Deepest summer, and a sense of abundance all round. The basil bush - a rescue job from the greengrocers repotted in rich garden soil - produces more of its peppery leaves by the day, the currant bushes are heavy with ripe fruit, and in the allotments and gardens the first outdoor-grown lettuces, beans, late peas and early potatoes would tempt even the rabid carnivore. This week I have twice made a huge salad of assorted lettuce, steamed broad beans and raw peas and eaten it with a steak sandwich, its bread spread with a basil butter. Eaten outside, these have been my favourite meals of the summer so far.
Perhaps this is the point at which we can also offer up a simple supper of roast tomatoes and hand-torn mozzarella; a herb-scented kebab sandwich (with fresh mint and coriander), or a simple poached chicken breast with a bowl of home-made mayonnaise, and for once feel we have done more than enough.
Too much of our eating is about 'big cooking' rather than putting together a plate that celebrates the naked simplicity of good food: courgettes fried with basil and olive oil; raw peas with halloumi; some slices of smoked eel or trout; strips of cold roast beef tossed with chopped herbs and mayonnaise; a meringue (bought or home-made) offered with cream and stewed summer fruit. None of this involves much more than a nod towards the cooker, yet this week in our house such 'recipes' have produced a string of simple meals of sumptuous perfection.
Simple food works best when you have thought about the details. The inadequacies that might be lost in the brouhaha of a complex recipe are laid bare for all to see when ingredients are served unadorned. Details that may seem insignificant can signal the difference between the sublime and the merely good. Such small but essential points as whipping the cream to accompany a meringue only until it sits in undulating folds rather than stands in uptight peaks; leaving a chicken or salmon that you have poached to cool in its cooking liquor to retain as much moisture as possible; breaking mozzarella into rough chunks rather than slicing it for a more interesting texture. They may be small but crucially they are what will make our summer eating memorable or not.
This is the time of year I swap lemon juice for wine vinegar in the salad dressing for a fresher, more lively result; when I add new garlic to the mayonnaise to introduce a Mediterranean note; the point at which I will happily throw a nasturtium or chive flower in the salad without a hint of self-consciousness and top my steak with a butter scented with fresh basil as well as the usual mustard.
It matters to me that the cherries are chilled before being served. Only someone with a heart of stone could fail to be delighted by cherries on their stalks served on a plate of cracked ice on a summer's day. The work of two minutes, yet an unforgettable sight.
I picked the white currants this week - they have done better than the black or the red this year. Some I tipped into a pan with a little water and as little sugar as I could get away with (a couple of tablespoons of caster to 250g white currants) held at the boil for a single minute then given a couple of drops of rosewater. The few blackcurrants I have picked I reserved for the most intense of all sweet sauces, serving them with crisp meringue and thick cream, a take-no-prisoners summer dessert that allows us to wallow, albeit briefly, in everything the summer cook has to be thankful for.
Steak sandwich with garlic and basil butter
for each person:
a 200g piece of rib-eye or rump steak
a small baguette or piece of ciabatta
for the butter:
50g butter at room temperature
a little lemon juice
a small garlic clove, peeled and crushed
a tsp of smooth Dijon mustard
2 tbsp shredded basil leaves
Mash the butter, lemon juice, garlic and mustard together. I usually do this with a fork in a small bowl or with a pestle and mortar. Stir in the shredded basil.
Cover a chopping board with clingfilm, lay down the steak, spread it lightly with olive oil then cover it with another piece of film. Now bat it firmly with a rolling pin - or use a cutlet bat if you have such a thing - until it is really quite thin. You want it to be less than a centimetre thick - ideally half that. Take great care not to tear the meat.
Get a griddle pan or grill hot. Slice the bread in half lengthwise and toast it briefly (under an overhead grill or on the griddle pan) before spreading it generously with the seasoned butter. Season the steak with black pepper then slap it down on the griddle, cooking it for a minute or two only. In a perfect world the meat will be lightly charred on the outside, pink and juicy within.
Season the steak with salt, then immediately sandwich it in the baguette, cutting it to fit where necessary - the hot meat will melt the garlic and basil butter.
Rosewater meringues with blackcurrant sauce
Meringue is easier to make in large quantities. You will have a few meringues left over for the next day. The idea of warming the sugar before adding it to the egg whites is new to me, a tip picked up from Yotam Ottolenghi, but I find it produces a stiff, glossy meringue that previously evaded me.
for the meringues:
300g caster sugar
a few drops of rosewater
for the blackcurrant sauce:
3 tbsp sugar
2 tbsp water
Line a baking sheet with non-stick baking parchment. Set the oven at 180C/gas mark 6.
Make the meringues: scatter the sugar over a baking sheet, put it in the oven, then leave for 10 minutes or so until warm. Whip the egg whites till firm and fluffy, then fold in the warm sugar. Keep beating for a good 5 minutes with the electric whisk until the meringue is shiny. Place large heaped spoonfuls of mixture on the baking sheet, leaving room for the meringues to spread and puff. Put the meringues in the oven and turn the heat down to 120C/gas mark 1. Bake for about an hour, turning down the heat if they are browning too much - you want a pale honey colour. When the meringues are crisp on top, let them cool. The ideal is that they remain fudgy inside.
Make the following sauce and chill.
Whip the cream till it will just about keep its shape - it shouldn't be so thick that it will stand in peaks. Press the centre of each meringue with the back of a spoon so that you make a hollow. Pile the cream inside, and a sprig or two of currants. Serve the sauce in a jug to pour over as you eat.
for the blackcurrant sauce:
3 tbsp sugar
2 tbsp water
Pull the blackcurrants from their stalks and put them in a saucepan with the sugar and water, and bring to the boil. As soon as the berries start to burst and the juice turns a dramatic purple, remove from the heat. Leave to cool slightly.