pumpkin soup

Hello, my pretties

More soup?

I grew up with Asian soups, which are mostly broth-style concoctions with various things floating in them – from the standard pork and prawn dumplings or chicken to the weird and wonderful unnameable items that are considered to be the ultimate panacea for everything from stomach aches to back pain.

There is pretty much only one Western-style soup my mother makes, and that is pumpkin soup. It’s a hearty, filling winter wonder that I think is fitting for my American buddies who’ll be tucking into all sorts of Thanksgiving goodies very soon.

In my wholly unbiased and humble opinion it is the finest pumpkin soup you will ever taste, anywhere, and it ridiculously healthy because unlike most pumpkin soups it has no cream and no sugar, instead relying on the smooth texture and natural sweetness of the pumpkin. Go forth and try it! Wrap yourself in the warm blanket of virtue and congratulate yourself on how healthy you’re being.

Pumpkin soup
For the vegetable stock:
2 carrots
Two-thirds of a leek
Half an onion
2 sticks of celery
4 bay leaves
6 black peppercorns

For the pumpkin soup:
Half a kilo butternut pumpkin
Half a kilo paquito pumpkin
One-third of a leek, sliced
Half an onion, chopped
2 carrots, chopped

Make the vegetable stock by placing all the stock ingredients in a pot, covering with cold water and bringing to a boil, then turning to a simmer for 20 minutes. Heston advises that you should slice the vegetables as thinly as possible to provide as much surface area as you can, but if you can’t be bothered it will turn out just fine.

Meanwhile, prepare the pumpkin. The butternut pumpkin in my photo is just over a kilo, and the paquito pumpkin is just under a kilo, and I used half of each. You could simply use one whole pumpkin, but I like the different tastes each pumpkin gives – the butternut has a nutty, robust undertone, and the paquito pumpkin is just a little sweeter and negates the need for you to add sugar.

There is nothing for it but to chop the pumpkins into small pieces, removing the skin as you go. This is a fairly painful process but sadly I see no way around it. Wear your pumpkin blisters with pride.

Pumpkin blisters. I hope you can avoid these, but if not, wear them with pride.

In a pan over a medium heat, place the onions and leek and cook until they start to soften but don’t brown them.

Add the pumpkin pieces and cook for 7-8 minutes.

A glorious orange frenzy

Meanwhile, drain the vegetable stock, reserving the liquid. Put the liquid back into the pot and add the chopped carrots, and when the pumpkin and onion is ready, add it to the pot. Cook for 20minutes or until the pumpkin is very soft.

Remove from heat and ladle out a bowlful of the liquid, keeping to one side. You want to hang onto this just in case the soup is thicker than you would like.

A stick blender would be ideal at this point, but I don’t have one, so I just used a hand masher instead – hence the rather pureed look of my soup. It still tasted wonderful. Proof positive that some recipes are extremely forgiving!

Bowlful of goodness


chicken soup

Sometimes, only chicken soup will do.

I’m sick.

I’m not a good sick person, either. There are people who bear their affliction with grace, fortitude and a staunch cheerfulness whilst delicately withering away, kind of like Beth in Little Women. I’m not one of them. When I have a cold, there’s wailing, whingeing, spluttering and coughing, the cursing of trans-seasonal weather, piles of tissues and a good deal of feeling sorry for myself. It’s unfortunate, but there it is.

Strange things happen to my appetite when I’m sick, and it’s probably the only time I’ll ever say ‘no thanks, I’m not hungry’. My culinary planet becomes sadly Pluto-nic, reduced to a dwarfish set of dry crackers and some hot tea. Eventually if that doesn’t help, I’m forced to pull out the big guns, the cure-all, the substance known throughout the world as Jewish penicillin – chicken soup.

Chicken soup is a lengthy two-stage process, but fortunately it’s so simple that even a sick person can probably cope with it. The stock itself involves almost no work, and if you’re beat after that then you can simplify the soup down to a handful of barley and a cup of frozen vegetables. The key is to serve up large, steaming bowls, wrap yourself in a furry blanket and let the love envelope you.

Chicken soup
The stock
4 chicken Marylands (you can use 8 chicken drumsticks if you prefer)
2 carrots
2 sticks of celery
Half a leek
4 cloves of garlic
6 black peppercorns

The soup
2 carrots, chopped
Half a cup of barley
Half a leek, sliced
Salt and pepper

Place all the ingredients for the stock in a pot and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil, then turn down to a low simmer and leave it for an hour. Skim off the scum that floats to the top.

Once the hour is up, remove the chicken and strip the bones, returning the bones to the pan and keeping the meat separate. Allow the bones to boil very gently for another 45 minutes.

Remove the bones and vegetables and discard. The best way to do this is obviously to strain it, but if you don’t have a strainer then a slotted spoon is fine. You should be left with a lovely stock.

If you’re conscious about fat, the best thing to do here is to refrigerate the soup overnight and skim off the layer of fat in the morning. The amount of fat can be quite substantial because of the chicken skin, and removing the solid form is easier. But if the thought of doing this makes you feel old and weary and defeated, crack on with the soup.

Return the chicken meat to the pot and add the barley, chopped carrot and sliced leek. Season with salt and pepper, then boil for half an hour and serve.

There are two reasons I remove and discard the original vegetables and then add new ones: firstly, because once they’ve been boiling for two hours their flavour and nutrients are already in the pot, and secondly I like to be able to control the texture of the final soup veg. Plenty of people have their own preferences as to what goes into the final chicken soup, adding potato, swede, peas, pasta or bread dumplings; I’m not going to interfere. If you’re sick, it’s time to be a little self-indulgent. Do whatever feels right for you.

A note about chicken stock: honestly, I don’t really care if my stock is cloudy, but some people prefer the clear consommé-style stocks. Really. There are entire discussions on various blogs about how why a stock goes cloudy and the best way to clarify it.

From what I understand, a stock will go cloudy if it is brought to a rolling boil, which breaks down the collagen in the bones and allows it to leach into the soup, making it thicker and sticky like tonkotsu ramen. Some people say it’s the fat, not the collagen, which emulsifies through the soup, giving it a cloudy appearance.

Whatever the reason, most cooks agree that if you want a clear soup, you need to bring the pot to just below boiling point and simmer for longer – a full cooking time of two and a half hours. As long as you don’t boil it, you’ll have a light, clear stock. And then you need to strain it through cheesecloth to get rid of the bits.

barley soup

One of the many tastes of my childhood.

When I was growing up, one of my very favourite stories in the world was Stone Soup.

If you’re not familiar with the tale, it’s about a poor and tired traveller who convinces a rather cranky old bat to shelter him for the night. She agrees to let him stay, but tells him that she has no food to give him. He offers to feed her instead.

‘You – feed me? With what?’ she scornfully asks. ‘Stone soup,’ says he, and places a stone into a pot of water over the fire. He then proceeds to coax all sorts of things out of her – barley, carrots, celery, a bit of meat, potatoes – by telling her the stone is old, and might need a bit of help with flavour. That night they dine like kings in the little cottage, and in the morning she gives him a good breakfast, coffee and some coins to help him on his way, her crotchety old heart having been touched by the restorative powers of sharing food.

The story always got to the bit about barley and I would shiver – for it seemed, to my young ears, to be the transformative substance that took the water and stone and finally made it a soup. I had no idea what barley was, or even what it looked like. I just knew that it had to be magical.

This soup is a remembrance of how much I loved that story and everything it stands for. It reminds me of my childhood, of somehow feeling but not yet understanding that cooking and sharing a meal with someone can be a deeply healing experience. The heartwarming feeling I get when I make this soup is the same feeling I had when I got to the end of the story.

Barley Soup
1/2 cup barley
Yellow rock sugar
Handful gingko nuts
Dried bean curd sticks, roughly broken
Boiled eggs

Wash the barley and check for any pebbles that might have made it in.

Place the barley in a large pot of water – you’re looking for a ratio of about 1:5, but you can start with a litre of water and add as the soup boils.

Bring to a boil and add a large lump of yellow rock sugar, plus the gingko nuts.

Turn to a low boil and simmer for 1 hour. Barley has a tendency to bubble up, so make sure you’re around to watch or hear the pot. You might need to top up with water as it boils away.

Add the dried bean curd sticks and simmer for an additional 30 minutes. Again, you might need to top up the pot with water as the bean curd rehydrates. You might also need to add additional sugar to taste.

The end result is a light, translucent soup that is sweet and perfectly toothsome, thanks to the barley. It is traditionally served with a boiled egg, which enhances the sweetness.

A small note about gingko nuts: they are funny things. Widely used in Chinese cooking, I hated them when I was young and would pick them out of my soup, piling them in large heaps to be tossed back into the pot – or my parents’ bowls. They seemed to me to have a vaguely oniony taste, and I thought they had no place in my soup.

These days, I appreciate the slight pungent tang they lend the soup; it cuts through the sweetness and adds depth. I am, perhaps, not quite reformed – my parents would possibly use quite a lot more than a handful of nuts to make their soup, but I would never go beyond a handful and occasionally I leave them out altogether.

They are, however, said to be extremely good for you, helping cognitive function, memory and blood flow and fighting free radicals.