Lovage in the Thyme of Mint

I’m doing it again. I said I probably wouldn’t do, but “probably” is a hole big enough to drive a fleet of buses through, in my view. I am about to write a recipe. Again, there will be no method, and no list of ingredients. Right now, I’m not even sure what the dish is called. Chances are it’s at the top of the page you’re looking at – it may not be – but the top of my screen is blank: Awaiting instructions.

I have written at length about how I dislike cooking with pre-packaged ingredients. That does not extend to filled pasta. Pre-packaged cake mixes, bread mixes and dumpling mixes are just ways of extracting money from people who cannot quite remember how easy it is to make something from scratch. Packet filled pasta is for people who want to forget the pain of making it from scratch.

Filled pasta – e.g. tortelloni, cappelletti, ravioli – is one of my favourite things to eat. Simply boiled, with butter, perhaps some garlic, perhaps some sage or some chilli, perhaps a handful of Japanese Bonito flakes. Perfect. This dish, however is a riff on an old French classic: petits pois à la française. Traditionally made with lard, it is very common now to make this simple peasant dish with bacon.

That said, I use pancetta. Every now and then a nod to ease, and the old fashioned notion of ‘labour saving’, will enter my kitchen. It is easy for me to buy a packet of pre chopped cubetti di pancetta. They go in to a pot with a chopped onion, and a good glass of white wine. A lid, and a medium heat complete the beginnings of this dish. While the fat renders, and the onion cooks, there is prep to do.

Have you ever cooked lettuce? Yes, I actually mean actually cooking lettuce. The salad leaf. Some people cook lettuce all the time – little gem lettuce, usually – while for many it is anathema. I love cooked lettuce, and it is at the heart of this dish. Chop a head of little gem, and set to one side.

My mother-in-law gave us a bunch of lemon balm. It’s not a herb I have used often, but it tastes good, and I think it will cut through the fat of the pancetta nicely. I picked all of the leaves I found to be in good condition and shredded them. It made a nice pile, the first third of which went in with the cooking pancetta and onion. I also drop in a vegetable stock gel, letting it melt and go fluid in the rendering fat. If the resulting mixture looks gluey, rather than soupy I add a drop of fresh hot water.

While we’re talking about herbs, I must tell you about something my partner made this week. Her mother also gave us a load of lovage. It’s not something I’ve ever used, so I was interested in seeing what we could do with it. The plan had been to make a batch of broad bean pesto: a favourite in our house, usually based on coriander leaves. We decided to be rebels, and make it with lovage. Ooh!

Yes, it was a risk: it was for a dinner with my in-laws, and we had no back up. Our broad bean pesto recipe usually consists of a couple of tins of broad beans, drained, blended with a bunch of coriander and a handful of grated Grana Padano. Add a dribble of olive oil, and some broad bean tin liquid. We use this substitution (a load of olive oil replaced by a small amount of oil and a lot of liquid from a tin of pulses) a lot. It tastes just as good as the fattier version, but has the benefit of not being so fatty.

In the end, the in-laws didn’t eat very much of it. Which is a shame, as the lovage gave the pesto a wonderful savoury flavour. It’s a shame I can’t find more lovage, as I’d use it a lot more. In the end, it worked brilliantly with spaghetti and Swedish meatballs for lunch the next day. No wastage here.

Back to the simmering meat, onion and lemon balm: Once the pancetta is cooked out, and no longer flabby, I add in the chopped lettuce and cover. The lettuce needs to wilt, and it will do so very soon. Add in a good glug of freshly boiled water, and stir. Then it’s time for the filled pasta. We used some spinach and ricotta tortelloni, but use whatever you like best / whatever is on special that day.

I don’t buy filled pasta on flavour; I can only rarely taste the fillings, so they’re not the key driver for me. I choose the shape to fit the dish, and this dish needs flattened spheres. I drop the pasta, and the second third of the lemon balm, in to the bubbling broth, as it now is, and put a lid on it. I set the timer for five minutes, and I wander off to do something else. The pasta is cooking by absorption.

Cooking pasta in a broth is not something I remember I can do often enough, but it makes for a wonderfully homey dish. It also bulks out a packet of pasta to the extent that one packet can feed two hungry people, and provide a lunch for one of them. When the timer goes off I add in frozen peas, straight from the freezer, and lid it all again until the peas are warmed through. Simple.

What you’ll have now is a big pan of cooked, filled pasta, in a light broth of stock, wine, pancetta, peas, herbs and cooked lettuce. There should be a small pile of chopped lemon balm too. Spoon the tasty goods in to three large bowls, top with the remaining lemon balm and serve. I prefer mine to be wetter, more broth, than my partner does, so I pour in some more hot water, and I give it a stir.

It is customary to suggest a vegetarian or a vegan alternative at this juncture; I don’t see why not. Most of the ingredients are suitable for all-comers (as long as the pasta is dried), however, I would not suggest replacing pancetta: You cannot replicate the flavour. My suggestion would be that a dollop of doenjang in the broth will add a delightful funkiness that will give the same resonance.

And that’s that. That is what I cooked for dinner last night, and I am now starting to wish I’d kept the leftovers for myself, rather than giving my partner something for her lunch. She doesn’t have to buy a sandwich today, but what on earth am I going to have now? Chances are it will be something soup-based again, but with a hefty dollop of gochujang: noodles for instance. I’ll let you know how it goes.