You slice zucchini, you heat brilliant-green olive oil in a pan - it doesn't matter what pan - and you squash a clove of garlic between a chopping board and a crumbling of course salt. Then you chuck the garlic at the warm oil so it hits with a ttsssttt and the smell fills the kitchen. The scent of fruity olive oil and sweet, new garlic that tells
you, your guests, your neighbours that
you know what you're doing. In go the vegetables: you toss them around as they soften and colour. Basil leaves - the coarse peppery ones from the Italian deli, not those pathetic little things in a pot from the supermarket - get torn up and scattered over, melting into the emerald-green oil. Some more salt, no pepper (if you have good basil, you don't need pepper), then you tip them out on to a white dish. Then you tear up your bread and dip it into the warm, basily, garlicky, salty oil. You don't need a recipe for this stuff. You just do it.
An aubergine also holds a bundle of summer lunches in its soft flesh. Slice it lengthways, so the pieces look like slipper soles, and lay them in a colander, scattered with flakes of salt. This will soften them and make them less thirsty for your good oil. Rinse them and lay them in a baking tray. Brush with olive oil, dust them with dried oregano leaves and a few grains
of cumin. Bake them in your hottest oven for 15 minutes till they are tinged with
gold. Serve them on a plate, with more oil to drizzle over, some chopped flat parsley and basil, and some sultanas soaked in balsamic vinegar.
Either of these dishes will make lunch on a summer's day. You need bread and olives, too, and a hunk of feta or some soft and milky ricotta. You want the garlicky, caramelised juices to mingle with the nibs of sharp cheese on your plate. And I would want some bread.
The juices from these warm summer-vegetable dishes that collect on your plate are, along with olive oil and red-wine vinegar, at the heart of summer eating.
The juices of caramelised peppers and sweet-sharp tomatoes, of pan-fried zucchini and baked aubergine - these are juices at which to shake a little red-wine vinegar then use your bread to mix them on your plate into an impromptu dressing. Rough edges taste better out of doors.
Less gutsy stuff - the summer vegetables without juice, such as broad beans; the new, sweet, tiddly peas; thin asparagus - can turn up in a risotto or a frittata. I did one last night, but it needed something astringent in there, too. I would have stirred in some ricotta had I had some, or perhaps some bitter chicory added halfway through cooking. Instead
I gave it some kick with a shot of lemon. Even one good squeeze lifted it from the smooth to the punchy. The world's most soporific food turned into something approaching the fresh and summery.
Kitchen life gets so easy in the summer: roast tomatoes or aubergines with thick slices of cool and milky mozzarella; grilled zucchini with slices of St Daniele or Coppa; a meal made entirely of little
dishes of salads and warm pitta bread. You need bread or couscous as a sop for the juices, dressings and olive oil, but little else. And soon we can finish our meal with fruit - peaches and apricots from Italy, our own soft fruit made into fools, or perhaps
a classic open tart.
Cooks who cruise effortlessly ahead of the pack won't be cooking much for the next few weeks. They will be manning their grills, perhaps with the aforementioned zucchini or aubergine,
or some thick slices of young fennel, or mushrooms, pressing them down on to
the hot grill. Once the vegetables have the obligatory bite marks from the grill, they will tip them into a bowl and pour over grassy, lively olive oil, some torn basil or coriander leaves, a squeeze of lemon,
some finely crushed young mauve garlic, some mint leaves or flat parsley. They
will leave it all for a while for the vegetables to soak up the oil and to take the flavours from the herbs. Then they'll pile them
on to plates with baked sardines, grilled squid or simply lots of hot, peppery rocket. Big flavours, simple cooking, summer flavours. Gutsy stuff for bold cooks.
Baked zucchini with feta and mint
Serves 2 as a light lunch, 4 as a side dish.
for 4 as a side dish
16 young zucchini
6 bushy sprigs of mint
a few black olives
a few more mint leaves
Wipe the zucchini and slice them in half from tip
to toe. Lay them cut side down in a flame-proof dish - enamelled cast iron is good - and pour over enough olive oil to generously cover the bottom of the dish. Place the dish over a moderate to frisky flame and let the olive oil bubble. When the undersides of the vegetables are starting to colour, turn them over and turn off the heat.
Scatter the dish with the leaves from the mint sprigs - tear them up as you go - squeeze over
the lemon, grind over black pepper, but no salt,
and make sure that there is a visible depth of olive oil, adding more as you need to. Bake at 200°C/gas mark 6 for 30 minutes till the zucchini are soft, gold and fragrant.
Remove from the oven, crumble over the feta and a few shakes of red-wine vinegar, then add a few olives and some torn mint to finish. (Sometimes I use basil here, too.)
Spring vegetable and lemon risotto
I know risotto smacks of autumnal cooking
rather than summer, but that is because I tend
to make it with pumpkin, pancetta, fat onions
and cheese. A lighter version made with early-summer vegetables is only a short step away
and a last-minute stirring-in of lettuce, green herbs
and lemon lifts the dish from its more familiar, comforting blandness into something bright
I should explain the lettuce. Soft lettuce leaves wilt and almost 'melt' into a risotto, rather like
sorrel (but without the lemon edge of that leaf). Enough for 2 with seconds.
7 ladles of chicken stock
2 thin spring leeks
2 small spring carrots
a fistful of flat-leaf parsley leaves
2 or 3 small zucchini
170g arborio rice
16 button mushrooms
a wine glass of white wine
1/2 small, soft leaved lettuce
the zest and juice of 1 lemon
20 decent-sized basil leaves
Put the chicken stock on to warm (it should be almost simmering). Pour enough olive into a pan
to cover the bottom and set it over a moderate heat. A medium-sized, high-sided frying pan or shallow-sided casserole works very well.
Rinse and slice the leeks into thin rings and stir them into the olive oil, letting them cook with colouring. Chop the carrots and parsley leaves and add them, then finely dice and add the zucchini (they should be the size of gravel chippings). Let them cook for a minute or two. Sprinkle in the rice and the halved button mushrooms and stir briefly, then pour in the wine and let it almost evaporate before adding a couple of ladles of hot stock. Leave the stock to bubble down until it is on the verge of disappearing, stirring from time to time, then ladle in some more and continue.
The rice will soften but should retain a bit of bite. Keep adding the stock, leaving it to gently bubble as it is absorbed by the rice and stirring it from time to time. Add salt. As the stock is used up, and the rice becomes creamy, add the lettuce leaves, torn into large pieces, the lemon zest and juice, and the basil. Cook only until the lettuce wilts and melts. Season a little more and serve.
St Marcellin with tomatoes and basil
6 medium-sized tomatoes
a couple of bushy sprigs of basil
a small creamy, easy-melting cheese, such as St Marcellin
Cut the tomatoes in half horizontally and lay them, cut side up, in a dish - an earthenware baking dish would be fine. Set the oven at 200°C/gas mark 6. Sprinkle olive oil over the tomatoes. It should not completely cover the bottom of dish, just lie in puddles on and around the tomatoes. Crumble over a little sea salt and grind some black pepper over.
Bake until the tomatoes have softened and are lightly browned here and there (about 30 minutes). Tear the leaves from the basil and scatter over the tomatoes, slice the cheese in half across its horizon - not especially easy, but remember, it will melt anyway - and lay it over the tomatoes. Inevitably, some won't be covered, but it doesn't really matter.
Return to the oven for 5 minutes or so until the cheese melts and some of it runs into the oil. Serve at once, with crusty bread - ideally a baguette or ficelle - to spread the molten cheese and tomatoes on.