Liquid assets: winter soups

All you need for a warming bowl of winter soup is a dash of imagination and some spare vegetables, says Mark Hix. Photographs by Jason Lowe

There is a certain comforting pleasure in making winter soups from scratch. Not enough of us regularly make the effort, but it's so easy, and you can often surprise yourself by making a soup out of almost nothing. Everyone's fridge has a vegetable compartment with that odd carrot, onion and bit of cabbage lying around and most of us have a few rashers of bacon, too. Combine those with a few dried lentils or split peas and you have the beginnings of a great hearty dish.

The remains of a roast bird or joint can also add to the cause and if you're a regular boiler of a ham joint then you will need no more than some dried peas and an onion to make a London Particular, an old-fashioned soup that referred to the thick pea-soup-like fog that used to cloud the city's skyline.

Whichever broth you decide to make, soups are a great way of feeding hungry mouths and only get better from resting overnight as they gain lots of flavour. So don't be afraid to mix and match whatever you've got in the fridge so much from our weekly shop is thrown away when it could be put to good use.

Lamb shin soup with mixed pulses

Serves 6-8

A small piece of lamb shin will make a well-flavoured broth as a base for a hearty soup. I've managed to get my hands on a packet of tiny mixed pulses called zuppa veloce which consists of small brown lentils, Italian barley, split green and yellow peas, tiny white risini beans and tiny mung beans among others. A good Italian deli would stock something like this, or you can simply make up your own mix from the larder for a fast soup.

If you want to cut down on cooking time, it might be worth dusting off your pressure cooker to make the initial broth.

For the broth

1 shin or knuckle of lamb or mutton
1 onion
4 cloves of garlic, peeled and halved
2 carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
A few sprigs of thyme
1 bay leaf
10 black peppercorns<<br/>For the soup
1 medium onion, peeled, halved and finely chopped
2 carrots, peeled and cut into rough 1cm dice
1 leek, cut into rough 1cm rings and washed
A couple sticks of celery, peeled and chopped
A few leaves of cavalo nero or savoy cabbage, cut into rough 1cm squares
100g of tiny beans (see above)
2tbsp chopped parsley

First make the broth. Place the lamb shin and the other ingredients into a large saucepan, cover with about 4 litres of water and half a tablespoon of salt, bring to the boil and simmer gently for 2 hours (or corresponding time for a pressure cooker).

Strain the stock through a fine meshed sieve and skim any fat off with a ladle. Once the shin is cold, remove it from the bone and cut it into rough 1cm cubes.

Using a little of the fat, gently cook the onion, carrot, leek and celery for 2-3 minutes on a low heat in a large saucepan. Add the stock, lamb and pulses, season, bring to the boil and simmer gently for 15 minutes. Add the cabbage and continue to simmer for another 15 minutes then stir in the parsley and simmer for a further 5 minutes.

Breton fish soup

Serves 6-8

The hearty fish soups of France can be served as two courses, with the chunky fish pieces used as a main course, followed by the broth. I'm going to leave everything in one pot here, however, and serve it as one delicious soup. The fish you use is up to you, but I wouldn't suggest spending too much on a prime fish; you will get good results with, say, plaice, haddock, huss, gurnard, etc. You'll notice I haven't mentioned pollack, and that's because I fear that it may become a victim of its own success. Its increasing popularity is due partly to the fact that many people now seem to think it's endlessly sustainable, which it isn't.

Buy your fish on the bone and fillet and skin it yourself, or get the fishmonger to do it, and make a stock with the head, bones and skin by just simmering them with a chopped-up leek, onion and celery stick with some thyme, a bay leaf and a few fennel seeds for 20 minutes, then strain it off.

2 onions, peeled and finely chopped
1 leek, cut into rough 1cm squares and washed
A good knob of butter
1 potato, peeled, thinly sliced and cut into rough 1cm squares
1.5 litres fish stock
1kg white fish such as gurnard, filleted (see above)
2tbsp chopped parsley
2-3tbsp double cream
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Gently cook the onions and leek in the butter for 2-3 minutes with a lid on until soft, stirring every so often. Add the fish stock, season and simmer gently for 20 minutes. Cut the fish fillet into bite-sized chunks, checking for bones and add to the soup with the potatoes, cream and parsley. Simmer for 6-7 minutes until the potatoes are cooked, then check the seasoning and serve.

You could make this the day before, reserving the fish and parsley, and add them just before serving.

Pheasant, chestnut and chanterelle soup

Serves 6-8

As I mentioned last week, pheasant is probably my least favourite of all the game birds when it comes to roasting. Pheasant has the tendency to dry out before you know it and it can make for a dull feast. It's got to be timed to perfection or slow-cooked. It does, however, go a long way in a soup like this. You can prepare the base of the soup and roast the chestnuts and get everything together the day before, then simply re-heat and add everything just before serving.

1 oven-ready pheasant
1 onion, peeled and roughly chopped
1 small leek, roughly chopped and washed
A couple of sprigs of thyme
2 litres chicken stock
1 glass of white wine
40g butter
30g flour
16-18 chestnuts
150g chanterelles, cleaned
2-3tbsp double cream
2tbsp chopped parsley
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Remove the legs from the pheasant with a sharp knife and chop them in half to separate the thigh from the drumstick, then carefully remove the breasts. Place the legs, breasts and carcass in a pot with the onion, leek, thyme, chicken stock and wine. Lightly season, bring to the boil and simmer gently for 10 minutes. Remove the breasts and place on a plate, continuing to simmer the soup for 30 minutes.

Melt the butter in a small saucepan and stir in the flour over a low heat. Whisk the flour and butter mixture into the simmering soup, then continue to simmer for another 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, pre-heat the oven to 200C/gas mark 6. Score the chestnuts and place in a small baking tray. Cover with foil and bake for about 12-15 minutes then remove and leave to cool. Peel away the skins and cut each one into 2 or 3 pieces.

Strain the soup through a fine-meshed sieve into a clean saucepan and add the cream. Remove the meat from the legs and cut or flake the meat of the legs and breasts into bite-sized pieces.

Add the chestnuts, chanterelles and the parsley and simmer for another 5 minutes. Check the seasoning and serve.

Pig's trotter and green pea soup

Serves 4-6

This is a really hearty winter concoction that will most certainly keep out the cold. The natural gelatine in the pig's trotters gives a delicious sticky texture to the soup, causing your lips to smack together.

Now you may be thinking that a soup made with pig's trotters is potentially an unpleasant eating experience but in my opinion, you'd be quite wrong.

Just take the plunge and give it a go; your local butcher will be glad to part with a few pig's trotters, and you can ask him to saw or chop them up, too.

2 large onions, peeled and finely chopped
4 pig's trotters, each chopped into 4 or 5 pieces
3 litres of chicken stock
A few sprigs of thyme
4 cloves of garlic
500g green split peas
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Put the onions in a saucepan with the trotters, stock, thyme and garlic. Bring to the boil, season and simmer for 1 hours. Add the peas and continue cooking for another 45 minutes to an hour or until the trotters are tender and the peas are beginning to disintegrate.

You can continue cooking the soup until the peas have pured completely, or blend a few or them and add the mixture back to the soup so it is smooth with some chunks in it it's up to you.

Serve the soup with some crusty bread.

A simple vegetable soup

Serves 4-6

I often make a simple vegetable soup with odds and ends in the fridge. Make it with raw vegetables, though, and not leftover cooked ones, as you just won't get enough flavour out of them. Root vegetables are ideal for this type of soup, along with celery, leek and seasonal cabbage just dropped in near the end of cooking.

1 medium onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 leek, cut into rough 1cm squares and washed
4 sticks of celery, cut into rough 1/2cm squares
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
1tsp chopped thyme leaves
A couple of good knobs of butter
2 large carrots, peeled, cut into 1/2cm squares
1 small swede, peeled, cut into 1/2cm squares
60g green split peas, soaked for 2 hours

1.5 litres vegetable stock
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
A few leaves of shredded green cabbage
1 large potato, peeled, cut into 1/2cm squares

Gently cook the onion, leek, celery, garlic and thyme in the butter for 3-4 minutes until soft. Add the rest of the ingredients except for the cabbage and potatoes, bring to the boil, season and simmer for 30 minutes. Add the cabbage and potatoes; continue to simmer for another 10 minutes or until the potatoes are cooked.

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