Of the four seasons, summer, that bountiful, buxom beauty, is the one I secretly dread. The produce of summer is spectacular, a dream for cooks who revel in the pleasures of vegetable cookery; rather what I dread is the obligatory simmering heat, the unspeakably long hot days that render you listless, indifferent. Worse still are the ones that throw a dry northerly wind into the mix. The entire city becomes a giant hairdryer. Strangely, those days seem to have bypassed us. A few wildly out of kilter days aside, it’s been a remarkably gentle January.
Evenings stretch into night, the sun setting softly on the rooftops, old and new, in the neighbourhood. Somewhere between eight and half past, for the briefest of moments, the sky blazes pink, orange and blue, chalky strokes of pale colour heightened by the sinking sun. Nigh impossible to capture, though not for want of trying. The temperature drops, then gooseflesh sends you indoors digging deeply into the trunk at the end of the bed for something warmer, through things you’d put away months ago. Autumnal weather, this, delightful but disarming. All the ‘proof’, perhaps, that now rare creature, the Climate Change Skeptic, may require.
The garden heaves an almost audible sigh of relief in these cooler days. What’s left of the garden I should say; little survived the furnace-like heat of late December and early January. What did make it through unscathed confirmed, once again, that what thrives here is what thrives along the sandy shores of the Mediterranean. Tomatoes seem to love those searing, waterless days. The wild rocket, slow to start, continues to astound with its lush green growth. The basil, too. And finally, as of this week, the zucchini have begun to blossom, their pretty saffron faces nodding on the morning breeze. Zucchini, small and crisp, are a seasonal treat, especially at this early stage of the proceedings. Too few to make a meal of yet, but the beginnings of a crop to be sure.
Armed with a punnet of tiny, creamy fleshed zucchini, and a hankering for something substantial but light and summery, this is inspired (yet again) by Deborah Madison. It’s brilliant, multi-layered and satisfying, but light-as-a-feather. The broth is unlike any other I've met; restorative and rich like the chicken stock I fondly remember, but made without an ounce fat. None at all. Like most of these things, it will take a few hours, intermittently, of your time to prepare and mere moments to be devoured in quiet, but grateful, slurping spoonfuls. Silence is, after all, quite the complement itself. And it’s a perfect soup for weather that can’t quite make up its mind.
Zucchini in broth with corn and cheese dumplings – for 4-6
The broth takes two hours to simmer. I know that seems like a lot, but it’s got to develop deep flavours, you see, if it’s to hold its own in the same way as, say, a clear broth of chicken or beef would. And hold its own this broth does. My word.
First, make the broth:
Pour 3 litres (approx 3 quarts) of water into a large saucepan. Toss in 1 large onion, sliced, 1 large zucchini, sliced, a 400g (15oz) tin of tomatoes, 6 cloves of garlic, bashed with the flat of your knife, 1 large carrot, sliced, 3 stalks of celery, sliced, 1 bunch of coriander (cilantro), roots and all, 1 small bunch of parsley, a handful of green or brown lentils, ½ a green chilli, a pinch of fennel seeds, a few sprigs of fresh oregano (if you have it – it’s optional here), 2 teaspoons of sea salt and 1 teaspoon of peppercorns, lightly crushed. Bring to a boil, lower the heat and simmer, partially covered with a lid for 2 hours. Strain and set aside.
To make the dumplings:
½ cup of fine cornmeal (Masa Harina preferably) – NOT polenta
½ cup plain flour
1 teaspoon of baking powder
½ teaspoon of chilli powder
Good pinch of sea salt
½ cup of crumbled feta or grated cheddar
2 tablespoons of olive oil + extra for frying
1/3 cup of water or milk
Make these while the broth is simmering. Combine the dry ingredients in a bowl. Beat the wet ingredients in a small bowl and then tip into the dry. Bring together with a fork, then use your hands to form a solid mass. Break off small pieces of dough and roll into balls the size of a marble.
Heat ½ cm (¼ inch) of the extra olive oil in a large frying pan. When the oil is hot, drop in the dumplings, turning with two forks until golden all over. Remove to a rack set over some kitchen paper and leave to cool.
Broth, from above
Dumplings, from above
1 punnet of baby zucchini or 2 medium-sized zucchini, thinly sliced
½ bunch of spring onions, thinly sliced with most of their greens
1 bunch of coriander (cilantro) leaves, roughly chopped
1 small green chilli, deseeded and finely chopped
1 tablespoon of olive oil
3 ripe tomatoes, diced
1 avocado, peeled and diced
Lime wedges, to serve
Bring the broth to a simmer. Drop in the zucchini and the spring onions and cook for 5 minutes. Mix the coriander with the chilli and oil, seasoning with a little salt.
Drop the dumplings into the soup and simmer for 5 minutes longer. Divide the tomatoes between serving bowls, spoon the vegetables and dumplings on top and ladle over the broth. Add a spoonful of the coriander mixture to each bowl, a cluster of avocado and serve immediately with lime wedges.