Oh, happy, happy days: look what is ripe and ready to eat! We have so many plans for these beauties this year which is good as there is going to be a mountain of them in the coming days.
At the opposite end of the scale, we are almost out of lettuce in the garden: having had an ongoing glut since the end of April, we are down to the last couple. I have tried to be very diligent where successional sowings are concerned but for some reason, the latest bunch of seedlings is not quite as enthusiastic to get going as earlier ones. Exactly the same thing happened last year and to be quite honest, I’m really not bothered because where salads are concerned there is life beyond leaves.
One of the joys of this time of year is the sheer choice of ingredients from the garden to make delicious salads, and I particularly love to spend some time in the morning creating something tasty for lunch with whatever looks good and ready (so much more interesting than a cheese sandwich!). I am definitely not a cookery writer or photographer – there are many, many people out there who do both so brilliantly – but occasionally it’s nice to share ideas and the happiness that simple fresh food brings to our lives. It’s great fun to create dishes from complex recipes using a long list of ingredients and many cheffy processes but sometimes a little simplicity is all that is needed. Eating well and healthily doesn’t have to be difficult, expensive or time-consuming but should always be enjoyable; isn’t it, after all, one of life’s greatest pleasures? 🙂
Roger has questioned the logic of planting six cucumber plants this year when four were too many last year (I suppose he has a point!) but I’m quite enjoying the little cuke fest we have going on here at the moment. I actually love picking a sun-warmed baby and munching it as a piece of fruit as I wander around the patch. If you peel and de-seed a larger cucumber you don’t have a lot left, so it’s easy to use up several at a time. Chop the remaining flesh, sit it in a sieve over a bowl sprinkled with salt to draw out excess moisture, then dress simply with olive oil, lemon juice, a sprinkle of fresh herbs (whatever takes your fancy) for the simplest, freshest, daintiest salad going.
With hotter weather on the horizon, I have also been experimenting with recipes for chilled cucumber soup. I am hopeless when it comes to carefully measured quantities as I tend to cook by eye, feel and taste: just throw it in until it seems right is my favourite approach. That said, I really don’t think you can go wrong with this kind of recipe. We have grown two varieties of cucumber this year – ‘Green Tasty Burpless’ and ‘Diva’ – so I opted for a mix here; I also used Welsh onions (grown easily from Sarah’s seed last year) which are a great perennial bunching variety, every bit as versatile and flavoursome as spring onions, and went for mint and dill as my fresh herb choices as both are currently thriving in the garden.
I peeled and de-seeded the cukes (I found two and a half the right quantity for our blender) and chopped the onions, then whizzed both in the blender along with the herbs until smooth. I added three pots of Greek style yogurt (375g), a slosh of lemon juice, a good slug and then some of olive oil, and plenty of sea salt and freshly ground black pepper and whizzed the whole lot up again. Job done in under 10 minutes. My goodness, does this even count as cooking? It went into the fridge overnight and made a fabulous lunch in the heat of the following day, topped off with a little diced cucumber, shredded mint and olive oil. Unbelievably delicious. Can’t wait to make some more!
I also have gazpacho in my sights as soon as we have a glut of green peppers; after all, what could be easier than whizzing up a pile of fresh ingredients in a blender and calling it lunch?
We always keep a good choice of grains and pulses – bulgar wheat, pearl barley, quinoa, lentils, brown rice and a variety of dried beans at the very least – in the store cupboard and these make fantastic bases for salads when mixed with garden goodies. There are no rules here, it’s just a lot of fun making it up as we go along and adding raw or cooked veg as we like. It’s interesting to experiment with flavours, too: for example, homemade spice mixes add a completely different dimension to fresh garden herbs; sesame oil in place of olive oil changes things totally; garlic and chilli warm things up; nuts and seeds add crunch; citrus zests and juice bring zing. I love the sharpness of capers, the saltiness of olives, the sweetness of roasted red peppers, the tang of cheese slivers, the crunch of croutons . . . mmm, where to stop?
When the oven goes on for bread baking, we often throw in a tray of veg to roast specially for salads; when we barbecue (always over wood), it’s amazing how an extra pile of courgettes, peppers, aubergines, onions and tomatoes finds its way onto the grill. Eaten cold – nude or dressed, alone or combined – these salads are the food of kings.
Roger doesn’t like beetroot very much (he remembers it being served as a hot vegetable with gravy for school dinners so it’s hardly surprising he’s not a fan) but I love it and always grow a row to enjoy. It is such an easy and forgiving specimen in the garden, hugely nutritious and, in my humble opinion, better off kept well away from pickling vinegar. Young raw beets grated and simply dressed (I love orange zest, coriander, olive oil and walnuts) or thinly sliced or shaved for something more sophisticated are superb; bigger ones wrapped in foil and roasted in the oven are softer and sweeter and keep in the fridge for days. Dress it with a swirl of yogurt to create a piece of pretty art work!
Speaking of yogurt, we love it as a lighter alternative to mayonnaise in coleslaw. Although this has a reputation as a winter salad, it’s a lovely one to enjoy in summer, too; after all, we have crisp summer cabbage, sweet carrots and flavoursome onions to hand, so why not?
In the same vein, a salad of new potatoes boiled with slices of lemon then cooled and dressed in olive oil, lemon zest, shallots, mint and parsley (a trick we learnt when living in Cyprus) makes a lighter, fresher alternative to the norm which is truly delightful. This is really saying something as I adore a classic mayo-heavy potato salad.
On the subject of lemons, they are one of my favourite foods and we are so lucky to have them in cheap abundance here. As well as chilled soups, I’m playing around with ideas for homemade drinks to enjoy in hotter weather and this week I’ve had a go at good old-fashioned lemon barley water. This is so easy to make it’s ridiculous, especially as I used the cup measuring jug that Roger’s Canadian family gave us many years ago which makes recipes very easy to remember. I simply put 3/4 cup (about 200g, I think) of pearl barley in a pan with 6 cups of cold water and the peel of 2 lemons, simmered for 30 minutes, strained and added the juice from both lemons to the liquid.
As neither of us has a sweet tooth, I added the tiniest amount of caster sugar to literally just take the edge off: a bit of tasting and adjusting were needed at this point. I think a light floral honey would be a great alternative to sugar but the one we have here at the moment has a pronounced flavour which I didn’t think would be quite right. Once the sugar had dissolved, I cooled the barley water, bottled it then chilled overnight in the fridge. So refreshing! The real beauty of this recipe is that the leftover tender lemon-scented pearl barley, far from being waste, makes a perfect salad base as described earlier. Two birds with one stone . . . now that is my kind of cooking! 🙂