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.