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.

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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

Pan-fried pollack with pastis, samphire and scallop coral sauce

The core elements of this recipe are a suite of delicious things considered inferior, discarded or overlooked.  I wanted to champion three very deserving ingredients: pollack, scallop coral and samphire, by combining them in a luxuriant recipe to celebrate these, some of my favourite local ingredients. Each of the 3 elements of this dish can be collected sustainably by hand here at the right time of year.

Pollack (or pollock) is a Gadoid fish in the same family as cod. Despite having a similar texture, flavour and smell as cod, pollack is often considered to be inferior, by both shoppers and sea anglers and is consequently cheaper, being used as a substitute for cod, including illegally. A recent article in The Guardian highlighted that cod and chips could indeed be ‘a load of pollack’ as Trading Standards identified that it was being used as a cheap substitute for cod in shops, restaurants and fish and chip shops.  There is also the question of sustainability.

pollack

Despite the pressure on our fragile cod stocks, as a nation, we are still generally pretty conservative and traditional about what fish we think we prefer. Most people, tasting both anecdotally and in blind taste tests cannot tell the difference between pollack and cod. However, the National Federation of Fish Friers (NFFF), representing UK fish and chip shops expects cod to remain the most popular choice for its members and the public. Anyhow, I’m not about to preach the virtues of sustainability any further as HFW manages this more than adequately with his well-oiled media machine.

Pollack is one of the most common seafish that can be caught with rod and line around our Hebridean coasts and is one of our favourite white fish.  It does need to be well seasoned, appropriately cooked and served with carefully selected ingredients to bring out the best of its flavour, such as this recipe with a rich, flavoursome sauce.

Scallop coral, the orange roe attached to the prized white scallop muscle is also a deserving ingredient routinely (and inexplicably to my mind) discarded, or at least not served with the white muscle in many high end UK restaurants.  It has a rich, sweet and intense and yes, some people consider strong, perhaps overpoweringly distinctive flavour, but that robust flavour can be turned to ones advantage. The coral does cook at a slightly different rate from the white adductor muscle, but I still don’t see a need to discard it entirely.  Why not just cook it separately?

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These big fat healthy corals were discarded from hand-dived North Uist scallops, and were given to us by our seafood wholesaler friend as they were not wanted by the customer.  I snapped up several bags of them, freezing them in small batches for use later.

If there is any ingredient that perhaps signifies the height of summer for the coastal forager it is samphire. Ever associated with fresh summer breezes and sea air, the salt marsh indicator genus Salicornia has become a hip restaurant favourite over the last few years. Yet it is almost overlooked along our coasts being ubiquitous in shallow, slack water inlets, bays and lagoons, wherever you see the cushions of pink thrift, a month of so later one can almost predictably find marsh samphire.

I say marsh because it should not be confused with rock samphire (Crithmum maritimum), an edible umbelliferae and the lonely, sole species of its genus. Marsh samphire (Salicornia spp.) comprise a genus that can be difficult to separate into individual species, especially earlier in the season, and are also known as glassworts. Marsh samphire ashes were historically used to make soap and glass, hence the common name.

Salicornia spp. are just becoming apparent here and a couple of weeks ago I found the first nascent plants emerging from the estuarine mud a stones throw from my house. Now is the time to harvest this seasonal beauty.

samphire

As with anything caught, gathered or collected by oneself, Salicornia should be considered a valuable and precious resource. Whatever is taken, it should only be enough for the pot.  Nothing should be wasted. This way, its seasonality and uniqueness can be savoured absolutely.

The sun is out!

I left Uist on Monday on the ferry, the mist was hanging low over The Minch, a bit of a pea-souper requiring the ferry to sound its foghorn.  When I got to the other side, the Isle of Skye appeared to be a different continent – balmy, sunny and hot.  I had meetings in Argyll and it was delightful to drive through wonderful west coast scenery (I saw trees!) on the warmest day of the year so far in Scotland.  The tourist hotspots around Skye, Fort William and Loch Lomond were buzzing with masses of holiday makers and day trippers soaking up the bewilderingly hot and sunny holiday weather.

The Rest and Be Thankful north of Loch Lomond

The Rest and Be Thankful north of Loch Lomond

I endured spectacular views over Loch Fyne from my hotel and had breakfast in the sun before getting down to the day’s work.

Evening view of Loch Fyne

Evening view, Loch Fyne

Breakfast view, Loch Fyne

Breakfast view, Loch Fyne

Having wrapped up my work after 2 days, I headed north up the west side of Loch Fyne and could not resist taking a short break at the famous Loch Fyne Oyster Bar at the head of the loch, a place I had not visited for about 20 years and my goodness, it had changed, and was no longer just the shed serving fine seafood that I remember. It looked particularly plush following a recent renovation.

argyll 3

Even near the end of the afternoon service, the establishment was heaving with coaches, people mostly browsing in the shop filled with tasty shellfish produce and more.  However, I had only one thing on my mind.  On such a hot day, there could be nothing more refreshing than indulging in 6 oysters nestled on a bed of ice with a squeeze of lemon and a hint of Tabasco. These slid down all too easily, but were very good value at under £2 each for high quality large, super-fresh oysters. I opted for the rock oysters as I have eaten native oysters but had not tried these non-invasive Pacific imports. These were utterly delicious and I had a pang of yearning for more.

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I found it somewhat baffling that no one else in the bar appeared to be eating the signature Loch Fyne oysters but had settled for fish and chips, although these looked pretty tasty too.

Winding home

Joined by The Man Named Sous who had business in Edinburgh, we wound our way home on another stunning day.  Glencoe was, as ever, beautifully intimidating, the rock amphitheatres of the triple ‘Sister’ buttresses that form part of the complex Bidean nam Bian mountain massif almost overhanging the road, completely exposed without their usual shroud of cloud.

glencoe

glencoe 3

We had a particularly unsettling walk in mist many years ago trying to locate the summit of this mountain, having ascended from The Lost (Hidden) Valley.  It has many false summits. We found out next day, which was crystal clear, looking across while tackling the razor-edged Aonach Eagach (Scotland’s narrowest mainland ridge with a Munro at either end) on the other side of the valley that we had in fact been on a false summit of Bidean, but did not want to risk a slip near the edge of the precipitous Church Door buttress where we made a judgement call to turn back. It was the right call that day.

Aonach Eagach, Glencoe

Aonach Eagach, Glencoe, looking innocuous

We made sure that we left enough time for an essential coffee stop at the recently opened Isle of Skye Coffee Roastery at Kyleakin on the Skye.  A must stop en route from ferry and back through Skye from now on. Check out their Facebook page here. The Man Named Sous indulged in some coffee geekery, including making his first espresso on a lever operated machine. We left with sound advice and some great freshly roasted beans that we are very much looking forward to trying in our own machine. Thank you and keep up the good work!

Despite leaving bags of time, a line of campervans on the road across Skye held up progress quite seriously, all driving on the fast side of slow (as Julian Cope would say). This included one that pulled out from a layby in front of the queue of white boxes in front of us at the breakneck pace of a dehydrated slug. As a result, we just made it Uig in time to drive straight onto the ferry.  Phew!  It did, however, give us time to reflect on the ridiculous and ironically inappropriate names for some of these most un-aerodynamic of road-clogging objects such as ‘Swift’ and ‘Rapide’.

How pleasant it was to arrive back to hazy sunshine on North Uist, an almost balmy evening, no less, which means only one thing – midges.  I retreated inside after watering the veg as no matter how I try, I have never developed a coping mechanism for these irritating biting females of the species.

The Man Named Sous persevered, trying to catch the wily grey mullet that tease us, splashing about in the bay at the bottom of the garden at this time of year.  The stale (pitta) bread trick has continually failed, maybe a bacon lure is next on the agenda, however, they are not getting any of our Old Spot bacon, for sure!

mullet

Pan-fried pollack with pastis, samphire and scallop coral sauce

So, what do you choose to accompany an allegedly dowdy fish to persuade one otherwise?  I added pastis (Pernod) to the sauce to complement the subtle yet meaty pollack and the salty samphire and robust scallop coral.

The pollack fillets, (one per person) were seasoned and simply pan-fried, skin side down initially for a maximum of 5 minutes, turned briefly then rested in a low oven (80C) for 5 minutes so it was perfectly cooked, being crispy on the skin side, flaky and just translucent in the centre.

Pastis, samphire and scallop coral sauce

A very simple sauce where the balance of ingredients complements the delicate white pollack flesh. Serves 4.

Ingredients

1 tbsp. butter

1 shallot, finely chopped

8-10 scallop corals (depending on size)

1 tbsp. pastis

60g marsh samphire, washed thoroughly

50 ml vegetable stock

70ml double cream

salt and pepper

Method

  • Melt the butter gently and add the chopped shallot, cook gently for a few minutes until soft and translucent, but not colouring.
  • Turn the heat up to medium and add the pastis, reduce by half then add the corals, stir for a few minutes until they cook and begin to break down.
  • With the heat medium to high, add the stock and cream and reduce by about 1/3.
  • Blitz the sauce in a food processor and pass through a chinois / fine sieve, back into a clean saucepan.
  • Add the washed marsh samphire and cook very gently for 4-5 minutes.  Season to taste and spoon the rich sauce over the pollack . We accompanied this with garlic bread, a ciabatta, courtesy of The Man Named Sous and some salad from the garden.

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First taste of summer – Strawberry and lemon spelt sablée mignardises

Describing these treats as mignardises is a tad pretentious, but seems more appropriate than calling them petit fours as in the traditional sense, since they don’t conform to the typical descriptions being neither glacé nor sec. In fact, they are an altogether more rustic, less refined affair than the delicate one bite offerings one may anticipate at the close of a fine dining experience.

Whatever one might call them, be it mignardises, mignonardise, petit fours, amuse-bouches sucrés or friandise, it’s all a bit irrelevant, it’s how they taste that matters – and everyone knows how incredible the first home-grown strawberry of summer tastes. The scent and sweet flavour explosion are imprinted on the memory from first experience. This year, as ever, the sensation has not disappointed.

My strawberries are grown in planters in the polytunnel and started producing ripe fruit about 10 days ago, first in ones and twos which, of course, did not make it out of the tunnel as I munched them as soon as they were ready, revelling in their luscious warm ripeness. Now, the plants are more prolific and I have allowed a punnet to survive long enough to get to the house.

My first strawberry of 2013

My first strawberry of 2013 – Marshmellow

I wanted to celebrate the deliciousness of my first strawberries of the season without smothering or overwhelming them with cream, glaze or meringue, so I delicately nestled them on a cushion of cool vanilla crème Chantilly, with a smidgen of passion fruit curd in the hulled strawberry top, all resting on a lemon spelt sablée biscuit. A summer flavour explosion ensued.

Lemon spelt sablée biscuits

I chose these delicately short and light biscuits from Annie Bell’s baking bible.  The recipe suggests refined spelt, but I used wholegrain for a deeper colour and flavour. The recipe is very simple and quick to make and the dough logs are rolled in a thin coating of Demerara sugar which gives them a shimmering, jewel-encrusted edge. The biscuits are not too sweet which is important as the strawberries don’t need shedloads of additional sugar – they are already exceptionally sweet.

Ingredients

115g lightly salted butter

50g caster sugar

150g wholegrain spelt flour

60g ground almonds

finely grated zest of 2 lemons

a sprinkle of Demerara sugar

Preheat the oven to 160C

Method

  • Put all the ingredients into a food processor, blitz until a soft ball of dough forms.
  • Divide the mix into 3 and roll into logs about 3 – 4 cm in diameter. Roll the logs in some Demerara sugar sprinkled on the surface, wrap each in clingfilm and place in the fridge overnight.
  • Slice the logs to form biscuits each about 1 cm thick, place on a baking sheet, spaced out a bit then place in the oven for 30 minutes until colouring slightly.
  • When out of the oven, loosen each biscuit with a palate knife and leave them to cool.

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Passion fruit curd

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I happened to have made a jar of this curd a couple of weeks ago when we were still in the depths of winter (there was no spring this year that I noticed) and I needed a ray of culinary sunshine and a reminder of how summer tastes courtesy of one of my favourite fruits.  The curd is very soft set.  For a firmer set, reduce the volume of passion fruit to about 150 ml.

Ingredients

200 ml passion fruit contents (about 9 fruit)

3 large egg yolks

70g caster sugar

60g unsalted butter, softened

Method

  • Blitz the passion fruit contents in a blender to break down the seeds then sieve to extract maximum flavour.
  • Place the strained passion fruits, egg yolks and sugar in a bain marie over barely simmering water. Stir continuously until thickened, about 10 minutes.
  • Remove from the heat and whisk in the butter.
  • Place in a sterilised jar.
  • For the mignardises, place a small amount of curd in the space where the strawberry was hulled:

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Vanilla crème Chantilly

This is simply whipping cream (1 large tub , 300ml), whipped with the contents of one vanilla pod and with a sprinkle of sieved icing sugar gently folded in, to taste.  I purposefully did not add very much sugar (about 2 tsp) as I did not want the crème to have any more than a hint of sweetness. The cream should be lightly whipped, just holding its shape and not quite be able to bear the weight of the strawberry.

Strawberry and lemon spelt sablée mignardises

To assemble, place a teaspoon of crème Chantilly on the biscuit, place a small blob of curd inside the hulled strawberry and sit the strawberry on the crème cushion. Eat immediately as the curd starts to ooze out over the crème.  It is over in one (large) mouthful, but oh so very much worth the effort.

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All to be enjoyed with tonight’s sunset, one of many spectacular sunsets we have enjoyed in the last week. The view of the bay, this time with the tide out, taken from the bottom of the garden at 2215 hours.

Sunset 3 june 2013