A little gem that has plenty of cooking potential

 

IN SUMMERTIME, one of my favourite things to cook is Baby Gem lettuce. It sounds odd unless you’ve tried it, but it works a treat, and it works especially well with things such as peas and bacon.

Red radicchio is another one that can handle the heat, as well as chicory, or Belgian endive, which is lovely when fried, caramelised, then drizzled with some honey and baked in a little stock. The hardy and extremely bitter tasting aforementioned chicory can also be smothered in bechamel, ham and grated cheese for a really tasty bake, although that’s bordering on winter fare.

So, back to Baby Gem and summer. Last week I was raving about Jacob Kenedy’s Bocca di Lupo cookbook, and the final recipe that I took from that, for the time being anyway, was a cannellini bean and lettuce soup. This is one of those things that looks a bit dull when you glance over it initially, but springs into life when you cook it.

As usual, I used tinned cannellini beans and everything else, except the Baby Gem, are pretty much store-cupboard ingredients. Baby Gem seems to be widely available, even in the saddest grocery stores, and is a hardy type of lettuce that can deal with sitting in your fridge for days on end. Now, the above line may not sound that enthusiastic, but this is one of those emergency dishes that you can make with virtually nothing too extraordinary.

I don’t often think of making soups for a really quick supper because I always feel there’s a lot more chopping and peeling that needs to be done. Plus, the possibility that you may need to get out that soup gun or food processor to blitz it into oblivion always puts me off. When time is tight, the last thing I want to do is get out kit that will force me to wipe up soup splatters for the rest of the evening.

Bar the onions and a few bits of garlic, there is virtually no chopping involved in this recipe, except for the very last-minute slicing of the lettuce, which is actually a very pleasant task. The recipe was tweaked from the Bocca di Lupo version because I decided to start with some sweated onion and sharpen up the flavours with some lemon juice.

Initially, I was convinced it would need lots of bacon to spruce it into something less bland, but that wasn’t necessary and it was nice to keep it vegetarian. This is because of the whopping amount of olive oil in it, which makes it taste superb.

The other dish, featuring Baby Gem, is a great bit of party grub. Mixing the crab salad with some crème fraiche and a little splash of anchovy sauce (my new secret ingredients for mega-umami hits) and Tabasco was really delicious. This was a great dish to have instead of a “starter” as friends just grabbed one along with a napkin and wolfed in.

It is also extremely quick and handy as you can easily buy frozen crab meat in fishmongers and supermarkets. Just thaw it out, wash your hands really well, and have a little search and rescue for any excess shell. It’s not entirely necessary (unless you run a professional kitchen and are in the restaurant business) but every now and then you will find a teeny, tiny bit of shell that is never that nice to crunch down on.

After that, you just have to mix with a flurry of ingredients, chill and, once your avocado cream is made, just a little last-minute assembly for a delicious bit of zingy crab salad.

Crab salad in Baby Gem parcels

Approx 450g pack of fresh or frozen cooked crab meat

Juice of 1 lemon

Good splash olive oil

3-4 drops Tabasco sauce

1-2 tsp anchovy sauce

2 spring onions, finely sliced

100g crème fraiche

Small bunch coriander

2 avocados

Juice of 2 limes

Salt and pepper

2 shakes Tabasco sauce

2 packs Baby gem

Pick through the crab meat with very clean hands. Then mix it with the lemon juice, olive oil, Tabasco, anchovy sauce, spring onions, crème fraiche and coriander. Season with plenty of black pepper, but go easy on the salt as the anchovy sauce (and the crab itself) are quite salty. Chill until ready to serve.

Either mash or blend the avocadoes until super smooth with the lime juice, salt, pepper and Tabasco, which you can leave out if children are about or you have sensitive souls.

When ready to serve, cut the stalky bit of the Baby Gem to separate the leaves. Lay out and spoon some avocado cream on to each one and then top with a generous spoonful of crab.

Serve these on a big platter if you have one, with some extra lemon or lime wedges if necessary, and a glass of something white and very well chilled.

Cannellini bean and lettuce soup

Serves 4 as a starter

2 large onions, peeled and very thinly sliced

150 ml olive oil

Salt and pepper

4 cloves garlic, peeled and very thinly sliced

A pinch or two of chilli flakes

2 x 450 g (approx) tins cannellini beans, drained

1 litre vegetable stock

4 Baby Gem

Juice of 1 lemon

Some fresh basil, roughly torn

Some grated Parmesan

In a heavy based saucepan, heat the olive oil and sweat the onions with a lid on them for at least 10 minutes. They need to become totally soft and limp. Season them according to the intensity of the stock you’re going to add and then remove the lid and add in the chilli flakes and garlic. Move them about and let the garlic and chilli do their magic for another minute or so, but don’t let the onions or garlic colour, so keep an eye on the heat.

You can give the beans a little rinse while you are draining them. Then chuck them into the saucepan and add the stock. Let this cook for about five minutes, bringing to a simmer.

Check the seasoning, which should be tasty and broth-like. Then finely slice the Baby Gem and chuck them in along with the lemon juice. Give it a cursory stir to get it to wilt down slightly, and double check the seasoning before dishing into bowls. Add some basil and a good bit of grated Parmesan. This is a perfect supper in a bowl.

Domini recommends:I’m a huge fan of the Green Saffronspice packs and at the Bloom

garden show in June this year, I got to sample its Lime Pickle, which was for sale on its stand. It’s very salty, but extremely delicious and it punches out some great flavours. Currently it’s only available at certain farmers’ markets(tel: 021-463 7960 for details), but the company is planning to sell into good retail stores as soon as possible. Often jars of condiments can be a disappointment when you get home and the giddiness of free sampling wears off. Not in this case. The mango chutney is also very pleasant, and not like the jammy type you get in supermarkets