Thoughts on ‘Soul Music’

‘The library didn’t only contain magical books, the ones which are chained to their shelves and are very dangerous. It also contained perfectly ordinary books, printed on commonplace paper in mundane ink. It would be a mistake to think that they weren’t also dangerous, just because reading them didn’t make fireworks go off in the sky. Reading them sometimes did the more dangerous trick of making fireworks go off in the privacy of the reader’s brain’.

Terry Pratchett, Soul Music

There are all sorts of reasons to read. I love reading books which are comforting and familiar, maybe ones written by authors I’m familiar with, in which I have a good idea of how the story is going to end. Then there are those books that I go back to again and again, like old friends, there to prop me up and provide the best kind of escapism. But the most exciting and invigorating books are those which cause metaphorical fireworks go off in my brain, when I’m introduced to new ideas, and new ways of looking at the world, when I’m surprised by characters or plots and when the stories trigger my own ideas and creativity. Needless to say, Pratchett’s works are some of the best examples of those kinds of stories.

Neep-a-Leekie Soup

Late January in Scotland means Burns’ night. From a catering point of view, this means haggis, neeps, tatties and whisky. For those who don’t know, ‘neeps’ is the Scots term for swede – the large turnip-like vegetable that goes orange when cooked. This year, we hosted a Burns’ night supper for a few friends, but overdid it a bit with the quantity of food. I can confirm that leftover haggis is delicious in a sandwich, making a filling and decadent lunch. But what do you do with an entire (leftover, uncooked) swede?

I always thought I disliked neeps, but have recently realised that it is the perfect partner for haggis. I love haggis – it is hearty, rich and heavily spiced – and the sweetness of mashed neeps provides the perfect counterpoint. When eaten on the same fork, they balance each other out beautifully. Rather than buying yet more haggis to eat with the leftover swede, I decided to turn it into a slightly spicy soup. This is essentially a variation on leek and potato soup, but the substitution of neeps for potatoes produces a bowlful of custard-coloured, creamy, spicy goodness. Perfect for lunch on a chilly Saturday.

Neep-a-leekie soup

One swede – approx 500g

Leeks – one large or two small

Vegetable or chicken stock – 1500ml

Chilli flakes – ¼ tsp, or to taste

Double cream – a couple of tablespoons

Slice the leeks and wash them in a colander. Place in a large pan.

Peel the swede carefully using a large knife – a vegetable peeler isn’t quite strong enough for the job. Chop into smallish chunks (approx 2cm dice) and add to the pan.

Add the stock to the pan with the chilli flakes, stir and bring to the boil. Cover, and allow to simmer for about 30 minutes, until the swede is tender.

Blend the soup. You will probably need to do this in two batches. Return to the pan, add the cream, reheat gently and serve.

For Valentine’s Day?

I love custard, but I’m not very good at making it. Making it from scratch is always a bit nerve-wracking if you have people over, but whenever I’ve tried to make it in advance and reheat it, it’s split. I decided years ago that custard powder was the answer. I know it isn’t comparable to proper homemade custard, but Bird’s is still delicious and is generally what we ate as children.

Therefore, I bought a large tub of custard powder. However, I don’t actually make custard all that frequently, so I’ve attempted to find a way of using it up. Nigella Lawson came to the rescue. About ten years ago, I bought Feast, which is one of my favourite and most-used cookbooks. It provides recipes for different sorts of feasts, including those with a religious connotation (Christmas, Passover) as well as the moments in everyday life that constitute feasts to be celebrated, such as breakfast and ‘Ultimate Feasts’. According to the recipes I’ve made, my favourite sections of this book are the Chocolate Cake Hall of Fame and Kiddie Feasts, so no surprises there, then.

I chose to make Custard Cream Hearts, a recipe from the Valentine’s Day chapter, placed there because Nigella thought no one would bother to make their own custard creams unless she fashioned them as hearts and suggested them as a Valentine’s Day gift. Given that I don’t have a heart-shaped biscuit cutter, I just cut them into squares and then ate most of them myself, rather than presenting them as a romantic gesture. She’s right though; they do taste much better than the packet version. They are basically two shortbread-y biscuits, made with a few tablespoons of custard powder added, sandwiched together with buttercream, also with custard powder added. Excellent with a cup of tea.