Spring has at last sprung in Scotland. The outside thermometer in my lovely Skoda Octavia (that’s a car to any US readers) read 15C on Monday: this is sometimes a top temperature in July. I had planned on making a soup today, and had already bought all the ingredients. But I must admit to being sorely tempted to crack on with a delicate spring salad. I stopped in my tracks however, afraid that I would jinx us all, unleashing a torrent of plant-ripping hail and sky-scudding storms. And anyway, there is enough spring in this soup to fit comfortably with the unaccustomed sun and warmth yet cover the still-cold nights. Versatile, or what?
Another thing that is making me feel very chipper is the sight of my beautiful Black Rock hens (wrecking) pecking in the back garden. Such joy to see the sun glinting off their deep green feathers as they hypnotically bob their little heads, feasting on everything tender that I have dared plant out. Friends (and my husband) think they are the most spoiled hens ever, dining as they do on fruits, vegetables, herbs, grains and the odd bit of cake. I think it’s only looking after our best interests. After all, we eat what they eat. And as they eat gravel, worms, flowers and bugs I like to think that the diced mango, quinoa and coriander stalks are adding value and flavour to our daily delivery. The yolks are certainly as deep a saffron as those you get in Italy, and twice as delicious. Could be the saffron cake…
Science bit: I have indulged a bit in the ol’ nutrition stuff lately so I will calm down and try not to scare off you folk who are tuning in just for the nosh. Suffice it to say that leeks are the stars in this soup and that watercress comes a close second, but only because of the smaller amount. Not much research exists on leeks as they get lumped in with their fellow alliums, onions and garlic, but they are certainly useful to anyone wanting to eat more healthily. An Italian study noted rates of mouth, esophageal, colorectal and stomach cancers were lower the more alliums one consumes. Eating the equivalent of 1/2 a cup of alliums (leeks, onions, garlic, chives etc) per day is thought to be a health-promoting amount. It is certainly achievable if you make most of your own meals from scratch, but even adding sauteed onions, leeks or garlic to a bought meal is good. To get the most from your alliums, ‘box and cox’ (US readers, look that one up) between having them cooked and raw. Another tip: after cutting, leave alliums ten minutes as this develops the anti-carcinogen compound allicin.
Leek’s main nutrients are interferon-boosting manganese, Vitamin C, iron, folate, vitamin B6 and fibre. The cardiovascular benefits of alliums are more studied than for cancer, with numerous polyphenols known to help keep heart-damaging homocysteine levels low, blood vessels supple, cholesterol low, and protect blood vessels from free radical damage. For those who ‘know their onions’ (groan), but want to know more, click here.
Leek, Parsnip and Watercress Soup
This is a tail-end-of-winter soup, with a hint of spring. Sweet local parsnips are almost finished and edging towards being woody, but maincrop potatoes, leeks and watercress are in full swing. I’m only just tiring of the heartier winter veg such as parsnips and swedes, but here in Scotland we have a wee while to go before our springier crops are ready for harvesting. While winter and spring battle it out on the weather front (spring is winning today – hooray!), hedge your bets and try this mixed season soup. Please don’t hunt around for the parsnips if they aren’t available, just up the potato: I happened to have some parsnips and liked the sweetness they added to the soup. Garnish with frazzled thin-cut pancetta if you like, or even garden chives that may be peeking through just now.
700g/1 lb 8 oz maincrop potatoes (basically not new or waxy potatoes), peeled and chopped
200g/7 oz parsnips, peeled and chopped
500g/1 lb 2 oz leeks, trimmed
1 tbsp rapeseed oil or butter
1.5 litres/50 fl oz vegetable stock or chicken stock (I sometimes use a combination)
1 tbsp fresh tarragon or 1 tsp dried tarragon
100g/3.5 oz watercress (use the stalks too – tasty and nutritious)
250 ml/8 fl oz full-cream milk (optional)
salt and white pepper
What To Do: Take the leeks and cut away the tough darker green leaves. The easiest way to slice leeks is to cut them lengthways and then again so you have four long pieces for each. Gather them up and slice them thinly. Pop them in a colander and give them a good rinse to get out any grit. Supermarket leeks are usually pretty grit-free but farm shop or vegetable box/CSA leeks will always have some clinging in there.
Add the oil or butter to a large saucepan and, when this is melted over a medium heat, add the leeks and sauté for four to five minutes, stirring. Add in the potatoes, parsnip and stock. Bring to the boil and then simmer – covered – for 20 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender. Turn off the heat and add in the watercress and tarragon; let them wilt. Whiz the soup very carefully with a hand blender or in a food processor, before putting the soup into a clean saucepan with the milk and reheating gently. Season to taste with salt and white pepper, if desired. Serves 6