As much as I love cooking I really don't want to spend forever in the kitchen when the sun is shining, so meals tend to be the sort that require little hands-on work, leaving me more time to spend outside. That doesn't mean they are all salads, just food that doesn't tax the cook.
With that in mind, this month's recipes include a baked tortilla oozing with melted cheese, a lazy lamb roast with summer vegetables (and rather a lot of garlic) and a salmon and noodle dish which would also be great for a picnic. Those who find themselves cooking on a cooler day might like to have a go at the creamy, mildly spiced chicken with fennel. There is something curiously appealing about spicy food in hot weather that I have never quite been able to put my finger on.
I cannot pretend I do much in the way of puddings in high summer, a salad of ripe melon and berries perhaps, or some sort of fruit fool is about as far as it goes. At this time of year my meals end more often than not with cheese, inevitably a tray of British or French goats' and sheep's cheeses and some thin oat biscuits. Or maybe just a few late strawberries to dip into a glass of cold Prosecco.
Olives with herbes de Provence
Bread - crusty, floury and chewy; sweet, fresh butter from a new packet and a jar of olives is a good enough way to start any lunch or supper. Sometimes, it literally is lunch or supper in our house, though there may be a bottle of wine involved too. Whatever, I would hate to be without some decent olives in the house. Sometimes I season them with the dried herb mixture sold as herbes de Provence - that fragrant muddle of savoury, thyme, rosemary and occasionally, lavender.
assorted green, black and purple olives - 450g
herbes de Provence - 1 tablespoon
garlic - 4 fat, unpeeled cloves, bashed flat with a heavy object
extra virgin olive oil - at least 6 tablespoons
Pack the olives into a Kilner jar. Chuck in the herbs, tuck in the garlic and cover with olive oil. Leave to marinate overnight, shaking the jar from time to time.
Cold salmon noodle salad
Cold noodles, at least in my opinion, need to be served really cold, not at room temperature. Fish on the other hand, is better served tepid than cold from the fridge. The two meet here in this salad, a good contrast to one another. I have used mint as the main seasoning here, but I sometimes add coriander leaves too, a great fat handful of them, roughly chopped and thrown in at the end. Great picnic fodder this, by the way, especially packed into Chinese takeaway containers.
rice noodles - 125g
salmon - 2 pieces of fillet approximately 200g each
nam pla - Thai fish sauce - 3 tablespoons
caster sugar - 4 teaspoons
limes - 3
bird's eye chilli - 1 or 2 to taste
mint leaves - a couple of handfuls
coriander leaves - a handful - optional, but I really do recommend them
sesame seeds - 2 tablespoons, toasted
Bring a deep pan of water to the boil. Slide in the noodles, turn off the heat and leave for four minutes. Drain and tip into a bowl. Mix the nam pla and sugar with the juice of two of the limes in a small bowl. Chop the chilli finely, removing the seeds if you wish (leaving them in will make it hotter) and add it to the dressing with most of the the finely shredded mint (and coriander) leaves. Save a few for serving. Toss the dressing with the noodles and leave to cool. Refrigerate for at least an hour so that the noodles are well chilled.
Place the salmon in a grill pan. Rub with a little oil, season with salt and black pepper and squeeze over the remaining lime. Grill for 10 to 12 minutes or so, till the flesh is opaque and the flakes of fish can be pulled easily apart. Leave to cool to room temperature.
Divide the noodles between two plates, then break the fish into broad chunks and scatter with the toasted sesame seeds and remaining mint (and coriander) leaves.
Here's a deliciously messy snack. Soft, wheat flour tortillas are available in most of the large supermarkets and, should you decide to keep a pack in the deep freeze, will defrost in minutes. Like any flatbreads, they are candidates for stuffing. Cheese, cut in thick slices, probably works best of all. There are two ways to deal with them; either bake them in a hot frying pan, whose edges will contain the oozing cheese till it has cooled enough to slice, or fold the edges in like a parcel and cook on a baking sheet.
tomatoes - 4 ripe, medium to large
spring onions - 5
coriander leaves - a good handful
taleggio or other easy melting cheese - 300g
tortillas - 2
Slice the tomatoes thinly, though not paper thin, and put them in a shallow dish. Trim the spring onions then slice them into short lengths, tucking them in among the tomatoes. Tear up the coriander leaves and toss them with the tomatoes, onions, a grinding of black pepper and the olive oil. Set aside for an hour or two to marinate.
Preheat the oven to 200 c/gas 6, placing either a metal handled frying pan or a baking sheet in the oven to warm up. (A frying pan is better because it will contain the molten cheese.) Slice the cheese thickly. When the oven is up to temperature remove the baking sheet and lay one of the tortillas on it, then cover with the sliced cheese, tomatoes, onions and coriander. Season with black pepper as you go. Lay the second tortilla on top and press lightly down, then shake over a little olive oil.
Bake till the cheese is oozing out of the sides, a matter of 10 minutes or less. Cut into four with a sharp, heavy knife.
Sautéed chicken with fennel and cream
Some recipes appear longer and more involved than they actually are. This mildly spiced chicken supper, at once fragrant and creamy, is such a recipe. Don't be put off by the fact it has a dozen ingredients, it is simplicity itself. Good with brown rice, though some lightly cooked spinach would be just about perfect for mopping up the amber coloured sauce. A mildly spiced dish for a summer's evening.
large chicken thighs - 4
groundnut oil - a little
fennel - 2 medium sized heads
double cream - 300ml
coriander leaves - a small handful
for the spice paste:
green cardamom - 4 pods
ground turmeric - teaspoon
ground cumin - a level teaspoon
ground chilli - teaspoon
garlic - 2 small cloves
grainy French mustard - 1 tablespoon
brown rice to serve
Rub the chicken with salt and pepper and fry gently in a tablespoon of groundnut oil till the skin is golden and starting to crisp. Over a low to moderate heat this will take a good 25 minutes, during which time a savoury golden sediment will attach itself to the pan. After 15 minutes cooking, cut each head of fennel into six long wedges and add to the chicken, tucking them around it.
While the chicken is cooking make the spice paste, first crushing the cardamom pods, discarding the green husks and crushing the black seeds to a powder using a pestle and mortar. Add the turmeric, cumin, chilli and garlic and continue pounding, mixing in the mustard and a tablespoon or two of the oil as you go.
When the fennel is tender and the chicken cooked right through to the bone, lift it out with a draining spoon and set aside. Pour the oil from the pan (you could keep it for frying potatoes) then add the spice paste to the pan, scraping at any sticky sediment with a wooden spoon and stirring it in. Leave the paste to cook for a minute or two, taking care it doesn't burn, (spice pastes catch in a matter of seconds if the heat is too high) then stir in the cream and immediately return the chicken and fennel to the pan. Leave to bubble for a minute or two, toss in the coriander leaves, chopped if they are large, then serve with the brown rice.
Baked lamb with tomatoes and aubergine
A robust, loud-flavoured roast here. On the face of it, the dish appears inelegant, thrown together even, and in a way I suppose it is. But it is none the worse for all that, and just the sort of casual, chunky food that you want sometimes, especially if you're eating out of doors.
new potatoes - about 8
plum tomatoes - 4
a large aubergine
onions - 2 medium ones
garlic - six large cloves
olive oil - about 5 tablespoons
rosemary - at least 4 bushy sprigs
lamb - 4 really thick neck chops at least 220g each
Set the oven at 200 c/gas 6. Scrub the potatoes and slice them in half lengthways, then drop them into a shallow ovenproof dish or roasting pan. Halve the tomatoes, again lengthways, and cut the aubergine into short, thick chunks then add them to the potatoes. Peel the onions and slice them thickly, then peel the garlic - but leave it whole - and add them to the potatoes with the olive oil, and a good grinding of salt and black pepper. Toss everything together, so that all the vegetables are covered with seasoned oil. Tuck the rosemary, still in large sprigs, among the vegetables, then bake, uncovered, for 30 minutes. Rub the lamb chops with a little olive oil and season them thoroughly with salt and pepper. Remove the roasting vegetables from the oven, toss them gently and put the chops on top. Turn the oven up to 220 c/gas 7 and return the dish to the oven for a further 30 minutes. Test a piece of the lamb, it should still be golden brown outside and slightly pink inside.
Blueberry batter pudding
Batter pudding, the French 'Clafoutis', is the only hot pudding that is really acceptable in high summer. Possibly because, like quiche, it is traditionally served warm rather than hot. Though cherries are more traditional, I find this pudding works exceptionally well with blueberries, their tart purple-blueness seeping into the quivering egg custard.
eggs - 4
plain flour - 75g
caster sugar - 80-90g
single cream - 250ml
full cream milk - 225ml
blueberries - 300g
icing sugar and cream to serve
You will also need an ovenproof dish about 25cm in diameter and a little butter for greasing it with.
Butter the dish. Whizz all the ingredients except the fruit in a blender or food processor, or beat them all together with a hand-held whisk. Tip the fruit into the dish, pour over the batter,then bake in a preheated oven at 200 c/gas 6 for about 40 minutes, till the batter is lightly risen, golden and lightly firm to the touch. Dust with icing sugar before serving.
I think of fruit fools, be they gooseberry, strawberry or raspberry, as the very essence of summer desserts. These soft, lazy-day puddings are nothing more than ripe fruit at the height of its season that has been crushed and stirred through with whipped cream and perhaps a little sugar. I am not certain the cream is entirely necessary with strawberry or raspberry fools; taste and sweeten as you go. Some crisp almond biscuits or shortbread would be good here.
raspberries - 300g
double cream - 150ml
thick, Greek yoghurt - 125ml
pistachios - 12
icing sugar - a tablespoon or so to taste
Rinse the berries and crush them roughly with a fork. I think you should stop long before you reach a purée so that the finished fool will have a more interesting texture. Pour the cream into a chilled bowl and whip it till it stands in soft folds. It shouldn't be stiff. Gently fold in the yoghurt and a good two thirds of the crushed raspberries.
Should you wish to sweeten the fool, do it now. I suggest a tablespoon of icing sugar, but taste it for sweetness as you go. Stir in the reserved third of raspberries, leaving a trail of red through the pink of the fool. Halve or chop the pistachios and scatter them over the top.
Blackberry and melon salad
Save for the odd drop of Marsala, I am not a great one for putting alcohol in my cooking. Here is an exception. The bittersweet Limoncello is positively breathtaking with the ripe orange-fleshed melon and fat, sweet blackberries. I have taken to keeping a bottle of this Italian citrus liqueur in the fridge during the summer, and even having a little tipple after dinner.
cantaloupe melon - 2 medium sized and lusciously ripe
blackberries - 350g
Limoncello - about 3 teaspoons
Slice the melons in half and scrape out their seeds over a bowl, catching as much juice as you can. Scoop out chunks of melon flesh with a spoon or cut the melon into chunks with a knife, discarding the peel as you go. Toss the melon with the blackberries, the juice and Limoncello to taste.