Autumn is pottering, puttering weather. After months of feeling disinterested in the kitchen, and despite the bounteous nature of summer produce, the arrival of the first cool weekend changes everything. I want the smell of slowly cooking vegetables – especially onions, baking to a deep, deep gold – to fill the house, but I’m not ready quite yet to spend all day tied to the stove even though skies are grey. A simple soup then, as Nigel Slater says, to invigorate. Adapted from his whimiscal and lovely book, Real Cooking.
Roast onion soup
Though it won’t win any prizes for good looks – it’s all a bit, well, brown – there’s a lot of complexity, fragrance and texture happening here that will convince anyone to dive in. The photo above might suggest that red onions are the kind to use here, but no, brown are best. The washed-out shade of violet-grey that roasted red onions take on won’t win anyone over - this I know. Enough for four.
4 brown- or white-skinned onions
4 fat cloves of garlic
1 teaspoon of oil
6 kaffir lime leaves
A thumb-sized knob of ginger
1 red chilli
1 litre of vegetable stock (see below)
1 tablespoon of fish sauce (nam pla) or tamari
The smallest tin of coconut milk you can find
½ - 1 cup of rice milk
Heat the oven to 200 C (400 F) and halve the onions, skin and all, from root to tip. Tip them into a baking dish with the garlic and toss to coat lightly in the oil. Flip each onion half so it sits cut-side-down and roast for 45 minutes, maybe a little longer. Turn them at about the 30 minute mark.
Start the vegetable stock (see below) if you’re making it yourself. You’re in the kitchen anyway, and the onions will take at least 45 minutes...
Remove the spine from each lime leaf and, very carefully, very patiently, shred them into fine ribbons. Peel and grate the ginger. Halve the chilli and deseed it; you want warm heat, not searing pain, here. When the onions are ready, peel them – the skins come away easily – and slice the softened layers very roughly. Spiking them with a fork and using a serrated knife helps this procedure along enormously. Remove each garlic clove from its skin.
Pop the onion, garlic, lime leaves, ginger, chilli, stock and fish sauce (or tamari) into a deep saucepan and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to a burbling simmer and cook for 20 minutes. Tip in the milks, squeeze the lime over the pan and bring back to a simmer. Discard the chilli. Taste for seasoning, adjusting with more fish sauce or tamari, before ladling into deep bowls. Your house will now smell wonderful.
A basic – very – vegetable stock
Roughly chop the following: An onion; 2 small carrots (no need to peel if they are young and sweet); 1 or 2 stalks of celery (including a few of their leaves); and a few cloves of garlic.
Fry these with 2 bay leaves and the stalks of a half a bunch of parsley in a teaspoon of oil over a high heat, letting it all catch here and there on the bottom of the pan. Add a big sploosh of white wine or mirin, let it evaporate (seconds, really), then pour in 1 ½ litres (6 cups) of water. Bring to a boil and simmer for 30 minutes. I add 1 teaspoon of an excellent, low-salt vegetable stock powder, but, honestly, a pinch of sea salt is just as good. Set a colander over a large saucepan or bowl and strain the stock. Press with the back of a spoon to get the most out of things. Easy, but only if you have the time.
Before relegating the vegetables to the compost, I sift carefully through, blowing on burning finger tips as I go, picking out large lumps of carrot. A quick rinse to remove any onion, and I put them aside for the dog’s dinner. Poppy quite likes cooked carrot, you see, and I feel far less wasteful. A win-win situation.
P.P.S. I've just realised (thanks, Johanna!) that this soup fits perfectly with Jacqueline and Lisa's No Croutons Required event of this month. This, therefore, is my submission.