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.

When Colours Run Riot

There was a phase in the 1970s when interior design ran riot. I remember my grandpa announcing proudly that he’d decorated the walls of his small front room with four wildly different wallpapers and picked out the woodwork in egg-yolk yellow.

I thought of my grandpa as I walked around David Hockney’s new exhibition A Bigger Picture at the Royal Academy in London. The exhibition is vast and overwhelming and throbs with wild colours and patterns. It’s generous, showy and utterly independent in spirit and yet it’s meticulous and somehow dogged too – qualities that pretty much sum up my grandpa.

Walking through Oxford’s University Parks later that day, I felt somehow let down that the winter branches didn’t have the vibrancy of David Hockney’s trees.

But turning 180 degrees so that the sun was shining on the trunks, the colours jumped into life. I got a whole new perspective. And if that’s not a metaphor for life, I don’t know what is.

Muted, restrained food is the last thing I wanted after the Hockney tidal wave. I craved the idea of eating a riot of colour. When in that mood and at this time of year, there’s really only one choice – full throttle, lip-staining, finger-smearing, red and yellow beetroots. I found a bag of just such a thing for half price at Wholefoods, along with a silver foil hickory smoker from Finland for £2.29.

I have a disastrous record at home-smoking. The last time I tried we had to evacuate the house. But I figured I’d be safe in the hands of the Finns. If you want a really strong smokey flavour, this bag will disappoint you. But for a delicate hint of smoke, without the need for a full evacuation plan, this bag works fine.

SMOKED RED AND GOLDEN BEETROOT WITH GOAT’S CURD AND SMOKED GARLIC

Serves 4

  • 2 red and 2 golden beetroot
  • 4 small red onions
  • Salad leaves
  • Goat’s curd
  • 1 head garlic
  • 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • Bunch thyme
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Blackberry vinegar – I bought mine from Womersley Foods
  • 1 disposable foil smoker – bought from Wholefoods for £2.29

Wash the beetroot, but don’t bother to peel them. Slice into rounds about 1.5 to 2 cm thick. Peel the onions but leave whole. Toss the beetroot, onions, whole head of garlic and thyme in the olive oil and balsamic vinegar, season and place in a single layer inside the foil smoker. Seal the foil and place in a pre-heated oven at 250 degrees C. After 15 minutes turn the heat down to 190 degrees C. Cook for a further 45 minutes. Remove the package from the oven and allow to cool for 15 minutes before cutting open the foil. Peel the beetroot and slice into thinnish circles.

Make a salad dressing from a little olive oil, blackberry vinegar and seasoning and dress the salad leaves. Pile the beetroot, onions and scoops of goat’s curd over the leaves and trickle over a little of the balsamic and olive oil from the smoker. After its hour of baking, the garlic will be rich, sweet and unctuous – perfect when spread on a little sourdough bread.

 I ate my riotous salad and bread with beetroot soup that I made by baking beetroots and apples for an hour and blending with vegetable stock and a little grated fresh horseradish.

apple on a plate

My grandpa was wild with his colour schemes but exceptionally timid in his tastes. He would have hated this recipe. But he would have loved the ideas that lie behind it, and that’s good enough for me.