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.