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.


Brockwell Park Salad

There’s a great park in South London called Brockwell Park, and it has amazing community gardens based around the old greenhouses (it dates back to 1811, so there used to be gardeners on site raising bedding plants for displays). Anyway, some years ago, when the community space was first set up, I was invited to go and help cook the produce at their open day (it was part of my job at the time, working on local food projects – I’m not trying to make out I’m famous). Such a beautiful idyll in the middle of the city.
Anyway, this below is what we made, it was all there was to harvest that day, but happily it was a pretty perfect combination. I always think of it as Brockwell Park Salad – I make it as soon as there’s an excess of nasturtium leaves in the garden…sadly, I haven’t been on the ball enough to grow everything for myself this year, but there were enough new potatoes in the left over dinner I was given, and I have some broad beans in the freezer. The leaves and the onions came from our community garden here in Limehouse.

For every 500 g of potatoes (new or salad potatoes – I like Anya or Pink Fir Apple, ‘cos they’re so dense and nutty)
2-3 generous handfuls of broad beans, fresh young ones or frozen, slipped out of their little white jackets
2-3 spring onions
½ red onion
Rocket leaves – wild or cultivated
Baby nasturtium leaves – if you haven’t got any, you could use watercress, as they come from the same family and taste similar.
2 tablespoons olive oil
Pinch of salt, preferably flakes or coarsely ground
Coarsely ground black pepper – optional, as the leaves are peppery.

Boil the potatoes in their skins. Placing the broadbeans in a sieve, immerse them in the boiling water for 3-4 minutes, then remove and set aside.
Meanwhile, finely slice the red onion, and chop the spring onions at an angle, into 1cm lengths. Gently heat the oil, and sweat the spring onions for a couple of minutes so they just lose their oniony bite.
Drain the potatoes, and gently squash them to crack their skins – you may need to cut up some of the larger ones. Add the oil, spring onions and the salt, mix through and set aside to cool down a little – it’s fine if you serve it warm, but the leaves will wilt too much if the spuds are too hot.
When cooled a bit, add everything else and fold in. If you’ve got some nasturtium flowers (mine aren’t in bloom yet) you could use a few on the top, but I quite like it yellowy cream and bright green with a hint of crimson from the red onion.

Spring onion and ginger oil, mo hanh and some of their cousins

The first time I asked for spring onion and ginger oil in Soho, the rather snotty waiter informed me it was only meant to be served with soya chicken – what a waste! It goes really well with loads of things: stirred through plain noodles, on toast, on chilled tofu, and is a pretty instant dressing for a plain tomato or cucumber salad. It doesn’t store brilliantly well in the fridge – only a few days or maybe a week before it begins to lose its fresh zing, but it does freeze well. I suggest you either make a small amount, so it doesn’t get forgotten at the back of the fridge, or you use a tad more oil and freeze it – the oil means it never sets completely hard, and you can scoop what you need from the tub as and when you want, like a savoury Heston Blummenthal sorbet.

Cantonese style Spring Onion and Ginger oil

1 tablespoon fresh ginger , peeled and finely chopped.
4-5 spring onions, white and mid green part only (reserve darker ends of leaves for something else.
2-3 tablespoons peanut or sunflower oil – corn or canola are too yellow and flavoured. ¼ teaspoon of salt or to taste.
If you can, use young ginger – where the skin is quite thin and you can easily scrap it with a finger nail – it is less fibrous and much juicier, but it depends on the seasonability of ginger where you live. Above all, do not, please, please do not use very lazy ginger from a jar or even the little frozen cubes they now sell, because you will ruin the sauce and your dinner. If you can’t get hold of fresh ginger, make the mo hanh recipe below instead – just as delicious and even more versatile.

Prep your ginger. Remove any really old leaves/papery bits from the spring onions, and trim off the root. If you have scallion style spring onions, with a big bulb, as opposed to Japanese bunching onion, you might as well cut the bulb off and use it in cooking – it doesn’t really matter, it’s more a case of making what you’ve got go further. Cut darkest green – top 1/3 – leaves off and use to make mo hanh below. ..again, you don’t have to. Chop onion in fine rounds and combine in a pestle and mortar or a bowl with the ginger and the salt. Mash together for a minute or 2, so you work the salt in and it dissolves in the juices before you add the oil. If you haven’t got a pestle and mortar, just in a bowl with the end of a wooden spoon will do – if you’re making more to freeze, you could do this bit by blitzing it in a machine.
Add enough oil to moisten and cover your mixture, but don’t drown it.

I know some recipes say to heat the oil before adding it – I never do, but if that’s what your mum or grandma said to do, do it 😉
I aim to make mine the colour of ‘eau de nil’ green – again this is a condiment, rather than a foundation sauce.

Mo Hanh – Vietnamese Spring Onion Oil

Without the punch of the ginger, and with no salt, this is much subtler and therefore even more versatile. It sneaks into lots of things in my house, not just Vietnamese dishes.
I use just the tops of the spring onion because a) I usually have made the version above as well and b) I really like the bright emerald green…but I’ve seen recipes that use the whole onion…it’s up to you.

Ingredients – makes about 100ml
50ml peanut or sunflower oil – again canola or corn oil won’t do
Top 1/3 of 5-6 spring onions or 2-3 whole ones

Chop the onions into fine rounds (about 4mm). Heat the oil in a small pan over a medium heat. Add onions for 10-15 seconds – literally –and transfer immediately to a bowl. Place in the fridge for about 15 minutes, this helps fix a really nice vivid green.
Will store for about 2 weeks in a screw top jar in the fridge.

…and some of their cousins

Well, more like poor relations, really…I loosely follow the mo hanh recipe for the green bits on old onions/garlic that have sprouted, in fact anything from chives, garlic chives to the leathery tops of leeks, if I’m not making soup. For tender things like garlic chives, I pour hot oil over them, stir and put in the fridge, and for leeks I shred the tops finely and heat in the oil for longer – 30-40 secs…I then strain the oil and discard the shreds.

You can use the method to make garlic oil as well, replacing the sunflower oil with olive oil and cooking for a bit longer, but stopping before it turns brown– I know some recipe books on Italian food say leave garlic until it almost blackens, then discard it, but I’ve never seen anyone do this in real life, either in Italian homes or in restaurant kitchens.

In fact, you can pretty much use any of the allium family to flavour oil, as they are all edible for humans (but, weirdly, not for dogs – the onion family is toxic to canines if eaten in excess, according the marvellous Plants for a Future website www.pfaf.org, which has an amazing database of over 7000 useful plants).

粥 glorious 粥 – rice porridge, Cantonese style

Having made so much pepperpot soup, I ate it for lunch and dinner Saturday, Sunday and Monday – but it was a bit full on to have for breakfast as well.
Sunday morning I made 粥 – zhōu – rice porridge – congee. It is one of my favorite ever breakfasts whatever you call it and it costs about 25p for a litre, including spring onion and ginger for the topping – bargain.
If you look on wikipedia, there’s names for it in 24 or so languages from all over Asia, and in Chinese cooking it is cooked in various styles, both sweet and savoury, (also sometimes with other grains, ground or whole, such as millet, corn etc) – lots of Chinese shops in the UK also sell a multi grain mix. Nearly everywhere, though, it is recommended for the elderly, the sick and young children, as well as for breakfast – it is generally great comfort food, with a sweet, fragrant yet clean taste. I know I always think of making it when I feel old, or ill….or childish 🙂
It’s also often served with a dim sum meal.
Different recipes use different types of rice, and for ages I thought this was down to which region or community the cook came from, but a few months ago, in a lazy moment, I counted how many porridge recipes were in my chinese cookbook from the Jilin Cookery School – a whopping 167, it turns out, and they use a variety of methods and rice types – I had been, for years, using half glutinous and half normal rice – which usually turned out just fine, but not always 😦 so I asked the lovely bloke who works at Hung’s on Wardour St (he’s in charge of the bbq meat and noodle section at the front, but he also does the porridge) and after a bit of confusion, ‘cos we were using different words for the same thing and my chinese is not perfect – he told me they use short grain ‘japonica’ rice – if you’re English, and you’re reading this – this is not short grain pudding rice – it’s everyday japanese rice or sushi rice. Don’t buy the tiny packs for making sushi in the supermarket either – it costs a bomb. In a Chinese/Vietnamese/Korean/Japanese store an unbranded bag should cost about £1.99 a kilo, and you only need 100g to make a litre.

Ingredients for 2 big bowls
100g/ 2 handfuls short grain rice
Approx 1 litre of water
5-6 fine julienne of fresh ginger
chopped spring onion
salt or something salty – to taste

anything else you fancy – coriander/mushrooms/greens/seasoned freeze dried tofu/chinese sausage/fried shallot/fish/ chilli bean paste – sky’s the limit.

you can adjust the level of water to make it thinner or thicker, but it should be at least 8 parts water to 1 part rice for the thickest kind, and then you’ll have to stir it constantly near the end so it doesn’t catch and burn. To make a thinner version use 12-14 parts water.

Wash the rice to get rid of excess starch dust, place in a heavy bottomed pan with water and bring to the boil – stir a couple of times to make sure no grains have stuck to the bottom, and turn down to the lowest simmer possible – the secret is cooking it slowly and gently, so that the starch comes out of the grains without breaking up – cook for an hour, hour and a half, stirring a few times near the end to make sure it doesn’t catch – make sure you only put the lid on the pan half way, because it will bubble up and mess up your stove even at such a low heat. Season with salt or bouillon powder or what you will, pour into your bowl, add ginger and spring onion and whatever you’re using and enjoy. Often for breakfast, the porridge is just seasoned, and pickles/fermented beancurd or whatever are served on the side, but you’re in the comfort of your own kitchen so you can do what you want.