All the early summer ingredients came out this week. The salmon and asparagus, the pink-flesh garlic and avocados and the first decent, peppery basil. I raided the early mint from the pots of the kitchen steps, its leaves barely the size of fingernails and served the first of the garden lunches. Never has a change of season been so welcome. Summer has been a long time coming this year.
I picked up a salmon tail from the local fishmongers, grilled it and tossed the just-cooked flesh with cucumber, avocado and a fresh dressing of mint and lime. That fish is a rare treat in this house – you have to be fussy about its provenance – but early summer wouldn’t feel the same without a salad of pale pink and green on the table.
The asparagus was steamed lightly before I put the spears on the grill and tossed them in the hot, smoky fat from a piece of pancetta. It makes a change from butter. We ate the asparagus as it came straight from the griddle with wisps of crisp pancetta and bread for dipping in the sizzling fat. If I do them again before the end of the season, I might add the tips to a salad of new potatoes, to eat warm, turning the hot fat into a dressing with a splash of wine vinegar.
I can’t ever remember looking forward to summer eating so much, especially to classic chicken salads with homemade tarragon mayonnaise; bowls of fish soup with aioli; gooseberry crumble and a vast strawberry tart. Yes, the kitchen will be playful, too, but I need to get through a round of summer classics first, the long-awaited dishes that tell us, unequivocally, that summer is here, or perhaps I should say here at last.
Grilled salmon with avocado and herb lime dressing
Some lovely contrasts of texture here. Cucumber is a time-honoured companion to salmon, but I like it with the soft, buttery quality of avocado, too. One caveat is that the avocado is only just ripe, so it doesn’t break up as you (gently) toss the ingredients together. I suggest a salmon tail here – it is often cheaper than the fat, middle cuts and just as suitable for a recipe such as this. Serves 3
salmon tail 650g
olive oil a little
basil leaves 12, medium
coriander leaves 20
For the dressing:
olive oil 100ml
lime juice 25ml
basil leaves 6g (a small handful)
mint leaves 5g (a small handful)
Get an overhead (oven) grill hot. Line a grill pan or baking sheet with kitchen foil and oil it lightly. Arrange the pieces of fish, skin side down and a few centimetres apart – so the heat can penetrate evenly – then rub them lightly with some of the oil and season with salt.
Cook the fish, about 20cm away from the grill, for about 8-10 minutes (less if the pieces of fish are on the thin side), until the surface is lightly crisp and patchily golden brown. The salmon is ready when you can easily tease the flakes of fish away from one another. Remove from the heat.
Peel the cucumber and cut in half lengthways. Using a teaspoon, scrape out and discard the seedy core (it will make the salad wet). Cut the cucumber into pencil-thick slices and place in a mixing bowl.
Halve, stone and peel the avocados, then slice them thickly. Add them to the cucumber – don’t mix them just yet – then add the basil and mint leaves. (I add the leaves whole only when they are small. Larger leaves are probably best torn or sliced.)
Make the dressing: pour the olive oil into a blender jug and add a good pinch of salt. Squeeze in the lime juice and a twist or two of the pepper mill. Add the basil and mint leaves and 1 tbsp of iced water and process to a thick, green-freckled dressing. Pour over the avocado and cucumber, tossing gently, taking care not to crush the avocado.
Break the warm salmon into large pieces – I like them 3-4cm in length – then add to the salad and serve.
Asparagus with pancetta
You can cook asparagus on a hot griddle from raw, keeping the heat low, to give the spears time to come to tenderness. Cooked this way the spears are delicious, but remain crisp, never acquiring the gorgeous silky tenderness of a steamed spear. Sometimes, I like to cook them lightly in boiling water, then finish them on the griddle for a smoky note. It is hardly any more trouble and gives the best of both methods. Serves 2
pancetta 150g, in one piece
white breadcrumbs 4 tbsp
Bring a wide, deep pan of water to the boil and salt it lightly. Trim any tough ends from the asparagus, then cook the spears in the boiling water for about 6 minutes until almost tender. Test them with the point of a knife, then drain carefully, so as not to bruise the fragile tips. Drain and set aside.
Get a griddle pan hot. Cut the pancetta into small strips or dice, as you wish, then cook them in a shallow pan over a lowish heat. You want the fat to melt, which will be the soul of your dressing. If there is only a little fat in the pan, then add a tablespoon or two of olive oil. As the pancetta starts to crisp lightly add the breadcrumbs and continue cooking, stirring so they do not burn, until the crumbs are golden and are starting to crisp.
Place the asparagus on the hot griddle, lightly brush them with oil and cook for 4-5 minutes, turning them regularly until they are lightly marked. Serve the asparagus with the hot crumbs and pancetta scattered over them.