There are many things I am not good at. I cannot ride a bicycle, or drive a car. I’m not very good at remembering faces, or names, or my keys. My hearing is awful, as are my eyes. I’m awful at packing, I’m not very good at planning things, thinking ahead, gardening. I am in no shape or form funny, I cannot tell a joke. And, of course, I’m not very good at roasting meat. These are things I have mostly accepted, and resolved to try harder to improve on. There’s one thing that I do find very tricky, and I don’t mean to portray myself as a social outcast, but I’m not very good at talking to people. In general, I’m a pretty awkward person; this obviously isn’t helped by my bad hearing, poor eyesight, and inability to make someone laugh. I’d like to be charming and charismatic, but in reality, well, it just doesn’t turn out like that. I’m always nervous, not often relaxed, and I’m scared of most things. This is something I do try and work on, but it’s not something that changes easily.
We had a houseguest staying for a few days. He was a friend of my brother, and after the second night he had been staying with us, I realised I hadn’t had a proper conversation with him. This wasn’t entirely due to my conversational inabilities. We were both at work all day, and I’d been out both of the evenings he had been staying. The only words we’d shared were goodnight, as I wandered into the sitting room where he was sleeping one night, forgetting that he would be in there (did I mention my awful memory?).
So on the third day of his stay, I could think of no reason not to cook dinner for us all, sit down and finally talk. Because although I’m no socialite, something happens when I’m sat at a table laden with food I have cooked that makes me relaxed. Perhaps it’s the fact that I’m more worried about a person liking my food than liking me, it takes the pressure off me socially. Plus, if it’s a dinner party, there are people around who aren’t me. So I invited one of my friends.
All in all, it was a success, aided in part by the bottles of wine and cider littering the table, but also by the kind of table laden with homely, unpretentious food. I say that like I could cook a dinner that would seem pretentious. Maybe I could. But when I’m cooking for someone who I’d like to know better, a simple tart and a vegetable stew is, in my mind, the perfect way to strike up a conversation.
For six (it’s good for lunch the next day too)
75g Gruyere, grated
100g Parmesan, grated
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
two big handfuls of basil
salt and pepper
500g puff pastry
Preheat the oven to 200°c
Roll out the pastry, place on a floured baking sheet, and put in the fridge until you’re ready to layer it.
In a bowl, mash the mascarpone with the garlic, add the grated cheeses and the basil leaves, and stir until all mixed together. Season with salt and pepper.
Slice the tomatoes.
Spread the mascarpone mixture onto the pastry leaving a finger space around the edge.
Layer the tomatoes on top, they will overlap, and it might not look beautiful, but you want as many slices as you can possible fit on.
Sprinkle over a bit of salt and pepper. Some thyme leaves wouldn’t go amiss if you fancied.
Put in the oven for 30 minutes.
Turn the oven down to 150°c and leave the tart for another 35 minutes.
Summer Vegetable Stew
500g charlotte potatoes, or other small waxy potatoes, halved lengthways
Four or five shallots cut into wedges
3 leeks cut into chunks
5 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 bulbs of fennel cut into wedges
6 big tomatoes, chopped
700ml vegetable stock
pinch of saffron
3 thyme sprigs
4tsp tomato puree
pinch of cayenne pepper
salt and pepper
grated gruyere (optional)
Sauté the potatoes, leeks and onions with the garlic for about 15 minutes.
Add the stock, the saffron, thyme, cayenne and tomato puree. Season with salt and pepper, then bring to the boil and simmer until the potatoes are just becoming tender.
Add the fennel and the tomatoes. Cook for another 10 minutes, until all the vegetables are cooked.
Add the lemon juice and cook for one more minute before serving with some crusty bread. If you want some grated cheese on top, it is good, but we only had it because there was some left over from the tart.