I spent a wonderful, woolly-jumpered day yesterday planting my tulips (fiery orange Ballerina and deepest purple Queen of Night for the back garden and pretty, stripy Spring Green for the front), lots of pom-pomy purple alliums and a huge basketful of Cheerfulness, that most appropriately named of daffodils.
And, thrillingly - to me, at least - I dug over beds, tugged out tough old roots and bits of rubble to make spaces for my new fruit bushes, Malling Jewel raspberries, Ben Lomond blackcurrants and Versailles Blanche whitecurrants. I could plant them for their names alone. I know, I know, it’s the horticultural equivalent of picking a horse because you like its name or the colours of the jockey’s silks, but I’ve funded many a day at the races that way (much to my form-following friends’ annoyance) so I hope this little experiment will prove just as successful.
It’s been a blustery old weekend so I retreated to the kitchen often, covered in muck and virtue, to warm up a bit and give my soup a stir.
Trolling the aisles of Waitrose the other day, I found an intriguing bag of pulses, Cerreto’s Organic Minestrone with Kamut Soup mixture. I love beans and pulses, not just for their beautiful names – adzuki, borlotti, cannellini, flageolet, haricot (cf plants, horses) – but for the way they look like tiny, brightly-coloured sea-washed pebbles while soaking in their bowl of water; their toothsome texture in soups and salads and the amiable way in which they take on the flavours of their culinary companions. They’re perfect for winter soups like this one…
I hate to throw anything out until I’ve squeezed the last glimmer of possibility out of it. When I’ve grated Parmesan down to the rind, I bag the rind up and pop it in the freezer to add flavour to soups later on. And I’m afraid my thrift doesn’t end there – when I’ve fished it out of the soup, I dry it out and cut it into tiny morsels which become Barney's favourite treat ever, even better, I’m afraid to say, than Doggy Breath Bones.
You need to start this soup the day before, by soaking the beans and pulses, but after that it’s simplicity itself.
1 tbsp olive oil
3 slices of unsmoked bacon or pancetta cut into 2cm pieces
2 onions, finely diced
2 carrots, finely diced
1 stick of celery, finely diced
3 cloves of garlic, halved and finely sliced
1 500g packet of Cerreto Organic Minestrone with Kamut Soup mixture (or your own favourite combination of dried peas, barley, lentils, red lentils, kamut, chickpeas, black beans, green adzuki beans, cannellini beans, haricot beans, red kidney beans) soaked in plenty of cold water for 12 hours
1 bouquet garni – a few stalks of parsley and some sprigs of thyme tied together with a bay leaf
2.25 l good chicken or vegetable stock
Parmesan – a rind for seasoning if possible, some more for grating over the top
A handful of parsley leaves, tough stalks removed and finely chopped
Some fruity extra virgin olive oil for trickling over the top
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Warm the olive oil in a large saucepan over a medium heat. Add the bacon or pancetta and fry until they just begin to take on some colour. Remove it from the pan and set aside while you sauté the vegetables in the oil and bacony fat. Lower the temperature a bit and add the onions. Cook them very gently until they’re soft and translucent, about 15 minutes. Add the carrots and celery and cook, stirring, for about 3 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for a minute. Drain the beans and add to the pot with the bacon or pancetta, bouquet garni, stock and Parmesan rind if using. Simmer very gently, partially covered, for 2 hours. Stir the soup from time to time and top up with a little boiling water from the kettle if it looks a bit dry. The beans should be very tender. Remove the Parmesan rind and bouquet garni. Stir in the parsley and season well with salt and lots of black pepper. Ladle into warmed bowls, grate over some Parmesan and trickle on a little good olive oil.