Celeriac and apple soup with stilton, and winter squash soda bread

CrumbsontheTableWINTER SQUASH SODA BREADJanuary days so far in our part of England have been mild, grey dishwater days.  That is about to change, with a blast of the Arctic cold that has been freezing mainland Europe, even to the Greek islands.  The North East US is shivering, too, and even North Carolina isn’t immune, to the surprise of family there who thought they’d left snow behind when they moved from New Jersey.

This seems the perfect time to share two warming discoveries I’ve made this year from gardener/cook and former doctor, Sarah Raven.  The first is a pot of celeriac and apple soup, a really excellent soup of substance; and to go with it, a winter squash soda bread that is a thing of genius, the perfect accompaniment to soup and much else.  Together they are energising and wholesome enough to rouse the higher faculties from hibernation and warm the bones.

The soup is one I’ve made a few times this year and it’s consistently excellent: very nicely balanced and more complex than a lot of vegetable purée soups, which as good as they are, can rely somewhat on a single note.  There are depths of flavour in this one from the two kinds of apple, the onion, garlic and celery, and a good stock.  The blue stilton garnish adds a contrasting salty finish. [Read More…]

Sweet potato quesadillas with all the fixings, and dairy-free coconut, pineapple and banana ice cream

I can’t remember a new year with such a collective question mark around it.  What will we make of this ‘uncertain’ year? I feel the need to embrace the culinary marvels of cultures and climates that bring so much to our plates that we can’t provide for ourselves.  After the holiday season of rich indulgences I also want a healthy dose of fresh, zingy food, simple but flavourful food, energy-giving, mood-lifting food for wintry times.  And I want colour: something bright, cheering and life-enhancing.

The food that always does this for me is Mexican food.  The brightness of lime, fresh coriander and chilli always cheers people up.  The informality of it, too, liberates a joyful spark and puts everyone at ease. Invariably someone remarks, while filling their tortilla or reaching for the guacamole or the salsa, how refreshing  it is, how different from the ‘samey’ food they’d come to associate with the cuisine.  It’s unfortunate that some people have that association.  The Mexican food I’ve known since my childhood in Texas and younger adulthood in California, prepared by Mexican cooks drawing on an enormously rich and varied cultural tradition, and using a mammoth variety of fresh vegetables, fruits, chillis and herbs, is anything but samey.  Walk through a Mexican market with its stalls piled plentifully with gorgeous fresh produce — dozens of different chillis and colours of maize, to coconuts and cactus fruits — and you’ll never think that again.  This is a cuisine of ingenuity and generosity.

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Chicken braised in cider with buttered apples

ldonohuecrumbsonthetablechickenwithciderandapplesThis is such a lovely dish I’ve chosen it for my seasonal offering to any readers who still have a meal to plan at this busy time of year and need some ideas, and perhaps more than anything, need an excuse to slow down.  Now, this is not a quick dish to prepare, let me say straight off, but it will slow you down, and that might be a good thing.

There are layers of flavour in this simple country dish that can make you swoon, and the process of cooking it is seductive, too.  It is a farmhouse dish of the Normandy countryside where chickens and apples live together, where cider is pressed, where Calvados — the brandy made of apples — is in the cupboard waiting to be flamed in the pot, and where the richest butter and crème fraîche from grass-fed cows are always to hand.  It is one of the most delicious things I know, and one of the most beautiful and fragrant.  This edible pastoral captures the ideals of unspoiled ingredients from unspoiled places, and love around the table.  It is a dish I make when I need to remind myself of how I want things to be.

It is also what I make when I want to fall in love again with cooking, especially at a time of year when there’s so much of it, and not all of it is a pleasure.  It’s not a difficult dish, but it does require a series of steps that need to be taken with patience and care.  I take pleasure in anticipation of the pleasure it will give others, but I also cook this for myself, because when I do, I enter a state of relaxed concentration that is a kind of joy.  It’s not always that way when we cook.  It is only sometimes like this.  But sometimes can be enough.

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