20 Dec 2018

My sweet, earthy vegetarian soup with all the festive colours of Christmas

My Christmas Soup (Beetroot and Parsnip) from 2009


I first made this vibrant Christmas Soup almost ten years ago when I had a glut of beetroot from the veg patch.  Now I recognise that it's a very nutritious balanced meal, a perfect foil for sweet Christmas indulgences, and a good time saver if made ahead and frozen.


My late mother was an amazing cook and Christmas was a time when she could give free reign to all her culinary talents. Not for our family shop-bought mince pies and fruit cake, plastic wrapped turkey, boxed stuffing mix, microwaved Christmas pud or store bought brandy sauce. No, my lovely mum would start in early November making the fruit cake, feeding Dad's best brandy into it to keep it moist over the weeks ahead, ordering the bird (always called 'the bird' in our house) from the butcher in early December and building up to the big day like a military operation. Everything was made from scratch, just as her parents had done before and as I try to today.  Among all this preparation, she would still find time for freshly made soup for lunch and homemade mince pies at teatime.

Lunchtime soup became a reassuring daily tradition so it's no surprise that, in the early veg patch days when I set myself the challenge of finding ways of liking beetroot, I turned to soup. Soup is so comforting, isn't it?

The veg patch community grew beetroot as one of our first crops only because someone had a free packet of seeds; roll on to harvest time and it turned out that no-one, me included, actually liked the stuff. (Staggering to think as now I love eating beetroot in all its many guises.) Rather than letting the entire crop go to waste, I challenged myself to find ways of using beetroot that would change my mind; this soup was one of them.  (Chocolate beetroot cake was another.)

The recipe that I drew inspiration from in 2009 called for more beetroot than other veg. I tweaked the proportions so my version has more carrots, more parsnips and less beetroot to make a sweeter, less earthy soup but with the same vibrant deep red colour. With the confidence of experimenting with home grown veg over the past decade, these days I'd add celery to the veg mix and top the soup with toasted and crushed hazelnuts and green pumpkin seeds.  I'd also stir some horseradish through the yogurt garnish. After all, I've got to do something with all the horseradish romping through the veg patch!

Why not try it and let me know what you think? And trust me on the toasted hazelnuts and pumpkin seeds - that crunchy topping is delicious!



Parsnip and Beetroot Soup


For 4 good sized bowls, you will need:
150g onion
250g carrots
a stick of celery
300g parsnip (approx 2 medium)
800ml stock (easy to make your own or use powdered stock)
200g cooked beetroot
1/2 tsp ground coriander (Garam Masala is a good substitute)
Olive oil
Sea salt and black pepper
Optional garnish of yogurt, chopped dill, pumpkin seeds, toasted and crushed hazelnuts
  1. Roast or boil beetroot until soft (about 40 minutes); leave to cool before peeling, discarding stems and roots. Chop into smaller chunks.  
  2. Peel and chunk carrots, parsnips, celery.  Slice onions.
  3. Heat a tablespoon of oil in heavy based pan.  Add onions, carrots, celery and parsnip. Stir to coat. Put on lid and sweat for 5 minutes until starting to soften.
  4. Add ground coriander spice.  Stir in and cook for 2 minutes more.
  5. Add stock and beetroot.  Bring to boil then simmer for 20 minutes, lid off.
  6. When cool, blend soup until smooth.  Season with salt and pepper as needed.
  7. Garnish with a swirl of yoghurt and/or other toppings.   
  8. Get creative with patterns in the yogurt! To make swirls, use a chopstick or skewer to pull the yogurt gently into the soup in small circles.

And here it is in pictures ...

Onion, Parsnip, Carrots about to be 'sweated'.

Stock and Beetroot added. Mmm, getting redder!

Simmering …

Cooled and ready to blend …

Checking the seasoning

A few thoughts:

  1. My first bowl didn't have Dill in it but was very nice.  I bought some dill for the second serving of soup and was amazed at the transformation. It added a whole new taste dimension, as did the yogurt - and both are quite important for the Christmas look!
  2. Fascinating fact: Did you know that Dill is traditionally an Ancient Sign of Fortune? And marketed by a certain UK supermarket as 'feathery fronds of fragrant flavour'.  Need I say more? 

Nutrition facts* that make this a very healthy soup:

Beetroot: A wonder food! A good source of soluble fibre, packed with Vitamins A, C and B6, and folic acid.  It is both an appetite stimulant, easily digested and contains an abundance of calcium, potassium, choline, organic sodium and natural sugars.  Helpful for anaemia, anxiety, fatigue, skin problems, liver problems, circulatory weakness, menstrual and menopausal problems, high and low blood pressure.

Parsnips: Another good source of fibre and packed with vitamins and minerals. The organic chlorine (not the sort used in swimming pools!) is a natural mineral and as such is used as a body cleanser. Parsnips are rich in sulphur and silicon which is very helpful for skin and hair health.  Parsnip juice is also very beneficial for anyone suffering from lung conditions, but small to medium sized parsnips are best for this.

Onion:  Rich in vitamin C, copper and iron, as well as sulphur, calcium and phosphorus.  The juice was used by the Romans for treating skin disease and healing wounds but is equally good for the immune system today!

* I firmly believe that being aware of what you eat is better than spending hours at the doctor's surgery.  I occasionally juice fruits and veg and the above facts are taken from a book called "Getting the Best out of your Juicer" by William H Lee.  Published in USA, it's not widely available in UK and  may be out of print.  I think I bought mine in a health shop about ten years ago.

11 Dec 2018

How to easily grow avocados with guaranteed success!

... or, how I managed to grow an avocado, kill it, and then restore it back to health.

Successfully grow an avocado plant.jpg

During the forthcoming holidays, I'd like people to stop and think before they toss out empty jars and avocado pits after making guacamole or whatever. With those two things, you have the means tp grow a free houseplant.


There are some people for whom the challenge of growing an avocado plant from the discarded stone/pit is easy.  Let me tell you now, I am not one of those people.

For years, I tried every method of sprouting an avocado stone without success. Feeling thoroughly defeated after so many failures, I gave up and started chucking the stones away. But this is not about my failures but about how to successfully grow an avocado.

I wasn't always challenged at growing avocados. In my first flat, a large soil filled pot in my living room stood ready to receive every avocado stone that I discarded. No special treatment required; I placed the stone fat end down, and left it. (With occasional watering.) The pot soon became a forest of leaves to challenge the Monstera at the other end of the room. But when I moved on, the avocado jungle stayed behind; I felt confident that I'd quickly grow another pot of avocados - after all, how hard could it be? But when I left, my green fingered houseplant magic stayed behind - and the years of avocado growing failure commenced.

Fast forward to autumn 2017 to a mini-workshop at the RHS Urban Garden Show; an RHS trained gardener promised to guide participants through a Guaranteed Method of growing avocados.

Here's what I learned that day.

How to grow an avocado

  1. Carefully cut the avocado pear in half, taking care not to score or damage the root end of the stone with your sharp knife.
  2. Ease the stone out of the flesh with a teaspoon, again being super careful not to damage it.
  3. Wash or wipe any flesh off the stone - you don't want it to get mouldy.
  4. Fill a 9cm wide plant pot with regular potting compost to a half-inch from the top.
  5. Tap the pot on a hard surface, eg table top, to settle the soil.
  6. Make a slight dip in the centre and place your avocado stone in it. The top of the stone should sit above the soil. Think Orca coming up for air. 
  7. Water the pot well until you see water draining from the bottom.Allow the pot to drain fully - no more water dribbling out from underneath.
  8. Label your plant with the date and name. (Latin naming not obligatory although 'Persea americana' if you so desire!)
  9. Cover your pot to give the stone its own little greenhouse. We were given small plastic sandwich bags for this, secured with string. Now I would try and use a clean upturned glass jar. 
  10. Place the pot away from a cold windowsill - mine sat on a shelf above my kitchen sink where I could keep an eye on it. (An airing cupboard would have been better, if I had one.)
  11. Check the moisture levels in the soil on a weekly basis - if dry, water sparingly.
  12. Don't overwater; the soil should be slightly damp, definitely not wet. 

    After the workshop, I carried my little pot home and then I waited. And watched. And waited some more. Four months later, convinced I'd got another non-starter, the pot and pit were destined for the dustbin when I saw a tiny crack in the stone! I swear I couldn't have been more excited if I'd had a hatching dinosaur egg in my hands.

    Avocado stone sprouting


    Over the next week, a shoot slowly appeared. In another month, I was the proud owner of a healthy, albeit spindly, little plant with several leaves. By summertime (just before its demise) most of the leaves were six inches long; I was so proud of it. And then, at the height of the summer heatwave, I reasoned that avocado trees natively grow in hot climates and put the little plant outside to enjoy some fresh air. (I can't now believe I was that stupid.)  I introduced it to the wider world of my balcony ... and the glaring sun. Game over.

    Successfully growing an avocado
    Successfully growing an avocado - 14th April, one month after sprouting.

    The mistake I made

    Plants really don't like drying heat - unless they're a cactus. And I hadn't checked the moisture in the soil before putting it outside. The leaves scorched, the plant withered. I was devastated as I watched the leaves drop, one by one, and shelved a triumphant post of avocado growing success.

    For some unknown reason, I kept the dead plant. A serendipitous move as it turned out.  Returning to the RHS Autumn Urban Show in late October this year, I learned of a little known hack that has enabled my avocado to rise Lazarus-like once more.

    And the resurrection secret is ... 

    decapitation; or, more correctly, trimming back.  By lopping off the top of the stem above a leaf node, I triggered the plant to produce more leaves. Not bad considering it had been 'dead' for over 8 weeks and mostly unwatered! I'd noticed a microscopic green bud forming at the top of the twig/stem so cut just above it - and it worked.

    ========================================

    A few more tips for successful growing:

    • Avocado stones can be sprouted over water as well as in soil - grower's choice.  The bottom of the stone must be in contact with the water until a root system has formed, then the stone should be transferred to a small pot, planted in well draining compost and left to grow on indoors in a warm environment - 20°-25°C (68°-77°F).
    • Toothpicks not your thing?  I'm sprouting a stone using a stylish ceramic disk bought from Studio Janneke - an independent ceramicist working from her studio in North London.  I think it looks lovely, and so much prettier than watching a brown pot for four months. 

    • Patience is key. The stone should germinate in four to six weeks but, as I've shown, can take considerably longer.
    • Once the plant has outgrown this first pot (roots can be seen at the bottom of the pot), repot in spring into a larger pot, at least 1ft in diameter.  Use a soil based compost for this.
    • Plants with fresh compost won't need feeding for several weeks but otherwise give established plants a liquid feed (seaweed fertiliser is good) every 2 to 3 weeks throughout spring and summer.
    • Established plants like to be kept on the cool side in winter 15°-18°C - definitely not above a hot radiator - but move to a slightly warmer spot in summer in bright light, but away from direct sun!  

    I hope you've found this post useful - it didn't occur to me that I could prune my plant back into life so I'm happy to pass on a helpful tip.  

    Growing any plant from a seed is fun for children but I think avocados are especially exciting (next to potatoes and tomatoes).  If you do think about giving it a go, I'd love to know how you get on!

    Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...