Rachel Roddy’s recipe for chickpea, kale and potato soup with cumin pesto

<span>Rachel Roddy’s chickpea, kale and potato soup with cumin pesto.</span><span>Photograph: Rachel Roddy/The Guardian</span>
Rachel Roddy’s chickpea, kale and potato soup with cumin pesto.Photograph: Rachel Roddy/The Guardian

Frustrated by our inability to do not just urgent things in our small flat, but anything, I recently forced the issue and pulled everything out of an extremely large wardrobe. Weeks later, the empty wardrobe is still waiting to be removed, while the rest of the flat is inside out, there’s no hook without nine things hanging on it and no surface clear. Except one. One of three shelves in the cupboard above the washing machine – the one I look at most, with the tea, custard and jars filled with things that are not only tidy, but clean, so I can see what is cocoa and what is cumin.

In De re coquinaria, or Apicius, an extensive source of ancient Roman recipes, cumin is medicinal and a pantry staple. Its warm, volatile nature adds spice and stimulates all sorts of appetites. The dried seed of the herb Cuminum cyminum – part of the Umbelliferae family along with parsley and celery – cumin is ancient and has its origins in Iran. It is also precious and useful, which is why it travelled so widely. Three types are described in Apicius: Ethiopian, Syrian and Libyan cumin, all of which are used in various recipes, and also made into a cumin-based sauce called cuminatum.

On the meticulous blog Historical Italian Cooking, a 14th-century writer known simply as Anonimo Toscano is recorded as describing the cuminatum from Apicius as being made from a good amount of cumin, parsley and mint, pepper, lovage, honey, and a fish sauce called garum, all pounded and diluted with vinegar, to be served with oysters. According to Harold McGee in his book Nosedive, cumin’s dominant molecule is a volatile and unusual one called terpinene, whose component smells are animal, sweaty, fatty, woody. Which is why it is such a fabulous spice.

When I think about cumin, I travel, thinking about Egyptian, Indian, north-African, Sichuan and Turkish cooking. So I found it interesting to see it in the context of cuminatum. Using the idea rather than the recipe as a starting point, my adaption is cautious. It includes nuts and olive oil, making it closer to a pesto with cumin and a lively addition to this week’s recipe, which is an otherwise gentle chickpea, kale and potato soup.

Chickpea, kale and potato soup with cumin pesto and pasta or croutons

The addition of croutons and/or pasta are optional here.

Prep 15 min
Cook 30 min (1 hr+ if cooking the chickpeas from scratch)
Serves 4

250g chickpeas, soaked in water for at least 12 hours, or 2 x 400g tins chickpeas, drained
5 tbsp olive oil, plus extra for the pesto and croutons, if making
1 large onion, peeled and finely diced
1 celery stick, diced
1 large potato, peeled and diced
300g kale, stripped from central stalk and roughly chopped
Cubes of bread, for croutons (optional)
200g small pasta, cooked (optional)

For the pesto
1 heaped tsp cumin
huge handful fresh parsley and/or mint
1 heaped tbsp pine nuts or almonds
1 tsp
A splash of white wine or sherry vinegar

If you are cooking your own chickpeas, soak them in cold water for 12-24 hours, then drain them and put back in the pan. Cover with enough water to come a few inches above their surface, add a pinch of salt and bring to a boil. Turn down the heat and simmer for an hour, or until tender. (This can also be done in a pressure cooker.) If you are using tinned chickpeas, simply drain them.

In a large soup pan, warm the olive oil, add the onion and celery, and fry gently until soft and translucent.Add the potato and kale, stir for a few minutes, then add the chickpeas, a litre and a half of their cooking liquid and a pinch of salt; if you are using tinned chickpeas, use water or light stock. Bring to a boil, turn down to a simmer and cook for 25 minutes, or until the potato is soft and the kale very tender.

Meanwhile, make the pesto: toast the cumin seeds in a small pan until they smell lovely, then pound or blend them with the parsley and/or mint, pine nuts and enough olive that it becomes a paste; add a little honey and/or vinegar, if you like.

If you are making croutons, toss the cubes of bread in olive oil and salt, then either fry or bake until golden. Taste the soup, add salt as needed, and the pasta, if you are adding it, then ladle into warm bowls and top each serving with a dollop of pesto and perhaps a few croutons.