Chef Alex Rushmer bids goodbye to stodgy puds and stew and welcomes the bounty of the new season
It seems strange to be writing about the delights of early summer. In between typing these sentences, my hands keep returning to the mug of hot tea that is warming my chilly fingers. The last remnants of the second ‘beast from the east’ are lingering – the cold air and brutal winds at odds with the light mornings and longer days, normally indicative that spring is afoot.
The dinner table is still home to slow-cooked stews and stodgy puds as opposed to light salads and delicate desserts. But the food of early summer is so full of promise, so vibrant with the energy of the warming earth that it’s impossible not to get excited about it, even if it only exists in the memory for now.
The changing of the seasons always brings a frisson of excitement but this particular transition is my favourite. The beautiful simplicity of the quality of ingredients available to us is enough to excite the most jaded palate. Spears of asparagus, fresh sweet peas, baby leaf spinach, the first tender salad leaves, delicate new potatoes, crunchy radishes – I could go on.
What is even more amazing is that all these ingredients share an affinity with each other. The offerings of May represent a beautiful larder that could be thrown together in any order or combination and still yield something fabulous. Add some suitable meat and fish to the shopping list (lamb, guinea fowl, pigeon and trout are particularly wonderful at this time of year) and you will likely end up creating a meal that could grace any table.
‘It’s time to embrace freshness and delicate subtlety’
Gone are the rich, heavy, robust flavours that we’ve grown tired of over the cold months, it’s time to embrace freshness and delicate subtlety. As far as sauces go, I’d suggest adding a few versatile staples to the repertoire. Gravies and heavy reductions can be left behind until the clocks change again – instead focus on herbs, mayonnaise and one or two dairy-based sauces.
A combination of soft herbs (parsley, dill, mint, tarragon, chervil, sorrel) chopped with garlic, anchovies and mixed through olive oil makes an unbeatable salsa verde – or green sauce, if you’re feeling particularly English – which is the perfect accompaniment to fish, vegetables and meat, particularly fowl. Mayonnaise is also a real winner (there is nothing wrong with a jar of Hellmann’s) that can be tweaked with the addition of herbs or spices. I would advise, too, learning the art of making buttery sauces such as hollandaise, bearnaise or beurre blanc – all of which are sensational with fish and infinitely adaptable.
Finally, don’t underestimate the brilliance of a tub of crème fraiche, as demonstrated to me just a few days ago during dinner at a friend’s house. The roasting juices and tasty sticky bits that had adhered to the tray of a beautifully cooked chicken were deglazed with a splash of white wine then the whole lot mixed with crème fraiche – sour cream would also do the job here – and finished with plenty of chopped tarragon. The result was a sauce of sublime brilliance and even though the temperature outside was hovering above zero, on the dinner table were the first warm promises of early summer.