Friday, April 29, 2011

Lentil and Celeriac Soup


My birthday: a day of groceries and laundry and nothing particularly special, so I decided to take my youngest out for lunch. Minutes before we left the house, however, her eyes went wide. 'Nappy!' she yelled urgently, 'Now'!'; then proceeded to fill it in spectacular fashion. As I cleaned her up, I asked how she was feeling. 'Not so good,' she said, 'my tummy funny'. Should we go out, I asked. 'Maybe not,' she said, then, one finger raised to the ceiling and a broad smile on her face she said, 'I have an idea: we could have birthday lunch at home!'.

Such a stroke of brilliance from a two year old is rather touching, all things considered; and we stayed in. I read a few more stories and built a marble run, then we sat down to lunch at, as always, the back table. Happily, I had made lentil soup earlier in the week, and we had some good cheese. As I sniffed my soup, I reflected that being home for lunch, while mundane, could still be very pleasant indeed.

When I had made the soup, I was looking for the autumnal feel of lentils without heaviness. Rather than a spicy thick red slurry, I had imagined pretty slate-green lentils, which hold their shape so well, piled into a light broth. I added carrots for their sweetness, and celeriac for its light clean flavour; and after the vegetables had sautéed for a while I threw in a generous slosh of martini bianco and let it reduce.

Martini bianco is a sweet Italian vermouth, herbaceous with a hint of vanilla. Vermouth is a mixer, but as I have no head for strong martinis I mix it into soup, stew and risotto instead! Here, the sweetly herbal flavour cut through any tendency to heaviness. The soup ended up gentle, fragrant, and soothing; everything I could have wanted in a week of nippy mornings, sunny days and exciting nappy events!

Lentil and Celeriac Soup

- 1 brown onion
- 2 carrots
- 1 celeriac
- ¾ cup green Puy style lentils
- a bay leaf
- a decent slosh vermouth, preferably Martini bianco
- 4 cups or so water
- olive oil
- five or six stems of flat leaf parsley, chopped finely
- a hefty pinch of salt

Chop the onions finely. Warm the olive oil in a soup pot, and add the onions and a pinch of salt. Cook over medium heat while you chop the celeriac and carrots into small dice. When the onions are translucent, add the celeriac, carrots and bay leaf, and push them around with a wooden spoon until they are glossy. Add a slosh of vermouth (2 to 3 tablespoons), and let it reduce, which it will do almost immediately.

Add the lentils and the water, and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat to a gentle simmer, and let cook for half an hour. Taste for salt, remembering that lentils do need a good bit of salt, and cook for another ten to fifteen minutes, or until the lentils are just cooked. Puy lentils hold their shape; you are not looking for sludge.

Serve with a good sprinkling of freshly chopped parsley, and a swirl of olive oil.

This soup is delicious immediately. You can store it for a few days in the fridge, as did I, but the lentils absorb all the moisture and you will need to add more water each time you re-heat it, thus diluting the already light flavour; it was best on the first day.

(Local: onions, celeriac, carrots, lentils, bay leaf, parsley, olive oil. Not local: vermouth, salt, pepper.)

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Isaac Newton Apples

Late last year, some maths masters wrote about Isaac Newton, investigating and dismissing the myth that an apple fell on his head thus demonstrating the phenomenon of gravity to his observant mind. While the article was interesting enough, the mathematicians then claimed that the variety of apple named after the myth, the Isaac Newton, was awful to eat.

A few weeks ago, I was given a few bags of Isaac Newtons; and have discovered that the maths masters should stick to mathematics. While Isaac Newton apples are a coarse fleshed thick skinned rather uninteresting apple to eat raw, by God are they a cooking apple! When cooked, the flesh collapses and develops the deep scent of cloves. They are the finest cooking apple I have tasted, the sort which leave my family hanging around the stove desperately begging for another bowlful.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Mushroom & Chévre Tart

For the last week or so we've had a baby in the house, borrowed during working hours while one parent recovers from medical treatment and another is at work. It's been delightful to have her around and to be reminded what it was like with my own little ones: mornings of little toes and baby smiles; afternoons of bottles and naps – and evenings cooking dinner with baby in the sling.

For those of you in blissful ignorance, I'll let you in on a secret: most babies – and kids – get grizzly at the end of the day, about four o'clock to be precise. Those of us in the know call it the witching hour or, if things are really bad, arsenic hour.

There are alternatives to poisoning, however. You can leave the baby to scream in its cot; you can plop the kids in front of the telly. But really, children want physical affection and attention; and babies want to be held; and of course everyone wants this right about the time you start thinking about dinner. Screaming babies, fighting kids, tired mum and knives; it's enough to drive you to drink.

But on a good day, you plan ahead. Soon after lunch during quiet time, while everyone sleeps or reads, you make a pastry crust and slip it into the freezer to firm up; you fry up a heap of mushrooms.

Closer to dinner time, while baby snoozes in the sling, head nestled into your chest, and your other kids are quietly squabbling, all you need to do is extend your arms as far as you can reach and grate a pile of cheese, beat some eggs, and assemble a tart. Pop it in the oven, collapse into your favourite chair, and read a heap of stories to babies and toddlers alike. Fifty minutes later, dinner is served and you are officially a wonder woman! Congratulations!

If you're really lucky, you'll even have enough leftovers to reheat the next night, necessitating the construction of nothing but a salad – and the seven year old can do that.

Mushroom Tart

For the pastry:
- 120g flour
- 50g unsalted butter
- up to 3 tbs water
- pinch salt

For the filling:
- 350 to 400g white mushrooms
- 150g chévre
- 150 cheddar
- 6 eggs
- 2 cups milk
- a few stems of thyme (optional)
- a sprinkling of pine nuts
- salt, pepper

Make the pastry: (This is exactly the same base as Onion Tart.) Place the flour, a pinch of salt and the butter in a food processor. Process for 30 seconds, or until the butter and flour are incorporated; there will be no loose flour flying around. Add the water a tablespoon at a time, and process for another 30 seconds to a minute or until the mixture resembles tiny soft pebbles.

Flour the bench and a rolling pin. Tip the pastry onto the bench, and gently form into a flat disc with your hands. Roll it out, rolling from the centre to the edge and turning 90 degrees between each roll, until it fits your dish. (Mine is 25cm in diameter.) Drape the pastry over the rolling pin and lift it carefully into the dish. Pat into place. Trim the edges. Place the dish into the freezer, and leave it there until you need it.

Slice the mushrooms and strip the thyme, if you're using it. Warm a swirl of olive oil in a wide skillet, and add the mushrooms, thyme and a pinch of salt. Cook over a brisk heat until the mushrooms have softened and are starting to turn golden. Add a grind of pepper, then turn off the heat and leave to cool slightly. (You can pause here and do something else for a few hours.)

Preheat the oven to 180°C.

Grate the cheddar. Beat the eggs, and whisk in the milk.

Remove the tart shell from the freezer. Sprinkle the grated cheddar over the base. Spoon the mushrooms evenly over the cheese; then coarsely crumble the chévre and tumble the pieces over the mushrooms. Gently pour the egg and milk into the dish. Strew pine nuts over the top, then slip into the oven for 45 minutes or until the top is puffy and there is a very slight wobble in the centre.

Leave to cool for five to ten minutes, during which time it will set further, before serving.

(Local: mushrooms, thyme, chévre, eggs, milk. Not particularly local: flour, butter, cheese, pine nuts, salt, pepper.)