What a lot of rhubarb

The same friend who gave me The Alice B Tok­las Cook­book for my birth­day has lent me a copy of the hard to find Futur­ist Cook­book. Pub­lished in Italian in 1932, it’s a mani­festo for the food of the future designed to lib­er­ate us from con­ven­tion, dull­ness and pasta. The recipes which com­bine touch, sound and smell include one called Aero­food, com­posed of a slice of fen­nel, an olive and a kum­quat, served with sand­pa­per, vel­vet and silk. Only the sand­pa­per need not be eaten appar­ently, but it must be fingered as the food is devoured. As the diners swal­low down the vel­vet and silk con­fec­tion, waiters are on hand to douse their heads with a large spray can.

The trouble with break­ing with con­ven­tion is that it can become a fash­ion in its own right. Which is how I found myself attempt­ing to smoke sal­mon over Lapsang tea leaves this week. It’s appar­ently effort­less, appar­ently fun and appar­ently deli­cious. Yes, to the first, no to the second and an abso­lute ‘you have to be kid­ding’ to the third. The chok­ing, bit­ter, bil­low­ing smoke caused my neigh­bour to knock at the back door to ask if we needed help. When the sal­mon was ‘ready’, my daugh­ter spat her piece out, my son ate his hold­ing his nose and our span­iel turned her back for the first time in her life. An appet­iser of vel­vet, silk — hell, even the sand­pa­per — would have been tastier.

There’s a won­der­ful line in a Jilly Cooper novel that ‘the only way to get the garden out of your nails is to wash your hair’. I can report that the only way to get Lapsang smoke out of your hair is to wash it not once, but three times. And I wanted to take my son’s saxophone-cleaning brush to my poor, choked throat.

Thank­fully, the neigh­bour who asked if we were ok had a bundle of rhu­barb under his arm. So we aban­doned the sal­mon and set to work on some­thing a little more deli­cious. Rhu­barb ice-cubes.

Rhu­barb Ice Cubes

Rhu­barb sticks — I used six chubby ones and ended up with half a litre of syrup

For each stick of rhu­barb, five tea­spoons of caster sugar and half a cup of water

Half a star anise for every two sticks

A bay leaf for every two sticks

Cut the sticks into 2cm pieces — snip­ping it straight into the pan with scis­sors is the quick­est way. Add the rest of the ingredi­ents and sim­mer for fif­teen minutes. Allow to cool slightly and strain into a jug (don’t be temp­ted to mush it down with a ladle because it will release an estu­ar­ial sandy-coloured slurry into your gor­geous pink brew). Let it drip until there’s no more liquid left in the pulp. The rhu­barb syrup is deli­cious stirred into a cock­tail, but it’s more showy to freeze it. I drank my cubes with gin and tonic.

I think the futur­ists would have liked rhu­barb ice cubes. But there aren’t any futur­ists left. Like tea-smoked sal­mon, they went out of fashion.

Pea soup and metaphors

I’ve just had the sat­is­fy­ing exper­i­ence of being able to live a meta­phor. While shop­ping for the cour­gettes and peas to make this soup, I bought smoked bacon to add to pasta for sup­per. But as I left the shop, the bacon slipped from my bag unnoticed. A very kind teen­age boy ran after me with the lost packet of rash­ers, which gave me the unique chance to say both lit­er­ally and meta­phor­ic­ally — ‘thank you, you’ve saved my bacon.’ Perfect.

I doubt ‘save my bacon’ is a meta­phor that trans­lates across all lan­guages and cul­tures, in which case just enjoy the soup. The soup should be a meta­phor too, by the way. For a per­fect day in sum­mer. It’s my equi­val­ent of New York chicken noodle — I swear it cures a headache.

Sum­mer Pea Soup

Serves 4

3 cloves garlic

Olive oil

500g pod­ded fresh peas or frozen petit pois (which hon­estly taste just as good, espe­cially if the fresh peas aren’t in the first flush of youth)

500g cour­gettes or zuc­chini quartered length­ways and then chopped into smallish pieces

Hand­ful of young spin­ach leaves

500ml veget­able stock — Marigold bouil­lon works fine. If using fresh peas in this recipe, sim­mer the stock with the dis­carded pea pods for extra fla­vour. Strain the stock after about ten minutes of simmering.

Basil leaves

Parmesan if you feel like it

Slice the gar­lic finely and soften gently in the olive oil, without let­ting it go brown. After about five minutes add the cour­gettes and soften those too — fif­teen minutes should be fine. Add 250g of the peas and the strained veget­able stock and sim­mer for five minutes. Add season­ing and stir in the spin­ach leaves. Whizz the mix­ture up while still in the pan, using a stick blender. You’re aim­ing for a smooth-ish soup, rather than a silky one. Add the rest of the peas. If using frozen peas, merely bring the soup back up to a sim­mer. If using fresh, add an extra five minutes cook­ing time, but don’t over­cook. You’re aim­ing for start­ling green, not khaki. Pour into bowls with a few basil leaves on top. Great with parmesan, also great without.

Pimm’s jelly — or what to do when you’ve only grown five strawberries

When your entire straw­berry crop amounts to five, an effort­lessly boun­ti­ful bowl of fruit and cream isn’t going to work. The gen­eral rule is the fewer of some­thing you have, the harder you have to try — unless you’re talk­ing about kid­neys, in which case just be very relieved.

The five fruits I’ve man­aged to grow are pretty good ones. I could have put them in a jug of Pimm’s, but that didn’t seem cere­mo­nial enough for the Grand Harvest.

Trap­ping them in Pimm’s jelly felt more in keep­ing with their status as pre­cious treas­ure. The psy­cho­logy of this had some­thing to do with lock­ing them in a fig­ur­at­ive bank vault I think.

I was also in the mood to drag out my jelly moulds. My mum’s great friend Sally — the per­son who encour­aged me to throw eggs over the roof when I was little — gave the moulds to me when I went to uni­ver­sity, along with the com­plete works of Percy Bysshe Shel­ley. Jelly and poetry cater for a lot of things in life I think.

Pimm’s Jelly

Makes enough for about six

4 sheets gelatine

570 ml of Pimm’s and lem­on­ade, mixed one part Pimm’s with three parts lemonade

5 straw­ber­ries, sliced

Snip the gelat­ine into small pieces and add to a bowl with about 50 mls of the Pimm’s mix. Leave for ten minutes and then warm the bowl over a pan of sim­mer­ing water. Once the gelat­ine is thor­oughly melted, pour the mix­ture into the moulds, with a few pieces of straw­berry in each.

Cool in the fridge for a couple of hours and then tip the jelly out into bowls that will show off the glory of the pre­cious fruit. I made a pure lem­on­ade ver­sion for my chil­dren, using the same technique.

Eat the jelly look­ing at a beau­ti­ful view and exclaim­ing in amazement about the deli­cious­ness of the ber­ries. Make a men­tal note to do bet­ter next year.