stone soup

stone soup

The deepest sustenance you will ever experience can be found with just two simple weapons: a flaky sea salt and a high-quality extra-virgin olive oil, not that you know how to find one of those. I won’t fuck around with you - for the salt, just buy Maldon. The smoked one is even better. What’s important is the texture. See, a lot of people don’t realise that there are different salts, and that those different salts contain different levels of saltiness. Even fewer people realise that the texture of your salt counts for more than its saltiness. Those fine grains of salt you fill your pasta water with are great for saturation, but until you have experienced the divinity of a crisp flake of salt atop a mouthful of the best food that you have ever eaten, you do not know salt’s true blessing. And for god’s sakes, layer your salt throughout your food, people, don’t just add it at the end, it’s not the same, cooking is chemistry and timing counts. The oil, we’ll come back to in a bit. Because you’ve got a lesson to learn.

Most of you complain about the stories above recipes on food blogs, but most of you also don’t realise that that’s the real recipe. Anyone can tell you how to make food, the order to do things in, but the true joy of food is the nexus of food, people, and setting. Every single one of those stories contains joy, or defeat, or comfort. They talk about the people they break bread with, the chosen families that people are weathering the winter storms with. They describe the places their heart goes when they think about enjoying good food with good people. Think of that barbecue you went to in the summer, all sweet white wines and fizzy lagers and hazy nights. You had a great time, probably. But Dave overcooked the veggie sausages again, Chris dropped the corn on the ashes and Jen had to finish the chicken thighs in the oven because the coals weren’t hot enough anymore. It’s not about the food. It never is or was. You remember Chris’ regretful face as he picked up the ash-laden corn and dusted it off. “It’s fine!”, he yelled, before taking an ashy mouthful, his face buckling, and throwing the rest of the cob away. You remember the songs you sang around the dying embers to keep warm, and the ridiculous face Tina always made when she for some reason smelled the plasticky cheese.

It’s not about the food. But it is, a bit. And that’s where the olive oil comes in. It makes everything else sing. You think you know how something tastes, but until you’ve had the bright acidity and pepperiness of a good, high-quality extra-virgin olive oil touch it, adorned with a kiss of a flaky sea salt, you don’t know anything. You’ve got to let the flavours express themselves, and that final swirl of olive oil is going to do that. Fat carries flavour, and is not the enemy. Let me repeat: fat carries flavour, and is not the enemy. So stop treating it like it is. Now you’re converted, you ask, how the fuck do I know what a good, high-quality extra-virgin olive oil is? You don’t. Unfortunately, you’ve got to make a few mistakes. Hint, though, it’s probably going to cost more than £4. Yes, I know, it’s hard times, but it’s going to last you a while so treat yourself this once. This is for finishing only. Well, not only, but you’re a beginner at this, so we’ll say finishing for now. Don’t cook with it unless you know what you’re doing. Which you don’t.

The way to find a high-quality extra-virgin olive oil is to ask what qualities you like in your friends. When you think about that last barbecue, or cheese night (look, you’re not posh, you just like cheese, it doesn’t make you a counter-revolutionary to enjoy nice things), or dinner party (admittedly that one was a bit posh to be fair), what stands out? Who shone? Was it your a little-bit-too-flirty friend Seema? Your larger-than-life rock-climber brother Martin? The life of the party, Lauren? Or the old softy, Alex, who gives everyone the warmest hug they’ve ever known before they leave for the night? Dependent on your answers there, you want to look for an olive oil that is fruity, pungent, peppery, or buttery. Do it exactly as I did it: stand in Waitrose (let’s be honest, you’re in Waitrose or Marks in Spencers, or, god forbid, Budgens, because they’re the only places that reliably sell good olive oil) and Google each and every olive oil above £6. You’ll be here a while. Go onto the olive oil review websites - yes, they are a thing - and choose one with a flavour profile that reminds you of the friends who most fill your aching winter heart. You might be wrong, but you’ve got to buy it to try it.* For what it’s worth, I like olive oils that are peppery, a little bit fruity - reaching for those upper acid sort of tastes - but with a little tang of green flavour. If you want to start from my tastes rather than trusting your own intuition: I love Lorenzo no. 5, it comes in a blue bottle in Waitrose.

Anyway, this ‘poem’ started out as a recipe for ribollita, not a treatise on olive oil purchasing. The recipe itself is super simple, but may or may not be conventional, I have no inclination to check for this recipe-poem-bastard-child. This ribollita should be paired with the appropriate people and setting, as should all meals. So think about where you’re going to eat and who you’re going to eat with before you make this, but like every single recipe in Midnight Chicken, don’t overthink it because this is depression-improving food and overthinking it undoes the magic.

•  Heat some olive oil in a big pan. NO NOT YOUR NICE NEW OLIVE OIL. Medium heat. Always assume you’re on a medium heat unless otherwise said.

•  Have a small breakdown over the fact that you either a) are using the wrong knife or b) are holding the knife incorrectly, as on balance you’re probably doing one of these, because my extensive watching of Channel 4’s Dinner Date suggests that about 80% of the British public cannot do at least one of these things. Use a chef’s knife (the big one you’re scared of), at basically all times, for basically things. It’s hard to explain how to hold it, so just go search that too, but basically you want your thumb and index finger either side of the blade itself. No index fingers just pointing down the blade. Then you have no control and will hurt yourself, which incidentally is why you’re scared of it. Yup, you’re scared of it because you don’t know how to do it correctly because no-one taught you. Don’t read too much into that.

•  Chop some carrot, celery, and  - if you haven’t experienced childhood trauma and thus developed IBS in your early 20s that is mostly triggered by alliums such as onion and garlic - onion. The size really does not matter. You can do this with a rough chop or with a mince, just make sure everything’s sort of the same size. I would go for whatever your regular ‘diced’ size is. If I could still eat onion, I’d go 1 onion, 2 carrots, 2 stalks of celery.

•  You can basically add any vegetable to this whatsoever, so knock yourself out, chop whatever else you want right now too. Try to match size. Throw it in when we add the beans.

•  Fry the carrot/celery(/onion) for five to fifteen minutes or so. Move them often but not constantly. Think about the fact that your parents never taught you that this was a soffrito because they just had no experience with cooking like this, with love, and nuance. Season with salt at this stage. Yes. Right away. As I said, layer your salt. Don’t use your nice new salt, but if all you have is ‘table salt’, then use your new salt. Use more salt than you expect.

•  Optional extra step for the not-traumatised of you: add garlic to your heart’s content now. Mince it, add it, fry it for like NO MORE THAN A MINUTE SWEET JESUS GARLIC BURNS SO QUICKLY AND NO ONE SEEMS TO KNOW THIS. Don’t use that minced garlic jar shit because it tastes awful. If you need to for whatever reason, that’s okay, but I’d honestly say leave it out rather than get that raw garlic flavour sitting all over your beautiful stew.

•  Add some beans. It does not matter what kind in the slightest. Add as many as you want - this is poor food, bulk it to your heart’s content. You can add cans, but if you are able, cook your own beans! I don’t want this to become a book-length treatise on beans, salt and oil because then I’m basically becoming Samin Nosrat, but they’re so much more delicious! Basic recipe for your own beans is soak them overnight in a bunch of water, then the next day simmer them with chunky bits of ANY VEG (carrot, celery, onion, parsley, fennel… think along those lines, but I’ve also done chilli, cinnamon and ginger), salt, a little bit of butter or oil, maybe a Parmesan rind. Cook for 2-3 hours, in my experience. They’re done (according to either Tamar Adler or maybe Samin again) when you try 5 beans in a row and they’re all creamy and delicious. Anyway, add a bunch of beans to this ribollita.

•  Add some stock. I know you don’t have any fresh stock, but it’d be great if you did. If not, use whatever you have. You can throw some canned plum tomatoes in at this point too if you want to go for a more tomatoey sort of flavour. Plum tomatoes always, chopped tomatoes never. Plum tomatoes are whole and have to be delicious: chopped tomatoes always get the dregs. You cannot go wrong with this recipe so really, add whatever you want. Add at least a litre but depending on what’s going on in your pot, maybe more. Salt again. Layer it, people. Add a Parmesan rind in. It adds so much delicious creaminess and umami flavour. Plus you have this delicious ball of molten cheese to fish out at the end which I don’t think you’re meant to eat but I always do.

•  Shred some form of cabbage or kale and add that too. It doesn’t matter what you go for. I love a bit of savoy, some people prefer kale, to each their own. If you’re adding kale for god’s sakes please remove the stalk because that shit is fibrous and inedible and the amount of people who fucking cook it because they’re lazy drives me mad, like I get it but DESTALK YOUR KALE. If you wanna add any herbs now would be the time too, except for basil which is always a finishing herb. Rosemary, oregano, parsley, whatever, it’s all good.

•  Simmer your ribollita for like, half an hour or so. You want it to reduce a bit but it doesn’t matter how much, really.

•  Grab some stale bread from your cupboard that has been there for far too long because the depression was real this week and you meant to throw it out but you didn’t but hey, turns out that’s a gift now, assuming it’s not mouldy. If it’s mouldy throw it out and use fresh bread. If you don’t have any, you can just eat the ribollita now, it’s just a vegetable stew instead and that’s fine. If you do have some form of bread: tear or slice it up into small chunks and throw it in the pot. Maybe turn down the heat a little and stir it in.

•  Your bread is gonna start drinking that stew like nobody’s business, but at the same time it’s going to start disintegrating, so your stew is gonna become ribollita and it is going to be delicious and vegetable-y and herby and creamy from the bread. Serve at whatever your desired thickness is - it sounds disgusting but my favourite is when it gets to this like, porridge-y texture. If you keep going it’ll even become a pancake, so just keep an eye on it and take it off when you think ‘fucking hell this has taken forever and I am starving and my guests are looking at me like why the fuck have you even invited us what is this about’. That’s just your hungxiety talking. Hungry anxiety is a real thing. Have faith**.

Okay, now bring the pot to the table in front of your assembled chosen family. Bring a cheese (Parmesan would do well, but anything is fine), the olive oil, and the salt. Let everyone serve themselves, because communality is part of the spirit of life-giving moments like this. Instruct everyone very carefully: the order is cheese, oil, salt. Pepper, if you want to, last. Don’t drown the ribollita in oil, just add enough to make all of those flavours sing like I told you. Add a kiss of salt - a few good flakes, a pinch, whatever feels right to you. And then you can just bask in the joy of everything. The food is delicious, the salt adds this brilliant crunch to everything, the oil makes you see the world in colour again, and here you are, with everyone you love. You have made a stone soup to bring together everything you love, and this will sustain you. It might not be the oil, or the salt, or the ribollita, but they’re delicious and they’re a reason to bring together these people and this place and they are what will keep you going through these dark winter months when it feels like the light might never return.

*If you can actually find a place where you can try the oil before you buy it, go there and do this. Don’t try it on its own, that’s stupid. The general rule is taste with what you’ll eat it with. They tend to frown on you bringing in a whole pot of stew, though, so, maybe just use the stale croutons they provide.

**This recipe will likely make a shit-tonne of food, meaning you will have leftovers to remember this meal by for days to come. Ribollita means ‘reboiled’ so it actually gets even better over time, as the flavours have more time to mingle, the bread disintegrates more, and the memory of the warm touch of those you love gets more distant. Let this meal be a reminder of all that is good and graceful, and the comfort you can find when you let yourself take your time.