Though 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 acid stuff, so it needs blanching before adding to soup. As an alternative, you could try lemon-sharp sorrel (an acquired taste that 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, asked to cater lunch for the multinational guests in the procession, discovered unexpected pitfalls. Half a dozen religious dietary rules had to be respected; the arrival time of guests, depending on the speed of horse-drawn carriages, was vague to say the least.
Cooking facilities in Westminister Hall, a national monument dating back 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.
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 7-Up. With a potpourri garnish of sliced orange, lemon, peach, strawberry and a sprig of fresh mint, Pimm's rivals a mint julep any day.
Timetable So much is done ahead for this cold dinner, you can come home half an hour before serving and still be ready with ease.
One week ahead: Make spiced wafers and store in airtight container.
Up to 3 days ahead: Make soup and refrigerate.
Up to 2 days ahead: Poach chickens, make curry mayonnaise and vinaigrette, slice tomatoes, and refrigerate.
Up to 1 day ahead: Make potato and mint salad and refrigerate. Combine strawberries and lemon and refrigerate. Chill soup bowls.
Thirty minutes before serving: Finish chicken with curry mayonnaise and refrigerate.
Five minutes before serving: Stir soup and pour it into chilled bowls. Remove chicken and potato salad from refrigerator and uncover. Take strawberries out of the refrigerator.
CREAM OF WATERCRESS SOUP (6 servings)
On a chilly day, this soup is excellent hot.
1 bunch watercress (8 ounces)
2 tablespoons butter
1 medium onion, sliced
2 medium potatoes, sliced
1 1/2 quarts chicken or veal stock
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup whipping cream
Set aside 6 small watercress sprigs for garnish. Blanch remaining watercress leaves and stems by boiling in a large pan of salted water for 3 minutes. Drain watercress and reserve.
Melt butter in a large saucepan, add onion and cook until soft but not browned -- about 3 minutes. Add potatoes, stock, salt, pepper and reserved watercress. Cover, bring soup to a boil and simmer 30 minutes or until vegetables are very tender. Pure'e the soup in batches in a food processor or blender, or work it by hand through a sieve or food mill. Stir in cream and taste for seasoning.
Note: Highly season the soup, as chilling reduces flavor. The soup can be refrigerated for up to 3 days.
Shortly before serving, stir soup to recombine the ingredients. Serve soup in chilled bowls garnished with reserved watercress sprigs.
CORONATION CHICKEN WITH CURRY MAYONNAISE (6 servings)
For successful poached chicken, start with cold liquid and make sure it simmers gently. Keep the liquid to use for stock in another dish.
Two 3-pound chickens
TO POACH 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 peppercorns
FOR THE CURRY MAYONNAISE:
1 tablespoon oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 tablespoon curry powder
6 tablespoons tomato juice
6 tablespoons red wine
3 tablespoons apricot jam
2 cups mayonnaise
FOR THE VINAIGRETTE:
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/2 cup oil
2 tablespoons chopped fresh oregano or tarragon
Salt and pepper to taste
1 1/2 pounds Italian plum tomatoes, sliced
Paprika for sprinkling
Truss chickens and set on their backs in a deep pan. Add onion, carrot, celery, bouquet garni, peppercorns and enough water to cover the birds. Bring to a boil, skimming occasionally. Cover pan and simmer until chickens are tender and no pink juice runs out when the thigh is pricked with a skewer, 45 minutes to 1 hour. Let them cool to tepid in liquid, then drain.
For the curry mayonnaise: heat oil in a saucepan and saute' onion until soft but not brown. Add curry powder and cook gently 2 minutes. Add tomato juice and red wine and simmer until reduced by half. Stir in apricot jam, let mixture cool and strain it, pressing well to extract liquid. Stir this mixture into the mayonnaise. If necessary, add a tablespoon or 2 of warm water to thin the mayonnaise until it just coats a spoon. Taste it for seasoning.
For the vinaigrette: whisk together the lemon juice, oil, herb and salt and pepper to taste. Chicken, tomatoes, mayonnaise, and vinaigrette can be refrigerated up to 48 hours.
Not more than 30 minutes before serving: remove trussing strings from the chickens and carve each into six serving pieces, discarding the skin. Arrange chicken down one side of a serving dish, coat it with mayonnaise and sprinkle lightly with paprika. Arrange tomatoes overlapping down other side of dish and spoon over vinaigrette. Chill dish until serving.
ENGLISH POTATO AND MINT SALAD (6 servings)
Firm, waxy boiling potatoes hold their shape better than baking potatoes.
2 pounds boiling potatoes, unpeeled
Salt and pepper to taste
1 large bunch mint, tough stems discarded
6 parsley sprigs, stems removed
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1/2 cup olive oil
Put potatoes into a saucepan with cold salted water to cover. Cover and simmer until potatoes are tender when pierced with a skewer, 15 to 20 minutes. Note: Do not overcook or potatoes will crumble when tossed with dressing. Drain potatoes and, when cool enough to handle, peel and cut them in 1/2-inch slices.
Meanwhile, make the dressing. Chop mint, parsley and garlic together as finely as possible. Put in a large bowl with salt and pepper and whisk in vinegar followed by the oil. Taste dressing for seasoning. Note: It must be well seasoned as the potatoes are bland.
Add warm potatoes to the bowl and toss with the dressing. Potato salad may be refrigerated 1 day before serving.
JANE'S STRAWBERRIES WITH LEMON (6 servings)
Lemon juice works wonders on even underripe strawberries.
2 pints (2 pounds) strawberries, hulled and sliced
Juice of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons sugar, more to taste
Toss strawberries with the lemon juice and sugar. Taste the berries and, if necessary, add more sugar. Chill strawberries at least 4 hours and up to one day before serving.
SPICED WAFERS (Makes 40 to 50 wafers)
With refrigerator dough on hand, you're ready to turn out cookies at a moment's notice.
1 1/4 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1/2 teaspoon allspice
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
3 tablespoons sliced almonds
Sift flour with spices onto a work surface and make a well in the center. Add butter, brown sugar and baking powder and work to a paste with your fingertips. Using a pastry scraper or metal spatula, gradually work in flour to form large crumbs. If dough seems dry, add a tablespoon of water; if it is sticky, work in a little flour.
Press dough into a ball and knead it 1 to 2 minutes, pushing it away with the heel of your hand and gathering it up with the scraper until it peels away easily in one piece. Press dough into a block about 6-by-3-by-1 inches. Wrap it and chill 30 minutes or until firm enough to slice.
Line 2 baking sheets with foil. With a sharp knife, cut wafer-thin slices of dough and set them on the foil. Sprinkle each wafer with a few sliced almonds, pressing them down lightly, and bake in a 400-degree oven, 5 to 7 minutes, or until golden brown. Transfer wafers to a rack to cool. Note: Remove them from the baking sheets as quickly as possible; they will become crispy as they cool. They can be stored a week or more in an airtight container.