Crafting ‘a perfect lunch’ menu with seasonal ingredients

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Photos by Laura Edwards/Octopus Books.

the best of early summer

asparagus, peas & radishes with pistachio pesto
crab, tomato & saffron tart
gooseberry & almond cake with lemon thyme syrup

The title of this menu is a bit cruel because a perfect lunch is the stuff of dreams. A sprawl of garrulous friends, a rumpled tablecloth, an assortment of glasses and bottles… this scene has been painted, photographed and filmed. (You can never remember the name of the film, but French ‘perfect lunch’ scenes are invariably presided over by a beautiful woman d’un certain age , while the Italian versions feature families with boundless, gesticulating energy.)

In real life, lunches can be more like a scene from a Danish Dogme film (tears, imploding families, bitter truths). Perhaps because I watched too many French and Italian films in my teens and twenties, I’ve given the perfect lunch a lot of thought and have often strained every sinew in an attempt to deliver it. In the past, I’ve got up at 6am to put on slow-cooked pork… and was therefore ready to go back to bed just as everyone arrived. On another occasion, a guest took me into the kitchen and started to cry, because her husband was having an affair. I did want to sympathize but, really, I was more worried about overcooking the fish.

Basically, I have tried too hard – and not always in the right way – which is why a perfect lunch is a perplexing concept. In our efforts to be generous, to cater for all tastes and to lavish love, we make dishes that are too complicated or cook too many of them. (I am totally guilty of this last one, always adding just one more glorious vegetable ensemble.) You, the host and cook, end up back-timing dishes at the stove rather than chatting at the table. The food, because you’ve evidently put such a lot into it, is praised in a way that stops the flow of conversation (yes, the praise is nice, but it’s not the point). By the time the guests leave you’re exhausted, and a sense of anticlimax descends as you pack the leftovers into the fridge. It has not been the relaxed affair you envisaged.

But it’s difficult if it isn’t part of your birthright – by which I mean you’re not French or Italian – to present food just at that perfectly pitched level of casualness. So this is the challenge: to make a lunch that doesn’t frazzle you, where the food is good but not spectacular (in that ‘look what I’ve made’ kind of way), and the number of dishes is limited.

This menu works. The asparagus needs to be cooked at the last minute, but that’s do-able. If you don’t want to make the pesto, then just serve the asparagus with melted butter, or melted butter and some chunks of creamy, mild goat’s cheese scattered over the top. The tart case and filling can be made in advance (keep them separate), then all you have to do is assemble and bake it; it’s so rich that complicated side dishes would ruin it, so just compose a leaf salad. The pudding can be cooked the day before. If you don’t want to bake a cake, serve poached gooseberries with whipped cream into which you’ve stirred some elderflower cordial (shortbread biscuits alongside would be good, too).

Although this is a considered meal – it takes advantage of the best ingredients around in early summer – it doesn’t require a lot of skill. Enthusiastic cooks will find it hard not to add just one more dish: resist.

gooseberry & almond cake with lemon thyme syrup

This is a pale pudding – soft green and cream – which seems just right for early summer. I serve it with extra gooseberries, poached (there’s a recipe for them below), but you don’t have to.

serves 6–8

for the cake
125g (4½oz) unsalted butter, softened, plus more for the tin
125g (4½oz) caster sugar, 
plus 5 tablespoons
3 large eggs, at room temperature, lightly beaten
75g (2¾oz) plain flour, sifted
2 teaspoons chopped lemon thyme leaves
finely grated zest of 1 unwaxed lemon
75g (2¾oz) ground almonds (preferably freshly ground)
¾ teaspoon baking powder
350g (12oz) gooseberries, topped and tailed
for the syrup
4 tablespoons granulated sugar
juice of 2 large lemons
2 teaspoons lemon thyme leaves
for the poached gooseberries
75g (2¾oz) granulated sugar
2 lemon thyme sprigs
500g (1lb 2oz) gooseberries, topped and tailed
to serve
thyme flowers, if you can find any
icing sugar, to dust (optional)
sweetened crème fraîche, or whipped cream

Preheat the oven to 190°C/375°F/gas mark 5. Butter a 20cm (8in) springform cake tin and line the base with baking parchment.
Beat the butter and the 125g (4½oz) of caster sugar until pale and fluffy. Add the eggs a little at a time, beating well after each addition. If the mixture starts to curdle, add 1 tablespoon of the flour. Put the lemon thyme leaves in a mortar with the lemon zest and pound together to release the fragrance. Add to the batter and briefly mix. Fold in the rest of the flour, the almonds and the baking powder, using a large metal spoon. Scrape into the tin. Toss the gooseberries with the remaining 5 tablespoons of caster sugar and spread over the top. Bake for 30 minutes.

The cake is ready when a skewer inserted into the center comes out clean. To make the syrup, quickly heat the granulated sugar, lemon juice and lemon thyme leaves in a saucepan, stirring to help the sugar dissolve. Pierce the cake all over with a skewer while it is still warm and slowly pour the syrup into it. Leave to cool a little, then carefully remove from the tin and put on a serving plate.
Meanwhile, poach the gooseberries. Heat 175ml (6fl oz) of water, the granulated sugar and lemon thyme together in a saucepan, stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Add the gooseberries and cook over a medium heat for 4 minutes, or until the fruit is soft but not collapsing (most of the berries should still hold their shape). Leave to cool.

Any thyme flowers you have will look lovely on top of the cake. You can leave it as it is, or dust lightly with icing sugar just before serving, with sweetened crème fraîche or whipped cream and the poached gooseberries on the side.