I’ve been re-reading Alice B Toklas’ Murder in the Kitchen, the most brilliant compendium of food writing. Although her book was written in Nazi-occupied France, the murder in question is not war-related, but refers to the dispatching of pigeons, carp and the occasional duck that wandered into the kitchen. (A stiff drink and a few cigarettes is recommended for the murderer-cook.) Toklas was lover, muse, confidante and critic to friend-of-the-artists Gertrude Stein, and she learns to tiptoe around the artistic sensibilities of their famous visitors. A baked striped bass is chilled and then topped with colour-blocks of red mayonnaise, green parsley and the chopped whites and yolks of hard boiled eggs. Picasso, whilst appreciating the effort to create this masterpiece, says “But better for Matisse, no?!”*
This story came to mind because I attended an art dinner this week at Grand Union, the gallery and studio space in Digbeth, and I thought what a hard lot artistic people are to cook for. All credit to the brave chef! They’re a hard lot to please full stop. I’ve been helping Matt to prepare a new exhibition gallery and studios, upstairs from his workshop. He wasn’t impressed with my sanding but I think I passed the painting test, just about…
But back to matters of food and gardening. The hot weather has had a brilliant effect on the slugs: they’ve sloped off out of the sun. Great news. In their absence the beans and brassicas are rejuvenating, and the spinach and chard are leafing up nicely. I’m getting several bunches of sweet peas, cosmos, calendula and lavender a week, though the ammi is a bit drab this year. Oh – and the sunflowers are beginning to make their sunny brash presence known.
I don’t know if it’s the inspiration of Alice B. Toklas, or the sunny weather, or the allotment bounty that’s now arriving, but I’ve been lusting after doing some Proper Cooking. Yesterday I baked up a batch of hot smoked salmon and spinach tarts – a perfect light summer supper. The inspiration for these is a salmon and broccoli flan that my Mum used to get from Sainsbury’s in the 1980s, when we were kids. It had pale pastry and a deep eggy middle, and I loved it. This is a grown-up version for 2016 – I’ve substituted the broccoli for spinach, as that’s what I grow.
First things first, get yourself some decent smoked salmon. I used a roasted smoked salmon but regular (raw) cuts would work too – they’re going to be baked after all.
Next, make a shortcrust pastry in the usual way. I used half-butter half-lard, like I was taught at school, as it makes for the shortest, crispest pastry. Bake the tart cases blind until the bases have dried out and are lightly golden. Incidentally, despite making pastry for years, mine always comes out wonky; it’s something I’ve learned to live with.
For the filling, soften some spring onions in a touch of olive oil, and blanch the spinach in boiling water until it collapses. My spinach came from the allotment and is sturdy (I only used five or six leaves) but the supermarket stuff is more inclined to dissolve to mush so you’ll need a bit more. Be sure to drain it really, really well – squeeze all the liquid out with your hands – else you’ll end up with a soggy tart.
Spread the spinach, onions and salmon over the tart bases, then top with a savoury custard made from whisked eggs, cream and milk. Then it’s a question of baking until golden and puffy – but with a little wobble in the middle.
I made four small and one large tart. The small ones make for a dainty summer starter and they’ve gone in the freezer for another day. Serve the tarts warm or at room temperature, with a mustard-spiked salad.
Hot smoked salmon & spinach tart
Makes 1 6-inch and 4 individual tarts, or 1 large 12-inch tart
400g plain flour
100g salted butter
About 200g roast smoked salmon
5-6 sturdy allotment spinach leaves, or a bag of shop-bought leaves
5-6 spring onions, sliced
200ml double cream
salt & pepper
First, make your pastry. Rub the butter and lard into the flour, add sufficient cold water to make a pliable dough, then cover and rest it in the fridge for an hour or two. Pre-heat the oven to 190c. Use the pastry to line your cases; leave an overhang if you can, to allow for shrinkage. Line with baking parchment and baking beads and bake blind for about 15 minutes, until the base is set. Remove the paper and beads and continue cooking for a further 5 minutes (for individual tarts) or 10-15 minutes for larger tarts, until the pastry is lightly golden. Leave the tart shells to cool and then trim the edges with a serrated knife if they need it.
For the filling, blanch the spinach in boiling water for 30 seconds then drain well. When cool, squeeze all the liquid out with your hands, then finely slice. Soften the spring onions in a little oil. Flake the salmon. Mix the fish and vegetables together and fill each of the tart cases.
Make a custard by whisking the eggs, cream and milk together with pepper and a little salt (not too much as the fish is salty).
Decrease the oven to 160c. Place the tart shells, still in their metal tins, on a baking sheet (this makes moving them around much easier). Pour in the custard to near the top, then bake for 15 minutes (individual tarts) and 30 minutes (larger tarts). They should be golden and puffed but still with slight wobble. Cool for 15 minutes or more before serving.
* If this makes no sense, I’ll explain: Matisse was famous for his colour-block works of art.