B’s lettuce, mint and pea soup

When I first started growing things, I never had much luck with lettuces – they either got totally slugandsnailed or I ended up with too many and got sick of the sight of them. My friend B made me this soup several years ago, and together with a Chinese recipe for braised lettuce with oyster sauce, I am no longer put off by the thought of a glut – ‘though I’m still struggling with the slugs.
This is the essence of summer in a bowl, for those days when we have a hot spell and even if you water twice a day, all the lettuces threaten to bolt and turn bitter overnight or, as has just happened down at the community garden, a heavy summer storm has beaten them up really badly. It’s not unlike petit pois à la française as a puréed soup, but the mint gives it an extra zing.
You could of course, use your own homegrown peas – I usually only grow mangetout, so I use frozen peas, which also need less cooking.

Ingredients – to make 1 ½ – 2 litres
The proportions can be pretty flexible, but if you’re using an iceburg lettuce, it’s probably a good idea to be more generous with the peas and mint, ‘cos they can be a bit bitter.
If you are using homegrown peas, then after you’ve shucked them, boil the pods in the water for about 10 minutes for more flavour in your stock. Strain and use.

1 onion, or 3 – 4 spring onions, finely chopped.
2 generous handfuls of frozen peas/petit pois – or homegrown, as young as possible.
Lettuce, finely shredded – (2 little gem, or ½ an iceberg, or 1 cos or equivalent amount)
2 teaspoons sunflower oil
1.5 litres water
Pinch of salt or to taste
2 or 3 sprigs of fresh mint tips

Method
Over a low heat, sweat the onion with the salt and oil, until softened. Add the lettuce and wilt for a minute or two, add water, bring to the boil and add the peas. Cook until tender, but still bright green. Turn off the heat, add mint leaves, and whiz or put through a mouli. Taste for seasoning and serve.

Two iced teas that don’t need sugar and a good idea from Beijing

Well, I risk you all laughing at me for just discovering something that the Southern states of the USA have known for years, but I really didn’t know you could make tea with cold water…but there’s a rose pouchong from Taiwan that you should only make with cold water. That, and a lovely tea from Japan called genmaicha (if you can’t find it or it’s too expensive, wikihow has a link making it from scratch here, it is green tea with toasted brown rice – known in Japan as the people’s tea) are both really mellow and non astringent chilled – with no sugar, which in this lovely weather is not only desirable but nigh on essential….

The other thing I find in hot weather is that when I go out, I have a dreadful habit of drinking my trusty bottle of water all in one go – so then I need to find a public loo, and get tempted to buy more…in Beijing (and I’m sure in other places too, it’s just I try to visit hot places in cooler months, so I’ve only seen it in Beijing), they sell bottles of water not chilled, but frozen….which means it can last you for hours in small chilly sips, and you have something cold to hold …if you’re freezing your own, don’t overfill the bottle and try and freeze it standing up. 

Sorry if I sound like an idiot 😉

how to – spin sugar

I’m putting up this how-to guide now because I’m going to use this method in one of the (savoury) recipes I’m posting later today for a selection of Chinese cold and cooling ‘grazing’ dishes…..plus I hopefully will be posting a link to lots of very pretty pictures later on…;-)
I will add actual pictures of this recipe later today or tomorrow – but it’s a bit too hot to be cooking caramel in the daytime at the moment.
So, a bit of basic science – this is pasted from http://science.howstuffworks.com/innovation/edible-innovations/cotton-candy1.htm
‘….Caramelization is what happens when sugar melts. A crystal of granulated sugar, scientifically called sucrose, is held together by chemical bonds, but energy from heat can break these bonds, splitting the crystal into its two component sugars, glucose and fructose. These sugars break down further, freeing their atomic building blocks: carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. Hydrogen and oxygen atoms reunite to form water, and the carbon clusters in increasingly larger clumps. Eventually the water evaporates and the carbon starts to burn.
However, if you stop this process while the sugar is still a liquid, you can make spun sugar. ‘
There’s a couple of things that it’s good to think about before you start. By all means use a sugar thermometer if you have one, but you don’t need one. It is actually v. easy to make with no fancy kit- I made my first spun sugar when I was 13, when I was bored and I’d been left alone in the house for a few hours….and we had no gadgets at all.
If you have a pan with a light coloured inside, it will help you catch the syrup before it starts turning golden, but it’s probably more important to use your heaviest bottomed pan to stop it burning too quickly.
Sugar gets very hot – in fact, you’re taking the syrup up to ‘hard crack’ stage, which is about 155 degrees celius/315 degrees Fahrenheit, so do take care and make sure small curious children are out of the way. You can make caramel baskets/shapes without the cream of tartar, but the strands will be thicker and the caramel will be dark(er).
As well as your pan, and a clear work space, you will also need a small glass of cold water (especially if you have no thermometer), plain vegetable oil for greasing handles of wooden spoons (for making curls and spirals) and greasing the outside of a metal bowl (for making cups and baskets)…..you can also make free-er form shapes on greaseproof paper. For spinning fine strands, I use a fork.
If your pan is not particularly thick bottomed, it’s quite a good idea to half fill the sink with cold water, so that you can take the pan off the heat and place it in the sink to arrest the cooking before it burns.
Finally, something I always used to do was make too much – the ratio is always 2:1 sugar to water and a pinch of cream of tartar – 100g of sugar and 50ml water makes loads.
Ingredients
100g granulated sugar
50ml water
Pinch of cream of tartar – it can be a meanish pinch for this amount, a normal pinch if you’re making more.
Glass of cold water on the side.
Method
Place water and sugar in a pan and stir before you put it on the heat. Place over a medium to high heat to dissolve the sugar – DO NOT stir at this point as you’ll make the sugar recrystallise and go all grainy. Bring to a hard boil, and after a couple of minutes, drop a little droplet into the water in the glass with a teaspoon – when this goes hard straight away, it is done. Hopefully you will be able to catch this before it starts going golden – unless you want it to be golden.
Take off the heat and add the cream of tartar, stir a couple of times and then you are ready to spin. Dip a fork in the syrup and swirl around your greased mould or gently swirl onto greaseproof paper, touching already formed strands from time to time to create your desired shape. The quicker you swirl, the thinner the strands. Leave to cool and harden before gently prising off the mould.
Don’t make this too far in advance or put it in the fridge, as the moisture will soften the structure.

Limeflower cordial – sirop de tilleul

linden 012My very favourite period of summer in London is just about to begin……when the lime trees (linden) come into flower and the perfume wafts down the street – you can see the bees going literally crazy, getting tipsy in a massive honey fest. Different trees come into bloom over a period of 2 or 3 weeks, mainly depending on how much sun they get, but there are different varieties. Some of the later flowering trees seem to have a muskier perfume, which I’ve never used for this syrup.

Continental Europeans have being using the flowers for tisanes and syrups for eons but it’s not quite so commonly used in the UK, so I originally got this recipe from
http://cuisinesauvage.blogspot.co.uk/2007/06/sirop-de-tilleul.html
(which is a really good site for forage recipes – it’s in French, but the recipes are so simply written that even a web translation usually comes out reasonably understandable, if you’re not fluent) – over the past couple of years, I have changed the quantities a bit ( less water, more flowers), but I’ve used the same process, which is the same as I use for elderflower cordial. As ever, you want freshly picked, newly opened blossoms – if you live somewhere with lots of trees, there’s less need to be quite so responsible about foraging, because there are so many blossoms and mature trees are so, so big and tall, you’ll spend half your time finding a tree with low hanging flowers 🙂 As far as I know, there aren’t any of our fellow creatures that depend on the seeds for food.

Ingredients – for every litre of water
250-300 grams of limeflower clusters – this translates as half a carrier bag, loosely packed, when you’re out collecting
500g sugar
5-10 grams of citric acid

Method
Lime flowers grow in clusters on a stalk with a pale green, paddle shaped bract. Remove the stalk and bract and put the flowers into a bowl big enough to take the amount of water you’re using. Boil the water, pour over the blossoms, cover with a teatowel and leave to infuse overnight or for at least 8 hours.
Strain through a sieve lined with muslin. Leave this to do it by itself, don’t try and squeeze the cloth to hurry it up.
Bring the infusion to a simmer with the sugar and 5g of the citric acid until the sugar has dissolved, then boil for 5 minutes. Taste and add more citric acid if desired. It keeps fine for a month in the fridge – I freeze mine in small containers – but if you’re going to bottle it to keep, use the hot water bath method and definitely use 10g of citric acid per litre of water.
The syrup has a flavour that most reminds me of honeyed pears, and it’s lovely as a drink, made into a sorbet or poured over icecream.
I also make a version which includes a sprig or two of lavender at the boiling stage, which was inspired by the ‘tranquility’ chocolate by the Belgian chocolatiers Newhouse.

London gets totally transformed in summer, at least on the side streets and in the parks, when it seems like the whole world has burst into bloom with cascades of sweetly scented roses, jasmine, lavender and honeysuckle.
On some roads, even the litter on the streets gets partially hidden by fallen petals, their colours sundried and scattered like the confetti of a thousand fairy weddings. I LOVE my city 🙂

Pasta Mont’ e Mare

Or ‘Malfadine with Oyster Mushrooms and Samphire’ 😉
Usually, pasta mare e monti – sea and mountains, contains prawns and wild mushrooms, or sometimes artichokes or asparagus, depending on the season and the region of Italy it comes from – this recipe uses oyster mushrooms and samphire, (which is also known as sea asparagus) mainly because I like the wordplay, hence why I’ve switched the words around. I used Malfadine pasta (which is like tagliatelle with frilly edges) because it reminds me of ribbons of seaweed on the beach.
This recipe uses the same pasta bianca sauce method as Pasta Primavera.

Ingredients serves 2
250g Malfadine or pasta of choice.
50g oyster mushrooms
50g samphire, washed, picked over and any tough bits near the base discarded. You could use a seaweed like hijiki, if you don’t live somewhere that has samphire.
2 cloves of fresh garlic, finely minced
1-2 tablespoon olive oil or a knob of butter
10g plain flour added to
200ml cold water (this is about a scant level tablespoon of flour in a hi-ball glass of water)
Salt
Optional – 2 tablespoons soaking water from rehydrating wild mushrooms (I was soaking some Chinese black mushrooms for the next day so this is what I used), or 1 teaspoon mushroom bouillon powder – Totole, a Chinese American brand is the best I’ve found and widely available – or a small pinch from the corner of a porcini mushroom stock cube, Star brand from Italy is widely available in the UK – they are very concentrated and salty so I do mean just a pinch.

Method
Cook the pasta in a large pan of salted boiling water as per the instructions on the packet until al dente. Meanwhile, tear the oyster mushrooms into strips down the length of the gills, and sauté in a little oil with a pinch of salt. Lift out of the pan and reserve. Make a paste with the flour and a little water until smooth, then add the remaining water and mix well. Heat the rest of the oil in the same pan and add the garlic, cook until fragrant (30 seconds), then add the flour and water and the mushroom stock, stirring continually for 4-5 minutes until the sauce slightly clears and thickens, (it should be an ivory colour and it will begin to bubble up and rise in the pan), check that the ‘raw flour’ taste has completely disappeared.
30 seconds before you drain the pasta, add the samphire to the cooking water to heat through. Strain, and fold in the oyster mushrooms and the sauce.
Oyster mushrooms have a certain peppery-ness and the samphire is naturally salty as it thrives by the coast, so you will probably need little, if any extra seasoning. You could also substitute a mixture of fresh and dried wild mushrooms.
50g of both oyster mushrooms and samphire equates to a large handful.
Please remember this was for a slightly posh birthday dinner – still only cost about 60-70p each.
So this is what we had for our main course – pudding was elderflower sorbet.

Trust Me Salad

I’m making dinner tonight for my esteemed friend, Mr. Ukelele, ‘cos I missed his birthday party last weekend. As befits a belated birthday treat, it is a slightly posh, 3 course dinner, but it still works out at about £2.50 a head for all 3 courses, even if you have buy all the ingredients.
Mr Ukelele is one of my non-vegan friends, so I’m making this salad for starters. I’ve come up with loads of recipes over the years, only to find out later that it’s a really common dish in a culture I’m not familiar with. This, however, I think I can safely say is an original 😉 When I invented it many moons ago, my French boyfriend teased me mercilessly about the ‘English and their fruit’… he was mainly referring to apple sauce with pork. He liked this salad, though.
I’m using strawberries from my plot in the community garden, but because it’s Wimbledon fortnight, they’re on special offer all over the place – I saw them for £1 for 400g in Lidl, so I’m sure the others have similar offers. Roquefort cheese is a blue sheep’s milk cheese from the south of France, with a pleasantly sharp flavour – I don’t think other blue cheeses would work.

You can make it stretch further by serving it on a nest of little gem lettuce, or, for a party, by placing a spoonful on individual leaves.

Ingredients – serves 4+ as a starter, or 2-3 as a main.
100g Roquefort cheese
200g strawberries
200g cucumber (or equal volume to the strawberries)
Coarsely ground black pepper
1 ½ tablespoon of walnut oil
1 ½ teaspoon of lemon juice mixed half and half with water. NB, if you have some, use walnut vinegar instead, but it’s hard to find in the UK, although it’s quite common in France – sherry vinegar would also work.
1 head little gem lettuce – optional

Method
Roquefort can be quite soft at room temperature, so make sure yours is well chilled in the fridge, as you’re going to crumble it.
Wash and de-hull the strawberries and half or quarter them. Cube the cucumber into 1cm blocks. Place in a mixing bowl and season with black pepper. Crumble over the Roquefort – you want the chunks to be smaller than the cucumber, as the flavour packs quite a punch, but not so finely that it all disintegrates into the dressing (although, inevitably some will). Pour over the oil and lemon juice or vinegar and gently turn to mix.
Serve in a nest of little gem leaves, at room temperature. You may also need a crusty baguette to mop up the sauce 😉

Cantaloupe melon with mint, sherry vinegar and walnut oil.

I LOVE cantaloupe melons, not only for their delicately perfumed flesh, but because they’re sooo pretty – sage green stripes on an eau-de-nil skin and apricot coloured inside. (I’m talking about European cantaloupes, which are also called charentais melons – apparently cantaloupe is what musk melons are called in the States – I’m sure musk melons would also work for this recipe)
The next recipe I’m putting up after this one isn’t vegan, so keeping my promise, here’s a vegan alternative for a posh starter. I first had this at a dinner at a friend of my mother’s about 18 years ago and it’s been a favourite ever since – so, thank you Julia 🙂
At the moment, cantaloupe melons are just coming into season, and they’re about £1 for a good sized one, or I saw 2 small ones in a £1 bowl on the market the other day. Sherry vinegar is usually cheaper than balsamic, and walnut oil is about £1.80 for a 250ml bottle (which usually lasts me for at least 6 months), so each portion should cost about 35-40p.

Ingredients
Cantaloupe melon, preferably a small one
Per portion, 1 teaspoon sherry vinegar and 2 teaspoons walnut oil
1or 2 finely shredded fresh mint leaves
A (very) few grains of salt – optional, but it does bring out the flavour.

Method
Mix the oil, vinegar and shredded mint leaves and set aside for 15 minutes.
If you have a small cantaloupe, cut in half horizontally and deseed. (If you have a large one, cut it in quarters along the length of the stripes, deseed and score a grid into the flesh, so that the dressing can ooze in and not spill all over the plate.) Dress and serve in a bowl.