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May 2nd – Chariots of Fire and Warming leaves

Dear Nigel,

My prodigal son returns from Germany for a few days and I am all smiles. We talk, Christopher and I, on a deeper level and its good to have him around the place again. The first day is spent doing something so out of my orbit that I feel we are on a different planet: We spend the day at a Health Spa in robes and slippers having treatments and lounging round the jacuzzi. It is my Mother’s Day present and a good place to really talk and catch up on everything. We have dual massages and facials and my beautiful son joins me with an eyebrow shape.

When he was a little boy and just starting to notice who he was, he used to catch sight of himself in a mirror and smile. Always a golden child – the sort the sun smiles on, and believes the world deserves him – we used to tease him that we would buy him a showtime mirror with light bulbs round the edge which had written on it, ‘Yes, Chris, you look wonderful’. Yet for all that, he has still managed to temper his vanity with being just a really nice person.

I gather up the clan for a family meal out and during the day James and Chris ( now 26 and 24) decide to go for a run, ostensibly to practise for a marathon they think they might enter in together. My chalk-and-cheese children – one the quiet, earnest academic; the other an extrovert, charismatic salesman – have one thing in common. These two, always so well-matched, played football in the same team, played tennis, rugby, swam. And as I watch the legs fly past on the lane outside the cottage, I realise that this is no gentle jog. It doesn’t matter how many years have gone past – how their lives have been shaped and changed –  they are not practising for a long run, they are little boys once again competing with each other to be first. James (who claims not to do competition these days), I suspect, has been secretly working for this moment.

The warm weather has sent green shoots thrusting through the soil everywhere. I spend some time weeding and tidying up; never quite sure that what I’m pulling up is an actual weed and not something I planted last summer. The most prolific plants at this time of year seem to be dandelions, and I see they have been infesting your garden too. Your answer, naturally, is to eat the little buggers.’When the leaves are no bigger than my middle finger they are sweet enough to use in a salad. Any larger and they are tinged with a bitter streak.’ It is some time since I last used them in salad, and I’m not sure they compared favourably to rocket, but you’ve caught at an idea that I’ve been considering lately: hot salad.

I’ve made several meals where, instead of sweating a few baby spinach leaves for example, I’ve merely ‘dumped’ (a culinary term!) pasta, or whatever, on top and allowed it to wilt the spinach.You are doing something similar – although I’m sure far more beautifully served – with dandelion leaves; tossing them with hot bacon. ‘Unlike rocket and some of the more fragile lettuces, they don’t dissolve when they come into contact with the hot rashers. You get crunchy, milky sapped leaves and sizzling bacon.’ I’m not convinced about the flowers though; edible they may be, and I’m sure Alys Fowler makes delectable tiny pancakes. But its not like eating nasturtiums.They still look like those horrible yellow weeds that we kids used to say only grew where someone had peed.

Another, possibly more likely alternative, is the warm dressing  you make in ‘a salad of spring lamb, lemon and olives’ (page 174). The dandelion leaves here are part of a mixture of salad leaves used, which could contain watercress, rocket or bitter frisee. The meat juices form the base of the dressing and the olives are warmed in it, along with garlic, rosemary, and lemon peel and juice. Seasoned, and tipped over the salad, they make a nice base for the meal with the noisettes of lamb added on top. Great for a time of year when its not quite warm-enough to discard a pullover, and a full-blown salad seems a little insubstantial.

Midweek, and we are both resorting to a light omelette for supper. I favour something very simple, like chives and a little grated hard cheese, with salad; but you like yours stacked with a good few flavourings. I’m pleased to note that we both share the same dog-eared little french black steel pan ‘only non-stick because of the years of service it has given’.'I’m not sure how long it has lived here, but I can’t remember a time when this small black pan wasn’t around.’ Mine goes back decades. It was a simple, inexpensive purchase and I have never felt the need to ‘improve’ on it.

‘The more I cook, the more I realise that if a piece of kitchen equipment works it doesn’t matter whether it’s the correct one or not. Who is to say that a particular knife or pan is right for a certain job? What matters is that it works for us, that we are comfortable working with it, and that it works for the food too. The crucial point is that we end up with something good to eat, and it really doesn’t matter how we get there.’

I like your idea for chorizo fried with spring onion, chilli flakes, garlic and soy as a topping. The Spring onions are good at the minute and, chopped with scissors, add a welcome bit of green in a flash to the pan. Think I’ll give this a go next time. Still need warming foods like these in this climate.

Martha



Top Actress

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