As winter finally starts to kick in, I start to crave comfort. The warmth of an evening by the fire, a hot chai after a long walk on the Hackney Downs, a new pair of woolly tights. Most of all, though, I crave comfort food, and nothing says comfort to me like a hand-warming bowl of soup.
All the goodness of every ingredient is released into the savoury liquor of a soup, and something about this feels properly nourishing. Good soups are unfussy and warming, naturally rich and amazingly tasty. They fill you up without leaving you groaningly full and, with the right textured toppings and accompaniments, they will satisfy your need for some bite, too. There is the opportunity for infinite variety, so your tastebuds needn’t ever get bored – a restorative coconut broth or a hearty squash bowl with nutty brown rice; a clear miso pick-me-up or a creamy celeriac purée.
I’ve come up with a page of a thousand soups as a good starting point if you ever lack a little inspiration. Start with a base layer, add herbs, spices, body, a back-up flavour and finish with a crunch of seeds or something more substantial. Serve with a slick of yoghurt or a drizzle of grassy olive oil, a fresh slice of sourdough or some smashed-up noodles, and you have the ultimate comfort food.
On top of their endless possibilities, one of my very favourite things about soups is that they can be remarkably quick and easy. You can pull together something delicious in the time it takes to pop to the shop to get a tin of cream of tomato. The days of summer seem long gone now and, as the evenings stretch on longer, I love it when I can spend them holed up in my kitchen, cooking and baking, but this is not always the case. Life is busy and, even as someone who spends their life cooking, I often just don’t have the time to spend hours in the kitchen when I finish working. Some weeks, I am saintly: I get in a rhythm and make breakfasts, lunches and dinners to be proud of. Other weeks, I need some tricks to help save some time in the kitchen.
It’s in those weeks, especially in the winter, that I always try to make a vat of soup. I make it in my biggest pot and double the recipe, so that we can have eight servings of easy goodness throughout the week that we can dip into as the basis for lunches and dinners. A large pot makes things much easier, and it’s a piece of kitchen equipment which I use every week, whether it’s for cooking one-pot dinners or grains and pulses. It need not be expensive, but it will allow you to cook batches big enough to last a week or fill the freezer. A heavy-bottom cast-iron pan from Le Creuset would be my choice, but any sturdy large pan will do.
The recipe I give here has a simple, wholesome character to it. It’s made from sweet potatoes and squash, which are good sources of the kind of carbohydrates our bodies love, and are packed with beta-carotene and vitamins, too. I pair them with fennel seeds, which help with digestion, and some chilli to boost the metabolism and warmth. The result is a cheery bright colour to lift any grey November day.
The first day, I tend to eat it blitzed and smooth, straight up with a quick herb oil and some bread. The second night, I eat the soup with texture – I add some tinned cannellini beans and top with some chopped red chilli. The next night, I serve it with brown rice, yoghurt, coriander and green chilli. The possibilities are endless and, if you do get bored, you can freeze it in portions for a quick dinner, when time is tight and instant comfort is needed.
A vat of soup
- 1 leek, washed and finely sliced
- 1 red onion, finely sliced
- 2 carrots, finely sliced
- 2 sticks of celery, finely sliced
- Olive oil or coconut oil
- 2 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped into large chunks
- 1 medium butternut squash, deseeded and roughly chopped into large chunks
- 1 tbsp fennel seeds
- 1 tbsp Turkish chilli or a good pinch of red chilli flakes
- 1 tbsp vegetable stock powder or 1 stock cube
- Fill and boil a kettle and get all your ingredients together. Get your biggest pot out – if you don’t have a big enough pot, two smaller ones will do.
- Heat your pan on a medium heat and add a little olive or coconut oil. Once the pan is hot, add the chopped veg and cook for 10 to 15 minutes, until soft and sweet.
- Add the sweet potatoes, squash and spices along with two litres of hot water from the kettle and the veg stock powder or cube. Bring to the boil, then turn down to a simmer and cook for 30 to 40 minutes, until the vegetables are soft and falling apart, topping up with a little hot water from the kettle if it starts to look a little thick.
- I cool the lot and store it in the fridge or freezer until I’m hungry. I store it all without blitzing – I like to eat it both silky smooth and with a more stew-like texture, so I warm and blitz it in portions as I need.
4 WAYS TO EAT YOUR VAT OF SOUP
- Whizzed until smooth, topped with a quick basil oil and served with good bread.
- Stew-style, with some cannellini beans added while warming and topped with crispy fried thyme breadcrumbs and red chilli.
- Half-whizzed, warmed and served on brown rice with chopped chilli, coriander, lime zest and a spoonful of yoghurt.
- Stew-style, with some smoked paprika stirred in while warming and topped with broken corn tortillas, red chilli and some little bits of avocado.