Ripe, red and splendid

Make the most of Mediterranean produce
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Indy Lifestyle Online
At this time of year - so my fantasy goes - we start to enjoy imported Mediterranean produce: fruits grown and ripened in hot sunshine to develop a deep and true flavour, that have come north to brighten up our culinary year.

This scenario is, of course, a thing of the past. But, despite all the tasteless impostors, I am not deterred in my search for the sun-drenched genuine article. Have a satisfactory rapport with your greengrocer, and shop around; the goods can be found.

Cavaillon melons, for example, rather than underripe and frankly boring honeydews and Galias, are now coming into the shops. Long, firm aubergines in all shapes, hues and sizes can easily be identified alongside the more uniform, hothouse variety. Tomatoes will be arriving, too, but are too often packed while still woefully underripe. However, I have often had success by piling a few kilos of these into a large, shallow dish and leaving them in the sun by the kitchen window for a week or so, turning them over from time to time to allow for even ripening.

This is also the time of year to look out for little purple artichokes. The tiniest of these can be trimmed of outer leaves and sliced raw, then simply dressed with excellent olive oil and lemon juice (small bulbs of fennel can be treated in this way, too). But it is peppers, deep carmine-red peppers, that are the very essence of the Mediterranean at this season. None of the other colours are worth much. The yellow and green ones are just about OK, but the anaemic-looking whitish ones and the deep, purply-black ones are just a hybridiser's fetish. No, it is the red ones that fire me up.

Throw them on to a charcoal-fuelled barbecue and leave them to blister, rather than cremating catering-pack sausages or frozen New Zealand lamb chops. Just a nuance of the smell of peppers on the fire will cause neighbours downwind to lean over the garden fence, noses wrinkling, wondering what on earth the scent is. And this mode of cooking is not just a rustic affair designed to impress your cookery enthusiast chums. It is the very best way to facilitate removal of the peppers' skin (indoors, best done under a hot grill).

Once the peppers have blackened on all surfaces, remove them from the embers' heat and put into a bowl covered with a plate (much easier than to push it into a plastic bag, as is often the instruction). While the peppers cool and deflate, the naturally exuding juices neatly collect in the bottom of the bowl. All that is then necessary is to pull out the stalk and rub the skin off with fingers. Yes, it's a messy job, but all the best ones are.

As you skin each pepper (leave the mess of skins behind in the bowl), lay it on a plate, cut it open, scrape out the seeds with a small table knife and then lay the cleaned pepper on a dish to deal with as you choose. But, whatever you do, don't forget that precious juice in the bowl. Tip the mess of skins, seeds and juice into a sieve over the dish of peeled peppers, and then press it with the back of a spoon to extract every drop of juice.

Roulade of red peppers and aubergines, serves 4

This was introduced to me several years ago by a chef at Bibendum. He had learnt of the dish from my friend Gay Bilson, late of Berowra Waters Inn in Australia, now running the Bennelong Restaurant at Sydney Opera House. It is a stylish creation and, once assembled, can be served in a trice.

pure olive oil (not virgin olive oil)

2 large aubergines, thinly sliced lengthways, lightly salted and left to drain on a rack for 1/2 an hour

a little salt and plenty of pepper

30 basil leaves, torn into shreds

2 tbsp flat-leafed parsley, coarsely chopped

3 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced

2 tbsp good quality red vine vinegar

4 red peppers, skinned as above, laid out flat

Heat about 6 tbsp of olive oil in a large frying pan until very hot, but not smoking. Pat dry the aubergine slices and fry quickly on both sides until golden; you will have to do this in batches. Lay to drain on folded sheets of kitchen paper to soak up any excess oil.

Lay a large sheet of cling film on the work surface. In the middle of this, form a rough square using overlapping aubergine slices. Season with freshly ground pepper but no salt, scatter over the basil, parsley and garlic slices, then sprinkle with the vinegar. Cover with the flattened peppers.

Now take up the edge of the cling film and tightly, as deftly as possible, roll it up in the same way as you would a Swiss roll (don't go and roll the cling film into the vegetable slices as you go; it needs to stay on the outside all the way). Once rolled, and with the leading edge underneath, twist the ends together like a Christmas cracker, thereby forcing the roll into a tight cylinder. Refrigerate for at least 6 hours, preferably overnight.

To serve, take a sharp, serrated knife and cut the roll into slices (with cling film intact) not less than an inch thick. Using a palette knife or fish slice, transfer to individual serving plates. Only now should you remove the little collars of cling film. Spoon a little extra-virgin olive oil over now, if you feel moved to, as well as a sprinkling of Maldon sea salt and a little more pepper.

I have served this dish with slices of good buffalo mozzarella, or creamed goats' cheese flavoured with garlic. It is also worth mentioning that long, thin croutons, cut from a baguette and spread with anchovy paste, can add a pleasing crunch.

Warm soup of tomato, potato and red peppers , serves 6

This is the sort of soup to spoon at slowly, as it is relatively thick. The effect of adding pepper, mint and vinegar puree at the end is a revelation. Use a vegetable mill (mouli-legumes) for processing this soup; a liquidiser or food processor will make the texture too gloopy.

55g/2oz butter

1litre/13/4 pints water

2 small onions, peeled and chopped

450g/llb new potatoes (don't be tempted to use main crop), scraped clean and chopped

1 tsp sage

2 bay leaves and 2-3 sprigs fresh thyme, tied together in a bunch

1 tbsp olive oil

350g/12 oz very ripe tomatoes, peeled, deseeded and finely chopped

the flesh of two small roasted red peppers

1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed to a paste with a little salt

1 handful fresh mint leaves

2 tbsp red wine vinegar

4 tbsp olive oil

1/4 tsp (or more) dried chilli flakes

Heat together the butter and a cupful of the given amount of water, in a heavy-bottomed pan. Add the onions and cook gently until soft. Add the rest of the water, the potatoes, and the bay and thyme bundle. Bring to a simmer, cover, and cook gently for 20 minutes, until the potatoes are collapsing.

Meanwhile, briskly stew or fry the chopped tomatoes in a tablespoon of olive oil until reduced to a mulchy consistency. While that is cooking, blend together the peppers, garlic, mint, vinegar, olive oil and chilli flakes in a food processor, until smooth. Pour into a small dish and set aside.

Remove the thyme and bay bundle and then pass the potato broth through the medium hole of the vegetable mill, into a clean pan. Stir in the tomato mulch and check for seasoning. Reheat until just hot, pour into cold bowls and spoon some of the pepper puree on to the surface of each serving. A tiny slick of extra olive oil adds a nice sheen, too.

The combination of anchovies and red peppers is a tried and trusted marvel. The peppers should be thickly sliced (allow one whole pepper per serving as an hors d'oeuvre) and laid out into a white dish, for best effect. They are then sharpened with good quality vinegar or lemon juice, anointed with the best olive oil you can find and finally crisscrossed with similarly fine salted anchovies. Capers can be added, too. Herbs such as basil and mint are obvious contenders, and if a cut-open, soft-boiled egg is served alongside it makes a matchless summer lunch, accompanied by good bread and a crisp green salad.

For a delicious warm fish salad, take some super-fresh cod fillets, about 450g/1lb for 4 people (salt cod is especially good) and lightly poach in salted water for 7-10 minutes. Drain well, then carefully break into flakes with your fingers. Mix with strips of roasted and skinned peppers, a little lemon juice and olive oil, crushed garlic, seasoning and chopped herbs (basil, maybe). Serve warm, with new potatoes

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