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.

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