Nigel Slater: Ladles Night

I have got into the habit of making stock with the remains of the roast chicken, and whilst it lacks the bland limpid quality of that made from a plump, raw bird, it is good enough for a Monday evening soup. A pale, glowing amber from the addition of an unpeeled onion or two and made interesting with a couple of tomatoes, a stick of celery and a carrot, it is still tastier than anything you can buy in a jar, a cube or a powder.

I have eaten out an unusual three times this week (Spain 2, Italy 1) with the result that pretty much all I have had at home is hastily thrown together soups that will keep me going till dinner time: a quickly made pot thick with softened onions and Madeira; a velvety artichoke veloute with a scattering of toasted walnuts and a cold weather main course soup of beans and tarragon. That last one being the result of chucking together a tin of organic cannellini and some of the aforementioned stock. Thick and aniseed-scented, it came from the 'what-the-hell-can-I-eat-tonight' school of cookery.

Given the fact that so much restaurant food seems to be richer than anything you might make at home, all my soups were made without cream, whilst still being sustaining. The stock has been invaluable. The bean soup is new and relies very much on a decent stock - it would be insipid without a richly flavoured broth at its heart - but the artichoke soup is a long-standing favourite.

The third soup was a clear onion one brought on partly to get through the Madeira that I bought at Christmas and partly to make a hole in the onion mountain that has appeared in the vegetable rack. I know the commercial soups are getting better, but they still can't hold a candle to something you make at home. Something to dish out to the family by the big ladleful or simply to eat standing in the kitchen, something to keep you going until some good looking guy in a white shirt hands you a menu.

Cannellini bean and tarragon soup

Proper stock is essential here. Serves 4

2 medium-sized onions

2 cloves of garlic

2 tbsp olive oil

2 x 400g cans cannellini beans

1.5 litres good chicken stock

A small bunch of tarragon leaves

To serve:

Approximately half a baguette

A good fruity olive oil

Peel the onions and garlic and roughly chop them, then let them cook with the olive oil in a heavy-based pan over a moderate heat. Stir occasionally; you want them to be honey coloured and soft, but far from browned. Empty the beans into a colander and rinse thoroughly. Stir them into the onions then pour in the stock, season, then let them simmer gently for 20 to 25 minutes.

Roughly chop or tear the tarragon, then add to the soup. Continue simmering whilst you slice the baguette into eight thick slices, then toast each piece. Place a couple of slices of toast into each bowl them drizzle them with olive oil, check the soup for seasoning and ladle over the toasts.

Artichoke soup with ginger and walnuts

This tastes creamy and rich with only the smallest amount of butter and no cream in it. Serves 4-6.

2 large leeks

40g butter

4 medium sticks of celery

400g Jerusalem artichokes

1 litre light stock or water

Small bunch of parsley

For the spice-mix:

1 tsp coriander seed

30g shelled walnuts

30g lump fresh ginger

4 tsp groundnut oil

Discard the toughest leek leaves then cut the tender white and palest green flesh into thin rounds. Rinse thoroughly to remove any trapped grit then add them with the butter to a heavy saucepan. Cook over a low to moderate heat for 15 to 20 minutes till they are soft enough to crush between your fingers yet not coloured.

Once they have started to soften, you can finely slice and add the celery, then peel and chop the artichokes and stir them in too. Cover the pot with a lid so the vegetables sweat and soften without colour, then pour in the stock and bring to the boil. Turn the heat down so that the soup bubbles gently and partially cover with a lid. It will take about 25 minutes for the artichokes to become truly tender.

Grind the coriander to a fine powder with a pestle and mortar then add the walnuts, mashing them briefly to a pulp. Peel the ginger and slice it thinly then cut into thin matchsticks. Warm the oil in then fry the ginger for about 30 seconds till it is golden and crisp. Toss in the crushed walnuts and coriander, let them sizzle briefly, then tip on to kitchen paper. Blitz the soup through a liquidiser or mouli, stir in the chopped parsley and check the seasoning. The soup should be mild and almost nutty tasting. Ladle into bowls and top with the ginger spice mix.

Onion soup with Madeira and Gruyere toasts

Serves 4

A good thick slice of butter

3 large Spanish onions, peeled and sliced

2 bay leaves

250ml white wine

2 tbsp flour

1 litre chicken stock

3-4 tbsp Madeira

12 slices of sourdough bread

75g Gruyere, thinly sliced

Melt the butter in a heavy-based saucepan, add the sliced onions and the bay leaves and let them cook, without colour, over a medium heat. You want them to be soft and slightly sticky, which will take a good 25 minutes. When they are ready, stir in the flour, cook for a minute or so then pour in the white wine and then the stock, bringing it to the boil. Season with salt and black pepper. Turn the heat down so that the soup simmers for 30 minutes. Add the Madeira and continue simmering for 5-10 minutes.

Toast the bread on one side then cover the other with the sliced Gruyere. Check the soup for seasoning then spoon into oven-proof bowls. Float the slices of bread on top and place briefly under the grill till the cheese has melted.


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