The Seasonal Cook: cavolo nero, fennel & chickpea soup

Winter soup doesn’t have to be bland: an injection of Italian flavours can transform it from a staple into something superlative

There are few things in life as dependable as soup. I grew up blissfully unaware that one could eat anything else for lunch during winter. Throughout the colder months, a 1950s Scottish soup cauldron takes up residence in the bottom oven of the Aga, lovingly fed at two day intervals by my mother. Scotch broth made with the Boxing Day ham bone, mouthwateringly salty leek & potato, Tuscan ribollita so thick your spoon held court in it – I can track the weeks of winter through the vegetables that appear in my bowl.

She taught me that a good soup – like any enduring relationship in life – is built on solid foundations. Start with the classic Italian soffritto of carrot, celery and onion, perhaps with a dried spice or some pancetta or anchovies for meaningful depth. Potatoes or pulses add texture and act as reassuring ballast for whatever vegetables should be foisted on their shoulders. And let’s forget the idea that your soup will only ever be as good as your stock. Boiled up bones of Sunday roasts, a jugful of Marigold Bouillon or even just water – there are plenty of ways to add flavour to a soup without having to rely on the liquid.

With this unrelenting base, soup is the perfect structure to bear the load of a more unreliable love – one of seasonal cooking. During late spring that might be a handful of garden peas thrown in à la minute, then in summer some basil and sliced courgettes, before settling into the hardy greens of winter. I tend to think of tinned tomatoes as the taste of summer carefully put away for the rest of the year, so I would simply tune out anyone who tries to tell you tomatoes aren’t a winter staple.

Unsurprisingly, what transformed my steady relationship with soup into a heady love affair was time in Italy. Just by adding a parmesan rind and a dash of acidity – lemon juice or red wine vinegar – the humble soup becomes a star in its own right. The parmesan rind infuses the soup with a nutty richness, a certain je ne sais quoi that will have everyone coming back for seconds. The second trick is the final seasoning, and I don’t mean salt. A squeeze of lemon juice or a teaspoon of red wine vinegar stirred in just as the pan comes off the heat will lift the dish to another level, bringing together the ingredients in a way that added salt would simply overpower.

This framework for soup has become a most constant companion. Vegetables will come and go, herbs will be cut and come again, but a good soup base will never fail you – root vegetables store well, after all.

Cavolo nero, fennel & chickpea soup

This recipe illustrates how well a soup can adapt what’s in the field. I’ve swapped out celery for fennel, which is in season now and adds a wonderful anise flavour that sweetens as it cooks. Cavolo nero is nearing its end and becoming tough, so I keep it for the soup pot. In a few week’s I might swap the onion for late English leeks in the base and the chickpeas for the last of the Jerusalem artichokes.

3 tbsp olive oil
¼ tsp chilli flake
1 tsp fennel seeds, crushed
1 bay leaf, fresh or dried
1 large carrot, diced
1 onion, sliced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 fennel bulb, quartered and sliced
Tin of chickpeas, drained
250g cavolo nero
1 finger-length parmesan rind
Juice of half a lemon
Good olive oil and parmesan, to serve

  • Warm the olive oil over a medium heat with the chilli flakes and fennel. Once the spices start to sizzle, add in the carrot, onion, fennel and crushed garlic. Season well with salt and pepper.
    Soften for a few minutes until translucent, add in the tinned chickpeas. Stir for a few minutes to allow the chickpeas to soak up some of the oil and flavour.
  • Bring the stock to a boil – or add boiling water to your Marigold powder. Pour over the vegetables and throw in the parmesan rind.
    Simmer on a low heat for ten minutes to allow the flavours to infuse.
  • Meanwhile strip the cavolo nero from its tough stalks and line up the leaves lengthways on your board. Slice into roughly centre-wide strips.
    Stir the cavolo into the soup and simmer for a further five minutes, until the greens are tender.
  • Taste – if it needs a little lift, squeeze in some lemon juice. Serve with a glug of olive oil and some freshly grated parmesan.

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