Hearty winter soups, no sweat

You can whizz up a big steaming bowl of silky root vegetable broth in minutes, and it will be so much better tasting and nutritious than any shop-bought version

Little is more comforting on a winter’s day than a bowl of warming, wholesome soup. With all the wonderful winter root vegetables that are available, this is the one of the most delicious ways to include them in your diet. It is so easy to take a flask of warmth and nutrition to work with you.

Making soup is one of the easiest, most satisfying kitchen jobs. A bowl of it should never be far away at this time of year, to warm both your heart and soul.

To make the base for any vegetable soup you need to sweat onions and garlic together in a saucepan with salt and pepper, and then add some lovely root vegetables — potatoes, parsnips, carrots, beetroot or, in my recipe, the oddly shaped jerusalem artichoke. Cover with water, chicken stock or vegetable stock, bring to a simmer and gently cook until everything is soft. Then blend and — hey presto! — you have done it. There are obviously many variations on this, for different types of soups, but this is how easy it is to start.

I often use homemade chicken stock in my soups to add flavour, but the nutrients and minerals released from chicken bones are so good for you and will help you fight off colds or the flu during those darker winter days.

On the subject of the jerusalem artichoke, have you ever wondered why this gnarly root vegetable, with all its peculiar shapes and knots, has such a wonderful name? Well, the jerusalem artichoke has nothing to do with the city of Jerusalem, or indeed the artichoke family. It is, in fact, a member of the sunflower family, and like the sunflower its flowers turn towards the sun. The current thinking is that this was the reason Italian settlers in America many years ago called it “girasole”, the Italian word for sunflower, which has become anglicised to “jerusalem” over the years.

I was in Ballymaloe Cookery school, 20 years ago, when I had my first taste of this strange but wonderful vegetable. It took a little getting used to but is now one of my favourite tubers. There we mixed jerusalem artichokes with cumin, and it has been one of my favourite combinations ever since.

Hazelnuts are also the perfect accompaniment to jerusalem artichokes, so I have made a nice compound butter with both ingredients to melt slowly into the soup.

Another winter delight is a great big bowl of tomato, white bean and cavolo nero soup. This is the ideal “curl up with on a winter’s evening by a log fire with a good movie” type soup, or a full-on dinner if you add a little pasta too.

I have added seaweed to cook with the beans, for extra flavour and goodness, and with a little heat coming from the chilli flakes this soup will warm the cockles of your heart.

Jerusalem artichoke soup with toasted hazelnut and cumin butter

Serves 4-6

What you will need
300g/10½oz onions

2 cloves garlic

1 tbsp olive oil

Salt and pepper

800g/1lb 12oz jerusalem artichokes

200g/7oz potatoes

1¼ litre/2 pints chicken stock

1 tsp cumin seeds

50g/2oz hazelnuts

100g/3½oz softened butter

A little freshly grated horseradish

How to prepare
Slice the onions and garlic thinly. Heat a saucepan to a moderate heat and add a splash of olive oil. When warm, stir in the onions and garlic with some salt and pepper. Cover and remove from the heat to allow to sweat. Peel the jerusalem artichokes and potatoes, and keep in water with a squirt of lemon juice until ready to use, to stop them turning brown. Chop into rough cubes and place in the saucepan with the onions and garlic. Warm up again on the hob and add the chicken stock. Bring to a simmer, turn the heat down and cook until the vegetables have softened enough to blend (about 20-30 minutes). Allow to cool a little and blend until smooth, checking for seasoning.

Preheat the oven to 180C/gas mark 4. Toast the hazelnuts in the oven for eight minutes or in a dry pan until they have roasted and their skins are coming off. Cool slightly, and rub the skins off. Toast the cumin seeds in a dry pan until they begin to release their flavour, then grind in a pestle and mortar. Add the hazelnuts to the pestle and mortar, which should just be broken up a little. Mix the cumin and hazelnuts into the softened butter.

Serve the soup hot, and spoon in a small amount of the hazelnut and cumin butter with a little horseradish on top.

White bean, tomato and cavolo nero soup

Serves 4-6

What you will need
250g/9oz dried white beans, soaked in water for 12 hours (I used cannellini beans but any white beans will do)

2 onions

1 bay leaf

2 peppercorns

3 cloves garlic, peeled

One 20cm piece of seaweed, kombu or wakame (optional)

800g/1lb 12oz tinned whole plum tomatoes (drain off the liquid)

1 tbsp balsamic vinegar

¼ tsp chilli flakes

200g/7oz cavolo nero

500ml/18 fl oz vegetable stock

How to prepare
Strain the soaked beans and put them in a saucepan with enough cold water to cover them by about 3in.

Add half an onion (peeled but not sliced), the bay leaf, peppercorns, two garlic cloves and seaweed. Bring to the boil and simmer with a lid on for about 25-30 minutes or until the beans have softened. Strain, reserving the cooking liquid (this will make up half the stock). Discard the onion, bay leaf, peppercorns, garlic and seaweed.

Place the tomatoes in a saucepan with a splash of olive oil, and cook gently for 15-20 minutes until they are starting to stick and colour. Add the balsamic vinegar and chilli flakes, and cook for a further 2-3 minutes. Scrape out all the tomato, including the sticky bits at the bottom of the pan, and keep for later.

Chop the remaining garlic and slice the remaining onions thinly. Add another splash of olive oil to the pan, heat and then add the onions, garlic, and salt and pepper. Stir and cook until slightly browned, then add the tomatoes back to the pan. Follow with the bean cooking liquid, and top up with the vegetable stock. Bring to a simmer and cook for five minutes.

Wash and remove the stalks from the cavolo nero, and cut the leaves in two or three pieces. Add the beans to the tomato soup and finally the cavolo nero, just before serving.

Cook’s library

Master It: How To Cook Today by Rory O’Connell
Some years ago I had the pleasure of being a student of Rory O’Connell’s at Ballymaloe cookery school. I can still hear his gentle, encouraging voice when I am cooking, always the voice of reason, able to explain perfectly why he was performing a particular task. He is the most wonderful culinary teacher I have had the privilege of learning from.

Rory has the experience of a restaurant cook and the beautiful touch of a home cook. That, together with his extraordinary teaching ability, combines in this book, which makes it work on a different level to most cookbooks.

Rory does not just give you a recipe to follow, he explains why it works. His approach is appreciative of the wonderful ingredients that he cooks, but he also has a no-nonsense attitude that is easy to relate to. You should certainly make space in your kitchen for this sensible yet beautifully written book.

I have bought this book for many friends’ birthdays. It is perfect for those who are just starting to master their kitchen, with plenty to offer the more experienced. This book is for those who want to know not only how to cook, but to understand how it works.
Master it: How to cook today by Rory O’Connell (photography by Laura Hynd) is published by Fourth Estate and costs €23.80 in hardback (easons.com).
Year-round green vegetable soup

Serves 6
Potatoes and onions are used in the soup base. The onion adds lots of flavour and the potatoes thickens the soup. The green vegetable you use will be the determining flavour of the finished soup. Spinach is my choice here, but any of the following vegetables produce an excellent result. Green cabbage at any time of the year with tough ribs removed from the leaves and finely chopped is excellent. Also nettles, watercress, wild garlic leaves, diced courgettes or cucumbers, Swiss chard leaves, pea and bean leaves, dark green lettuce leaves and so on. Chicken stock produces the most flavoursome results.
What you will need:
50g butter
110g onions, peeled and diced
140g potatoes, peeled and diced
Maldon sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1.2l chicken or vegetable stock
350g spinach leaves or your green vegetable of choice, weighed after removing stalks
Freshly grated nutmeg
Creamy milk (milk and cream mixed in equal proportion)

Melt the butter in a heavy-based saucepan and allow to foam. Add the onions and potatoes, season with salt and pepper, and toss with a wooden spoon to coat the vegetables in the butter. Cover with a greaseproof paper lid and the lid of a saucepan and cook on a very low heat for 10minutes or so. This is called ‘sweating’ the vegetables. The object of the exercise is to soften them slightly, with no colour at all.

Add the stock, bring to a simmer and cover again with the saucepan lid. Simmer until the onion and potato is completely tender and starting to collapse. This will take about 15 minutes. Remove the lid of the saucepan and add the spinach and nutmeg. Do not replace the saucepan lid. Bring to a simmer and cook until the spinach is tender. This can take from 1-2 minutes for baby spinach, up to 5 minutes for larger leaves. If you cannot tell by looking at the vegetable if it is cooked, taste a little – it should be tender and slippery.

Puree immediately with a hand-held blender or in a liquidiser. Add a little more stock or creamy milk if the soup is too thick. Taste and correct the seasoning. If not serving immediately, do not cover, as this will spoil the green colour. Serve in hot soup bowls, garnished with a little blob of cream or a few drops of olive oil.

The soup can be prepared ahead and reheated later, though the green colour will not be as strident as when it was first made.

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