Thrift is very much on my mind at the moment. I suppose it has been on everyone’s mind for a few years but right now, as the world’s 8th largest economy (can you believe that? I couldn’t) edges nearer to the fate of Iceland, Ireland and Greece, I am a little fearful of what it might mean closer to home. Only three years ago I spent a frantic morning extracting most of the money I was saving for a flat from an Icelandic bank account and, although I was lucky and got it all back, it has made me very aware of the thin line between what seems like external and distant news and the reality of my own life. If Italy goes bankrupt, or France (not possible? read para 4 of this, which predicted three years ago the events we see around us now, and see how possible it might be) there is unlikely to be any sort of line at all. We will all be (and, yes, I am getting to the point at last) trying to survive. I couldn’t help thinking about all of this when, having made a tart with a rather monstrous celeriac (2kg, 60cm in circumference…see below) I realised that I still had enough left to make, if I wished, another seven of the same tarts, or several litres of soup, or some mash. All for the initial cost of £1.49. Root vegetables, it seems to me, are especially brilliant if you need to keep your costs down.
If red cabbage is the most beautiful of vegetables, celeriac is probably the ugliest. But under that grim and alien exterior lies one of the most delicious, earthy and nutty of tastes, which makes gorgeous soup. I’m not sure the world needs another soup recipe since nearly all of them are a variation on ‘sweat vegetables, add stock, simmer, blend and season’, but I am always looking for new ways to finish them off. And whereas an onion or leek soup is delicious with some cheese or fried bits of bacon stirred in at the end, and delicate soups like mushroom or asparagus need the merest swirl of cream, starchy ones need a bit of a lift, a contrast with their smooth, soothing but, essentially, very plain flavour and colour. A basil oil, a bit of parsley pesto or coriander mojo would be perfect but, right now, I am rather enamoured of this idea from Hugh-Fearnley Whittingstall: slow-cooked red chilli confit. It is easy to make though it adds a bit of time to what is, like all soups, an incredibly fast meal and is as cheering as a bright red coat on a cold wet day. I threw in some raw chopped sorrel for a little lemon lift too, turning a Cinderella of a soup into a real princess.
Celeriac soup with chilli confit (adapted from River Cottage Everyday)
For about four portions you will need:
Cupboard (or things you may already have)
onion, red or white (or, in my case) half of each
garlic clove, 3
potato, 1 small (about 75g once peeled)
vegetable or chicken stock, 500ml
salt and pepper
olive oil, a tablespoon or two
a small-medium celeriac (you want about 500g when peeled)
Thai red chillis, 2 or 3
single or double cream (optional, for garnish)
a couple of sorrel leaves (rocket or watercress would be nice too; optional, for garnish)
1. Start the confit first. De-stalk and deseed the chillis, chop into small pieces and then put in a small saucepan with a couple of peeled garlic cloves and cover with olive oil. Put on a very low heat and leave to cook for about 40 minutes until the chillies are nice and soft.
2. Meanwhile, peel the celeriac, onions, potato and garlic then chop everything into small pieces. Wash and chop the sorrel/watercress/rocket into very small pieces and leave to one side.
2. Melt the butter in a large saucepan, add the chopped vegetables (not the leaves), season and cook gently until softened (about 5-10 minutes).
3. Make up the stock if necessary, add to the vegetables, bring to the boil then turn down and leave to simmer for another 20 minutes.
4. When the celeriac is tender blend the soup then reheat gently. If it is very thick you may want to thin it with a little more stock/hot water.
5. Season and serve with the chilli confit, the chopped leaves and, if you want a little more elegance, a swirl of cream.