Looking back through my archive of musings for this column over the past three years it would appear that I could pull out the same article each August and reprint it and that’s mainly because of the predictably unpredictable Irish weather. We start off the summer full of anticipation of sunny days, picnics and barbecue parties but by August the barbecue is rusting from the moisture, the pretty picnic rug is still pristine in its plastic covering and the kids have been brainwashed by Cartoon Network; our unfulfilled summer dreams are almost as soggy as the grass in the garden.
The other difficulty with August is that it is that time in the summer where the joy of a less structured family routine is rapidly losing its appeal and a slight apathy has set in. It’s just too early for the full on back to school planning and yet the weather isn’t allowing us to take advantage of these days of so called leisure. Routine has gone out the window and for most families with school going children food and meals have become erratic and stressful. I see this in my customers who pace up and down the counter trying to decide what to cook. You can almost here the inner monologue of “What will be quick?”, “Will it be fine tonight and could we sit outside and barbecue?” “I fancy something different but what will be easy, I’m not in the humour for too much cooking?”
The problem is we are exhausted from waiting for the sunshine. If we are not careful we will eventually give up altogether and say Adios to summer ’11 and start planning for the winter. Sadly there is little more uninspiring that a wet August. Even a wet June and July still hold the possibility of a scorching August, but a wet August is just pitiful. When the sun shines food can be very easy. Picnic style suppers in the garden with crusty bread and an array of meats and salads are fantastic. Stoke up the barbecue for a little grilling and even the aromas of sizzling meat nourish the soul. On the other hand rain soaked, summer evenings call for comfort of a different kind.
Of course the weather could prove me wrong and by the time you are reading this the sun could be splitting the rocks. I hope it is and if so just stop reading and stoke up the coals; don’t waste a drop of sunshine. If it is still overcast or raining, I say let’s shake a fist at the weather, stand up to the elements and enjoy great food anyway. What we need are a few ideas and recipes that are designed for quick and easy cooking but are also nutritious and suitable for the season. First, let’s clarify something. When I use the word ‘quick’, I sometimes allude to the speed of preparation rather than the speed of cooking. It is a very important distinction. What does it matter if a dish is going to take several hours in the oven to actually cook, as long as it hasn’t used up your whole day in preparation? Food cooked long and slow has several other advantages. You can use traditionally tougher cuts of meat that are usually less expensive and as we are all a little more conscious of our spending these days, that should be welcomed. Many recipes that require long, slow cooking are also suitable for the freezer, so why not cook an extra large batch and freeze some portions for another time? The appreciation factor by the rest of the family on long, slow cooked food is often quite remarkable because of the flavoursome taste and the oven did most of the work.
When you mention slow cooking in some circles eyes tend to glaze over and there is a fear that all you can cook are various forms of stew, crock pot dishes or those with heavy gravy rich sauces. While these are often a staple of the winter, few want to know about them in the summer, deeming them too heavy for the season. All it takes is a little imagination. Slow roasted joints are often wonderful when sliced the next day as cold meat meals or as sandwich fillers. Slow baked spuds with fillings of your choice make a fantastic summer supper that go really well with slowly marinated steak or chicken flashed on a pan or a hot barbecue. Indeed a well marinated steak will take about eight minutes to cook on a hot barbecue – you couldn’t ask for quicker. Add some butter, bacon bits, beans and a little cheese to the baked spud and it’s a great accompaniment. Marinating can take several hours and I would recommend overnight if possible. Once again there is little work or effort for the chef. Even stews with a summer twist can work well. Many naturally hot countries have their own versions of stew; after all what do you think a curry is? Instead of a traditional wintery brown gravy base try a light tomato base with spices instead. Lamb shanks cooked long and slow in wine and tomatoes are a super summer dish. For a further summery feel ditch the potatoes and add some rice or cous cous.
Filo pastry will give a lighter approach to pies and pasties that can also be prepared in advance and are suitable to take on that impromptu picnic should the sun shine or can be eaten at home if it doesn’t. Quiches are a particular handy summer staple as they can be eaten hot or cold. A classic quiche can be great on its own or with a salad and for a real cheat why not pick one ready made at our deli counter in James Whelan Butchers, there is a great choice every day. We also do a great range of pre-marinated and prepared meats ready for barbecues which takes the time element out and makes it all easier. Even the humble sandwich can get a summer makeover. If you have access to the internet check out the sandwich ideas on www.tastydays.com/recipes/sandwiches. If you thought a sandwich was merely a filling between two slices of bread you were wrong! This site has great pictures and I have no doubt you will be inspired. If you are on line then you can also stop by the James Whelan Butchers site where there are more great summer food ideas.
Don’t let the weather dictate the fun. Ignore it to beat it and enjoy great food regardless. Just be prepared for the four seasons we cycle through in an average Irish summer week. Keep the umbrella, the wellies and the sunblock and sandals handy and you’ll be fine. Don’t waste the days, as come September you will yearn for the long, lazy days of summer and will have forgotten the sogginess! I welcome your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org
We hope you enjoyed reading this post by Pat Whelan of James Whelan Butchers. Pat is a 5th generation butcher, cook book author and the director of James Whelan Butchers with shops in Clonmel, the Avoca Handweavers Rathcoole and Kilmacanogue, Dunnes Stores Cornelscourt, Rathmines and Swords in Dublin. Sign up to our newsletter for more updates from James Whelan Butchers