Lunch, at least at the weekend, has moved to the garden. To be more specific, it has moved from the kitchen table to one under a tree, where we can eat in the open air, but hidden from the glare of the sun.
For eating outdoors, I like the idea of a large serving plate of food rather than doing battle with trying to get individual plated portions from kitchen to garden. More than that, I like the idea of food passed around the table from person to person, with each taking only what they want. I appreciate the informality of a meal served this way. Hand the person next to you some food and there is an immediate sense of sharing.
There are very few plates in this house large enough to be declared a "serving dish". Maybe a couple that will hold enough food for six or eight, even though there are plenty of platters going for a song secondhand. But there are other possibilities, a tart the size of whole Brie, brought from the kitchen on its tin base, presented with a knife for each person to cut whatever they want. A cake served pass-the-parcel style, or, easiest of all, a huge bowl full of original and unusual fruit salad. All your friends can dip in as they wish.
The summer savoury tart is invariably a success for this type of meal: it can be cooked before friends arrive (the pastry can even be made the day before), it can be kept warm without coming to grief and any leftovers are great served cold the next day.
Summer fillings for savoury tarts are different from those I make for an autumn or winter's day. The onions that I cook slowly until sweet and amber-coloured are replaced, if used at all, by pink-flushed spring onions cut fine. The herbs will be more delicate and probably aniseed-based: chervil or tarragon rather than thyme or finely chopped rosemary. The fillings will be of summer vegetables and seafood, such as crab - using both white and brown meat - or salmon and watercress. Soft flavours, delicate colours.
Last week I had a deep savoury tart in Helsinki that I ordered more out of curiosity than anything else. Asparagus works so well in a custardy quiche filling, but blue cheese, too? My assumption that the cheese would smother the almost shy flavour of the "sparrow grass" proved wrong. The result was sublime, so I'm bringing the idea home. And I will be serving it in all its uncut glory, for everyone to tuck in, cutting each other as much as they wish, then passing it on to the next. A dish to get everyone talking and, above all, sharing.
Asparagus and Roquefort tart
You can use Roquefort, of course, but other blues such as Stichelton, Stilton, Beenleigh and Crozier will work nicely, too. Use whatever looks good. Because of the deep flavour, you need very little. You will need a 22cm tart tin with a removable base. The base of the pastry should be quite peppery, but it is calmed by the creamy custard filling. Serves 8.
For the pastry:
butter 90g, fridge cold
plain flour 150g
egg yolk 1
black pepper 1 tsp, very coarsely ground
For the filling:
asparagus spears 12
double cream 300ml
Roquefort or other blue cheese 200g
Make the pastry. Cut the butter into small dice and rub into the flour with your fingertips, or reduce to fine crumbs in a food processor. Add the egg yolk, the peppercorns and a tablespoon or two of water and bring the mixture to a firm, even-textured dough. Wrap in clingfilm and refrigerate for 20 minutes. Set the oven at 200C/gas mark 6.
Bring a pot of water to the boil, cut the asparagus into short lengths and cook in the furiously boiling water for 5 minutes or so until almost tender, then remove it with a draining spoon. (It will get a further cooking in the oven.) Make the custard by beating the eggs very lightly into the cream, then seasoning with black pepper, and, depending on how salty your blue cheese is, a little salt.
Line the tart case with the pastry, making certain you have pushed the pastry deep into the corners and that there are absolutely no tears or cracks. Line with greaseproof paper and baking beans, then bake for 15-20 minutes, carefully remove the beans and return the pastry case to the oven for a further 5 minutes or until the pastry feels dry to the touch.
Turn the oven down to 180C/gas mark 4. Place the asparagus spears in the pastry case, then crumble the blue cheese over the top. Pour the custard into the pastry case and carefully transfer to the oven and bake for about 40 minutes. Leave to cool a little, then transfer to a plate.
Strawberry and cucumber salad
I know this sounds extraordinary, but it is the crispest, most refreshing fruit salad imaginable. The strawberries and cucumber work together with the syrup beautifully. This is summer in a bowl. And if you really can't handle the idea of cucumber, then it is jolly good with strawberries and banana.
For the syrup:
honey 3 tbsp
elderflower cordial 5 tbsp
cucumbers 2, medium
Put the honey, mint and elderflower syrup into a blender and blitz to a thick, fragrant syrup. If you don't have a blender, chop the mint very, very finely, mix it with the honey and cordial, then leave it for an hour. Strain through a fine sieve or muslin to remove the mint.
Peel the cucumbers, slice them in half down their length, then scrape the seeds out with a teaspoon. Dice the flesh finely and put it in a large bowl. Remove the leaves from the strawberries, slice the fruit in half and toss gently with the cucumber.
Pour the mint and elderflower syrup into the fruit, stir very gently, then leave for about 30 minutes, in the fridge and covered, before serving.
Email Nigel at firstname.lastname@example.org
In Picture: Queen of tarts: asparagus and Roquefort tart. Photograph: Jonathan Lovekin for the Observer