KUALA LUMPUR, May 18 — There are days when you just don’t want to go anywhere. The rain is pouring outside, the winds are wrenching branches off the trees; really, it’s simply safer to stay at home. Fast food delivery is out of the question (the poor delivery guy may drown in this deluge); instant noodles smack of desperation.
Oh dear, do we really have to cook a meal from scratch?
Why are we so afraid of cooking unhurriedly and leisurely these days? Are our nerves that frazzled from chasing one deadline after another that we can’t slow down and take stock? (Or make stock, from real animal bones, even.)
It’s about taking the time.
This is why I believe thunderstorms can be a blessing in disguise. It forces us to check our pantry and figure out how to create a meal from raw ingredients. It doesn’t have to be an elaborate five-course menu; a one-pot dish would do. But what works best for a rainy day?
The answer, unsurprisingly, is a steaming hot bowl of soup. I’m Cantonese so I grew up enjoying a bowl of lovingly home-cooked soup with every meal. From watercress with spareribs to kampong chicken with whole cracked peppercorns and garlic cloves still in their skins, soup is an incredibly versatile dish for both amateur and professional cooks to play with all manner of ingredients.
Soup is what our mothers and grandmothers made for us when we were unwell as kids, or to nourish us in the weeks of cramming before final examinations. Soup tastes of simple, unconditional love.
Now that I’m an adult (or as grown-up as the ripe age of 35 ought to make me), soup is still a regular feature on our dining able, albeit an easy version that involves nothing more than placing a whole chicken into a slow cooker, adding water, some root vegetables and various aromatics, covering the lid and waiting.
Convenient and fuss-free, certainly, yet on a day when one is sequestered at home thanks to inclement weather, one is up for more of a challenge. Instead of Cantonese soups, as nutritious and healing as they are, why not attempt something more Western?
When we dine outside, one of our favourite soups is pumpkin soup, if the restaurant has it. I remember having an excellent bowl of this in Milan many years ago – creamy, naturally sweet with a robust heat that must come from ginger. I had a chance to chat with the English-speaking chef and he told me the secret was to roast the pumpkins before making the soup.
These days, I prefer my food slightly less sweet, even if the flavour is from the caramelisation during the roasting, and not from added sugar. One way around this, I find, is to add some potatoes; this lightens the sweetness somewhat while its natural starchiness means I can use less cream. (My waistline approves.)
We cook a big pot, so the hearty soup will serve as a simple brunch for two with enough for dinner too. Simply grill some vegetables to accompany the soup (it reheats beautifully) for the evening meal.
Time-staking? Not really, if you prepare ahead and have all the ingredients at hand. Besides, the slow cooking process can be quite meditative, especially on a rainy day with nowhere to go. So, no; it’s not really time-staking. Try timeless.
If there’s one thing I’ve realised over the years, it’s this: good cooking, just like living and loving well, takes time. And it’s worth it.
Roast pumpkin and potato soup
You can always replace pumpkin with other types of squash such as butternut squash, or omit the potatoes entirely if you prefer a sweeter soup. What’s important is to use good chicken broth, preferably home-made as commercial stocks will either be more expensive or contain MSG (likely both).
Make sure you season the soup sufficiently to bring out the honeyed, nutty flavours of the pumpkin; don’t be afraid of over-seasoning it. Use this recipe as a base and take the soup in different directions by adding other ingredients or toppings. Try some dried chili flakes, for example, to add some heat.
1 pumpkin (approx. 1kg), peeled, seeded and cubed
2 potatoes, peeled and cubed
2 onions, chopped
1 bulb garlic, separated into cloves
1 piece ginger, chopped
4 tbps olive oil
1 litre home-cooked chicken broth
½ cup of cream
3 slices of bacon
Parmesan cheese, grated
A handful of fresh button mushrooms, sliced thinly
Salt and pepper to taste
A drizzle of truffle oil (optional)
Pre-heat oven to 200°C. Cut the pumpkin into quarters, then peel and deseed. Cut further into chunky cubes. Cut potatoes into cubes too. Place the pumpkin and potatoes into a large roasting tray lined with aluminium foil. Season with two tablespoons of olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste; make sure all the pieces are well coated. Bake in the oven for 30-40 minutes until the pieces are soft.
In large pot, add the remaining olive oil. Fry the onion, garlic and ginger over low heat till the onion is translucent. Add the roasted pumpkin and potatoes. Continue to fry for 3-5 minutes before adding the chicken broth. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer for 15-20 minutes. Check the taste and season with salt and pepper from time to time.
When the soup mixture has cooled reasonably, pour it into a blender and pulse until you get a smooth purée. Remember to taste and season further if necessary. Return to the pot and reheat over low heat. Stir in cream until it reaches the right creamy thickness. Serve in two warmed bowls. Place fried mushrooms on one bowl, and grilled bacon with Parmesan cheese on the other. Drizzle with a swirl of truffle oil for that extra kick.
Yield: Serves two on a cold, rainy evening, with plenty of seconds.
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