Sunday, 2 October 2011

Lettuce and peas with preserved lemon

After a carb-heavy week in which I consumed not one but two cheese fondues (and recycled the leftovers of my own homemade one into a rarebit for the next day's breakfast) plus potatoes and much bread, I craved something light for supper. And with the unexpected early autumn heatwave hitting 28C in my city, a summer recipe was on the cards.

I'm not wildly keen on lettuce in its natural state - too many bad memories of the native English sort, all green and floppy and tasteless to start with then going soggy the minute dressing is applied - although I do enjoy a Caesar salad if the dressing is not too heavy and I'm very partial to frisée aux lardons, the recipe for which came from Parisian Boy.

I do like cooked lettuce though - the secret is to braise it gently until it's just wilted - and it goes spectacularly well with peas. Versions of lettuce with peas can be found all around southern Europe, each bringing out the essential sweetness of the main ingredients and many involving a generous dollop of double cream in the sauce. I find this too heavy for my liking, so I use half-fat crème fraîche instead for lightness and I like to add a note of tartness with preserved lemon.

What you need: 
A small onion, chopped
1 Little Gem lettuce, rinsed, drained and quartered
A mugful of frozen peas (or fresh if in season)
100ml of hot vegetable stock (a teaspoon of Marigold vegetable bouillon is enough for this quantity)
A generous spoonful of half-fat crème fraîche
Black pepper to season
1 preserved lemon
6 or 7 capers, rinsed (optional)
Small handful of chopped flatleaf parsley (optional)

What to do:
Make up the stock and heat some olive oil in a heavy sauteuse. Sauté the onion over a moderate heat until it turns translucent. Add the quartered lettuce and fry gently for a minute or two, turning it to wilt on all sides. Pour in the stock, add the peas and a good grinding of black pepper, then turn the heat down so it's only just simmering. Leave for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, halve the preserved lemon and pick out any pips, then slice very thinly. Purists say you should remove the flesh and only use the skin but I love the salty sourness of preserved lemon so much I use all of it. I also like to throw in a few capers, again for the tartness - give them a quick rinse under the tap if using (they are an acquired taste) to get rid of the brine. Add to the pan then stir in the crème fraîche. Serve immediately, sprinkled with the chopped parsley if using.

Cook's tips:
You can buy preserved lemons in most big supermarkets - Belazu and Al'Fez are the two main brands. You can also order them online from specialist websites that stock exotic ingredients, if you can't find them in a deli.

Little Gem really is the best salad leaf for this. Don't use anything bitter, like raddichio or endive, as it doesn't lend itself well to be cooked this way and the end taste is too sour. Iceberg is utterly tasteless, cooked or raw, and will bring nothing to the dish. Cos/Romaine, lamb's leaf and Batavia all work well - you'll only need only 3-4 large leaves of the Cos or Batavia, just shred them roughly before adding to the pan.