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.

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