Jerusalem artichoke velouté

Many years ago, we grew some Jerusalem artichokes. I loved the flavour, but the knobbly little roots were such a pain to scrub and peel that it was a one-off experiment. But the other day I was shopping for Christmas in the wonderful covered market in Narbonne. Apparently progress has been made in selective breeding of Jerusalem artichokes. One stall had a box of oval pink topinambours about the size of new potatoes. No lumps and bumps! A plan was formed, and I bought half a dozen.

With my idea in mind I had a quick browse on and picked this simple recipe for its overwhelmingly favourable reviews; everyone who tried it gave it 5/5. An excellent choice: easy to do, and the flavour was exactly what I hoped for. I’m serving it in shot glasses garnished with small cubes of foie gras, as an amuse-bouche on Christmas day. If that doesn’t float your boat, you can garnish with shreds of crisp-fried prosciutto, Iberico ham, or bacon; shavings of truffle; or just a drizzle of truffle oil.
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Elizabeth David’s Christmas: potato, tomato and celery soup

An Elizabeth David book in the reserve collection? Yes, really! This was a Christmas present a few years ago, and I confess I’d forgotten I had it, so I pounced on it with a cry of delight. It was actually published posthumously; in her preface her editor Jill Norman says they’d discussed the concept off and on for years, but it never came to anything, so after Elizabeth’s death she was surprised to find a box with a pile of notes and clippings for the book, and even an introduction. So she pulled the material together and published it.

Many of the recipes are from ED’s other books, but it’s nice to have all these seasonal recipes in one place. Not that ED was much of a fan of the traditional British Christmas. She got bombarded with calls from friends and family asking how long to to cook the turkey or the pudding, or saying they’d lost the recipe for Cumberland sauce so could she give it them again — to the point where she printed a pamphlet of the most popular recipes and handed it out to them. Classic ED:

If I had my way — and I shan’t — my Christmas Day eating and drinking would consist of an omelette and cold ham and a nice bottle of wine at lunchtime, and a smoked salmon sandwich with a glass of champagne on a tray in bed in the evening.

What frenetic cook preparing for a family Christmas can’t empathise with that in the days leading up to “the Great Too Long”? It certainly makes a refreshing change from other Christmas cookbooks.

That being said, although there are token recipes for traditional Christmas food like mincemeat and Christmas pudding, much of the focus of this book is on simple but impressive small dishes that can be prepared ahead, pâtés and terrines that can be kept in the fridge for nibbling, and better-than-average ways of using leftovers (including one of my all-time favourite leftover dishes, émincé de volaille au fromage). And like all of ED’s books it is designed to be read for pleasure, not just to cook from. I happily spent an afternoon lounging on the sofa by the fire reading it while my untended bread dough bubbled over the edge of the pan.

Happily, the organic veg box provided all I needed for a simple soup of tomato, leek and celery. She writes “This is one of the most subtly flavoured of all these vegetable soups … a good soup with which to start the Christmas dinner.” It was indeed. Celery is something I don’t like as a vegetable, but as a herb it adds a nice peppery edge to soups and stews. My tail-end-of-season tomatoes weren’t the best, but they did the job — if I make it again at Christmas I’ll use tinned ones in preference to tasteless fresh ones (one day I’m going to start a campaign to ban the sale of fresh tomatoes between October and May).

Unfortunately, the box also contained parsnips, for the third week in a row. So I decided to give her cream of parsnips and ginger with eggs a go. I got as far as cooking and mouli-ing the parsnips and adding the ginger, and the result tasted so unutterably foul that I almost threw it straight in the bin. We just had soup and cheese and biscuits that evening. I don’t think I can blame Elizabeth David for this though — I just don’t like parsnips, and somehow mashing them makes them taste more parsnippy than just roasting would.

This book will definitely stay in my collection. And it’s a good Christmas gift for foodies as well, a reminder of how truly good food writing is impervious to fashion. So much so that the modish soft-focus photos that the publishers obviously felt had to be in any modern cookbook are entirely superfluous. Elizabeth David’s words are enough
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Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book: Curried Parsnip Soup

Curried parsnip soup

Following my last post about neglected cookbooks, I’m feeling a bit daunted by my reserve collection — I’ve just counted them, and there are 70 of them! I wouldn’t say Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book is “neglected” exactly — it sits on the living room shelves, not in the reserve collection — but it tends to only get pulled out when I need ideas for the contents of the weekly organic veggie box. Also I think it has been overshadowed by the plethora of TV chef books like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage Veg Every Day. While I’m sure they are excellent, Jane Grigson has stood the test of time and her books are still true classics. As I’m fond of repeating, she is a calm and reassuring kitchen companion whose recipes have the air of trusted family favourites. Most of them are not fancy, they rarely use exotic, hard-to-find, expensive ingredients, and they are generally easy to do. Jane isn’t really the place to go for exotic; most of her recipes are European, with particular emphasis on French and British cooking, along with a few Middle Eastern recipes.

The reason I got the book out today is because there were parsnips in my veggie box. I’m not a great fan of parsnips, and happily they are rarely seen in France. They are considered to be pig food, so you don’t see them in shops, and when you do they are referred to as légumes oubliés, with the implication that they are best forgotten. But I suddenly remembered Jane Grigson’s curried parsnip soup, which was all the rage in the 1970s. I haven’t cooked it for literally decades, but it is well worth reviving. Even parsnip-haters like me like it.

This book is ideal if you have a vegetable box delivered, or you grow your own, because it’s organised by vegetable, in alphabetical order from artichokes to yams. Simply flip it open to the one you’re having difficulty using up. Each chapter starts with a pretty line drawing of the vegetable in question (no fancy photos, this was the 1970s!) and a short discussion of its provenance, history and use. There are so many interesting snippets of information here, although parsnips were evidently a challenge to make interesting, since we learn here that Boris Pasternak’s name means “parsnip”.

Then there’s a “How to choose and prepare” section that gives general advice. And finally a selection of recipes. The parsnip chapter is one of the more limited chapters — buttered parsnips, creamed parsnips, the famous soup, a couple of gratins, and a soufflé — but for more versatile vegetables you are spoilt for choice. She often gives a few variations or other ideas — for example at the end of the leek chapter she suggests preparing small ones in the same way as cauliflower à la grecque, which I duly did, and very nice they were too. With all these resources, I rarely fail to find something that at least gives me an idea for a dish, even if I don’t follow her recipe exactly. It’s not a vegetarian book, but meat plays a very minor role here.

At the end, there’s an appendix, which I’d actually never looked at until today. It tells you how to prepare various classic French vegetable mixtures such as mirepoix and julienne, and also includes a whole raft of classic sauces, from the common (bechamel, mayonnaise) to the more unusual (skordalia, Balkan walnut and garlic sauce). Then there are a few recipes for stuffing, a pancake batter recipe, and, oddly, a recipe for pitta bread on the grounds that they can be stuffed with vegetables. So it really is a compendium of vegetable cookery, for anyone from a beginner to an expert, and a great companion for any frugal cook.

Her Fruit Book is arranged along the same lines and is equally wonderful, if not more so, since it includes the recipe for Best British Pudding Ever, Springfield pear cake. It’s no coincidence that reviews of Jane’s books on Amazon always include at least a couple saying “I bought this because my old copy fell apart from constant use”.
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Vintage Feasts: Eliza Acton

The Best of Eliza Acton

It was Eliza who inspired me to try the vintage feast idea in the first place, so I don’t know why I’ve waited so long. The official “challenge” is over, but I like these old cookbooks so much that I have decided to continue an occasional series.

The book I have is an old Penguin, The Best of Eliza Acton, published in 1968, edited by Elizabeth Ray and with a foreword by … who else? Elizabeth David. You can’t read much Elizabeth David without discovering that she and Eliza are kindred spirits. Jane Grigson drew on Acton heavily for her English Food, and both she and David clearly thought more highly of Eliza than of the better-known Mrs Beeton.

Modern Cookery for Private Families was published in 1845, when Eliza was 46, and stayed in print for over 50 years. This 350-page paperback holds only a fraction of the hundreds of brief, precise recipes the original book must have contained. Her crisp prose, sharp asides, and succinct instructions that assume the reader is already a competent cook cannot fail to recall Elizabeth David, so it’s hardly surprising the latter admired her so much : “Over and over again,” she writes, “I have marvelled at the illuminating and decisive qualities of Miss Acton’s recipes.” Discussing the fact that Acton was eclipsed by later inferior writers, David suggests that it was because she was “a child of the eighteenth century …. living in the manner and writing of a style of English domestic life already doomed.” And she concludes, “Temporary eclipse has often been the fate of great innovators. In a way it is posterity’s compliment to genius.” And similarly, when the Jamies and Nigellas of this world have been and gone, Elizabeth David will still be with us.

So after all that, what about the food? I was spoilt for choice here. All sorts of things tempted me: fried potato ribbons, which sound very much like rather fantastical potato crisps, cut in long spirals; jumbles; cheesecake with no cheese in it; the famous cabinet pudding. In the end I went for a very simple menu.

To start: carrot soup. Eliza has two basic recipes for this, but follows them with a recipe for a variation: “Buchanan carrot soup (Excellent)”. With that recommendation, how could I not try it? It was delicious, deep orange with a zing from the curry powder, making it much more successful than Ruth Lowinsky’s bland 20th-century version. My only criticism was that I don’t particularly like the texture of cooked rice in my soup; when I reheated the leftovers for lunch, I liquidised it. Next up: Chicken Burdwan, which with a few adjustments could well become a regular standby for using up leftover roast chicken, and is an “Indian” dish that would certainly appeal to French people. It’s a feast of 18th-century flavours.

For dessert, I found the potato pudding irresistible. Years ago we were served a dessert of tiny dishes of impossibly smooth potato puree flavoured with vanilla at my then-favourite restaurant, Les Feuillants in Céret (sadly now gone). It was fantastic, and potatoes are my favourite vegetable, so I was certainly prepared to try another potato dessert. Of course it was nothing like that creamy dish at les Feuillants, but it did seem strangely familiar. After a couple of spoonfuls I realised it was very like the bottom part of a Queen of Puddings. So next time I want to make Q of P and don’t have any stale bread, I might use potatoes instead.

All of these were dishes I’d happily make again, so this is the best vintage feast so far. My adapted recipes for all three follow.
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Celeriac soup with bouillabaisse seasonings and rouille toasts

I have to concede that this can’t be called bouillabaisse because it has no fish in it. But the wonderful richness of flavour rivals a real bouillabaisse, and it looks gorgeous too. Nadine Abensur is a genius to think of replacing the fish with celeriac, whose sweetness complements the spiciness of the soup perfectly (I think parsnip could be another option here). Although it’s “just” a soup, it makes a light main course; this quantity will serve 3 or 4. Sorry, no photo because the ones I took were so awful. But it’s a lovely brick-red colour, just like the real thing — and a lot cheaper 🙂

The ingredients list looks long and daunting. But almost all of them are storecupboard ingredients or basics you are likely to have on hand anyway. And it’s an excellent idea to make it in advance. I cooked it completely several hours beforehand, then left it to sit and mature before liquidising part of it and reheating. The rouille, a spicy form of mayonnaise, takes minutes if you have a stick blender.

This recipe is from Nadine Abensur’s excellent Cranks Bible. If you remember the ghastly wholemeal stodge Crank’s used to serve in the 1970s, it’s nothing like that. As this recipe demonstrates, the recipes are imaginative and heavily influenced by Abensur’s French and North African background. If you like Ottolenghi’s Plenty, you’ll like this, and I highly recommend it if you are vegetarian, cook for vegetarians, or just fancy meatless meals every now and then. You’ll probably have to search for a second-hand copy, but it’s worth seeking out.
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Roasted squash soup with spiced crème fraîche

roasted squash soup with spiced crème fraîche

Our veggie box had two huge chunks of bright orange pumpkin in it this week. I don’t particularly like pumpkin, but one thing I do know about squash is that the first thing you should do with it is cut it into chunks and roast it to get rid of most of the water. So into a 200C oven it went, and I used FoodBlogSearch to search for “roasted squash”. Lots of ideas, but this recipe fitted perfectly with the ingredients I had to hand. “Almost vegetarian” is a good description of me too.

Wow! It tasted wonderful — on the basis of this recipe alone I might buy the book it came from, The Flexitarian Table: Inspired, Flexible Meals for Vegetarians, Meat Lovers, and Everyone in Between by Peter Berley, despite the stupid title. The flavour was warm, sweet and spicy, perfect for a chilly autumn evening, it was a lovely deep brick-red, and the blob of spiced cream added a nice contrast. It is one of the best soups I have ever made.

Assuming you have roasted squash on hand it’s easy to make, but even if you don’t, you can put the squash in the oven while you get on with other preparation; I cooked the onions and made an apple crumble for pudding while it was roasting.

I adjusted the recipe slightly; I’m not keen on sage or cloves, so I left them out and used a bay leaf and 4-épices instead. I had some excellent chicken stock from the weekend roast chicken, so I used that, but of course vegetable stock can be used instead.
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Creamy vegetable soup and plum crumble

Creamy vegetable soup

I had to take a break from Taste & Create over the summer, because I knew I just wouldn’t have time for it. Now I’m back, paired with Carol of No Reason Needed. Carol likes lemons, so is obviously a kindred spirit. But in the end, I decided to skip over the many lemon-based recipes and go for a simple, homely soup, in order to use some of the veg from our organic box. As the weather is getting a bit cooler, it made a nice supper with some good bread, followed by plum crumble and custard.

I made a few slight tweaks to Carol’s recipe. It makes a lot of soup — enough for at least 6-8 servings — so there’s plenty left to freeze for later in the winter. Thickening soup with rice is a first for me — it worked well, but actually I like the taste and texture of potato in soup so much that I think I’d go back to potato next time. I only used half the specified amount of rice, because I’d nearly run out of rice, but the soup was still quite thick. And I added some spices.
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Roasted red pepper soup

roasted red pepper soup

Taste & Create beckons once more! This time I am paired with Sweatha of TastyCurryLeaf. I hastened directly to her blog hoping to find something I could cook for dinner that evening and was immediately rewarded.

Her blog is very interesting; it’s clear that her background is Indian (so lots of yummy-looking Indian recipes) but she lives in the US so the Indian food is interspersed with an eclectic mix of American, Italian, and other cuisines — she seems very adventurous in her cooking. In addition, although she doesn’t specifically mention it, she’s clearly vegetarian, so that made it attractive too. Even on a quick glance I could see there were plenty of good candidates. But for that evening I kept it simple: roasted red bell pepper soup, using easily available ingredients. I love the flavour of roasted red peppers so it looked worth a try.

I don’t make soup as often as I should, given how good home-made soup is, and this was a reminder of how quickly you can whip up something good. I didn’t follow the recipe exactly; Sweatha says to thicken it with cornstarch, but I felt this was unnecessary and would affect the fresh flavour, so I left it out. I also didn’t use coriander leaves, because a) I don’t like them, they taste of soap to me and b) they are nearly impossible to find here anyway. I used ground coriander seeds instead. For added spice I used my infamous Scotch Bonnet-infused chilli sherry. This lives in the larder, well away from the drinks cabinet and with a large warning notice affixed to it. A teaspoon is enough to add pizazz to anything. And finally I used crème fraîche instead of ordinary cream, because it tastes nice!

This is not the only recipe I’ll try from her blog, since this T&C runs for two months — I might even try some of her simple Indian dishes. I love good Indian food, and when I was a student in London I often cooked Indian meals — it was easy to get the ingredients there, and it lends itself to cheap but excellent vegetarian feasts. Now I never cook it, because I think you need to do it regularly to get it right, and it is more difficult to find the ingredients you need here. So I just have to wait for visits to the UK to pig out in Indian restaurants!
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Salad soup

From this:

The raw materials: salad

to this:

The end result: salad soup

This bold experiment is the result of a discussion about what to do with left-over dressed salad. Normally it just gets thrown away, but I remembered reading about someone using it to make gazpacho. I though this sounded disgusting. But last night we had 14 people for dinner, and we made a huge fattoush salad: lettuce, onions, yellow pepper, tomatoes, cucumber, and mint, with toasted diced pitta bread thrown in at the last minute.There was so much I didn’t have a bowl big enough, so I made it in my huge stockpot, and although we ate a lot there was a lot left over.

Given that it was in the stockpot, why not try it? So here is … left-over salad soup!

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I love real Italian cooking and don’t do nearly enough of it. Many traditional Italian recipes not only taste good but have the benefit of being vegetarian or nearly so, and not too fattening.

I expect there are as many versions of the Tuscan soup ribollita (reheated soup) as there are cooks. This is based on Ursula Ferrigno’s recipe in Bringing Italy Home, and I like it because it’s vegetarian. If you are a confirmed carnivore, you could easily add a ham hock or some bacon. As the name suggests, it’s best reheated the day after you make it.

Vegetables can be varied according to taste and availability. I’m sure in Tuscany it always has cavolo nero in it, but you can’t get that here, so I always use dark green Savoy cabbage.

Oil: you must use the best you can get for drizzling over the top; you can get away with slightly less good for the cooking, but it should be extra-virgin.

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