Although it rained at the beginning of the week and the weather took a step back towards autumn, the calendrical fact is that in four days we’ll be into June and the start of summer will be but three short weeks away.
For the past two weeks, in the full glare of the sun, it’s been as hot a I like it, and a Spanish friend thought ditto when he said, “If it were never hotter than this, I’d be very happy.”
As I look through my favourite cookbooks (mainly Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson and Claudia Roden) I’m very much in summer mode, searching to be inspired by light dishes that involve a minimum of labour while producing maximum taste sensations.
Elizabeth David’s Summer Cooking is essential reading at this time of year, as is Claudia Roden’s Picnic (The Complete Guide to Outdoor Food).
This is also when I’m stocking up on new season herbs that will produce flavours to perk up jaded tastebuds on the infernal days and nights of July and August.
The best selection of potted herbs used to be at the Mercat d’Olivar, but nowadays you’ll find them at the Santa Catalina market’s last remaining plants stall. And, which is unusual for the Santa Catalina market, the prices are right.
At the top of most people’s list of summer herbs is basil, which pairs so happily with tomatoes, chicken and egg dishes. An excellent and easy-peasy starter when you don’t feel like cooking, can be made with the gigantic tomatoes available in most supermarkets, the kind that can easily weigh around 300-400 grs each.
If you can, buy them when they are still unripe and leave them in the sun to take on a deep red colour and become even heavier with juices, the flesh lusciously meaty.
Slice each tomato in 4-6 rounds, place them on a platter and spoon over virgen extra olive oil in which you have macerated lots of finely chopped basil. Sprinkle with a few crystals of coarse salt and freshly milled black pepper to taste, and you have a palate-pleasing starter for light summer luncheon.
As the tomato slices are large, you can top them with chopped black or green olives, sliced gherkins, pickled green peppers or a few Mallorcan capers. You can introduce a crunchy element by sprinkling the surface with finely chopped Mallorcan light green peppers.
If you want a more substantial starter, you can top the tomato slices with protein from cans: sardines are ideal, flaked tuna is to most people’s taste, mackerel fillets add a touch of elegance, mussels make a change and anchovies really lift up tired tastebuds.
If you add a large amount of finely chopped basil to a jar and cover it well with virgen extra olive oil, you will have a simple stand-by pasta sauce for improvised summer meals.
On blazing hot days when you can’t face a dish that’s emitting heat waves, cook a pasta of your choice, drain, transfer to bowl and toss with some of the basil and oil mixture. Leave it for half an hour and then dish out on to plates and spoon over more of the basil and oil sauce. Add a light sprinkling of freshly grated parmesan or pecorino romano cheese and serve immediately.
This basil-oil sauce can be used most successfully for a main course cold chicken dish. Boil or roast a chicken and when it’s cool pull the meat off the bones in biggish pieces. Arrange them attractively on a flat serving dish, adding salt and pepper to taste. Just before serving, spoon over generous amounts of the basil and oil sauce.
If it’s so hot you cannot face roasting or boiling a chicken at mid-day, do it the night before when, theoretically, it’s cooler. As soon as the chicken is roasted, wrap it well in lots of tinfoil and leave it in the fridge until needed. If boiling the chicken, let it cool down slightly and then leave it in the fridge until next day before preparing it for the table.
Chicken done like this can be served with a rice or potato salad or a salad of mixed greens. But a better hot weather idea, because it is even more refreshing, is to make the salad with watercress (berros, in Spanish), rocket (rúcula) or lamb’s lettuce (canónigos), all of which are available at most supermarkets.
For a special summer treat, try fresh basil in omelettes and scrambled eggs. For maximum flavour, I find it’s best to slice the basil finely (I always use big-leaf variety) and to soak it for 10 minutes in the lightly beaten eggs. Then make your omelette or scrambled eggs in the usual way.
Although basil is my favourite summer herb, close behind in second place is mint, which is particularly good for adding a refreshing touch to savoury and sweet dishes.
Mint does not combine well with other herbs, so it should always be used on its own. One exception to this rule that comes to mind is the Middle Eastern tabbouleh, in which some mint is added to a huge amount of parsley and a little cracked wheat to produce a most bracing and invigorating starter.
Many vegetables are greatly enhanced when sprinkled with chopped mint before serving. Try it, also combined with parsley, in a lentil salad. Side dishes of carrots, boiled potatoes, mushrooms, sliced tomatoes, and sautéed slices of aubergine, all have a special allure when seasoned with chopped mint.
For different kind of summer treat, carve a juicy roast chicken at room temperature and serve it attractively arranged on a bed of freshly plucked mint leaves. Cold roast duck or lamb can also be served this way.
Although mint sauce is one of the great culinary creations, we serve it almost exclusively with roast leg of lamb. But it is also a good summer stand-by sauce because it’s great for perking up the tastebuds.
You can use it as dressing on green salads, boiled or chargrilled vegetables, cold meats of all kinds, as well as rice or pasta salads.
Sliced warm boiled potatoes are exquisite when dressed with virgen extra olive oil, mint sauce to taste and sprinkled with Maldon salt flakes and freshly milled black pepper.
Unless you grow your own mint, you will have to buy it.
Avoid those plastic bags on sale at most supermarkets: they are expensive and sometimes the mint is far from fresh. Your best best is to buy a whole bunch at the Mercat d’Olivar or the Santa Catalina market. At the Mercat d’Olivar I have always found really fresh bunches, but if you are offered mint that looks somewhat tired, go to another stall.