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.

CHICKPEA FLATBREADS WITH CHESTNUT MUSHROOMS, SMOKED MOZZARELLA AND TRUFFLE OIL

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.

Mushrooms Are Friends of Mine’

A great friend gave me a present this week — a copy of food writer M. F. K. Fisher’s 1968 book With Bold Knife and Fork. She’d spot­ted it in the win­dow of a junk shop and knew I’d love it. The book fell open and my eyes fixed on the fab­ulous phrase ‘Mush­rooms are friends of mine’.

At my first job inter­view to become a trainee journ­al­ist I was asked ‘Are you in love with words?’ It’s a ques­tion that was, and still is, impossible to answer. But I think there’s a case to say that the ques­tion ‘Are you friends with mush­rooms?’ is even harder.

Mush­room and Chest­nut Pies

These pies are spec­tac­u­larly good and if left to go cold make the most per­fect snack for a pic­nic — one of the great pleas­ures in life. I’d even go so far as to say that ‘pic­nics are friends of mine’.

4 large field mushrooms

Around 4 table­spoons olive oil

Small knob of butter

2 small red onions

1 clove garlic

2 sticks celery

1 leek

Hand­ful fresh thyme leaves

12 cooked chest­nuts (optional, or you could use wal­nuts, but these too are optional)

Half tea­spoon ground cumin

Half tea­spoon fen­nel seeds

I ball mozzarella

20g ched­dar or other hard cheese such as gruyere

1 table­spoon creme fraiche

Puff pastry sheet

1 egg

Pre­heat the oven to 175 degrees C.

The idea of these pies is that the mush­room itself should form the base of the pie. The filling is both creamy and savoury, while the puff pastry on top is flaky and light.

With a poin­ted knife remove the stalks from the mush­rooms, along with a frill of the gills. Chop finely and put to one side.

Finely chop the gar­lic and onions and fry them gently in the but­ter and olive oil, reserving a table­spoon of oil for later. Cook for five minutes until soft but not brown. Add the fen­nel seed and cumin and then the finely chopped cel­ery and cook for a fur­ther five minutes. Add the finely chopped leek, the reserved chopped mush­room stalks, the crumbled chest­nuts if using and the thyme leaves. Cook for another five minutes. Stir in the creme fraiche and sea­son with salt and black pepper.

Put the remain­ing olive oil in the palm of your hand and smooth the bases of the mush­rooms around your palm to coat them in oil. Place the mush­rooms in a heat­proof dish and heap the cooked mix­ture inside each one. Divide the two cheeses equally between the mush­rooms and sprinkle over the top. Cook the mush­rooms in the oven for fif­teen minutes until the cheese is bub­bling and melted. Cut the puff pastry sheet into circles the same size as each mush­room and place them on top. The mush­rooms will vary in size — I found I needed to cut the pastry with a mug, a glass and a small meas­ur­ing cup to get the circles to fit snugly. Brush beaten egg over the pastry. Replace the pastry-topped mush­rooms in the oven and cook for a fur­ther fif­teen minutes until the tops are golden and crisp. Allow to cool slightly and serve with a green salad.

What bet­ter friends could you have than mush­rooms and someone who comes to the door bear­ing gifts?