The Watercress Queen

While today watercress is often relegated to a garnish, and at best allowed to perform a solo as a soup, the peppery leafy green was lauded by the ancient Romans, who called it ‘nasturtium’, meaning twisted nose, and used it as an aphrodisiac, breath freshener, and to treat insanity by mixing it with vinegar. Even further back, Greek physician Hippocrates believed watercress had the power to purify the blood, and used it to treat his patients, while Persian soldiers used watercress to ward off scurvy by turning it into a tea. Napoleon was also a big fan.

An aquatic plant of the mustard family, in Victorian London watercress sarnies were a staple breakfast of the working classes. The emerald bunches were eaten on their own by those too poor to afford bread. Brought to London from farms in the south of England, one enterprising woman turned the capital’s appetite for watercress into a profitable business. Having moved to London after escaping the clutches of her violent first husband, who thrice stabbed her, in 1908 watercress hawker Eliza James began selling the salad leaves in Covent Garden market.

The Watercress Girl by Johann Zoffany

At the height of her fame, James was selling a staggering 50 tonnes of watercress a week, both at Covent Garden market and to local restaurants, hotels and shops. Such was her notoriety, she had a near monopoly of the watercress market in the capital, cultivating the fiery vegetable at farms in Hampshire and Surrey. Despite her wealth, Eliza insisted on travelling to work each morning on her watercress cart. When she died in 1927, a wreath of watercress was laid on her coffin.

Originating in Asia and first cultivated in Britain in 1802 by horticulturalist William Bradbury, today watercress is considered a superfood, and is praised for being rich in antioxidants and vitamins A, C and E. While watercress packs a peppery punch, the leaves are surprisingly delicate in nature and can easily be overcooked. As February drew to a close, I rounded off my month of soups with Julia Child’s cream of watercress, which she describes as “perfect for an important dinner”.

Don’t hold back when it comes to the amount of watercress you use for the soup

The soup is wonderfully simple to make. All you need is an abundance of watercress, shallots, butter, flour, chicken stock, eggs and cream. All of Julia’s soups seem to begin with a base of chopped shallots, which add an appealing sweetness and depth of flavour. Once the shallots have softened, go all in with half a pound of watercress, cooking it in a large pan on a low heat for five minutes. Be careful not to overcook the leaves, or they risk losing their lovely peppery heat.

Once wilted, add an ounce of flour to the watercress and stir for three minutes, then pour in two pints of chicken stock, which gives the soup its backbone of savoury flavour. After just five minutes of simmering (I went for 10 for added flavour) Julia’s recipe requires a moulinette – an ancient contraption with a metal blade used for grinding food into a pulp. Lacking one but not wanting to cheat with a blender, I mashed as much of the watercress pulp as I could through a sieve.

What it lacked in colour it made up for in flavour

In the same way most of Julia’s soups begin with onions, they all seem to end with the holy trinity of egg yolks, cream and butter, which are first beaten together before the soup is slowly introduced to them in a thin stream. It is this base of chopped shallots and chicken stock, and decadent finishing school of butter and cream that lend all of Child’s soups their luxurious creamy character coupled with a wonderfully deep savoury flavour, giving them an inherent moreishness.

A cook should never praise their own food too highly, but these soups have caught me by surprise at how delicious they are. What the watercress soup lacked in vivid green colour it more than made up for in flavour. With each slurp of the spoon came a murmur of delight at the pure pleasure of it all. And such a simple pleasure too. I’d like to see the humble ingredient celebrated again with equal fervour as the ancient Romans. Having finished with soups, in March I’ll be exploring eggs in all their glorious guises, and perhaps finally conquering my fear of hollandaise.

Much ado about mushrooms

Known as ‘the king of chefs and chef of kings’, culinary legend Auguste Escoffier named his mushroom soup in honour of Agnès Sorel, the favourite of King Charles VII and France’s first officially recognised royal mistress. Charles was so besotted with Sorel that in 1443 he held a joust in her honour in Nancy, during which he paid off all the other jousters so that he could win and look heroic in front of his beloved.

Centuries ahead of her time, Sorel caused scandal within the French court due to her penchant for low-cut gowns, which she popularised among her peers, her dresses often surpassing the queen’s in length and luxury. Keen to preserve her beauty, she used snail saliva to ward off wrinkles and bathed in asses’ milk. Lacking a Lancôme of the day, Sorel had to get inventive with her make-up, using ground up cuttlefish bones as foundation and the red dye from poppy petals as lipstick.

Agnès Sorel, who bore Charles VII four daughters, depicted by Jean Fouquet

A lover of the finer things in life, Sorel hired the best chefs of the day to cook for the king, and is said to have been a dab hand in the kitchen herself. It is unclear why Escoffier named his mushroom soup in her honour, though he had a tendency to name his dishes after famous women – his peach melba is named after Australian soprano Nellie Melba. But enough about Escoffier, let’s get back to Julia…

With Storm Dennis raging outside, I battened down the hatches and fired up my hob, figuring a hearty bowl of cream of mushroom soup would serve as ideal central heating. Trying to be clever, I bought a pack of mixed wild mushrooms and a more pedestrian pack of chestnut button mushrooms. Given their array of shapes, the wild shrooms don’t really work in this soup – you need the uniformity and daintiness of the button mushrooms as this is a dish that doesn’t require a blender.

The chicken stock base gives the soup a lovely richness and savoury flavour

The first step is to fry a diced onion on a low heat in butter then create a roux of sorts with two tablespoons of flour. Julia’s recipe calls for over two pints of chicken stock, which seemed excessive for a single serving, so I halved the measurements. As with her garlic soup, Child’s mushroom soup is given aromatic depth by the addition of parsley, thyme and a bay leaf into the stock. She also suggests adding the stems of the mushrooms to the stock to enrich it with earthy flavour.

While it simmers, you’ll notice a skin forming on the top of the stock, which needs to be skimmed off every five minutes or so. It’s worth tasting the soup as you go along to discover the different flavours at different stages. At this point it was super savoury and full of chicken flavour from the stock. While the stock is simmering you have to slice the button mushrooms into thin strips and fry them on a low heat with butter, salt and lemon. A word of warning – go easy on the salt. I got a bit too gung-ho and nearly ended up spoiling the soup by over seasoning it.

Julia’s gloriously creamy mushroom soup is delightful on a winter’s day

After 20 minutes the stock needs straining. As with the lobster bisque, it’s important to try and extract as much flavour as you can from the herbs and mushroom stems, which can be enjoyed on toast at a later date. I was amazed by how little soup there was left after straining, but it gets padded out with cream after the mushrooms have been simmered for 10 minutes with the strained soup.

To thicken it, whisk two egg yolks with a quarter of a pint of cream. I added quite a lot more cream than the recipe required, turning the pale brown soup beige. Once all of the soup has been added to the creamy egg mixture you’re supposed to add butter to it, but, even for me, this seemed excessive, so I abstained, garnishing it with a few sprigs of parsley and a handful of pepper croutons.

The soup had a luxuriously creamy texture and wonderful savoury taste, but it was too salty. I managed to salvage it by adding a squeeze of lemon to the bowl, which I’d recommend doing anyway as it gives the rich ensemble a lovely lemon lift. It may not have been a soup fit for a king, but with all that cream and butter, I’m sure it’s something extravagant epicure Agnès Sorel would have approved of.

Sexy bisque

There are some dishes that are worth the extra effort, and prawn bisque is one of them. No matter how good you get at making it, you can’t cut corners with this soup, so save it for special occasions and serve it to people you want to impress. While the soup was originally made with crustaceans that weren’t of a high enough quality to be sold at the market, it’s worth splashing out on the base ingredient – you’ll be able to taste the difference so it merits the extra pennies.

Heading out to buy the ingredients on a rainy Friday night, I was surprised how hard it was to get hold of shell on prawns, which I thought would be an easy find in London. I finally found some giant Madagascan prawns at my local Waitrose in Chiswick, and flung a second pack of de-shelled king prawns into my basket to make up the amount the recipe required.

The key to a sexy bisque is using quality prawns that are still in their shells – mine hailed from Madagascar

While I chose prawns, bisques can also be made with lobster or langoustines. The secret is extracting the maximum flavour from their shells. It takes its name from the Bay of Biscay on the Western coast of France, where the soup originated. Bisque also gets its moniker from being ‘bis cuites’ (twice cooked), as the prawns are first sautéed in their shells then simmered with white wine and stock.

There is no getting around the fact that making this soup is a laborious process, but the final taste is worth the effort. The first step is shelling the prawns and frying the shells with chopped onion, celery and carrots for around 10 minutes until they soften. For added flavour, a generous glug of good quality white wine and a splash of brandy does the trick. You then have to simmer the soup for half an hour with a litre of fish stock, a can of tinned tomatoes and two pinches of paprika.

The prawn ultimatum

At this stage, Julia Child advises: “Don’t wash anything until the soup is done because you will be using the same utensils repeatedly, and you don’t want any marvellous tidbits of flavour losing themselves down the drain”. Quite. Now comes the fiddly bit – you have to blitz the soup in a blender to break down the shells and extract the flavour from them. I had a lot of soup to play with, and, in a bid to save time as the clock ticked ever closer to midnight, I filled the blender to the brim, fixed the lid and turned on the motor.

To my horror the blender couldn’t cope with the amount of liquid I’d rammed into it and scaldingly hot orange soup started spraying up the kitchen walls like a scene from a slasher flick. It wasn’t quite as bad as the final scene of Carrie, but I was only a few revs of the blender away from a full-on Sissy Spacek. It took longer to clean the kitchen than make the soup. Lesson learnt, I poured out half of the soup and tried again. Mercifully, the blender played ball and worked its magic.

Worth the bisque – while a faff to make, the taste merits the effort

If the piecemeal blending of the soup isn’t fiddly enough, then comes the really tricky bit – forcing the contents through a sieve. While it is quite satisfying seeing how much liquid you can extract from the shells, it’s laborious in the extreme, and is a process that needs to be repeated after you’ve simmered the prawns in the blitzed soup for 10 minutes. This time you end up with a mound of minced prawn, which I wish I’d kept and turned into prawn croquettes or sesame prawn toast.

The one saving grace about this recipe is that you can do all the fiddly bits ahead of time, then chill the soup overnight. All you need to do when your guests arrive is gently reheat the soup and add 150ml of cream to it, then enjoy watching it turn from deep orange to peachy pink. Don’t overdo the cream, as you want to keep as much of that gorgeous seafood flavour as you can.

The soup is so good that it really doesn’t need anything more than a handful of homemade croutons. The flavour is at once creamy and savoury, redolent of the sea and luxuriously silky in texture. If it wasn’t such a pain to make this would be one of my go-to starters, but its level of difficulty means it will always be saved for special occasions, which is no bad thing – some things in life are worth waiting for.

Aïgo crazy for this soup

While the thought of garlic soup may have many of you running for the hills, bear with me. I was a doubting Thomas too. While I adore garlic, I’m acutely aware of its ability to dominate and overpower dishes. Like truffle oil, a little goes a long way, especially when recipes require raw garlic. I tend to err on the side of caution and use a few less cloves than recommended. When it comes to raw, less is more.

It was with trepidation that I began making Julia Child’s garlic soup, known as ‘aïgo bouïdo’, which means ‘boiled water’ in Provençal dialect. The Mediterranean soup originates from Provence and was historically enjoyed as a starter on Christmas Eve. Traditionally, spring water was boiled with aromatic herbs like sage and thyme then poured over bread rubbed with garlic and drizzled with olive oil.

Julia Child’s garlic soup calls for an entire head of garlic

The soup is lauded for its health benefits, and is thought to be good for the liver, circulation and general wellbeing. So much so it inspired the phrase: “aïgo bouïdo sauvo la vido”, (boiled water saves your life). The beauty of the soup is that it’s incredibly easy to make from ingredients you’re likely to have to hand. It’s an ideal dinner party starter, as it’s sophisticated and intriguing, giving the impression that you’ve slaved over it for hours, when in fact it takes just half an hour to make.

Erring on the side of caution, rather than the 16 cloves of garlic Julia suggested, I opted for 12. In hindsight I wish I’d stuck with 16, as the garlic flavour ends up being so mellow, the soup could have easily carried the four extra cloves. All you have to do is boil the peeled cloves in three pints of water for half an hour with the following ingredients; a generous pinch of sage and thyme, two cloves, a bay leaf, four sprigs of parsley, three tablespoons of olive oil, and a pinch of salt and pepper.

The smell when the garlic and herbs are bubbling away took me back to my nana’s kitchen

While the soup is bubbling away, whisk three egg yolks until they’re thick and glossy. The next step is similar to making mayonnaise – add three tablespoons of olive oil into the whisked eggs drop by drop until the sauce starts to thicken. To prevent the eggs from scrambling, begin by adding a cupful of the soup into the egg mixture via a strainer to catch the cloves in. Then add more bit by bit.

There is a huge amount of flavour to be extracted from the cloves, so be sure to mash them up and pass as much as possible of that garlicky goodness through the strainer and into the soup. The broth is best served immediately. Mine paired marvellously with hot buttered olive ciabatta and an afternoon screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief, set on the French Riviera, starring an impossibly suave Cary Grant and a bewitchingly glamorous Grace Kelly.

Give Julia Child’s garlic soup a go – the flavour is a revelation

Expecting something aggressively garlicky, it was the exact opposite – subtle, mellow and savoury, with wonderful aromatics from the herbs. The flavour is hard to define but impossible to forget. It was so tasty, I was tempted to do away with my spoon altogether and upend the entire bowl into my mouth. It was exactly as Julia described it: “exquisite and almost undefinable”, just how I like my men, though preferably with the charisma of Cary Grant to boot.

Hail Caesar!

You may be wondering what a Caesar salad has to do with French cooking. Very little, but I want to feel free with this blog to veer off message every now and then when I get the urge to cook something outside of Julia Child’s culinary canon. I’ve always been a fan of the humble Caesar salad, but have never attempted to make the dressing myself. The shop bought bottles seem perfectly serviceable, but having seen Tom Kerridge make the real deal on TV this week, I felt inspired to give it a go.

The story goes that the salad was created in 1924 by Italian restaurateur Caesar Cardini at his eponymous Caesar’s restaurant in Tijuana, south of San Diego in Baja California. Having been inundated with guests in a Fourth of July stampede, Cardini is said to have rustled up the salad from the ingredients he had left in his kitchen, assembling the dish tableside for added flair. In a happy twist of fate given the subject matter of my blog, Pasadena-born Julia Child is said to have travelled to Mexico and enjoyed a Caesar salad at Caesar’s in 1925, when she was just thirteen.

Caesar salad has nothing to do with Roman general Julius Caesar, depicted here by Rubens

Caesar’s original recipe was made with romaine lettuce, croutons, and the all-important dressing, featuring Worcestershire sauce, coddled eggs, Parmesan, olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, Dijon mustard and a few twists of black pepper. The salad has since evolved, and rather than being a background ingredient within the Worcestershire sauce, anchovies now play a starring role. So much so, that the presence of chicken seems entirely redundant in an authentic Caesar salad.

Going with Tom Kerridge’s recipe, in place of olive oil I used rapeseed oil, which gave the dressing a wonderfully vivid yellow hue. While the original recipe called for romaine lettuce, cos also works a treat. I cheated with the croutons, using ones from a packet from M&S, as the recipe required stale white bread, which I didn’t have to hand. Everything hangs on the dressing, which is full of punchy flavours, so the key to getting it right is making sure all of the elements are in balance.

The salty sensation that is the Caesar salad

For the dressing I chopped up six anchovies and whacked them in the blender along with two egg yolks, a tablespoon of Dijon mustard, a finely grated small garlic clove, and a dash of white wine vinegar. Then, like making a mayo, I added the rapeseed oil while the blender was running, keeping the flow of the oil slow but steady, so as not to overwhelm the egg yolks. It soon turned into a gloriously thick sauce to which I added a mound of grated Parmesan and a squeeze of lemon.

Staying true to Tom’s recipe, I finished the salad by layering it with anchovies, but in hindsight the dish really didn’t need them. The dressing is so punchy, from the tang of the vinegar and the heat of the mustard to the saltiness of the anchovies, it worked best as a solo act without any additional anchovies to ramp up the saltiness to 11. As long as all the elements are in balance, then the bigger the flavour hit the better in my book, and you’ll be hard pressed to find a bolder dressing than this.

The only downside to learning how to make so many store cupboard staples is that once you’ve had the homemade versions and you know how good they taste, it’s hard to go back to the shop-bought bottles. Perhaps that’s a good thing, but I worry that this experience may change me irrevocably – the more I learn, the less I’ll be inclined to make do with the readymade versions, and yet in these frenetic times it’s hard to find the time to make things properly from scratch. Therein lies the rub.