Cousin Garlic

I have no talent for gardening, there’s no use pretending. But I’ve developed an obsession with my garden. That’s because my friends Non and Helen have actually planted something in it for me.

Each morning I check on my white aliums to see how fluffy and camp they’ve become. Here they were yesterday, bursting to get out of their jackets, like plump guests at a summer wedding….

…here they were last night, having almost wriggled free…..

And good grief, look at them today…..

Like most of us, frothy, etherial aliums have some uncouth relatives. In the case of the alium, the wild cousin that gets drunk and behaves badly but gives everyone a wonderful time is the garlic plant. What would a party be without the high-living, fun-loving, wise-cracking Cousin Garlic?

Just like humans, the garlic plant gets tougher, dryer and bossier as it gets older. Young garlic however is an altogether gentler creature. Delicate in flavour and sweet in aroma.

You can recognise it from its long stems and its juicier, plumper demeanour. Its name is wet garlic, but that just sounds revolting. The word ‘wet’ should never be attached to food – wet cheese, wet bread, wet ham, wet lettuce are all disgusting. So let’s call it new garlic, because that’s what it is …

New Garlic Risotto

50g butter

2tbsp olive oil

I onion

3 cloves old garlic, crushed with the flat of a knife and then chopped finely

3 new garlic bulbs sliced thinly across, leaves and all

250g arborio rice

1 cup dry white wine

About a litre of vegetable stock – keep it simmering in a pan so that you can keep adding it, hot, to your risotto

Handful fresh spinach leaves

50g freshly grated parmesan

Handful fresh chives and chive flowers

Melt 25g butter with the olive oil and add the old and new garlic and the onion. Cook gently so that they soften but don’t take on any colour. Season with salt and black pepper and after about ten minutes add the white wine. Once it’s been absorbed, keep adding a ladleful of hot stock at a time. Turn the heat down so that the risotto merely bubbles like a murky pond and keep adding the stock. Stick with this process for about fifteen minutes. Try to enter a trance-like state. Risotto and brisk, brittle efficiency don’t go together. When the rice is cooked, but only just, add the spinach leaves and stir through. It should be luxuriously soupy. (The best risotto I’ve ever eaten was in Venice and I ate it with a spoon.) Add the remaining butter and the cheese.

Serve with a scattering of finely chopped chives on top and the chive flowers. The chive is another relative of the alium and the garlic, so it will be very happy to join the party.

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Cooking sculpture

I’m puzzling over something. A friend wants to know why I ‘only write about food’ on these pages? What kind of block-headed word is ‘only’?
The novelist Lionel Shriver says that ‘the impulse to cook is the same as the impulse to write books and do sculpture’. I’m not mad about her books or her sculpture and I’ve never tasted her cooking, but that doesn’t matter. She’s right. It’s the creating that matters. And the cooking does something alchemical. My son’s birthday is his birthday because I always cook him roast chicken with tarragon. My daughter’s birthday becomes more resolutely birthday-ish because I always make lamb kleftiko. That’s not to say the birthdays wouldn’t exist without the chicken and the lamb, but over the years the ritual of the roasting of the chicken and the slow cooking of the lamb have become indivisible from the birthdays themselves.
I had lunch today with a great friend who’s a garden designer. Last time we met at a restaurant in an old potting shed. This time we ate in a Victorian greenhouse that used to be a fruit and vegetable shop. How perfect that we both chose English asparagus.

Asparagus reminds me of Lionel Shriver and her impulse to ‘do sculpture’ since asparagus is sculpture, after all. But the cooking of it and the serving of it in the old fruit and vegetable shop had a perfect synchronicity about it. Our lunch would have been lunch without the asparagus. But the fact that it was so exquisitely delicious, and that our conversation was as cheering as the food, made the event a miniature, short-lived work of art.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying that when it comes to food there’s no such thing as ‘only’.

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Taking a sandwich for a walk

There’s no such thing as a walk that’s not improved by a snack. I took an apple with me to the post box this morning and a piece of cheese to the Polling Station on Thursday. The best kind of walking snack is one that can fit in your pocket – none of that rucksack/bag/basket palava. The finest pocket food I know is a corruption of a tart I learned how to make in Paris.

When I was fourteen I was sent on a French exchange. I learned two things and they’ve both stuck to me like velcro. One, very weirdly, is the subjunctive form of the verb ‘pouvoir’. The other is the recipe for ‘tarte aux tomates’. I loved that tart. It was a beguiling combination of the lightest shortcrust pastry, a hint of creamy French mustard, gruyere cheese and tomatoes that had never even seen a fridge, let alone been inside one.

Transforming that tart into a walking companion has made it even better.

Use soft white rolls – anything more chewy will be transformed into polystyrene ceiling tiles once they’re cooked. I’ve abandoned the French mustard in the original recipe and always use fiery English mustard. The heat of the oven quells its rage, but it will still make your nose tingle happily.

Spread a thinnish layer of mustard on each side of the roll – trust me. Layer on chunks of mature cheddar, sliced tomatoes and a few basil leaves. Wrap your roll tightly in two layers of silver paper and heat in the oven for half an hour at 175 degrees C.

Remove from the oven and stick it straight in your pocket in its silver wrapping. If you can fit in a flask of coffee too, so much the better.

It doesn’t matter how many or how few miles you walk before you eat it. The French tart sandwich will never let you down.

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