Summer garden soup with lemon basil and pistachio pesto

This light soup features the freshest vegetables currently available from the garden. It is designed to be served à la minute, the vegetables barely being cooked to capture and retain the essence of the quintessential flavours of summer, with freshly picked home-grown vegetables and herbs from garden to plate in under 30 minutes.

Why are you posting about soup in the middle of summer you may ask? As a typical Brit, I am unnecessarily preoccupied with the weather. The UK mainland is currently experiencing an enviable heatwave and the hottest July since 2006.  Here in the Outer Hebrides, it is the antithesis: low cloud, rain / smir, mist / fog and wind.  Visibility is currently about 300m. I was supposed to be in Orkney for work this week, but this has not been an option due to the fog causing flight cancellations. We have also now had no mail for 3 days as the mail plane is also cancelled.

I’m not prepared to put a gloss on life here by suggesting the weather (and life here generally for that matter) is always amazing but I do usually resent leaving the island during the summer as there is no place better to be – when we have the weather that is. Once again, I feel so sorry for visitors that arrived in the last week as we have seen the sun for only about 1 hour since we returned from our mainland trip one week ago. In fact, we are trying not to feel sorry for ourselves as radio commentators talk about how glorious the weather is (almost) everywhere and how hot it is while I walk the dogs in the usual fleece and waterproof jacket. I am glad that we will not have more visitors until the weekend and hope the improving forecast is accurate.

In fairness, we had amazing summer last year while the rest of the UK was deluged with rain and floods.  Unfortunately, the relocation of the jet stream to its more usual position further south this summer means the weather is perhaps much more as we should expect it to be here.  That said, it is probably, on balance the worst summer we have had (in terms of sunshine and warmth at least) since we moved here.

Instead of wallowing in self pity (or vacating the island until the murk lifts – not that I can get off by plane!), I decided to celebrate the garden successes I am having with a summery soup and accompanying fragrant pesto. The success of some crops is surprising given the weather, but welcome and the harvest looks and tastes like summer, even if the sky and temperature indicate otherwise. I really enjoy cold soups, but given our current temperatures, a warm soup seems more appropriate.

summer soup garden

Summer garden soup

The vegetables were freshly picked, cleaned and prepared and given the gentlest possible cooking.  I used whatever was in prime condition for picking: chard, garlic, spring onions, chervil and parsley from outside, courgettes and flowers (I know, technically a fruit) and very tasty fine beans from the tunnel.

summer soup

Ingredients

A splash of olive oil

2 garlic cloves, crushed

1 onion, finely sliced

3 small courgettes (and flowers if available)

a handful of fine beans

a big bunch of chard (about 250g)

4 spring onions

a bunch of chervil

a bunch of flat leaf parsley

1 litre of vegetable stock

salt and pepper

Method

  • Wash, clean and roughly chop the veg (except the onion, finely chop it).
  • Add the oil to a large pan, then the onion and cook gently for a few minutes until translucent then add the crushed garlic and cook for another minute before adding the fine beans, courgette (not flowers), thicker chard stems and stock.
  • Simmer gently for about 5 minutes, add the chard leaves and cook for a further minute before stirring in the spring onions, herbs and flowers. Season to taste and top with some pesto.

summer soup 3summer soup 2

Lemon basil and pistachio pesto

One thing that has been a raging success this year is my basil.  I am growing 5 different varieties (Mrs Burns, Cinnamon, Red Rubin, Sweet Genovese and Italian Giant) and all have been producing well.  I therefore have been spoilt for choice and wanted to make a pesto with a distinctive tang.

Basil - Mrs Burns

Basil – Mrs Burns

basil - cinnamon

Basil – Cinnamon

Basil - Giant Italian

Basil – Giant Italian

Although I used 3 types of basil in this recipe, the variety Mrs Burns is extremely refreshing and lemony and I wanted the citrus zing of this variety to predominate, with cinnamon (more almost anise-like) and Italian Giant adding depth and complexity to the flavour of the pesto, each complementing the vibrant pistachio nuts included. This pesto also works really well with fish and we enjoyed it with baked brown trout.

Ingredients

50g Mrs Burns or lemon basil leaves

10g cinnamon basil leaves

10g Giant Italian basil leaves

50g fresh grated parmesan

50g pistachio nuts

2 cloves garlic, peeled

200 ml good quality extra virgin olive oil

1 tsp salt

a few turns of pepper

Method

  • Put all ingredients in a food processor, pulse then blitz for a minute or so, until smooth.
  • Store in a jar in the fridge, keeps for about a week.

Nasturtium, basil and rocket pesto - green and glorious

Herbs – cornerstones of cuisine 2013

The weather has remained relentlessly foul for the last 5 days and it has been impossible to get outside to garden, and now I have returned to work.  It doesn’t really matter and I enjoy looking at the sideways squal from my window while I sit at my computer. The first day back always takes some adjustment and I probably bit off more than I could chew.

The Red Queen Again

Following a post-work meeting, I had resolved to kick off my new 10 km running training plan yesterday. As a regular runner, this was not a New Year’s resolution, which I find futile and a bit pointless.  I prefer to run outside but wanted to kick-start my plan with a time trial for 10 km, which meant checking my pace on the treadmill at the gym, and so I was like the Red Queen, quite literally running to stand still.  The shock of an enforced break from running (2 weeks for flu, another for festivities) took its toll on my limbs and although my pace was around what I was aiming for, it was a punishing session…

So many choices, not enough space

The current herb bed with dominating horsradish and a few herbaceous perrenials thrown in.

The current herb bed with dominating horseradish and a few herbaceous perennials and annuals thrown in.

Happily, day two is a rest day from running, and a relief for my quadraceps and this evening was an ideal opportunity to browse seed catalogues and plan what to plant this year. I tend to be systematic and work through groups, e.g. herbs, brassicas, roots, polytunnel crops, herbs and flowers.  I started with herbs and flowers because they cause me less of a quandary.  I don’t grow many flowers at the moment as most of my 3/4 acre plot is mainly unimproved grassland, exposed and browsed by deer.  I concentrate on the smaller areas we have so far brought under cultivation and protection.

I was however somewhat distracted by the arrival of James Wong’s book Homegrown Revolution.  I caught the end of a Radio 4 interview with James back in October, but missed both his name and that of the book and forgot to listen again on iPlayer, so when this book was mentioned on The Garden Deli, I recognised that this was the book referred to in the discussion, so thanks for connecting me with the world of tomatillos and mashua (Tropaeolum tuberosum).  The claims that many of these crops can be grown in the UK will be tested to the limit here on North Uist (discussion for a future post?) but worth trying some new exciting veg and fruit to spice up the garden.

I have only one herb bed at the moment, the overspill being housed in pots in the polytunnel, on windowsills and companion planted in the raised beds with other crops. My herb bed is also becoming dominated by horseradish, which will eventually need to be moved although I currently harvest enough to try to keep its vigorous growth in check.

Last year, I grew about 15 different herbs, all but a few for culinary use, and this year there will be a few more additions.  There are some herbs I simply cannot grow enough of, particularly basil, coriander, rosemary and thyme.  I can overwinter both rosemary and thyme in the polytunnel, but it is my excessive pruning that takes the real toll on the plants.  Conversely, Water Mint, Mentha aquatica is established and invasive in the garden and I can never get it under control, let alone use enough of it for cooking.

Harvesting seed from dried caraway heads

Harvesting seed from dried caraway heads

As ever, it’s good to have a mix of tried and tested and new varieties.  The big successes last year were chervil, a must for fish (I still have some outside now). Last summer was my second caraway harvest.  I leave some of this biennial umbellifer to self seed to ensure a yield each year.  These seeds have a very powerful flavour compared to shop bought seeds and I adore them in bread. Finally, I am slightly smug about my coriander harvest.  I used to buy coriander seeds from catalogues but it bolts very quickly here so repeated successional sowings were expensive.  I decided to try the large bag of seeds I had in the kitchen that I bought for cooking at an Indian supermarket in Glasgow.  Amazingly, germination rate was very high and one packet costing 60p has kept me going all year, so I will stick to the same plan for 2013.

I had one or two new herbs I had not grown before.  Summer savory was a winner and essential in many classic French dishes and bouquet garnis.  I was gifted hyssop by Christine at Croft Garden, a herb aficionado. Although I occasionally used it sparingly in the kitchen for vinaigrettes,salads and boullion, its beautiful blue flowers were a real hit with the bumblebees.

The final shortlist

My final culinary shortlist for growing this year is:

Rosemary, thyme (Summer de Provence and English Winter), sage, chervil, chives, bay, oregano (Greek), basil (Sweet, Red Rubin, Cinnamon, Mrs Burns), fennel, anise, coriander, lavender, French tarragon (plants), marjoram, winter savory, summer savory, caraway, parsley (flat leaf and the hardier curly), dill and rocket.

Nearer 30 than my estimated 15!

I have an additional list grown principally for flowers and hence wildlife:

hyssop, borage, phaecelia

The turf roof of the workshop has been established for a year so I am also planning to sow a ‘bumblebee seed mix’ of native wild flowers to grow on the roof.  The turf and soil were sourced locally from machair grassland and the species compliment is mainly typical of this habitat and includes corn marigold, knapweed, corn poppy, kidney vetch and slender vetch.

North Uist machair turf on the workshop roof awaits bumblebee wildflower seed mix

North Uist machair turf on the workshop roof awaits bumblebee wildflower seed mix

As usual, I will grow copious amounts of nasturtiums for salads, flowers and caper-like berries – also to divert the green-veined white caterpillars away from my brassicas and salads.

Although the garden is decidedly practical at the moment, I hope to design and landscape a courtyard at the front of the house incorporating tiered raised herb beds.  This however, is some way off as this area is likely to be a building site for another year or two.  I can but dream…

Apologies for not including the scientific names, life is too short at the mo and I am focussing on general culinary properties. If there are any startling omissions you think I should try, I would be delighted to have suggestions.  I am sure I could squeeze a few more in!

Intensely Herby recipes

Of course, no post would be complete without sharing a couple of recipes.  Both of these use copious amounts of herbs and are flexible and can be adapted according to what herbs and how much of each you may have or wish to include.

Vegetable boullion

This has become a store cupboard essential for me.  There is nothing wrong with some shop bought powdered boullions, but they do tend to give recipes an underlying generic recognisable flavour. Although I do like to make my own vegetable stocks, I do not always have time or the recipe does not call for stock but a little lift from the addition of a spoonful this boullion. I use it in anything and everything – soups, casseroles, cooking liquid for rice, cous cous, etc.

The boullion stores very well (at least 6 months). There’s a lot of salt in it, acting as a preservative, so I don’t usually season if I add some boullion to a dish. I make a batch in summer and another in winter, by which time the summer batch is finished. I am just coming to the end of my summer batch now. These can vary significantly in character, depending on what veg and herbs are at my disposal at different times of the year, and one has to be careful not to tip the balance too much in favour of particularly strong ingredients – unless that’s what you are aiming for, of course. This is a variation on the recipe in the River Cottage Handbook No 2 Preserves called ‘Souper mix’.

The last jar of my summer boullion

The last jar of my summer boullion

Ingredients – my summer vegetable boullion

250g leek

200g carrot

200g turnip

100g celery

50g sun-dried tomatoes

3 garlic cloves

100g parsley

10g mint

10g rosemary

5g summer savory

5g sage

250g salt

This amount made 3 jars

Method

  • Cram everything into a food processor (there is a large volume of herbs), pulse then blend to form a moist granular paste.
  • Store in sterilised jars and keep in the fridge once open.

Blitzing the herbs and veg for boullion

Blitzing the herbs and veg for boullion

Nasturtium, basil and rocket pesto

Pesto can be made from a wide range of herbs and leaves and I often ring the changes depending on whatever is the current garden glut.  Nasturtium leaves bring an added bit of zing to this pesto. Proportions of the herbs can be altered to taste, or any one exchanged for parsley. Fresh pesto will keep in the fridge for a couple of weeks.  It’s so good, it never lasts that long here.

Ingredients

25g nasturtium leaves

25g basil leaves

25g rocket leaves

50g fresh grated parmesan

50g pine nuts

2 cloves garlic, peeled

200 ml good quality extra virgin olive oil

1 tsp salt

a few turns of pepper

Method

  • Put all ingredients in a food processor, pulse then blitz for a minute or so, until smooth.
  • Store in a jar in the fridge.

Nasturtium, basil and rocket pesto - green and glorious

Nasturtium, basil and rocket pesto – green and glorious

Now all the planning for herbs is in place, time to move on to veg, but not before we deal with two greylag geese a friend has kindly delivered to us.  I know what we will be doing tomorrow evening….