When I moved to France in my mid-20s I left a life of domesticity behind. I had been playing housewife since I was 19 and it was time to go off on my own, unburdened by the battery of kitchen equipment and glossy food magazines I had accumulated over seven years.
In Paris, it became a game to prove that no dish was unachievable with my minimalist equipment: two temperamental burners, a mini fridge and an oven just big enough to hold one small tin of brownies. I whipped egg whites by hand to make (mini) cheese soufflés and rustled up vegetarian lasagne with fresh artichokes, eggplants and mushrooms from the market when my friends came over. I no longer had a breadmaker or a pizza peel, but in my new location around the corner from some of the world's greatest bakeries, Poilâne among them, this wasn't an issue.
As my life has grown more domestic once again, the appliances have started creeping back into my kitchen: first a lime-green Magimix food processor, then (oh, joy!) a scarlet KitchenAid mixer, my sister's wedding gift to us. But I would still say I've been pretty restrained - until a few weeks ago, when I definitively crossed back into the camp of the appliance-crazed.
It all started with a search for the perfect blender. I was frustrated with the way my green food processor, pretty as it looks, couldn't make a satisfying smoothie or whiz a soup to a creamy purée. I started shopping around and saw that a powerful blender costs €150 and up. Around this time, Ximena wrote alluringly about making homemade Nutella in the Thermomix. The thought of a machine that could grind hazelnuts to a fine powder, melt chocolate without burning it and whip a few ingredients into a smooth paste piqued my interest. The machine's cultish side added a certain mystery: you either have to buy one from a representative, Tupperware-style, or take the risk of ordering an older, perhaps pieced-together model on eBay.
The price difference between the powerful blender and the Thermomix didn't seem that great, until I decided to go for the most recent model available on eBay, the TM21, rather than an orange model from the 1970s (Thermomixes are said to be indestructible, something that I sincerely hope is true). This machine is neither new nor fashionable, though it is catching on with chefs - Philippe grew up with one in his kitchen, and in Spain it's considered a kind of Valium substitute for housewives. My second-hand, 1998-vintage machine cost €415, about the same as a new KitchenAid. Do I regret it? Not for a moment.
It's not the prettiest appliance in my kitchen with its functional black, white and stainless steel design, but the Thermomix is probably the closest thing you could have to a friendly little robot that does the cooking for you. I had to get the Nutella recipe out of my system (total success) before I could start experimenting with the 1,000 or so recipes that came on a computer disk, which incidentally I couldn't open on my Macintosh.
The only disappointment has been smoothies, which were one of the reasons I wanted to buy a blender in the first place. Thrilling as it is to use, the turbo setting really works best with larger quantities of liquid - at least 1 litre (4 cups) is ideal. When I've tried to make smoothies for one or two people, I've ended up with frustrating lumps of fruit.
But the Thermomix's many qualities compensate for this. I know that its possibilities are almost endless - crumbles, stews, cookies, bread, granite - but so far I haven't got much beyond playing with different soups. I love it that I can let the machine do the chopping, heating and stirring, only intervening to press the Turbo button at the end (or not if I want a chunkier texture).
I want to reassure you that I don't plan to dedicate this blog to the Thermomix - devoted as I am to it, I still consider it just one of many tools in my kitchen, the most important of which are my hands. Once in a while, I will include Thermomix instructions alongside the conventional recipe if I think they might be helpful, though most recipes are easy to adapt once you know how to use the machine.
If you don't have a Thermomix - and chances are you don't, as they are really a European phenomenon - don't let that stop you from making this cream-free soup with a vegetable that people, for some reason, don't often think of pureeing. To make it, I used some wonderful young broad beans that one producer at the market had planted late, resulting in spring-like vegetables in early October. You could also use green beans, being sure to remove any strings.
Broad bean soup with bacon and sage
2 tbsp olive oil
1 small onion
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
13 oz broad beans or green beans (350 g)
1 medium potato
2 cups vegetable stock (I used Marigold bouillon powder)
4 oz bacon (100 g)
A few fresh sage leaves
In a medium saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the finely diced onion and a pinch of salt, and stir over medium-low heat for a few minutes until the onions become translucent.
Top and tail the broad beans and chop them quite small. Peel the potato and cut it into small dice. Add the beans and potatoes to the onions, stir well, then add the vegetable stock. Bring to a boil, lower the heat and simmer for about 10 mins, or until the beans and potato are tender. Purée the soup in a powerful blender and season to taste with salt and pepper.
Meanwhile, cut the bacon into small pieces and fry until golden (if using French lardons, I think it's worth blanching them for 1 minute first to remove some of the salt). Remove the cooked bacon from the fat with a slotted spoon and fry the sage leaves in the bacon fat until crisp. Top the soup with the bacon and a couple of sage leaves before serving.
Thermomix instructions: Heat the oil for 3 mins at 100 C, speed 2. On speed 6, add the quartered and peeled onion through the hole in the lid and chop for 10 seconds, or until there are no big lumps. Heat for 3 mins at 90C, speed 2. Add the whole, trimmed beans and chop on speed 6 for 10-15 secs. Add the vegetable stock and peeled and diced potato and cook for 10 mins at 100 C, speed 2. Purée on Turbo for 1 min and season to taste with salt and pepper.
For the garnishes, proceed as in the recipe above.