Several weeks of glorious sunshine and Mediterranean temperatures have granted us the rare pleasure that is known as an Irish summer.One that lasts more than a weekend. It has lifted our spirits after a long winter and provided us with long balmy evenings which prompt us to stay outdoors to enjoy slow lazy meals or a late swim in the welcoming warm sea.
The dry spell has also alerted us to the threat of drought which many would consider absurd in a country renowned for its rainfall and subsequent 40 shades of green pasture. The national debate about water (and who should pay for it) drags on in the media while faulty pipes continue to leak and wasteful cosmetic abuses abound. We have a lot to learn about water.
On a domestic level we can easily change the habit of spilling dish water down the drain; keeping a large watering can by the kitchen sink will make it a painless routine. Decant the dishwater into the can and once cooled this will irrigate your pots or vegetable patch rather than drain wastefully away.
It is a curious miracle of nature that in this, the driest month of July for some years, the harvest from the vegetable garden and tunnels is suitably quenching. Sunshine yellow flowers from cucumber and zucchini make a splendid display alongside the ripening tomatoes. These plants manage to draw up the moisture from deep below to produce an abundance of plump juicy fruits while all around is prone to wilt. Vegetables and fruit that contain over 90% water are now abundant on the shelves; watermelon,strawberries,zucchini,lettuce,bell peppers, cucumber, celery, radish and tomatoes.
Keeping hydrated is vital to a healthy body and while we swelter in the heat wave it is vital to maintain a balance of fluids.Luckily the majority of fruits and vegetables high in electrolytes and water are in season in summer when their properties are most needed. Electrolytes are minerals (mainly sodium, calcium, magnesium and potassium) dissolved in the body’s fluids creating electrically charged ions. They essentially function in the body by stimulating muscles and nerves while regulating its fluids. These electrolytes are lost through sweating and must be replenished to maintain a healthy balance. The sports drink industry never tires of exploiting this fact by selling us their bottled drinks and gels to counteract cramp and dehydration in the gym. These drinks are laced with undesirable additives and sugars. A plant based healthy diet, rich in minerals and vitamins, along with simple plain water, is a lot more beneficial than swigging on plastic bottled sports drinks. Watery vegetables, like those mentioned above, can be easily transformed into delicious salads, smoothies and snacks.
Cucumber water is one of the easiest refreshment drinks to make by simply soaking some sliced cucumber in water for a couple of hours or overnight in the fridge. A spiralizer works well for this if you have one.
There are hundreds of ways to combine cucumber with lemons, limes, mint, basil,or any soft fruit of your choice to make your own thirst quenching drink. For a super hydrating effect add some natural coconut water which is packed full of electrolytes,potassium in particular, and adds a sweet nutty flavour.
There are melons of various varieties available at the moment which never fail to please in a classic salad with feta cheese, sprigs of fresh mint and a drizzle of zesty lime and olive oil dressing. This juicy sweet and sour combination will turn any meal into a summer party as a side dish or starter.
To up the ante with your electrolyte intake try this tasty bake of summer on a plate. The natural water content of courgette/zucchini, cherry vine tomatoes and red bell peppers make the base for this ‘self- saucing’ pasta layer dish. It is another version of a lasagne style dish I wrote about in last August’s blog. This one uses some basil pesto as well as fresh basil and oregano to provide a fresh layer of flavour.
Use a dish to accommodate two or three layers of fresh lasagne sheets and judge the proportions of vegetables according to size and moisture; the idea is to cook the pasta in the juices of the vegetables.
1 large red onion, quartered
3 or 4 garlic cloves
1 large red bell pepper
2 or 3 zucchini /courgette thinly sliced
400g cherry tomatoes
1 tbsp. fresh Basil pesto
250g ricotta cheese
100g Parmesan cheese, finely grated
Generous bunch of basil leaves and fresh oregano
2 tbsp. olive oil
Salt and black pepper to season
Peel and quarter the onion. Quarter the pepper and remove the centre seeds. Drizzle both with olive oil in an oven proof dish along with the garlic cloves and roast for about 20 mins in a moderate oven. Meanwhileprepare the courgette by slicing into thin discs or length way ribbons.
Remove the precooked onion, garlic and pepper from the oven and slice them lengthways again to make thin ribbons. Cover the base of the dish with some onions, peppers, courgettes and whole cherry tomatoes. Season with salt and black pepper, a drizzle of pesto and a scattering of herbs. Cover with a sheet of lasagne. (Trim an extra sheet to cover any gaps). Repeat the layering once or twice more, depending on the depth of your dish or quantity of vegetables). Finally top with dollops of ricotta and grated Parmesan cheese. (Cover loosely with foil to allow the pasta to steam bake but remove after first 30 mins). Bake in a moderate oven for about 45 mins and allow to rest for a few minutes before serving with a crispy green salad.
The addition of blanched french beans will add colour and bite. Chard and spinach leaves can also be layered in; use whatever you think will work.