Picnic in the Fourth Dimension

There’s a plant that explodes into life in Oxford’s Uni­ver­sity Parks each year that, for me, sounds the klaxon for spring. It far out­strips me in size and its shock of yel­low, sprout­ing branches, shoot­ing wildly from a car­pet of blue flowers, is so joy­ously absurd that every­one stops to stare.

Its start­ling col­ours and eccent­ric shape always remind me of the work of Joan Miro. ‘For me, an object is alive’, the Span­ish artist once said. ‘I see a tree, I get a shock, as if it were some­thing breath­ing, talk­ing. A tree too is some­thing human…’ Miro would have liked this crazy hair-cut of a plant. I feel sure it would have helped him with his work on the appar­ently impossible notion of four-dimensional art, since it’s a plant with just too much life, too much exuber­ance to be trapped by only three dimensions.

Being some­thing of a picnic-obsessive, the flower­ing of what I think of as the ‘Miro plant’ is my sig­nal for meals out­side (although winter often brings good pic­nic oppor­tun­it­ies too, for the thick-coat owner). I have a long rep­er­toire of pic­nic recipes by now. But I’ve just devised this new one, in cel­eb­ra­tion of the Miro plant’s arrival.


Serves 4

For the flatbreads

  • 130g chick­pea or gram flour
  • 280ml water
  • 1/2 tea­spoon salt
  • 1 1/2 table­spoons olive oil

For the topping

  • 500g chest­nut mush­rooms, sliced
  • 2 cloves gar­lic, crushed
  • Hand­ful fresh thyme leaves
  • Splash of olive oil
  • Knob of butter
  • Season­ing
  • Trickle of truffle oil
  • 1 ball of smoked moz­zarella (plain moz­zarella is good too, if you’re stuck)

Make the flat­bread bat­ter by whisk­ing all the ingredi­ents together and allow­ing to rest for at least two hours, or overnight if your prefer, covered. The mix­ture will make six flat­breads — two left over for the sug­ges­tion at the bot­tom of this recipe.

Heat a small, non stick fry­ing pan/skillet on the hob until hot. Ladle in a spoon­ful of bat­ter — about 1/6th of your mix­ture and enough to coat the pan — and cook on a high heat for 2 minutes, until the bot­tom of the flat­bread has browned nicely. Flip it over with a spat­ula and cook the other side for a fur­ther one to two minutes. Repeat until you’ve used up all the bat­ter. Stack up the flat­breads and turn to the mushrooms.

Melt the but­ter with the olive oil in a large fry­ing pan over a medium heat. Add the mush­rooms, gar­lic, thyme and season­ing and cook until the mush­rooms are softly golden. Remove from the heat.

When ready to assemble your flat­breads, pre­heat your grill. Slice the smoked moz­zarella and divide between the four flat­breads. Divide the mush­rooms evenly too and pile on top of the moz­zarella — you can do this neatly or cas­u­ally, whichever method suits your patience and your aes­thet­ics. Place the breads on a grill pan and grill until the moz­zarella has become mol­ten. Remove from the heat and trickle over a little truffle oil. Either eat them in the warmth of your kit­chen, or fold them over and wrap them up ready for your picnic.

You will have two flat­breads left over — these are good spread with hum­ous. They’re also deli­cious if you dip pieces into a little olive oil and then dab them into a mix­ture of crushed pista­chios, cumin, sumac and salt.

Joan Miro was both invent­ive and revolu­tion­ary. He once said of his art that ‘the more local some­thing is, the more it is uni­ver­sal’. The man who brought us sear­ingly vivid litho­graphs, tapestries, paint­ings and sculp­tures also, as it turned out, devised the most per­fect man­tra for eat­ing too. Local equals uni­ver­sal. Brilliant.

Hotpot With High Kicks

When life gets really tough for anim­ated char­ac­ters Wal­lace and Gro­mit, they have a sure-fire way to steady their nerves. ‘Hold tight, lad’, exhorts Wal­lace in A Grand Day Out, ‘…and think of Lan­cashire hotpot’.

There’s some­thing robustly for­ti­fy­ing about hot­pot; essen­tially a slow-cooked cas­ser­ole trapped beneath a layer of sliced pota­toes. It’s about as dainty as a rhino­ceros in bal­let shoes, but if it’s com­fort and nour­ish­ment you need, there’s noth­ing better.

I was brought up on Lan­cashire hot­pot. My Great Auntie Susie made it at least once a week through­out my child­hood. When I got my first BBC job as a reporter at Radio Manchester, I lived with my Grandpa in his immacu­late little house just out­side the city and he assumed hot­pot duties. It was the time of the bit­ter coal miners’ strike and I spent most of my time report­ing on the clashes between the oppos­ing sides. Grandpa had once worked at the pits him­self and was pas­sion­ately par­tisan. Over a hot­pot at his kit­chen table he would fume over the fate of the pits and the miners.

I didn’t have enough money to buy a car — slightly com­prom­ising for a news reporter — but Grandpa, always gen­er­ous, offered to drive me when I needed a lift. We made an unlikely pair, arriv­ing at col­lier­ies and picket lines in his ancient Ford Cor­tina estate. Even when I worked the night shift, he’d turn up if I got stran­ded. Mid­night, 2am, 3.30 am — he genu­inely didn’t mind. And usu­ally, when we got home, there would be a hot­pot in the oven and maybe even a rice pud­ding.

The truth is that I didn’t really like hot­pot that much. It was famil­iar, it was cheap and it was filling. But it was bland and dull. My own ver­sion of hot­pot isn’t one that Grandpa or my Auntie Susie would have recog­nised. It’s made with beef instead of lamb for a start and it’s rich with herbs, gar­lic and red wine and gar­nished with rose­mary flowers and lemon zest.

Grandpa was the fussi­est per­son I’ve ever known, although I think he would have liked this new incarn­a­tion of his famil­iar recipe. Both he and Auntie Susie would have been hor­ri­fied by the rose­mary flowers and lemon zest though, and would have dragged them meth­od­ic­ally to the sides of their plates.


Serves 4

  • 1kg good qual­ity brais­ing steak
  • 4 table­spoons olive oil
  • 2 medium onions, chopped medium fine
  • 4 car­rots, peeled and cut into roughly 2cm chunks
  • 1 leek, sliced into roughly 2cm pieces
  • 2 gar­lic cloves, sliced finely
  • 1 400g tin chopped organic plum tomatoes
  • Half bottle red wine
  • 500ml veget­able stock
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 good hand­ful fresh thyme leaves
  • 3 table­spoons aged bal­samic vinegar
  • 1 tea­spoon sugar
  • Season­ing
  • 3 or 4 waxy pota­toes per person
  • Hand­ful rose­mary flowers or finely chopped rose­mary and zest of a lemon

Pre­heat the oven to 160 degrees C.

Sea­son the meat and brown it with three table­spoons of the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed cas­ser­ole or pan. You will need to do it in batches to make sure you brown it, rather than boil it. Remove the meat to a bowl and add the car­rots, onions, leek and gar­lic to the pan. Saute the veget­ables for five minutes until they start to take on a little col­our. Keep­ing the veget­ables in the pan, deglaze it by adding the red wine and stir­ring to remove all the good­ness stick­ing to the bot­tom. Sim­mer for a couple of minutes and then add all the rest of the ingredi­ents, browned meat included, apart from the pota­toes, rose­mary and lemon zest. Bring back to sim­mer­ing point, cover and then place in the oven for around three hours, but a little longer won’t do it any harm. Check on it after a couple of hours.

Remove from the oven. The meat will be tender, melt­ing and deli­cious but you will most likely need to reduce the sauce a little. Place the pan, uncovered, on a gentle to mod­er­ate heat on the hob. Once the sauce is a rich, silky con­sist­ency, check the seasoning.

While the sauce is redu­cing, boil the pota­toes in their skins for 15 minutes. While still warm, remove the skins and slice the pota­toes. Either place the slices on top of the meat in the cas­ser­ole dish, or divide the beef into indi­vidual bowls and cover with potato. Sea­son the pota­toes, brush with the remain­ing table­spoon of olive oil and place back in the hot oven for 15 more minutes. Tra­di­tion­ally the pota­toes would have been added raw at the very start of cook­ing. This method gives the poor old pota­toes less of a bash­ing. Serve the hot­pot with a scat­ter­ing of rose­mary and lemon zest.

Whichever ver­sion of this old clas­sic you choose, the beauty of a hot­pot is that it will sit hap­pily in the oven for hours at a time, just wait­ing to spring out and do a song and dance routine. A bit like Grandpa, really.

Six Ingredients In Search Of A Recipe

In the league table of cel­eb­rated plays that should never be per­formed on stage, Shakespeare’s grue­some Titus Andronicus has to come top. But I’ve always thought Pirandello’s 1921 play Six Char­ac­ters in Search of an Author may be up there too. His open­ing night audi­ence in Rome yelled ‘man­icomio’ or ‘mad­house’ through­out the per­form­ance and the humi­li­ated Pir­an­dello had to slip out of a side door.

The play’s eccent­ric premise is this: a rehearsal is tak­ing place on stage when six half-written char­ac­ters barge into the theatre demand­ing to be allowed to act out their drama. The bewildered Dir­ector gives in and the bizarre event con­cludes with a drown­ing and a sui­cide. This week­end I’m see­ing it on stage for the very first time, so I’ll let you know if it’s per­form­able or not.

I love a good post­mod­ern exper­i­ment, in food as well as lit­er­at­ure. So when I had a whim to make lem­on­grass and lemon thyme ice-cream, it struck me that this might be my Pir­an­dello moment. Great concept, mad­house in real­ity? Or daft idea, sub­lime res­ult? Would my six ice-cream ingredi­ents make for the per­fect per­form­ance or would I be forced out of the kit­chen, pur­sued by mem­bers of my fam­ily wav­ing rolling pins and shout­ing ‘man­icomio maniac’?


For the ice-cream

  • 1 cup semi skimmed milk
  • 2 cups double cream
  • 3/4 cup caster sugar
  • 6 large egg yolks (you can use the whites for the biscuits)
  • Three hand­fuls of fresh lemon thyme, includ­ing the soft stalks
  • 2 bulbs of fresh lem­on­grass, bruised with a rolling pin and sliced finely

For the biscuits

  • 2 egg whites
  • 60g softened unsalted but­ter (I like Les­cure but­ter best)
  • 1/2 cup plain flour
  • 1/2 cup caster sugar
  • Finely grated zest of a lemon

For the mango milkshake

  • Slightly over­ripe Alphonso man­goes or 1 tin Alphonso mango pulp. The exquis­ite, per­fumed fruit are in sea­son in April, but if you can’t find any, the tinned pulp is excep­tion­ally good
  • Equal quant­it­ies of ice-cold semi skimmed milk

To make the ice-cream, com­bine the milk, sugar, 1 cup of the cream, the thyme and the lem­on­grass. Warm it through until hot, but not boil­ing. Take off the heat, cover and allow the fla­vours to infuse for around an hour and a half.

Once the cream has infused, whisk the egg yolks. Still whisk­ing, pour a little of the warm cream mix­ture into the bowl. Add a little more, whisk­ing all the while, and then pour the tempered eggs back into the pan con­tain­ing the rest of the cream mix.

Put the pan back on a gentle to medium heat and con­tinue to stir until the mix­ture becomes custard-like and coats the back of a wooden spoon. Add the remain­ing cup of cream and pour the whole lot into a cold bowl. Once cooled com­pletely, strain the mix­ture into your ice-cream maker and churn it.

To make the bis­cuits, whisk the egg whites very lightly and com­bine with the other ingredi­ents. Pour a little of the bat­ter into well-buttered fairy cake tins or lar­ger tart­let tins if you prefer. I used tart­let tins approx­im­ately 12 cm in dia­meter which pro­duced 9 bis­cuits. Bake at 200 degrees C for around 5 minutes. Remove from the oven and ease the bis­cuits gently out of the tins with a plastic knife.

To make the mango milk­shake, com­bine equal quant­it­ies of mango puree and ice-cold milk. If you feel that an authen­tic milk­shake needs a few bubbles, froth it with a milk frother.

After I laid on my first night per­form­ance of Six Ingredi­ents in Search of a Recipe, my son — who’s no pushover — announced that it’s now his num­ber one favour­ite ice-cream. And this from a teen­ager who would hap­pily eat my chocol­ate and pea­nut but­ter ice-cream seven days a week. The fla­vour of the ice-cream is per­fumed and creamy, with a subtle and del­ic­ate prom­ise of lemon. The mango is the per­fect coun­ter­bal­ance and the bis­cuit provides a much needed ele­ment of crunch.

Man­icomio or para­dise? Try it and let me know.