'Today there is green-pea soup to start with, and for the main course you have a choice of either grilled fillet of sole or roast lamb.'
The next moment, one of the cooks came along with a gigantic saucepan of steaming green soup and poured the whole lot into the silver basin. He put the lid on the basin and shouted, 'Soup for the big party all ready to go out!'
The Witches, Roald Dahl
Roald Dahl has been on my mind lately. Perhaps it was this glorious piece by Sophie Dahl, or the fact that, in recognition of his centenary last week, my nannying charges came home with Dahl themed homework. Or maybe it's the change of season; at this time of year my thoughts always turn to Danny, the Champion of the World, to game, to roasts and to scrumping. You might be pleased to hear that I have a pork pie planned for you in the coming months. Whatever the reason, you have another Dahl recipe this week - an old favourite.
Though none of his books mean as much to me as Matilda or Danny, I do have particularly vivid memories of The Witches. I was young when I read it, and it terrified me. I have always been a proper scaredy-cat, wide awake at night because of something I'd seen, or heard, or imagined. I feigned illness at a sleepover when I was 14, when the girls from school decided we were going to watch Sleepy Hollow. I stopped drinking water before bed for weeks after watching The Sixth Sense, terrified that I would encounter ghosts if I had to find my way to the toilet on my own. A ghost story told by a family friend about a woman and her cat, bricked up behind a wall in an old house, featured in my nightmares for months. And The Witches stayed with me for years (Angelica Huston didn't help here). Women who wore gloves on hot days, or walked awkwardly in pointy-toed shoes, were given a generous berth, and I have never stopped thinking about the girl who disappeared into the painting.
My mum's is the best pea soup in the world, made with the ham bone we have leftover every Christmas, and frozen in batches until autumn hits. It is a rich, unctuous split pea soup, the kind that coats the roof of your mouth and warms you from the inside out. It has scraps of ham stirred through it and is reassuringly beige in colour. But it is a soup you eat on the sofa, not one you order in a seaside hotel. This soup, on the other hand, is green pea soup. It is bright, fresh and summery; a soup that can be eaten cold, on a stifling hot day. It can also be eaten as the witches do - at the end of the summer, piping hot, and spiked with Formula 8 delayed-action mouse-maker.
You can, of course, use fresh peas straight from their pods instead of the frozen variety. If you can get them in season, very soon after they're been picked, they are sweet and delicious. Mum would often sit my vegetable-fearing sister with a pile of pods to open, knowing that for every pea that would make it into the bowl, one would make it into Lucy's mouth. However, their season is short, and peas are one of the few vegetables that truly are just as good from the freezer. It also means this dish can be on the table in less than fifteen minutes; ideal for a weekend lunch or speedy dinner.
Serves 4 (or 6 for a starter)
2 shallots (finely sliced)
750ml vegetable stock (or ham stock, if you have it)
400g frozen peas (petit pois are lovely here)
3 sprigs mint
Freshly ground pepper and flaky sea salt
Squeeze of lemon
4tsp crème fraîche
Knife and chopping board
1. Melt the butter in the saucepan, and add the finely sliced shallots. Fry them over a low heat, stirring frequently to ensure they don't brown. Once they are translucent, add the stock. Bring the stock to the boil.
2. Tip the peas into the stock, and bring it back to the boil. As soon as it is boiling, tip the contents of the pan into the blender and add all but a couple of the mint leaves. Blitz to a consistency you like - I prefer to still have the texture of the peas in the soup, but you might prefer a smoother consistency - if so, blitz for a good few minutes.
3. Taste the soup for seasoning, and add salt, pepper and a squeeze of lemon. Pour the soup back into the pan, warm it through, and then serve up with some crème fraîche and a sprig of mint. Eat immediately.