Image description: A polka dot picnic blanket covered with snacks, yellow flowers, a sunhat and candles.
Gather your government-mandated number of friends, favourite food, and head to one of Oxford’s many green spaces to enjoy a picnic, whether the sun’s out or not.
Trinity Term is the perfect time for picnics. Oxford is full of apt lunch spots: your college gardens, Christ Church Meadows, Port Meadow, University Parks, South Park, Botanic Gardens…the list is endless. But, if I’m honest, the food is what makes a picnic go from mediocre to delightful.
During Hilary Term, one of my friends whipped up a torta salata, a simple Italian tart consisting of vegetables and cheese encased in pastry. With the recent sunny spells in the UK, I attempted to try out some torte salate at home using shop-bought pastry and seasonal vegetables. I soon realised this is the best picnic food. A cross between a quiche, a tart, and a pizza, the torta salata originates in medieval Italy where it was called a pasticium romano. The humble vegetable pastry evolved to suit changing tastes and regional differences in produce.
It is a dish for everyday, often served sliced as antipasti or brought whole to a picnic. It all starts with some pastry (who has time for anything but shop-bought pastry, really?), vegetables and a binder of either egg, ricotta or a few tablespoons of olive oil. The simplicity and versatility lends itself to endless flavour combinations. Sometimes the best-tasting ones are made with whatever random ingredients are hiding in your fridge! I have opted to use seasonal vegetables as they often not only taste better, but cost less.
At the minute, asparagus, wild garlic, new potatoes, and purple sprouting broccoli are here for spring. If you feel like a forest walk out of the city centre, there are some rumoured wild garlic spots in Oxford where you can forage for a tasty topping to your dish. Later in term, runner beans, peas, courgettes, and spring onions are ripe and fresh for summer.
Asparagus, tomato and charred lemon torta salata for April and May:
1 packet of ready-rolled puff pastry (short-crust pastry is also an option)
1 punnet of cherry tomatoes
1 large lemon
1 bunch of asparagus
100g ricotta cheese
A few handfuls of grated hard Italian cheese (optional)
Olive oil (a glug for frying and 2 tbsp for the filling)
Salt and pepper
1. Preheat the oven to 200C/ fan 180C/ gas mark 6. Unroll the pastry onto a tray, using the wax paper to line it.
Note: A torta salata is round and about 20cm wide, but shop-bought pastry is usually rectangular. If you prefer a circular tart, just fold up the pastry in half and roll out into a circle, using a clean wine bottle if, like me, your student kitchen lacks a rolling pin. Maybe use the scraps to make cheese rolls with any leftover ricotta or parmesan.
2. Chop an inch off the woody asparagus ends and slice each spear diagonally into 3 pieces. Next, slice a large lemon into 2cm rounds and halve the cherry tomatoes.
3. Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a pan until it runs quickly over the surface. Add the lemon slices, season with a pinch of sea salt, and fry until fragrant and slightly charred. Transfer the lemon slices onto a plate to use later. Toss the asparagus into the same pan, sautéing until it blisters and browns for around 5 minutes.
4. Next, turn down the heat and add the cherry tomatoes. Stir frequently until they soften and release their juice. Turn off the heat and tip everything in a mixing bowl.
5. Dollop 100g ricotta, 2 tbsp olive oil, and 2 handfuls of grated parmesan into the mixing bowl. Stir until the vegetables are evenly coated, then season with salt and pepper to taste. You could also substitute the parmesan for Grana Padano or crumbled feta. Other tasty additions include a pinch of chilli flakes or a layer of pesto spread onto the pastry before adding the filling…
6. Spread the filling onto the pastry, leaving a 5-7cm gap around the edge. Layer the charred lemon slices on top and finish with a sprinkle of sea salt.
7. For the crust, fold the pastry edges over the top, making little crimps or waves in the dough if you’re feeling *fancy.*
8. Before the torta heads into the oven, brush it lightly with some milk or egg. Bake for 30 minutes. If you prefer a crispier crust, leave it in for another 5 minutes, checking throughout. Enjoy hot or cold. But for a picnic, this recipe is best made the night before and cut into slices once cooled. Pack the slices between sheets of baking paper before placing in the fridge, ready for lunch.
Image credit: Deval Parikh on Unsplash