Haven’t had chance to do a cooking posting for ages. I think I was going to do one on the magnificent chicken but that’s getting a little ahead of things I reckon. So far we’ve just covered mashed potatoes and variations on that theme. So I thought we could just explore potatoes and other winter vegetables for a while. I think it might be good to explore major food staples pretty extensively before moving on.
My old friend Charlie Cranium, another man with a love of cooking, is thinking about coming in with me to do this series two-handed. What I forget/don’t know CC can plug the gaps. His knowledge is far more comprehensive than mine. I reckon together we could find enough bait for blokes who’ve never been interested before to become as hooked as the pair of us. Is that a good thing? Aw for frigging sure.
First things first. Pour yourself a glass of wine or beer. This is one of the occasions that drinking alone is not just ok but a critical part of the experience. You cannot cook passionately and not sample some wines/great beers at the same time. You’ve got to get your taste buds stimulated and your mood settled for a bit of trial and error. It’s the only way to learn cooking in my view. Slavishly following a menu is fine but it’s not yours. Creating your own ‘signature’ thing is an important step to getting this cooking lark. A touch or two of the grape or the hop helps the creative juices. Wine is meant to be enjoyed with food, not separate from it. So there.
The next thing you always get in a recipe is the list of ingredients by precise weight including all condiments etc. I’m never going to do that. I want you to enjoy the preparation stages before having to troll off to the shops to buy that obscure item missing from your fridge/larder. Here’s the thing; get a good stock in of winter veg. They can help you out with almost every meal at the moment and they are full of goodness, taste great, look great on the plate/in the bowl. Forget your experiences of school-cooked vegetables and prepare to give everything another try, right? Trust me, you’ll enjoy cooking and eating this stuff – probably as much if not more than your main meat/fish ingredient. Not possible? Prepare to be convinced.
Here are the things you should always try and have in the larder. Buy them from your local supermarket, of course, or even better your local green-grocer from time to time. But always if you can, buy the stuff loose, so that you can a) feel, smell and see what you’re buying and b) do away with all the unnecessary packaging at the supermarket c) save yourself some money. Really. Never mind about the stuff having soil on it, the skin gets washed or removed (mostly). Always choose the firmest items, free of blight and bruises. If it’s local produce so much the better. Items:
– potatoes – I like to have 3 types in the larder; new or baby potatoes, medium sized and some larger bakers. Never buy huge bags unless you’re going to eat loads or run a fish and chips shop. It’s better to replenish with fresh stock than use old.
– sweet potatoes. They look ugly but these are just the most wonderful veg.
– leeks. Always choose the firmest. You can use these in virtually every meal.
– celeriac. Horribly nobbly and quite scented but a great taste addition. Go easy with them.
– parsnips. Subtle taste.
– celery. Not my favourite raw but a great accompaniment.
– butternut squash.
– onions. I like to have some red onions as they’re a bit sweeter-tasting and shallots.
– mushrooms. Have a selection. White button are fine but lack a bit of taste. Try chestnut and some of the more fragrant challenging-looking varieties.
OK armed with this stuff there’s a bundle we can cook. But for a first menu let’s try a simple winter veg soup. First of all peel the veg you’d most like to include. I kind of like to use baby potatoes occasionally as they maintain a firmness through boiling. Just scrub them clean and slice off any bad bits. No real need to peel. Slice up into a pan of water. Add peeled and sliced carrots, turnip, celeriac and swede. Make sure of a decent covering of water – it’ll seep away through boiling and absorption. Add some parsnips, sweet potato and squash with all skin removed of course. The squash will be hard to peel and will also have piles of seeds in the middle which you need to remove like a melon. It’s worth it though. Remember it’s not necessary to add a whole squash, just add a nice balance given the other ingredients.
A bit of celery and some leeks or onion all topped and tailed and outer skins removed in the case of the leeks or onions/shallots. Leek is always favourite in this type of soup. You could add some frozen peas or sweet corn from the freezer if you fancy or some lentils but it’s not necessary. It depends on how much substance you want. I like it chock full. Just let the stuff come to the boil and then turn down to a low gentle simmer. The lower the better I reckon.
Feeling OK? Have another glass mate. Some folks suggest you liquidise half the ingredients to create a more gloopy soup but I like it just boiled down. Don’t forget to ensure plenty of water as it will cook down. Seasoning? Up to you if you want to add salt, pepper etc at the boiling stage. I like to add some, C prefers to add it to taste once it’s in the bowl. Don’t over-season though.
It takes as long as it takes but we’re talking 30 minutes or so gentle simmering, maybe 40 on an oven like ours. Test the veg with a knife from time to time to see how cooked they are. The softer things like the parsnips and sweet potato will pretty much boil down to mushiness but that’s fine; the potatoes, carrots, celeriac etc will remain firmer for longer. Sample taste occasionally to ensure it’s just as you like it. That’s chef’s privilege as Nigella calls it. And who would argue with her? Think about Nigella eating off a spoon for a second, have a slug then return to the stove.
Always make too much rather than not enough. It’s great to tupperware up (new verb) and put in the fridge for the week-end after a walk, watching the kids playing soccer, trip to the park etc or to put in the freezer for later use. Fact is you can produce the stuff easily so why not consume fairly swiftly?
I’d serve it with some really chunky warmed bread, roughly broken. Keep it rustic, not too evenly sliced etc. Some foccaccia you’ve had in the freezer maybe or some fresh large baguettes. Some onion bread or sun dried tomato-infused would be perfect. Just have piles of it. It’s great when loads of friends are round. A fantastic firework’s night meal. Kids will start by saying they hate it but will love the simple basic nature of the meal and will tuck in. You’ll end up with none left and all the women will love your creativity. Promise. 8 people could eat like kings for less than a tenner – easy. Take another slug Gordon.