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.

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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.

Melon, Mint and Cucumber Cooler

The melon I bought last week was sweet and flavoursome, but it had rather a grainy texture, so ¾ of it has just sat in the fridge…until today. It must have been getting the whizzy machines out that sparked me off.

Ingredients
Flesh of ¾ honeydew melon, chopped up
½ cucumber, peeled and chopped
5-6 fresh mint leaves
50 ml water

Method
In a liquidiser, whiz water, mint leaves and a few pieces of melon, then add the rest of the melon and cucumber, and whiz again.

Pale green, subtle, no sugar, no guilt and virtually no calories=heaven in a glass.

هريسة – Hurray for Harissa!

It’s Sunday, so I’m making sauces and condiments again – probably because I get all ‘in the kitchen mood’ whenever I listen to the ‘Food Programme’ on BBC Radio 4.

I got this recipe from my friend’s mum in Tunisia. Um Habib is possibly the hardest working woman I have ever met. She not only cares for a severally disabled daughter, cooks, cleans, washes laundry by hand etc etc for a family of six, she makes everything from scratch: her own rose water, orange flower water, jasmine water, even her own couscous from flour and semolina. This, she does two or three times a week. It’s a very smoothing process to watch, but it takes a lot of care and patience. She’s an absolutely amazing cook, making pot after pot of delicious food, the key ingredient being love.

Anyway, as with so many things, there are lots of different recipes for harissa, but two main styles; one using fresh peppers, both chilli and sweet, which is commonly known as Harissa Nablia, from Nabeul in Tunisia, and this one, based on dry chillies. As well as being an ingredient in other recipes, in Tunisia it is often served on a plate with extra olive oil, that you dip bread into, sometimes accompanied with olives and a salad, at the beginning of a meal – as a way to both get your gastric juices going, and fill you up before the more expensive main course.

Ingredients
100g dried chillies
4 cloves of garlic (use less if you like, I just love garlic, and the more you use, the more sauce-like it becomes)
½ tablespoon caraway seeds
½ tablespoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
½ tablespoon dried mint – if I’ve run out of home dried mint, I’ve been known to use the contents of a peppermint tea tea bag
½ teaspoon salt
50ml olive oil

Method
Break off any chilli stalks, and twizzle between your fingers to remove most of the chilli seeds – this sauce is quite fiery enough. As with the chilli bean paste recipe, you may want to wear gloves for this bit.
Cover in boiling water and leave to soak for 30 mintutes. Meanwhile, dry fry the spice seeds until fragrant – if you’re using a small pan, stir, so they heat evenly. In a coffee grinder or a pestle and mortar, coarsely grind the spices.
Strain the chillies, and roughly chop (I use scissors to snip them) and ditto the garlic. Add all the solid ingredients and ¼ of the oil in a whizzy machine and blitz on a pulse, adding the rest of the oil in splurts as it comes together.
To store, make sure it is always covered with a layer of oil.

It will probably not surprise you to hear that Um Habib does all this by hand.

I have heard lots of people,(including Nigella) state knowledgably that Harissa is a tomato and chilli paste, but I’ve never seen or tasted such a mix….it may well be nice, just not harissa. I have read such recipes, but usually on websites that use canned chickpeas for hummous and falafel. Miao. Zorry, zorry, zorry…I am such a foodsnob.