It’s a year for soup. Not just for how it comforts, soothes and feels like it heals, although that is a factor. No – it’s a practical choice too. If someone is dropping by for an outdoor catch-up, it’s a good thing to have a warming bowl of something on hand. It keeps hands toasty, doesn’t get cold rapidly the way grilled or plated food does and it’s easily transportable in a flask. A hug in a bowl basically, and on a cold day, that added warmth can give you another 20 minutes together, which after this funny year, with its big gaps and lonely jolts, can be a great luxury.
So soup it is. Or broth. Or chowder. I grew up with a lot of soups, all of them started with a diced onion, fried gently in butter till it filled the house with its familiar, safe scent.
When it was me on soup duty rather than my mum (which was quite often) I would invariably add two bay leaves from the tree in the garden. A sort of fussy, particular sort of gesture from someone who had just started reading cookbooks. My mum never bothered. She doesn’t much like the flavour of bay, but she did agree it was vital for a carrot soup recipe that I got from one of my colourful ‘Your first cookbook‘s and made and remade dozens of times.
But she remained ambivalent about bay overall, and this year the tree was taken down. What a year to make such a big change!
My brother was a bit quiet for a little while when he first saw the garden without it. Memories of summer nights putting bay leaves on the barbecue after dinner; probably having climbed it at one point; the garden suddenly naked without it. Funny the things that get us.
With a bit more distance, I was not as sad about the tree. But it did start me thinking about that classic, unusual flavour. For me it has always tasted like good cooking, classic French treatments – pot au feu, boeuf à la Bourguignonne, soupe à l’oignon.
But there is something else in it for me too, a whisper of the exotic, and indeed it is prominently used in Filipino cuisine, particularly in the wonderful national dish adobo, which holds everything good about cooking in my view – a slow cook; saltiness tempered with a vinegar hit; clean-tasting aromatics – beautiful. But I digress.
As the months have gone on, and I’ve made and eaten more soups than I ever thought possible, I’ve realised that I far prefer the taste of dried bay to fresh bay. Fresh bay leaves, while attractive to look at, are too volatile for using in all but the biggest pots of boiling water in my opinion. I think there is quite a lot of oil in the leaves (hence why they were so gratifying for us to sizzle on the barbecue) but that’s what makes them so punchy (too punchy!) as a flavour. Dried bay leaves give the same notes to a dish, but more gently, no drama.
Samin Nosrat said on the most recent episode of ‘Home Cooking‘ [side note: highly recommend] that she almost never boils a pot of water without adding a bay leaf, and when I use dried leaves, I can see why. They add a base note to dishes that feels almost as essential and familiar as black pepper; they give a roundedness that makes the flavours feel complete.
This recipe brings out the best in dried bay, but also onions – my ultimate early cooking duo, meant to be together. It tastes somewhere between a French onion soup and a Taiwanese beef noodle hot-pot – joyous. It’s loosely based on a fabulous recipe from Amiel Stanek for Bon Appetit but it cooks in a fraction of the time, meaning you can have that comforting oniony noodley broth on your table in about 25-30 minutes. Crucial knowledge for the winter nights to come.
So dig in. Fill your kitchen with steam. Make your welcome as warm as your soup, even if only for a few guests; in a chilly garden at dusk, in front of a fire pit.
FRENCH ONION BEEF NOODLE BROTH
Note: this can be made as a vegetarian option either. Just omit the beef strips steps, add one extra onion to the recipe and use vegetarian stock. It won’t be quite as richly flavoured but it will still be delicious.
250g fast cook beef steak strips – note these must be designated as ‘stir fry’ or equivalent or they will be too tough. If you’re not sure, I’d suggest just slicing up a rump steak and frying that
2 medium-sized onions (or 3 if you’re making the dish vegetarian)
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
Half a cinnamon stick
3 dried bay leaves
15g fresh ginger, grated
1 scant tablespoon cracked black pepper
1 tablespoon Chinese rice wine (or other alcohol spirit eg brandy, vermouth or whiskey – whatever you have)
15ml soy sauce
500ml stock (chicken works quite well, but beef or veggie are fine either)
200g ready to wok udon noodles (or ramen block noodles are fine)
2 spring onions, finely sliced
Flash fry the beef strips/steak slices in a small amount of oil in a wide based high sided large pan or saucepan on a very high heat till they are browned and seared all over. Remove from the pan and set aside till later. Don’t wash the pan – crucial flavour! Turn the heat right down. Peel and finely dice the onions and add them to the browning pan with a good knob of butter. Cook over a very low heat for 15 minutes or until nicely golden and soft. Add the spices, diced ginger and bay leaves. Then add the soy, Chinese rice wine and a splash of water. Leave to cook for another 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the stock, bring to the boil, then add the udon noodles and the beef strips back in. Cook till heated through, remove the cinnamon stick and bay leaves, then serve piping hot in bowls, topping with diced spring onion, chilli flakes and more black pepper if it needs it.