French Onion Soup

In the early 1970s I was posted by the Foreign Office to work at the British Mission to the UN in Geneva for 3 years.

A large number of ski resorts are located less than an hour and a half’s drive from Geneva, in the French Alps. Every Sunday morning in winter a gang of us from work would clamber aboard one of the buses which left from the main railway station. At six thirty sharp the bus would head off to a different ski station each week. It was still dark and most of us caught up on sleep on the way.

By nine o’clock, when the ski lifts opened, we were all geared up with our rented skis and boots and ready to hit the slopes. The ski club which organised these expeditions had a number of excellent instructors. On arrival at our destination we separated into 3 groups: beginners, intermediates and advanced. Some lied about their ability in order to get the better-looking instructors. It was great value with the bus and the full day lesson all included in the price.

At lunch time we met at a nominated bistro and queued up for one of the hot self-service meals. An early start and all that physical exercise meant we were ravenous. Hearty soups, pizzas, toasted cheese sandwiches and French fries, with or without steak, were all popular ways of replenishing the energy we’d expended in the morning. My favourite was the French Onion Soup. Hot spiced wine and hot chocolate were amongst the preferred beverages.

It took me a few goes to get this soup right. Making it a day or two in advance really improves the flavour.

1½ kilos onions, peeled and thinly sliced
60g butter and 1 Tbs oil
½ tsp sugar
1 tsp salt
3 Tbs flour
2 litres beef or chicken stock
½ cup dry white wine
Salt and pepper to taste
3 Tbs dry sherry or brandy
12-16 slices French bread sliced 2 cm thick (or 6-8 larger slices of bread)
300g coarsely grated Gruyere or other Swiss cheese

In a large heavy-bottomed saucepan, cook onions in butter and oil over low heat, stirring often and with a lid for about 15 mins, or until soft. Add sugar and salt and raise the heat to moderate. Cook for 30-40 mins, stirring often, or until deep golden brown. Add flour and cook, stirring, for 2-3 minutes. Add stock and wine slowly, stirring. Simmer, covered, for 30-40 minutes, stirring from time to time. Cool then refrigerate until ready to serve. Can be kept in the fridge for up to 3 days.

Reheat soup, adding sherry or brandy and salt and pepper to taste. Cover bread slices with grated cheese and grill until golden and cheese is bubbling. Ladle soup into 6-8 bowls and place one or two slices of the cheesy toast on each serving. This soup is best made a day or two before serving.

Serves 6-8

Minestrone

This traditional Italian soup is perfect for lunch or a light dinner in the cooler months of the year. Make a big pot at the weekend and serve it for lunch or dinner a couple of times through the week, or take some to work to reheat in the microwave.

There are as many recipes for minestrone as there are for bolognese sauce, so to a certain extent you can just use what you have on hand. Onion, garlic, carrot, tomato and celery are the basic essentials, while the other vegetables are mostly optional. If you have it in the fridge add it, but don’t make a special trip to the shops just to buy one zucchini or one potato.

In the minestrone I made for the photo I didn’t add any potato, zucchini, leek or spinach/cabbage. I did add frozen peas and the kernels from a cob of fresh corn which needed using up. The spiral pasta is bigger than the size I usually use in minestrone, but it’s what I had in the pantry. Vegetarians can just leave out the bacon.

Served topped with grated Parmesan and some crusty bread or toast, it’s guaranteed to warm the cockles of your heart, as my Irish grandmother used to say. In other words, it will give you a warm fuzzy feeling.

2 Tbs olive oil
1-2 onions, peeled and diced
1 leek, trimmed and diced (optional)
3-4 carrots, peeled and diced
2-3 celery stalks, diced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2-3 rashers bacon, diced (optional)
Kernels from 1 cob corn, or one zucchini, diced
2 cups frozen peas
2 cups shredded spinach or cabbage
1 large potato, peeled and diced (optional)
2 tsp dried oregano
2 tsp dried thyme
1 can cannellini beans, drained (or another bean)
2 x 400g cans tomatoes, whizzed in food processor
1 Tbs tomato paste
2 Tbs sherry (optional)
2 litres chicken or vegetable stock (or water + 2 stock cubes)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2-3 tsp sugar
200-250g small pasta
To serve:
Grated Parmesan cheese
Chopped fresh parsley

Heat olive oil in a large heavy-based saucepan, then add bacon and the diced vegetables, but not the frozen peas and spinach/cabbage. Cook, stirring often, for 10 minutes or until vegetables are al dente.

Add the rest of the ingredients, bring to the boil, then simmer until the pasta is cooked. Add more water as required and check for seasoning.

Serve the soup topped with grated Parmesan cheese and chopped parsley, with fresh bread or toast.

Keeps in the fridge for 4-5 days and improves in flavour. Add water as necessary on reheating, if the soup appears to be too thick.

About 8 servings

Mushroom and Mustard Soup

This soup is one of our favourites. If you have wild mushrooms growing where you live and you know they are edible, then this is a perfect way to use them. If not just buy some mushrooms, preferably the larger ones which are dark underneath and have more flavour.

500g mushrooms
100g butter
600 ml chicken or vegetable stock
4 Tbs dry sherry
2 Tbs Dijon mustard
300 ml thick cream
Salt and pepper to taste

Do not wash or peel mushrooms, just wipe and chop roughly. Melt butter in heavy pan and allow to brown. Add mushrooms and cook for a few minutes, stirring. Add stock and sherry. Bring to the boil and add mustard.

When cool enough to handle, blend the soup in a blender or food processor. Add cream and adjust seasoning. Can be made ahead to this point. Reheat the soup and serve with a swirl of cream on top.

Serves 8

French Onion Soup

When our kids were 5, 8 and 11 we took long service leave, rented a chalet in the French Alps and skied for three months.

Timewise it fitted in perfectly between a posting in Malaysia and a posting in South Africa. We bought a car in London after spending Xmas with my family and drove over, packed to the gunnels with ski gear. Our chalet was on the outskirts of Megève – large and comfortable with an open fire.

The kids had left school in Kuala Lumpur just before Christmas and  were due to start in Pretoria after Easter. We were worried they might get behind, but two adults playing schools with three children for a couple of hours each day meant they got ahead.

They had never been on skis, but by the time we left, they skied like demons, leaving us behind. When we were snowed in for a few days we played Monopoly, Scrabble and Mastermind. When large blocks of ice fell off the roof the kids built an igloo, with a little help from Matthew. We went ice skating and watched the annual husky dog races. Everyone has fond memories of that holiday.

Five year old David fell in love with snails. When we were back in Australia later that year he asked the waiter in a Pizza Hut “Do you have escargots?”  The waiter, looking somewhat puzzled, said: “What mate? We’ve got pizzas and salads here mate.”

Most days we had lunch in the chalet: deux baguettes with a selection of cheeses, cold meats and patés. Occasionally we stopped for lunch on the ski slopes, where onion soup was invariably on the menu.

1½ kilos onions, halved then thinly sliced
60g butter and 1 Tbs oil
½ tsp sugar
1 tsp salt
3 Tbs flour
2 litres beef or chicken stock
½ cup dry white wine
12-16 slices French bread sliced 2 cm thick
300g coarsely grated Gruyere or Emmental cheese
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
3 Tbs dry sherry or brandy

In a large saucepan, cook onions in butter and oil over low heat, stirring often and with a lid for about 15 mins, or until soft. Best to use a heavy-bottomed non-stick pan as there is a tendency to stick with this recipe.

Add sugar and salt and raise the heat to moderate. Cook for 30-40 mins, stirring often, or until deep golden brown. Add flour and cook, stirring, for 3 minutes. Add stock and wine slowly, stirring. Simmer, covered for 30-40 minutes. Cool then refrigerate until ready to serve – preferably overnight. Reheat, add sherry or brandy and salt and pepper to taste.

Top bread slices with grated cheese and grill until golden and cheese is bubbling. Ladle soup into bowls and place one or two slices of bread on each serving.

Serves 6-8

Chilled Beetroot Soup

Maggie and Richard served this delicious chilled soup when we were staying them last year in St Germain en Laye, on the outskirts of Paris.

Richard, who was chef that day, said the recipe came from Honey & Co. As per the recipe he garnished the soup with roasted yellow beetroot, diced and mixed with a crushed clove of garlic, chopped fresh oregano and a splash each of lemon juice and olive oil. This made a spectacular contrast. Unfortunately I didn’t have any yellow beetroot, so just used yoghurt and some chives as a garnish.

The original recipe says to roast the beetroots on a bed of salt, but as you’re going to peel them I decided this wasn’t going to make a huge difference to the end result. I just sprinkled them generously with salt before roasting.

This soup goes down a treat at a relaxed weekend lunch in late summer.

6-8 beetroot (a bit over half a kg)
2 tsp salt for sprinkling on the beetroot
2 cups plain Greek-style yoghurt
Between 1 and 2 cups cold water
1 tsp salt, or to taste
1 clove garlic, crushed (2 if small)
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tsp ground cumin
Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
3 Tbs olive oil
To serve:
Diced roasted yellow beetroot (optional)
Plain Greek-style yoghurt
Snipped chives

Preheat the oven to 200°C. Wash beetroot, but leave whole and unpeeled. Place on a baking tray lined with foil and sprinkle with salt. Bake for an hour or until tender. When cool enough to handle peel the beetroot. Grate very coarsely – a Magimix with a coarse grating blade makes short work of this.

Mix beetroot with remaining ingredients then chill until serving time. Add one cup of water first and see if it needs more. Serve garnished with a dollop of yoghurt and the yellow beetroot, if available.

Serves 4-6

Pumpkin Soup with Caramelised Pumpkin Seeds

It’s often the garnishes which make Yotam Ottolenghi’s recipes unique. This soup, with its unusual crunchy topping of caramelised pumpkin seeds, is no exception.

They can be used to garnish any soup and are a delicious addition to salads, so you might like to double or triple the recipe. They keep for a couple of weeks in an airtight container in the fridge.

Ottolenghi cooks the seeds in the oven, but I prefer to use a frying pan where I think you have more control. I have a bad track record of burning nuts and seeds in the oven.

You need about 750g of vegetables which can be all pumpkin, all carrot, or a combination of the two.

2 Tbs olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
550g pumpkin, cut into 2cm cubes
2 medium carrots, sliced
1 tsp saffron fronds or a pinch of saffron powder
1 litre vegetable stock
2 tsp grated orange zest
6 Tbs sour cream or crème fraîche
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
For the pumpkin seeds:
1 tbsp sunflower oil
60g pumpkin seeds
1 Tbs maple syrup or honey
½ Tbs soft brown sugar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 pinch cayenne pepper

Put the pumpkin seeds into a non-stick frying pan with the other ingredients. Stir over moderate heat for a few minutes, or until starting to colour. Cool. If they stick together it doesn’t matter as you can break them apart when serving.

Heat the oil in a heavy-based saucepan, add the onion then cook over high heat for a minute or so, stirring all the time. Reduce heat to low and cook for 10-12 minutes, stirring occasionally, until soft and golden brown, but not very dark. Add the pumpkin, carrot, saffron, stock and bring to the boil. Lower the heat, cover and simmer for 15 minutes, until pumpkin and carrots are almost tender. Add the orange zest and simmer for five minutes longer. When vegetables are thoroughly cooked, blitz the soup in a food processor or blender, or with a stick blender. Add extra water or stock if it is too thick. Season to taste.

Serve in soup bowls with a dollop of sour cream and a sprinkling of the caramelised seeds.

Serves 4

What to Eat in the Heat

The only place to be during a heatwave is inside, with the air conditioning going full blast.

While most people don’t feel as hungry when the weather’s stinking hot, you still have to eat. But who wants to turn on the oven or the hotplates with the temperature soaring over 40°, as it is in Canberra this week?

Here are a few ideas for delicious sustenance which involve minimum effort and no cooking.

Gazpacho is one of the ways they cope with hot weather in Spain. This is a cheat’s version which is made in a jiffy.

Or try this unusual Chilled Almond Soup which also comes from Spain and involves no cooking.

Buy a couple of salmon fillets (boned and skinned) and make Gravlax which “cooks” in the fridge and is absolutely delicious served with sweet mustard sauce, dark brown bread or blinis. I buy my salmon at Costco because you can be 100% sure no bones have been left. Once made you can cut each salmon fillet into 2 or 3 pieces and freeze what you’re not using immediately.

Splurge on some lobster tails and make this divine Lobster, Mango and Avocado salad to enjoy with a glass of Riesling as the sun goes down.

I grew up in England where it never gets as hot as it does in Australia. Summer Pudding is the dessert they make in the height of the UK summer, when the berries are all in season. One of my all time favourites.

And while they’re in season and cheap why not make Mangoes in Ginger Wine. The perfect way to finish dinner on a hot summer’s evening.

If you’re still looking for inspiration for dessert have a look at this article Seven Quick Desserts where you’ll find several ideas, including Blueberry Parfaits which can be put together quickly from ingredients bought at the supermarket. Instead of blueberries, try using raspberries or strawberries.

Time to go back to my book and crank the aircon up another notch.

Smoked Haddock Chowder

Inspired by a recent trip to the West of Scotland I decided to make my version of a soup they call Cullen Skink. Doesn’t sound very appetising does it? Well Cullen Skink is the Scottish name for Smoked Haddock Chowder, a chunky, hearty soup made from smoked haddock, known locally as Finnan Haddie and it’s delicious, despite the name! I read through half a dozen different recipes online and came up with this.

If you can’t find smoked haddock, use smoked cod and if you can’t find either why not experiment with hot smoked salmon? It will only need to be gently heated through as it’s already cooked.

50g butter
2 leeks, chopped (use mostly the white part and a tiny bit of green)
3 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into chunky cubes
Vegetable stock
1 cup cream
500g smoked haddock or cod, skinned and cut into 2 cm chunks
3 Tbs dry sherry (optional)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
To serve:
Chopped parsley
Crusty bread

In a large heavy-based pan melt butter and cook leeks gently for 10 minutes or until soft. Add potatoes and enough stock to just cover them. Simmer for 20 minutes, or until potatoes are tender. Add cream, fish and sherry and cook for a few minutes until the fish is done. Test by taking a piece out. You don’t want the fish to disintegrate and it won’t take long to cook. Season with salt and pepper and add a dash more stock or cream if the soup is too thick.

Garnish with parsley and serve with crusty bread.

Serves 4-6

Carrot and Sweet Potato Soup with Pesto

Between the vegetable patch at the farm – where we spend  every second weekend – and the one in Canberra, we produce more than half the fruit and vegetables we eat, with some to give away to family and friends during summer. All organic of course.

There’s no shortage of space at the farm so we grow things like strawberries, raspberries, asparagus, potatoes, onions and garlic as well as pumpkins, cucumbers, tomatoes and zucchini. We’re also establishing an orchard, with quince, apples, pears and plums. In town where space is more limited we stick to herbs, radishes, lettuces and rocket.

You can’t grow salad greens in northern Europe in the middle of winter, but here in Canberra a typical winter’s day is often 15 to 20 degrees Celsius warmer than the nighttime sub-zero temperatures. This means that the soil doesn’t freeze solid and allows some vegetables to be grown in sheltered areas of the garden. A piece of glass or plastic helps protect the foliage from the frost

Rather than going out and buying something we tend to eat what we have. At the moment, it being the middle of winter, we have spinach, carrots, rocket and lettuce. Not much in the way of fruit, apart from the lemon tree which is laden and lots of cooking apples I froze during summer.

Carrots from the garden were the inspiration for this soup which showcases the natural sweetness of root vegetables. The coconut milk gives a velvety, creamy texture and the pesto makes a nice contrast in colour and flavours. The pesto in the photo is a bit dark because I froze it during summer. Still tastes good though.

Carrot and Sweet Potato Soup with Pesto

1 large onion, chopped
25g butter
About 1kg sweet potatoes and carrots (half and half or whatever)
1 can coconut milk or cream
2 chicken or vegetable stock cubes
Water
To serve:
Milk
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Pesto (home-made or bought)

In a large heavy-based saucepan, heat butter and cook onion for 5-10 minutes or until soft but not brown. Add sweet potatoes and carrots, peeled and cut into chunks, the coconut milk or cream, enough water to cover the vegetables and the stock cubes. Simmer for 20-30 minutes or until vegetables are soft, then cool a bit and blend in a blender until smooth. To serve, reheat with enough milk to make to desired consistency. Season to taste and garnish with some pesto, thinned down a bit with some olive oil if it’s too thick.

Serves 6-8

Chilled Almond Soup

We’ve all tried Gazpacho, but this traditional Spanish chilled soup, made with almonds and garnished with delicate slivers of fresh grapes, is less well-known. The first time I tried it was at a Spanish cooking demonstration hosted by my friend Jill. Sometimes it’s known as White Gazpacho.

You could be forgiven for thinking it has a lot of cream in it, but the creaminess comes entirely from the almonds. The perfect way to kick off lunch on a hot summer’s day.

Chilled Almond Soup1 cup milk (or soy or almond milk)
4 cloves garlic, peeled
1 cup blanched almonds (or raw unsalted cashews)
1 tin cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
½ cup olive oil
1 tsp salt
1 cup water
2 tsp white wine or white balsamic vinegar
A few red grapes
Coarsely ground black pepper

If you have time soak the almonds in the milk for several hours or overnight, then drain, keeping the milk.

Place three of the garlic cloves in a saucepan with the milk and simmer for 10 mins or until soft. Tip into a blender with remaining clove of garlic and the rest of the ingredients except the grapes. Blend until smooth, although this soup does have a nutty texture, so it won’t be completely smooth. You could sieve it, but you would lose a lot. Chill soup for several hours or overnight.

To serve, check for seasoning and if too thick add a little extra milk. Serve garnished with thin slices of grapes and some cracked pepper.

Serves 4