Pumpkin time

Thai-inspired pumpkin soup

As a child I really disliked pumpkin. It made me gag. I would rather eat boiled cabbage than pumpkin. My mother used to make a particularly vile (or so I then thought) dessert with pumpkin and rice; it was a variation on rice pudding. I hated it and dreaded those nights when it was on the menu. We always had a 3 course dinner: soup, main, and dessert. And we had to eat all three; even not wanting ice-cream and jelly was not an option – had to sit at the table until we ate it all. Not unusual for those days  post war when so many of our parents’ generation had had either little or no food. Times of scarcity and hunger. No wonder the idea of “more is better” was the overarching philosophy. There was too, the constant cajoling: “eat it up – think of all the starving children/people in Africa”. This never made sense to me – I was happy to send my unwanted dinner to starving people. Surely that would be noble and reasonable?

As a young adult my aversion to pumpkin continued and it always surprised me that people liked it, so I began to try it in various incarnations. I once made an American-style pumpkin pie – surely something so popular should taste good?  Alas, it tasted of pumpkin.  I didn’t even like pumpkin soup.  And then one day at a dinner at a friend’s house pumpkin soup was served and to my surprise, I actually liked it. Essentially because it wasn’t sweet: instead of using milk he used orange juice and had included some chillies. From then on, pumpkin soup became part of my repertoire.

Whenever I made this soup I ensured that I put enough chicken stock to give it some saltiness to combat the sweetness of pumpkin.  (I have to confess that in  those days I used to use stock cubes.  Nowadays I make chicken stock just about every week – it’s practically the only thing I have in my freezer – apart from vodka!) The addition of freshly chopped chillies towards the end and a good cracking of black pepper, grated orange zest and some chopped coriander gave it further depth.  For balance and richness I used to put in a couple of tablespoons of sour cream.  Later on I changed to yoghurt which was just as good, without all the fat and added calories.

More recently I made a pretty standard pumpkin soup with potatoes, carrot, pumpkin and chicken stock and after pureeing added fresh chillies, coconut milk, fish sauce and lime juice.  Delish.  So much so that it has now become one of my passions: variations on a theme of pumpkin soup.

If you’re not a fan of the traditional sweet flavoured pumpkin soup, try this one.  Even my daughter loves this soup and she’s not a soup person.  Nor a pumpkin fan.  In fact, once when she was little (just over 2yrs old) after announcing she was hungry she then insisted – when confronted with pumpkin soup – that she really wasn’t hungry after all.  Despite it meaning that there was no dessert or anything else. Now that’s a serious pumpkin aversion.  Fortunately though, I’m not of the school that thinks kids should eat everything they’re given.  My philosophy is:  if you don’t want to eat it, that’s fine, but there’s nothing else.  My other food rule is:  if you don’t like it you don’t have to eat it, but you have to try it first.  I said this to my daughter when she was around 3 yrs old at Christmas when we were having oysters.  I had assumed she would not like the look of them and therefore not eat them. She loved them.  And they have been her to-go-for special dish ever since.

A couple of days ago with the weather turning cold and having had enough chicken soup to last me a lifetime, I decided it was time for pumpkin soup.  I had some freshly made Thai-style curry paste left over from a batch I made for a chicken and apple-eggplant curry so thought I would use that in the initial stages of the soup together with some finely chopped lemongrass.

First I sweated some chopped  onion and then added the curry paste and the lemongrass and stirred till it became lovely and fragrant and then added the vegetables:  pumpkin, potato, carrot and some ends of a fennel I had,  stirred to coat in the oil and spice paste, poured in freshly made chicken stock, simmered till the vegetables were cooked and left it to cool.

That evening, we went out to listen to some food bloggers at a General Assembly event, coming back home quite late.  We brought some fresh bread on the way home and then all I had to do was puree the soup and put it back in a pot to heat up then add a tin of coconut milk (I use Ayam because it doesn’t have any gum or preservatives.  Its the only one I have found that is just coconut and water so I figure its worth paying more for it), fish sauce and some salt (because it still tasted a bit sweet) and finally, a good squeeze of lime juice.

I have to say, this version of the soup was absolutely delicious.  Fragrant (lemongrass, lime leaves and coriander), spicy but not too much, and deeply aromatic and complex (due to the fresh spice paste mixture). Served with fresh chopped coriander and thinly sliced lime leaves (I have a tree in my courtyard) and the baguette – its was the perfect post-event supper.

While I still haven’t ventured on the pumpkin pie journey, my distaste for this vegetable has turned into an appreciation of how teaming it up with spices and “umami” flavours changes it into a delicious food.
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Measure for measure – now you’re cooking

I read lots of recipes – for me they’re like mini novellas; short stories that fire my imagination. I have some favourite recipe books – Ottolenghi’s Plenty, Karen Martini’s Where the Heart Is, and (embarrassingly) Bill Granger’s Bill’s Food – though I must say in both my defence and Bill’s the recipes in his book are really good – easy and delicious and I would recommend them to anyone starting out on their cooking journey. Then there are some long-time treasures such as David Thompson’s original Classical Thai Cuisine  and Luke Nguyen’s My VietnamStephanie Alexander’s original A Cook’s Companion is a never ending source of information and inspiration and then there are all the issues of Gourmet Traveller – dating back to the 90s but now in digital format on my iPad.

Mostly though I just make it up as I go along. I generally follow a new recipe to the letter and then next time tweak it. Improvise. Sometimes this happens because I haven’t read the recipe properly and forgotten to buy some of the ingredients; other times it’s because I’m cooking from whatever I have to hand and the recipe is just a guide. This is where my saviour Google comes in: what flavourings/how long to cook pork belly? Within nano seconds I have a whole list of recipes for pork belly. The problem then is to sort through all the dross and find exactly what you want.

My other source of recipes (because sometimes I just can’t think of what to make) are the  ones in the Saturday papers. Often they provide great inspiration and Neil Perry’s recipe page in The Sydney Morning Herald’s magazine is usually very do-able.

But sometimes, sigh, recipes can be really exasperating. When, for instance, a recipe calls for 40g of rocket. Really? 40 grams? Who measures rocket? It’s like specifying 15g mint leaves. What is that? Why not just say: “a handful of rocket”? (which, by the way is around 40g). And what’s 15g of mint or coriander?

Now I know that real chefs are very precise in their measurements – after all, they need to ensure that every dish that goes out is exactly right; that each time you have a certain dish its exactly as it was last time. Consistency. There is no room in a professional kitchen for improvisation when cooking for patrons.  I’ve seen chef’s working in concentration on plating up – its quite a thing to see – such precision.  But for the home cook?

I’ve been cooking long enough to be able to gauge by eye and feel. I know that 50ml of lemon juice is roughly 1 medium lemon and that 250ml is about 1 cup. I would much prefer a recipe stated 1 tsp rather than 5ml. (Up until very  recently I only had a measuring jug that had increments of 50 ml so trying to guage what 25ml was – let alone 5 – was rather haphazard).  And after all, cooking is an art, not an exact science (unless you’re Heston Blumenthal) and we all have different palates.   When I’m cooking Thai or Vietnamese dishes I always go by taste.  I don’t even bother with tablespoon measures.  I know approximately how much fish sauce and palm sugar to put into a nuoc cham and always, I taste and adjust.  Of course you could buy all those little sets of measuring gadgets but my kitchen drawers are already cluttered with too many utensils and besides, it’s just one more thing to wash.

So, just to make things easier for those who have no idea how much 10ml lime juice is, here’s a rough guide to some of the things that have perplexed me in recipes:

  • 5ml = 1 tsp
  • 20ml = 1 tbs
  • 75ml = roughly 4 tbs
  • 250ml = 1 cup (just your standard  teacup)
  • 120ml is almost half a cup
  • 40g = 4 tbs
  • 40gm coriander is a small bunch of coriander (just the leaves)
  • Half a lime is about 1 tbs (20ml)

Should you have any measuring tips, do let me know. Happy cooking.


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Can’t help but cook

I can’ help myself. I have a need to cook or at least be involved in the process.

Recently I had surgery on my right hand which rendered me quite incapacitated – amazing how many things I couldn’t do – including cooking, opening jars, bottles, squeezing toothpaste etc. I was most frustrated one day when my husband had gone out and I wanted to open up a bottle of sparkling red (perfect for late autumn afternoons). I thought it would just be a matter of undoing the foil and then twisting the cork with my left hand. Alas, no. It also required the use of my right hand to hold the bottle tight. Which I could not do.

For the first couple of days while I was still aneasthetised and sedated with pain killers I was quite happy for M to do the cooking – I didn’t even feel the need to make a decision on what to cook/eat. I told him I was happy just to leave it all to him. Day 3 however, things changed. M was going to cook some kangaroo fillets and serve them simply with some greens and I suggestd that the woodfire roasted capsicums would make a good addition – both in terms of colour and texture and flavour. Easy. However in the interim I had been watching Rachel Koo’s Cosmopolitan Cook – an episode where she was in Sweden and had cooked venison steak with pureed celeriac and pickled blackberries. She had also quickly pickled some finely sliced carrot to look like petals. Sounded divine. And I thought that the kangaroo would do well as a substitute for venison. So whilst shopping I was on the look out for something to pickle – not blackberries – but something small and crunchy. I found tiny little baby turnips – perfect. Also found some lovely little dutch carrots and a big celeriac. So when we got home I made up the pickling mixture and trimmed the turnips (bit of an effort given my invalidness) and set them to pickle. I wasn’t sure how they would turn out as all the recipes I had read called for turnips to be pickled for at least a week. Fortunately though they were just right. I had quickly blanched them beforehand but they still retained a nice crunch.

The celeriac was beyond me so I simply gave instructions. Meanwhile M had done his own bit of research into celeriac and had sautéed it with fresh thyme and garlic and then steamed it till it was cooked and mashed with a fork.  Not how I would have done it as I had envisage a very smooth white puree spread on the plate and the kangaroo on top, but it was absolutely delicious; so much so that I could have just eaten that on its own!!

I did have to apologise for my intereference but I just couldn’t help myself. While M is a really good cook he’s often a bit pedestrian while I’m always on the look out for new ways of doing things and even though I may not set out to get inspiration from a cooking show or recipe, inevitably I do get inspired and want to create something that sings on the plate and palate.

However having overstepped the mark yesterday I have sworn to not interefere with his ideas and repertoire – after all, everyone has their own way of doing things and I think he likes to cook for me as much as I like to cook for him.

So I shall embrace my debilitation and just sit back and enjoy being catered to.


Baby turnips
Baby turnips