Season's eatings

We may like to curse the rain, but without it we'd have a lot less variety on our farms. So make the most of our best local produce with a hearty summer menu - delicious whatever the weather, says Annie Bell
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Indy Lifestyle Online

It goes without saying that the weather in this country is unpredictable. Because of this, we can get away with heartier food in the summer than you might in Mediterranean countries. I think we should use this climate to our advantage; rather than wishing for more warmth and therefore different food.

It goes without saying that the weather in this country is unpredictable. Because of this, we can get away with heartier food in the summer than you might in Mediterranean countries. I think we should use this climate to our advantage; rather than wishing for more warmth and therefore different food.

We do have an amazing array of fruit, vegetables and herbs in Britain and it's during summer that they are at their best. As a child my mother used to take me to the local market garden, it was an oasis bang in the middle of suburbia and full of wonderful smells of soil and vegetables. We would go home laden with hand-picked runner beans, courgettes and tomatoes. The smell was lovely, there was a fantastic freshness about it.

Aside from vegetables, butter, is for me, the medium of British cooking. There are no olive groves in the UK so it's absolutely central to how our food tastes and its texture. You can use butter in combination with olive oil, but the minute you abandon dairy, you move away from the very heart of British cooking. A big bowl of boiled new potatoes smothered with butter is definitely a quintessential part of summer.

I have always rated raspberries over and above strawberries. British strawberries are at a very sad stage where the elsanta variety has taken over from all the others, for all the wrong commercial reasons. It is such a bland mouthful, I do not bother to eat them any more. But with raspberries we get some wonderful varieties. They grow very well in the north of England where the weather is very suited to them and they tend not to grow them on such a big scale. I think it's the richest, most aromatic berry we have.

I always avoid the baby lamb that's around at Easter. The time to really be getting into this is the height of the summer where they will have been reared outdoors and grass-fed, as opposed to inside where they do not get to see a blade of grass in their lives. I often pot-roast lamb with olives with red wine, or else I cook it the French way with flagelot beans roasted on top of garlic and thyme.

May and June is the height of the pea season. It's a very aromatic vegetable which gives you a fantastic sweetness that's got a lovely clean flavour; a soup is the best way of showing them off. Pea and ham is a winning combination whatever you do with it.

Plaice is another vital part of my summer. It's one of my favourite fish and very underrated. We used to have a house in Salcombe in Devon where we'd go fishing for crabs, mackerel and plaice. It just has a beautiful, milky sweetness and a really lovely texture. I call it a good, poor man's Dover sole and eat it by the bucketful.

Pea soup with bacon

Serves 4

25g/1oz unsalted butter
1 onion, peeled and chopped
150ml/5fl oz white wine
600g/1lb 4oz shelled peas
750ml/24fl oz chicken stock
Sea salt, black pepper
1 teaspoon caster sugar
8 rashers rindless unsmoked streaky bacon, each cut into 2 long strips lengthwise
10 good-sized basil leaves
Chopped flat-leaf parsley

Melt the butter in a large saucepan over a medium heat, add the onion, and sweat for several minutes until it is translucent and soft. Add the wine and cook until it is syrupy. Add the peas and stir, then add the stock, the seasoning and sugar. Bring to the boil and simmer for three minutes.

While simmering the soup, heat the grill and lay the bacon strips out on the grid of a grill pan. Grill until golden and crisp on both sides. Pile on to a plate.

Place the soup with the basil leaves in a food processor and purée, then adjust the seasoning - it may well need more salt. I like a slight texture to this soup, but if you prefer it completely smooth you can liquidise it in a blender, and if necessary pass it through a sieve. Return to the saucepan, on a low heat, re-warm and serve scattered with parsley and accompanied by the bacon strips.

Pot-roasted leg of lamb with black olives

Serves 6

This is alluring in a Provencal way and best enjoyed perhaps with some braised courgette flowers or roasted peppers. The Iamb is beautifully succulent and tender. Even after two hours in a low oven, it's still pink in the centre.

3 tablespoons olive oil
2.7 kg/5lb 10oz leg of lamb
1 large onion, peeled, halved and sliced
2 tablespoons brandy
10 garlic cloves (1 head), peeled
1 beefsteak tomato, skinned, seeded and cut into strips
12 to 15 thyme sprigs, tied in a bundle with string
150ml/5fl oz red wine
Sea salt, black pepper
180g/6oz black olives, rinsed and pitted

Heat the oven to 160C/325F/Gas 3. Heat the olive oil in a large oval casserole and brown the lamb on all sides, then remove. Add the onion to the casserole and cook until it begins to caramelise. Return the Iamb. Heat the brandy in a ladle and ignite, then pour over the meat. Add the garlic, tomato, thyme, half the wine and seasoning. Cover and cook in the oven for one hour, turning halfway through.

Add the remaining red wine and the olives to the casserole and return to the oven for a further one hour. Take out of the oven and leave to rest for 15 minutes. Transfer the Iamb to a plate and carve. Skim off the surface fat from the cooking liquor and discard the thyme. Serve the lamb with the olives and cooking liquor.

Plaice à la Meunière

Serves 2

100g/3oz unsalted butter
2 x 225g/8oz plaice fillets,
with skin
Plain flour, for coating
Sea salt, black pepper
2 lemon quarters
2 teaspoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley

Gently melt the butter in a small saucepan, and then remove from the heat. Preheat a non-stick frying pan over a high heat. Season the flour with salt on a plate. Dip the plaice fillets into the flour to coat them, then brush liberally with the melted butter. Lay one plaice fillet flesh-side down in the frying pan, turn the heat down and cook for three minutes, then turn and cook the skin side for three minutes. Slip the plaice fillet on to a warm plate and cover with foil to keep warm while you cook the second fillet.

While the plaice is cooking, return butter to a medium-low heat and stir frequently until milky solids turn to fine golden particles. It should have the appearance of clear yellow butter with paprika in the bottom. Immediately pour into a bowl.

Once the fish fillets are cooked, spoon the butter over them and squeeze over the lemon juice.

Season with salt and pepper and sprinkle with chopped parsley.

Eton mess

Serves 4-6

3 medium organic egg whites
170g/6oz caster sugar
800g/1lb 5oz red berries, hulled
40g/1oz icing sugar
2 tablespoons raspberry
eau-de-vie (optional)
Squeeze of lemon juice
450ml/15fl oz whipping cream

Heat oven to 140C/275F/Gas 2.

Whisk the egg whites in a bowl until softly peaking. Sprinkle over the sugar, a spoonful at a time, whisking well with each addition until the meringue is smooth and glossy. Line a baking sheet with baking parchment and using a palette knife, spread the meringue to a 1cm (1/2in) thickness, roughly 30cm (12in) square. Bake for 45 minutes; the outside should be crisp, the inside soft. Allow to cool. Meanwhile, purée a third of the berries in a blender with the icing sugar, eau-de-vie if using, and lemon juice. Pass through a sieve into a bowl; taste for sweetness and add more sugar or lemon juice as necessary. Add the remaining fruit to this sauce and toss to mix.

Break the meringue into large pieces. Arrange half in a deep 20cm (8in) bowl or individual bowls. Cover with half the fruit, then half the cream. Repeat the layers. Serve as soon as possible; the meringue softens after a while, but is still good to eat.

Annie Bell's 'In My Kitchen', is published by Conran Octopus, priced £25, and her 'Living and Eating' is published by Ebury Press, priced £17.50

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