Sunday, 13 January 2008

La Reine du Potage

Although my diet of late would be appropriate for a toothless crone (or a prison inmate not allowed sharp objects), my soup obsession shows no sign of abating. Today I made two batches destined for the freezer: a orange-infused tomato broth full of chickpeas and carmelized fennel, and a roasted pumpkin soup laced with cinnamon and smoked paprika. And I've lined up the ingredients for a mid-week fix: a recently rediscovered classic of coconutty sweet potato lifted out of saccharine sweetness by a lashing of curry paste and lime.

For a solo supper, a brimming cafe au lait bowl full of hearty soup, accompanied by a good quantity of bread and cheese--and, most nights, a glass or two of wine, feels like the right choice more often than not. It can be eaten while reading, incurs limited mess, but is sufficiently homespun to feel simultaneously comforted and virtuous. It helps--and I would hesitate to say to make a similar claim about any other area of my cooking--that I make damn good soup.

From time to time--usually after I've eaten yet another mediocre bowl from a cafe or deli--I cultivate a little fantasy of opening a small-scale soup business of my own. With little more than a giant soup pot or two and my handy £10 stick blender, I imagine, I could supply a few local venues and begin to make a name for myself as "La Reine du Potage"--the Queen of Soup.

For now, though, the business plan hasn't progressed further than napkin scribblings of the weekly choices I would offer my customers: carrot and fennel, mushroom and barley, chickpea and chorizo, borscht, and, in warmer seasons, chilled courgette and basil soup. But the combination of chilly weather, my barely functional oven, and the unfortunate distance of a partner who believes that even la bonne potage does not a meal make, likely means that for the next few months, soup will continue to be on the menu. I'll let you know how I get on.

The Sicilian-style chickpea soup could still use a bit of tweaking, perhaps a bit of fennel seed and a touch of chili flakes. But the pumpkin, which I simplified from a recipe in the newest Moro cookbook, is ready for the masses. The original calls for topping the soup with browned butter, toasted pine nuts and seasoned yogurt. I skipped the former this time (though it's worth browning butter at some point, if only for the unctuous smell), and seasoned my yogurt with dried coriander and paprika instead of cinnamon. The only pumpkin currently available in my market is a huge, ridged variety called a muscade; kabocha would probably be a good substitute. Though I'm partial to the original seasoning, I think it could adapt to a Tex-Mex combination of chipotle, lime, sour cream and pumpkin seeds, or a classic French trio of fresh thyme, creme fraiche and toasted walnuts.

Roast pumpkin soup with cinnamon
Adapted from Moro East
2-3 large servings
Total time: 1 ¾ hours Active time: 30 minutes

1 pound peeled and seeded pumpkin
Olive oil
1 medium onion
1 or 2 cloves garlic
1 medium potato
Vegetable or chicken stock to cover
Pinch smoked paprika
Cinnamon stick
Greek yogurt
Pinch coriander
2 tbsp pine nuts

Preheat oven to 220®C (425 F). Toss pumpkin with olive oil, salt and pepper and pour into a roasting tin large enough to fit the vegetable in a single layer. Roast for approximately 1 hour, or until the pumpkin is very soft and caramelised in spots.

After the pumpkin has been in the oven for 40 minutes or so, heat a thin film of oil in a saucepan on medium heat. Chop onion and cook gently until it is soft and golden, about 15 minutes. Chop garlic and potato and add, along with paprika, cinnamon, salt and pepper. Cook for a few minutes, stirring to ensure the garlic doesn’t burn. Add pumpkin and stock and bring to a gentle simmer. Cook until the potato is fully soft, about 20 minutes.

While the soup is simmering, lightly toast pine nuts in a dry pan or warm oven. In a small bowl, mix a few tablespoons of yogurt with coriander, paprika and salt to taste. When vegetables are fully cooked, allow the soup to cool slightly, then puree, ideally with an immersion blender. Season and serve topped with pine nuts and yogurt.

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