I found this gem of a recipe in the most unlikely location. As much as I love shopping for food, I am not a big fan of supermarkets: I don’t like being in an overcrowded, artificially lighted environment for long, if I can avoid it. They are convenient though, so a trip there now and again is almost inevitable. One of the most annoying features are those piles of products on offer, luring you into buying, buying, buying.
A ready-made soup from the New Covent Garden Soup brand caught my eye: the flavour combinations looked quite inviting. I did not buy any however, for fear of being disappointed, once more, by a nice packaging and some clever marketing. I have not tried their soups to date, so I can’t judge their products. But when I stumbled upon a cookbook published by them, entirely devoted to soups, I could not resist having a good look at it. And indeed, although the editorial form is nothing short of irritating (no ingredients index, a “hand-written” font that is almost impossible to read on the dark green background), there are many recipes worth trying in this little book. I started by recreating the lentil, tomato and coriander soup that had caught my eye. It is a very simple soup, with no other ingredients than the named ones, plus a sautéed onion, a bit of cumin, coriander and pepper: it tastes rich and satisfying, it can be made with products probably already sitting in your pantry, and it comes together with five minutes’ active time.
The recipe that really surprised me though is this twist on a vichyssoise, created by a reader for a competition (they call them reader, but I’m not sure about what they actually read; I assume the most correct term would be client). It is a jade-coloured, elegant, silky soup with an addictive quality. I have always admired the lush silkiness of vichyssoise. It was my go-to soup when I lived in Wales, where both potatoes and leeks are fetish ingredients. Actually, it is not by chance that I decided to try this recipe: vichyssoise is a bit of a fetish for me in general.
I am of the generation who grew up with the very first computer games (sounds like ages ago). My geeky teenage self particularly loved the adventure Monkey Island, born under the creative umbrella of George Lucas. Now, if you have ever played one of these adventure games, you know that their main feature, apart from the now-embarrassing graphics and beautiful musics, was that the player had to spend hours, literally, trying to solve the most implausible puzzles to reach the next stage. Hours of combining banana pickers, cogs, grog, chickens, the world’s biggest wool ball, and yes, a pot of vichyssoise. I’m not even sure it was vichyssoise in the original version (I played it in Italian), but I cannot forget the green blob. I was actually surprised when I decided to finally cook one and quite liked it. Ah, youth: epic times of boredom and geekiness, even before that was fashionable. I wonder which food obsessions I would have nurtured, had I grown in the Facebook era.
Anyway, I tried this twist on the soup, half convinced it would turn out disgusting: leek, potatoes and one of my least favourite vegetables, celery; cardamom, a spice notoriously difficult to use in savoury food, and left all alone here; milk (cream in the original); lemon rind and juice; shrimps. It shouldn’t work. Let me tell you, it is delicious. I belong to the vast majority of celery un-enthusiasts: I am ok with a bit of celery occasionally, but I’d rather avoid a soup completely made of it. Here you can taste it, but it works so well with the other ingredients, it is almost magic. You can easily avoid the shrimps if you want to keep this vegetarian, but I quite like the extra nutrition and the textural change shrimps provide (they are not really used for flavour here, so small frozen ones work really well). Like the other New Covent Garden soup, it comes together in a few minutes, and it uses ingredients I almost always have lying around, half forgotten in a corner of the fridge. And like all good vichyssoises, it is delicious both hot and cold.
New Covent Garden Vichyssoise
1 small onion,
2 leeks, white part only (though a bit of green won’t hurt)
3 stalks of celery
a knob of butter
3-4 medium potatoes
water or stock (chicken or vegetable, anything light)
seeds from 4 cardamom pods
1/2 teaspoon celery seeds (leave out if you don’t have them) or celery salt
a dash of milk
1 organic lemon
a bit of parsley, coriander or celery leaves to garnish
optional: a handful of frozen shrimps
Chop roughly onion and leeks and sautée in a bit of butter in a soup pot (to make it super quick, use a pressure cooker). Meanwhile peel and cut the potatoes into chunks. When leeks and onions are translucent, add the potatoes, the zest of half a lemon in one piece (cut the yellow part only with a potato peeler), and the water or stock. In a mortar, or using a large knife or a spice grinder, reduce cardamom seeds, celery seeds and a pinch of salt to a fine powder, and add to the soup. Bring to the boil, cover and cook on low heat until all the vegetables are tender (it takes about 5-10 minutes with the pressure cooker, half an hour without). At this point you can remove the lemon zest if you prefer, but I like its zing when left in. Liquidize the soup using a hand blender. Taste and adjust salt and pepper. Bring back to the boil, add the shrimps if using and wait for them to be defrosted (i.e., when the soup boils again). Add about 100 ml of milk, mix well and reheat until almost boiling. Turn off the heat, taste seasoning again, then serve with a lot of freshly ground pepper, some chopped herbs (parsley, coriander, celery leaves: they all work) and lemon wedges to squeeze in. Or you can leave this to cool and serve at room temperature or even fridge cold, depending on temperature outside.