Things just seem to taste better when you are outdoors, whether in a field or by a river, or in your garden. Some seasonal homemade food shared with friends or loved ones in the open air – this is surely one of the great joys of summer.
For a few all-too-short hours, all the stresses and worries of a busy life disappear and you feel that unmistakeable and overwhelming sense of freedom: grass becomes crisper under your feet and the air fresher. It's the time to relax in the last of the late-summer sun and share some tasty food.
Our erratic summer weather means that wherever possible I try to leave preparation till the last minute, make everything as rain-proof as I can, and where salads are concerned, I usually take the raw ingredients along and make them on site, to make sure the flavours are as fresh as they can be. Essentially, what I like is to prepare a little fresh feast that I can enjoy and graze over all day long.
In many respects, late summer is the best time to be cooking, as the list of available seasonal produce seems to stretch out like the days themselves. Raspberries, gooseberries, radishes, baby beetroots, lettuces and all manner of leaves such as bull's blood, watercress and rocket, tomatoes and perfectly ripe peaches and nectarines. It is the reason why the contents of the picnic can be so tantalising.
Iced Earl Grey tea
This muddled tea is heady, refreshing and soothing. Perfect to quench the thirst after a hot day in the summer sun.
1tbsp heaped loose leaf Earl Grey tea
1 large unwaxed lemon, sliced
6 sprigs of thyme
Good-quality runny honey to taste
Bring 1 litre of cold water to a gentle simmer. Remove the pan from the heat before it reaches a rolling boil – you will be able to spot this as steam starts to come from the surface of the water.
Leave the pan to settle for a few minutes. Add the loose Earl Grey, sliced lemon, along with the thyme sprigs.
Leave the tea to steep for 3-5 minutes, depending on how strong you like your tea – which I feel is a very personal thing.
Stir through some honey to taste and drain through a fine sieve over plenty of ice.
Whole roasted quail
Quails are a joyous bird to cook and eat with their nimble legs and rich meat. This simple marinade helps to carry new aromatic flavours into the delicate meat.
Best cooked at a high heat with plenty of seasoning, quail is perfectly portioned for one and eaten with your hands. Just make sure you pack some napkins.
12 whole quails
6 garlic cloves, peeled and bruised
6 sprigs of thyme
4 sprigs of rosemary
1 lemon, peeled
4tbsp olive oil
1tbsp sea salt
Once marinated for as long as possible, bring the quails up to room temperature and scatter over the salt, making sure the birds are evenly covered inside and out.
Turn the oven to 200C.
Set a large frying pan on to a high heat with a little olive oil. Reserving the garlic and herbs, brown the quails, turning them every few minutes until you have a good deep colour all over. Make sure not to overcrowd the pan at any time. Lift the browned quails into a baking tray and roast for 10 minutes or until you can easily pull the leg away from the bone.
Tomatoes, borlotti, oregano
This is a delicious way to serve borlotti and you can cook them a few days ahead to makes life simpler. The flavour of this dish is at its best when all of the ingredients reach room temperature – which is perfect for a picnic. The tomatoes are key: they must be ripe, rich in colour and meaty in texture with a subtle, sweet taste.
300g tomatoes, ideally a mixture of baby plum on the vine and steak tomatoes
For the fresh borlotti beans
700g fresh borlotti, approximately 200g podded
1 whole garlic, halved
1 tomato, halved
3 sage leaves
2 sprigs of rosemary
Extra virgin olive oil
Season the beans while they are still warm with salt and black pepper and a little more olive oil. Leave the beans to steep for as long as possible before draining off the cooking liquor.
For the dressing
2 large ripe and flavourful tomatoes, preferably plum tomatoes
1 small garlic clove, peeled and grated
2tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1tsp Moscatel vinegar
Coarse sea salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Bring a pot of water to the boil. Rinse the tomatoes under water to remove any dirt. Use a sharp knife to cut an 'x' in the bottom of the tomatoes then lower them into the boiling water. Remove the tomatoes after 30 seconds to 1 minute and immediately transfer them to a bowl of iced water.
When the tomatoes are cool enough to handle, simply peel away the skin. Loosened from their bath in the boiling water, the skins will slip right off.
Halve, then quarter the tomatoes. Roughly chop them until they're finely diced. Roughly chop the grated garlic. Now mix the tomatoes, garlic, vinegar, olive oil and salt and pepper to taste.
Fold the tomato salsa through the borlotti beans, which should now be at room temperature.
Take the 300g of tomatoes, roughly chop them and fold them through the beans and dressing. Set aside.
Extra herby dressing for tomatoes
8 sprigs of fresh oregano
4 sprigs of flat-leaf parsley
¼ clove of garlic, grated and chopped
Zest of half an unwaxed lemon
A good pinch of salt
Extra virgin olive oil to cover
Chop the parsley and oregano, being very careful not to bruise the leaves. Stir through the garlic, lemon zest, olive oil and seasoning to taste.
Generously spoon over your beans and tomatoes on arrival.
Runner beans, shallot & sultanas
I have many happy memories of topping and tailing the quintessentially British runner bean. Summer wouldn't be complete without them. These beans are at their best when eaten young and tender, as they will become tough and fibrous toward the end of the season. The trick is to hardly cook the beans in order to keep the intense flavour. Plump, juicy raisins lend a lovely, sweet contrasting flavour to them. Once assembled, the harsh vinegar improves and mellows.
900g English runner beans
2tbsp olive oil
2 banana shallot (the long type, shaped like a banana) or 4 basic shallots
75ml white wine vinegar
2tbsp golden caster sugar
Begin by topping and tailing and removing the strings from the runner beans. Cut the beans roughly into diagonal pieces or use a bean slicer to cut them into thin strips.
Slowly melt the butter with the oil over a low heat in a medium frying pan.
Peel and slice the shallots roughly, adding them to the butter/oil mixture followed by a good pinch of salt. Gently cook the shallots for about 10 minutes, or until soft and very slightly coloured. Stir them occasionally to prevent them from catching on the bottom.
Meanwhile, bring a saucepan of salted water to the boil and cook the beans for 3-4 minutes until just tender. Drain well.
Pour the vinegar, water and sugar into a small pan and slowly dissolve the sugar over a low heat. Once the sugar has dissolved, add the sultanas to the liquor and bring to the boil for a few minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and stir through the shallots.
In a large bowl, mix together the beans, shallots and sultanas and add seasoning to taste.
Baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringue
The feeling of this dish is true indulgence. The peaches are succulent, sweet and fragrant at this time of year. The rich mascarpone helps to balance out the sweetness while the meringue lends rich caramel notes and crumbly texture.
Meringues are not difficult to make, just a little delicate. Most importantly, make sure everything is dry and free of grease. You can make the meringue a few days ahead and store the shards in an air-tight container to help retain their freshness.
For the meringue
100g caster sugar
50g light muscovado sugar
75g egg whites at room temperature (approximately 2½ eggs)
A slice of lemon
A splash of cider vinegar
Spread the sugar over an oven tray lined with baking parchment and cook it for about 8 minutes, until it has just begun to melt at the edges, but not caramelise.
It is essential that everything you use when making the meringues is grease-free, otherwise the egg whites will not stiffen.
Wipe the inside of your mixing bowl and the whisk with the cut side of the lemon and add the eggs. As soon as you spot the sugar beginning to melt at the edges, set the mixer to whisk at high speed while you take the sugar out of the oven. Then turn the oven down to the lower setting of 60C.
The eggs should be just foamy by the time you add the sugar. Using a cloth, very carefully pick up the corners of baking parchment and tip the hot sugar slowly into the still-whisking mixer. Continue whisking until the mixture has cooled and is glossy and will hold its shape, then add the splash of vinegar. This helps to balance the sweetness.
Re-line the baking tray with greaseproof paper and spoon the meringue on. Use a palette knife to spread it over the tray to about 1cm thick. Place the tray into the oven on the lowest heat and bake until they are crisp on the outside, and sound hollow when tapped on the bottom; depending on their size, this could take up to 3 hours.
Turn the oven off and leave them in there until it has cooled, then immediately transfer to an air-tight container.
For the peaches
6 sprigs of thyme
1tbsp brown sugar
Preheat the oven to 220C/gas mark 7.
Using a sharp knife, slice the peaches in half and carefully remove the stones. Lay the peaches cut side up in a baking dish, and spoon over the brown sugar, honey, thyme sprigs and drop in some water. Cover the roasting tray with tin foil, sealing it tightly under the rim of the tray.
Bake for 10 minutes, then remove the foil and roast for a further 10 minutes until the peaches have softened and caramelised evenly, becoming sticky – the peaches should still hold their shape. Allow the peaches to cool down in the tray then cover and place in the fridge.
Serve the peaches chilled with a good spoonful of mascarpone, a little of the roasting juices and crumble over the meringue.
Florence Knight is head chef at Polpetto, London W1; polpetto.co.uk