Once more unto the beach

Take the sand out of your sandwiches this summer. Mark Hix plans a more sophisticated seaside feast
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Indy Lifestyle Online

I never had to take packed lunches to the beach as a child because I lived only a few yards away. I used to wonder what other people had in their sweaty picnic boxes, but it didn't take much to guess: ham, egg mayonnaise and cheese sandwiches with the occasional Scotch egg added for good measure. All lightly sprinkled with sand, of course.

These days when I head for the coast, I'm normally looking for a quiet, sheltered spot, first to dodge the crowds and second so the wind doesn't interfere with my barbecue. I use either a disposable barbie pack or my neat little fold-up Pyramid model that collapses to the size of a magazine. I've noticed they're selling something similar in Muji for a third of the price. But I've had my money's worth from mine. I've even used it to grill just-caught lobsters on the deck of my friend's yacht.

The best picnics are quickly assembled on the spot. Ideally you'd buy raw prawns or lobster or fresh fish to cook right there and then, but you can't rely on finding a fishmonger by the seaside - and even when you do they're more likely to sell crab sticks than just-caught fish - so I'd recommend checking before you set out.

I really like warm salads. I don't mean salads that have stewed in Tupperware on the way to the coast, but cool leaves and some fish or meat fresh from the coals, with the dressing added at the last minute. If you're on holiday at the seaside you won't have to schlep everything from home, and everyone enjoys getting involved in an interactive beach picnic. Just try not to season your lunch with sand in the process.

Beets with orange and chive dressing

Serves 4-6

I'm a big fan of beetroot and, rather like carrots, the roots are harvested in various stages of maturity for a good part of the year. This simple recipe is from Thane Prince's new book, The English Summer Cook Book, published by Mitchell Beazley. Thane helps run the Aldeburgh Cookery School so she knows a thing or two about eating beside the seaside.

Though they take longer than carrots, depending on their size, it's easy to cook beetroot at home - avoid using the pre-cooked ones - and to make the salad look even more striking, look in farmers' markets for coloured and striped beetroots, the crop of revived old varieties.

12-15 small baby beets, preferably with some of the tops left on.

for the dressing

The juice and finely grated zest of 1 orange
A squeeze of lemon juice
1/2tsp clear honey
50ml extra virgin olive oil
2tbsp chopped chives
Sea salt and black pepper

Wash the beets well and place in a pan. Cover with cold water and bring to the boil. Simmer for 15-20 minutes, depending on size. The beets are ready when tender if pierced with a skewer. Drain and allow to cool. Once cold, slip off the skins and roots, and either cut into quarters or leave whole. Arrange in a serving dish.

Mix the dressing ingredients together, taste and correct the seasoning. Pour the dressing over the beets and serve.

Burnt cream with wild blueberries

Serves 4-6

For the second year, I've noticed old-fashioned tiny wild blueberries have appeared in some farmers' markets and it's good to see that these old fruits, originally known as blaeberries, are back. I'm not guaranteeing you will find wild ones but you will certainly find Dorset blueberries at this time of year, which are much tastier than the American imports. In the past I've made this pudding in stainless-steel tiffin boxes that stack up for easy transporting. But if you're travelling you'll need a deep enough cool box to carry the tiffin tins.

600ml thick Jersey cream
8 egg yolks
75g caster sugar
100-120g blueberries, wild or cultivated

The day before you want to serve, bring the cream to the boil and simmer until reduced by one third. Meanwhile, mix the egg yolks with a tablespoon of the caster sugar.

Pour the reduced cream on to the egg yolks and mix well. Return the mixture to the pan and cook over a low heat, stirring constantly and without allowing it to boil, until the mixture coats the back of a spoon. Remove from the heat and leave to cool a little.

Scatter the blueberries into one large or four individual heatproof gratin dishes, such as ramekins, then pour the cream mixture over them and leave to cool for a few hours, or overnight, in the fridge.

An hour before serving, or when you're setting off on your seaside journey, sprinkle an even layer of caster sugar over the cream and caramelise under a pre-heated hot grill or with a blow torch.

Cheese and onion flan

Serves 4-6

Never mind cheese and onions crisps - make this instead. At school we had huge trays of floppy flan, yet you can make it taste great and look more attractive with a few extra members of the onion family, such as chives, and still stay within Jamie Oliver's school dinners' budget.

Cook the white onions long and slow on the lowest heat possible, so they become transparent and sweet. Don't use too strong a cheddar as it will mask the delicate onion flavour. Lancashire or Gloucester cheeses could be used instead. This is a perfect portable meal; you can either take it whole to your destination or slice it before you leave.

for the pastry

100g cold butter, cut into small pieces
180g plain flour
1 medium egg yolk
Salt
2-3tbsp water to mix
1tbsp Parmesan

for the filling

3 medium onions, peeled and finely chopped
A good knob of butter
4 medium-sized spring onions, trimmed and finely chopped
2tbsp chopped chives
1 egg
2 egg yolks
120ml double cream
120ml milk
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
100g medium farmhouse Cheddar grated
90g soft goat's cheese

First make the pastry. In a bowl, rub the flour into the butter with your fingers until it's breadcrumb-like. Add the egg yolk, Parmesan, a good pinch of salt and mix in enough water to form a stiff but workable dough.

Roll the pastry on a lightly floured table to 1/3cm thick and line a 16-20cm x 21/2-3cm deep flan ring (or a rectangular one about 30cm x 12cm) with it. Trim the edges then rest for 30 minutes. Pre-heat the oven to 200C/Gas mark 6.

Lay a circle of greaseproof paper on top of the pastry and weigh it down with baking beans, then bake for 15 minutes. Meanwhile gently cook the onions in the butter with a lid on for 5-6 minutes, stirring every so often, until soft. Stir in the spring onions, cook for another minute, remove from the heat, stir in the chives and leave to cool. Mix the eggs with the cream, milk and Cheddar and season. Remove the greaseproof paper and beans from the flan and spoon in the cooked onions. Pour in the egg mixture then break the goat's cheese into small pieces and dot around in the egg mix. Bake for 15-20 minutes until just set and lightly coloured. Remove and leave to cool. Serve with a green salad or the beets with orange (above).

Crab salad with samphire, tomatoes and herbs

Serves 4

I love fresh crab - I wouldn't bother with this recipe if you're using pasteurised, pre-packed meat. I'm using only the white meat - make the pâté below with the brown, and save the shell for soup. I made a crab salad in Cromer where I just caught Brian and Julie Davies' crab shop before they closed for the day. Samphire is in season, and it's great in a seafood salad.

60-70g small salad leaves and herbs
80g samphire, trimmed of any woody ends and washed
4 ripe tomatoes, skinned, seeded and the flesh cut into rough 1cm dice
1/2 tbsp chopped chives
1/2 tbsp chopped dill
250g freshly picked white crab meat from a 1kg crab

for the dressing

Juice of 1/2 lemon
4tbsp olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Plunge the samphire into boiling unsalted water for 20 seconds then drain and refresh under the cold tap. Mix the lemon juice with the oil, tomatoes and herbs and season. Toss the samphire with the leaves, mix with the dressing and spoon the crab over the leaves.

Crab pâté

Serves 4-6

This is a way of using up the brown meat from a crab - otherwise, try to buy the brown stuff separately. Then, if you've got the barbie going, make fresh toast on the beach, but keep the pâté out of the sun in a cool box.

2 shallots, peeled and finely chopped
150g butter
A good pinch of cayenne pepper
A pinch of ground mace
1tbsp dry sherry
300g brown crab meat
2tbsp fresh white breadcrumbs
Salt and freshly ground white pepper

Melt 50g of the butter in a pan and gently cook the shallots with the cayenne pepper and mace for 2-3 minutes without colouring. Add the crab, sherry and the rest of the butter and season. Cook on a low heat for 5-6 minutes, stirring every so often until the crab is thoroughly heated through. Stir in the breadcrumbs and remove from the heat. Blend in a liquidiser to a coarse purée, or finer if you wish, then transfer to a serving dish and leave to set. You can melt butter to pour over the top - this will preserve it for a little while longer than the usual 3-4 days. Serve with hot toast.

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