Friday, December 9, 2011

Leith's Stilton Soup

My favourite restaurant in London, when we lived in England in the 1970s, was Leith's in Notting Hill Gate, considered to be one of the top restaurants in the city at the time and a Michelin star to prove it. My absolute favourite dish was Leith's Stilton Soup, an unbelievably silky smooth and creamy celery-based soup simmered with a big lump of Stilton cheese, puréed until smooth then pushed through a sieve for good measure. Prue Leith started out in 1960 as an event and party caterer with Leith's Good Food, followed by Leith's School of Food and Wine in 1975, in addition to being an accomplished food writer, television cook and columnist in her spare time!

She also wrote a series of cookbooks that came out in 1980, an offshoot of her articles which appeared every weekend in the Sunday Express. Not only did I religiously collect those recipes, I am also the proud owner of her original three-volume set, Leith's Cookery Course: Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced. Apart from Graham Kerr - The Galloping Gourmet - Prue Leith was one of my early role models, and her cookbooks a culinary inspiration as I was growing up. Even to this day her writing continues to inspire me. Passionate about food, Prue Leith believed that food should be fresh and uncomplicated, prepared with only the finest ingredients to the highest of standards — and quite reflective of her motto, 'Simply Better' — just like her.

"I have always been addicted to cookbooks, tending to read them in bed in preference to novels or poetry. A lot of the books I accumulated when I was a food writer for, variously, the Daily Mail, Guardian, Sunday Express and Mirror, and subsequently I could not bare to part with them. I used the books in my collection as all writers do, for inspiration! I sometimes think there are no new recipes, only new versions of old ones. I once thought I had invented a Stilton Soup, because I went to Denmark, ate a Samsoe soup, thought "This would be even better with Stilton", came home and made a celery soup heavily enriched with Stilton Cheese. It became famous in my restaurant, Leith's, and was copied by chefs all over London. And then one day, flipping through a 19th Century English cookbook I had just bought in Hay on Wye, I found a near-identical 'Derbyshire Cheese Soup'. So much for originality!"

Prue Leith OBE - Patron, Oxford Gastronomica

Leith's Stilton Soup
Serves 4

1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 sticks of celery, finely chopped
2 oz butter
1 1/2 oz flour
1/3 cup dry white wine
4 cups chicken stock
1 cup whole milk or light cream
1/2 lb stilton cheese, crumbled
2 tbsp cream
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
1 tbsp chopped chives, for garnish

Soften the onion and celery in butter over low heat, about 8-10 minutes. Add the flour and cook for 1 minute. Remove from the heat and stir in the wine and stock. Return to the heat and bring slowly to the boil, stirring continuously until the soup thickens. Simmer uncovered for 25 minutes. Add the milk and simmer 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and whisk in the stilton until it has melted. Using a hand blender, liquidize the soup, then push it through a sieve, discarding all solids. Add the cream, and season with salt and white pepper. Gently reheat the soup, taking care not to let it boil or else it will curdle. Stilton Soup can also be served chilled, with a little cream streaked on top and a garnish of chopped chives, for an added touch. This delicious silky smooth soup would be a perfect starter for Christmas Dinner — light enough so you have room for the rest of the holiday meal, and a festive touch with the traditional English stilton. Yum-yum.