29 November, 2006

the best lamb ever (sorry, also a nice social evening)

But first, aren't these the sweetest faces? It's not even apparent that they're at Westminster Abbey, which was excessively cool. And I must say that the uniforms of our school are really quite boring compared with those of the school who sat behind us, ("we're from Putney," one gull explained earnestly). Those other gulls wore white collared shirts, grey pinnies, grey cardigans, light blue blazers, matching light blue berets, and grey rugger socks with a light blue band at the top. John and I gave a brief thought to changing Avery to whatever school that was. The Deputy Head of King's College, Miss Clarke, has explained to me that our very dull blue, white and green tartan has some special significance, but it's lost on me. Boring! However, when they're all covered up in their nice long coats they look quite charming, and here's where they get the word: they look uniform. Distinguished.

I'm sitting here with a giant glass of fresh-squeezed juice: beetroot, red kale, ginger, pear, and apple. The color is incredibly intense: no matter what else you put in, once a beetroot passes through the juicer, your beverage is deep, dark purplish red. It just has to be good for me! And it had better, because let me tell you of the indulgences of last night's Dinner With Vincent.

I confess to having felt almost too fatiguee to look forward to a social evening, not for any good reason, but chilly after standing around in the cold dark watching Avery tear around the ring on the irrepressible Analogue. That pony is TOO fast, even Avery admits. Once given the go-ahead to canter, he is just hell bent, and to control his head, every trot starts to look like dressage as he strains against the reins! He just loves to run. So I was a tiny bit nervous during the whole lesson, and then the #94 bus didn't seem too keen on stopping to let the ponies cross the Bayswater Road, which is not acceptable. It's nerve-wracking enough when every car and bus stops early, and with no doubts. But this bus driver either really wanted a close-up look at the ponies, or wasn't paying attention. At any rate, by the time we got home I felt a bit like lying down with a hot water bottle and scrambling eggs for supper. Alas, I had to make dinner for Avery and her new babysitter Alexa (who is a dead-ringer for Reese Witherspoon, a riding instructor and a Jane Austen fan, so we were about to adopt her at first glance). A little olive oil, four cloves of garlic, half an onion, two cans of tomatoes and a dash of Italian seasoning, simmer for a bit, then throw in 1/2 cup of ricotta. Done.

We headed off toward Hammersmith in Emmy, top down, and it was impossible not have our spirits rise. A nice quarter moon in a sky full of swiftly moving clouds, a little jaunt around the neighborhood because we were unfashionably on time, then into the glowing contemporary house that Vincent has created, and now, sadly sold. Perhaps this was a last hurrah? Peter and a first guest were already sitting around the scrubbed pine kitchen table, having martinis, so we joined them and I was immediately the laughing stock for asking, "What did you put in my drink to make it green, Peter?" "Uh, Kristen, it's a green glass." Hmm, I guess I was a bit tired!We were introduced to Marc Pachter, an old friend of Vincent's father and now an old friend of Vincent's, and then in came Jane England and Peter Gordon-Stables (what a completely perfect English name, and it fits his old-world, shy elegance), of the gallery where I had become so nostalgic last week. We began chatting, and the subject of Thanksgiving came up, Vincent having hosted 15 to our 12 on the night of. "I just hope my turkey soup turns out well," I said, and my thoughts turned to the potential marauders who might venture into our garden at night. "Get this weird story," I continued, "John woke me up this morning and asked, 'Guess what I just saw?', and I said..." John stopped me, "No, Peter, now what would you have said if Jane came in first thing in the morning and said, 'Gues what I just saw?'" Peter thought for a second and said, "I guess I'd say a fox." !!!! This is a weird town.

We were joined by a lovely architectural couple (no, they weren't in the style of Queen Anne or the Bauhaus, I mean they are both architects), Malcolm and Kate. John immediately was drawn to Kate, a beautiful and very funny mother of two, and I was granted my silent wish and was seated next to Malcolm. I have a real soft spot, mostly born out of unfamiliarity in real life but huge fondness in fiction, for the English Gentleman. I like signet rings, and degrees from Oxford, and a courtly sense of good manners. So Malcolm was just my cup of tea, tall and fair in a good grey suit, full of self-deprecating but intelligent conversation. We sat down to quite simply the best lamb I have ever tucked into. And I like almost all lamb. I'll eat the stuff they carve off revolving vertical spits in Brooklyn, or the salty little chops of a Paris bistro, or the rare and succulent rack of lamb in an Oxfordshire country pub. However. This slow-roasted shoulder (a cut I have never eaten before) was a revelation. I am sadly aware that it's a mistake to have anything for the first time at Vincent's house, because then the bar is set impossibly high for any future encounters with whatever it is. But he assures me that it's hard to screw up, and I believe him.

Vincent's Shoulder of Lamb
(serves perhaps six?)

1 large lemon not peeled (whole)
1 large onion peeled (whole)
1 whole head of garlic peeled
2 large bunches of coriander
1 tbsp ground coriander
1 tbsp ground cumin
1 tbsp coriander seeds
1 tbsp cumin seeds
2 tsps dried chilli flakes (or to taste)
1/4 cup olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

1 1/2 cups peeled pistachios

Reserve pistachios. Whizz everything else in your food processor until it has combined and you have a paste-like mush. Add more oil and lemon juice if necessary (remember it needs to stick to the lamb, so don't leave it too runny either).

Add pistachios and pulse until nuts are combined through the mush but be sure not to over process as you want some large-ish chunks of nuts to remain.

Smear the shoulder of lamb (bone in) on both sides with the mixture.

Put in roasting pan and cover with tin foil.

Cook for 2 hours at 350 degrees, removing foil for last 20-30 minutes until crust looks nice and tasty and meat looks brown. Cooking times vary depending on size of shoulder, but remember it's next to impossible to over cook as the meat has plenty of fat and is roasting in its own juice. Just be sure not to burn the crust - hence
the foil.


I can assure you that this was glorious. One is usually (at least in the modern food world) cautioned against letting lamb get brown inside, because the cuts we usually use like the chop, the whole rack, or the delicate noisette are so fat-free. But this method and cut resulted in a texture not unlike the meatiest of pork ribs, and the exotically flavored rub was just perfect. With it, Vincent served roasted carrots with cumin and a couscous. Sublime.

And we had fun. Our Thanksgiving dinner (although too short in time because of the dreaded School Night) and our evening with Vincent reminded John and me, as we discussed going homeward, that you're different people with adults. As much fun as we have with Avery at mealtimes, there is only so much variety that a (at least my) child will accept in her food, and no matter how long the meal takes to prepare, she and John are finished in exactly 14 minutes. SO to sit at a candlelit table, NOT of my own setting, and talk to new, intriguing people, and eat something lovingly prepared by someone who loves to cook and loves me too, is something of an eye-opener. And new things to talk about! The hidden layers of meaning in the English television programmes they all grew up with but are unfamiliar to me, like "Thomas the Tank Engine" and something called "Noddy." The goings-on at Jane and Peter's gallery, which were familiar enough to me to be understandable, but involve artists I have never heard of. And then, of course, we talked about our children, and the flummoxing nature of the modern child. Malcolm reflected on a conversation he had with his son about families recently. "And then his thoughts turned to the fragility of the family, and he asked me, 'Did God give me both a mommy and a daddy in case something happens to one of you?' Well, I didn't know what to say! I explained that all families are different, and that he and his sister would always be taken care of, but that there would come a day when he was ready to stretch his wings..." Peter at the end of the table said, deadpan, "I think it would have been simpler just to say 'Yes.'"

Finally we stuffed ourselves with chocolate pecan tart (not even sweet, per se, and served with creme fraiche, yum), and John and I suggested that as it was an hour and a half past the time we told Alexa we'd be home, maybe we ought to mosey in that direction. Vincent kissed me and said, "I still love you even though you're the FIRST TO LEAVE." Because it is awful how one couple stands up and somehow a general meandering toward the door begins to happen to everyone.

Today is the first sunny day in simply ages, so I'm trying to think what we could do after school. Of course this would not be the Wednesday we have tickets for ice skating. No, it had to be pouring ice-cold rain that day. Perhaps just what Avery calls a "nothing afternoon," where she curls up with a book and a throw and a hot water bottle, maybe a couple of cats.

Has anyone seen the new James Bond? My blog friend Lara has quite a positive review posted, but beware of spoilers. I am just not sure I'm brave enough to see it, although he is growing on me. Plus if my crush actor Matthew Macfadyen doesn't get something out there for me to watch, I hate to say it, allegiance-switching is not an impossibility.

28 November, 2006

out and about

Before I tell you all the exciting activities that have been going on here, let me make a public Third Mental Note. Remember the first one, when I washed all John's business shirts with a red pashmina? And the second one, the Case of the Exploding Pyrex? This one was not a disaster on the scale of those, but something to remember, nonetheless.

Our dinner on Friday night at the Mandarin Kitchen was so good that I haven't stopped thinking about it, each time it's time to cook my own dinner at home. So on Sunday night I bought chicken breasts, and hot chili peppers, and chopped up tons of fresh garlic and ginger, and made a nice marinade of mirin (Japanese rice wine), soy sauce, honey and sesame oil. Sounds good, right? Well, then I tried to find a recipe for "Dry Fried Chicken," which was how the sublime dish was described on the menu at the restaurant. A lot of things came up about how to fry chicken without it turning dry, and Kentucky Fried Chicken, etc. Nothing very helpful. One vaguely advised a quantity of hot peanut oil and dredging the chicken in flour. Well, it was awful. I think my stupid stove doesn't get hot enough, or concentrated heat enough, so the oil never got properly hot. Then the flour separated from the chicken, fell to the bottom of the pot and formed a deep and lasting relationship with the metal. Then in a vain attempt to get the oil really hot, I left the chicken in it far too long and it was everything you don't want in a bite of food: dry, and yet at the same time greasy, tough, tasteless. OK, the peppers were good and the marinade was at least something to make the basmati rice edible. Do I hear any suggestions? My friend Amy who loves the Mandarin Kitchen informed me at school pickup yesterday that the secret was in marinating the chicken in chili-infused oil (she has a secret mole at the restaurant), and also in a super, SUPER hot burner so the chicken cooks almost instantly. Well, the former I can probably achieve. The latter, not in my kitchen.

Boo hoo. Then last night I did a fairly good but boring slivered-beef Asian dish. Avery and John scarfed it down, but I was left with the sensation that there are some things better left to the professionals: cutting hair, diagnosing gall bladder trouble, and stir-frying. Sigh. Well, we're invited to our friend Vincent's tonight where I am quite sure we will be given something perfect, which will make me simultaneously happy and envious.

This morning John woke me up (never an easy thing to do) with the simple question, "Guess what I just saw outside?" I yawned, stretched and said, "A fox." Silence. "OK, how did you know that?" he demanded. "Well, what else would you just have seen outside that would make you interested enough to tell me about it?" "Lots of things!" There have been so many reported sightings lately!

Can I just whinge for a moment about the only imperfect thing about our school? Aside from the "food," that is. Avery came home with her French homework last night and was, as is her wont lately, doing it in the kitchen while I cooked my unspectacular dinner. "Listen, Mommy, it's a verse of 'Jingle Bells' in French!" What followed was the most absurd linguistic recital ever to have been set to music, resembling not at all any of the words I could see written on the page. My complaint begins with the fact that the children were learning the song by rote, had no idea what any of the words actually meant, but grows with the realization that nearly all the words were being pronounced wrong. All I can say in Mademoiselle Stanway's defense is that while they were all wrong, they were wrong in a way that actually rhymed, surely not an easy feat to accomplish. "Avery, the word for 'path' is not pronounced 'che-mon,' it's 'che-man.' That way, it rhymes with the word for hand, 'main,' in the next line." "Oh, no, Mummy, 'main' is pronounced 'mon' as well. See, it still rhymes!" Aaargh! Just appalling. It reminded me of the lunch party last winter where someone was complaining that you can't expect much of an accent from someone called Mademoiselle... STANWAY, and another parent said, "Well, it beats the Spanish teacher, Signorita... O'MALLEY." For heaven's sake. Avery brought up the legitimate point that she would have to choose between sounding correct, and sounding like the other children. We decided that just this once, fitting in was the better part of valor.

I had rather a distinguished day yesterday! My friend Susan had introduced me last year to a painter called Melanie Essex, American-born but living here for 10 years, married to a really wonderful guy called Richard and with two little girls about Avery's age, at the fantastic Bute House school. So yesterday I got dressed in my posh black "I used to own an art gallery" clothes and toddled off to 27 Cork Street, where Melanie was having a new show, and was giving a talk about her work as well. Her own gallery, The New Grafton Gallery in Barnes, had borrowed the Mayfair space for just a week, to give Central Londoners a chance to see these gorgeous new paintings. Now, normally I do not gravitate to painting per se, preferring work on paper. And normally I don't go for representational work, either. But these paintings are very, very lovely, extremely accomplished, and Melanie spoke very well about her process. Thoroughly enjoyable, so stop by in the next week to see them, and then have a nice jaunt to Barnes to see what else the gallery does. It's interesting that a prime Mayfair gallery space would rent itself out. Maybe someday I should investigate that. My anti-art attitude is gradually wearing off, you'll notice.

After the talk, we headed off to Melanie's favorite stomping ground, The Groucho Club in Soho. In her footloose and fancy-free days before children, Melanie hung out there all the time, even staying in one of their almost-secret inn rooms when between flats. There were just six of us "ladies who lunch," and the food was lovely. I had foie gras with persimmin, apple and sultana chutney and brioche to start, and then roasted scallops with clementine and a tiny bed of chived mashed potatoes under each scallop. It was such fun to sit and chat about art, London, husbands, children, food, and just relax. It's always amusing to be reminded that however unique and wonderful one's husband is, give enough women enough time to talk freely about their husbands and it will turn out we're all married to the same person. Quirky fellows, men, aren't they? Yesterday's topic was how our husbands feel about money. I said that John nearly filed for divorce when he caught me using an ATM that charged a fee, and my friend Sarah said, "When my husband retired, I had to put my foot down and ask him to kiss me hello in the morning before he ran to turn down the thermostat." We all laughed and Melanie said, "Yes, well, when the Iraq war started, Richard wouldn't let me buy gas at Elf or Total. They're French-owned, you know." "Total interdit," Susan said, with that wicked, clever expression she gets. We had fun.

But 3:20 found me back in mother mode at pickup, and Avery was very pleased with her test results (96 in math and 92 in English, I believe!), so it was decided that a reward was appropriate. She is now the proud possessor of both a gold and a silver metallic marker. Two for one, can't beat that. What would we do without Ryman, stationer to the stars?

Oh, and speaking of stars, we saw Hermione Norris having a coffee in the High Street coming home from school today! She is even bonier and scarier in real life than she is on "Spooks"! But I do love a celebrity glimpse.

But the real news was Avery's field trip today, if you can call such an exalted place a "field." Form V was invited, along with some 600 other little school children, to sing at the Christingle Service at Westminster Abbey this morning! What a thrill. Becky and I hung around school for our usual read-aloud with the little gulls, and then met up for coffee to kill time before the coach left, with our friends Angela and Amy, whose Form II gulls were also having a field trip. "Oh, where are you all going?" I asked. Silence. Finally Angela said, "Waitrose." "You mean the GROCERY STORE? We're going to Westminster Abbey and you're going to WAITROSE?" "Don't rub it in." The coach came and all the gulls got on, looking very spruced-up. I just love that an above-ground trip from school to the Abbey is like a free tour bus ride! With the added attraction of over-excited screaming children's voices, that is. Every once in awhile the shrillness led even patient Miss Leslie or Miss Clarke to shush them, as we passed Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square, Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament. Gorgeous. They were hushed upon entering the church, however, and throughout all the hymns, readings, and finally the ceremony of being each given an orange, symbolizing the world, tied with a red ribbon symbolizing Christ's blood, and toothpicks strung with candy, symbolizing children's love for... candy! Then too there was a candle, representing the light of the world, each of which were lit, and the children all stood in a circle around the nave of the Abbey, and sang. It was just lovely. Will Avery remember things like this? More likely her memories will be of ponies. Which reminds me, it's time for riding...

26 November, 2006

Happy Birthday, Dad

I hope my dad can feel all the birthday wishes from across the Pond! And do you know the only other person whose birthday has been used as a post title? The Queen. So there you go.

This is, of course, Indiana's own Senator Lugar, and he's patron of my father's favorite, I think it's safe to say, charity, Gleaners Food Bank. There are several locations, but we just donated to the Indianapolis branch, in honor of my dad for his birthday. Isn't it impossible to think of something to give a father, especially a non-materialistic one like my dad? He doesn't care what he wears (unless it's a red sweatshirt with a v-neck from one of his children's colleges, or hometowns), and he'd just as soon go to the library as get a book as a gift. He's got every tool in the world already, and about three thousand framed photographs of both his granddaughters (not that that stops Jill or me giving him more). No, what my dad likes best is to have given to somebody else, so we did. You might think of a similar thing for your dad, this Christmas. Unless he really and truly likes getting neckties.

Let's see, what else is going on, other than recovering from Thanksgiving? Well, I had a truly crummy fiction class yesterday, I have to say! I just don't think my writing is going well. There weren't many comments, and I must say I am not thinking that writing a novel is going to happen for me. John warns me that my classmates might not fit the profile of the readers my style would appeal to (more serious than I am, for sure, and grittier), so perhaps that is true. I was forced to call my mommy and daddy on my way home from class, for some parental support (this takes the form of unqualified praise and approval, just in case your kid calls you for "parental support"). I might email my mother my first chapter and see what she thinks, because it's really the sort of book that she and I would read: light fiction, with a mystery thrown in. But I didn't enjoy my class, and I really wonder sometimes, why do I put myself through these things? Pay good money to be under pressure to produce something that doesn't feel very successful, and have to read it out loud in front of however many semi-professionals. It certainly isn't the professor's fault; he's as helpful as he can be. Well, only two more weeks to go.

In the meantime, Christmas is beginning to rear its exciting head. My friend Susan says we can get a tree at "Homebase," a sort of Home Depot from what I can glean. And then I must bring all the boxes up from the little storage room downstairs, all the boxes labeled "Christmas ornaments," with stickers from the movers saying "FRAGILE," and "BY SEA." What relatively awful memories, from a year ago! Pretending to have Christmas in Connecticut while in reality getting ready to move, move, move. This year we can relax.

Well, I am off to try to replicate the fantastic "dry-fried" Mandarin chicken we had out on Friday night. Anything that doesn't contain traditional North American flavors! Those can wait till Christmas dinner. I'll put my George Winston seasonal piano music on in the background, while John obsesses over a house (yep, it's the one in the picture) in Fitzroy Square that he is desperate to buy, and Avery memorizes "Jingle Bells" in French. A peaceful evening ahead, all in all.

24 November, 2006

I can't believe I ate the whole thing

Well, our first Thanksgiving in London, as parents, has come and gone. I really did want the little scrap to have as much fun as possible, given her feelings about being away for Christmas and how holidays are meant to be spent at "home." So the most homelike thing seemed to be to have people over! It was perfect, I must say, except that I think we all ate much more than we have ever eaten before. Ooof. Nobody even made a stab at dessert! Except for the children, who have the good sense to stop eating when they're not hungry anymore, unlike we adults who just kept on filling our plates.

I raced home from my screenwriting class to find Mr Turkey much closer to being done than I had expected, looking golden and luscious on his bed of fresh sage and rosemary. So I did a sort of novel thing, with the twofold purpose of freeing up the oven and keeping him warm: I put the whole roasting tray on the burners of the hob and turned all four of them on really low. The liquid that was eventually to produce the most delicious gravy I have ever had (sorry, can't summon up any false modesty) bubbled sweetly away while I peeled massive amounts of potatoes. I used up all three varieties I've been experimenting with: King Edward (rather a forgettable, white potato, suitable, as they say, for mashing), Lady Balfour, and Nicola, which are both sweet and yellow, and waxy. As they boiled, I listened to a voice mail from Becky saying she wasn't sure if I had wanted her to bring her green bean dish, and if not, what green vegetable would we have? I panicked for a moment, realizing I probably wouldn't reach her in time, and then remembered John had bought a bag of brussels sprouts. Not, as my favorite culinary mystery author Katherine Hall Page would say, normally a vegetable to make people stand up and cheer, but I felt sure I could remedy that. (And use them before John could make me drink them for lunch, I have to admit.) So here's what you do (people did stand up and cheer, pretty much):

Brussels sprouts with Pinenuts (aka "Good Brussels sprouts")
(serves 12 if you have seven other side dishes!)

2 tbsps walnut oil
1 tbsp sesame oil
1 pound Brussels sprouts (in England you can get them on the stalk, lovely)
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 tsp soy sauce
juice of 1 lime
1/2 cup toasted pinenuts
salt to taste

Prepare your sprouts by cutting off the bottom of each, and pulling off any leaves that look damaged. Then shred them by cutting each into four lengthwise slices. Throw them in the skillet with everything else, and saute over super-low heat until they get a bit caramel-y. Of course you can turn them off and tend to other things, like mashing your potatoes with copious amounts of cream and butter, and then turn them back on to heat up at the last minute.


People began arriving as John lit the candles and Avery changed out of her riding gear (although you can see the gorgeous birthday gift from our Connecticut friends Anne and David, on her dress: tiny pewter riding boots!). Becky and I looked at the kitchen table where I'd thought we could fill our plates, buffet style. "Where on earth are we going to put everything?" she asked in alarm. She had brought two kinds of sweet potatoes, one topped with brown sugar and walnuts, and the other with... marshmallows! To feel truly American. Claus and Susan arrived with Sophia, and immediately the girls closeted themselves to practice their blessing song. So hard to believe that these girls could ever be anything but angelic, but children are nothing if not inherently unpredictable, I reflected, as memories of last spring floated through my mind. Got to stay on our toes. But Thanksgiving brought out the best in them, and aren't they moments to dwell on? Darling, gentle, dreamy Anna, dramatic and beautiful Sophia, and Avery, how did she ever get included in such august company? I felt incredibly lucky to have, not even a year after moving, such heartwarming friends and their children. They sang "We Gather Together," in their little English girls' school accents, and I think even super-sophisticated Ashley and little Eleanor were impressed.

We raised our glasses of champagne, ginger ale, Pimms # 3, Winter, and toasted the girls on their beautiful song, and tucked into food!

I'm headed out to dinner with John at the Mandarin Kitchen, so must tell you more about the dinner later, including a couple more recipes. I can't believe I'm hungry. Avery's spending the night with Anna, and I think Becky is in for an early night for those two: between Thanksgiving (Mrs D reported today that all the American children were trashed!) and running in Regent's Park at gym ("Mummy, it's child abuse! It really is," was Avery's comment), they will be down for the count pretty soon.

22 November, 2006

Thanksgiving is upon us!

Finally! The real thing is here, not a crazy English use of the word that flummoxes all expat Americans. It's time for figuring out how to make the body of the paper turkey for the centerpiece (although I'm grooving to my fruit and veg bits here), it's time to gather leaves from the garden and let them dry so they can be scattered here and there to please the kitties, it's time to produce mammoth amounts of food for Anna's family, plus Sophia's family, who will be coming tomorrow. So I slept in this morning while John took Avery to school (gee, it's pleasant having two adults in the family, at home!), to gather strength for cooking all day today. That's just about my favorite way to spend the day, in advance of a party: in the kitchen, singing away to the new "Westlife" album, I'm ashamed to say. Their cover of Bette Midler's "The Rose" is to die for!

What a difference a year makes. Last Thanksgiving we were happily hunkering down at our farmhouse in Connecticut, with the Sadoffs and the three Js, all of us making over Baby Jane, not the least David from across the road, since Anne had gone off to spend the holiday with her mother Constance, daughter of Gladys Taber, the great Martha Stewart of the 1940s. Constance is also the author of two of our family's absolute top 10 books: "A Skunk in the House," and "The View from Morningside." They each give the nicest possible vision of a New York City childhood in the 1970s. Anyway, with no significant other, David came over to us for Thanksgiving. I am always flattered when he comes over, especially on his own, because I suspect him of choosing his friends very carefully and preferring often to be on his own. And probably he should have been working on his new book, given the enormous success of his first book, "Crashout," about a breakout at Sing-Sing prison where his family has a tradition of being guards! Fascinating, believe me. But he came, and had my experimental brined turkey, which was such a hit that we're repeating it this year. I remember our first Thanksgiving in London the last time around, gosh it must have been 1990, and I paid some astronomical sum for an organic turkey from the butcher in Fulham Road, only to find that it was... rather purple, had almost no breast, and in general bore no resemblance to the top-heavy American monster that we had all come to know and love. Some things don't need improving on, in my crass opinion. So this year Becky and I conferred and found that we heartily agreed with one another on this point, and a nice overfed unnaturally busty Mr Turkey is residing in his salty, herby bath, outside my bedroom door. The school librarian yesterday alerted me to the very real possibility of a fox in our garden, so the lid is, when our bird is not submitting to a photo shoot, firmly anchored with a flower pot.

It was a morning of good smells. Why does celery always make me think of my Aunt Mary Wayne? I think it must be because we always spent Thanksgiving with them when I was a little girl, in their perfect home in Louisville, Kentucky, surrounded by my Uncle Kenny's Civil War memorabilia (and the very real possibility that he was on The Other Side than we Yankees from up North). When else do you really have celery sticks on the table? I never do. But at Thanksgiving, yes, my Aunt Mary Wayne would have a dish of them, and carrots and possibly radishes, to sprinkle with salt and munch on when you were about to eat your sister's arm off, the turkey smelled so good. This was at the point of the holiday when we were glad to be out of the car, our parents saying to one another in annoyance, "That was the exit! Or is it the next one? We do this every year..." So this morning my celery made me homesick. Then I brushed away my onion-and-sentiment tears and started chopping briskly for a Thanksgiving dressing of my own design, loosely inspired by Laurie Colwin:

Sage and Sausage Dressing
(serves the masses, or maybe 10)

2 loaves of simple white (unsliced) bread, Italian maybe?
1/2 stick butter
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 white onion, minced
4 stalks celery, chopped
8 medium mushrooms, chopped
12 leaves fresh sage, chopped
1 pound sausage (I used pork and leek), out of casings
1 cup cream
chicken stock (at least 2 cups, but depends on bread amounts)
2 eggs, whisked

If you possibly can, TWO nights before you want to eat it, tear the insides of the bread into little bite-size pieces. Feed the ducks with the crusts. Leave to get stale, tossing now and then. It is absolutely essential to do this at least the day before. I tried once the day of, and the bread was too moist (hate that word) to absorb flavors properly and it was a bust. So two days at best, one at least.

The day BEFORE, if you can (the flavors are so much better if they can rest together overnight), make the dressing. Saute the garlic, onion, celery, mushrooms and sage in the butter. Meanwhile, saute the sausage, taking care to break it up as much as possible so it's in small bites. Now, pour the vegetable mixture and the sausage onto the bread, add the cream and at least two cups of stock plus the eggs, and begin mixing. Add more stock as you need it. The mixture should be wet, but not seeping liquid.

Pat into a nonstick-sprayed 9 x 13 pan, and leave overnight in the fridge. Pat on some butter bits over the surface and bake just before serving, 45 minutes at 375 degrees.

OK, I cooked too much today! The dressing, for which I had to make fresh chicken stock from a nice pot of bones I had, plus the jalapeno-cheese spinach casserole I shall tell you about tomorrow, and crazy juices for lunch, and then fresh tomato sauce with ricotta and sausage for dinner (on farfalle), plus a beet and avocado salad! Of course, I think I worked it all off (lots of tasting, of course) ice-skating outside the Natural History Museum with Avery and John, plus Sophia and Susan! It was pouring down rain, so somewhat a non-ideal circumstance, but still great fun, even more so than it was when Avery and I first arrived, last winter. Plus at the Christmas Fair there I acquired a couple of wreaths, in lotus root and a small white blossomy berry, from Jacky Weaver-Pronk, in Stansted, Mountfitchet, Essex (one of those addresses I adore), and a Christmas present that shall go undescribed because someone who reads this is the recipient, but here's the creator's website. We zoomed Susan and Sophia home, crammed into Emmy, and then came home across the Park, golden leaves blowing every which way in the dark, across the windscreen and into the car, with her top down. Glorious.

I shall go collapse with a lovely Calvados and a book. Avery is deep into a story about a stallion for a bookstore competition, so perhaps a bit of a read of that would do. Happy Thanksgiving! I wouldn't trade being an English person, much as I am an anglophile, and for all that some of them have pretty cool lives. Maybe on Friday. But not on Thanksgiving.

20 November, 2006

a little jaunt to Notting Hill

Despite the glory of our autumn garden, where bright yellow leaves float past our window and drive the cats crazy ("I can get through this glass, I know I can!"), I am a bit gloomy. Not to say downcast. And it really isn't fair to John.

You see, he kindly took me all the way to Notting Hill today to see a show at a gallery that our friend Vincent had taken him to, when they had lunch at the trendy Ottolenghi last week. John came bursting into my study when he got back from show, saying, "It's all stuff you would have shown at your gallery. Text, parts of books, obsessive and repetitive. You would love it." So this afternoon, to avoid the cleaning lady and stave off the sleepiness that accompanies Mondays, we jumped in Emmy and headed up north, to England & Co., a simple, white cube (sorry, Jay Jopling) of a gallery in Westbourne Grove, sort of the high street of Notting Hill. Of course, ever since the film, the neighborhood has been overrun with an equal number of a) cool people, and b) people looking for cool people. OK, OK, I saw Jodie Kidd in Fresh and Wild. But I wasn't looking for her. Anyway, we opened the enormous glass door of the gallery and went in, and I was taken over by a gradual, invidious sort of ache in the pit of my stomach that, analyzed, turned out to be one part nostalgia, one part envy, and one part shame. How could I not have made my gallery work? I had, if I do say so myself, a great eye, a ready pen, a gregarious sort of willingness to talk to anybody who came in, and a surprisingly good sales patter. What happened? How did my little toddler gallery not make it to its third birthday intact? I'll tell you how. Eight thousand dollars a month in rent.

Still, it didn't seem right. I have been so intent on not thinking about it, plus frankly pretty freakin' busy, that I have not properly put the matter to rest. I loved it. When it was good, it was so good. Like when I sold the Miriam Schapiro painting to Steve Wynn, or the Sarah Webb sculpture to Edward Albee, or the David Henderson and the Scott Reeds, and the Fran Siegel, all in one day to Howard Lutnick. But probably even more emblematic of the gallery and the fun we had were all the sales of Makoto Fujimura paintings to my dear upstairs neighbor Meredith. Every time she had something to celebrate, she bought a painting, but even more important, she told me that the paintings were there to comfort her when her husband died.

There was the fun of getting reviews, and the theft of the Lisa Capone sculpture that Avery and I tracked down and sent the police to get back for us! And all the openings. Michael Myers managed to bring the entire cast of "The Sopranos" to his! And it was always such fun to open the door in the mornings and walk in and feel that it was all MINE. My project, my business, the place in the neighborhood where everybody came to exchange gossip, worry that the war in Iraq would start, commiserate on playdates gone wrong, walk around the show and say what was the favorite piece, look up and wonder if the person who just walked in was the reviewer for the Times, or Art in America. And all the lunches out with Milt Esterow, the head of Art in America, where he virtually patted me on the head and said, "Don't let the bullies get you down." And the fun of having my assistant physically sit me down, answer the phone and deal with all the visitors, for that one hour a month when I simply had to produce 500 words of wisdom to describe the upcoming show. And Erin, my partner in crime, rubbing her hands together when a particularly hot sale went through, saying, "We're cooking with gas!" And Avery and her little friends climbing the ladder to sit in the little carpeted attic on top of the bathroom. "Is that a proper ceiling, or could they come tumbling down into the sink?" someone asked once, and we never really knew the answer.

And the disasters! The $125,000 painting that arrived from the artist's studio covered in toxic black mold: with the potential buyer arriving in three days to see it. Best of all was the people: all the brilliant artists, the happy buyers, the acerbic reviewers, the wanna-be artists (one of whom, never to be forgotten, who painted with a mixture of her own breast milk and human ashes), and the art-school electricians, installers, painters, carpenters and assistants who came and went, telling their stories, doing their jobs, and drifting out again, to turn up at an opening, or on a Saturday afternoon with their babies and dogs, to chat and show off where they had worked.

Ah, well, the fact remains that I was a truly challenged business owner. I hated dealing with the insurance, the phone, the landlord, the utilities, the leak, the mold, the broken front-door key. And one cannot run a successful business in New York City with one's head stuck in one's PhD. John and I often think that if he had quit his job then, like he has done now, we could have run the business together.

What? Didn't I tell you? Yes, John has quit his job. I know, I know, that's why we moved, for The Job. Except that what was dangled out in front of him, a really wonderful promotion, was given to The Other Guy. So while all the powers-that-be at Reuters scrambled to offer John this other job, or that other job, at the end of the day he felt it was the right time to quit. Everyone at school pickup keeps asking with either anxiety, disbelief, or patent envy, "Are you slaving away to find something else? Something else will present itself..." and the answer is always, "No, not really." He is what he terms a Serial Quitter, since he left Merrill Lynch and stayed home for a long time when Avery was two, and then again before he went to Reuters he stayed home for nine months. He likes it! And thankfully he can do it. So I suddenly have not only company at home, but someone who actually LIKES getting up at 7 in the morning (or has already been up for an hour and a half), someone who empties the dishwasher, makes beds, rewires lamps and carries heavy groceries. Of course the flipside of all this glory, bless his heart, is that I also have someone who listens in on my phone conversations and reminds me when the milk is going to go off. Well, every silver lining.

Seriously, though, we're having a great time. I have been instructed not to worry about anything, and just to enjoy having him around since it won't last forever. Already headhunters are calling. One day, just to rattle my cage, he said, "How do you feel about Dayton?" I retorted that unless it was a little-known but very convenient suburb of London, I wasn't buying.

Anyway, Notting Hill is adorable. I can see why movies are set there and all the A-list celebrities live there. Of course I can also see why property values are so astronomical. I wouldn't be able to shop at Fresh and Wild for very long. And the show at England & Co. really was exactly my cup of tea. It's called "Literary Constructs" and features a number of English artists, prominent among them Chris Kenny, who takes snippets of "found" text and reconstructs stories out of them, pinning them to a piece of paper so the shadows form as much of the piece as the text itself. Simply gorgeous. One of the best pieces was all phrases to do with food, and I would have bought it instantly, but it was sold already, darn. Phrases like "an insufficient quantity of cod" and "chocolately essence of childhood," or something like that, stood out. Witty and clever, but also visually very spare and austere. Loved it. I had a nice talk with the owner, Jane England, about my experiences, the cutthroat New York art world, the pressures of running a gallery. She summed up her job in one phrase: "It's relentless." How well I remember it.

Fresh and Wild was offering samples of fresh guacamole, which inspired me to come home and try to make it myself. You know me: if it's edible and contains an avocado, I will eat it. It turned out really well.


1 large, perfectly ripe Hass avocado
3 tbsps sour cream
juice of 1 lime
pinch of cayenne pepper
1 tbsp chopped cilantro
3 tbsps finely chopped red onion
salt and pepper to taste

Mix all the ingredients in a bowl and either eat it right away, or cover it with clingfilm that touches the surface, so it does not brown. With this I had some slightly stale ciabatta from yesterday, a little pile of red pepper bites, and another little pile of halved baby tomatoes. A bite of each, all at the same time, was heaven. I think next time I would mix the peppers in, but keep the tomatoes separate since I didn't want tomato juice in the guacamole. I wonder how it would be with chickpeas added? Perhaps it's best not to cross the great guacamole-hummous divide. Let them stand on their individual merits.

Avery's come home with a certificate proclaiming that she had won the Gold Level of the Primary Mathematics Challenge. Now, you'd think she'd be excited, even proud. But no. Saturday morning my phone rings and it's Grace's mother Janine. "Congratulations to your little girl, Kristen. Well done on the maths challenge, Gold Level indeed!" "Uh, what do you mean?" "Well, it's in the Friday newsletter!" Which Avery did not even show me. Queried on this point, she heaved a sort of pre-adolescent sigh and said, "It's not real gold. It's just cardboard." Oh dear, the need for bling starts young.

19 November, 2006

juice this

I know, there's nothing worse than a new convert to ANYTHING. I don't care if it's religion, or Pilates, or the World Cup, or in our case, The World of Juicing. Converts are annoying. So I promise to write only one post about our new addiction, and you can just picture us the rest of the time, I'm not saying a word about it tomorrow, but you'll know we're... juicing.

First of all, no one can just convert. One must be converted. In my case it was my tea at the Wolseley with my friend Twiggy, who is so charming and appealing that anything she's addicted to becomes, very shortly, extremely attractive to other people. This includes her husband Ed, who I met once in New York as a coworker of John's at Reuters. He was lovely, friendly, intelligent. But it took meeting him again in Twiggy's presence to see him as the absolutely full-stop English charmer that he is. Why? Because Twiggy was there to provide the light in which he could properly shine. Now, odd as it may seem, she had the same effect on the notion of juicing. I'm not a juicing virgin by any means. Many afternoons find me at the organic shop in Moxon Street on the way to school pickup, carrying away a nice pear-apple-ginger-beetroot juice. But I was always happy to leave the actual process to others. In fact, I confess to going to that shop partly just to make contact with the Juice Boy, strung about in macrame bracelets and necklaces, wearing a t-shirt that said "Acai rocks,", arm muscles rippling as he handled his celery and purple kale. I'll have to find something else like organic quinoa that I can't live without, so I can hear how it's going with his attempts to dye his own fabrics with the pulp he takes home. I'm not making that up.

But I am distracting myself from the point. Which is, we are the proud owners of a Champion 2000+ Juicer, and it turns out there's just about nothing that doesn't give enough juice for us to try it. Having never tried to get blood from a turnip, I'm not going to put a stone from the garden through my Champion just to see if it's got what it takes, but we're close. We came home from the farmer's market (odd blogger's note: be patient with this particular link: you have to read through some really quite good stories to get to the farmer's market, but I hope it's worth the trouble, or you can just cruelly scroll down) laden with things that we reckoned had acceptable liquid content, and John is sitting with a beetroot-carrot-ginger-kale drink, while I opted for the sweeter choice and had beetroot-orange-pear-strawberry. I know we'll get tired of it, but so far it is really strangely entertaining. We made some Bramley apple juice for Avery, but last week she objected to the bubbles on top. Hmm, quality control to the rescue. I'm sure my 129-page "Instruction and Recipe Booklet" will help.

Continuing with the "foods you can get through a straw" theme, I also came away from the market with some raw milk from the Guernsey cows at Hurdlebrook Farm. Once you've had it, you wish you never had to go back to the nasty homogenised, pasteurised stuff you live on day in and day out. The cream actually rises to the top like cows used to make it. And the flavor? It has actual taste, not just like white water. I remember we got some at the Food Festival of the Royal Windsor Horse Show last year, yum yum.

Before you get scared, though, that dinner here next time you come will be in a glass and not on a plate, I also bought some organic mince beef from Perry Court Farm in Canterbury, which along with some onions, celery, carrots, white wine and tomatoes will become Bolognese sauce tonight. So all is not lost. You can still count on chewing when you're at my house. But guard that bouquet of roses and lilies you brought: I've heard they're really... juicy.

Bolognese (wonder how it would taste put through the juicer?)
(serves 4 easily)

2 tbsps butter
1 tbsp olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium onion, minced
3 stalks celery, diced
2 medium carrots, diced
2/3 cup white wine
2/3 cup whole milk
2 soup-size cans (400 grams) whole tomatoes
1/2 tbsp ground nutmeg
1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese

So, melt your butter and olive oil together in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Add garlic, onion, celery and carrots and sweat till onions are translucent. Here's a trick for OCD people dicing carrots: you slice the carrot in half lengthwise, then lay it on its flat sides and slice each of the halves lengthwise three times, then line those babies up and just slide your knife right down those little sticks. It's so satisfying: the bits are almost exactly the same size, and by laying the carrot halves flat they don't roll around.

When the vegetables are soft, add the beef and stir constantly until it is broken up into a nice mince. Don't overcook, though. Add white wine and simmer until most of the liquid is absorbed, then add milk and let it absorb as well, stirring occasionally. Add tomatoes and break them up with your spoon, then add nutmeg and parmesan and turn the heat down. This can continue to cook for as long or as short as you like, but no less than half an hour. The longer the better, and it will be better the next day if you have any left. And if you have a lot left, or you made a double batch, you can have:

Cottage Pie (or Shepherd's Pie if you used lamb)
(serves six at least if you use a whole batch of Bolognese)

leftover Bolognese
4 medium potatoes (my favorite this week is the Nicola), peeled and quartered
1 tsp salt
1 cup light cream
1/2 stick butter
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese

Cover your potatoes with water and add the salt, then bring to the boil and let cook for half an hour. Mash well with cream and butter. Set aside.

Spray a 9 x 13 glass dish with nonstick cooking spray. Then spread the Bolognese out evenly, and cover with mashed potatoes. Sprinkle with cheese and bake at 400 degrees for about a half an hour, or until bubbly and slightly browned on top. Serve with a good baguette for mopping up juices, plus a really good salad to salve your conscience:

Really Good Salad

1 large bunch watercress, washed thoroughly and spun
1 large bunch baby rocket (also called arugula)
1 large bunch spinach
1 large bunch lamb's lettuce (also called mache)
a dozen tiny heirloom tomatoes, halved


1 cup olive oil
1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
1 tbsp dijon mustard
1 clove garlic, minced extremely fine
handful curly parsley, finely chopped
juice of half lemon
1 little hot red pepper, finely minced
1/2 tsp dried oregano, thyme or marjoram (or a bit less if fresh)
pinch salt

Mix all these ingredients together and set aside. Toss lettuce leaves together and throw tomatoes on top. Just before serving, pour as much dressing as you would like, but not to soaking point. Save the rest for tomorrow night.

Goodness, it smells good in this house.

18 November, 2006

the sweet life at Citylit

Today I breached a hunormous barrier: I confessed to my fellow students at Citylit that I have been writing a blog. Here's my logic: they are all really impressive writers, sympathetic but critical listeners and voracious readers. What better people to have reading my fledgling efforts? Nevertheless I am a bit nervous. I have had such a rewarding experience with all three classes I've taken there: my acting class, however nutty they could be at times, and the wonderful Pip Mayo who taught it, and my screenwriting class, whose teacher I have to confess is less forthcoming than the other students, and now my fiction class, the best of all so far. I plan to spend the rest of my days in London taking one course after another, getting better, one hopes, at whatever it is I am meant to be doing here. I have to say that so far, chronicling what's been happening has been almost as much fun as doing it.

By the way, this image is of a work of art by Maliheh Afnan, a Palestinian-born artist, whose work, to me, invokes text, and the history of setting down words. Powerful, no? How we struggle with words.

dinner out, finally!

How long has it been, really? Since we had dinner out, the two of us? That's a rhetorical question to which the unnecessary answer is, "too long." Almost as long as it's been since I had a non-foody post. And so unexpected, which is almost the beauty of it. I feel as if all I've been doing lately is cooking, and writing about cooking, so when Avery had an impromptu invitation to play after skating yesterday, it was but the work of a moment to say yes, fling her into Becky's arms and make plans for dinner OUT.

But first, I must tell you about the mayhem at the skating rink. There we were, two innocent mums with Becky's three girls and my one, and suddenly there's a film crew on the ice. Avery was transfixed, certain that this was her moment to shine and start the ball rolling on her film career. But it turns out they were filming a very lame couple for a television show called "Date My Mom," a cultural (and I use the term loosely) phenomenon of which I had been heretofore unaware. The concept is that a series of young men date the mother of an eligible girl, and then the mother chooses the man she should end up with. I tried and failed to picture my own mother taking part in this merriment.

Around and around skated this ordinary-looking woman of motherly proportions and a diffident demeanor, with her escort whose teeth could light up a tube station, and some unsightly bling around his neck. Avery skated strategetically close to them, hoping to be included in some shot. Before long, however, the woman had fallen down, and in the time it took for us to pay attention, it was clear that she was truly injured. Ankle, something down low. Becky said, "Is it just me, or would the first thing you'd do be to get her to stop sitting down on the ice, where her bum will shortly lose all feeling?" Fully eight or ten strapping young men came and went, hovering over her, offering this sweater, that blanket, but no one offered to get her off the ice. At one point an official from Queensway Skating Rink loomed over her, holding a clipboard, onto which surface he took some notes. Probably along the lines of, "Nothing that happened here was anyone's fault who can be named." Young Lochinvar who was, presumably, the "date," spent a lot of time on his mobile phone, then bending down to speak to the "mom", and revealing parts of his anatomy that no one wanted to see. Wondering if he'd still be able to shag the girl if her mother died on the ice, one presumes.

Finally the victim was taken away on a stretcher, but the passage of time led both Becky and me to ponder our girls' chances should something of a more, say, bloody nature happen to one of them. They could easily bleed to death while the rink officials shut off the pizza machine and found the clipboard. Ah, well, all ended happily. Or at least we left, which was happy for me.

Avery went off with Becky and her girls, and I walked in to find John who happily said, "The pork chops look great, so I thought we could cook together, and be really cozy!" Pause. "Or not." "Not," I said, and we decided instantly to go to Deya, the nearby and completely delicious sort of fusion Indian. Except that all it's fusing with is lightness and good taste, so I guess it's nouvelle Indian. An amuse-guele of coconut cream of mushroom soup, in a tiny espresso cup, with a tempura-ish morsel of cauliflower suspended from a toothpick atop it. Completely perfect. Listen, I must run watch the last bits of "Tom's Midnight Garden" with Avery before she curls up with her hot water bottle and a book, so more on the menu later...

17 November, 2006

a lazy dinner, and a cozy dinner

Well, I signed up for "Blogger Beta," and we shall see if everyone thinks it's a huge improvement, or an unnoticeable yawn. I'll have to publish this first before I can tell.

What do you do for dinner when you have spent all day hard at work at your screenwriting class, and then all the early evening shivering at the Christmas lights ceremony in the high street (and seeing your child's prize-winning drawing displayed at Thompsons Gallery!), and your entire family is completely starving? You go to Marks & Spencer, look furtively around to see if anyone who knows you is standing nearby, and you pick up a package of Crispy Aromatic Duck. It is one of my absolute favorite meals in Chinese restaurants and while I have been known to saute a duck breast, I have not in many, many years been brave enough to deal with an entire duck. They produce so much fat that they have to be drained, and then drained and drained again, and I live in fear that in taking the roasting pan out of the oven I will tip all the remaining fat onto the door and it will go up in flames. Doubtless this is an overreaction, and I always feel such a pang at the guilty pleasure of prepared food that quite soon I will feel compelled to make Crispy Duck at home. This has happened with such basic items as butter, mayonnaise and salad dressing. Once I make them for myself, it's a great guilt-producer when I buy them ready-made. However, last night was just not going to be a cooking night, so the dinner hour found us hungrily crouching over a plate of the shredded, spice-laden duck, piling it into the pancakes and topping it with slivered green onions, sliced cucumber and a good dollop of hoisin sauce, and tucking in. It all comes in the box! Completely fresh and perfect. Try it, do. You can salve your conscience by making something really time-consuming like homemade fried rice, tomorrow night.

Enough about that. I have been really good this week about not only cooking dinner, but using the leftovers. Tonight will be sauteed pork chops with rosemary and lemon juice, broccolini stems with olive oil, and leftover mashed potatoes. With the gravy from my roast chicken earlier in the week. With Thanksgiving coming up, I feel it is my sworn duty to remove the mystique, not to say the aura of mystery, that surrounds this homely condiment. Even my own sister, no mean cook, was scared enough of making her own gravy next week to ask me for my "recipe." I think because I learned to make it literally standing at my grandmother's knee. I can say this about precious few things because she, along with my mother, found cooking a heartily boring chore and certainly didn't pass along recipes. But Mamoo (yep, that's what we call her back in Indiana) made spectacular gravy, probably because it was a Depression era speciality, a way to use up what otherwise would just go down the drain. And the perfect thing is, you have to roast a fowl to get it, so there's your main course automatically done. What makes it so wonderful is the blend of herbs and spices that you sprinkle on your chicken before roasting. My darling brother in law Joel gave me for Christmas the most wonderful gift: a collection of spices from Penzeys, the peerless spice company. I have fallen in love with two blends: one called "Sandwich Sprinkle" and another called "French Vinaigrette Base." And they're announcing a new one called "Mural of Flavor," which is salt-free (I would then be compelled to add a ton of salt, as I'm addicted). Anyway, for your gravy here's what you do:

Everyday Gravy (it's not just for Thanksgiving anymore)
serves six (ish)

1 large roasting chicken

2 slices bacon (in England you must buy "smoked streaky rashers")
1/2 teaspoon each of: dried basil, oregano, thyme, garlic salt, paprika (or any seasoned salt you like)
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup chicken stock
1/2 cup white wine
1 large onion, quartered
6 cloves garlic, whole
2 tbsps flour
good dollop of cream (if you insist)

Spray a large roasting pan with nonstick spray and place chicken breast-side up. Pour chicken stock and wine over the chicken, then sprinkle on herbs and put the butter in two pats at the top of the breast. Throw the onion chunks and garlic cloves in around the chicken, then drape the bacon slices over the legs. Roast at 400 degrees for a minimum of two hours, turning the heat down toward the end if the chicken gets too brown.

About forty minutes before you want to eat, put peeled and quartered potatoes (my allegiance is with Lady Balfour potatoes these days) in a pan and cover with water, then bring to the boil. Then, ten minutes before you want to eat, take the roasting pan out and place a gravy separator in the sink. This is one of the very few specialist kitchen items I believe in, normally adhering to Laurie Colwin's disdain for kitchen objects that serve only one purpose. Lift the chicken out onto a large plate, and then very carefully pour the liquid into the gravy separator, leaving the onions and garlic in the pan if possible. Put the chicken back in the pan and return to the over, taking care to wipe any liquid from the bottom of the pan first. Now, you will notice that the gravy has separated into a good stock base, and a layer of fat on the top. Very slowly, pour the gravy out the spout into a skillet. Amazingly, I have no idea how this works, the stuff at the top comes out last! How do they do that? I really should have taken high-school physics as my father often laments. Anyway, watch and stop pouring when you run out of good stock and the fat begins to drain out. Throw away the fat.

Now put the skillet over medium heat and whisk in the flour. Bring to a low boil and whisk until the flour is completely absorbed. Let it cook a bit, and if you find you want your gravy thicker, simply add more flour. Add the cream if desired (of course in my house it is always desired).

Now you can let it simmer, and turn your attention to the rest of the meal. Drain and mash your potatoes with a nice hot mixture of butter and milk. Take the chicken out of the oven and let it sit a bit, while you saute your broccoli or peppers, or peel your beetroot, or make your salad.

A gravy boat is a nice thing to have, as it has a little spout. But you can use a coffee cup with a big soup spoon, as well. I will never forget that as a young engaged person, I registered for some really expensive china. I don't even remember the pattern. Anyway, the ONLY piece I got was the gravy boat! I think it cost $450! Needless to say I exchanged it for, basically, everything else I needed to start a home, and got a cheap sweet little white gravy boat that I still use, now 16 years later.

Now carve the chicken, which unless you are an expert, simply involves cutting the breasts off and slicing them, and removing the legs if anyone likes dark meat. As for me, I eat what I call the "swings," because when I lived in Moscow and was invited to the home of a Russian diplomat for dinner (this was in 1992 when no nice people in Moscow had any money, and consequently very little food), the host's wife said to me very elegantly, "We are having chicken tonight. I hope you can eat the swings." I always intended to write a memoir of our time in Moscow and call it "Golden Domes and Chicken Swings."

But I digress. Now you have produced the perfect comfort meal, all the food groups accounted for, and... you can throw the chicken carcass in a stockpot and make soup. Mmmm.

Oh, another food blog you might like: Smitten Kitchen. Right now the author has a broken wrist and so is focusing on food she can produce with only one hand. Something for everyone! Her style is very humorous and the food sounds wonderful, like a sausage risotto. Thanks to my mother in law for steering me to these wonderful blogs, which unfortunately make me feel I should lay down my virtual pen, I get so intimidated by their wit.

So what else has been going on? Becky and I went to a jewellery show with work by our friend Alison Bradley. Oh my. I wanted one of everything. She is brilliant, and made us feel terribly welcome. At one point in our browsing she came over with a large platter of... stuff. "Eat some! It's dried fruit, but everyone thinks it's potpourri." Not exactly a stuffy person! She is Avery's school chum Coco's mother, Coco of the first day of school fame. Becky and I were sorely tempted, but may I say that I came away with only a gift. For someone. Someone who reads this blog, so I cannot say more. Then this morning was the Form Five Monologue Presentation, with each girl reciting a bit of drama for us. Needless to say, Avery could teach the drama course, so her presentation was very full of vigor and enthusiasm. And, hey! On the way to school John and I saw Lady Sarah Chatto, which was cool. Or rather I saw her and had to explain to John who she is. I say, what's the point of living in London if you're not going to get excited when you see minor members of the British royal family?

Off now to take Avery ice skating. She's up to Level Seven on her badges, now, I mean on her skills. It's not all about the badges, of course. But they do liven up her gym kit. Have a great weekend, everybody.

14 November, 2006

two more blogs for you to enjoy

Don't you think Keechie looks better? I think things are looking up in her wacky little life.

Just briefly, must not get obsessed with my blog today, but I had two more to send you to, one who writes as "Bon Vivant," and is very chatty about food all around the world, but particularly in Los Angeles, and another who calls herself "Kitchen Sister," and promises to provide you with a meal suggestion for every blessed day of the week. She is acerbic, witty and very much a lover of life and food.

Both these lovely bloggers, as well as of course Laraland, have been sending readers to me, so I thought I'd return the favor... It's so funny: "Laraland" says today how much she is looking forward to the Christmas Lights ceremony in the High Street on Thursday. Of course, that's where they will announce Avery as the Christmas card design contest winner! Probably Lara and I will bump into each other several times or fight over a parking spot, and not recognize each other in the slightest, of course. The internet is an odd thing.

we must save Ratty

It's a first: fund-raising on Kristen in London! But as I was munching my lunch in front of the BBC midday news today, I saw a story that made me sit up and stop chewing. The Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust are appealing for donations to help them buy 72 acres of land in Berkshire, land and a river that inspired Kenneth Grahame to write the iconic Wind in the Willows. Apparently this area is home to all the Rattys, Toads (and presumably their Toad Halls), Mole and all their friends. How I remember the hours and hours spent reading that book aloud to Avery when she was tiny, and then watching the hilarious films. It took the devoted attention of both John and me singly to get through that long book the first time, and I imagine that experience is one that taught Avery the benefits of a long attention span. Not for her the instant gratification of Archie comics! Oh, wait, that's one of her favorites as well. I suppose it's the eclectic life that pleases. Oh, and if you need a little-child present there is almost nothing nicer than the Jill Barklem set of stories called "Brambly Hedge," where you get not only your voles, but your basic set of other hedge inhabitants as well, mostly mice as I recall. I bet you if I offered to read aloud from "Brambly Hedge" at bedtime, Avery would still be happy to listen.

Anyway, my point is this: having spent many happy hours with "Wind in the Willows", and almost as many happy hours listening to our Connecticut friend Anne talk about her work with the Southbury Land Trust, I can tell you that supporting a land or wildlife preserve is a good thing to do. There are 80% fewer water voles (i.e Ratty) now than there were just 20 years ago, poor things. But helping to buy this tract of land will ensure that Rattys can come and go as they please and no McMansions will be built. Why, it was only this summer that Avery was feeding Young Rollie's goats on the farm formerly known as the Lovdal Farm down the road from our house, recently acquired by the Southbury Land Trust. What if 40 houses had been built on that land? Well, in any case it's food for thought. There you go, now I'll step off my soapbox and store it under my desk for the next cause that takes my fancy.

Other than that bit of news, it's a grey, rainy day here in Mayfair, perfect for picking up my bedraggled childhood copy of "Ammie, Come Home," the wonderful Georgetown ghost story that I read every November, for coziness sake. The rain means also, however, no top down on Emmy when I go pick up Avery and drive her to the stable. It's always the first thing she says when she approaches the car: "Top down, top down!" I read with my Form Three gulls this morning and had the pleasure of hearing about four pages of Harry Potter with the amazing Victoria. It's so much fun just to watch these gulls' little English mouths form the words. Next week is the Book Fair, and at the grocery store yesterday I was forced to pause in the cat food aisle and take an urgent mobile call from the Librarian, Mrs Palmer, asking for my assistance. Absolutely! This is actually Book Fair week at PS 234 in New York, so it comes at the right time.

Yesterday I spent most of the day ordering tickets for us to see "A Christmas Carol" at the Shaw Theatre, and a traditional choral concert of Christmas songs at the dreaded Barbican. I'd better bring my walking stick with the compass in the head and a flask of brandy slung around my neck. Then a long session discussing the trials and tribulations of homework for Avery, over a bowl of (I'm ashamed to say) gloriously crunchy and salty french fries at Patisserie Valerie. I know I should be giving her granola bars or something, but it's hard to resist those fries. Plus she needed all the strength she could get to cope with English revisions, science questions, maths timestables, French memorization. As usual we cracked up over the word for "lawyer" and "avocado" being the same. "Je suis un avocat," "I am an avocado." Juvenile bilingual humor always gets me. Luckily for both of us and our appetites, spaghetti and meatballs were in store for our dinner. Now, my meatball recipe is flexible in the extreme, unlike the quite, quite perfect recipe made by John's assistant Olimpia. I cannot compete. Her name ends in a vowel, she was born in Italy, enough said. Maybe if I called mine Norwegian meatballs the bar would be lower. But Avery likes mine well enough, and I suspect Olimpia of leaving out some crucial secret step, rubbing her hands together and knowing that I will never ever be able to achieve her success. No, she's too sweet for that. But anyway, mine are easy and you don't have to worry about their sticking together properly and looking nice, because they end up their cooking being braised in the tomato sauce. That way all flaws are hidden, an important ingredient in my non-perfectionistic cooking style.

First you want to start your tomato sauce so it can cook down while you play with the meatballs. It's the easiest sauce in the world and smells heavenly as it cooks.

Kristen's Tomato Sauce
(serves four)

3 tbsps olive oil
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 medium onion, finely chopped
3 soup-size cans whole peeled plum tomatoes
1 cup red wine
3 tbsps Italian seasoning
salt and pepper to taste

In a wide saucepan, saute garlic and onions in the olive oil, till soft. Then add all the other ingredients and prepare to wait. And stir. And wait, and stir some more. You can also break up the whole tomatoes with the back of your spoon. I advise against starting with chopped tomatoes because they just cook down into a mush. This way, you end up with nice recognizable and beautiful bites of tomato and a rich sauce.

Spaghetti and Meatballs
(serves four, or two people two nights in a row, in my life)

good splash olive oil
1 medium red onion finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 lb ground beef, lamb, pork or my combo of all three
one handful parsley, finely chopped
3 tbsps Italian seasoning
1 tsp dried basil
1/3 cup homemade bread crumbs
1/2 cup ricotta cheese
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
1 egg, beaten

First, in a large skillet saute the garlic and onions in the olive oil and let cool off the stove. Then mix all the other ingredients together. When garlic and onions are cool enough to touch, add them and mix, using your hands (sorry to say) at the end. Form into balls that fit in the palm of your hand (you should get about six). Heat more olive oil in the skillet you used for the garlic and onions and place the meatballs in a single layer. Fry on one side for about three minutes, then gently turn them over and fry on the other for three minutes. Gently remove the meatballs one by one with a tongs, and place in your tomato sauce. This can simmer indefinitely, at a very low simmer, while you make your salad and correct your child's geography homework and boil your spaghetti. To serve, place a tongs-full of spaghetti on a plate, add two meatballs, and ladle over sauce. Top with grated parmesan.

It was so funny last night, though: first, I discovered I was out of butter, a complete catastrophe in my fat-laden household (I usually add a pat to my tomato sauce at the last minute, but it isn't necessary). Then I found I was out of lemons for my Absolut Citron cocktail as well as to sprinkle on the avocado I insist on eating every night as I cook dinner. Just sliced, with lemon juice and Maldon salt that my mother in law and I are obsessed with (I have to add here that if you go on the Maldon website, by clicking the hot link, you can download a movie called, I am not making this up, "The Magic of Salt." So far even I do not have THAT much time on my hands). So then I discovered I was out of salt! And I had no milk. Finally, I asked Avery in desperation, "What is, in your opinion, the main ingredient in spaghetti and meatballs?" "The meatballs," she answered promptly. "Oh, thank goodness," I breathed in relief, "because we're out of spaghetti."

(Linguini worked fine.)

12 November, 2006

a slice of heaven on an oyster shell

But first, before I tell you about my afternoon in heaven, I must give credit to the owner of my photograph of sushi, in my previous post. At first I didn't feel the need to credit her because her copyright watermark, "La Petite Chinoise," is on the photo. I just found it by googling images of sushi, not having one of my own! But then I found myself reading her blog, and it's really quite interesting. She lives in Paris, but happened to be visiting London, where she found not only Nobu London, but also "Books for Cooks" in Notting Hill, two of my favorite places in the world. So visit her blog, do.

Also, I must say that I am working on how to make the hotlinks to other posts in my own blog go right to the section that talks about the thing I'm referring to, not just to the whole post. I can see that it might be quite irritating to click on "Books for Cooks" and get sent to a post that is about a lot of other things before it gets to the mention of the bookstore. I'm on it! There must be a way. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy meandering through the various pointless things I have to say before I get to the pointless thing you thought you wanted to read. It's all such a challenge.

Speaking of challenges, I drummed up my courage this morning and... drove! To the stable to drop Avery off for her day of mucking out and such, and then to the Marylebone Farmer's Market. I really got myself scared of driving, since my horrific accident when I lived here last (don't worry, nobody got hurt except the car). But not driving is one of those things that limits me, makes me even more timid than I normally am, which is saying something. I don't like the idea that as life goes on, I do fewer things. I want to do more things! So John had encouraged me to drive, and I had demurred. But that's ridiculous. You can't just shrink into a person who either walks or lets someone else drive her around, whether it's in a bus or a tube or a cab. So I took key in hand, reassured a dubious Avery that all would be well ("not only 'can' you drive, Mommy, but 'should' you drive?"), and got in the car. I should have known Emmy would not let me down. All was well! And as my reward I got to shop to my heart's content, knowing that there was a nice car seat waiting for the ridiculously heavy bag when I was finished. And a handy car park doubles as the market anyway, so I just parked her and was off.

I sampled so many things that it was silly to think I had to have lunch as well. Let's see, I had fresh pesto with a little bread stick, and a slice of Red William pear, and a bit of goat's cheese on a little biscuit, and some apple juice! Then, however, I happened upon the fishmonger, one Maldon Oyster & Seafood Company , located at Birchwood Farm, Cock Clarks, Chelmsford, Essex. Their concern at the market consists of a sort of elevated truck whose side opens out, with three wonderful blokes behind the full-to-overflowing iced counter. One fellow helped me, and I was about ready to marry him by the time I was finished. "My little girl likes lemon sole, and Dover sole," I said. "But I'd like to have money left over after dinner to send her to university, as well, so what would you recommend?" He put his grizzled head to one side, considered me, looked over his wares and said, "Time was when people asked special for whiting for the kiddies," he said. He pulled a fillet from its bed of ice and laid it before me reverentially. "Take a look at that, my love. That's a delicate fish, that is. I've never seen one that size, off the West Country, that is." So I succumbed. He wrapped it up, shouting to one of his mates, "Don't forget the brill, now, everything's for sale except the staff," and to another customer, "I'll tell you the 'erring's lovely today, just lovely. Would you like it with the 'ard roe, or the soft roe?" To me he said, "This whiting, now, to get it any fresher you'd have to get a sight wet. What else can I get for you, my love?" So I said as how I'd have a nice dressed crab, which is such a luxury considering the horrible experience I had once trying to get any usable quantity of crab from its shell. He sifted through the piles and came up with the best.

But then came the piece de resistance. I had noticed a Frenchy-looking girl queueing up at the side of the truck, waiting in front of a low table to the edge of which was a chalkboard proclaiming "1 pound per shucked oyster". Now, I was introduced to raw oysters late in life, and have never been a huge devotee although I like them, and I will eat them if I trust the source. Also I adore oyster stew, for which I will give you a perfect recipe nearer to Christmas time. But one summer I found myself in, of all places, Waterloo, Iowa with my parents-in-law and they took me to a seafood festival at their beloved country club, Sunnyside. I know what you're thinking: a seafood festival in a state that embodies "land-locked"? I thought the same thing. But I was a guest, and they were going, and I will do almost anything for my parents-in-law. I was seated next to one of my favorite people in the world, their friend Hugh, whose wife Janey gave me my first cooking lesson, lo these (eek) 23 years ago. Gosh, that's scary. She's a true French chef and I was in love right away, with her, her adorable and racy husband, with Iowa and life in general. So Hugh poked me in the ribs and said, "Gonna have some oysters, Kristen?" "You know, Hugh, they're not my favorite thing. Plus you know what they say about oysters..." I said. "Oh, now, come on," Hugh teased me mercilessly. "You can't say you're writing a cookbook, you can't say you even care about food, if you don't like oysters on the half shell. And these will be the best you've ever had. The freshest, anyway." I closed my lips upon my skepticism on this point, and decided to take the bait, so to speak. Well, it was a revelation. As a fish chef once told me at the great Mitchell's Fish Market in Indianapolis once told me, "We have to break the mold on freshness because the fish comes from so far away. You coastal people can get lazy, thinking it's right there." And obviously it held true for Waterloo, Iowa, that glorious July night. Thank you, Hugh.

So today I was in such a good mood, and such a food mood, that I thought I'd have one. The beefy guy in his wet and bloody apron laid the oyster from the Blackwater River in Essex on a well-worn wooden block with an oyster-shell-shaped indentation in the center, and advanced on it with a proper oyster knife, split it open, slid his knife around under the oyster, and placed it on a little plate piled with crushed ice. "There you are, now," he said as he tendered it. There was a little plate of lemon wedges, a dish of salt, a dish of chopped shallots in red wine vinegar and a bottle of Tabasco. I squeezed on some lemon juice, added a drip of vinegar and slurped it down. Ahhh! Icy, icy cold, fresh, briny, just sublimely fresh and perfect. "I'm going to have to have another of those, if you please," I said, handing over another pound coin. "Oh, make it two more." He looked on, smiling slightly with pleasure at my pleasure. So guess where I'm going for my Christmas stew oysters? Something to look forward to.

I came home with my laden L.L. Bean canvas bag (I'm trying valiantly to stop the invasion of plastic carrier bags in my home), and a slight case of indigestion at so many different foods! I thought of the wonderful poem by Egon Ronay, the Hungarian restaurant critic whose food guides have been bibles in my two London homes. It starts out like this...

A Food Inspector's Lament

Spare a thought for the bloke in the corner
With the newspaper, notebook and pen
He put away four courses at lunchtime
And this evening he's at it again

Before the black pudding (with scallops)
Came veloute of butternut squash
'Compliments of the kitchen,' how charming
(And veloute make soup awfully posh!)

And afterwards, sea bass 'n' pesto
Risotto and Shaved Parmesan too
With buckets of oil and balsamic,
What happened to old-fashioned stew?


So spare a thought for the bloke in the corner
With the heart attack lying in wait,
And if he seems a bit down in the mouth, well,
He's got rather a lot on his plate.

Now, to get the 12 stanzas in between, you'll either have to buy the food guide, or... come to my house and borrow it.