Although the weather may not always cooperate, the English serve wonderful summer food. What do a few gentle raindrops matter when you are confronted by a glimmering bowl of celadon green watercress soup, chicken lapped in apricot curry mayonnaise, baby potatoes with mint from the garden, and a cut-glass bowl of fragrant, deep crimson strawberries?
I enjoyed just such a lunch in the English countryside a few weeks ago. The watercress soup was rich with just the right peppery bite. Watercress is acidic, so it needs blanching before adding to the soup. As an alternative, you could try lemon-sharp sorrel (an acquired taste which is addictive), or milder romaine lettuce. Both make excellent soup.
The chicken with curry mayonnaise was served, I was proudly told, at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. The Cordon Bleu Cookery School in London, having been asked to cater lunch for the multinational guests in the procession, discovered unexpected pitfalls. Half a dozen religious dietary rules had to be respected, and the arrival time of guests, depending on the speed of horse-drawn carriages, was vague, to say the least.
Cooking facilities in Westminster Hall, a national monument dating to medieval times, were understandably limited and the cooking was to be done by the school students. This simple little recipe for poached chicken with a sweet/spicy mayonnaise was the result.
Equally representative of the very best of British food is potato salad with mint. For the first 20 years of my life, potatoes (green peas, too) were always cooked in summer with a sprig of mint. Its elusive sweetness is perfect with potato salad and provides a subtle alternative to the heady Mediterranean punch of basil, currently so popular.
As for strawberries, I was given a useful tip the other day by British cookery writer Jane Grigson. "Don't worry when they're not at their very best, dear," she said. "Sprinkle them with lemon juice and sugar and chill them several hours. You'll be surprised." And she was right.
A Great Match
With the strawberries, wafer-thin spiced ginger cookies are a great match, with or without a scoop of vanilla ice cream. I can still remember when I was a child how a spicy perfume would pervade the house on baking day, and how good the first hot cookies tasted, fresh from the oven.
With such a spread in England, a tall tumbler of Pimm's fruit cup would be mandatory. Pimm's is a soothing mixer, usually gin-based and diluted with soda or lemon-lime soft drink. With a potpourri garnish of sliced orange, lemon, peach, strawberry and a sprig of fresh mint, Pimm's rivals a mint julep any day.
ENGLISH SUMMER LUNCH FOR SIX Cream of Watercress Soup Coronation Chicken With Curry Mayonnaise English Potato-Mint Salad Jane's Strawberries With Lemon Spice Wafers Suggested drink: Pimm's cup (bottled and available in some liquor stores.) If not available, substitute gin and tonics.
So much is done ahead for this cold dinner that you can come home half an hour before serving and be ready with ease.
About one week ahead, make Spice Wafers. Store in airtight container.
Up to three days ahead, make soup, then refrigerate.
Up to two days ahead, poach chickens, make curry mayonnaise and vinaigrette, slice tomatoes, then refrigerate.
Up to one day ahead, make potato-mint salad, then refrigerate. Combine strawberries and lemon, then refrigerate. Chill soup bowls.
About five minutes before serving, stir soup and pour into chilled bowls. Remove chicken and potato salad from refrigerator, uncover, then serve.
CREAM OF WATERCRESS SOUP
1 bunch watercress
2 tablespoons butter
1 medium onion, sliced
2 medium potatoes, sliced
1 1/2 quarts chicken or veal stock
1 cup whipping cream
Set aside 6 small watercress sprigs for garnish. Blanch remaining watercress leaves and stems by boiling in large pan of salted water 3 minutes. Drain watercress and reserve.
Melt butter in large saucepan. Add onion and cook until tender, but not brown, about 3 minutes. Add potatoes, stock, salt and pepper to taste and reserved watercress. Cover and bring soup to boil. Reduce heat and simmer 30 minutes or until vegetables are very tender.
Puree soup in batches in food processor or blender, or work by hand through sieve or food mill. Stir in cream. Taste to adjust for seasonings. Season soup highly because chilling reduces flavor. Soup can be refrigerated up to 3 days.
Shortly before serving, stir soup to recombine ingredients. Serve soup in chilled bowls garnished with reserved watercress sprigs. Makes 6 servings.
Note: On chilly day, this soup is excellent hot.
WITH CURRY MAYONNAISE
2 (3-pound) chickens
1 onion, quartered
1 carrot, quartered
2 stalks celery, sliced
Bouquet garni of 2 sprigs thyme, 1 bay leaf and 6 parsley stalks
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 tablespoon curry powder
6 tablespoons tomato juice
6 tablespoons red wine
3 tablespoons apricot jam
2 cups mayonnaise
1/4 cup lemon juice