Ryan doesn't even like mushrooms!

I’ve seen a few tweets recently from scientifically-minded people, essentially sneering at people who avoid ‘processed foods’. Their point is that almost all foods are processed, including beer and bread, and lots of things that the average person on the street would consider both healthy and delicious.

This is true. Almost all food is processed. Cooking is a process. When I peel, boil and mash potatoes I’m processing them. The end result is, technically, processed food. Clearly there’s no reason for me to even consider avoiding mashed potatoes (thank god! I love mashed potatoes).

What they’re doing is arguing semantics – the meaning of words – to get their point across, and to make us feel like crazy luddites. Of course no one is suggesting that we avoid all foods that have been processed. ‘Processed food’ has taken on a popular meaning beyond what’s inherent in the words.

The popular meaning of ‘processed food’ has become food that has been cynically modified, designed and manufactured with profit rather than health in mind. It is talking about food that contains ingredients you wouldn’t find in a household kitchen, or recognise as food. We’d like to avoid foods that have been industrially-processed in ways we would not be able to replicate at home.

Now I am about as scientifically-minded as you get. I have two science degrees and I make my living as a science writer. I understand the common and scientific meanings of words, and I understand a fair amount of what goes on in food processing. If you want to eat processed foods, then go right ahead – you won’t find me sneering at you. I’m not a purist; you’re bound to find some of them in my kitchen if you look hard enough. But there’s no question that many of these industrially-produced foods are bad for us, and that we’d be healthier if we didn’t eat them, and that’s why so many of us are choosing to avoid them as much as possible.

Which is why I have been continuing on with my ‘soup & a slice’ lunch experiments this year, even though I haven’t found time to blog them all. I’ve had a lovely butternut borscht, which was a ferocious pink colour, and a carrot & cumin soup that even passed muster with my mother in law, who is a bit of a picky eater. The breads have kept coming as well. In a recent experiment I moved on from my trusty French bread recipe to one which my breadmachine booklet calls wholewheat bread. It’s over-selling it slightly; it only contains 1/4 wholewheat flour. I threw in some home-roasted squash seeds (which was part of a different culinary adventure), and they were lovely. The bread itself was passable. Well, everyone else liked it. I think I could smell the milk powder in it, which put me off slightly. It all got eaten, anyway 🙂

Ryan doesn’t like mushrooms, I do. When we get them in the veg box I normally roughly chop them into stews or risottos, and he fishes them out when we serve up. This time I thought I would try something a little different, and make cream of mushroom soup (just for me – I didn’t inflict it on Ryan!).

A little oil for frying
1 small onion, finely chopped
I clove garlic, finely chopped
A punnet of mushrooms (220g or so), finely chopped
A pinch of mixed herbs, or similar
1 tbsp flour
450ml stock
50ml cream
Black pepper for seasoning

Although we’ve eaten our way through the old bread flours, there are still a few ancient packets of other flours in the pantry, and it’s these that I use up when I need a spoonful or two for soups and stews. This time it was self-raising; it doesn’t make a difference. My cream was oat cream, since I have an intolerance to cow’s milk and keep oat cream in the pantry instead. I finished off the carton by adding dollops to soups and risottos for the rest of the week. My stock was from a very old fish stock cube (they’re too salty to go off!), which was fine – the end result wasn’t fishy at all. I don’t know why we have fish stock cubes; as well as a handful of loose ones we have a full box. I must have wanted them for something at some point….

My mushrooms were small and very fresh, and so I sliced them thinly for the soup. If yours are large, or past their best, or your Inner Womble is using up mushrooms stems leftover from something else, then you may want to finely chop them instead. For the same reason, I didn’t blend this soup, but that’s an option as well.

Fry the onion and garlic in the oil with the mixed herbs until they’re soft and golden, then add the mushrooms and fry gently until they start to soften. At this point you stir in the flour, then add the hot stock. Simmer for 10 minutes or so, until the mushrooms are cooked through. I tend to turn the heat off at this point, and pop the lid on, and come back later to finish the soup. It’s at this point that you would blend it, if you wanted a smooth soup.

When you’re ready to serve, add the cream and heat through, stirring, until you get the creamy consistency that you want. And then you eat it – this effort made two portions. I ate one, and put the remainder in the fridge for the following day, when I added a little more cream, and it was still perfectly lovely.