Sunday, February 21, 2016

A Grand Tour via Soup: Argentina for Carbonada and Pan de Chapa breads

My Grand Tour has left the Caribbean island of Cuba and docked in Argentina. This 'Carbonada Criolla' dish is from the North West of Argentina and whilst it is more usually referred to as a stew than a soup the soup/stew distinctions can easily get blurred!  I hope you will not be disappointed by this wonderful dish which is packed with South American ingredients such as potatoes, squash, peppers and sweetcorn; and as we are in Argentina it has to include beef. Traditionally cooked inside a hollowed out pumpkin/squash I took the easier option of cooking mine in a heavy casserole pan.
Time Life Recipe Book Image
I have taken my recipe from a rather old Time Life book in the series 'Foods of the World' and this volume is 'Latin American Cooking' that was published in 1970. You can pick up quite a few issues from this series second hand on Amazon. They were well researched and still provided valuable reference for me today.
Time Life : Latin American Cooking
 The flat breads, or pan de chapa, were cooked on a cast iron stove top griddle but would have been even better if cooked outdoors and thus scented with the aroma of bbq smoke. The name simple means 'hotplate bread',
Argentina has very fertile soil and its vast grasslands were quickly utilised by the early Spanish and Italian settlers to produce beef and lamb. Much of the beef production is now being shifted away from grassland to the cheaper method of feedlot production. I struggle to accept this as progress other than in purely economic terms, but farmers must make a living too. In the North West of Argentina the cuisine reflects more of the native Amerindian culture and this carbonada stew is a happy marriage of indigenous vegetables with European introduced beef and the surprise ingredient that I was not expecting, peaches.

Carbonada Criolla - makes a lot!
750g peeled and seeded winter squash cubed*
30g butter
1tbs olive oil
1 large white onion chopped
1 green pepper seeded and coarsely chopped
1 large clove garlic minced
1 small can chopped tomatoes
1 bay leaf
1 tsp dried oregano
500g sweet potato peeled and cubed*
500g white potato (waxy type) peeled and cubed*
200g sweetcorn kernels (fresh or frozen)
1 courgette cubed (if in season)*
2 fresh or canned peaches (if canned 4 half peaches)
400g beef steak such as rump or flat iron cut into large cubes**

*The vegetables should be prepared in quite large cubes say 2-3cm square in order to make a soup with a fairly chunky texture. Some of my vegetables went down into a puree which was fine for a soup and a lot will depend on the varieties that you use.
** I chose a piece of flat iron steak which offers a good balance of tenderness, flavour and cost. Tougher grades of beef such as braising will need to be cooked a little longer for the initial simmer before adding the main vegetables.

  1. Prepare all of the vegetables and cube the meat.
  2. Heat the oil in a heavy based large saucepan such as a dutch oven/ le creuset style cast iron casserole pan,
  3. When the oil is hot add the cubes of beef and fry to lightly brown the meat.
  4. Turn the heat down and remove the meat from the pan placing it into a rimmed dish/plate that will catch any meat juices that run out.
  5. Add the butter to the pan and allow it to melt.
  6. Add the chopped onions and green pepper to the pan and gently cook until the vegetables are soft but not browning.
  7. Add the garlic to the pan and cook gently for a couple of minutes more.
  8. Return the cubes of meat and any juices collected in the dish to the pan along with the chopped tomatoes, bay leaf, oregano and add enough water (or beef/chicken/vegetable stock) to cover the meat. Add salt and pepper unless the stock was already well seasoned.
  9. Gently simmer the meat for 15 minutes**.
  10. Add the cubed squash, sweet potatoes and white potatoes to the pan and again add water/stock to cover. Bring up to a simmer, check for seasoning and continue to cook gently until the vegetables are tender. This may take around 20-30 mins.
  11. Add in the cubed courgettes if using and cook at a simmer for 10 minutes.
  12. Finally add in the sweetcorn and peaches and cook for a further 5 minutes.
  13. Check the seasoning again before serving. You may also wish to cut the meat into smaller pieces if the cubes are not fork tender.
This soup/stew can be prepared ahead and reheated, and it also freezes very well. It makes a very welcome autumn or winter main course soup.
The recipe for the Pan de Chapa comes from food blogger Passports and Pamplemousse. It is very like an English muffin recipe. I would recommend using a very heavy based skillet or frying pan to cook these in. The dough is quite soft and I found the cut pieces a little hard to handle when taking them from the proofing tray to the skillet. I also oiled my dough scaper well before using it to divide up the dough into individual breads.
Take care not to deflate the breads when flipping over to cook the other side.
I would say these breads are not quite as dense as a bought English muffin, the crumb texture is more open. If made ahead they can be refreshed briefly in a hot oven or split and toasted. They also freeze well.
For the next stop of the Grand Tour I am going to trace the path of  the British naturalist Charles Darwin whose second voyage around the world in HMS Beagle took him to Argentina in 1832. The ship's crew were undertaking naval survey work around South America and Darwin was researching the geology and natural history of each of the places visited. By 1834 they were sailing north up the coast of Chile and by 1835 onward up to Peru. The ship then sailed west across to the Galapagos islands before travelling further west again to the island of Tahiti.  It is Tahiti where my Grand Tour makes it's next stop and as Darwin's focus in Tahiti was the coral reefs it seems appropriate that the soup for this stop over should include fish. I am in such awe of these early explorer's abilities to find such relatively small islands and to sustain themselves at sea for so long that in recognition of that I am going to be swapping my usual bread accompaniment for a look at Ship's Biscuits (or hard tack).

Monday, February 8, 2016

A Grand Tour via Soup; Cuba for Black Bean Soup with Cuban Bread

                           A Cuban Black Bean Soup garnished with yogurt or pulled pork.
The Grand Tour has now followed the Spanish explorers and arrived in Cuba. I have one book on Cuban food in my cookbook collection and although I have enjoyed reading through the authors notes on all the recipes I have still yet to cook from it! I had set my mind on making black bean soup and she does not give a recipe for this. Perhaps black bean soup is not so typically Cuban, but I saw many a reference to Cuban black beans in various other recipes so at least the beans have authenticity.
The author's family left Cuba following the communist revolution in 1959 and this book is a mix of her looking back on recipes from the old family home in Cuba and recipes that she and her family still make. Following the communist takeover by Fidel Castro many Cubans took exile in the USA, with large numbers settling in Miami, Florida. The recipes I found for 'Cuban bread' all seemed to originate more from bakeries set up by Cuban exiles in Miami than actual bakeries in Cuba. Rationing in Cuba seems to allow a little rather poor quality bread per person but I wonder what the bread was like pre-revolution.
This article in the Guardian on a 'Cuban' bakery in Miami shows the bread being adorned with strips of  palm which I did not have for mine. The recipe I followed which came from the Taste of Cuba  website suggested a piece of thick string was placed down the centre of the loaf but I could see that getting completely  stuck in the dough so I just went for a rather generic scoring of the dough. The loaf came out with a nice thin crisp crust and soft interior but I would not have drawn the comparisons to a french baguette that I saw in many descriptions of Cuban bread. If you are going to have a go at making the loaf  note the recipe requires an overnight starter to be made.
The black bean soup recipe is very basic so I think the most important aspect here is the variety of black beans you use. My favourite black bean in the rather small black turtle bean which is commonly used in latin america (and Cuba!). Both the texture and flavour of the cooked beans are better than some of the larger black kidney beans I have tried, but I think the small shiny black turtle bean are very easily bought now so try to get those.

Black Bean Soup
250g dry black turtle beans which need to be soaked overnight
1 medium onion chopped
1 green pepper seeded and chopped
1 clove garlic minced
2-3 tbs olive oil
vegetable stock/water
ham bone (optional)
1tbs cider vinegar

Optional Garnishes :

Full fat Greek yogurt or sour cream, and chopped red pepper

Left over pulled roast pork/bbq pork or bbq roast chicken (as much as you want)

The night before prepare the beans by washing well and checking for and removing any small pieces of grit or mis-formed/shriveled beans . Then place the washed beans in a bowl and cover with plenty of cold water and leave overnight to soak. The beans will absorb plenty of water and should remain covered in water throughout the overnight soak.

The next day when you are ready to start cooking drain off the soaking water and rinse the beans again in fresh cold water.

In a large deep saucepan heat the olive oil and gently fry the onions, garlic and pepper until starting to soften.

Add in the soaked and drained beans and then add enough vegetable stock and/or water to cover the beans by 2-3 centimetres. If you are using a ham bone add this now too.

Bring the pan to a boil and then turn down the heat to a gentle simmer. Skim off any foam and then cook at a gentle simmer with the pan lid on. The beans should be checked after 2 hours to see if they are completely tender. If the beans were old it may take 3 hours for them to soften. Add more liquid as needed to keep the beans covered while they cook.

Once cooked (beans will be meltingly tender with no hardness/resistence) remove the ham bone if used and check the seasoning adding more salt if needed.

Remove the pan from the heat and allow to cool a little. Then using a stick blender part puree the soup so you have a thick texture but still with some larger pieces of cooked beans left. If you do not have a stick blender then a liquidiser can be used, just remove some of the soup to the blender goblet, puree and return the pureed beans to the pan. If neither of these options are available then you can use a potato masher to crush the beans in the pan until you get the right consistency. If too thick add extra vegetable stock or water.

Add the vinegar to the soup and reheat, check seasoning again. The soup is now ready to serve.

Optional Garnishing:
If you are using yogurt and chopped pepper then this is just added cold to each bowl as you serve the soup.

If you are adding pulled pork to chicken the cut/tear the meat garnish into small pieces and gently fry in a small non stick pan until heated through and stating to colour. You may need to add a little oil to the pan but try to keep this to a minimum.

Once the meat garnish is heated through and a little crisp/caramelised on the edges immediately serve the soup into bowls and top with the pieces of pork or chicken.
The base soup can be stored in the fridge once cool and it also freezes well so can be made ahead. The chilled soup will set rather solid but loosen up again on gentle warming.

Image result for che guevara image
So the tour now leaves Cuba and heads to Argentina. One of Fidel Castro's key revolutionaries in the overthrowing of the US backed Cuban President Batista, a movement which Castro started in 1953 and finally succeeded with in 1959, was the Argentinian born Marxist Che Guevara. Che Guevara was born in Santa Fe Province in Northern Argentina and studied medicine in Buenos Aires. His image is widely used as a counterculture symbol.

It is also to the north of Argentina where I will be sourcing a recipe for a beef and vegetable stew called Carbonada, but in my case this will be served as a soup along with a griddle bread not dissimilar to english muffins.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

A Grand Tour via Soup: Spain; Chestnut, Chorizo & Saffron Soup

So after a little break for Christmas and New Year the Grand Tour is back on track and we have hopped over from Morocco to Spain. There were a lot of soups I wanted to do for this country but the lovely chilled soups such as Gazpacho and almond based Ajo Blanco were not the best choice for a blog post in the middle of a wet winter; so I have gone with this very hearty, Chestnut, Chorizo and Saffron soup.

It was only after making this soup that I noticed the recipe had been published by the Guardian newspaper in an article on 'The 10 best soup recipes'scroll down several screens of the article to reach the recipe for chestnut soup. The picture included by the Guardian shows a far chunkier version than that included in the book, and mine is even more finely 'mashed', so I guess you should just make your version as coarse or as smooth as you like. Otherwise the recipe published in the Guardian is as printed in the book 'Moro'.
The authors of Moro The Cookbook run a moorish style restaurant in London also named Moro (as well as another more casual tapas style one named Morito) and they have produced three books featuring their personal style of Spanish/North African cuisine. I noticed from their website that this soup was on their 2015 xmas menu, and if you have any vacuum pack chestnuts left over from Christmas this is a great way to use them.
There was a very strong influence from North Africa on Spanish food and this soup is a good example of that. Chestnuts are native to Spain, but saffron and pimento spicing come from Arab and North African invaders.
You will see a lot of Spanish dishes that include small amounts of pork, as does this soup with the addition of chorizo. The explanation I have read for that is that during the reconquest of Spain by the Christians from the north, those Muslims and Jews that stayed in Spain were forced to convert to Christianity, and were made to eat pork. Their meals would be checked by the Inquisitors to see if pork was included so to comply the Moors and Jews would add tiny pieces of pork products to their dishes. For some very useful reading on influences to Spanish food this very comprehensive recipe book The Food of Spain by Claudia Roden is excellent.

I have made this soup both with vacuum packed whole chestnuts and an unsweetened chestnut puree, and although they both produced excellent soups the texture and appearance was mush better using the whole chestnuts. You could of course use fresh chestnuts, and as of mid January there are still some in my local shops (although they come from China, not Europe). Chestnuts are beautiful things, but really quite hard work to prepare for eating. I have read that pigs would feed off them in the forests; they must have had tough mouths!
This chestnut soup is quite filling but in my world not too filling as not to benefit from being served with a little bread. 
I have very few recipes for Spanish bread but I was delighted with the results of this one.
Rustic Spanish Bread is a recipe from a tv series that the 'Hairy Bikers' (2 motorbike mad men from the north of England) made called 'Bakeation'. I thought this was one of their best tv series as I loved seeing all of the European bakeries they went into to watch traditional breads and other savoury dished being made. A number of the recipes are on the BBC website. This year they presented another great series on the Baltics and some recipes from that series are here Hairy Biker's Northern Exposure. This  'rustic' bread recipe includes some wholewheat flour and uses a slow rise as it incorporates a starter dough that you prepare the day before baking. Do not be put off by the two day process as the resulting bread is quite delicious.

I found to my dismay that chestnut soup is hard to photograph with the dull brown colour of the chestnuts not selling themselves too well at all. Below is my first version using the chestnut puree.
The second version has a coarser texture and I added some mild pepper flakes to the garnish for colour along with a small portion of tiny cubes of chorizo pan fried in olive oil just before serving.This garnish is not part of the recipe but does lift the appearance a little. The chorizo I had to hand was one that was already 'cooked/cured' though the recipe calls for a 'cooking chorizo'. I just used less by weight (about a third less). Fresh/cooking chorizo is not so readily available as the cured variety and I would be wary of some of those 'chorizo style' supermarket fresh sausages.
Otherwise both the bread and soup were made as printed in the linked recipes above.

So the next stop on the soup tour is Cuba! Apparently Cuba is now quite a tourist destination and the postcard below was sent to me last summer from British friends visiting the Trinidad part of the island. That famous Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus landed in Cuba in 1492 with the conquest of the island by the Spanish taking place in the early 1500's.
As well as the food brought by the Spanish, the African slaves they brought to Cuba have also had an influence on the island's cuisine. Cuba is a tropical island which has a strong bearing on what can be grown there.

I shall be making a Cuban black bean soup and baking up some Cuban bread.

Monday, November 30, 2015

A Grand Tour via Soup: Morocco, Spicy Squash Soup with Meloui flatbreads

The Grand Soup Tour enters Morocco and this is my first stop off in a country I have never visited. In fact a whole continent I have never seen first hand, as Africa is a place I have yet to travel to and know very little about. I  know so little of this area that until I did some reading for this blog post I was convinced the whole of Morocco was hot desert. That the magnificent Atlas mountain range crossed the country had completely passed over me and I had never heard of the Rif mountains which are in the northernmost area of Morocco. So those living in cold mountainous areas need warming food and a gently spiced squash soup seems ideal.

This recipe is taken from  Paula Wolfert's 'The Food of Moroco', a huge and engaging book written by one of  my favourite authors on Mediterranean and North African food.

I have a few of her books and they are all written in a scholarly but highly accessible style, and from first hand experience. The recipes are packed with notes on how to achieve the same results as native cooks working with traditional tools and ingredients.

The main spicing for this recipe is a Moroccan spice blend called La Kama:
1tsp ground ginger
1tsp freshly ground pepper
0.5tsp ground cinnamon
0.5tsp ground cubeb pepper (optional)
large pinch ground nutmeg

Cubeb Pepper (Piper cubeca) is a member of the same family as the familiar black pepper, and is a vine like plant that grows in the tropics.The stalk gives the pepper its common name of tailed pepper. Arab merchants traded cubeb peppers as early as the seventh century and from North Africa they moved into Europe via ports such as Venice. They are not often seen in modern  European cuisine but have remained a part of North African traditional spicing of dish like tagines The flavour is quite distinctive and reminded me a little of the intense aromatics of green cardamom. I bought my cubebs from a UK online supplier The Spicery

I don't think you should make this with halloween type pumpkins, which can be quite a watery and have an off flavour to them; much better to get a sweet and nutty flavoured winter squash or butternut squash. I hate peeling squash as the rinds are so hard, and would welcome any tips on this problem if you have solved it. If I can get away with baking them and scooping the flesh away from the skin when cooked, I do.
I love this bowl for serving squash soups but of course you cannot see the pattern until you get to the bottom of your bowl.
Squash Soup with Feta Style Cheese based on a recipe by Paula Wolfert
1 yellow onion chopped
pinch sea salt
1 tbs olive or vegetable oil
1kg squash peeled, seeded and cut into chunks
2 tbs tomato paste (level, not rounded)
1 tsp of La Kama spice blend (above)
1 litre water or light vegetable stock
2tsp rose harissa paste or to taste (plain harissa paste is fine)
1-2tbs of creme fraiche (optional)
roughly 80g feta cheese crumbled
salt & pepper
mild chilli flakes to garnish

  1. Gently cook the onion with the salt in the olive oil in a covered large pan. This is to steam cook/sweat the onion rather than browning it. Cook until the onion is soft stirring as needed to cook evenly.
  2. Add the cubes of squash and cover again to gently cook in their own moisture for 10-15 minutes.
  3. Add the tomato paste and a tsp of La Kama spice mix. 
  4. Add the water/stock, cover and cook gently until the squash is tender.
  5. Take off the heat and using a stick blender puree the soup.
  6. Add the harissa paste to taste along with any additional salt and black pepper. Remember the cheese is quite salty too.
  7. Rewarm the soup and pour into bowls.
  8. Garnish each bowl with a portion of crumbled feta cheese and a light sprinkle of mild (aleppo pepper style) chilli flakes.
I served my soup with some Moroccan flat breads called Meloui which are fried rather than baked. The dough is a mixture of normal bread flour and fine semolina flour. I managed to track down some fine semolina in an international deli in my nearest city Exeter. I suspect the slightly coarse durum pasta flour is very similar. The dough is rolled into thin discs (blobs in my case) and then spread with melted butter and more semolina flour is sprinkled on.
Then there is a tricky folding and rolling process for each disc and finally you end up with a flattened 'pancake' ready to fry in butter (or a mixture of oil and butter to prevent rapid burning)
 The dough is quite simple but the rolling and folding was not so easy so I will link you to this quite detailed Meloui Recipe rather than try to explain what to do. 

They are a lot of work but rather good. Freshly cooked the outside is quite crispy and inside the dough is relatively light and well flavoured. Some of the recipes I looked at suggested eating these for breakfast dipped in honey.

So the Grand Soup Tour now crosses back into Europe and of course to Spain where the area of Andalusia/al-Andalus and much more of modern Spain and Portugal at various times were governed by Arab and Berber rulers from Morocco. Eventually pushed back they left behind their cultural influence in the architecture and food of Spain. Saffron and almonds both remaining in popular use and cultivation. Although there is a delicious Spanish almond soup, ajo blanco, that I was tempted to try I will stay with the more wintery theme of a chestnut soup spiced with saffron.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

A Grand Tour via Soup: French Potage Crécy with a sesame crusty roll

The Grand Soup Tour moves to France and whilst I was tempted to make the classical French Onion Soup I have instead elected for one of the first 'French' soups I was taught to make during a year of cookery training back in the mid 1970's, a Potage Crécy.

According to my 1961 edition of the Larousse Gastronmique, al la Crécy, is the culinary term given to various preparations, and notably a soup, where all include an obligatory garnish of carrots. Larousse notes there is a difference of opinion on whether the soup is named after the town Crécy in the Seine-et-Marne or after a small town in Somme, near to where the battle of Crécy took place. The soup recipe I am familiar with is thickened with rice and that is supported by the reference in Le Repertoire de la Cuisine, 17th Ed where under Soups, Crecy=Carrot puree with rice, butter and cream. I have seen many other recipes that use potato or other starches to thicken the soup but I stick with rice.

From from my earliest very impressionable days of learning to cook I rapidly became an incredible food snob but I hope I have retained some sense of 'keep it simple' regarding how food is described. Classical French cooking has always seemed very complicated, almost another language. There was a time when rather too many UK restaurants and cookbooks gave all their dishes french names regardless of their culinary origins. Pub chips never were pommes frites, and a typical school dinner style egg and bacon pie was never a Quiche Lorraine; food trends, what is new, but I digress. The point I want to make is that if I had been served this soup in an English restaurant as' Potage Crécy' in the 1970's I might well have grumbled that it was just carrot soup, but it is none the less French, and when finished with a little cream, a garnish of chervil and some good french bread you understand how nuanced and superior a lot of french cooking was (and is?) to its English counterpart.

This very simple soup relies on the quality of flavour in the carrots, but is perfect for times when you want a soup with minimal preparation. I have lost my original recipe and more often than not guess amounts when I make this soup, but this should be a good guide for you:

Potage Crécy
20g butter
500g peeled and chopped carrots
500ml water or vegetable stock / or use a good bouillion powder
20g uncooked long grain rice

salt & pepper

2-3 tbs cream single, whipping or double, or can be omitted altogether
few fronds of chervil cleaned (parsley or chives as alternatives)

  1. In a medium size pan melt the butter and then gently sweat the chopped carrots without browning them for a few minutes until just starting to soften a little.
  2. Add the water or stock, rice and a small amount  salt and pepper, if using stock powder you may not need additional salt at all.
  3. Cover the pan and bring to a gentle simmer, then cook at a simmer until the carrots are quite tender, which can take at least 30 minutes.
  4. Allow the soup to cool for a few minutes and then using a stick blender puree the soup.
  5. Stir in the cream, if you are using it, adding just enough to enrichen the soup without losing the freshness of the carrots. Taste as you add. Dilute with a little water if the soup is too thick.
  6. Add any further salt and pepper to season to your taste and bring the soup back up to simmer point again.
  7. Pour into bowls and garnish with leaves of chervil.
Chervil, is a lovely herb that is quite easy to grow. It is a component of the French fresh herb combination 'fines herbes', fresh parsley, chives, tarragon and chervil. The mild slightly aniseed flavour of chervil teams well with fish, chicken, eggs and mild vegetables such as carrots, potatoes, courgettes.

The rolls I served with my soup were based on a recipe from a book by French baker Richard Bertinet. I have to admit my rolls did not shape up so chic as the ones in the book. I think I have managed to anglicize them as they should have been skinny and pointy not short and round. Never mind they had a lovely crisp crust and tender centre so correct in some ways.
They were made with a mixture of a light spelt flour and strong white bread flour, so almost like a white bread roll but with a little more flavour from the spelt. He uses 350g of water to 500g of flour so you have quite a soft dough. Here are the stages for shaping the rolls:
After dividing the dough into equal portions and rolling into a rough ball you flatten the ball out to a disc. Two sides are then turned in to the middle. The piece of dough is then flipped over so the fold over sides and underneath. this is then cut into three almost to the top of the strip of dough. The strands are then plaited and pinched to a close. You then stretch out the plait by rolling each pointed end in your hands like you would a rolling pin. The spray the top of the roll with water and dip the wet side into a saucer of sesame seeds.
Place onto lined trays and leave to almost double in size

Ovens can be tricky, I baked the first tray with my oven on the 'Bread Bake' setting and they came out  with quite a dull crust.
The next tray I set the oven to 'Fan Intensive ' and they took on a much better and livelier looking colour.

I made a second batch of soup with a little more cream added and some milk, as a few recipes suggest this. I prefer the version without milk and just a little cream, it tastes fresher. I pulled some walnut and bacon rolls out of the freezer for this meal and they went really well. These rolls are from another french baker, Eric Kayser's book le Larousse du Pain. This is available in the original french version or as an English translation. More errors seem to slip into translated books so I stick to the original if at all feasible. 

My next link is from France to Morocco. The French like so many european nations were wide reaching colonizers. Morocco had been under French control for over forty years when it achieved independence in 1956. French post offices were established in Morocco with the use of French stamps simply overprinted with 'Protectorate Francais' and a local value. The french language is not an official  language now, but is widely taught and used in commerce, education, sciences and government. I shall be cooking up a very seasonal winter squash soup flavoured with spices and harissa, as well as some unusual flatbreads called Meloui

Saturday, November 14, 2015

A Grand Tour by Soup: Scotland's Cock-a-Leekie and Scottish Baps

So the Grand Soup Tour has moved up into Scotland and although I have chosen to make a Cock-a-Leekie soup, I was quite undecided over which of the traditional Scottish soups to choose. Cullen Skink* which is a wonderful sustaining soup made with smoked haddock and potatoes is a favourite of mine and also on a fish theme, I love crab and whisky soup, similar to Partan Bree a cream of crab soup. The more basic scotch broth, which combines mutton, pearl barley and vegetables is one I have never made, as I'm not a fan of the texture of pearl barley in soups.

However, chicken soup in any guise is just perfect for damp autumn weather, and as we are having rather a lot of the clinging cold damp at the moment Cock-a-Leekie it was.
This soup might otherwise pass as a fairly standard combination of chicken and leeks, but it also includes prunes which I have always been rather puzzled by, even a little alarmed. I like prunes but I never view them as natural partners to an otherwise mild flavoured soup. When you see sweet fruits combined with meat or fish there are usually some balancing flavours such as saltiness, sourness or strong spicing; I'm thinking of curry dishes, tagines and chutneys where the sweetness is not allowed to overwhelm. That said there are classical french dishes of both pork and rabbit cooked with prunes but with no disrespect intended to tradition I have modified the 'prune element' of my recipe to appear as a 'Devils on Horseback' side/accompaniment rather than just dropping whole prunes into my soup.
Bacon is normally used to make a devil on horseback. The semi soft and stoned prune is wrapped in bacon which is then fried and served hot as a canape.  If you do this with anything but very thinly sliced bacon you can end up with some rather flabby bacon fat hidden in the middle which I find a bit off putting, so I opt to make them with a slice of cured  ham in the form of speck instead.
Here is a detailed article from Nigel Slater on making the traditional Devil on Horseback. My version which uses just a small amount of speck instead of bacon takes very little time to crisp up in a hot pan so the cooking of these can be left to the last minute which means they are served at their best. Even if they are double wrapped the cooking time is still very short.

Many cock-a-leekie soup recipes assume you are going to poach a whole chicken and use most of the meat and broth for the soup, but if you only want to serve your soup as a starter then just including some of the poached chicken meat will work fine. It does not have to be a whole chicken, just a poached chicken leg joint will be plenty for a couple of portions of soup but the best tasting broth will come from a slowly poached whole chicken. I would not try this with just a breast of chicken joint as there will not be the desired depth of flavour in the poaching liquid. Some recipes also include large pieces of stewing beef in the broth but I'm sticking with chicken. There also seems to be a difference of opinion on the addition of a starch to the soup with some calling for potato, rice or pearl barley while others do not add any at all. I favour adding cooked rice.

I have made this soup of couple of times this week. The first batch was made from leftover roast chicken joints (bones and small amounts of chicken meat) which was good but gave a less flavourful stock than the second batch made from a whole slowly poached chicken and I give that version here:

3-4 medium leeks cleaned, green tops separated from white stems
1 whole chicken approx. 1.5kg
1 medium carrot,peeled and cut into 2-3 pieces
1 bay leaves
2 sprigs thyme
5-6 whole black peppercorns

40g long grain white rice, cooked in salted water and drained

couple of knobs of butter

1 stoned/pitted prunes (Agen prunes are well flavoured) and a half rasher of speck ham per person

2 tbsp chopped flat leaf parsley

1. Chop the green part of the leeks into chunks and place in a large saucepan with the whole chicken, carrot, bay leaf and thyme and black peppercorns.

2. Cover with (approx. 2.5 litres) water, lightly salt the water and bring to the boil, then turn down to a simmer and cook very gently for 2-3 hours, skimming any scum that rises to the surface at the beginning. You are aiming to poach the chicken until the meat is almost falling apart but you should still be able to lift the bird out whole from the poaching pan. The cooking time will depend on the size of the bird, how tender it was and how gently you are able to cook it. Gentle poaching will result in a clearer broth. You can cook the bird in advance/day before, but it will be easier to remove the skin and bones while it is still warm.

3. While the chicken is poaching cook the rice in salted water until just tender, drain off any liquid.

4. Prepare the devils on horseback by wrapping each stoned prune in the speck ham and secure with a wooden cocktail stick/food pick. If your prunes were bought with the stones in you may need to soften them for a while in warm water to make it easier to remove the pits. Set aside.

5. When the chicken is cooked, carefully remove the bird from the stock onto a board that will hold any excess stock that drains away as you prepare the cooked meat, most meat carving boards have a deep lip around them that will catch any liquid.

6. Remove the skin and bones and cut the meat up into large pieces, or cut up as least as much of the meat as you wish to use for the soup. You may wish to keep some back for another purpose if the soup is just a starter rather than a main course.

7. Strain the stock into a jug or bowl to remove the vegetables and herbs and skim off any excess fat.

8. Chop the white part of the leeks into approx. 2cm lengths and place in a pan large enough to eventually hold all of the soup. Add in a knob of butter and sweat the leeks gently until just starting to soften.

9. Add enough of the chicken broth to just cover the leeks, and simmer until they are perfectly tender. Leeks always catch me out by taking longer to cook than I expected, perhaps I buy tough leeks or keep too much of the coarser outer leaf on. If yours are tender and well trimmed this may only take 5-10 minutes, but it may take longer. You don't want that squeaky crunchy texture of undercooked leeks, they need to be tender.

10. Now add in the chopped chicken meat, the cooked rice and enough of the broth for the number of portions you want to serve and gently reheat all together. Taste for seasoning and add any additional salt and pepper.

11. When the soup is all heated through and seasoning checked heat a small non-stick frying pan with a knob of butter in and quickly fry the ‘devils’ until crisp and lightly brown on both sides.

12. Ladle the soup into warmed bowls distributing the chicken and leek evenly. Sprinkle some of the chopped parsley onto each bowl and place the crisp ‘devil’ on the side of the bowl, or on a side dish.
13. Serve with fresh bread and note the sense of tranquillity that will follow as everyone lets go of what they were thinking about to just enjoy the deeply nourishing bowl of soup before them.

These floury baps are made from a Dan Leppard recipe which has been posted by the Guardian. I have made them several times and always had good results. The recipe includes some cornflour as well as the  normal white bread flour. To get maximum flavour the initial sponge is allowed to rise for a few hours and can also be left overnight.

These baps bake to a soft tender crust and make excellent rolls for bacon butties/baps.

A Little History and the next destination

According to Alan Davidson in the Oxford Companion to Food, this soup in its current form dates back to the 18th century but there was a medieval version that contained onions and prunes/raisins. There has apparently been divided opinion on the prunes which is hardly surprising. Andrew Web in his book Food Britannia suggests the addition of prunes might have been a French Influence which brings me neatly on to my next country in the grand tour which is of course France. There have been very strong alliances between Scotland and France over the years with the Auld Alliance in place from 1295-1560. The Scottish and French would support each other in war, often against England. I had also often wondered the about the origins of the Scottish dish of collops, which is apparently from the french escalope.

So with a rather heavy heart after learning of the terrorist killings in Paris this week, the soup tour travels to France, for Potage Crécy. I live in hope that what we hold dear will serve to unite rather than divide us. Throughout my life people from other countries and beliefs have shared with me their love of good food, and shown me the greatest hospitality, and I hold that very dear. For me soup and bread are a symbol of that shared humanity.

* Cullen is the name of a seaside town in the Moray area of  North East Scotland. Skink is a Scottish word for a knuckle or shin of beef and also used for a broth made with shin of beef. So this is a fish version of that soup.