Wednesday, 22 February 2012

When life hands you ginger

When the sky looks like this

and you bought too much ginger at the supermarket, and the new, 25th-birthday edition of Cuisine magazine has arrived in the post, and you have no place else to be, then what's a girl to do but make ginger beer? Not the proper, demi-john brewed, lovingly tended ginger beer, but an instant version that's nevertheless pretty damn good, especially on a day like this.

Express Ginger Beer

100g root ginger, skin and all, grated
6 tablespoons brown sugar
1 lime
1 orange
1 litre soda water

Put the ginger, sugar, and skin of the lime and orange into a bowl, and give it a good bash so the oils are released from the citrus.   Leave to infuse for 10 minutes.

Add the juice of the lime and the orange, and top up with the soda water.  Strain into a large jug.  Taste, and add more sugar as required.  Alternatively, if you like your ginger beer sweeter, you could use lemonade instead of soda water - I like mine firey and peppery and less sweet.  Serve over lots of ice.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Swedish Midsummer Cake

Midsummer has such a lovely ring to it, doesn't it?  So heady, so optimistic, such a promise of things to come - a real celebration.  The second, usually better, half of the summer is waiting, within a fingertip's reach.  The sounds and smells and blinding light of summer envelop you, pressing pause on otherwise hectic lives.  My lovely Uncle Anthony was a Midsummer baby, born on 21st June and so I've always associated him with the equinox, whether in the UK, or here in NZ, when I now remember him in December.

Although Midsummer passed us some time ago in New Zealand, and right now the darkening nights seem to be beating a steady path to Autumn's door, and the fruits are overflowing with late summer ripeness, the fact that we now celebrate Valentine's Day in the height of summer seemed like a perfect time to make a Midsummer Cake - after all, all the things I love about midsummer, the optimism, the perfection, the promise, all seem to hold true, especially for this Valentine's Day, the first we have had since we got married in December.

Also, Andy REALLY loves strawberries.  This came at the end of a pretty-near perfect meal; scallops and chorizo to start, followed by Andy's main course of loin of pork with garlic and fennel (and possibly the most delicious gravy anyone has ever tasted in the whole history of the world)

This is not a pretty cake, by anyone's standards, but it is truly delicious.  And it seems that somehow the point of it is to be lovely and homespun-looking.  That's what I'm telling myself, anyway.  The sponge has no added fat, so no butter, no oil, which results in a light, airy cake with a surprising sturdiness, that proves the perfect vehicle for the other elements.  For, let's be straight here: the sponge has no extra fat, but the in-between layers part certainly makes up for that, with vanilla custard, whipped cream, oh, and plenty of strawberries.  Nor is it a cake you can churn out at a moment's notice, for a forgotten bake sale, unexpected guests, or just because you have the baking itch.  This takes planning, should ideally be started a day in advance, and is fiddly, or as my Welsh husband would call it, 'potchy' (no, I don't know either, but I like the sound of the word and it seems quite onomatapoeic).

This is my first entry into the Sweet New Zealand blogging event, hosted this month by Shirleen at the gorgeous blog Sugar & Spice, and a fellow Wellingtonian.

The recipe comes from Nigella Lawson's 'Kitchen', which, like most of her writing, I have found eminiently readable and useable, and have only had successes when I've cooked from it. Oh, and in the book it is just called 'Summer Cake', but Nigella talks about these types of cake being cooked all over Scandinavia to celebrate Midsummer, hence my use of the prefix. 

Swedish Midsummer Cake
From Nigella Lawson

For the custard:
2 egg yolks
2 tablespoons caster sugar
2 teaspoons cornflour
250ml full fat milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Ideally you would do this stage the day before you want to serve the cake.  Put everything except the vanilla extract in a pan over lowish heat, and stir constantly until it thickens; by my clock this was about 5 minutes.  Whatever you do, don't let it boil or the texture of the custard will be ruined and it will split.  When it is thicker, take it off the heat, beat in the vanilla extract, transfer the custard to a cold bowl, and stir until it is cool.  Cover with plastic wrap, so it touches the surface of the custard to prevent a skin forming.

For the cake:
3 eggs
250g caster sugar
90ml water from a recently boiled kettle
1.5 teaspoons baking powder
150g plain flour
butter, for greasing

Preheat the oven to 180C.  Line the bottom of a 23cm round springform cake tin with baking parchment, or do as I do and use re-useable silicone liner, cut to size, and grease the sides of the tin.

Whisk the eggs and sugar together until pale, moussy, and just about tripled in volume.  This is easier if you have some gadget to help such as an electric whisk or KitchenAid, but would definitely be possible with some effort and a hand whisk.  Plus it would negate the need to visit the gym.  Still whisking, add the hot water.

In a separate bowl or jug, mix the flour and baking powder together and gradually add to the eggs and sugar, stirring well to make sure there are no lumps.  Put the mixture into your prepared tin, and cook for about 30 minutes, until it is golden and well-risen.  A cake-tester should come out clean at this point.

Let the cake cool in its tin on a rack for 10 minutes, before unmoulding it and letting it cool completely on the rack.

For assembly:
500g strawberries
2-3 teaspoons caster sugar
500ml cream

If you are cack-handed, like me, this part is the most fiddly bit but, honestly, it's not the sort of cake where precision matters.  Using a bread knife, cut the cake into three layers.  The cake is surprisingly sturdy and I managed this without disaster, but it would be very easy to patch a layer together and bury it in the middle should you need to.

Take about three quarters of the strawberries, hull them, half or quarter them depending on size, and leave them to macerate in the caster sugar.  This can be done anything between 10 minutes and a few hours before you need them; either way, they will be delicious and start to surrender their beautiful ruby juices up to the syrup created.

Put the bottom layer on your serving plate.

Whisk the cream until it is sturdy enough to hold its shape.  Take one third of this cream and fold it into your prepared vanilla custard.  Then put half of this mixture on to the bottom layer of the cake on your serving plate.  Spread half the macerated strawberries on top of the custard.

Repeat this with the middle layer of the cake; custard, strawberries.

Finally, place the top tier of the cake in place.  Spread the remaining whipped cream over the top and arrange your reserved strawberries over the top of that, leaving them whole, or halving them as you wish.

Serve, and bask in the reflected glory in your delicious, not-a-beauty-queen cake - but who needs a beauty queen hanging round on Valentine's Day, anyway?

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Random Recipe Challenge

Okay, so here we go with my first ever blogging challenge.  I feel like the new girl in school!  As I'm sure I've mentioned somewhere, I am an obsessive consumer of anything whatsoever to do with food, from eating it (ahem), to watching the Food Network at every given opportunity (Andy works a LOT of night shifts), to my overflowing files filled with recipes ripped out from wherever I can find them (truth time: I found an old, circa 1995, copy of Cuisine Magazine at the bus stop the other day and felt no shame whatsoever in taking a recipe from that), to my earthquake-risk tower of cookbooks.  This also includes reading other food blogs.  I love them.  I drool over them.  And, like the new girl in school, I get major food and lifestyle crushes on them.

One such lovely blog is Belleau Kitchen in which Dom talks about his life and his food in beautiful Lincolnshire.  A year ago, he had the wonderful idea to host a Random Recipe Challenge, with, as I talked about in my last post, the fantastic idea of using one of those many, many, cookbooks to cook a random recipe.  I knew instantly I wanted in; to my shame, out of my hundreds of cookbooks, a figure-too-embarassing-to-say have never been used.  On our trip to Dunedin last year, University capital of NZ, we stumbled on a Dickens-esque dusty second hand bookshop days before it was closing down - everything was being sold off for mere cents, and I bought out pretty much its entire range of cookbooks in two fell swoops (couldn't carry everything at once; had to come back the next day).  I tell you this not as the exception for me, but the rule. 

So with my trusty assistant Andy fully prepped and primed as to his duties, I turned my back, closed my eyes, waited for half a minute or so, and yelled stop.  And boy, did I pick a goodie.  Can I take any pride in that random selection?  Please say yes, I'll take it where I can get it these days.  bills sydney food is one of those books that shamefully glowers at me every time I cook an easy old favourite.  Very appropriately, it was bought for me as a Christmas present in 2009 by Andy, after we'd eaten at bills in Sydney when we stayed there with my brother and his wife.  Even more appropriately, Andy and I first met in Sydney, both of us on a solo round-the-world trip, both of us going in opposite directions, but we met, and that was that.  Done deal.  We were the backpacking holiday romance that stuck.  Although, I will just say this one time about the book and the restaurant - the punctuation KILLS me.  But, it is what it is, and what it is is bills.  The flavours look lovely and fresh, the very best of antipodean life, and even on a rainy day elsewhere, I imagine they could transport you to a sunny, cosmopolitan city far, far away where life is good, beer is cold, and people are happy.

The recipe picked at random was absolutely right up my culinary street.  Chicken Noodle Soup with Lemon.  Bill Granger describes it as Vietnamese pho meets Jewish chicken soup.  Right there, right in the title and the description, are all my favourite things in food.  What could be more wonderful, soothing and jolting at the same time, as a chicken soup with Asian flavours?  And yet, and yet.  I was mildly disappointed in this soup, and felt that the depth of flavour that is usually there with a lovingly-made chicken stock, was missing.  The recipe had me make a chicken stock to start, but the only aromatics were 4 slices of ginger, 2 spring onions, and black peppercorns.  The spring onions weren't oomphy enough - in the future I would use regular brown onions, and probably some garlic as well, which would give more flavour without clashing with the other tones in the dish.  Before serving, you put lemon juice (technically 3 teaspoons, but who will measure that out? I used half a lemon), the same of fish sauce, and a sliced red chilli in a bowl, before adding the stock, shredded chicken, and fresh lasagne, cut up in place of noodles.  It was these flavours that dominated and, though they definitely improved the soup and made it fresher, they were all top-notes and no depth.  All mouth and no trousers.

You know when I would make this soup again, actually? When I have a cold.  When your taste buds are dulled and deadened, so those top notes would sing their way through the murk, and we all know the famously healing properties of chicken soup.  Then, it would be perfect, and I predict that I'll be all over this soup in June and July (still strange to me that those months are winter, I'm such a Brit), but in the summer, not so much.  The other change I would make is to replace the fresh lasagne with regular noodles; I didn't feel it added anything to the dish other than expense.

Still, not a bad way at all for me to dip my new girl toes into the water, and I know Andy was very relieved that we didn't get anything involving offal or tomatoes.  I'm looking forward to next month already.

Chicken Noodle Soup with Lemon
From bills sydney food

1 1.5kg chicken
4 slices fresh ginger
2 spring onions, cut into 10cm lengths
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
9 ears baby corn, sliced in half lengthways
1.5 cups bok choi
3 sheets fresh lasagne, torn into 5cm squares
3 teaspoons lemon juice
3 teaspoons fish sauce
1 red chilli, sliced
12 mint leaves
.75 cup of coriander leaves
thin slices of lemon

Make the chicken stock by putting the chicken, ginger, spring onions and peppercorns in a large pan with lots of water to cover - the book suggests 4 litres, my pan couldn't take that much so I used 3 litres instead.  Bring to a boil, skim off the scum that gathers on the top, and reduce to a simmer for 3 hours.

When the stock is ready, remove the chicken and shred it, and strain the stock, discarding the ginger, spring onions, and peppercorns.

Cook the squares of lasagne in salted water until cooked, which with fresh pasta takes, what, 2 minutes? Drain well, and put in a large serving bowl along with the lemon juice, fish sauce, and chillies.  

Put the chicken stock in a pan over a high heat, add the shredded chicken, corn and bok choi, and cook for another minute or so, until the vegetables are only just tender.  Add this to the serving bowl, and serve, with a scattering of mint, coriander, and fresh lemon slices on the top (the eagle-eyed amongst you might notice the lack of coriander; I try to grow it but realised minutes before I made this recipe that it had succumbed to the lurgy so our soup was coriander-less).

 So that's my first ever entry in Random Recipe Challenge - thanks for the smashing idea Dom, I and my trusty tester both enjoyed it and will be back for more next month.  Who knows where it will take us?


Saturday, 11 February 2012

A week of eating dangerously

Like most people, as much as I try to vary my diet, there are some definite tried and tested favourites that I return to, time and time again - either through ease, those dishes you can churn out without recourse to cookery book; a wish to make people happy, one of my prime motivators in cooking, I'm the consumate people pleaser and so love doing the meals that Andy counts as his favourite; or just good standby recipes for those days when the supermarket has evaded my to-do list yet again.

My guilty pleasure, though, is cookbooks.  I have, quite literally, hundreds of them - it is a genuine addiction, a growing collection, and in my opinion, once something classes as a collection, it is A Good Thing to add to it.  I have a hobby! I am a well-rounded individual!  One of my favourite mantras about reading is to describe it as 'where time out meets time well spent', and I have no hesitation in adding my cookbook hoard into that part of the Venn diagram entitled How I Spend My Time.  Got to be honest: time spent browsing Go Fug Yourself takes up way too much of the rest of my free time, and can't really be classed as time well spent, so I'm shoehorning cookbooks into the quality time category.

So when I saw a blogging monthly challenge involving random recipe selection, I knew instantly they were on to a winner, and I had to join in, no question.  I'm going to write more details in the next post, as that is the real entry into the challenge, but Andy, my willing accomplice in choosing a random recipe, was so enamoured with the idea that he wanted in, as well.  He turned around while I ran my hands up and down the cookbook towers (surely an earthquake risk in Wellington?), said stop, and then stopped me again as I flicked through the book.

The book he chose was very apt - The Return of the Naked Chef by Jamie Oliver.  This was actually a perfect choice for Andy - because I am so overwhelmingly controlling and bossy in the kitchen, he doesn't get a chance to cook as often as such a talented chef should.  He's used Jamie's recipes in the past, and for the most part, gets on really well with them, so I was super excited when he randomly chose the recipe on page 186, Roasted Fillet of Beef Rolled in Herbs and Porcini and Wrapped in Prosciutto

After a false start with the grocery shopping - we'd run out of dried porcini and couldn't find a replacement in a couple of stores (although I'm guessing Moore Wilsons would have had them), so he subbed a combination of dried shiitake and fresh brown mushrooms - he was off.  And you know what, it was really delicious.  Tasted almost decadent to have something so rich for a midweek dinner, but without being too heavy - it was almost like a lighter, pared-back version of Beef Wellington.  The beef fillet was done to a perfect medium (pinker than it looks in the photo above), and the real wow for me was the fresh herbs - we took them straight from the garden so they were absolutely fresh - the rosemary and thyme really made both the beef and the mushrooms pop with flavour.  If anyone's looking for a last-minute Valentine's dinner, this could be The One.

Adapted from Jamie Oliver

1 packet prosciutto or Parma ham
2 cloves of peeled garlic
1 handful of shiitake mushrooms, soaked in around half a pint of boiling water
1 handful of brown mushrooms
2 good knobs of butter
Juice of half a lemon
sea salt and fresh black pepper
450g fillet of beef, left whole
A good handful of fresh rosemary and thyme, leaves picked and chopped
2 glasses of red wine

Preheat the oven and a small roasting tray that will fit the beef snugly to 230 C.  Lay the prosciutto out so they are all overlapping, leaving no spaces (this was one of the hardest parts; the prosciutto slices stuck together).  Chop a garlic clove and fry in one knob of butter with the mushrooms (drain the shiitake first but keep the water).  Add half the soaking water, simmer on a low heat for about 5 minutes then stir in the lemon juice, the rest of the butter, salt and pepper.
Spread the mushrooms out over half of the prosciutto, keeping a few back for later.  Lay the chopped herbs out on a board, then roll the beef in these herbs so they stick to the outside.  Place this on top of the mushrooms and prosciutto, and slowly roll up the meat in the prosciutto.  Secure with either string or, like us, you can use toothpicks as that was first to hand.
Put the beef in the hot roasting tray with the remaining garlic and cook for 40 minutes for medium (plus or minus 10 minutes for well done or rare).  Half way through the cooking time, add the red wine to the tray.  When it's had its time, remove it to a board and let it rest.  In the meantime, put the tray on the hob, scraping up any bits from the bottom or side so they all go into the gravy. 
We served this with potatoes, which were fantastic for soaking up all the winey juices, and spinach sauteed with the reserved mushrooms. 

Serves 2

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Adventures in sourdough

Habit is a wonderful thing.  Assuming, of course, that the habit itself is wonderful and not the self-destructive variety.  I often wish I could get into the compulsively tidy habit, for instance, rather than having the habit of glossing over the worst of it.  It's habit that has led me, over the last 18 months or so, to be able to knock out a good basic white loaf from memory as I do it so often.  I hold my hands up and admit that the purchase of my much-loved, much-used KitchenAid has made this habit somewhat easier to get into as it does all the muscle work in the form of the dough hook, and I can get on with other things for the 10 minutes or so that I leave the dough to knead.  I was never averse to kneading dough by hand; it's just that the mixer gives me more consistent results with much less physical graft on my part - win:win, surely?

So, while I'm at the point with my basic loaves where I can start experimenting with the consistency of the dough to improve the bread (a wetter dough gives better texture, I've found recently), and keep 300ml stashes of potato water, that is, water that potatoes have been boiled in, in my freezer with which to make the bread (a tip from Nigella that just works, but please don't ask me why - just do as I do and you will forever be grateful to Ms Lawson and if there is any justice in the world also to me - hell, I'll take reflected glory, I'm not proud), I have always been wary of sourdough.  Oh, of course, I've read about it, read plenty about it, and even 6 months ago took a wide variety of bread books out of Wellington Library with which to better research it.  At this point I even made an attempt at a very complex starter which involved at least two different trips to Moore Wilson's in order to get the exact organic rye flour specificed.  No good.  My starter turned purple.  Yes, purple.  I didn't fancy purple bread, although I was intrigued at the thought of it, and I ditched the whole thing.

Until now.  I've been reading good things about the River Cottage Sourdough and the good results it gives and, joy of joys, the ingredients were straightforward.  So straightforward I could get them at New World rather than Moore Wilsons, which I am trying to avoid at the moment for reasons my bank manager would be proud of.

And so, it begins.  This can also be a lesson in reading the damn recipe - it starts with 1kg of bread flour, at least half of which should be wholemeal, so I merrily got out my large Mason Cash bowl, measuring a huge pile of 500g white bread flour, 500g wholemeal, then actually read the recipe to discover I only needed 100g of this mix at a time.  Hey ho.  It can wait, then, and I'll use it to feed the sourdough on a daily basis.

Into the airing cupboard it went, after mixing in enough water to get it to the consistency of thick paint (thanks to Hugh F-W for the brilliant analogy), and it only took a few hours for fermentation to begin.  Now I am babysitting the starter, nurturing it as if it were a fragile baby bird, and all looks well so far.  Oh, and from my experience last night, never, ever try to explain the process of sourdough when you have been to a friend's house for dinner and both you and your enquiring husband are several glasses of wine merrier.  It was a long-winded, slightly unsteady, explanation that cleared nothing up whatsoever.

Wish me and my baby bird luck.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

The ends of the earth

I've been incredibly lucky, really, with the amount of travelling I've done, both alone, and since meeting Andy.  When I was writing my speech for our wedding in December, I totted up the amount of countries we've travelled to in our five years together; I got to twenty.  We've lived in three different countries together, and a few more individually.  Travelling and experiencing foreign life is not only part of who I am, it's part of who 'we' are (the dreaded 'we').

However, even though it can bring you riches beyond measure in terms of experiences, stories, photos, meals, and friends, it can also be tough at times.  Really tough.  For all that I love living in New Zealand - it's a gorgeous country, what's not to love? - at times I really, really wish that it were parked somewhere in the Med rather than the Pacific.  This is an entirely selfish concern, I appreciate that most Kiwis and expats love it because of its location, rather than in spite of.  I've been feeling this very keenly recently.  2011 was, to be succinct, a terrible year for far too many people that I love and hold dear.  When the chimes rang in 2012 I sent up a silent wish to the powers that be - that this year would be different.  Sadly, so far, it isn't really looking like it will be - already too many friends have had too much bad news to deal with.  It's times like these that I would like to be at home, offering comfort in any way possible, to the people who need it.  This is not to be, though, and so what is needed are comforting words across the ether, good thoughts and positive wishes for those who are struggling, and a need to bury my own desire to be not on a little island far south, but a little island far north.

At times like these, like most people, I turn to comfort food, food I can make with my eyes closed, food that tastes familiar, rather than strange, easy rather than challenging.  For me, carbonara is the perfect example of this.  I have a long and varied history with carbonara.  I first started making it when I went away to University - I could already cook before I went, but cooking for myself every single night soon expanded my repertoire.  I used a book called, somewhat incongruously, Bachelor's Buttons, and was aimed at people without much clue around the house.  Included were a number of easy recipes, and I eagerly fell on carbonara as it was quick and cheap.  Unfortunately, this version tasted like nothing so much as a plate of scrambled egg and bacon stirred through some pasta.  Nevertheless, I knew deep down that this was a good combination, and persevered.  Some years later, I discovered better versions.  My now-usual carbonara is a wonderfully rich affair, comprising cream and Noilly Prat, amongst other ingredients.  I do try, though, not to keep cream in the house always, mainly because I know I'm likely to drink it straight from the bottle, so when I read good reviews of Rick Stein's carbonara, enriched with only eggs rather than cream, I knew I should give it a go.  I made a couple of changes - I used penne rather than spaghetti as it is always my pasta of choice for carbonara, and I added nutmeg, as I always do when cooking savoury eggy sauces.

The carbonara was good.  Not mind-blowing, solidly good.  And sometimes you don't want your mind blown.  You just want to feel at home for a while.

Penne alla carbonara
Adapted from Rick Stein

100g penne
2 teaspoons olive oil
2 rashers streaky bacon, chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
Handful parsley, finely chopped
1 egg plus 1 egg yolk, beaten
20g parmesan, finely grated
Nutmeg, grated

Cook the penne in salted water until al dente.
In a frying pan large enough to hold the pasta later, heat the olive oil over medium high heat and fry the bacon until golden.  Add the garlic and parsley, heat for a few seconds, then remove from the heat.
Reserve 1 cup of water from the cooked pasta, then drain well.
Add some of the reserved water to the frying pan with the bacon, stir well.  Add the pasta, stir again until well coated in the bacony juices.  Add the eggs and parmesan, stir, then immediately remove from the heat - the residual heat from the pasta will cook the eggs.  Add nutmeg, and salt and pepper to taste.

Serves 1 homesick person.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

A soup to nourish at any time

Before we came to live in New Zealand, I was averagely interested in rugby - I followed major internationals, I watched Six Nations matches.  Nothing, though, could ever prepare me for the rugby-obsessed universe that is New Zealand.  The zenith of this was last year's World Cup - living here in NZ and having a Welsh husband gave me legitimate reason to support two of the star teams of the tournament, even when England missed the mark by a long shot - but even this doesn't compare to the weekend-long, city-wide fancy dress party that is the Rugby Sevens Tournament.  If you're unfamiliar with Rugby Sevens, it's an abbreviated, turbo-charged version of rugby; a young man's game without a doubt, these guys are both strong and very, very fast.  The Wellington Sevens (the tournament takes place in various locations round the world, a weekend at a time - nice work if you can get it) is less about the rugby - the stadium only really fills up for the Final at the end of Day Two, even though tickets sold out in four minutes - and more about the party.  And this is one party that really should be yelled "paaaaaaaaartay".  Every single spectator goes in fancy dress, many impressive in their imagination.  The party goes on for two days, Friday and Saturday, so downtown Wellington can be either fun central or carnage, depending on whether you've got tickets or not.

This year, we didn't have tickets.  Actually, we've never had tickets yet - the first year tickets had sold out long before we arrived in the country, last year we were up in Auckland meeting Andy's parents off the plane from the UK, and this year - well, let's just say that I tried to get tickets, but apparently my UK credit card people used this one opportunity to take exception to me buying tickets to an event in Wellington ("Were you trying to buy tickets?" "Yes" "Oh.  Our bad") and by the time I'd grabbed another card, tickets had sold out.  Ah well, next year.

The knock-on from this, to use a rugby term, is that Andy, who works at the Welsh Dragon Bar in central Wellington, has been on call close to round-the-clock for three or four days.  Not seeing him much isn't great, but hey, it's only for a short while and people have to put up with much worse.  For my part, I've been trying to help out as much as I can, not only by boosting the bar profits on Friday (whoops - I was planning a quiet night), but by taxi-ing him to and from the bar in our trusty campervan, and also by having lots of hearty, energy-giving food that he loves around so he can eat well as and when.  He isn't the biggest fan of pasta generally, with two main exceptions - he adores lasagne, and he loves minestrone soup.  It was to this latter meal that I turned, knowing there is one version in particular that he can't seem to stop eating.  This was originally a Rachael Ray recipe that I have tweaked to use ingredients I can buy here - I know she gets some flack but every single one of her recipes that I have tried always work out well.  The original calls for Italian Sweet Sausage and a bulb of fennel; I could get neither in my local supermarket (I could have got both if I'd have gone further afield, but - really, I wasn't in the mood for running all over town for some soup ingredients), so I just used good quality pork sausages and threw in some fennel seeds.  It was still delicious - fresh and warming at the same time, the kind of soup you can eat for lunch, after too much wine on a Friday night, or at 8am after completing a 12 hour hard work shift in party central.

White Minestrone with Sausage and Fennel
Adapted from Rachael Ray

2 tablespoons olive oil
400g good quality pork sausages, skins removed
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
1 onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 bundle Swiss Chard (Silverbeet in NZ), chopped
Freshly grated nutmeg
Salt and pepper
1 bay leaf
1 can cannellini beans
1.4 litres chicken stock
140g fusilli
2 handfuls frozen peas
Handful of chopped parsley

Heat the olive oil in a large pan on a medium heat (I used my Le Creuset casserole), brown the sausage and break it up into small pieces.  Add the fennel seeds, onion, garlic, chard, and season with nutmeg.  Add the bay leaf, put the lid on, and sweat the veg for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add the cannellini beans, stock, and 500ml water, bring to a boil and add the pasta.  When the pasta is cooked, add the peas, turn off the heat, and let it sit for five minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste, stir in the chopped parsley.

Serve in big bowls, with parmesan grated over the top.

Serves 4-6