My friend Laetitia came to lunch last week. On a cold and blustery day, she brought the sunshine with her in the form of a huge bunch of orange tulips. I’m afraid we call them tooolips, in recognition of our shared devotion to Ina Garten. Ina often uses them to adorn the table when entertaining her fabulous coterie of East Hampton decorators, cooks and party planners. They add a jolt of colour without requiring Constance-Spry-level flower arranging skills. As Ina would say, ‘How easy is that?’.
Laetitia and I spent a happy few hours laughing and chatting and talking about books and gardens, over a lunch of soup, salad and cake. In the middle of the week it felt indulgent, like playing truant from a life ruled by deadlines. It brought a bit of the weekend into the weekday, which is always a good thing.
Cos, red amaranth, feta and toasted pumpkin salad.
If you love your garden, or would like to learn to love your garden, you should really have a bit of Laetitia in your life too. Her books, The Virgin Gardener and Sweetpeas for Summer are full of simple and beautiful ideas for transforming your outside space, and for bringing some of the outdoors indoors too. She’s that precious combination of practical and funny, honest and inspiring. She brings the sunshine with her, and in February we could all do with a little bit of that.
Ham Hock and Cannellini Bean Soup
I love a ham hock. It’s one of the cheapest pieces of meat you can buy and is enormously versatile. Boil it, roast it, toss it in salads or sandwiches, use it in pasta dishes or pies, or shred it and add it to soups like this one.
For the ham hock:
1 ham hock
A bouquet garni of 2 parsley stalks, a couple of sprigs of thyme and a bay leaf tied together with kitchen string
¼ tsp black peppercorns
For the soup:
A generous knob of butter or couple of tablespoons of olive oil
2 onions, halved and thinly sliced
1 bay leaf
A sprig of thyme
2 medium-sized carrots, diced
1 medium-sized leek, halved lengthways, rinsed well and finely sliced
1 celery stick, finely diced
A few mushrooms, thinly sliced, optional
2 garlic cloves, minced
1x400g tin cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
About 1.3l ham cooking liquid
About 250g cooked ham
A small bunch of parsley, tough stalks removed and roughly chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Extra virgin olive oil
Shavings of Parmesan
Place the ham hock in a large pan of cold water and leave to soak overnight. Drain and rinse. Place the hock in a pan with enough cold water to cover, the bouquet garni and peppercorns. Bring to the boil, reduce the heat and simmer gently for about 1 ½ hours until the meat is tender and pulling away from the bone, skimming off the scum from time to time. Strain, reserving the stock, and when it’s cool enough to handle, shred about 250g of the hock into large-ish chunks.
Melt the butter or warm the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over a medium-low heat and gently cook the onions with the bay leaf and thyme until the onions are soft and translucent, about 15 minutes. They shouldn’t take on any colour. Add the carrots, leek, celery and mushrooms if using and cook, stirring, for 5 minutes. Add the garlic, beans and ham and stir for a further minute. Pour in about 1.3 litres of the ham stock, bring to a simmer and cook for about 15 minutes. Remove from the heat, taste and add some grinds of black pepper. You probably won’t need to add salt as the ham itself is quite salty. Stir in the parsley. Serve in warmed bowls with a trickle of olive oil and some Parmesan shavings over the top.