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Issue 1 - Simply soup-er

Scotland Magazine Issue 1
March 2002

 

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Simply soup-er

Sue Lawrence takes you to her traditional kitchen to enjoy three old-style Scottish broths

There is a charming paragraph in the legendary Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking where she describes her first soup-making experience. She had been advised by the gastronomic authority among her contemporaries to take almost everything in the larder, including the remains of the salad, tip it into a pan with some water and, in due course, some soup would emerge. Since the salad remains included pickled herring, the resulting taste must have been unforgettably grim. She soon realised that the soup-pot cannot be treated like a dustbin.

And, although there are many excellent cooks who, when asked what exactly went into their delicious soup, say, a handful of this, a dash of that, it is perhaps a good idea – certainly for first-timers – to follow the basic guidelines of a recipe. Some vegetables are far more watery than you might think and you end up with thin gruel. Add insufficient liquid to dried beans and pulses and you will have a mixture so thick you can use it to to cement bricks.

Given the choice, however, I would always opt for thick and chunky, a soup with plenty of body. I find thin soups – even the best consommés – just a little too samey, whereas in a hearty soup there is a cornucopia of beans, barley, pasta, rice or vegetables to wade through. Having said that, there are times when a thinner variety is required – at the start of a nine course banquet or on a hot summer’s day, when a smooth, preferably chilled soup is ideal. Although I confess that my abiding summer memory in my Scottish childhood is coming in from a hard day’s play in the sun to a bowl of steaming hot broth. But it did precede cold meat and garden salad, so it all balanced out in the end.

Soups are something we do well in Scotland. Not only that, they are part of our heritage. Before modern cooking techniques evolved, the only basic equipment every home would have had was an iron soup pot over a fire, upon which an iron griddle (called a girdle in Scots) was placed, to make oatcakes, scones and bannocks. It was the soup pot that was the central point of every meal and whether its contents contained a hearty meat broth or fish stew, its importance cannot be overstated.

And even now, to many Scots a meal is incomplete without a plate of soup first. In the States, there might be a salad with a choice of seven dressings to toy over before the main course; in Scotland there is soup – plain and simple, without any garnish, without any ceremony. It was just soup, the food that – along with porridge of course – sustained warriors and hunters over the centuries, the food that nurtured Scots old and young from winter through to summer. It was mosty certainly the food that put hairs on Braveheart’s chest. I feel sure Mel Gibson was a Scot in a former life.

CULLEN SKINK
For this thick, chowder-like soup, you can substitute Jerusalem artichokes for potatoes when they are in season. Serve with thick oatcakes and butter.
500g undyed smoked haddock fillets
2 medium onions, peeled and chopped
2 large potatoes (about 600g altogether), peeled and chopped
450ml full-fat milk
25g unsalted butter
Double cream and chopped chives, to serve

Place the haddock in 300ml cold water in a large pan. Bring to the boil, then simmer for 8 to 10 minutes until the fish is cooked. Remove the fish with a slotted spoon, skin and flake into chunks then set aside. Add the onions and potatoes to the pan with plenty of pepper. Cover and cook over a moderate heat for about 12 to 15 minutes until the vegetables are tender.

Remove the pan from the heat and, using a potato masher, roughly mash the contents, keeping some of the texture. Add the milk and the butter then bring to the boil and simmer for a couple of minutes. Add the fish, reheat gently for 2 - 3 minutes, season to taste then serve piping hot in warmed soup bowls with a swirl of cream and some chives.

LEEK AND PARMESAN SOUP
Buy the largest chunk of parmesan you can afford, for a good-sized rind.
2 tbsp olive oil
5 or 6 leeks (about 900g), washed and sliced
3 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
1 large potato, peeled and diced
750ml hot vegetable stock
1 piece of parmesan rind
100g coarsely grated parmesan

Heat the oil in large saucepan and gently fry the leeks and garlic for five minutes, then add the hot stock and the parmesan rind. Bring to the boil, then simmer, covered, for about 20 minutes until tender. Remove the rind, scrape off any cheese into a liquidiser with the contents of the pan. (You might need to do this in two batches) Add 75g parmesan, blend until smooth then season to taste. Reheat gently, ladle into warmed soup bowls, sprinkle with remaining parmesan.

THICK PEA AND HAM SOUP WITH MUSTARD
Ask the butcher if the ham needs soaking (some are more salty than others). If you are unsure, soak for several hours in cold water.
350g dried green split peas
1 ham hock
1 large onion, peeled and chopped
2 tbsp Dijon mustard

Soak the peas overnight then rinse and place in a large saucepan with the ham, onion and mustard. Pour in a litre of boiling water and plenty of freshly ground black pepper. Cover and bring to the boil, then lower to a simmer and cook for about 50 minutes.

Remove the ham, drain over a sieve. Once cool enough to handle, cut pieces of the meat off, into chunks. Whizz the soup with a hand-held blender (or liquidiser) and add salt to taste. Add the chunks of ham to the soup and reheat gently. Serve in warm bowls with an extra dollop of mustard to taste.