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Today is cold and dry, which is my preferred combination. It means we can take the dog for a walk and he doesn’t get covered in wet mud, then cover the walls in wet mud. It means we don’t have to take our shoes off when we come in the house, and it feels like an excuse to cook something particularly warming for supper.
But the weather, for the most part, has been rather miserable of late. Everything’s been damp and dreary, so I haven’t been able to get out into the garden as much as I would have liked, but in a way, it feels like time has stood still out there. Everything is very much the way I left it in late autumn. Half the beds are bare, save a covering of leaves and twigs that have wound their way down for the trees above. The beds that do have vegetables growing in them are gently whiling away the shifting patterns of winter. It’s hard to see how things are developing as it all happens so slowly. Growth takes place by fractions, over weeks or months. Nothing really happens of note, until that is, you look a bit closer. The beetroot, for instance, have weathered the best part of the last two seasons out, uncomplaining, hardy, enduring. Putting up with gales, unusual warmth and deluge after deluge - unchanging, always there.
Below the surface of the earth however, they have gradually, by tiny increments, been busy in their own steady way. They have taken what good they can muster from their surroundings and converted it into a bulk of colour and sweet earthy sugariness. It’s taken time, but they’ve done it nonetheless. I must say, it’s a pretty impressive metamorphosis and one that cheers me up in the kitchen no end. Beetroot bring a rush of blushing colour at an otherwise dullish point of the year.
I have leeks growing too, although they seem to be stuck in a rut and rather unhappy about the world around them. I’m not seeing much get up and go from this lethargic platoon of green-topped alliums. Despite their tight ranks they’re not up for the fight, so I’ve taken to picking them off, a few at a time, no matter their size. They have a fitting end though, accompanying buttery roast chicken and bread sauce, or as a filling for a crumbly pastry tart. Alternatively, they’re all simply chopped and simmered with potatoes and stock to make a rich comforting soup for lunch.
(I’m including one of my favourite versions of this soup down below)
Winters a good time to get some jobs done in the garden, there’s no denying that. Come rain or shine, some things just have to get done. Mulching up the beds with plenty of well rotted manure is one such task, and we’ve been doing the best we can to ensure it’s ticked off the list before the first signs of spring appear. The manure itself is a delight (a sentence I wouldn’t have expected to use a few years ago) it’s come from our friend Tom, who has a small farm a few miles away. It’s so well rotted it could almost be mistaken for garden soil, and I know it’s going to do the beds a serious amount of good. I’ve learnt that feeding the soil in this way is absolutely essential, particularly with raised beds, that seem all to easily exhausted by a season of concentrated growing.
Mulching isn’t limited to the vegetable beds outside. It’s equally important to improve the quality of the soil inside the greenhouse too. So we’ve been heaping barrow after barrow of well rotted manure over the L shaped growing space in there too. I spent an hour or so raking it out and shaking out the larger clumps with a soil sieve, leaving a lovely light tilth, setting things up nicely for the season to come.
Despite the unsympathetic weather, and perhaps a few weeks prematurely, I’ve decided to sow some mixed winter salad leaves in the greenhouse, (something to bring that vibrant peppery punch of chlorophyll into the kitchen) alongside some young winter lettuce plants I’ve been bringing on over the last month or so. I’ve no doubt their progress will be ‘unhurried’, so to speak, but it’s quite pleasing to get something in the ground.
Leek & potato soup with smoked cheese & chives
What is it that constitutes simple? I never know. In my experience even the simplest things can be complex. For example, take a small piece of driftwood that’s been washed up on the beach. It’s a fairly ordinary thing and plain enough to look at, but at one stage it was a part of a living tree; a plant that has evolved over millions of years, that feeds on sunlight, produces oxygen and is able to communicate with other plants through an intricate lattice of mycelium into which its roots connect. The simplicity of the naked form is skin deep. Underneath it is more complex and beautiful than we can possibly imagine.
- About 1 litre (35fl oz) vegetable (or chicken) stock
- 3 floury white potatoes (about 350g/12oz), peeled and cut into 1–2cm (1⁄2–3⁄4in) cubes
- 3 medium–large leeks, trimmed and sliced into 1cm (1⁄2in) thick rounds
- 25g (1oz) butter
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 2 shallots or 1 onion, thinly sliced
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
- 2 or 3 thyme sprigs, leaves stripped
- 100ml (31⁄2fl oz) double cream
- 50g (13⁄4oz) smoked Cheddar or goat’s cheese, grated, plus extra for serving (optional)
- 1 small bunch of chives, finely chopped, plus a few left whole to serve (optional)
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Bring the stock to the boil in a large heavy-based pan. Add a third of the potato, bring the stock back to the simmer and cook, uncovered, for 6–8 minutes, or until the cubes of potato are just tender. Add a third of the leeks and cook for 3 minutes to soften, then drain the vegetables through a colander set over a large bowl to catch the stock. Return the pan to a medium heat. Add the butter and olive oil and, when bubbling, add the shallots or onion, the garlic and the thyme leaves. Cook, stirring regularly, for 4–5 minutes, then add the remaining leeks and potato to the pan and season well with salt and pepper. Cook gently, stirring regularly, for 3–4 minutes, then add the hot stock and bring the liquid to a gentle simmer.
Cook the soup for about 15 minutes, until the leeks and the potatoes are lovely and tender. Remove the pan from the heat and purée the soup until smooth and creamy. I find that a jug blender is the best tool for this job.
Return the soup to the pan. Add the cooked leeks and potatoes you prepared earlier, along with the cream, grated cheese and chopped chives. Season with salt and pepper, then put the pan back on the heat and bring gently back to a simmer. Stir well, remove from the heat, and allow to stand for 5 minutes before serving in bowls, seasoned with pepper and sprinkled with extra cheese and a few whole chives, if you like.