Allotment Soup Challenge: Celeriac and Blue Cheese

When we inherited our allotment last March, the only crop which had overwintered was a collection of celeriac – clearly beloved of the previous occupants if the quantity, amount and size of the plants was anything to go by. I’ve long been a fan of the nobbly, bald vegetable after having it in soups in Austria years ago and being regularly faced with it in veggie boxes since.

Last year I followed in the previous allotment holder’s footsteps and grew celeriac from seed. I suspect I didn’t lavish as much attention on it as the previous year’s incumbents had. We got a crop –  the celeriac were not as rotund as those I pulled up last March – but we managed to grow enough to harvest several for winter meals. Celeriac has a milder taste than celery and is lovely grated raw in salads or boiled and mashed. But as I’m endeavouring to produce as many soups as possible from the allotment this year, here’s one I experimented with recently which was particularly tasty…

Celeriac and Blue Cheese Soup

Ingredients

1 medium celeriac (or you could use a head of celery)

75g blue cheese, eg. Saint Agur

700 ml stock

50g butter

1 large potato or 2 smaller ones

300ml milk or cream

Black pepper

Few pieces of leftover chopped up cooked ham, fried chorizo or croutons

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The main ingredients

 

Method

Peel and chop the celeriac and potato. Melt the butter in a pan and add the celeriac and potato. Soften in the butter for a few minutes, then add the stock.

Boil in stock for 20 minutes or until the vegetables are soft. Blend the vegetables and stock. Add the cheese, milk and black pepper to taste. Reheat the soup to melt the cheese.

Serve the soup sprinkled with black pepper and chopped ham to add a salty twist, accompanied with crusty bread and butter.

This soup is warming, rich and delicious, especially if you’ve spent the morning digging, weeding or planting out in the cold at the allotment!! ☺

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If you are after more warming soups, try my Roasted Jerusalem Artichoke and Sweet Chestnut Soup. You can check out more recipes here or follow the blog to get new recipe ideas as I add them to the blog…

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Allotment Soup Challenge: Roasted Jerusalem Artichoke and Sweet Chestnut

I love making soup. Homemade soup was a big part of family lunchtime when I was a child and I’ve carried on the tradition, making soups out of everything I can get my hands on. My favourite soup cookbook is a faded copy of ‘Soup and Beyond’ which I’ve had since I was a student. I really like the way it broadens traditional soup horizons, with combinations such as ‘Potato, Leek and Lavender Soup’ and ‘Prince and Pedlar Soup’ (quince and medlar). This recipe book, alongside a keen interest in more unusual crops, has led me to play with all sorts of soupy concoctions – most of which have tickled enough taste buds that they’ve been reprised multiple times, for example, our family favourite cream of kohl rabi soup (which alas has not been possible from the allotment this year for molluscular reasons – see Taking Stock: The Three Worst Crops of 2016).

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Love this book

Allotment Soup Challenge

So I decided I’d set myself challenge for the next few months – to make as many different soups with produce from allotment 96B as I can – to trial new flavour combinations and to make the most of our homegrown produce. There’s nothing better than soup to use up leftover vegetables and to warm your cockles when your heart is feeling rather chilly, for whatever reason. So here goes… the first soup is with the leftover Jerusalem artichokes, harvested last week, mostly used in stir-fries, but with some sorry specimens (not a problem in soup) hiding at the back of the veggie drawer. It’s a good job the soup is nourishing and tasty as there’s an awful lot more artichokes where these came from – whoever had our allotment before us really liked the knobbly tubers and we could currently supply the majority of Hertfordshire until Christmas and beyond…

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Our first plant produced this sizeable pile – only 20 more plants to go!

Roasted Jerusalem artichoke and sweet chestnut soup 🌰

Ingredients

500g Jerusalem artichokes

150g sweet chestnuts

250g potato

1 onion

200ml stock

200ml milk

100ml single cream

1 tsp winter savoury (could use thyme but it might have a less protective effect on your digestive system – see below!)

Salt/black pepper to taste

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We’ve been happily adding these seasonal treats to gravy, soups and casseroles for the past couple of weeks

Method

Roast the chestnuts (with a cross slit in their shells) and the scrubbed artichokes in the oven at 180ºc for 30 minutes or until the vegetables are soft (don’t need to add oil). Meanwhile, boil the peeled, chopped potatoes, winter savoury leaves and halved onion in the stock and milk until the vegetables are soft. When cooled, combine the stock, milk, onion, winter savoury and potatoes with the artichokes (which can be skinned at this point, or as I did, squeezed out of their skins – messy but fun!)

Blend the soup and when it is smooth add the chopped chestnuts and salt and pepper to taste. The soup can then be blended again until there are only small nuggets of chestnut to add a bit of bite to the soft soup. Heat in a pan and serve with crusty bread. It really is pretty simple… and delicious.

You might want to eat fairly sparingly to begin with as the effects of Jerusalem artichokes can be rather potent on the unwary digestive system, but the winter savoury should help take the wind out of the Jerusalem artichokes’ sails, so to speak.  😉

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Fresh, nutty and delicious soup

Please leave me a comment – especially if you have any suggestions about other ways of cooking with Jerusalem artichokes – or producing power with them, or any other ideas as I’m not convinced our collective digestion systems will cope with eating all of them over winter, so we need to dream up some alternative uses!!  🙂

Nettles revisited: how time removes the sting

Today I had nettle soup for the first time in over 30 years. Wind the clock back three decades and I am sat at a small kitchen table in a terraced house by the river Gyffin in Conwy, North Wales. A place of childhood culinary excitement mixed with not a little apprehension as Granny served tea for the family. I remember rich steak and kidney pies, soft chicken liver pate, sweet Welsh cakes and my particular favourite – chicken, chips and curry sauce. The kitchen smelled of mellow spices and ripening fruit; a pervasive smell which, even now, connects me with that past in a very tangible way.

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Holidays with Granny and Grandpa in Conwy – happy times

Granny was an excellent self-taught cook – intelligent, exacting and experimental. She used local produce, often gathered from the hedgerows or bought on our walks in the country lanes from local farmers or producers. Her food was comforting and tasty, but also different, challenging, often because of its unfamiliar ingredients. Game always came with a warning to watch out for the shot and kale came with healthy looking caterpillars more often than not. Bilberries and hazelnuts were ingredients which I looked forward to having on my visits, especially if we got to forage for them first, but nettles had rather less appeal. I remember strong tasting dark green soups which I rather dreaded and the adults drinking dried nettle tea, whilst I, thankfully, had Granny’s lovely fresh lemonade.

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A little book of treasured culinary memories

Many years ago I gave her a blank recipe book which she gradually filled with her own recipes and her thoughts on food (including how best to remove the skins from chestnuts and how to make an effective substitution of different gluten free flours for wheat flour.) After she died, nearly 5 years ago, I found the recipe book and now keep it in my kitchen to refer to when cooking for my family and to provide a link with the person who inspired my love of cooking with ingredients closely linked to the natural world.

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One of the pages of soup recipes

The book lists 14 soup recipes, but makes no reference to nettles – maybe it wasn’t her favourite soup either. But this week I noticed the fresh new growth on the nettles beside the path on the way to school and felt a desire to reinterpret the past by cooking for the first time with this free natural resource.

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These young nettles brought back memories of childhood meals

I love making soups – they are so quick, versatile and economical. Curried root vegetable soups defrost even the coldest fingers after winter forays outdoors, green Thai cabbage soup deals with spring gluts and fresh tomato soup celebrates the bounty of the summer garden. The success of a good soup often rests on the quality of the stock, and Granny used boiling fowl as meat for chicken pies and carcasses for stock to improve the flavour of all types of soup. Although I do use powered stock, when we roast a chicken the stock made with the carcass (in addition to some vegetables and herbs) is as prized as the roast dinner which precedes it.

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Nettles washed and ready for steaming

My nettle soup began with a chopped large onion, a chopped clove of elephant garlic (because that’s what I happened to have in my garlic bag left over from last year’s harvest) and a chopped large potato, all fried in butter until softened and then barely covered in homemade chicken stock (you could, of course, use any stock). I simmered the soup base until the potato was fully cooked and then added two large colanders of well-washed young nettle tops and leaves.

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Soup ready to be blended

These took only a minute or two to steam (which removes the sting) and then I blended the soup and passed it through a sieve to ensure a smooth consistency (not essential and not a step which I imagine Granny would have approved of, but I wanted to give the soup the best opportunity to succeed.)

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My trusty mixer earns its keep blending soups throughout the year

After blending I added a cup of single cream and salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste. Then we had a lunch packed full of vitamins and iron, which even my 4 year old daughter described as ‘delicious’. The flavour of the nettles was much more delicate than I remember and the frugal nature of the meal, alongside its fresh, spinach-like taste will definitely secure nettle soup a place on our lunch menu in the future.

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Lunch looked quite promising

If nettle soup doesn’t appeal to your sense of nostalgia in the way it does to mine, then nettles can still be used as a compost ‘tea’ to fertilise the garden for free. They are rich in nitrogen, so can be used as a feed for leafy greens or can be mixed with comfrey (high in potassium and vitamin B12) to make a balanced feed. Nettles can be harvested, crushed up and weighed down in a bucket, then covered with water and left for a couple of weeks to decompose. The resultant liquid can be diluted about 10:1 (water:nettle feed) until it resembles the colour of tea and then watered onto plants to encourage strong, leafy growth. (Avoid use on young seedlings as the nutrient concentration is too high and might cause damage.)

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Beginnings of nettle feed

I would advise using a bucket with a lid to avoid the interesting experience we had a few years ago when our compost tea became infested with rat-tailed maggots, most often larvae of the European hoverfly or drone fly, Eristalis tenax. I was astonished by the size of the tail or siphon, which can be as long again as its body and which is used as a breathing tube whilst the maggot is submerged. I must admit, shamefacedly, to enlisting the help of my husband to evict the inhabitants – by the time we discovered them I think they were probably dead as they would have been unable to crawl out of the bucket to pupate. A salutary lesson in covering the bucket in future!

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Walking with Granny on Conwy mountain where we would spend many happy hours picking bilberries

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We often had a margarine tub in hand and Granny always had a plastic bag in her pocket – ready to collect whatever treasures presented themselves

This year I will be using the free resource provided by nettles to feed myself and the garden in our own different ways. And I’ll be celebrating a woman for whom the natural world was both resource and inspiration for her love of cooking for her family.

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If you cook nettle or other foraged soups, I’d love to hear about it. Please share by commenting below as it’s always interesting to learn new recipes to add to my list of old favourites.

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Thank you very much.

Nic Wilson