It's kind of a fun challenge trying to put together the menu for a multiple course dinner but believe me, I am far from an expert. I would go so far to say I'm a total novice. From what I am learning, it's a bit like a puzzle, trying to figure out what pieces fit together in complementary ways to create a cohesive whole. I find that it always helps to have parameters, and for me, I usually use seasonal ingredients as mine.
So when it came to planning our Easter menu, Annie would phone each other, spit-ball ideas, assign different vegetables to different courses, look at the flow, see how it works, and then start all over. Early on we decided that we were going to do lamb - red wine braised lamb shanks with carrots, porcini mushrooms and herbs de provence which I was going to serve on a mound of polenta. Working backwards from there, we tried to determine what might be the perfect side. We both love grilled asparagus and thought that it would work well with the lamb - the lamb is a bit hearty, which the asparagus would contrast nicely. Am I right?
So when it came to the soup, carrots and asparagus, two of the signature spring vegetables were already taken. "I know!" I told Annie. "Something with peas. And MINT! Pea soup with mint! It's perfectly spring!" She sneered. "Ugh. I HATE peas." Another parameter. "What is it that you think you don't like about peas?" I asked her, assuming it was probably the same reason I hated asparagus for so long - that as children we were served green vegetables from cans. "They're just so mushy," she explained, making a yucky face. "Well I think you ought to give them a chance," I insisted. "They're actually very sweet. I think you'd like them." She was not convinced.
I tried to reason with her. "Well, we can't do carrot or asparagus soup. They're both taken. It would be redundant. Artichokes are a pain in the ass. We could ditch the asparagus as a side and use it for a soup, but then what do we do for a side?" She suggested the braised fennel I made a couple months ago. "But the lamb is braised," I reminded her. "That would be too much braising. Asparagus is perfect with the lamb. So pea soup is our ONLY OPTION." She reluctantly gave in to my bullying.
This recipe comes from Sara Foster's second cookbook Fresh Every Day.
(For the mint pesto)
1 cup fresh mint leaves, washed and well dried
1 cup fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves, washed and well dried
4 garlic cloves
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup blanched slivered almonds
1 cup Asiago or Parmesan cheese, grated (I used Parmesan)
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Place the mint, parsley, and garlic in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade. Pulse several times to roughly chop the garlic and the herbs.
With the motor running, pour the olive oil in a slow stead stream through the feed tube of the machine. Stop to scrape down the sides of the bowl several times while adding the oil.
Add the almonds, cheese, salt, and pepper and pulse until the mixture is smooth, about 1 minute more.
Use immediately, refrigerate in an airtight container for up to 1 week, or freeze for up to 3 months.
Next, make the soup.
(For the soup)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large yellow onion, chopped
1 1/2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and chopped (I used Dutch Baby Yellow potatoes, which I didn't even bother to peel)
3 celery stalks, chopped
5 cups chicken stock or vegetable broth
2 cups shelled fresh or frozen petite green peas (1 16-ounce bag)
1 head butter (Bibb) lettuce (about 4 cups loosely packed)
3 tablepsoons chopped fresh mint leaves
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Fresh mint pesto
creme fraiche, to garnish
Melt the butter and olive oil together in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion, reduce the heat to medium-low and cook, stirring often, until soft and transluscent, about 10 minutes. Add the potatoes and celery and cook for about 5 minute more.
Add the broth and the peas and bring to a low boil over high heat. Reduce the heat and simmer until the potatoes are tender when pierced with a fork, about 15 minutes. Add the lettuce and simmer until it is tender, about 2 minutes more. Stir in the mint, salt and pepper and remove from heat. Cool slightly.
Working in batches, laddle soup into the jar of a blender and puree until smooth.
Season with additional salt and pepper to taste. Serve warm with a dallop of creme fraiche and a spoonful of mint pesto.
I found this to be a beautifully elegant, yet sort of rustic soup. The flavors are light and despite being pureed, it still has a very subtle texture thanks to little crisp slivers of onion, celery and butter lettuce. The creme fraiche gives the soup a hint of richness but I think that what really makes it outstanding is the mint pesto. The silky olive oil swirls into the the pureed peas, the coarsly chopped mint brings out the mint in the soup and the almonds give the whole thing a nutty substance. It's perfect for a springtime holiday meal although it's equally nice as a light lunch or weeknight dinner.
"Okay fine," Annie admitted, after taking a taste. "Maybe I do like peas."
Serves 6 to 8