Bean Soup

The most important thing that has influenced my cooking abilities, that has pushed me to be more creative and helped me develop my skills in the kitchen, is refusing to throw things away. I don’t mean actual rubbish or anything that’s gone off, but just those extra bits of ingredients that don’t necessarily get used up easily. This has resulted in an interesting stash of random ingredients in my freezer, including breadcrumbs, fresh ginger, celery, egg whites, cooked bacon and, for some reason, half a lime.

One of the things I freeze is parmesan rinds, on the advice of Nigella Lawson in How to Eat. I also have a half-empty bottle of truffle flavour olive oil taking up room in the cupboard, so made use of both of them in some soup. I chose ‘Peasant Soup’, a recipe from Sophie Dahl’s Miss Dahl’s Voluptuous Delights. It’s essentially a basic bean soup, starting out with the usual chopped onions, garlic, celery and carrots, then adding beans, kale and cheese and stock. I substituted the kale for baby spinach, which worked pretty well.

I chucked the (defrosted) parmesan rind into the soup whilst it was cooking and was blown away by the difference it made to the flavour of the broth. I usually use stock cubes for soup-making, going for mid-range ones that have some flavour to them, but are obviously not as good as homemade stock. The parmesan rind (which should be removed before serving) added real depth to the soup, making the broth something to celebrate, rather than just a background note for the beans and vegetables.

As for the truffle flavour olive oil, I used some of it to cook down the vegetables before adding the liquid to the soup, but it didn’t seem to make that much impact on the flavour. I had better success using it to roast some diced potatoes for another meal. The flavour of the oil stood out a bit more in a simpler dish, and the potatoes were particularly tasty stirred into some scrambled eggs.

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The Ocean at the End of the Lane

I’ve been looking forward to reading Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane for a long time and it didn’t disappoint. It’s about childhood, memory and stories, and is one of those books that begs to be re-read so you can delve into the story further and (perhaps) figure it out more. On the back of the book, there is a quote from Gaiman summing up the book, in which he states that, ‘fundamentally, I hope, at it’s heart, it’s a novel about survival’.

I loved the way that food was represented as a real, tangible comfort in difficult situations. There are delectable and cosy descriptions of the food the protagonist eats:

      ‘I do not miss childhood, but I miss the way I took pleasure in small things,         even as greater things crumbled. I could not control the world I was in,                 could not walk away from things or people or moments that hurt, but I took         joy in the things that made me happy’.

The thing he takes joy in here is spotted dick and custard, an excellent example of the type of food he eats at the farmhouse, all of it typical British comfort food, roast dinners shepherd’s pies, steaming puddings with custard. These simple, small pleasures, enjoying these little things that make you happy, are such a crucial part of taking care of yourself properly. Treating yourself to good food is an excellent way in which to do that.

I also loved the way that the protagonist uses reading as an escape. When he’s in a stressful situation, he retreats into stories. This happens near the beginning of the book:

      ‘It was a warm spring day, and sunny, and I climbed up a rope ladder to the       lowest branch of the big beech tree, sat on it, and read my book. I was not             scared of anything when I read my book’

Similar situations happen throughout the novel – reading is an escape and a support for him, and it helps him survive. It shows, I think, the power and importance of stories, helping us make sense of the world around us and helping us to navigate complex situations outside of our control.

This is a rich novel, full of myth and meaning. I would heartily recommend it.

Cider Vinegar

I love classic French food. By this, I don’t necessarily mean the complicated chef-standard haute cuisine (although that is also delicious), but rather the bistro classics, the kinds of things you find in small restaurants in the middle of Brittany. I’m a huge fan of crêpes and galettes, their savoury buckwheat counterparts, and have always felt welcomed in these small restaurants, with their reassuring menus of magrets de canard and crème brulée.

When I was hunting for a way of using up some cider vinegar, I came across a recipe in Nigella Lawson’s How to Eat that I remember being drawn to about a decade ago when I first got the book, but never got round to making. Mackerel in cider is, according to Nigella, a culinary tradition from Normandy, and although I don’t recall eating this in France, the recipe reminded me so much of that sort of food. Normandy is, of course, a classic apple-producing region, and I associate it with tarte aux pommes, Calvados and, of course, cider.

This was a great recipe – quick enough to cook on a weeknight and a good way of making fish a bit more interesting than just frying it. You oven cook mackerel fillets in cider, then reduce the resulting cooking liquid in a pan, adding cream (or, to make it more authentically French, crème fraîche), with a squeeze of lemon juice to taste at the end. Rather than lemon juice, I substituted cider vinegar. This is a wonderful change to smoked mackerel – the strong-tasting fish stands up really well to the cider. It would be great served with crusty bread and some spinach to soak up the rest of the sauce. This was a fantastic reminder of the delights of regional French food.