Tag Archives: Soup

Soup, tea, hot toddies and Grandads – Notes on a cold

Image taken from Smabs Sputzer's Flickr photostrea and used under Creative Commons license

Image taken from Smabs Sputzer’s Flickr photostream and used under Creative Commons license

It started with a tickle.

Just an innocuous little tickle at the back of my throat.  Nothing to be all that worried about. I blamed it on hayfever. Or allergies. Or a minor sniffle due to being a bit run-down. But over the course of the next few days, it grew and grew. I spent most of (the always amazing) Supersonic festival attempting to ignore it by pouring industrial amounts of whiskey, Jamaican ginger beer and jerk chicken laced with a fiery peppery sauce down my throat. But it was to no avail. By the time I called my Dad on Monday evening and spent five minutes convincing him that yes, this woman who did sound like a third rate Deirdre Barlow impersonator was indeed his eldest child, I knew the jig was up. I had a cold.

I hate being ill. As someone who spends most of their life flitting from city to city, the thought of spending days confined in bed doing nothing makes me itchy. I regress to being a child – one who wants someone to tuck them up, make them tea and fetch them Beecham’s Powders. I get lonely. I think about how much fun being ill was when I was a kid. I miss my Grandad.

My Grandad John came to live with us when I was twelve. My Nana June had just died, my Mum wanted to return to the workplace, and it seemed a good fit. He was a man unlike any other I’ve ever met before or since – one who once painted the inside of an oven (My Nana attempted to cook a pie in it, and it blew up, causing her to fly across the kitchen before repeatedly belting him around the head) and whose favourite post-work snack was a block of Stork Margarine dipped in strawberry jam. He resided in our conservatory like a wise old owl who always had a mug of tea in one hand, and a John Player’s Special in the other. During his time in our household, he acted as teacher, study aide, relationships counsellor, human alarm clock, and the World’s Worst Cook. (His ‘signature dish’ was a concoction of chicken breast smothered in Homepride curry sauce, served over half boil-in-the-bag rice, half oven chips. He also once infamously gave my ex-boyfriend food poisoning from some undercooked sausages.) However, where he really came into his own was a Nurse.

Whenever I had the flu, or tonsillitis or any of the other myriad nasty childhood illnesses we carry with us from the playground, he’d make my parents living room our plague battleground. Duvets would be whipped off beds, and the downstairs sofa would be turned into a sumptuous recliner fit for a Empress, full of cushions, pillows and blankets. He’d always make me Cream of Tomato soup with white bread soldiers (always Warburton’s Toastie –  usually a banned substance in my parents household), and – if circumstances were exceedingly dire – a Hot Toddy with perhaps just a smidgen more whisky than was really necessary.  Together we’d watch Watercolour Challenge and Countdown hudded together in that overheated living room like a pair of thieves.

My Grandad has been dead for four years now, but I still try and conjure up the memory of those days spent together whenever I’m ill. Heinz Cream of Tomato soup and tea, hot toddies and Countdown… all these comforting little things which make the past feel as though it’s within touching distance, but at the same time, so incredibly far away.

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Cullen Skink

So, Christmas has come and Christmas has gone and I’m left poorer and fatter, yet full of seasonal cheer.  As is tradition, myself and Mr. Cay spent it in our usual manner – eating, drinking, and searching for the number of NHS Direct whilst pissed because (after all), the festive season just wouldn’t be the festive season without one minor medical emergency.  Whereas last year it was because I’d gotten a little too merry on the sherry and chopped my finger off whilst making roast potatoes, this time it was the turn of Mr. Cay who has developed a cracking dental abscess, which has led to half of his face swelling up and him being nigh on incapable of swallowing solids.

Because we are nothing if not resourceful, we weren’t going to let anything as minor as a bit of mouth knack ruin our Christmas dinner. So, I did what anyone would have done under the circumstances – dose the fella up with as much Bruichladdich as humanly possible, and serve him a (practically) liquid Christmas dinner. Whilst he may not have been able to enjoy any roast potatoes  cooked in sizzling Iberico pork fat, he was at least able to get his potato fix with a large streaming bowl of Cullen Skink. 

There is something wonderfully comforting about Cullen Skink – a traditional Scottish soup comprising of cream, potatoes and smoked haddock. Hearty and warming,  it reminds me slightly of the chowders you find being served up at restaurants across the East Coast of the USA – tailor made to stick to your ribs on a cold night.  Best of all, it’s the kind of thing you can make out of all the leftover Christmas dinner ingredients you may find mouldering away at the back of your fridge – that wrinkly stinky onion and forlorn shrivelled leek. Whilst some recipes suggest that you mash the potatoes prior to adding them to the broth, I worried that this may give the soup a ‘gluey’ texture, so merely diced them instead.

There’s no hard and fast rule about making this, and it’s the kind of dish that can easily be adapted to the ingredients that you may have on hand. Don’t skimp on the smoked haddock though. Its smokiness really does make this dish, so use the best that you can afford. We ate ours with nothing more than a sprinkle of fresh parsley, a crack of black pepper, and a shot of the best Scotch our pay packets could buy.

CULLEN SKINK (Makes five – six decent sized portions)

You will need:

  • Two fillets of undyed smoked haddock, chopped
  • Two potatoes, peeled and cubed (I used Rooster potatoes, as they are quite firm, and retain their shape well when cooked)
  • One onion, finely diced
  • One leek, washed and sliced
  • 250ml fish stock (if you’re really pushed, you can buy some fresh white fish stock from any major supermarket, but if possible, do make your own out of leftover haddock bones and skin)
  • 300ml double cream
  • Two bay leaves
  • A sprinkle of chopped fresh parsley for garnish

Make It!

  1. Sweat the onions and leeks in a tablespoon of oil until they turn translucent. Add the potatoes and cook for a minute or so until they have just begun to colour slightly.
  2. Add the fish stock, the bay leaves and 150ml of double cream. Bring to the boil and cook until the potatoes have softened slightly (there should be a slight bit of give when you insert a knife into them).
  3. Flake the chopped smoked haddock into the pot. Add the rest of the cream, season and simmer for another ten minutes.
  4. Strain the bay leaves out of the pot, and serve immediately with fresh parsley and lots of black pepper.
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Red Lentil & Lemon soup with Harissa croutons

And so, December rolls around again like a tinsel-bedecked juggernaut. The big kid in me always loves this month, with the promise of Christmas (and the prospect of a week devoted to immense gluttony) just around the corner.  The part of me that appreciates not working to walk in the middle of a howling hailstone storm, however, isn’t as keen.

I always think that Bootle looks especially bleak in the Winter months, when not even the sight of the Seaforth docks, with its grain silos wrapped in fairy lights and cheap tinsel, can alleviate some of the gloom. I walked home last night in the rain; the slick wet pavements lit up by the sodium glare of streetlights the same dirty colour as the snood I’d bundled into, and decided that I needed three things to get me through a cold Monday night:

1) Tea

2) A hug from Mr. Cay

3) Soup. And plenty of it

One of my favourite soups to make when the weather take a turn for the worse is this Red Lentil & Lemon soup. I first read it about it on Orangette, who describes it (quite aptly in my opinion) as being ‘a quiet soup’. Indeed, there is something reassuringly simple and comforting about this combination of lentils, cumin and lemon juice – although it doesn’t smack you in the face with spice, there is a certain ‘something’ about it which makes it so much more than just another lentil soup. The dab of tomato paste also lends it a certain umami zing, which is just the thing to put some life back into cold bones.

Because I like a bit of crunch with my soup, I also whipped up some Harissa Croutons from the leftovers of a sourdough loaf I’d baked on Sunday. Whilst I am a firm believer in the benefits of making your own Harissa (Eat Like a Girl has an excellent recipe on her blog if you feel like whipping up a batch sometime soon), I am also terribly lazy. So, I just used the stuff from a jar which I’d recently bought from Steenberg’s Organics.

Warm soup, spicy croutons, hot tea and Masterchef on the telly. Winter may have hit Bootle with a vengeance, but so long as I have all of these things at my disposal, life will always be good.


Soup recipe adapted slightly from ‘In the kitchen with a good appetite’ by Melissa Clark. Harissa Croutons recipe originally by Eat Like a Girl

You will need:

  • 2 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 large onions, finely diced
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely diced
  • 1 tbsp. tomato paste
  • 1 tsp ground cumin (I like to use whole cumin seeds, which are toasted in a pan and then ground in a pestle and mortar)
  • 100g  red lentils
  • 2 large carrots, peeled and diced
  • ½ tsp  salt, or more to taste
  • A few grinds of black pepper
  • Pinch of red chilli flakes
  • 2 pints of chicken or vegetable stock (I used chicken)
  • Juice of a lemon  to taste
  • A good handful of fresh coriander, finely chopped

For the croutons

  • 1 tbsp harissa
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 100g sourdough bread, cubed

Make It!

  1. Preheat the oven to 150°C/300°F/gas mark 2. Combine the harissa and olive oil and season. Toss with the bread to coat. Bake for 20-25 minutes until crisp, shaking occasionally.
  2. In a large pot, warm the oil over medium-high heat until hot and shimmering. Add the onions and garlic and sweat for around 4 minutes  until golden.
  3. Stir in the tomato paste, cumin, salt, pepper, and cayenne, and cook for another two minutes. Add the stock,  the lentils, and the carrots. Bring to a simmer, then partially cover the pot and reduce the heat to maintain a gentle simmer. Continue to cook for around half an hour  until the lentils and carrots are soft. Taste, and add more salt if necessary.
  4. Once cooked, puree around half of the soup using a hand blender (or a food processor if you’re lucky enough to own one) . It should still be slightly chunky. Reheat if necessary, then stir in the lemon juice and fresh coriander. Serve the soup drizzled with good olive oil and topped with the harissa croutons.
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I’ve always been a sucker for a good cafe.  Somewhere I can set up shop for an afternoo with my notebook and a never ending supply of coffee whilst I check out cute boys and watch the world go by. Over the years, there’s been many a coffee bar which has held the key to my heart. When I lived in London, I’d regularly haunt the New Piccadilly Café, where I’d chainsmoke and pretend that I was the character in a kitchen sink drama like A Taste of Honey. In my wild formative years when I used to hang around Glasgow, a night out wasn’t complete without a 4am visit to Café Insomnia in the West End for  a sobering Mint Aero Cappucino. But above everywhere else, possibly my favourite café of all time is Manchester’s Café Pop.

I was first taken to Café Pop on a date when I was fourteen years old, and seeing an older bloke who should really have known better. He smoked, and like Suede, and studied Philosophy and to my sheltered surburban eyes seemed like the coolest, most glamorous man in the world. We were wandering around the Northern Quarter one day when he took me to this little place situated at the end of Oldham Street. When I walked through the door that first day, my eyes nearly popped out of my skull.  It was like stepping back in time to the 1960s – complete with old fashioned formica tables, a wall papered in old Top of the Pops compilation sleeves, timelessly stylish clear plastic cappuccino cups and waitresses who looked like Twiggy.  Add to this the fact that was a vintage boutique and hairdressers situated in the basement and  it’s not really surprising that I fell head over heels in love with the place on the spot.  At that moment, I decided upon two things. One, that I was going to become a mod, and two Café Pop was going to become my home from home.

And for many years, it was as well. In fact, I developed a bit of a routine. Every Saturday,  after I’d tidied the bedroom I shared with my younger sister, I’d collect my £5 from my Dad,  put on my best fake fur coat  and jump on the number 50 bus heading into Manchester City Centre to meet my best friends Lis, Kate and Becca – always making sure to apply lots of Rimmel Black Cherry lipstick on the way there (I idolised Marie Du Santiago from Kenickie at the time, and after reading an interview with her in Just 17 where she said that it was her preferred shade of lippy, it immediately became mine as well). Then we’d head to Oldham Street, where we’d buy the latest singles of the day from Vinyl Exchange or Piccadilly Records before setting up shop in Café Pop to compare our purchases, flirt with cute older men and pretend that we were much older and sophisticated than we really were.  We’d stay there for hours as well – I lost count of the amount of times we were chucked out by Mike, the Geordie owner of the place because we’d been there for four hours and only bought one cheap filter coffee between us.

As I grew older, sat my GCSEs and entered the world of work, I begged them to take me on as a waitress so I could avoid the Summer job in a printers my Dad had arranged for me, but to no avail.  Fortunately, the office was only based in Strangeways – a fifteen minute walk away from the Northern Quarter (well, if you nipped through the now bricked-over Cannon Street that is), so every lunch time I’d hurredly rush there to down a bowl of soup and a can of coke, praying all the while that no one would notice the stench of industrial ink which had permeated all of my clothes. When I entered sixth form, my college demanded that we either do work to help the community or sport on a Wednesday afternoon, so I got a volunteer job at Oxfam Originals on Oldham Street which allowed me to think I was saving the earth with an added frisson of cool. I dyed my hair black, acquired a Vidal Sassoon bob from Barbarella, the hairdressers located in the basement and walked and talked like I’d just stepped out of 1968 – something which amused my teachers no end.  The Café Pop regulars who’d gotten to know me over the years would pop into the shop and ply me with free sandwiches so I’d provide them with discounts on clobber they had their eye on. Looking back at it now, it was probably one of the best times of my life.

But sooner or later it all had to end, and it did in 2001 when I got my A Level results and left Manchester for the bright lights of London.  When I came home for Christmas, Café Pop had moved to the basement of the building they were situated in, and the boutique had moved upstairs. The wall of record sleeves had been taken down, and all of the quirky little nick-nacks situated on the shelves in each corner of the room had been lovingly packaged away. In its place was something which looked like the place I’d always known and loved, but somehow wasn’t the same.  It felt the end of an era somehow.

I’ve been back a few times since then, and whilst it’s never been especially bad, it’s not a patch on the place I knew and loved when I was a precocious whippersnapper.  Apparently it’s also changed hands over the last few years as well, so perhaps it’s to be expected that its new owners would like to put their own stamp on the place.  But still. Whenever I walk down Oldham Street, it’s difficult not to feel just a small pang of nostalgia for the Saturday afternoons of my youth, and the girl I was then – one who always wanted to be serious and glamorous, who always wore too much make-up, and who I know I’ll never be again.

RECIPE: CARROT & CORIANDER SOUP (always one of my favourite things to order because it was cheap, filling and tasted really bloody good)

You will need:

  • 1 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1 onion, sliced
  • 450g/1lb carrots, sliced
  • 1 tsp ground coriander
  • 1.2 litresl/2 pints vegetable stock
  • large bunch fresh coriander, roughly chopped
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper

Make It:

1. Heat the oil in a large pan and add the onions and the carrots. Cook for 3-4 minutes until they start to soften.
2. Stir in the ground coriander and season well. Cook for 1 minute.
3. Add the vegetable stock and bring to the boil. Simmer until the vegetables are tender.
4. Whizz with a hand blender or in a blender until smooth.  Make sure you taste it at this point to check if it needs more seasoning. If you feel like being adventurous, add a little fresh orange juice to bring out the taste of the carrots.  Stir in the fresh coriander and serve with fresh homemade bread.

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