This week I made a soup that bored me senseless. There was nothing necessarily wrong with it. It was a roasted vegetable soup, one I’ve eaten for years; one my mother used to make. Normally it’s delicious and I love it. Yet on Wednesday evening, it tasted a bit dull. And there’s nothing sadder than a dull midweek soup.
So I searched the kitchen high and low. My husband asked, What are you doing? Looking for magic ingredients? Actually I was, and I found them – chorizo and a Parmesan rind. I put them in the pot, waved my magic wand wooden spoon, and abracadabra, the dish was transformed! It tasted like something you could imagine your Italian aunt making.
Using just a small quantity of certain ingredients can make lackadaisical dishes really satisfying
Some ingredients have magical properties and using just a small quantity of them can make lackadaisical dishes really satisfying. Such ingredients are necessary particularly in Britain where tomatoes and other warm climate produce are often disappointing. This is doubly important as winter draws in because of the dearth of varied seasonal vegetables.
To conjure kitchen magic, here are six ingredients to help:
Lots of people say they dislike them but when used properly they don’t make a dish taste of stinky little fish. They just add an indescribable richness. I always use them in my tomato sauce or to season roast lamb.
The anchovy of the edible flower world. Those briny little buds seem so awkward on their own but put them in a simple salad or with a piece of white fish and you get a moreish tang.
Is there anything that doesn’t taste better with a bit of chorizo in it? Think of it as a seasoning rather than a sausage. It’s all about flavour. The fat alone is a magic ingredient.
Dry sherry or marsala
A splash of good fortified wine adds a sense of occasion to a basic meal. They are excellent in ragus or gravies for roast chicken. Beware, they can be very rich so use sparingly or you’ll overpower your dish.
It sounds obvious but having your own herb garden takes your cooking up a notch. Put tarragon or thyme in an omelette and you’ll feel like Elizabeth David. Mix chives into your scrambled eggs. Add parsley to strongly flavoured dishes for freshness. Or even if you're not cooking, top your M&S curry with fresh coriander. It will make you feel more like you're eating in a proper restaurant rather than on the sofa watching Frasier in your pyjamas.
Never discard the rinds. Keep them in your fridge or freezer and should you make an ordinary soup, add one for instant umami depth.
My roasted vegetable soup (with magic ingredients)
Serves 4 greedy people * Preparation time: 10 minutes * Cooking time: 50 minutes
- 1 litre of chicken stock, homemade or store bought
- 400 g can of chopped tomatoes, strained
- 400 g can of cooked Cannellini beans, rinsed and strained
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 2 bell peppers (I like to use red and yellow), chopped
- 1 medium sized courgette, chopped
- 5 large garlic cloves (do not remove the skin)
- 100 g pearled spelt
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 Parmesan rind
- 150 g soft cooking chorizo, chopped
- Olive oil
- Flat leaf parsley and basil
Preheat the oven to 220°C/Gas 7.
- Toss the onions, courgettes, peppers, and garlic with 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil, 1 teaspoon of coarse salt, ½ teaspoon of freshly ground pepper, and 1 tablespoon of fresh thyme.
- Arrange the vegetables in a single layer in a large oven dish. Roast the vegetables for about 30 minutes. Give them a good stir halfway through to make sure everything roasts evenly.
- During this time, fry the chorizo in a large pot over medium heat until it is slightly crispy. There is no need to add oil. Set the chorizo aside when it is finished but reserve the flavourful dripping. Just keep it in the pot.
- When the vegetables are tender and charred in a few places, remove them from the oven. Take out the garlic and squeeze their toasty sweet insides into the pot containing chorizo grease.
- To this, add the strained tomatoes and bay leaves. Cook them over medium heat for a minute. Then add the stock, chorizo, vegetables, Parmesan, beans, and spelt. Simmer for 20 minutes. This will allow the flavours to emulsify. Season to taste.
- Ladle the soup into bowls and top with a chiffonade* of fresh basil and parsley. Serve with your favourite bread. Like most soups and stews, the flavours will intensify overnight and taste even better the following day.
*To make a chiffonade, simply stack a few herbs on top of each other. Roll them tightly then slice them finely.