Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Summer harvest

I can think of few more appealing ways to spend an afternoon than a stroll around Borough Market. As growers across the land experiment with lesser-known, heritage varieties of the many fine crops that flourish on our shores, fed by three months of exceptionally warm weather, the stalls are bursting with summer delights in bountifully generous quantities.

Farmers and their helpers stand proudly beside their early harvests in gleaming shades of red, yellow, orange, purple and green, sporting grins as wide as if they'd reached the finals of the Wessex county show. If you're lucky, you might just find out their tricks of the trade, as you browse punnetts of glistening berries, bundles of tender roots, and mounds of ripe, voluptuous fruits.

There's almost every variety of tomato known to man, from the striking Black Zebra, to gourmet's favourite San Marzano, mutant-like Oxheart, and the humble, but delicious, English Plum. Alongside, there are summer squash, soft green herbs, and piles and piles of deeply-coloured cherries, almost begging to be devoured. From further afield come, chic, elegant, white fleshed peaches, as juicy and delicious as anything I've ever come across. Biting into them instantly justifies the premium over their net-wrapped, ripen at home cousins, stacked in dark plastic crates, four deep in the supermarket shelves.

This may well be peak season for many of the tenderest, most elegant crops that are to be found sprouting in the UK. Time to enjoy the fruits that are born of a fabulous summer.

Beetroot top Minestrone

Having made a vibrantly-coloured pilaf from the beetroot bulbs I picked up at the weekend, the stalks and leaves looked far too appealing to be banished to the compost bin. Instead, the stalks, braised with spices to compliment their earthy flavour, and green leaves just wilted, made for an interesting, and extremely healthy, summer minestrone.

Serves four
the stalks and leaves from 8 - 10 beetroots
a generous pinch of cumin seeds
a generous pinch of fennel seeds
olive oil
three shallots or one onion, chopped
one or two cloves of garlic, chopped
0.75 litres vegetable stock
a tin of black eyed beans
salt and black pepper

Start by trimming the green leaves from the beetroot stalks. Cut close to the stalk up to the point of the stalk. Set aside.

Toast the cumin and fennel seeds in a dry pan, until they release a strong, nutty scent. Ground in a pestle and mortar.

In a large sauce pan, saute the onion in oil over a medium heat. After a few minutes, add the garlic and ground spices. After another few minutes, add the beetroot stalks and cook for another couple of minutes before adding the hot stock. Bring to a simmer, and braise the stalks for about seven minutes.

Finally, add the beans and warm through for about four minutes. For the last couple of minutes, add the beetroot leaves and let them wilt in the stock. Check the seasoning, and serve in soup bowls with a little drizzle of olive oil, and some bread to mop up with.

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