If you have even a hint of a reputation as a cook, sooner or later you'll be asked to help out in friends' kitchens. At least, that's been my experience. It is why I never travel without my knives - but they're another story. To be honest, I am not unhappy about this: I can't resist an opportunity to show off. One's hosts are heart-wrenchingly grateful. And you get excused from doing the washing-up.
There are downsides, though. Other people's kitchens aren't your own. OK, I know that's obvious, but the implications are serious. You can spend critical cooking time looking for basic ingredients. Designer kitchens panelled with identical cupboard doors are the worst: how many times have I gone looking for the salt only to find the dishwasher, the fridge, the plates ... Don't these people live in the real world?
Other people's hobs and ovens behave in strange and unpredictable ways, too. ("The back right hob has never worked properly. I should have warned you." Now you tell me.) And you'd be surprised how many people seem able to get by without things that I find essential - garlic, say, or celery or a spatula or a knife that cuts.
Knives! Now there's a subject - but I'll leave it for another day. Anyway, I have cooked this week's dishes both home and away, and they didn't seem too shabby to me.
All recipes serve four.
Creamy onion and Parmesan tart
An old stand-by and a favourite showpiece. It always hits the spot, and never ceases to please. With a side helping of salad, it makes an ooey-gooey, get-that-down-you lunch.
100g unsalted butter
1kg onions, finely sliced
250g unsweet shortcrust pastry (enough for 28cm diameter tart)
284ml double cream
5 tbsp Parmesan, grated
Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/gas mark 6. Melt the butter in a big pan, add the onions and cook very gently for one and a half to two hours, stirring occasionally to make sure they don't catch. Set aside to cool.
Roll out the pastry and place it inside a well-buttered 28cm tart dish. Line the pastry with greaseproof paper and baking balls, and bake blind for 10 minutes.
Pour the cream into a bowl, then beat in the eggs and three tablespoons of the cheese. Add the cooled onions, and season to taste. Remove the greaseproof paper and baking balls from the pastry case, then pour in the onion custard - there may be too much, in which case pour the overmatter into a buttered dish and cook it in that. Sprinkle the remaining Parmesan over the top, then bake for around 30 minutes, until the custard has set and the top is crunchy and golden.
Tongue and roast asparagus
I hit on this combination on the evening I won the Glenfiddich award for cookery writer of the year (I am still blushing). Everyone seemed to have celebratory dinners arranged, except me. In a stupor of pleasure and alcohol, I took myself back to the home of my London hosts, the ever generous and hospitable Clifford family, but I was a bit peckish. They had asparagus in the fridge and a packet of cold tongue. More out of desperation than inspiration, I put the two together, and was transfixed. Subsequent trials suggest that warm tongue is better still. Always be generous with the asparagus.
4 lambs' tongues (or 1 small ox tongue)
1 onion, studded with a few cloves
1 stick celery
Soak the tongues (or tongue) for one to two hours. Drain, rinse, put in a pan with the onion, carrot and celery, then cover with cold water. Bring to the boil, skim off any gunk that rises to the top, then add the peppercorns. Simmer for 45 minutes (or, for ox tongue, two and a half hours), until the tongues are tender. Remove the tongues from the liquor, peel off the skin when they are cool enough to handle, slice and keep warm.
Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4. Wash the asparagus, then bend over each stem until it snaps in half, more or less, and discard the woody ends. Splash some olive oil over the base of a shallow roasting tray, lay in the spears, then splash with more oil and sprinkle with salt. Roast for 10-15 minutes.
Divide the asparagus between the plates. Lay a slice or three of tongue on top, squeeze with lemon, and that's it.
Rosemary and mackerel kebabs with onion compote
Easy on the eye, easy on the tongue, easy on the tum. Easy to cook, too.
For the compote
4 large onions, finely sliced
150g unsalted butter (or 2 tbsp olive oil)
1 star anise
For the kebabs
4 mackerel, filleted
8 large sprigs rosemary
Salt and pepper
First make the compote. Melt the butter in a saucepan. Add the star anise, onions and a splash of water, turn the heat to very low and leave to stew for a couple of hours. Stir every now and then, to make sure the onions don't burn. As the onions cook, the acids in them will slowly turn to sweetness and the stiff slices will become a heavenly mulch.
Put the grill on high. Cut each fillet into bite-sized chunks, then fit them on to the rosemary sprigs - mackerel have tough skins, so you may need to make a hole in them with a skewer or knife first. Season, grill for three minutes, turn over and grill for another three minutes. It doesn't matter if the rosemary chars a bit, but be careful that it doesn't burn and fall to bits. Lay a couple of kebabs on a heap of onion compote and squeeze with lemon.
Rice pudding risotto with mango
Traditional rice pud, when you just pop it in the oven, is undemanding as a recipe. So why should you stand over a stove wielding a wooden spoon for 20 minutes? To let your hosts know that: a) you're making an effort and b) you have no intention of helping with the washing-up. Actually, it produces a rather different pudding, too, lighter and creamier.
750ml full-cream milk
40g unsalted butter
150g arborio rice
60g caster sugar
1 vanilla pod
150ml whipping cream
Heat the milk in one saucepan - do not let it boil. Melt the butter in another. When the butter is foaming, add the rice and sugar, stirring to coat it. Cut the vanilla pod down the middle, scrape out the seeds, and stir them into the rice pot. Add the pod for good measure. Stir a ladle or two of hot milk into the rice. Repeat this procedure until the rice is cooked - about 20 minutes. If you run out of milk, heat some more. The risotto should be stiffish but not too solid.
Leave the rice to cool, then remove the vanilla pod. Whip the cream until it is just short of solid, then work it carefully into the pudding - the result should be airy and creamy and dreamy. Transfer to a serving dish. Peel and slice the mango and arrange decoratively on top.