It is summer. No, you wouldn’t know it some of the time, – quite a lot of the time – as the rain continues to fall in almost Biblical volume.
The weather has been so crazy that, in the last 24 hours, train routes between England and Scotland are at a standstill because of landslides on both east and west coast lines.
Which does raise the question of whether God is an Englishman blocking off Scotland – or a Scot blocking off England.
But in the south east of England at least, it is warm – albeit often a close warmth; not pleasant, but sweaty and oppressive.
Combine that with my annual state of post-conference kanckeredness and you have, if not a recipe for disaster, than a recipe for not knowing what the recipe should be.
The Jersey Royals seem to have ended – and I’m not sure about the English asparagus.
The garden isn’t ready yet to harvest enough that it makes menu choices for me.
So it’s what I now recognise as an annual situation: sitting down and wondering, with enthusiasm that’s blurred around the edges, just what I want to cook and eat.
The answer usually has total simplicity at its heart.
Last weekend, as I wended my way along Broadway Market, a quick glance revealed that Vikki had a small number of slip soles on the ice. Now they’re supposed to be small, but these were hardly tiny.
The Other Half is not overly fond of being served fish whole – his usual explanation is that it’s awkward to deal with when there are loads of other things on your plate.
Looking at those delicate soles, though, there was no way that I was going to have them filleted. So what to do?
A solution gradually took on coherent shape. And it was Italian in form.
First up – a minestrone. Okay – not a strictly accurate Genovese version, as there was no lard at the base and no pancetta either.
But given that, in reality, there are probably as many different versions of minestrone as there are people who have ever made it, variations seem to be entirely in keeping with the sense of the dish.
It began, as it should, with a sofritto. Onion, garlic, celery and carrot, chopped and sliced finely and then cooked gently in olive oil for around 10 minutes. This is simply the Italian form of the French mirepoix.
After that, a big squirt of tomato purée, loads of ground black pepper, a tin of decent quality tomatoes in their own juice (and with that juice rinsed out of the can and into the pan) and a couple of potatoes, peeled but left whole.
And then you need to add some stock. Now because I hadn’t been planning this, there wasn’t time to defrost some of my own stock.
I’d been looking for a store cupboard stock for just such circumstances – one that doesn't have a stack of additives and chemicals, but also one that that doesn't include palm oil, the farming and harvesting of which is seriously threatening the survival of the orangutan by devastating the habitat they live in.
So it’s thanks to Diana, who had read of my concerns in an earlier post and knew the solution.
Kallo’s Just Bouillon vegetable stock cubes fit the bill.
The ingredient list reads thus:
Hydrolysed Vegetable Protein (contains Soya), Sea Salt, Vegetable Fat, Potato Starch, Carrots (3%), Onion (2.5%), Tomato (1.5%), Sugar, Spices (Mace, Celery Seeds, Pepper), Lovage.
It beats the very similar Marigold Bouillon on the basis of having no palm oil – and it’s about 10p cheaper per 100g too. Since it also tastes okay, this is a win-win option.
And then all you do is cover the pan and leave it to simmer gently for a couple of hours, stirring occasionally.
After that, if the potatoes haven’t broken up, give them a little help with a fork.
This is the point at which you add the dried spaghetti, broken into small pieces. The packet said that the cooking time is about nine minutes.
But because it’s not in boiling water, but in simmering stock (and tomato juice etc) it will take longer. I gave it an initial 15 minutes, cooked with some fine beans and sliced courgette, both of which would also have needed less time if in boiling water.
After that, podded peas and broad beans went in and were given about seven minutes – again, longer than if simply being boiled.
And that was that – served with a drizzle of my best virgin oil, a dollop of pesto and a sprinkling of grated Parmesan (not for The Other Half, of course), we had a very substantial, tasty – and healthy – starter.
The second course was then simplicity itself: the soles, brushed with olive oil and cooked under a hot grill for approximately four minutes a side, served with a piece of lemon and a garnish of the first samphire of the summer.
Desert was even easier and simpler: after a week away, just enough strawberries had reached perfect ripeness to give us a portion each.
When they’re as fresh as that, you don’t need anything else with them.
With some of that, it almost felt like a cheat to call it cooking.