Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Smoky Soothing Soup

Soup has to be one of the best foods on the planet.  It's warm, comforting and a fantastic way to use up food in your fridge or cupboard that might be on its last legs.  Today, I have a whole pile of carrots in my fridge.  They're not quite soft and squishy, but they're heading that direction.  Thing is I'm not a massive fan of carrot soup.  Usually, I find it a bit insipid, a bit watery and boring.  Teaming carrots up with ginger or coriander helps, but it's still not top of my list of favourite soups.

So, just before lunch I considered all the ingredients I had to hand and figured what I was really looking for was depth of flavour with a comforting, rich smokiness.  Smoked paprika is my 'go-to' spice for that particularly deep flavour.  So much tastier than bog-standard paprika.  I've also been caramelising onions for lots of different recipes lately and thought, yup...caramelised onions, smoked paprika and carrots might just do the job.  I had also defrosted a litre of home made chicken stock yesterday, which would provide lovely rich flavour.

From a nutritional perspective this soup kicks some serious butt.  Carrots are rich in beta-carotene (hence the colour) and are fantastic for protecting your blood vessels from damage.  Beta carotene also improves eye health, particularly protecting the macula densa from free radical damage and reducing the risk of macular degeneration.  Home made chicken stock is full of lovely nutrients, particularly those residing in the bones of the chicken like silica, calcium and boron, important for bone health.  The fats in the stock will also help to absorb the beta-carotene.  I added half a bulb of garlic, which is rich in Allicin, wonderful as a flu & cold fighter and also remarkably good for probiotic bacteria in your gut.

Making the soup was easy peasy.  I began by slicing 2 medium brown onions and cooking them over a low heat with a little butter to caramelise.  It took about 30 mins in total, which might seem like ages, but they cook away happily without much interference, apart from the odd stir, so it's easy to work on other things while they're getting sweet and chewy.  Once they were beginning to colour and starting to stick to the saucepan, I added 2 tsp of smoked paprika and gave everything a stir.


If, like me, it drives you completely spare that those tall spice jars are too narrow for a standard teaspoon, then I highly recommend you invest in a set of measuring spoons.  I have a lovely 'Nigella Lawson' set that I bought years ago and they are some of my most used implements.  The 1/2 teaspoon fits those annoying jars beautifully and means I don't end up shaking half the jar into whatever I'm making.  Anyway, that's an aside...


Once the onions and paprika were mixed, I added the stock and some water, about 1.5l in total, about 750g carrots chopped into chunks, roughly the same size (unpeeled if organic) and half a bulb of garlic, cloves peeled and finely chopped.  Then I brought everything to the boil and reduced the heat,  simmering until the carrots were soft, about 15 minutes.  The final job was to blend til smooth.  I used an immersion blender, which saved me from transferring everything into a jug blender.  If you are using a jug blender, give the soup time to cool a little.  Boiling hot soup and glass don't always make the best of friends, so play it safe.

Season with salt and pepper to suit your own taste and serve!  If you have some bacon fry it up, chop into pieces and sprinkle on top, or as I did, crunchy onion bits (a favourite here in Sweden)  I don't bother making these myself, in fact, it was Mountain Man who picked them up originally, but these organic ones from COOP aren't bad, no nasty weird ingredients and pretty tasty.  Try it out and let me know how you get on...

Monday, February 10, 2014

Sometimes luxury is the only answer.

A few weeks ago, I was wandering down one of the prettier streets in Lund and a window display caught my eye.  I can't even remember what shop it was, but written in the window were the words;

Luxury must be comfortable, otherwise it's not luxury ~ Coco Chanel

It got me thinking about the good things in life and what makes them so good.  Why does luxury soothe us so?  Does it have to be expensive?  Can everyone experience it, even if our pockets are empty?  I think so...I think Coco Chanel was right, it has to be comfortable, otherwise it's just posing.  I think luxury, for most of us, is also something that we don't experience on a daily basis.  It can be as simple as having some time to yourself, or sitting quietly with a good book and a cup of tea, or treating yourself to lunch when the weather is so horrific you just want to go to bed and cry. Maybe too, luxury is really 'felt' when what precedes it has felt far from luxurious.

Early last week, Mountain Man and I decided to go for a drive along the south coast of Sweden, east of Ystad (yes, home of Wallander) to the famous Ales Stenar.  We picked a pretty awful day for it, but we really wanted to get out into nature, so we persisted.  The densest fog I have ever seen descended on us as we drove, getting thicker and more depressing the closer we got to Kåseberga, where the famous 'Ales Stenar' are.  For some reason, fog lights aren't popular here, so driving safely felt like a Herculean task.  Eventually we made it to the stones, a megalithic monument, in the shape of a ship where a Viking king is reported to have been buried.  Not as magical or mysterious as I had hoped...

Finding our way through a sleepy, foggy village and icy, snow-laden fields, we spent a few minutes there, but felt so cold and glum that the only solution was a hot bowl of soup somewhere local before heading home.

In Ireland, even in the middle of nowhere in Winter on a miserable day, you will always find a
pub/grocery/post-office that will serve a hot toasted sandwich or bowl of soup to a weary traveller.  If you're really lucky there will be a roaring fire to thaw you out before hitting the road again.  In Sweden, there is no such tradition as far as I can tell.  The little village of Kåseberga felt like a ghost town, not a single shop was open.  There were cafes and art galleries, all closed until Easter when the 'season' begins.  We wandered around the frozen harbour, hunting unsuccessfully for something warm to eat and finally gave up and headed home.

On the road to Lund, we passed a sign for 'The Lodge', somewhere we had passed on a previous afternoon spent mountain biking.  Surely, this place would be open?  We took a chance and headed off the main road for a few km, following a farm track into a beautiful wooded area and parked.  A row of Audi estates in the car park gave us hope of some much needed luxury.  As we approached we saw this sign and nearly cried with relief.

A roaring fire greeted us as as one of the staff confirmed that we could still order food.  We sank into a comfy squishy sofa and began to thaw out...

We ordered soup and a salad, the soup sounded really odd, but I didn't care.  It would be hot and turned out to be amazing...a rich smoky tomato soup with juicy chargrilled chicken sitting in the middle of it.  WOW.  I don't think I've ever tasted soup like it.  I thought I had ordered half a portion of soup and half a portion of caesar salad, but somehow a 'räkor' or shrimp salad arrived.  I don't know how it could be called a half portion as it was huge and as a Swedish tradition, I figured it was probably about time I tried it.  I'm so glad I did, yet another resounding WOW.  Super fresh, gorgeous dressing, amazing sweet rye bread.  Yum yum.  Such a happy hungry cailín.

So, I think for me last week, this was luxury.  It wasn't particularly expensive, but the service was perfect, the food was fresh, locally sourced and delicious.  The sofas were comfy.  The toilets were clean with those lovely towelling squares to dry your hands on (pure luxury!)  We finally peeled ourselves out of the sofa and reluctantly headed back to the car, refreshed and happy.

How do you define luxury?  

Sunday, February 2, 2014

How to face a grey day...tea of course!

In Ireland, there's very little that a cup of tea can't fix.  In fact, if tea can't resolve it, then it really must be serious...  I don't drink black tea and never have, my tea drinking habits (or lack of) have always been a matter for suspicion among most Irish Mammies.

I might not drink 'normal' tea, but I do drink herbal teas and even some I make myself.  Today feels like a homemade tea morning; we haven't seen the sun in weeks, the snow has turned to slush, everything is wet
and grey and it's February!   I know, I know, technically it's Winter, but according to my internal calendar, the 1st of February is Spring.  In the Celtic tradition, February 1st is Imbolc, the feast day that celebrates the beginning of Spring, the lengthening days and the early signs of life after Winter.  The lighting of candles and fires represents the return of warmth and the growing power of the sun.  I trust that the sun is up there above the clouds, but today, I need some help from tea...and candles.

So, here is the easiest and most delicious lemon & ginger tea, perfect first thing in the morning as it stimulates your metabolism, fires up your liver and gives your digestive fire or 'agni' in ayurvedic terms, a kick in the bum.  Just squeezing the juice from lemons feels like an act of defiance on such a grey day and  as I lick the juice from my fingers, reminds me of sunnier climes.

What you'll need

  • A big teapot, with an internal strainer or a tea strainer to pour the tea through.
  • 1 tbsp of freshly grated ginger - if you have a microplane, it works a dream.  If you don't have any kind of grater, slice the ginger with a knife, but use more as it won't be as juicy.
  • 1 or 2 lemons, juiced
  • 1 tbsp local, organic (if possible) honey

Put the ginger, lemon juice and honey into the teapot.
Boil the kettle and fill the teapot (you can adjust the amount of ginger and lemon to suit your teapot, but this amount gave me 4 cups).
Stir to dissolve the honey.
Let the tea infuse for 10 minutes or so.
Light a few candles and an open fire if you're lucky enough to have one...and pour a cup of yummy tea.  It'll make you smile, I promise.