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.

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’.

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.