Tuesday, 23 July 2013

July 23rd - Molly is six

Dear Nigel,

Today is Molly's Birthday. She is six. My 'last chance' baby is spreading her wings and taken her first glimpse of independence. She gets her first proper bicycle and there is a smile from ear to ear that mirrors that of every middle age man taking possession of his first sports car. It is light blue and 'vintage' for a child more into making dens than playing Princesses. The other day whilst away camping she was making a careful pile of old shoes. 'This is the campfire,' she said, 'and these are the fire-lighters'. Perhaps next year she'll be asking for a Swiss knife and a set of mini hand-grenades.

Going away is always a two-edged sword for anyone who loves their garden. Those coveted flowers you have been waiting oh-so-patiently to open will inevitably flower and be on the way out by the time you come back. If, like me, you forget to specify which plants you'd like watering, you will come back to dead tubs and needy pot plants. The Autumn-fruiting raspberries have decided to arrive early and the birds are enjoying a feast. And there are roses; beautiful full-blown old fashioned roses with perfume wafting through the house. I pick some to take to a friend and they are the perfect summer present. Several of the lettuces are bolting in this heat, but the spinach is coming on leaps and bounds and the summer rhubarb taking over from the Timperley early. My neighbour Val comes over with tiny white bantam eggs and I think they will look lovely hard boiled in a salad.

You are in the mood for making tarts. In this case it is a 'Plum (or greengage) and almond tart' (page 292). A good tart is such a nice way to present the fruit and it makes a treasured crop go that little bit further. Tart tins become like old friends through use; the older, stained (but maybe not battered), the better. I will remember your tip for placing a baking sheet in the oven first. Many times have I suffered with a leaky filling dripping out of a loose-bottomed tin as it cooked not quite quickly enough, it seemed. Preheating the baking sheet 'will help to crisp the base as it cooks'.The frangipane mixture on which the fruit sits is an almost fool-proof way to ensure that fruit juices will be stoppered before they drip out of the tart, although it still helps to select your fruit wisely. In essence, nearly any seasonal fruit can be used to vary this tart (you suggest blackcurrants), although for me peaches and plums have that wow factor here as the fruit gently bakes on top.

I liked this simple recipe of yours for 'Tomato and basil bruschetta' (page 287). Initially caught by the fact that it uses one of my favourite store cupboard staples - marinated artichokes - it was just the sort of dish I would attempt to whip up myself but coming across it in print made it all the easier. On a hot summer's day something a little different to go along with the inevitable salad is welcome. And this makes a simple lunch. We have talked before about keeping the essence of basil going by cooking it in oil rather than have it crisp away to dust on the top of a pizza. Simple bread and oil is the answer. It tasted lovely and deep with the scent of summer basil.

An easy answer to those supermarket potted plants that look so enticing on the shelf but reach a critical point after a few days at home, shrieking 'use me or die' - usually on a day you have chosen to cook something entirely different for that evening's meal. If you've ever been held to ransom by one of these creatures sitting on its bed of dry and fibrey compost, though a hasty, last-minute purchase, then this an excellent antidote to 'the expensive compost heap' (as one friend called her organic veg box castoffs). Bad planning, perhaps, but we all do it. I suppose it's one area where we just want to eat what we want to eat and not be dictated to by the contents of our cupboards all the time. The rebel in us will out and the ingredients for the dish you decided not to make will sit there accusingly. Like the basil.

I am reading your entry for 11th July, about Parmesan. Like you I seem to have numerous different types of graters for this one little cheese. None of them is such a pleasure to use that I want to advertise it to all my friends and family. Inevitably there is a little of piece of hard Parmesan in the back of the fridge, getting harder and harder by the day, so that the day I finally try to use it I have to be careful that my family are actually getting cheese and not a handful of finely grated knuckle on their lasagne. Your brilliant answer - and one which I intend to change to right away - is to grate the entire thing whilst it is new and relatively pliant, and to put it in a box in the freezer. Although this doesn't work for salad dressings, you suggest, it seems an ideal answer to a common problem. In the past the answer, too often, has been to buy yet another piece of cheese and shunt away the little bit of hard stuff until there is a descending pile of ageing little bits of Parmesan that you could happily use in a humane mouse trap. The little bleeders would no doubt be holding up a white flag after chewing away unhappily for some hours making no progress at all.


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