Thursday, 4 February 2010

In praise of soup/an experimental mushroom soup recipe

I used to turn my nose up at the idea of soup for dinner. I saw it as a starter, a warm-up for real food. If I had it for my evening meal, I'd be hungry again in a couple of hours, I thought.

That was until New Year's Day, when I had my first ever hangover and the only way I could possibly face food was in pureed form. Gentle food to go easy on my head and stomach. When I arrived home on New Year's Day, I just about managed to make some squash, turnip and lentil soup and immediately felt slightly calmer.

Even when the hangover had gone, though, I still felt terrible for weeks afterwards. I realised this New Year terrified me like no new year had ever scared me before. Whereas I'd always thought of myself as being confident and bold, suddenly, instead of being excited by the future like normal, the idea made me feel really panicked. Every day I had foreboding in my stomach, a constant rumbling of dread. Before, it was rare my daily routine didn't feature some combination of chili, paprika, cumin or ginger, but now the thought of spicy food made my body and brain recoil in fear.

I couldn't face doing anything useful, so threw all my energy and spare time into obsessively making soup, throwing as many combinations together as I had around the kitchen, from carrot and pumpkin (a bit disappointing - the carrots completely overpowered the pumpkin) to broccoli, leek, potato and Stilton (you'd think this is too many good things in one meal, but it works!).

If I made a big pot on a Sunday evening, I could freeze or refridgerate it, thereby keeping myself in lunch and/or dinner for the rest of the week. Gradually, I realised I couldn't imagine eating anything but soup; I feel like I've barely eaten anything solid all year, only progressing a slight step up to mashed potato when I felt a bit braver. With the outside dark and prohibitively cold, what could be a better comfort food than a meal that can be eaten with a spoon and fingers (if taken with bread)?

I started to see soup-making as a creative act: it's got all the ingredients that go into a normal meal, but blended together to make something new. Things that are good by themselves are even better in close proximity with something else - there's nothing like apple in the company of pumpkin. I found myself daydreaming about new combinations whilst at work, which I rushed to fulfill when I got home.

Around the end of the month I started feeling better again. I introduced cumin to some pumpkin and apple soup (a few weeks previously, this would have been a matter of course; now it felt daring) and it was good. I was glad of the kick. I'm happy I rediscovered soup as it's nice to have a homecooked meal for lunch at work - and there's no chance I'm giving myself a hangover ever again.

Experimental mushroom soup

Serves three reasonably generously (I ALWAYS find that soup recipes feed far fewer people than they claim to. I am not going to lie to you - if you tried to feed four people with this amount of soup, they would probably all still be hungry).

Takes less than half an hour.

Just over 400g mushrooms (I couldn't decide which to buy. I spent a while looking at the closed cup type before deciding that they were a bit pale and polite looking and I wanted my soup to be a dark, speckly, satisfying colour. The large, flat variety looked more exciting - I love the pleated texture on their undersides and the contrast in colours between rock-coloured off-white and earthy, foresty brown . 400g was six of these.).
4-5 cloves of garlic, depending how much garlic you like (I generally feel like a meal isn't a real meal if it hasn't got any garlic in it)
Four tablespoons butter (or vegetarian/vegan equivalent.)
Four tablespoons flour
600ml milk (or vegetarian/vegan equivalent)
500ml vegetable stock
Up to about 200ml water
One and a half teaspoons lemon juice
Salt and pepper to season

Melt the butter in a large pan. Add the garlic, chopped, and mushrooms, chopped into cubes, and stir so they are all covered by butter (as much as is reasonably possible depending on the space in your pan). Fry on a low heat until they start to look cooked - ie, glossy and a darker colour than they were before you started.

Stir in the milk gradually and stir a few times.

Add the flour gradually and stir. Turn up the heat and the soup will thicken.

Add the stock gradually, stirring all the while. Add water if your soup is looking thicker than you want it to.

Add the lemon juice and stir in.

Using a hand blender, blend the soup until it is as smooth as you want it to be.

Add more water if desired.

Finely grate some nutmeg on top - not much, just a sprinkling, then stir in.

Season with salt and lots of black pepper.

Eat with lots of toasted, crusty bread and butter. I ate mine with a garlic and coriander naan as that was what I had in my cupboard. It was good, but French stick may have been even better.

Freeze or refrigerate the rest. If you want to make soup into a more substantial meal, add rice, couscous, pasta or, best of all, gnocchi when you're reheating it.

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