25 March, 2007

Abraham Lincoln's take on butternut squash soup

Before you get all scared, this photograph is not a soup of any kind, it's the macaroni and cheese I made as an antidote to the soup, which was odd. Wasn't it Abraham Lincoln who said, "If you like that kind of thing, it's the kind of thing you'll like"? If not, then I said it, because this homily perfectly expresses the way I feel about the soup I invented today (vaguely inspired by a recipe in Hello! magazine, maybe that's the root of the problem). I think it was good, if only I liked that kind of thing. But I don't. And neither does John. So I passed it along to Becky, who is the sort of friend who will try something you preface with, "I didn't really like it, so why don't you have a go?" The jury is still out with their family, as I fear she may make everyone try it. The more tastebuds the better.

But before I go any further with that, my macaroni and cheese turned out completely wonderful, and I'm ashamed to say that in the run-up to dinner, when Avery is meant to be in her bath, I should be doing the salad, John's paying bills online, in reality we are all snatching little bites from the perfect bubbly surface. So all was not lost in my culinary day.

And the memories of last night's dinner in London Bridge at Vincent's house should have been enough, alone, to propel one through a Sunday afternoon. For a ton of people, including lots of children, on a cold, spitty, rainy Saturday night in London, the enormous pot of ragu he served (with penne and shaved parmesan) was the perfect dish. Now do not be intimidated by the number of ingredients. For one thing, all the vegetables can be chopped in your food processor. And anyway, this is the type of recipe that you putter at, while listening to Edward Petherbridge reading "A Presumption of Death." Have you heard about Jill Paton Walsh's stewardship of the Lord Peter Wimsey legacy? Dorothy L. Sayers left behind notes for several Wimsey books, after her death, and Walsh has done a remarkable job with this one, recreating the characters of "Busman's Honeymoon" perfectly, but not as a parody. Anyway, with a great audiobook at your ears, you can tie on your apron and get cooking.

Spicy Party Ragu
(serves 8 easily)

1 pound minced lamb
1/2 pound each: minced beef, veal, pork, smoked streaky bacon (American style)
2 large chorizo sausages
1 large onion, roughly chopped
1 pound mushrooms, roughly chopped
1 each red, green, yellow peppers, roughly chopped
1 medium aubergine (eggplant), roughly chopped
4 fresh tomatoes, roughly chopped
2 soup-size tins peeled plum tomatoes
1/2 large bottle of tomato sauce
2 tbsp of tomato puree
1 tbsp sugar
1 tsp each dried oregano, basil, thyme
chili flakes to taste (but don't be a wimp!)
2 bay leaves
1 cup red wine
Handful fresh oregano
Handful fresh basil
Handful fresh thyme
4 large cloves of garlic, minced


3 cups frozen prawns
3 cups frozen oysters
3 cups chicken pieces cut into 1cm cubes

Put a large pot to the side of the stove. As you cook each batch of ingredients, place them in the large pot. In a large frying pan, begin by cooking all the meat (In separate batches, though you can combine veal and beef) until browned and season with salt and pepper to taste. Whizz the bacon in your food processor till it is in 1 cm pieces. Cook until crispy, and be sure to add at least some of the rendered bacon fat
with the meat to the pot. Saute the chorizo last. When the sausages are done, set aside to cool. In a food processor, prepare the vegetables.

With plenty of olive oil, start by sauteing the onions in the same pan you cooked the meats in. When they are starting to brown, add the mushrooms. When the mushrooms have softened a bit, add the aubergines and finally the peppers. When the vegetables are all done, add them to the pot with the meat. Whizz the cooled chorizo to the same size bits as the cooked ground meat you already have in the pot, and add to the pot. Add the fresh, tinned, pureed and pasted tomato to the pot along with the bay leaves and the red wine. Bring the mix to a roiling simmer and turn the heat down to a medium-low level. Add the rest of the dried herbs, chili and sugar. Cook for at least 2 hours (the longer the better), stirring from time to time. The sauce will render quite a bit of liquid and look soupy for a while, and then as you continue to simmer it, the liquid will boil away. Turn the heat down low and add the optional ingredients if you choose to use them. Just before serving, add the chopped fresh herbs and the garlic. Taste for salt and pepper, give it a good stir and leave it alone until you're ready to serve. Serve over penne with shaved parmesan.


This was sublime. Of course as well there was a beautiful salad with beetroot sprouts, a luxurious cheeseboard and an enormous, massive, lime-spiked cheesecake for pudding. There with us were Vincent's elegant French stepmother, two rather famous English architects and their beautiful blond children (I think we could fix up the little boy with Avery right now and save all that dating nonsense later on), an American diplomat and his German wife, and a Nigerian fashion designer. It was like eating at the UN. And we stayed so late! I am so old now that I really feel it if I've been up late, plus I find I have to stay up for a certain number of hours after I get home, thinking about what everyone said and did. So Sunday found me rather lazily walking around the Marylebone Farmer's Market, trying to be inspired. Unfortunately what I was inspired to do was this soup, on which I welcome comments, or better versions. Was it too much orange?

Butternut Squash Soup with Orange
(serves 6)

3 tbsps butter
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 butternut squash, seeded and peeled and cut in small cubes
juice and zest of 4 oranges
800 g chicken stock
2 tsps curry powder
1/2 tsp chili powder
salt to taste
1/2 cup creme fraiche
chives to garnish

In a medium saucepan, melt the butter and soften the garlic, then add squash and stir till coated with butter. Cover with stock, add juice and zest, and simmer until soft, then puree with a hand blender and run through a sieve if you like a finer texture. Add spices and whisk in creme fraiche. Simmer until thick, and garnish with chopped chives.


So what went wrong? I tasted it, John tasted it, we added more spices, more salt. It was tasty. But I didn't like it, and neither did he. So I packed it up and took it to Becky, who tasted it and at first she liked it, then she thought perhaps it had a bitter aftertaste. Did I simmer it too long and the zest got nasty? Too much orange? I don't know. I still think the concept is good, and it was certainly very pretty and undoubtedly nutritious.

But dinner time saw us crouched happily over our macaroni and cheese, and bangers, and a huge salad of my favorite lamb's lettuce and rocket, with cucumbers. Ah well, you experiment, sometimes you succeed, friends cook brilliantly for you, and then you end up with the old favorites on a Sunday evening. I'm sure there's a moral in all that somewhere.

This will be rather an odd week, I think. Or at least toward the end. Avery's school term ends on Thursday at noon, at which point she and her little friends will repair to Build-a-Bear in Covent Garden for beloved Anna's birthday party. Becky is a saint to host them there yet another time. Then a sleepover, then Friday we drive Avery down to Surrey for three days and nights of... pony camp! At the country outpost of Ross Nye Stables, where she'll sleep in something called a yurt (?) and eat who knows what, and spend all the days mucking out stalls and riding. She has never been away from home for more than a single night, and I don't think she's ever done anything that John and I have never done. Been somewhere we've never been! What a milestone. I wonder what on earth John and I will find to do in her absence. Well, for one thing we're going to spend the Friday night in a very sweet-sounding country hotel, the Angel Posting House, near the camp. But then we'll have the whole weekend on our own. I'm sure we can find something to keep us out of trouble...

1 comment:

Vincent said...

So nice to see you did have a good time... and enjoyed hte pasta. Your soup sounds like it's got too much orange in it. Maybe add a dash of curry powder and crumble some stale sour-dough gread into it - thickens and gives some more interest taste-wise. A couple of handfulls of gruyere cheese might not got amiss... but as I mention I'M NOT A HUGE FAN OF SOUP - except the delicious one I made last night.. Thai Coconut and Prawn with mushrooms, lime and corriander... and other things too... delicious!
Sending much love.