Spinach and Sorrel Soup, The Sonnet

Soup is one of the best foods ever inven­ted, so why are most of the ref­er­ences to it in lit­er­at­ure unashamedly dis­mal? Soup is usu­ally a meta­phor for hard times, dour land­ladies and dubi­ous chefs. The 20th cen­tury Amer­ican author Mar­garet Hal­sey cap­tured the ‘sad soup genre’ per­fectly when she said that the broth she was served ‘tasted as if it had been drained out of the umbrella stand.’

So here comes the fight­back. This spin­ach and sor­rel soup should have a son­net writ­ten about it. Or a novel in which the prot­ag­on­ist is restored to good health and good for­tune after just one spoon­ful. It’s the rich, deep, full-throttle green of a vin­tage racing car and gives instant vigour and zip to any­one who so much as looks at it. 

Sor­rel is a beau­ti­ful herb, espe­cially this red-veined vari­ety, but it’s often hard to find in the shops. I have a friend who keeps an allot­ment purely so she can main­tain her sor­rel sup­plies. But this week I spot­ted an entire tray of pot­ted sor­rel in my local shop, with reduced price stick­ers attached. So I res­cued the lot.

You may know by now that I love pic­nics and long walks. My mum used to put a flask of soup in one pocket of her coat and hot cheese, tomato and mus­tard rolls in the other and we would set off. Spin­ach and sor­rel soup would be the per­fect walk­ing companion. Make it, eat it and start writ­ing in rhym­ing couplets.

Spin­ach and Sor­rel Soup

Serves 4

1 floury potato, chopped into smallish, even-sized chunks

I medium onion, cut into sim­ilar sized pieces

1 clove gar­lic, sliced

1 knob butter

500ml veget­able stock

400g fresh spin­ach, coarsely chopped

40 sor­rel leaves — the sor­rel gives a del­ic­ate lemon back­ground fla­vour, but if you can’t find sor­rel, add an extra 50g or so of spin­ach and add a little grated lemon zest

Hand­ful of micro herbs such as cori­ander and red amar­anth to sprinkle over at the end — or just some chopped chives

Spoon­ful of cream (optional)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Melt the but­ter in a pan and cook the onion, gar­lic and potato together gently for five minutes or so, without col­our­ing them. Add the veget­able stock and bring to the boil. Turn the heat down to a gentle sim­mer for around 15 minutes until the potato is soft. 

Add 200g of the spin­ach and all the sor­rel leaves, sea­son with salt and pep­per and cook for a fur­ther five minutes. The sor­rel leaves give a del­ic­ate lemon back­ground fla­vour, but if you can’t find sor­rel, just add an extra 50g or so of spin­ach instead and a little grated lemon zest. Take the pan off the heat and add the remain­ing uncooked spin­ach. Blend imme­di­ately and adjust the season­ing. Serve with a drizzle of cream, if using, and a sprink­ling of herbs. Adding half the spin­ach at the end keeps the mag­ni­fi­cent deep emer­ald col­our of the soup. 

Spinach tart and homework

I’ve res­cued a heap of Vic­torian home­work from a Lon­don junk shop. Signed ‘John, 1848′, every sheet is lined with miser­able aph­or­isms. ‘Cau­tion is the only pro­tec­tion against impos­ing’, ‘Ven­er­ate sac­red insti­tu­tions’, ‘Nom­in­ate the just’. You get the picture.

Weirdly, hav­ing res­cued one batch of ancient home­work, I imme­di­ately found a whole heap more in my roof. I live in a 19th Cen­tury school house and like most things in this place, the roof is on its last legs. When the builder took the tiles off he found the eaves had been packed with old home­work — and it’s even more miser­able than poor old John’s.

Think­ing about the end­less scraps of paper that we throw away so freely, I star­ted to won­der about all the cook­books that go out of print each year. Per­haps, like act­ors, they say they’re ‘rest­ing.’ And yet while they ‘rest’, other far less impress­ive recipe books are doing a can-can down at the bookshop.

As a trib­ute to dis­carded cook­books every­where, and ded­ic­ated to 19th cen­tury John, here’s my ver­sion of a spin­ach and parmesan tart from one of my favour­ite recipe books of all, Quaglino’s: The Cookbook.

Spin­ach and Parmesan Tart

Serves 8

For the pastry

225g plain flour

125g slightly salted butter

2 egg yolks

For the filling

150g freshly grated Parmesan

450 g spin­ach

30g but­ter

freshly grated nutmeg

2 eggs, plus 3 extra yolks

200 ml double cream

150g Mas­car­pone cheese

Rub the flour and but­ter together with a pinch of salt. When thor­oughly mixed, whisk three table­spoons of cold water to the eggs yolks and pour into the flour. Quickly roll it together into a ball, wrap it in cling film and cool it in the fridge for an hour or so.

Pre­heat the oven to 200 degrees C. Roll out the pastry, line a loose-bottomed 25cm tart tin and line it with sil­ver paper. Tip in the bak­ing beans and bake blind for ten minutes. Remove the paper and beans and cook for a fur­ther 6 or 7 minutes until golden.

Reduce the tem­per­at­ure of the oven to 150 degrees C and pre­pare the filling. Wilt the washed spin­ach with the but­ter for a few minutes until it looks like bedraggled sea­weed but still retains its bright green col­our. Squeeze it out like a dish­cloth and then sprinkle with a little grated nutmeg.

Beat the eggs, cream and Mas­car­pone together until smooth. Then repeat the fol­low­ing for­mula twice…layer of eggs, cream and Mas­car­pone, layer of spin­ach, sprink­ling of black pep­per, hefty dose of parmesan. Fin­ish with a final dose of the eggs and cream mix­ture and a snow­drift of parmesan. Bake in the oven for around half an hour, or until golden and set. Finally, grate a little more parmesan on top and a trickle of extra vir­gin olive oil. Deli­cious with a green salad. Deli­cious with just about any­thing actu­ally. I ate it for break­fast this morn­ing, with a cup of PG tips on the side.