It has been a somewhat mixed summer as far as the weather is concerned, but Farlows' celebrity cook, Annie Assheton, has some fabulous al fresco dining suggestions and a couple of great ways to use up those freshly–caught mackerel.
It has been a curious summer so far, with a mixture of ‘hottest ever‘ temperatures and positively tropical storms with days that have felt decidedly autumnal. The garden has been alternating between states of scorched earth and waterlogged, and wardrobe planning is fraught with peril; this weekend I found myself walking a cross country course with my daughter in the driving rain and thoroughly unsuitable footwear.
Al fresco dining ideas
Luckily, for these meteorologically uncertain times, the courtyard table at which we eat whenever possible is immediately outside our kitchen so if our al fresco plans have to change at the last minute our cutlery and food only has to be carried about 5 steps through the French windows and on to the kitchen table.
Conversely, should the sun unexpectedly appear we can very easily ‘up cutlery‘ and carry our plates outside. The French windows act as a kind of Mr Benn portal, transporting us instantaneously from humdrum everyday lunch to laid back holiday mode, from rushed to relaxed and from tense to tranquil. Five steps really shouldn’t make that much difference but there is something about eating outside that creates a transformative ambience and just feels good for the soul.
Even though we sometimes end up eating our outside lunch indoors, I do find myself planning slightly different menus when we are hoping to eat al fresco. The BBQ often takes centre stage so I tend to come up with a selection of sides and salads to complement and enhance some simply marinated meat or fish. Even the very ordinary combination of chicken thighs and locally made sausages can become part of something much more special when served alongside some more imaginative accompaniments.
Coleslaw has gone through something of a renaissance in recent years, being transformed from the traditional over–creamy, bland staple of previous decades into something much more innovative and infinitely snappier.
The now trendy ‘slaws‘ of the new millennium feature a wide assortment of crunchy vegetables and dressings offering exciting textures and zingy flavours to brighten up even the most ordinary BBQ offering.
Celeriac, fennel, broccoli and even sprouts often feature in these imaginatively reinvented salads but my absolute favourite is Yotam Ottolenghi’s ‘Winter Slaw‘ which I shamelessly serve throughout the summer.
The base is nothing out of the ordinary; a shredded mixture of red and savoy cabbage leaves, although I frequently substitute other types of cabbage for the savoy when it suits me but I do try to retain the red and green mix which looks so good.
The two stars of the show are the spiced caramelised macadamia nuts (also fabulous as a snack in their own right) and the dressing which comprises maple syrup, lime, lemongrass, soy sauce and sesame oil simmered together until syrupy and then cooled and mixed with oil. I usually disobey instructions and leave the specified chilli flakes out of the dressing as I find that the nuts are spicy enough to provide pops of heat and prefer that to making the whole salad spicy.
Everything is then lifted to a whole new level by the addition of pieces of mango and papaya along with coriander and mint. It really is a taste sensation and probably my all-time favourite salad. I always make more than I need and look forward to tucking in to the left overs the next day. It goes with absolutely everything.
I was lucky enough to meet and cook for Yotam when I was on MasterChef and even though I don’t think I impressed him hugely with my attempt at one of his vegetarian recipes that day, he made a big impression on me and I have been slightly obsessed by his recipes ever since.
For something with a bit more substance my daughter Milly usually insists on some form of potato salad. Milly would be very happy with some boiled new potatoes very simply mixed with a bit of mayo and some chopped chives but I usually try to inject a little bit more interest into it. At the most basic level this might involve just dressing the potatoes whilst still hot with a spoonful of rapeseed oil and a splash of sherry (my very favourite) vinegar along with plenty of seasoning.
The potatoes soak up this dressing whilst cooling and take on just a bit more character and acidity to cut through the richness of the mayonnaise I’ll add when it is all cold. If Milly isn’t looking I might achieve the same goal by mixing the latter with some natural yoghurt or Dijon mustard and she is generally pretty happy for me to add some chopped dill, parsley or spring onions.
Bulgar wheat and cous cous
My preference, rather than potato, is to make either a bulgar wheat or couscous salad. Bulgar wheat is always be my first choice, as I think the texture is so much more open and interesting. Both work brilliantly as vehicles of flavour but don’t expect either to stand alone without some help as they will end up sucking the joy out of your other carefully honed dishes.
Cook the grains as per the instructions on the packet but I always add a spoonful of vegetable bouillon powder and plenty of salt to the cooking water and take great care not to overcook them. As well as making sure you use a timer, the other trick is to fork them through very thoroughly as soon as they are cooked. This lessens the danger of the grains carrying on cooking in the residual heat and then sticking together into a dense and claggy mass. Once forked through but still hot, I tend to dress the grains with some oil and plenty of sherry (again) vinegar before adding the finishing touches.
With bulgar wheat this will probably be some finely chopped fresh herbs; most likely parsley, basil and mint in plentiful quantity, along with some toasted pine nuts and some lemon zest. To couscous, I think a spoonful of harissa paste is a wonderful addition and needs nothing more to finish off than a handful of toasted flaked almonds and maybe some chopped spring onion.
Finally, because we probably need some greenery, my favourite green salad would be a combination of lettuce leaves picked from the garden, washed and thoroughly dried, undressed in a bowl. I might add some chopped avocado and spring onions but generally leave it very simple with a sherry vinegar (what else?) and Dijon mustard dressing alongside.
All of these accompaniments together would provide a wonderful lunch or supper by themselves, but since we need to give the chief BBQ chef something to do I normally try to provide something for him to cook over the coals.
We put all sorts of things on the BBQ (including the turkey one Christmas, but that’s another story) and with the marvellous lidded contraptions most people have these days there really is very little limit to what you can use them for. Butterflied and marinated leg of lamb is one of our favourite staples, as is spatchcocked chicken, and I am increasingly using the higher shelf for vegetables which I put in one of those disposable aluminium trays. Firm young courgettes fresh from the garden are marvellous cooked this way, very quickly with a squeeze of oil and some lemon juice, and if we’re creating a pseudo Sunday roast, I will briefly parboil cubed potatoes before finishing them off in a tray over the coals with some oil, rosemary and lots of sea salt.
Fish on the BBQ
More recently I have discovered the joys of cooking fish on the BBQ, which I was always a bit scared of before but it really is much more straightforward than I feared. Mackerel has long been one of my absolute favourite ingredients and I have prepared it in many different ways over the years. Best when very fresh indeed, its robust flavour makes it perfect to pair with strong, zesty accompaniments.
Going slightly off BBQ topic for a moment, if you have some very recently caught mackerel, as many of you may have as a result of holiday fishing trips, it‘s worth trying a cure rather than cook. It only takes an hour to cure fillets in a 50/50 mix of salt and sugar to which you can add your own choice of flavouring. I love to cure it with some grapefruit zest and juice and a few bay leaves, using the flesh of the fruit as part of an accompanying salad along with a handful of soft lambs lettuce. Some thinly sliced fennel would be a great addition here too. There is no need to do any cooking once the cure process has been completed, but you could flash the fillets under a very, very hot grill for a minute or two if you like, just to crisp up the skin, or achieve the same result with a powerful blowtorch (easier to control the results and, let’s face it, very much more fun).
Back to the BBQ, the mackerel takes so little time to cook it might barely seem worth getting the coals up to the required high temperature when they could perfectly well be cooked under a hot grill (skin side up, 4 minutes maximum) but the results are so smokily delicious you really will appreciate the effort (and this, I have to admit against all my instincts, is where a gas BBQ comes into its own). I like to rub the fillets with a little oil and then give them a minute directly over the flames before raising them up for another minute with the lid shut. I find this gives the skin a lovely charred but not burned finish whilst the flesh is only just cooked through; over cooked mackerel is an abomination and simply not worth eating. However every BBQ is different so it really isn’t worth me giving prescriptive direction here; just experiment a bit until you find what works for you.
My favourite way to serve this is with a superfood salsa. Truly there must be very few plates as good for you as this and still so utterly delicious and satisfying. It’s the sort of dish that you can make you feel both sated and smug; a rather wonderful combination.
The recipe below will serve 4 as a starter or 2 for a generous lunch. Punchy flavours are always more sustaining and leave you feeling fuller than anything bland so if you are trying to do the right thing but your taste buds are demanding attention too then this is the dish for you. Eaten al fresco with a crisp glass of rosé there is little to beat it.
Mackerel with superfood salsa recipe
Serves 2 or 4
2 whole mackerel, filleted and pin boned
1 avocado, diced
2 plum tomatoes, skinned, deseeded and diced
80g watercress, picked
½ red onion, finely chopped
Salt and black pepper
- Make the salsa by very simply combining the avocado, tomatoes, watercress and red onion. Season generously with salt and then add lime juice to taste. You can add some good quality oil as well if you like but I usually prefer to leave it with a very clean tasting finish.
- Cook the mackerel fillets, skin side only, on the BBQ or under the grill. For the latter, get your grill as hot as possible and cook for 3 or 4 minutes only, until the flesh is only just cooked.
- For a very elegant and super healthy starter or lunch dish, put a generous spoonful of salsa onto each plate and top with a mackerel fillet. Finish with a grinding of black pepper and add a lime quarter to each plate to make it look even prettier.