Is it just me, or is there something really odd about watching Masterchef at the moment? Don’t get me wrong – it’s a very welcome escape at this time of crisis… but in our ‘new reality’, it does all seem a bit ‘2019’. For starters (no pun intended) there’s an awful lot of hand-shaking and back-slapping. I must be getting conditioned to ‘social distancing’ but every time the episode winners have their group hug, a voice inside my head is screaming, ‘Nooo!’
And then there’s that fantastically stocked larder, groaning with just about every fruit, vegetable, spice, nut, pulse and flour type you could ever hope to have to hand. As the camera pans across the plenty of it all, I find myself feeling a tiny twinge of nostalgia!
Of course that’s ridiculous – we may not have the ease or ability at the moment to nip to the shops to get all the correct ingredients for some cookbook recipe, but most of us have the basics for a good meal in our cupboards and fridges. All it needs is a little imagination and confidence.
It was lovely to hear our national ‘Domestic Goddess’, Nigella Lawson, giving store-cupboard cookery tips on ‘The Coronavirus Newscast’ the other day. In a quick-fire, audio version of ‘Ready, Steady, Cook’ she gave suggestions for whipping up tasty meals with the unpromising contents of listeners’ kitchens. Personally, I was heartened by the way she ditched the tofu and the green bell pepper – we all know about Nigella’s disdain for the green capsicum! Not only was her advice inspired, but she wisely reminded us that now is not the time to ‘inflict the tyranny of the recipe’ on ourselves. That ‘real cooking is very much about opening a cupboard, seeing what you’ve got and going with it’. We need to remember that a meal doesn’t have to be a ‘show.’ You are, after all, feeding yourself and your family. Sound advice, very much in the spirit of her 1998 classic, ‘How To Eat’, and still very relevant now.
When you’re trying to make the most of your current supplies, there can be nothing better to cook than a pan of soup. It’s great for using up slightly sad vegetables and odds and ends of leftovers. If you have the remains of a roast chicken, get it in the pot to make stock, but even if you don’t, all is not lost – you can find something as a replacement.
Start off with your finely chopped veg – you can put in more or less anything, but carrots, celery and any of the brassicas (cauliflower, broccoli etc) will give you enough of those ‘umami’ notes to make your soup unctuous and satisfying. The only thing I probably wouldn’t put in is lettuce or ‘salad’, but limp rocket is a really great addition.
Soften the vegetables in a little vegetable oil right at the beginning. This needs to be done slowly on a low heat – it mustn’t brown too much, it just needs to be soft and cooked to the point where the juices are being released. Add the stock if you have it, or alternatively a stock made with any of the ‘bouillon’ mixes. If there’s none of that either, try a teaspoonful of Marmite or soy sauce – and don’t ignore those really savoury condiments like Henderson’s Relish or Worcestershire Sauce. Just be a little cautious with any of these, you don’t want the soup to be too salty. Better to add them a bit at a time. A little grating of nutmeg, or a blade of mace, gives a lovely fragrance, and don’t forget the magic that a bay leaf can cast over just about anything.
If you want a cream soup, whizz it up in a blender or Nutribullet, or leave it chunky and add a little cooked pasta for a fake, but totally lovely, ‘minestrone’.
Here’s a vague recipe – just don’t succumb to the tyranny.
Either : 1 onion or 1 leek – or a bit of both.
2-3 sticks celery (celery leaves and parsley are also good for adding ‘umami’).
Any other vegetables: bits of broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage or similar.
1 or 2 potatoes
2-3 tablespoonfuls vegetable or olive oil
1 litre of water or stock
Either: 2-3 teaspoons bouillon powder (‘Marigold’, ‘Kallo’ or similar)
OR 1-2 teaspoons of Marmite, Bovril
OR 1-2 teaspoons of Soy Sauce
ANY OF: a little grated nutmeg, mace, bay leaf.
Ground black pepper
Salt to taste.
Cooked pasta shapes or cooked rice (optional)
Chop all the vegetables, apart from the potatoes, as finely as possible- either by hand or in a food processor.
In a large pan warm the oil and then add the chopped vegetables. Stir frequently in the beginning to make sure it doesn’t stick, then leave it on a low heat, with the lid on for a few minutes. Stir every now and then to stop it burning or sticking.
Cook the veg mix in the oil until the oil takes on the colour of the vegetables. Now add the stock or water and increase the heat.
Next add the chopped potatoes and any of the ‘umami’ seasonings (bouillon powder, Marmite or similar).
Add any flavourings (grated nutmeg/mace/bay leaf), ground pepper and check for salt.
Simmer gently for about 30-40 minutes.
Either whizz up in a food processor or blend with a stick blender for a cream soup, or leave it chunky.
To finish, put in any cooked pasta shapes or cooked rice for a ‘heartier’ version.
‘Masterchef’ on BBC iPlayer
‘The Coronavirus Newscast’ daily on BBCSounds