New job … or at least old job but newly full-time. I’m cooking for a little group of older people in an Abbeyfield Society house, just five minutes from home. Three old boys and two old girls, and one more coming soon – lunch and supper, five days a week. What could be better?
Baking is actually in my job description. I was standing in the kitchen last week grating carrots for a cake, happy as a sandgirl, thinking to myself – ‘and they PAY me for this?’
There are lots of good things about this job. One is, it’s very sociable. Two, I get to do what all the good old-fashioned cookbooks tell you to do, i.e. ‘build a relationship with your butcher’. Lucky butcher! Does he know what he’s in for? Three, the Pittenweem Fish Van comes round every Friday. Four, there’s lots of space at the back door, just begging for a herb garden. Five, the key task in this job is to help build community. My friends know that I’ve been harping on for years about setting up an ‘ageing hippie community’. Because surely as we age, the most important thing is to be spending time with people you like and can get along with and have some fun along the way. The care system is the archetypal curate’s egg – good in some parts but dreadful in others. It’s all propped up by underpaid carers with big hearts. However even in the best of places old people can feel lost. My experience is that if you only have friends, you’re okay. More than okay.
So – lucky me, surrounded by my own amazing friends; and lucky me, getting to do important, meaningful work.
Today’s lunch was mushroom soup. I wasn’t sure if they’d like it or not but it went down very well. Our oldest and most discerning resident, aged 95, let’s call him Denis, is a bit of a barometer as to culinary success and he doesn’t hold back if he’s not impressed. ‘Helen,’ he told me a while back, ‘your biscuits taste like Portland Cement.’ Ouch. Today however it was ‘Helen, your soup is lovely.’ Yahoo! Praise indeed. Here’s how it’s made:
(Although I’ve specified amounts, I’m just trying to be helpful – measure up or down if it suits you. This is what I did today and it worked out really well).
2 large onions
2 fat cloves garlic
3 medium carrots
4 stalks celery
1 litre chicken stock
1 tbsp sherry
Salt and pepper to taste
Swirl of cream and pinch of fresh parsley to garnish
Chop all the vegetables smallish. Heat the oil in a large pan and fry the onions and garlic together for 5 mins or so till they’re translucent – don’t let them burn. Add the carrots and celery and put the lid on and let it all sweat together for about 10 mins. Add the mushrooms, lid it again and let it sweat for another ten. Add the stock, bring to the boil and let it simmer for maybe 15 mins. At this stage if you think it’s too thick, add some boiling water. I added about half a litre (I had some excellent stock from the butcher’s chicken which was served for Sunday lunch, and it was well able to stand being ‘watered down’).
(If on the other hand your soup is too thin, you’ve probably added too much stock. You could thicken it with rice; or a cupful of milk with a tablespoon of cornflour blended in. Put some hot soup into the cold milk/cornflour mix first, stir it together, then return it to the hot pan and bring it back to the boil then continue simmering).
Taste it and see if it’s cooked enough. If so, take a stick blender to it, and puree it all down so that it’s quite smooth. You may want to leave a bit of texture in it – I usually do – but with Oldies you have to make sure there aren’t any choking hazards. (I once thought I’d killed my dear late mother-in-law, then aged about 80, at my own kitchen table with a particularly chunky soup featuring cabbage … it looked for about ten seconds as if she had breathed her last but fortunately managed to cough the offending shred of Savoy right across the kitchen, clearing her tubes in so doing. It made me nervous for a while.)
Add a slug of sherry – somehow its fruity fustiness goes beautifully with mushrooms. Then taste again and add salt and pepper to taste. No more salt than you have to. Then serve it all up with a nice wee swirl of cream and a scattering of chopped parsley. Repeat five times. Put all the plates on your trolley, push it up the corridor and set down before your appreciative audience. Hold your breath and wait for the verdict. But you already know that bit …