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

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.


Mr Benz’s Blindingly Good Beans – Twisted No.2

I think I might have mentioned before that I don’t particularly like British baked beans; (apart from my soup), but these Jamaican style beans I will eat voluntarily.


For every can of the cheapest beans going – should be about 23p each

1 small onion

1-2 tomatoes

1-2 cloves of garlic

Thyme, pref fresh, but dried if you live long distance far

Scotch bonnet chilli, a few slices – you could use other chillies, but scotch bonnet has an amazing extra special flavour.

1 teaspoon oil

Salt+ coarse ground pepper optional


Fry onion over medium heat in oil. When onion begins to soften, add garlic and chilli, chopped –then after a minute or so, add the tomatoes and thyme. When fragrant and tomatoes softened but not too soft!..add the can of beans and cook out for 4-5 minutes. Done

bubble+squeak twisted No.1

Bubble and Squeak is basically left over potato aka bubble and (traditionally) cabbage aka squeak. Yesterday’s leftover leeks also work, but if you have neither, (or even if you do) onion is also good – for me quasi essential. Yesterday’s left over mashed potato (a commodity as rare as hen’s teeth in my house, at the best of times) will not be good if you used cream or milk, ‘cos it just gets too sloppy – kudos to the olive oil mash brigade…yours will do fine 😉

Local sometimes naff caffs may recycle peas and/or carrots, to the displeasure of many punters.


Left over potatoes, squashed or mashed – depending on how chunky you want it, but some must be mashed.

1 chopped onion

Left over cabbage or leek or even kale.

1 tablespoon or less of oil.

Salt and optional pepper

Rosemary – optional for you, but essential for me –  v. useful if you have no additional veg.


In a medium to high heat pan, start frying the onion in a teaspoon of oil, and as it begins to soften, add the potato, veg/rosemary if you have any and a pinch of salt. Leave to fry to golden brown and gently crisp up on the bottom. Turn and mash up, leave to go golden brown on the bottom again, repeat this a few times, until the whole thing is flaked/flecked with browned pieces. Add another teaspoon of oil and fry one side (flip) and then the other till crisped up but NOT burnt brown-ness.

Plain Jane Chow Mein

That most ubiquitous and basic of dishes from the Chinese takeaway, plain chow mein is actually a really good bench mark of the rest of their cooking – sadly, in the UK, it’s often swimming in oil and there’s never enough beansprouts for me, and by the time it gets home, usually the beansprouts are limp and the noodles too soft…whether that’s because they’ve been overcooked or because they were imprisoned in their container for too long, it’s hard to say.

Luckily, they are simple and quick to make at home – so quick, in fact, that it’s one of those recipes where you should have everything lined up and ready to go before you heat the wok – and when the recipe says 30 seconds, it really means 30 seconds.

If you want a really authentic Cantonese recipe, I highly recommend


I have never made her chow mein, but I’ve made quite a few other things from her site, and her recipes work. She is also from the ‘more beansprouts, please’ school of thought.

If, however, you don’t have all the sauces and oils her recipe uses, then this recipe might be the one for you.

Chow mein is traditionally made with egg noodles, fresh or dried – I hardly ever buy them myself, so I tend to use packet rice sticks…which would mean this should be called ‘Plain Jane Ho Fun’ – but that doesn’t scan so nicely….(might also attract spam from ‘adult content’ sites, and heaven knows, I get enough of that already.)

At a pinch, you can use the bargain basement 15p a packet instant noodles – it won’t win you any Michelin stars, but it makes them edible, and means you can throw away that disgusting sachet of soup base.

Ingredients – makes 1 portion as a main, enough for two or three as part of a meal with other dishes

1 portion of noodles – about 100g of dried noodles

1 large handful of beansprouts – about 150 g

½ medium onion

1 tablespoon of kecap manis or 1 tablespoon light soy sauce mixed with 1 teaspoon dark soy and 1 teaspoon of sugar.

1 ½ -2  tablespoons cooking oil – sunflower or peanut

To garnish – spring onion oil, optional


Precook noodles as per the packet instructions, but just slightly underdone – drain and run under cold water, and drain dry again. If you are using packet rice sticks, pre soak for 30 minutes in cold water and drain. Cut onion in half lengthways, and then slice lengthways. Line up all your ingredients, including the beansprouts in a heat proof bowl, as you’ll transfer them back, hot from the pan.

Wipe the wok with a scrap of kitchen towel dipped in oil. Heat the wok until there is a heat haze, and add the onion and allow to sear – not burn! You want them to stay crisp, but their natural sugars to be released. Add ½ tablespoon of oil and swirl around, then add the beansprouts and stir/toss quickly for 30 seconds – no more. The sprouts should just lose their raw taste, but stay white and crisp – cook them any longer and they start to leach out water. Transfer onions and beansprouts back to the bowl, add the rest of the oil to the wok and then the noodles – stir/toss continuously, so that they don’t stick together in a blob – a minute or so, slightly longer if you’re using rice sticks. Add the sauce and toss through for about 15 seconds – add the beansprouts and onions back, toss through and serve.

If you buy your beansprouts, make sure they are not soggy in the bag. If you sprout your own, the secret to getting them long and straight, is to put a slight weight on top of them – a damp clean dish cloth folded over should do, and sprout them in a dark cupboard, as though they were pushing up through the earth.

Nothing special, but quick, cheap and cheerful – fish version

Over the years, I have been fed or I’ve cooked many, many variations of this – with sardines, with pilchards, with the little smoked African dried prawns and black eye beans or any of the vegan versions in the last post – and the recipe is always basically the same as in the last post…and they all definitely improve a can of fish.
However, there was an West African bloke who lived in the hostel that I stayed in for 3 months while I was waiting to get re-housed, who told Mr Benz about one particular brand of canned smoked herring, and we both agree it is ‘de bes’ ever…it even comes in enough tomato and vegetable sauce of its own to warrant leaving out making a separate tomato sauce.

Ingredients serves 2 takes 10-15 minutes
1 can petri brand smoked herring in tomato sauce – not the one in tomato cream £1.20 in Lidl – I have no idea if any other companies make the same thing –
1 large or 2 medium onions, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
3-4 fresh tomatoes, chopped
1 tablespoon sunflower oil
Scotch Bonnet/Habanero to your level of chilli heat
Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Gently fry the onion in the oil until soft and translucent, add garlic and chilli, fry for 1 minute, then add tomatoes and cook until they begin to soften. Add fish and sauce, and swill the can out with water, adding the water to the pan. Gently break up the fish, bring up to the boil and simmer for 2-3 minutes.
Serve with carbohydrate of choice – potatoes or soft polenta or semolina are my favorites.

Nothing special, but quick, cheap and cheerful – vegan version

As I promised at the beginning, I am putting up a vegan version first of anything I cook that isn’t – last thursday week, my ex – who I shall call Mr. Benz, because he drives me round several bends on a regular basis 😉 came to see me in a proper moany moany mood, so I gave him a version of a ‘pilchards’ dinner, because I know he likes it – when he’s in a grump, he is capable of seeing vegetables as a disrespectful insult and on a bad day, he has a huge capacity for being unreasonable (one of the many reasons we are no longer together and probably never should have been in the first place)…on a good day he is sweetness and light and a really good laugh – that’s the opposite sex for you – whichever gender you are. To be fair to the man, he’s just started work in a new job after being unemployed for ages and he hasn’t been paid yet, and he’d run out of money and tobacco and electricity – enough to make anyone irritable.
Anyway, this is basically a rich tomato and onion sauce with chilli and something else – traditionally, a can of fish. Jamaicans tend to serve it with potatoes, and West Africans quite often have it with semolina – polenta, rice or even pasta would also be fine.
Vegan version
To make – take one portion of really red tomato sauce made with onion
Add some scotch bonnet chilli (habanero) – with caution – they are extremely hot, but they also have a unique fruity flavour,
and any or all of the following: pre cooked black eye beans (sometimes called black eye peas), aubergine cut into 1 cm cubes and fried separately – aubergine absorbs loads of oil when you fry it – but by the time the cubes are golden brown on the outside, the oil starts to come back out again – you can gently squeeze the cubes with the back of a spoon to aid this process, before you add to the sauce, and/or char grilled red pepper/capsicum.
To char grill a pepper, put the whole thing directly onto a gas burner and turn as the skin blackens and blisters until it is black all over – put under cold running water and peel away charred skin. Remove stalk, seeds and the pale coloured ribs on the inside, then chop or tear into strips.
The recipe I’m posting next uses smoked herring – for a vegan smoky version you could add smoked garlic powder or some chipotle chilli that you’ve pre soaked in hot water for 10 minutes – I got given small packs of both of these for Christmas, made by a company called ‘Seasoned Pioneers’ – I think Sainsbury’s sells the range – if you haven’t got any, ‘cos they are dead good but a bit pricy, you could add some smoky bbq sauce….there also used to be something called ‘liquid smoke’ in a bottle, but I haven’t seen it for a few years.

really red tomato sauce

There seems to be 101 recipes for tomato sauce – I’m not talking Heinz/condiment, I’m talking cooked, plain or otherwise, to serve over pasta, polenta, potatoes, whatever…so, personally, I totally reject the idea of adding carrots, celery etc – the holy ‘soffrito’ or ‘mirepoix’ trinity of some european cooking….this, below, is either tomato, tomato and onion or possibly tomato, onion and red bell pepper (spanish sofrito) sauce- I add garlic to everything I can, but you, dear reader, may do as you please 😉
The secret of keeping your sauce really red is to fry the tomato puree/paste before you add tomatoes, tinned or fresh, or any water…you might like to think of this as ‘fixing’ the colour, like using a mordant when you’re dying things with natural based dyes.

for a chunky base you may wish to start with onions – if so, for 4 ppl, chop 2 onions quite finely and lightly fry in 2 tablespoonsworth of oil until they turn translucent..then add garlic and fry for 1 minute further…
for a finer base, start with the garlic, minced, gently cooked for 1 minute until fragrant but not yet golden..I recommend 2 cloves per person serving, but do as you will 😉
Then add an equal amount (to the oil you have used) of tomato puree. Stir until the oil becomes orangey red and the puree becomes a shade darker…then you can add your can/carton(s) of chopped tomatoes, or chopped fresh tomatoes – preferably de-seeded (and, if you’re using them, finely sliced or pre cooked red peppers). Cook for a further few minutes, quite a few minutes if the peppers were raw, n.b. it is better to add raw peppers along with or even before the garlic, at any rate before the tomatoes if you’re using canned/carton toms- wait until the (raw) tomatoes give up some juice and/or the peppers soften – then taste – you might need to add salt, and/or a teaspoon or so of sugar. At this point, you can stop, and in a separate pan and a little oil, start to add other ingredients…herbs, chilli, fennel seed, even polpette or bolognese ingredients, then add in your really red tomato sauce and water, little by little, if you want a thinner, less rich sauce.
Re: bolognese sauce..I have been to Genoa, and it’s true that their pesto alla genovese is amazing and the very best I’ve ever had in a commercial premises – but I’ve never been to Bologna – is their meat sauce really that good? All I know is they have a bad arse reputation for some of Italy’s most brilliant and outspoken feminist thinkers…so, shout out to the Bologna massive anyway.
Above all, don’t overcook your version of this sauce – frying of the puree only impedes, rather than stops it going that dreaded washed out orange :-0 goodness, I sound like such a snob.