want to simmer the soup for 30-45 minutes. A simmer means the surface is breaking with bubbles a little, but not boiling. (If you boil it, you're losing flavour into the air.) Every pot and stove is a bit different, so while it's coming to the boil, hang around the kitchen so you can adjust the heat.

It's starting to heat through - bubbles are coming up on the side, but not yet evenly across the surface, so I'm hanging around, keeping an eye on it. While I'm here...

 May as well sweep the floor, as I appear to have thrown ingredients around with careless abandon. Harlequin tights are optional. Keeping the kitchen tidy is not.

Time for a coffee. Or a nice pint of Hobgoblin, if it's a weekend afternoon. Or if it's evening, maybe a pour a glass of wine, while you admire your developing simmer and immaculate kitchen.

 Ah, my simmer's looking good, but a bit too vigorous - it's already on the lowest setting for this ring, so I'm going to move it onto a smaller ring.

Now that is a perfect simmer.  A thing of beauty. A joy forever.

After half an hour, check a piece of potato. If it's still a bit "glassy" (crunchier than you want!) then let the soup simmer for another 10-15 minutes and check again. 
And as a good cook, taste the liquid of the soup - it should be gloriously full of flavour and make you sing and rejoice, and also you can decide if it needs more salt. 

In a perfect world, now's the moment to cut fat slices of fresh bread and butter them generously for dipping into cottagey soupy goodness. In an even more perfect world, you're in an old-fashioned kitchen with an aga and a wooden kitchen table, and the pot goes straight on the table, and as well as fresh homemade bread there's a big round teapot full of tea, and a sharp nutty cheddar for after, and the sort of people who like playing Scrabble after a weekend lunch... And even if the world isn't quite that perfect, the soup makes it feel like it is.

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