As we shiver through the first weekend of winter, it’s the perfect time to warm up with hearty hot meals. Reporting by Juliette Speedy.
Paul Howells is famous for his soups. The chef and co-owner of Twenty Seven Steps in Christchurch also loves winter cooking.
“We spend a lot of time on our soups and braises, cassoulets and stews, it’s a real labor of love for us. We are gifted for this winter cuisine, we put a lot of heart and soul into it.
When I call her partner and restaurant co-owner Emma Mettrick and tell her I’m looking for a great winter meal, she replies, “Paul’s soups are amazing, over 15 years later they blow me away Again.
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So when Howells finally walks away from their busy restaurant and we talk on a chilly Canterbury evening, he tells me about the soup he wants to share.
“I hope it’s not too boring, but we actually call people who phone us to find out if it’s on the promotions board for the evening, so I think it’s quite popular.”
But as Howells says, it’s also a dish with ingredients that people might have on hand that are actually quite affordable right now, so it’s a good dish.
More on this soup later.
Twenty Seven Steps is one of Christchurch’s most trusted and popular restaurants, always serving good, healthy, seasonal food. The cozy space is 27 steps upstairs on the coolest street in town – New Regent Street.
Howells and Mettrick have an excellent reputation among diners and the hospitality industry. Howells is Welsh and met his Kiwi partner in Ireland in 2007 before moving to New Zealand together, but Howells grew up on quintessential British winter fodder.
He says his mother was a fabulous cook who probably still influences the way he cooks today, even though he finds himself halfway around the world feeding large crowds every night.
“She was a fantastic cooker, we grew up with a pressure cooker which was great in the early 80s, they were going all winter – lamb necks, pork hocks, whole chickens, our house was full of stove smells going for 8 to 10 hours a day.
Howells says he has a special place in his heart for winter cooking.
“Food and winter go hand in hand,” he says. “It’s colder, I feel like I eat a lot more in the winter and I feel like I’m gaining a little weight!”
And although he always cooks in season, current food prices mean it’s more important now. Howells says food prices are crippling restaurants, but Twenty Seven Steps tries not to pass the price on to customers.
“It’s getting harder and harder, but we’re really trying to keep the prices under $40 for a main course, which I know is still a lot of money, but it’s ridiculous. Beef is about to go up another 15%, and I don’t know when that’s going to end to be honest.
He urges home cooks to do their homework when it comes to shopping seasonally.
“People really need to sort their facts in terms of seasons,” he says. “If people are aware of what’s going on, they can plan and cook accordingly.”
When Howells moved to the southern hemisphere, it took him a few years to figure out the seasons back, and he downloaded a sheet that told him what was available in season.
“Right now the green beans and zucchini are coming to an end, so we moved on to Brussels sprouts, beautiful broccoli, feijoa, tamarillo.”
At Twenty Seven Steps right now you will find on the menu a feijoa crumble with tamarillo ice cream.
“That’s where we are, right now, we’re really getting into the winter mood.”
Luckily for Twenty Seven Steps, winter has become one of their busiest times.
“Since Covid, strangely enough, winter has exploded. Before Covid people used to hunker down but we find it’s a lot busier now.
He attributes this, in part, to people happy to be on the go again.
After a tough few years during the pandemic, the hope is that the busy clientele will continue to pour in once the borders open and that tourists will start arriving again with bellies ready for a good Kiwi kai.
But back to the soup which is almost as popular as in the restaurant.
Cauliflower is cheap right now, and the cost of blue cheese can vary depending on the flavor profile you like and how much you want to spend.
Howells says this steaming bowl of soup is incredibly tasty. The delicate taste of cauliflower against strong blue cheese is both creamy and warming, and you can spread it with nice toppings if you like.
“It’s basic in terms of cooking, but it’s a dish that everyone loves, especially at this time of year,” says Howells.
“I’ll decorate it nicely with fried sage leaves, parsnip chips, truffle oil, that sort of thing, but anyone can replicate this at home.”
Cauliflower and blue cheese soup
For 2 to 4 people
- 1x head of cauliflower
- 2x medium white onion
- 4x small garlic cloves
- 1x tsp Dijon mustard
- 250ml milk
- 250 ml vegetable broth (we make our own, but the gourmet Vegeta broth is very good)
- 90g blue cheese (we use whitestone blue)
- 250g of butter
- Flaky sea salt
- White pepper
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil.
- While the water begins to boil, finely chop the onions and garlic.
- Cut the cauliflower into florets. Add to boiling water and cook until tender.
- Melt the butter in another saucepan, add the onions and garlic. Cook over low heat, until tender but not brown. Season with salt and pepper
- Carefully add the cooked cauliflower – mix well then add the mustard and cheese.
- Lower the heat then add the milk and the vegetable broth.
- Cook over low heat for 45 minutes
- Pass through a food processor and season to taste
- Garnish with a drizzle of truffle oil, fried sage and parsnip crisps.