Our celebrity cook, Annie Assheton, is making the most of the glorious weather with summer salads and other 'no cook' summer recipes.
What an extraordinary change we have seen in just a few months, from waterlogged to parched seemingly overnight, with June and July so very different from spring. Not only has this extreme meteorological transformation demanded some swift changes in the wardrobe department, but also in the kitchen where the warming comfort food, which I was making far later into the year than normal, has quickly been superseded by salads and other 'no cook' recipes.
This has been rather handy as there seems to have been a frequent demand for picnic food recently. At my childrens’ schools there were the usual end-of-year round of sports days, speech days and summer concerts etc. Turning on the oven seemed like madness when the temperature was 30°C so I favoured recipes that required either no heat at all, or just a small amount in advance which I could get done in the cooler mornings. This, combined with some creative shopping, resulted in some glorious dishes both out and about and in the garden at home.
Chilled soups are an obvious solution for lunch on hot days and can easily be put into a thermos flask to be taken on a picnic. My two favourites are cucumber and gazpacho.
For the cucumber option, my favourite method used to involve softening chopped onion, then adding peeled, deseeded and chopped cucumber along with some light chicken stock and blitzing it all with some mint, chives, lemon juice and plenty of seasoning. After a thorough chill in the fridge, some single cream whisked in at the last minute finished it off beautifully and it’s still a recipe I enjoy hugely.
However, a few years ago, when I was working at L'Ortolan, the wonderful Michelin-starred restaurant near Reading, the head chef taught me another method which delivers a quite different, more robust and possibly even more refreshing result involving no cooking whatsoever. I was told to deseed cucumbers (not to peel) and to blitz them thoroughly with garlic before pushing the mixture through a sieve (no cooking, but quite labour intensive!) This very smooth puree was then combined with crème fraiche and a pinch of both sugar and salt before being sieved again (this is a Michelin-starred kitchen after all) and served with a few drops of truffle oil. In this version, the acidity of the crème fraiche is wonderfully refreshing and the whole thing has a very clean cucumber flavour.
For a very smart and extremely cool dinner party starter, I like to upgrade this already delicious pale green concoction to another level entirely. Crab is at its best now, and a piquant mix of the white meat with some chilli, lime and coriander is glorious when combined with chilled cucumber. You just need to chop some red chillies and fresh coriander very finely and mix them into the meat along with some lime zest and juice. Add a good grinding of black pepper and a pinch of salt, then just adjust the amounts of each ingredient until you have a balanced flavour. When you are ready to serve, sit a small chef’s ring in the middle of the soup plate and pack it with the crab mix, pushing it down well, you can then flood the plate with your well-chilled cucumber soup and carefully remove the ring, leaving a tower of crab standing proudly in the middle. It looks gorgeous and so inviting on a hot day. To top it off, I usually add a few tiny squares of pickled cucumber on top of the crab.
In contrast to this rather refined offering, gazpacho tends towards the rustic but is no less delicious for all its simplicity and the speed at which it can be produced. For two of us I use 500g of large, ripe tomatoes and start off by preparing those. Each one has the seeds scraped out and I sit these in a sieve over a bowl so that the juices can be caught and added later for a fabulous flavour boost. I then deseed and chop a red pepper, trim and slice a spring onion and chop ¼ of a peeled cucumber. All of this can be done very roughly because the next step is to add it all to a blender and give it a thorough blitz along with 50g of stale white bread (or breadcrumbs), a tablespoon of sherry vinegar, a teaspoon of sugar and a handful of basil leaves (and don’t forget the juices you have collected from the tomato trimmings). You then add 100ml of cold water and blitz again before tasting and adjusting the flavour by adding more of any of the above ingredients and some salt and pepper. I quite like a dash of tabasco but that’s entirely optional of course, as is a swirl of basil oil when you dish up. If you want to dive in straight away you could use ice cubes in place of the water, if your blender will cope. I tend to use water from the fridge which also helps the chill factor. There are hundreds of gazpacho recipes out there and I expect many of them are far more authentic than mine but I find this a good balance between authenticity and simplicity which, on these hot and busy days, is essential.
However hot the days, sometimes one needs something a little more substantial and we have been enjoying some wonderfully unctuous salads at our courtyard table recently. One of our favourites is an idea I stole from Delia involving thin slices of rump steak, rocket and black grapes tossed together in a Thai dressing involving red chillies, garlic, ginger, coriander and mint, all blitzed together with fish sauce, lime juice and a little palm sugar. It's an unusual combination that surprises with every vibrant mouthful and is perfect for a summer evening.
Another that frequently appears on our al fresco table is shredded cooked chicken (perfect if you have left overs from a roast or BBQ) with bacon, avocado and new potatoes. At first glance this appears to be a perfectly pleasant but distinctly unimaginative combination but it is one that can be livened up hugely by the addition of some small tomatoes which have been roasted on their vines in the oven for half an hour and, more excitingly, a dressing made by mixing 1 ½ tablespoons of harissa paste, 1 tablespoon honey and ½ tablespoon each of lemon juice and rapeseed oil. This dressing is a new discovery for me this summer and is now permanently on standby in my fridge, ready to add fairly fiery flavour to all sorts of dishes. It does pack a punch, but the heat of the harissa is tempered by the sweetness of honey and the combination brings an exciting dimension to all sorts of otherwise rather pedestrian ingredients.
A Summer Favourite
The opportunities really are endless but there is one combination I have been producing this summer which I’m particularly proud of and which has already become a firm favourite. There is a bit of cooking involved but this can be done in advance when the kitchen is cooler, with only assembly required at the last minute. This type of salad isn’t really a recipe at all, it’s just a collection of textures and flavours any of which could be substituted with others you prefer: use giant couscous instead of puy lentils; squash, courgette or sweet potato instead of (or as well as) beetroot; hot smoked trout instead of plain roast salmon; mange tout or sugar snap peas instead of tender stem broccoli; crumble feta over the top and ring the changes with different fresh herbs. For this version, I tend to buy the ready cooked beetroot which is always available these days, but emphatically not the pickled type! This means it only needs a short time in the oven to caramelise a little, rather than the full hour and resulting roasting kitchen it would take to bake them from raw.
Roast Salmon with Beetroot and Puy Lentil Salad Recipe
1 pack pre-cooked beetroot
3 tbsp rapeseed oil
2 salmon fillets
120g puy lentils
350ml chicken or vegetable stock
Juice 1 lemon
150g tender stem broccoli
130g Greek (or natural) yoghurt
Mix of lettuce leaves, lightly dressed with oil and lemon juice
1 tbsp mixed seeds (optional)
- All the cooking can be done well in advance and everything left in the fridge until you are ready to serve, but it’s best to take it out about an hour before you eat so that it loses its chill.
- Pre-heat the oven to 180°C. Cut the beetroot into bite-size pieces, toss with 1 tablespoon of the oil and some seasoning in a shallow oven tray and put in the oven for 20 minutes. Add the salmon fillets to the tray, drizzle with another tablespoon of the oil, season and put it all back in the oven for another 8 minutes, or until the salmon is just cooked through. It will carry on cooking as it cools so do make sure you don’t over do it. Leave it all to one side to cool.
- In the meantime, cook the puy lentils by bringing them up to a boil in the stock and simmering gently (with a lid on) for 20 to 25 minutes, or until they are just tender. Drain and dress with the final tablespoon of oil and ½ of the lemon juice and stir through the chopped herbs. While all that is happening, prepare the broccoli spears by cutting all but the smallest in half lengthways and all of them into 2 inch lengths. Blanch these pieces for just two minutes in plenty of boiling water and then drain and refresh in cold water.
- Finally, make the dressing by combing the yoghurt, tahini and the other half of the lemon juice and giving it all a good stir with some salt and pepper. Taste and adjust the flavours as necessary.
- When you are ready to eat, mix the puy lentils together with the broccoli and beetroot. Arrange the lettuce leaves on two plates and pile the lentil mix on top. Flake the cooked salmon and arrange the pieces on top of the lentils and finally add a few spoons of the tahini dressing. The rest can be served separately in a jug. I like to finish this off with a sprinkling of mixed seeds which add a lovely texture; black sesame seeds would be an excellent alternative.