Bring me sunshine

You're planning a summer menu - but can you count on eating al fresco? Mark Hix discovers light dishes that are perfect for the great indoors too
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Indy Lifestyle Online

It's all very well fantasising about that summer lunch or dinner. The sun may be shining as you shop, but by the time it comes to eat, your mood could have clouded over after one look at the sky. What you need is something that won't look dull if the sun's gone in. A main-course salad that can be served warm is ideal, as it doesn't matter what the temperature outside is doing. That way instead of worrying about what the weather will be like the day after tomorrow as you plan your summer party, you can hedge your bets. Warm salady dishes are also great for the evenings when things can cool down a little - and they feel more comforting and substantial than cold food. Better than a buffet is to put large bowls and plates of food in the middle of the table and let people help themselves. Some bottles of rosé dotted around and away you go.

It's all very well fantasising about that summer lunch or dinner. The sun may be shining as you shop, but by the time it comes to eat, your mood could have clouded over after one look at the sky. What you need is something that won't look dull if the sun's gone in. A main-course salad that can be served warm is ideal, as it doesn't matter what the temperature outside is doing. That way instead of worrying about what the weather will be like the day after tomorrow as you plan your summer party, you can hedge your bets. Warm salady dishes are also great for the evenings when things can cool down a little - and they feel more comforting and substantial than cold food. Better than a buffet is to put large bowls and plates of food in the middle of the table and let people help themselves. Some bottles of rosé dotted around and away you go.

As usual, my advice is to keep it simple. Don't mess with good ingredients, and don't be afraid of presenting people with something new. Try an ingredient like monk's beard, or something as simple as young broad beans cooked in their pods.

Not that I'm suggesting you do exactly what I did to surprise guests at a summer party. But I'll let you in on the secret anyway. When my daughters Ellie and Lydia were christened, I put on a little spread afterwards to soak up the booze. I happened to have some sheep's testicles, or rognon blancs (white kidneys) as they politely call them in France, in the freezer. Well, the sun must have gone to my head because I couldn't resist chopping them up and turning them into little Moroccan filo cigars (see last week's recipes). You wouldn't believe how well they went down. And it wasn't all because of my other summer party trick - lots of thirst-quenching rosé. f

Chilled summer herb soup

Serves 4-6

I've been making this soup for years and it tastes slightly different every time depending on the strength of the herbs used. You can vary the herbs, but I find that the stronger ones like thyme, rosemary, coriander and tarragon dominate and overwhelm the subtle fragrance of the soup. I've used a bit of flour, like an old-fashioned roux, to thicken the soup but it doesn't taste of anything and when it's cooked and blended you wouldn't know it was there. I've tried using potato instead to thicken it, but you just don't get that silky consistency.

If you grow your own herbs, this is the perfect way to use up your prunings when they start to bolt or get out of control. Last year I had an abundance of lovage, which is too overpowering to put in the soup, so I used a tempura batter to turn the leaves into fritters and served them as an accompaniment.

1 small fennel bulb, roughly chopped
1 leek, roughly chopped and washed
1 medium onion, peeled and roughly chopped
1tbsp vegetable oil
1tbsp flour
1.5litre vegetable stock
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
A handful of parsley, washed, thicker stalks removed and put to one side
A handful of chervil, washed, thicker stalks removed and put to one side
A handful of basil, washed, thicker stalks removed and put to one side
Approx 10g chives
A few mint leaves

Gently cook the fennel, onion and leek in the vegetable oil in a covered pan for 4-5 minutes until soft, stirring every so often. Add the flour and stir well then gradually add the vegetable stock and season. Bring to the boil; add the thicker reserved herb stalks and simmer gently for 20 minutes. Add the rest of the herbs and simmer for 2 more minutes only.

Blend until smooth in a liquidiser then strain through a medium strainer, as a fine- meshed sieve will not allow some of the bits of herbs through. To keep its green colour, you need to cool the soup down as quickly as possible, so put the bowl of strained soup over another bowl of iced water. Re season if necessary and serve from the fridge. If you feel like it, garnish with finely chopped herbs, cream or crème fraîche or even fresh goat's cheese.

Prawn and asparagus cocktail

Serves 4

I love good old classics like prawn cocktail and I normally prefer not to mess with them. But adding a few asparagus tips just makes this summer favourite that little bit more luxurious.

1 small head of Cos lettuce
1 head of chicory
4 spring onions, finely shredded
450-500g asparagus, woody ends trimmed off
20 large king prawns, cooked with their heads off
1 lemon or lime, quartered

for the sauce

5tbsp mayonnaise (a good quality ready-made version is fine)
5tbsp tomato ketchup
2tsp Worcestershire sauce
A few drops of Tabasco sauce
Juice of half an orange
1tbsp creamed horseradish or 1 tbsp freshly grated horseradish
1tbsp Pernod or Ricard
1tbsp chopped dill
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Shred the lettuce and chicory as finely as you can, and mix together with the spring onions. Cook the asparagus in boiling salted water for 4-5 minutes, or until just tender. Drain and allow to cool. Meanwhile mix all the ingredients for the sauce together and season with salt and pepper.

To serve, put the lettuce mixture into large martini glasses or ice-cream coups, arrange the prawns on top with the asparagus and spoon the sauce over the prawns (or spoon it over the lettuce before the prawns and asparagus go on). Serve with lemon or lime quarters.

Salade Niçoise

Serves 4

This is one of those dishes that can turn up in many different guises. All too often it is a garbage bin of ingredients that has been put together with little care or thought. Properly made it should just consist of a few seasonal ingredients, well seasoned and dressed in style. In its home in the south of France you will find baby broad beans and thin slivers of baby artichokes, cooked or raw, and often anchovies not tuna. French beans, which are available all the year round, are now commonly used, broad beans, because they're seasonal, appear less often.

Good-quality canned tuna - look for ventreche or ventresca, the French and Italian terms for the fatty belly - will do. But I'd suggest using fresh tuna for a warm and more luxurious version.

1 garlic clove, peeled
150g (podded weight) young broad beans or French beans, cooked in boiling salted water until tender
4 ripe plum tomatoes, skinned and quartered
2 spring onions, thinly sliced
12 good quality canned anchovies in olive oil
24 small Niçoise olives
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
6tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1tbsp tarragon vinegar
2 soft-boiled eggs, shelled and halved or f
12 quails eggs, lightly boiled for 2 minutes and shelled
300g good-quality canned or freshly cooked tuna (see page 32), flaked into large chunks

To cook fresh tuna, put it a pan with one peeled and sliced clove of garlic, 12 tsp fennel seeds, a pinch of black peppercorns, and a few sprigs of thyme. Cover with olive oil, add 1 tsp salt and bring the the boil and simmer for 2-3 minutes. Leave in the oil.

Rub the inside of a large bowl with the garlic. Add the beans, plum tomatoes, spring onions, anchovies (whole or halved) and olives. Season with salt and pepper, add two thirds each of the oil and vinegar, and mix well.

Put the eggs and tuna on top and gently mix in, trying not to break up the eggs, then spoon over the rest of the oil and vinegar.

Herb-roasted fillet of beef with horseradish potatoes

Serves 4

This calls for a good chunk of beef, like an aged rib-eye stripped of the outer fat, leaving you with a nicely marbled eye of meat which should melt in your mouth.

1 rib-eye of beef, off the bone, weighing about 1-1.5kg, tied
Maldon sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Vegetable oil or dripping for roasting
2tbsp chopped parsley
1tbsp chopped thyme leaves
12tbsp chopped rosemary
1tbsp grain mustard
4 large onions, peeled and cut into 3 thick slices

for the horseradish potatoes

500g roseval or charlotte potatoes, cooked in their skins and scraped
1tbsp horseradish sauce
4 spring onions, finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2-3 tbsp good quality mayonnaise
1tbsp crème fraîche

Pre-heat the oven to 220ºC/430ºF/gas mark 7. About 10 minutes before you put the beef in, heat a couple of tablespoons of vegetable oil or dripping in a large roasting tray until it's beginning almost to smoke (you can do this on top of the stove). Season the rib-eye with some sea salt and pepper and roast for 10 minutes, then turn it over to seal the meat and keep the juices in. Remove the tray from the oven and take the beef out of the roasting tray. Spread it with the grain mustard on all sides, mix the herbs together and rub them all over the beef. Put the onions in the middle of the roasting tray and put the beef on top, then return to the oven. Allow 30 minutes per kilo for rare; 45 minutes for medium to well done.

Baste the meat regularly with the pan juices. Once cooked remove the beef from the tray and leave to rest on a plate for 10-15 minutes. Add a couple of tablespoons of water to the roasting tray and put on a medium flame on top of the stove. Stir with a spoon a couple of times to remove any residue from the bottom of the pan, then transfer the onions and any juices to a blender. Blend to a coarse consistency, season with salt and pepper if necessary then transfer to a serving bowl. This sort of roasted onion soubise goes particulary well with the beef.

Put the potatoes into boiling salted water and simmer for 10-15 minutes, drain and, when they're cool enough to handle (but not cold), peel or scrape off the skin. While they are still warm, roughly crush the potatoes with a fork (you want to keep some lumps). Meanwhile, mix the horseradish, spring onions, mayonnaise and crème fraîche together in a lard bowl, season with salt and freshly ground pepper, then fold in the crushed potatoes.

Serve the beef, preferably still warm, sliced into 1 cm slices with the potatoes and onion sauce served separately.

Tuscan 'mess'

Serves 4

I had this pudding at Casa Buitoni, the home of the pasta people, in Tuscany. It didn't have a name, so I've come up with my own. Because it reminded me of a cross between the very English Eton mess (strawberries, meringue and cream) and a monte bianco, a very rich Italian Christmas dessert with lots of chestnut purée and cream.

The description was a little vague and in Italian, so I had to rely on my powers of detection, and managed to identify meringue, pine nuts, honey and chestnut purée all bound in a mousse-like mixture. It could just as well have been a sweet ending to a wintery dinner, except that it was sitting in a pool of mashed up strawberries and hit the spot blissfully after a long, typically Tuscan dinner. And if Tuscany doesn't make you feel summery I don't know what does.

You don't need to make a proper mousse for this, because the mixture more or less turns itself into a mousse naturally.

The chestnut purée comes in cans. If you can't find puréed chestnut then blend some of the canned or vacuum-packed ones coarsely in a blender with a tablespoon of caster sugar dissolved in a tablespoon of water. Use ready-made meringues if you don't fancy making your own. Any honey will do, but chestnut honey (Sainsbury's do an excellent Italian one) suits this recipe very well.

200ml double cream
2tbsp clear honey
3tbsp chestnut purée (this comes in cans from good supermarkets)
2tbsp pine nuts, lightly toasted and chopped
100g meringue, roughly broken up
250g ripe strawberries
1tbsp caster sugar (optional if the strawberries are not so sweet)

Whisk the honey and chestnut purée together in a small bowl over a pan of simmering water for a few minutes until it becomes more liquid. As soon as you've done that whisk the cream until almost fully whipped then carefully fold in the honey mixture with the whisk and leave to set in the fridge for an hour.

Meanwhile put the strawberries into a food processor with the caster sugar, if you are using it, and coarsely blend them so you are left with some big chunks of strawberry.

To serve, fold the meringue and pine nuts into the cream mixture, spoon the strawberry sauce into pasta or dessert bowls and spoon the cream mixture with a large serving spoon on top.

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