31 January, 2007

from the sublime to the mundane (and even a bit nasty)

Well, after my glorious celebrity evening, head in the clouds, I was bumped firmly down to earth yesterday. It was just one of those... you know.

It started off perfectly all right, even very nice indeed, with some runny-nosed little Form 3 gulls reading to me on the top floor of the school, and a gorgeous bouquet of flowers from Avery's headmistress, I can't really think why! When I ran into her at school I protested, "Mrs D, what on earth are you doing sending me flowers? But they're lovely, thank you," and she put her hand on my arm and said, "Many reasons, my dear." Now that's a gracious lady.

And then, too, a really sweet lunch out with my husband (who dressed up in one of his new bespoke jackets for the occasion, which he insisted on calling a "date"). We jaunted off to Wright Brothers Oyster House, where I'd sampled oysters on Saturday, and had such fun. We ordered adventurously, which meant that some dishes were hits and some misses. I succumbed to curiosity and had rock oysters "Japanese style," which were topped with wasabi, soy and a tiny bit of pickled ginger. Good, but the flavors masked the oyster. John stuck with a sixer of the special "Claires" I had the other day, and they were sublime (I nicked one from him with his permission). Then I had another experiment, the "Rockefella," a nice warm but unexpectedly raw take on the traditional cheesy spinach version, and they were delicious. Subtle, a nice warm shell but chilly oyster and a delicate spinach puree. John had the petit plat de fruits de mer, which would not have done for me because I am a bit squeamish about some of the things that might have been included (squid, which wasn't, clams, which were). But he was in heaven, and the chilled poached langoustines were completely fresh and delicious. I also tried a cold mussel and while I didn't dislike it, in fact I liked it better than hot, I wouldn't cross the road for it.

Then we completely caved to voyeuristic nosiness and ordered what the two guys sitting next to us each had, which our wonderful New Zealander waitress assured us were good, deep-fried whitebait. Now, perhaps the very word "bait" should have been a clue. Not awful, but baity. Sorry, I don't want to think about eating something's eyeballs, as it stares up at me through admittedly good, crunchy batter. No thanks, but we're glad we tried them because it was going to happen sometime with that menu, and you might as well get it out of the way the first visit. We'll definitely be back. Oh, and an excellent green salad with squashed tomato halves soaking up a lively dressing and little tender beet greens.

Fair enough, until school pickup, then, it was a stellar day. See, I'm such a Scandinavian, that the first seven hours of the day were virtually forgotten in favor of the following, say, four. I went off for my second visit to the acupuncturist at Sen, the extremely chic and posh Chinese health centre in South Moulton Street, chosen for its proximity to the unaffordable watch shop where I'm attempting to get my ancient watch fixed. And it hurt like bloody HE-double hockey sticks! I thought it wasn't supposed to hurt. It's this crazy finger I have where every so often, the first knuckle fills up on the inside with a painful bruise, and then the next day it's so cold I think it's going to fall off. Granted, I have others, but it's annoying, and someone suggested acupuncture. I fell for the "book four appointments and get one free" offer, so now I have to use them up. Ouch! And it's hard to see improvement when success is only... negative. In that it hasn't happened again, YET.

I slunk away feeling hard done-by (to pay for pain is annoying), and came in to face Avery's Extreme Homework Complaints about how, even considering Leap Year, could a boy reach the age of 8 with only one birthday? I was stumped, and even more so when the phone rang with my friend Sarah on the other end, and get this: our book has been plagiarized! Yes, it's not enough that the wretched thing took seven years to write and get published, and that my royalty checks have to roll over onto one another until they reach $50 per quarter, because it's not worth it for University of California to print the smaller checks. No, my "get rich quick scheme," as John kindly refers to it, is now being not only not bought, but stolen!

Here's how it happened. Sarah was approached by some journal or other to review an art history book, recently published by a university press who, for reasons of a potentially litigious nature, shall remain nameless for the time being. Well, she's reading and reading and... hey, she wrote that! Or I did, or both of us, or several of the contributors to our book. She was in such a state of helpless rage that she could hardly be coherent, not to mention I constantly interrupted her to try to stave off Avery's homework panic. Finally we agreed she would email our editor and give her a heads up. Whole sections that she says just leap out to her as having been written by me, shining from the page, unacknowledged. We're not even cited in the bibliography as a source, even though, modesty aside, we're the authorities on the subject he's discussing. We are seething.

To add insult to injury, fully a third of the mussels I bought to steam for our dinner were already opened, which makes them inedible. Good point, that. I always knew that if they didn't open during cooking, you should throw them out, but I didn't know until last night (and a hasty google search by John, the intended victim) that if they do open before cooking, the same applies. Oooh, not only those mussels were steaming. I had it coming out my ears.

Ah well, by midnight all had been fed, one had been read to, sung to, and tucked in, everything was tidy, John asleep. I came upstairs just to sit in the kitchen, still redolent of the thymey, garlicky, buttery mussel sauce, with a little hint of toasted ciabatta in the background, and soaked up a little quiet domestic harmony. I guess life is like that: you're up in the clouds from your crush, then still pretty high up there with your lovely husband slurping down oysters, then you're flat on your back stuck through with needles, then contemplating a lawsuit, then all is peaceful again. Maybe it would be boring without the roller-coaster? I'll think about it and get back to you.

Save Borough Market

I don't believe it. My family used to joke and call it the "Frederickson curse," that everything we developed an addiction to got cancelled, discontinued, dropped, whether it was a television show, a favorite perfume or soft drink. But I'm sorry: Borough Market?? I just got here!

Seriously, John has sent me an email with a link to a "green" blog discussing an absolute impossiblity: apparently planning permission has been awarded to some horrid railroad group to run a new train track RIGHT THROUGH Borough Market! This can't happen. Just my luck: the place has been running since 1550 and I get here just in time to see a baggage car replace my favorite butcher. We've all got to sign the petition on this blog. One Southwark official put it just right: taking away what matters to the residents for the benefit of people who are, literally, passing through. I can't bear it.

As if to thumb their noses at this possible horror (funding has yet to be found, and maybe we can keep that from happening), there's a new foodie show about to start filming, every day, from the Market. I adore Clarissa Dickson-Wright, one of the proposed hosts, in particular, ever since "Two Fat Ladies" aired, and perhaps a little star power will help our cause. And hey: maybe "Kristen in London" helped "Save Ratty", one never knows. Blog power!

30 January, 2007

the mother of all crushes

Now, I know you will think I am merely crying wolf. After all, you've had to hear about Matthew Macfadyen, and Matt and Bamber. But these are merely, dare I say it, callow obsessions, when set against the massive devotion I feel for... Edward Petherbridge. And I met him last night!

How, you ask? I'm still in total shock over the whole experience. I have to creep carefully here in my rapture over the evening, because I have spent many lovely, even memorable evenings with many of you, including my very own husband. He was, HOWEVER, completely all right with my saying, when I returned home last night, that it was the best evening ever. Calm, calm, as John would say to Avery when she gets rambunctious at bedtime. I'll tell all.

Background: I recently joined the Dorothy L. Sayers Society, a lovely group of people dedicated to discovering things about, preserving the memory (and childhood home of) and praising the accomplishments of, well, yes, Dorothy L. Sayers, creator of among other literary gems the most urbane and sophisticated fictional detective of all time, Lord Peter Wimsey. Such is my devotion that, as you know, I named a cat after him. An odd gesture, you may say, especially when the cat in question is an enormously fat, not especially intelligent one who chews all the fur off the middle of his tail, but it was a gesture nonetheless.

Well, do you know where Sherlock Holmes lived? 220 B Baker Street. So Dorothy decided to domicile Lord Peter at... 110 A Picadilly, which happens to be... the Park Lane Hotel. And as they were celebrating their 80th anniversary yesterday, the Society decided to put together a program to admire the role that Lord Peter's (dare I say it) fictional life had at that location. I know I have lost fully 90 percent of you by now, but those who care, bear with me.

When the newsletter arrived telling me of the celebration, it was but the work of a moment to telephone and reserve a spot. Because guess who would be there? My goodness. And reputed to speak, no less: the chance to hear his magnificent voice was too much to miss. And it turned out that, as well, two greats of detection, H.R.F. Keating and Sheila Mitchell were honored guests and participants as well. And Dame P.D. James! Who would believe, all in one room. I remembered back to an evening in 1990-ish here in London when I went to a book signing by, severally, Lady Antonia Fraser, someone I forget, and then just-plain P.D. James, before she was Baroness of Holland Park. I said to a lady sitting next to me, as the reading began, "I wonder what P.D. James is like, because she's so brilliant on the page, but one never knows..." and then P.D. James was announced, and up stands... the lady sitting next to me. Ooops.

But I digress. I sat outside the room at the Park Lane waiting for the reception to begin, listening to some fool play "Time in a Bottle" on a harp, and then amazingly, there was Edward, right before my eyes. White-haired, elegant, long-fingered just as Lord Peter, tweed waistcoat, I think even a velvet jacket, oh my. I was steady. But I also had my copy of "Gaudy Night" and Avery's best fountain pen, purloined for the purpose, so I bravely approached him, just standing about, and said, "I'm a massive fan, can I possibly be a terrible bore and ask for your autograph?" And, dear readers, he simply reached for the pen, and wrote, most elegantly, "Edward Petherbridge, Park Lane, London, Piccadilly, January 2007." And then I said like a blithering fool, "Even my 10-year-old daughter has had hours of pleasure listening to the books on tape and watching the films, so I thank you," and he asked in his ACTUAL VOICE, "And what is her name?" so I told him, and he added "To Avery" to his inscription, and "All Good Wishes." The floor could have opened up then and there and swallowed me. So I thanked him like an idiot and skulked away to find a seat in the audience where I could not help myself, I know they were cool and collected English people, but I burst out to the lady next to me, "He signed his autograph, I could die." And they were all manifestly kind and sharing in my enthusiasm. I am perhaps some years younger than anyone else there, and the only American, so I think it was like getting to pet an animal in a zoo. Or they are just plain gracious, much more likely. Everyone turned out to be officers of one kind or another of the Society, and were glad to hear of a new member. They pointed out all the luminaries in the audience for me, including two Chelsea Pensioners, and then the manager of the Park Lane spoke about the Lord Peter Wimsey Suite, and how happy he was to have our reception, and then...

Harriet Walter appeared. Fresh from, and about to return to, the stage on "Antony and Cleopatra," she took out two hours to come and speak her parts as "Harriet Vane" to Edward's Wimsey. How many times have I read the books, listened to them on tape (I cannot cook without a book on tape in the background), watched the films. It was magical! What would it be to live a life where you gave that much pleasure and enjoyment and stimulation to lots and lots of people you never laid eyes on. Heaven. They, and Edward's lovely wife Emily Richard, read and acted out excerpts from the first Lord Peter novel, "Whose Body?", poetry, limericks, so wonderful. I have often dreamed of seeing him in a play, and just missed "Donkey's Years" last spring. But why dwell on the past? Hundreds of people, him a mile away on stage, just part of the time? No, I got to be within three yards of him and listen to him speak to just 40 people, that mellifluous voice wafting over us. The wisdom and sensuality of his voice... I can't convey his charisma in words. You should be so lucky, dear readers. Such fun. I imagine all of us in the audience could well quote the lines he spoke, we've read those books so many times. Just a delight. I have heard a rumour that he will be leading a London Walk through the theatre district in the spring, and rest assured I will be there and ready to provide a report for your vicarious splendid enjoyment. Plus, his new book is available, called "Pillar Talk."

And then, as well, the Society sponsor each year an acting scholar and a music scholar, who were at the event and participating in the celebration. The acting scholar did a lovely job with her readings, but the violinist was a huge treat, because she was asked to play the theme song from Schindler's List," in keeping with the sort of wartime focus of the readings, and it was heartbreakingly beautiful. I have done lots of intricate and complex (for me!) technological detective work, and if you click on this link, you will be able to download the song and play it as am MP3 file, whatever that is, right on your computer. Not recorded from last night, but from a cool site for music-sharing that, in my quest to waste as much time as possible on my blog, I have now joined. Just for you! Cue cliche: isn't the internet amazing.

So the evening ended, and I drifted home up Park Lane, gabbing to poor John all the way on the phone (he puts up with so much), and cooked, very mundanely, a quick dinner of herb-rubbed chicken breasts, mashed potatoes and sauteed red peppers, the ultimate half-hour standby, for Avery and Anna, whose mum was home sick and therefore was happy to loan us her child for the evening. But my head was in the clouds. We drove Anna home in Emmy, top down, to Simon and Garfunkel's "feelin groovy", and all was right with the world...

28 January, 2007

aw, shucks

I almost forgot to tell you! I had another excellent oyster caper, and now a new favorite restaurant, and one I am dying to try. And it all occurred in one of those slightly creepy confluences of events and circumstances that makes you think a Higher Power is directing your actions. OK, oysters are an odd vehicle to choose, but these Higher Powers have their own ways of doing things.

It all started yesterday at the market, when I decided I was in the mood for an oyster or two (or three, as it turned out). Now you know how mad I am about an oyster, cold and deliciously fresh, shucked for you that very moment and sprinkled with a little shallot in vinegar, a little lemon juice, a little Tabasco. Even the occasional bit of shell that you swallow along with it is yummy (probably a good source of calcium, you never know). Well, I do feel loyal to the Maldon oyster people, at my dear little Marylebone farmer's market, but they don't do Borough Market, and desperate times call for, well, you know. So I ambled over to a gorgeous little storefront, the Wright Brothers Oyster and Porter House as you see, adjacent to the market, and there was a special, on something called a "speciale Claire," a little oyster from the southwest coast of France, it turns out. I have cleverly had this website page translated automatically from the original French, and it makes for some pretty funny reading, but you'll get the idea. Anyway, they were small, subtle and totally fresh. I was feeling pretty disloyal to my fishmonger, but I decided it's all in the name of new experiences. Share the wealth, and all that, dontcha know. Plus, it's not a fishmonger, it's a restaurant, and a very beautiful one, too. All the doors were wide open and there were tall ornate multi-tiered candlesticks with lots of romantic dripping wax, and waiters taking round gorgeous smelling plates of food, as the little oyster man hung about on the pavement feeding all us multitudes. I just know it will be my favorite new place, and I've got John booked for a luncheon date on Tuesday. Yum yum.

So I came home and waxed lyrical about the little gems to John, to make him realise what he'd missed by skipping out on me. Then we went out to return a library book at the little Mount Street branch, and whilst diverting ourselves with peeks into posh shop windows, came across a very compelling restaurant facade with a very delicious and incredibly expensive menu posted outside, and there were "speciale Claire" oysters, of all things! It's called Scott's of Mayfair and while we can never afford to go there, it made sense that an old-fashioned (but newly redone) oyster bar would have the flavour of the month, as it were. Well, I decided to do a little research on the oyster, and the purveyor, and who do you suppose purveys oysters to Scott's? Yep, Wright Brothers. Isn't that funny! Yesterday I wouldn't have heard of either place, and now I feel as if I've made new friends.

I've also heard about a great London food experience coming in June, the Taste of London 2007. Wright Brothers will be participating, and it will be a nice reminder of my old stomping grounds, doing the graphic design for the restaurants at Taste of Tribeca. I'll be sure to report back. As well, in my strangely foodie weekend, I picked up a brochure for a cookery (as they say here, not "cooking") school, called "eat drink talk." I'd love to take a cookery course, and there are so many to choose from: Approachable Parisian Bistro, Stylish Sunday Brunch, Gastropub Cooking, the list goes on.

Right now, though, I'm off to make spaghetti with a creamy, garlicky, lemony sauce, studded with asparagus spears and bite-size bits of gammon steak. I'd give you the recipe, but I don't know it yet! I think I make it differently every time, but this time I'll pay attention and let you know.

27 January, 2007

adventures in babysitting

Remember that movie? I thought Elisabeth Shue was the living end. My goodness, I've just read that someone is remaking that movie. I find it very depressing when films from my childhood are being remade. When is someone going to remake me?

But I'm getting away from the point. I had a lovely lunch out with my friend Dalia at Zoom in Marylebone, shivering a bit from the front door that refused to stay shut, but greatly enjoying my salad of chicken livers, avocado, creme fraiche and frisee, and chatting up a storm. She is what she described to me as a true Scorpio, which gives me food for thought since Avery is as well: fiery, opinionated, stubborn and passionate. It makes for very good lunch conversation! She and her husband (who she casually describes as a former model who once won a "James Dean lookalike" contest, can you imagine? I've got to meet this guy) just came back from a holiday in New York, which makes me slightly homesick. But we're headed there for Avery's half-term break in February, which will be fun.

After lunch, I strolled over to school, and the rest of the afternoon turned into one of those situations when good old Hilary's "it takes a village" comes into play. We turned up at school, petted somebody's ferret on a lead, and packed Avery and Kimia into little Emmy, not easy to do with backpacks, PE kit bags, violins, skates and skating outfits times two, but in time we were off. The girls took to the ice and up came Becky with her eldest, Ashley, plus Anna and Ellie, and Ellie's playdate Ella. Got that? All were decked out, skates tied up, gloves pulled on, and even John and I got onto the ice. But truth be told, I hate to skate. I really do. My ankles turn in, it's cold, and I know it's only a matter of time before I fall and then I'm not only cold, but also wet. So I decided to go keep Becky company looking after all the enormous piles of stuff that accompany six girls. Within minutes Ashley was struggling off the ice, holding her wrist, in tears of pain. "It's not getting better, it's getting worse," she sobbed, and Becky told me that she had broken that same wrist twice before, so there was definitely a been there, done that sort of feeling to the event. It was clear that a trip to some medical professional was in the offing, so amidst several phone calls to the GP, a potential orthopedist, Becky's husband's office to get him home early, Ashley bravely held onto her wrist and listened to my lame attempts to entertain her.

In the end, an appointment was secured at the doctor's, plans were made for me to take Avery and Kimia home, and John to get Anna, Ellie and Ellie to their house in time to meet Becky's husband, and give him the house keys. John and Becky fought over the money she tried to give him, and then poor Ashley trudged off with her mother, and the rest of the girls alternated between teaching each other complex skating moves and commiserating about their fallen comrade. Avery had her lesson with Nicky, but Level 9 is still out there, not yet attainable. Five girls were given hot chocolate, croissants and French fries, countless napkins dispersed, skates adjusted, hair rebraided, falls sympathised with, ketchup packages opened, socks adjusted, tales of other rink users' iniquities absorbed. Then it was down to five pairs of skates being removed, bags packed, coats on and out the door.

Avery and Kimia and I headed to La Caricatura, a new restaurant in our neighborhood, while John took the other girls to Anna's house, and I admit to a certain nervousness when both girls in my care simply put their heads on the table and fell silent. That's Friday evening for you, in this world where they all work so hard all week. But food arrived, and John arrived, and everyone perked up considerably. The service was simply terrible, everything arriving at different times, pineapple juice instead of apple, pizzas given to the wrong people, my "vodka on ice" a scary tall glass of something that tasted like saccharin, but the food was lovely. So we think we'll give them another try, maybe wait a bit to let them get their staff under control. I had a delicious salad of beef carpaccio with totally fresh rocket and huge shavings of parmesan, Avery had lasagne and Kimia and John each had a wood-oven pizza, very thin crust, beautiful tomato sauce, large fresh leaves of basil.

I can't actually remember the last time I had both lunch and dinner out! What luxury. Avery and Kimia recovered their energy to the point of singing excerpts from "Joseph" all the way to St. John's Wood, where we dropped Kimia at home and came home to collapse ourselves. And update: Ashley's wrist was only sprained, not broken, thank goodness.

Saturday we discovered, alas, that as much as I adore it, Borough Market is not for everyone. The trouble began when we decided to drive rather than take the tube, and we arrived to find that of course the market was mobbed and John and Avery (never really farmers' market devotees under the best of circumstances) went off to park and meet me later at Neal's Yard. Well, I did some fruit and veg shopping, but when I finally met up with them they were in a joint foul humour. Car parked far away, too many people, and someone jostled Avery and made her drop her last bite of cheesecake. So I packed them off back home and stayed for another blissful hour on my own! I really don't mind crowds, especially with interesting people to look at, but Avery was so far down that people just kept stepping on her.

Can you believe, purple brussels sprouts? I think I will submit them to the same treatment as at Thanksgiving, shredded and sauteed. Oh, and my suspicion that Cherie Blair's recipe for sprouts would be heinous was justified: a nasty floury roux and lemon juice, gloppy and not good. Much better to keep it simple.

I sampled everything in sight! And came away with glorious things. Delicious peppered smoked mackerel, bought from a man in a kilt (I find it tastes better that way) from Jolly's Fish and Farm Produce, a creamy Caerphilly cheese from Wales, and just listen to the address: Gorwydd Farm, Llanddewi Brefi, Tregaron, Ceredigion, Wales. It just has to taste good. A new potato, called the "Estima," from my favorite potato stand. I can't say I can tell the difference among them all, but it's fun to try them. And for tonight's spaghetti with asparagus and ham, I bought two luscious gammon steaks from Sillfield Farm, from a man I wish I could have taken a picture of: round, cheerful, simply crazy slippy teeth, the most gracious manner. "Any two in particular take your fancy, my love?" I want England always to have a generous number of these men, but I don't know if they make them anymore. Oh, I've been rereading Helen Hanff's The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, and while it's nothing like as wonderful as 84, Charing Cross Road, it's a lovely memoir by someone who may well rival me in my love of London, and all things English. What an evocative book, of a time when London was changing so quickly, and it was so important to hang onto everything that made it London. I love what she says about English money, and why everyone was so angry to change the system: "It has to do with the Englishman's need to be different. The decimal system is much simpler than the old ha'penny-tuppenny guinea tenner tanner system, but the old money was theirs; no other country had it and nobody else could understand it." Can you imagine what these lovely old English people would think of the European Union? I myself simply hate the Euro and would possibly not have moved back to London had there been no pounds sterling. I'm such an old fogey.

Finally, what do you think of Avery's crazy Raiha's-birthday hairdo? It's a funny thing for birthdays here: so many girls have hair-and-makeup parties where professional ladies come in and do them all up. We took her up to St. John's Wood and dropped her at Raiha's big, gorgeous double-fronted brick house, and two hours later Becky dropped her back to us with what you see here. And eyeliner! And mascara! Tattoos! They all had a wonderful time. Such a funny child: I came down into our bedroom last night to find her, bespectacled (or "bespeckled" as some Mrs Malaprop I know has said), perched on the end of our bed, clutching a bowl of raspberries, bananas, pears and blueberries, avidly fixed on "Top Gear," sighing, "It's the Hamster!" when Richard Hammonds arrived on set. A new series starts tonight, and I'm sure the studio will be all agog to see him, fresh from his near-fatal accident last summer. She and her father will be in heaven...

24 January, 2007

from Bermondsey to the BBC

Well, once again our friendship with the perennially elegant and yet cutting-edge Vincent has taken us to unknown lands. Wednesday afternoon saw us wending our way across the river to his new flat, in a neighborhood that sort of borders Borough Market, called London Bridge. Both John and I immediately felt that we were back in Tribeca, with the factory and warehouse architecture, but with the winding streets of the Wall Street area. It feels very up and coming down there, which is appealing, and for sure Vincent has scored an amazing loft, but it feels like... New York. I still think we want to hold out for an English experience. But it was great fun to tour his new, empty home, waiting for the container of belongings to arrive later in the day. In fact, our lunch was unhappily punctuated for Vincent by many telephone calls from the inept movers, who at first seemed to think it would be acceptable just to let him know that they wouldn't actually be able to bring all his things to his new house, just some. "Well, all I can say is that the house doesn't belong to me anymore, and new people are moving in who won't want my things, and I do want my things, so I am going to rely on your professionalism to solve this problem, and I will look forward to another call soon telling me how you have managed just that," Vincent said with alarming patience.

However, it was not that simple, and we had the experience of watching his famous sang-froid slip finally, with "You are about to make me very unhappy! Just fill the *&^% truck and get it to my new place!" Poor guy, nothing more stressful than moving. But in the midst of it we had a delicious lunch at a restaurant right in his new neighborhood, called Village East. Apparently the new brainchild of the people behind another Bermondsey restaurant called The Garrison. Very warm and inviting, in a sort of minimalist New Yorky way, with what I would call very good, fresh food, but I think I could have ordered better. My starter was an individual pot of parfait of foie gras, under a sinful layer of pure fat, accompanied by toasted slivers of a sourdough bread studded with sultanas. Perfect, and I did not eat the pear and chutney that came with it, although it was tasty, because nothing must sully the perfection of foie gras, in my opinion. My main course was another starter, a deep-fried soft-shell crab with a perfectly mundane dipping sauce that claimed to be wasabi-based, but not only was it red instead of green, it was... not spicy. I think I've been distracted by the accompaniments to the soft-shell crab at Mandarin Kitchen, and what I really like about the dish is not so much the crab, but the sliced hot red and green chillis and ginger. But it was very nicely cooked at Village East, and the boys greatly enjoyed their meals as well (John had a divine venison carpaccio salad, and macaroni with roasted red peppers and Jerusalem artichokes, while Vincent had a very scary-sounding salad of squid and chorizo, no no no).

Mostly we had fun chatting about his exciting plans for his new home with Pete, and the new neighborhood of Bermondsey he has now to explore. I became fascinated with a building across the street from his house, with the carved legend "Time and Talents Settlement" above the door. What on earth? It looked vaguely turn of the century, and seemed empty. It was but the work of a moment, once home, to find that in Victorian time, a movement was launched that took advantage of the "Time and Talents" of leisured young ladies to give of their riches to poor factory girls, in the way of donations of food, clothing and the Gospel. Finally actual homes were established for them to live in as they scuttled to their horrible-sounding jobs at gin factories, leather factories and possibly worst-sounding of all, onion-peeling factories. Can you imagine the floods of tears? Peeling onions all day. But at least they had their settlements to go home to, with tea and biscuits, flowers and Bible Study. I've been learning all about this from a lovely little book called "By Peaceful Means: The Story of Time and Talents 1887-1987," by Marjorie Daunt. The farthest I have got in my researches into what they're doing today is a website extolling their work in the "Old Mortuary," a building that used to house all the dead bodies that turned up in the Thames, for the police to try to identify! Eeew. But the latest activities they describe are in 2001, so I'm going to dig a little deeper.

Yesterday was comedy class, and I have a whole host of new cultural references to look up, among them a Radio 4 show called "Down the Line," which classmate James assures me is hilarious. Also a sitcom called "The Green Wing," worth watching just for the lovely Tamsin Grieg, and "Drop the Dead Donkey," and a comedian called Harry Hill, who everyone claims is as funny as Jon Stewart, although that cannot be the case.

Our task at class was to break up into small groups and come up with a setting for a sitcom, and three or four main characters. Needless to say, our small group couldn't agree on any one idea, so we pitched four! I really think an art gallery would be a perfect setting, with excellent crazy artists, unreliable young assistants, spoiled rich clients. Of course the hard thing is how to have all the main people appear every week, which is a must in sitcoms, and a notion I hadn't ever thought of before. Of course, yes, you want to return cozily to the place and people you've come to look forward to, not to have inconsistent stories and people. It's surprisingly complicated to work all this out. James wanted to set his show on a city trading floor, and Liz and Leo wanted a library and a firm of personal injury lawyers. We decided the comedy world was a far poorer place without us, so with great energy pitched our ideas to Guy, who took us quite seriously and had great suggestions. Namely, I got my best laugh on a line from one of "my artists," who paints in a mixture of human ashes and breast milk. Ever since such a lady really did walk into my gallery, I've been desperate to use her for something, so maybe this is it. However, Guy pointed out that it's going to be hard to keep her around, since artists are transient in galleries. The undreamed-of pitfalls! How does anyone manage to be successful at these writing tasks that I approach and give my all, only to find out how difficult they all are. Sigh.

James kept us all distracted by a running series of gags, among them a response to Liz's suggestion of a library for her sitcom. "Did you hear the one about the guy who came into the library and said, 'Can I have an order of fish and chips?' and the librarian said, 'This is a library,' so he whispered, 'Can I have an order of fish and chips?'" He's clearly a natural, with an MPhil in creative writing from Trinity College, Oxford. My favorite kind of Englishman.

Ah well, even if I never write a great sitcom, we're having fun, and Guy is an extremely organised, pointed, talented tutor with, thank God, a sense of humor. What I think I would really like to do is work with people who already have a successful show going, so I can just slip in an add to someone else's genius, not apparently possessing any myself. But I think I could be a good team member. One never knows.

I'm off for lunch with one of my screenwriting friends, Dalia, and if she's willing, I must ask her what she makes of the craziness in Beirut the last few days. She still has family there and it must be horrible. And then, incongruously, ice skating after school with Avery and her little friends Kimia, who is Persian. What a town.

23 January, 2007

butcher's holiday

You know the expression, "busman's holiday," where the poor bus driver spends his vacation driving his family somewhere? Well, I got the Selfridges Food Hall version over the weekend. I was feeling peckish, and frankly wishing to repeat my spicy shrimp recipe from the night before, and maybe do it even spicier, when my enthusiasm was completely dampened by the notion that I might have to pay 26 pounds a kilo for the privilege. I'm sorry, $50 for one at-home dinner was quite literally too much to swallow. Plan B? Well, there was a special on leg of lamb, and that sounded quite tasty as well, only even on sale, the leg came to... 26 pounds. Urk! Couldn't do it. Finally I told the butcher I was on a budget and what did he recommend? "I have a very frugal husband," I explained, "and he won't enjoy his dinner if he sees these price tags." He shook his head and said,"In my opinion, husbands don't appreciate economy when it comes to the dinner plate, but if you think it will lead to domestic harmony, you give it a try. How about a nice pork roast, on the bone, with the crackling scored, like, to make it nice and crispy?" "Oh, that sounds perfect," I decided, and with a price tag of just over 6 pounds I was happy. "You're making me hungry, describing the crackling," I told the butcher, "and I'm going to put him on a bed of onions, garlic and rosemary, and drizzle him with olive oil. Doesn't that sound good?"

"I have to be honest with you, madam, I don't eat meat. Almost never, that is. Can't bear the stuff. Give me a choice, and I'll take lasagne every time."


As I carried on shopping, the idea began to take hold, and by the time I got home I was ready to put away my pork roast and get on with lasagne, which choice was met with loud cheers from my ailing child, who thought it would slide down nicely past a sore throat. And in deference to my vegetarian butcher, I left out the meat, but a nice layer of sauteed beef mince or sausage tucked between pasta sheets would go down a treat, as they say in my adopted land.

Vegetarian Lasagne
(serves 8 easily)

15 lasagne sheets
3 tbsps olive oil
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium onion, minced
3 soup-size cans chopped tomatoes
3 tbsps Italian seasoning
2 cups ricotta cheese
2 cups mozzarella cheese, freshly grated
1/2 cup grated pecorino or parmesan

Pour your olive oil into a heavy saucepan and saute and onion and garlic till soft, then throw in the seasoning and tomatoes and simmer for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, bring a big stockpot of water to the boil, with salt added. Cook your lasagne sheets until tender, and drain off the water. Now, in a well-nonstick-sprayed 9 x 13 dish, place a layer of pasta sheets, then spread out one cup of ricotta, cover with half the tomato sauce, and repeat the whole thing. Finally top it all with the mozzarella. I can't stress enough how unhappy I would be if you went out and bought a horrid plastic package of the stuff called "shredded mozzarella." Two things: it bears no resemblance to either the taste or texture of real mozzarella, which comes in a nice ball suspended in milky liquid. Secondly, have you ever thought of where it got shredded? How many unclean surfaces might all the sides of those little shreds have touched? No. Buy two nice balls of real mozzarella, and although it will cost you a couple of pounds or dollars more, it's delicious, healthy and clean. Then you just push it along your box grater with a plate underneath, and when it gets too squishy to grate anymore, you just tear it apart with your fingers. Lecture over. Now top with the pecorino, and pop in a 400 degree oven for an hour.

This dish is so easy peasy, and it cooks itself for the hour before dinner, so you can sit on your child's bathroom floor while she takes a restorative bath, and read aloud one of the nicest books ever written about a child moving to London, "Blow Out the Moon" by Libby Koponen. She must be an extremely nice person, and clever as well, to have written a book that so spells awkward, intelligent childhood, and that appeals to child and parent alike. Avery has been given at least four copies, and they have made other little girls very happy as well. It's Libby's own life story, and how she attained adulthood with such a comprehensive memory of her experiences here, I cannot imagine. And she maintains a web site with many more details of her experiences, and stories of writing the book. She and Avery have actually corresponded by email! That sort of an effort would make one life worth having been lived. What a joy. Plus it's illustrated with real photographs from her childhood, as well as facsimiles of her actual homework, and letters from friends. Wonderful, except that the chapter I was reading as my lasagne bubbled got me very teary-eyed, with its depiction of a truly magnificent headmistress. My love for our own Mrs D is never very far from my mind, and I wonder how much she knows about her influence on the little gulls that pass through her school. I try to tell her every so often, but I think a person with the larger-than-life personality of a Mrs D has a hard time coming down to earth to really hear praise.

Well, I dried my eyes and we had our dinner, along with a nice salad for which I made a spicy dressing laden with red chillies and mustard. I have to laugh and tell you: this week's Hello! magazine features a recipe purported to be by Cherie Blair (can't imagine she spends much time bundled in an apron, but maybe I'm just a cynic). It's "Sprouts Supreme," with a creamy dressing that I will try tonight, and let you know. I am slightly taken aback by the instruction to boil them for 15 minutes, which I think is a literal recipe for disaster. It would leave all the flavor in the water, and just a horrid taste of cabbage in its wake, that method would. I shall steam mine for 3 minutes. It reminds me of one of our first English culinary experiences (although I think it was more a matter of a really bad cook, not an English person per se), with lovely hosts who shall remain nameless. The wife put a saucepan of cauliflower in water on the stove, turned up the heat, and suggested a nice walk around the lake before dinner! Eeek. I think there was a sad fillet of salmon that was sacrificed as well.

Speaking of recipes, let me direct you to an excellent foodie website, as nervous as I am that you will stop reading mine. I love everything she says about food. Enjoy!

22 January, 2007

sorry, frozen spinach

A few weeks ago I gave you my recipe for spinach casserole in which I uttered the immortal, and so foolish, words "Do not use fresh." I could just die.

Here's the original recipe, but then read on so I can change it for you. Yet another example of the unfortunate but true adage: if there's a way to make something more labor-intensive, you can bet your family will prefer it. Sigh.

Laurie Colwin's Spinach Casserole
(serves 8)

First of all, a word about the spinach itself. Do not use fresh. In my opinion, there is only one purpose in life for frozen spinach and this is it. Now, in America, frozen spinach comes in little square-ish flat boxes. You need two of these. In England, however, frozen spinach comes in bags, in which you will find intriguing sort of hockey-puck shapes. For this, you need about 1 pound.

1 lb frozen spinach
6 tbsps butter
4 tbsps flour
1 medium onion, minced
4 cloves garlic, minced
6 ounces evaporated milk
8 ounces any sharp cheese, like cheddar
sprinkling of chili flakes (or in America you can use jalapeno Monterey Jack cheese)
1 tbsp celery salt (essential!)
3/4 cup fresh breadcrumbs
3/4 cup grated parmesan

Spray a 9x9 glass dish with nonstick spray. Believe me, you don't want to skip this step. Then put the spinach in a saucepan, cover with water, and boil till cooked, but don't overcook. In the meantime, melt the butter in a heavy saucepan and then add the flour, and let bubble for about two minutes to cook the floury taste away. Add the minced onion and garlic and saute till soft, but do not burn the floury butter. When your spinach is cooked, drain off the water, but into a measuring cup, till you have 1 cup liquid. Discard the remainder. Slowly add the liquid to the onion and garlic, and stir till thick. Add the evaporated milk, the cheese, the chili flakes, the celery salt, and stir until cheese is melted. Pour the mixture into the glass dish and top first with breadcrumbs and then with cheese. Bake at 400 degrees for half an hour, or until bubbly and browned on top. Heaven.


All right.

This afternoon, as I was having my finger acupunctured (more on that later, spinach is more important), I lay in darkness, Chinese music playing all round, candles flickering, and my thoughts turned naturally enough to... spinach. Namely, that I had a bag full of baby spinach leaves in my fridge, had used only a tiny number for my OCD chicken dish over the weekend, what to do? Spinach casserole? But, my nearly unconscious mind reiterated, "Do not use fresh." How to rebel from one's own recipe self? I knew it could be done.

So I rushed home and put a tablespoon of butter in my large skillet, threw in the spinach, which looked an enormous amount, poured on a 1/2 cup water, slapped a lid on and put the heat on under it. A scant two minutes later and there was NOTHING LEFT. All those leaves, nothing. So I went on with the rest of the recipe, only halving the amount of flour and evaporated milk, owing to the cowardly amount of spinach.

Then, I realized I had only gruyere cheese. Threw it in. The whole spinach leaves, too. Not chopped at all. I served it with trepidation but... howls of delight. Avery asks only that the stems be removed, because "they occupy a separate part of my mouth from the leaves," and I have to agree. Sorry, frozen spinach, your official LAST reason for existence has been... simmered away.

Super Bowl, here we come!

We did it! Can I say "we" even though I live in London? My hometown football team, that's American football, is headed to the Super Bowl! Go Colts! I think it was the karma of my niece, little Jane, who spent the day in Colts pajamas, that turned the corner for the team. Of course, my sister is a big, powerful executive at the definitive sports channel which until I get permission from her must remain anonymous, so she knows how to train a child to be a sports fan. Yippee! Apparently part of the big buzz is that both teams, the Colts and the Bears, have black coaches, and it is the first time a black coach has got to the Super Bowl. That sure seems a long time coming, and I can understand the Indianapolis coach when he says he hopes that stops being remarkable, fairly soon. Good, we need another sporting event to get excited about. And at least I can sort of understand the rules, unlike cricket.

I wish we could turn some of their good luck on poor Avery, who is home sick for almost the first time ever. Just miserable, and quite bored as well. "If I have to look at another computer screen, or television screen, I will go crazy!" is the verdict. Plus, she claims not to be able to swallow a pill, so there is no abating of her symptoms. This to her father is a serious red flag. He has visions of her suddenly, overnight, coming down with an ailment that if she can't swallow six pills on a Tuesday with a full moon, she'll die. To John, saying she can't do something is just... an illness in itself. So he's huffy. "Daddy's lost all sympathy," Avery says. "But you're still a nice mummy." The child knows that a household without even one sucker parent is a cold, cold house.

So how to entertain an at-home child? I'm afraid we're looking at that parents' worst nightmare: the boardgame. Meanwhile, good on you, Colts!

20 January, 2007

Brideshead Revisited, revisited

But first, an important Shrimp Announcement: there is no way, contrary to the cavalier advice I gave you in the recipe yesterday, that the shrimp recipe I gave you can feed four. Scratch that, it can't even serve two. We ate like little wolves, while Avery swam peacefully in her bath, being an unshrimplike person. I forgot how much I love that dish. So double it definitely, and maybe even more, for four. Even with the rice to soak up all the spicy goodness, we were both left peering into the serving dish in dismay when it was finished. Make it right away, do.

Avery has a dreadful cough. She said this morning with relish, between coughing up lungs, "I'm so excited for today!" "Why, what do you have going on?" I asked in surprise. "NOTHING." So we sat around and did nothing. Or rather, she sat around and watched movie after movie. We started out with "Peter Pan," which got her all fired up for next week's school auditions for their performance of said drama, in the summer term. We're angling for her to be a mermaid, since they get to sing, or one of the special two "Lost Boys" who get actual lines. Then it was onto her school version of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," "The Phoenix and the Carpet,") while John and I cleaned out closets in our bedroom. Seven bags of clothes for Oxfam, whooppee.

I found things with dry cleaning tags in them from the last time we lived in London, in 1993. Which means said garments have not been worn in 15 years. Why have I placed them in boxes and moved them at least five times since then, if I didn't care any more than that? But some items of sentimental value: the cardigan I was wearing when John met me lo these 24 years ago, a sweatshirt from Bryn Mawr with 1992 emblazoned on it, the year I got my PhD! And it's covered with paint from when we refurbished the dining room in our first home in Maplewood, New Jersey. And the little tweed dress my mother was wearing in her engagement photograph for her local newspaper! Quite a sentimental journey.

But we were glad enough to finish and collapse to watch the first episode of "Brideshead Revisited." I forgot what a wonderful, evocative, beautiful production that was. A bit too subtle for Avery, all sorts of mortal nuances that she wasn't very interested in. But it will be nice to have in reserve for times when we need a little elegant entertainment. Was there ever anyone more beautiful than the young Anthony Andrews? He turns up, as well, in one of the new Miss Marples, playing Tommy of "Tommy and Tuppence," never my favorite Agatha Christie characters, and a very weird television production (completely changing the story, picky picky), but still well done in his capable hands. And of course the perfect Jeremy Irons as Charles. From the special edition brochure that came with the DVD I learned the touching fact that the rooms at Oxford that Charles inhabits in the film are the real-live rooms where Evelyn Waugh actually lived. Sigh, to go to Oxford. Maybe Avery will go.

Do you feel in the mood for a slightly obsessive-compulsive dinner preparation? I have to say, it's satisfying not only to prepare, but it's delicious as well. For some reason, all the butler-served meals in "Brideshead Revisited" made me long for a slightly elaborate dinner with, crucially, a sauce. So between home and Marks & Sparks I invented this. Have a go.

Chicken with Parma Ham and Asparagus
(serves four)

3 tbsps butter
6 leaves fresh sage, whole
4 boneless chicken breasts, skin removed
4 toothpicks
20 stalks thin asparagus, snapped at the weak point on the stem
4 slices Parma ham
16 leaves baby spinach
6 mushrooms, sliced thin
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 shallot, minced
1 cup white wine
1/2 cup single cream
salt and pepper to taste

Melt butter in large skillet and fry sage leaves until crispy, then remove the leaves and take skillet off heat. Lay chicken breasts on a cutting board and either 1) pound them quite flat, or 2) cut as large a slit as possible in one side, to make a pocket. Now, on a separate cutting board, lay out Parma ham slices next to one another. At one end of each slice, pile on four spinach leaves, and lay 5 stalks of asparagus on each pile of spinach. Roll up the ham around the spinach and asparagus and tuck the little roll into the chicken pocket, or roll up in the flattened chicken breast if you went that route. Secure with a toothpick. Aren't they cute?

Now, heat up the butter in the skillet again. Lay the chicken breasts in the butter and brown, then turn over and brown again. After about 3 minutes on each side, take chicken out and put on a plate, set aside. Add more butter if necessary and throw in the garlic, shallot and mushrooms to saute until soft. Deglaze the skillet with the wine and cook down for 3 minutes, then add the cream, salt and pepper and stir. Carefully scoot the mushrooms to the sides of the skillet to make room for the chicken breasts, and lay them in the sauce. Cover and cook for six minutes at a simmer. Serve on a platter with the sage leaves on top.

Yum yum!

With this we had mashed potatoes and sauteed red pepper strips, and I hereby promise, no more mashed potatoes for awhile. Such a guilty pleasure, but I should turn our pasty white winter bodies toward more virtuous side dishes, like the lentils, or a risotto with at least some vegetables in it. Actually the lentil dish is quite like a Middle Eastern risotto, isn't it? I'm sure I'm not the first cook to draw that comparison.

Right. I'll close with a special wish for my Indiana relatives: GO COLTS!

19 January, 2007

a fine humour

Well, certainly the comedy class is good fun! But I must say, and I hope this will fall on the ears of my British readers with all the Anglophilic affection that infuses it, it's like living in a, dare I say it, foreign country.

By this I mean that a lot of the time, living in London, carrying on one's daily life as a sort of stranger but a sort of person who belongs here, it can seem as if our two cultures, America and Britain, are quite similar. Actually I say that when in point of fact, I make an absolute fetish out of noticing and getting to the bottom of all things that are different between us, so I don't know why I would go all astonished when it comes to the comedy class. Think of it: from morning to night, daily life is fettered with ways in which one can either fit in, or not. Bacon on your morning sandwich? An American will, as I've observed before, have to ask for "streaky" to get what you expect, and even then it will be already cooked and sitting in the refrigerator section: none of that greasy, freshly-grilled stuff that so delights or repels the New York deli patron. Then do you get on the subway or the Tube? It's enough to give you a headache. You could possibly toddle into the drugstore (although you'd best call it a "chemist") and ask for acetaminophen, but "paracetamol" will more likely get you what you want. Now, do you offer to help the lady struggling up the steps to lift her child's stroller up to the sidewalk? No, because without illustrative hand gestures she wouldn't perhaps understand. Best to carry the "pushchair" up to the "pavement." Lunch is no easier. Asking for "tuna salad" will get you precisely that: tuna, and some salad. You'll have to say "tuna mayonnaise" to get what you expect. By the time you've shopped for a zucchini and an eggplant for your dinner, only to find you need to ask for a "courgette" and an "aubergine" instead, you'll simply want to whack your head against a lamppost and cry. So it's best just to learn the ropes and follow them.

It really is not the same language. And dig a little deeper and you'll find out how much more you don't know about your adopted country. That's what the comedy class is doing for me.

For one thing, writing comedy, and talking about comedy, seems to take people back to their childhoods, and lots of cultural references come up that I simply have to ask about, or write it down intelligibly and come home and google like mad. This week's class was no exception. Now, you'd have to be living on Mars in this town not to have heard of the Jade Goody-Shilpa Shetty controversy on "Celebrity Big Brother. Briefly, it's this: Jade Goody is saying nasty things that people are interpreting as anti-Indian racism, to Shilpa Shetty, who is a huge star in the Bollywood galaxy. It's gotten so controversial that various sponsors of the show are backing out, and even the Chancellor of the Exchequer (and would be next Prime Minister) Gordon Brown is having to address it during his visit to India. I hope he still has time to negotiate between India and Pakistan over their nuclear ambitions. But first things first, obviously.

So the tutor, Guy, decided our task was to come up with a sketch combining the situation with another, having established already that combination was one of the three keys to writing comedy: putting two things together that don't ostensibly belong, and making them work. I was so pleased that my two ideas were received graciously! Actually I was glad to be able to say anything to contribute at all, the conversation and suggestions were flying so fast and furious, but I really wanted to keep up. So my ideas were to combine "Big Brother" with the programme "What Not To Wear,", and turn it into "What Not To Say," or to combine the Big Brother House with the House of Commons (where believe it or not, the issue is being debated) and have "Big Brother House of Commons," where the Jade-Shilpa drama could be played out with the support of various cabinet ministers. Whew. It was exhausting! So we broke up into small groups and tried desperately to flesh this out.

While discussing it all, my pen was flying as fast as everly it could to capture everything that was going on, among the classmates who all spoke the same language. For example, one girl wanted to introduce "Mallet's Mallet" into the Big Brother house, which reference turned out to be from a children's television show where kids get bopped over the head if they can't think of a word fast enough. Then Guy suggested that we go with my basic idea, and then flesh it out, or as he expressed it, "put a little Meccano around it," which after I slunk over to him during the break and asked, turned out to be a kind of kids' scaffolding game! Too funny. We had a great time, but I'm not sure any great comedy was turned out. Not yet.

For that we had to be content to listen to an audio tape of a television programme Guy actually wrote himself, for an episode of a wonderful-sounding show called "Not The Nine O'Clock News," which was later developed in America as "Not Necessarily the News," something I remember from my childhood. In the episode we heard (which made it to #2 on the LP charts in 1970-something!), Guy combined two totally odd ideas and came up with a completely hilarious sketch, but again, only if you understand British culture. Remember my short-lived crush on Bamber Gascoigne? Host of "University Challenge," which is truly one of the most entertaining programmes on television, even if Bamber has retreated to greener pastures upon retirement. Anyway, Guy combined the setting of "University Challenge" with two teams of prison inmates who were studying with the Open University, and had them quizzed on the history of crime and criminals. Totally hilarious. Oh, we had fun.

Bamber notwithstanding, off course I have returned to my Matthew roots, with a slight detour into Daniel Craig land. I rented "Layer Cake" this week, and my, I can certainly pick 'em for doing unappealing violent films, can't I? I have to say I enjoyed it anyway, and he's memorable for all kinds of things, namely his incredible blue eyes and lovely pecs, and... he can act. And there is just nothing cuter than Sienna Miller in this film, even if she isn't given two words to string together. What on earth she was doing still orbiting around Jude Law after her lips were allowed to lock with Daniel Craig's I cannot fathom. As for the divine Michael Gambon, well, he is perfection.

Speaking of fine acting, our homework this week is to watch as much comedy as possible. So we're tracking down a very funny show called "Spoons," starring one of my favorite occasional actors, Tom Goodman-Hill; I mean I see him in things occasionally, among them just one letter off, "Spooks." Perhaps his next role will be as a seamstress in an edgy drama called "Spools." Then he can do a send-up of it and call it "Spoofs." Stop me, already.

Well, Avery is off at her classmate Francesca's wall-climbing birthday party in Westway, and I'm getting ready to underchef one of our favorite "we don't have to feed her" dinners. Give it a try. It's loosely adapted from one of my favorite Asian cookbooks, Mrs Chiang's Szechwan Cooking, given to me lo these 20 years ago (can that be true?) by my mother in law. I have to tell you what happens to me and recipes. My dear friend Jeanne complains that I cannot leave a recipe alone, and as soon as I make something once, from a recipe, I immediately launch into a speculative discussion as to what I could do differently next time. "It doesn't need garlic!" she scolds. "And no, leaving out the cornstarch would not be an improvement." But I do tinker.

In my defense, as far as methods go, I have had to adjust my thinking. Back before I had a child and I had all the time in the world to cook dinner, I really doted on what I would call "precision undercheffing." I would have little porcelain dishes all over my countertops with elaborately prepared ingredients, just waiting for the final flourish of the actual cooking, and I was inordinately fond of the different stages of the preparation. Through the years of having a very small child crawling up my leg as a scorpion might do, as I handled hot oils and chili peppers over her golden head, I developed a truncated method of cooking that skipped every unnecessary hand motion. Forget the little dishes of scallions. Just throw them in anyoldhow. To these depths I have sunk. So the following recipe is much less elaborate than Mrs. Chiang's original instructions. I assure you that if the flavors suffered, I'd go back to her wishes, but as it is, I'm happy. And the scorpion on my leg still gets attention for her homework.

Szechwan Red-Cooked Shrimp
(serves four)

3 tbsps peanut oil
1 lb uncooked large shrimp, shells on, heads off (call them prawns in England)
3 bunches green onions, sliced thin (white part only)
5 cloves garlic, minced
1-inch knob fresh ginger, minced
1/2 tbsp coarse sea salt

4 tbsps soy sauce
2 tbsps Japanese mirin (rice wine)
1 tbsp sesame oil
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp chili paste or sauce

1 cup basmati rice

Arrange your shrimp in a single layer on a platter and scatter the garlic, ginger, green onions and sea salt over them. They can sit there, thawing as mine will have to from the freezer, while you do everything else.

Mix all the rest of the ingredients except the rice in a bowl and set aside. Put your rice on to simmer with a little under 1 1/2 cups water. Now, in a wok over high heat, heat your peanut oil. It has a very high smoking point, so you can get it good and hot. I find the shrimp are more tender if they're cooked hot and short. Throw in the shrimps with their garnish, and toss very quickly until the shrimp turn pink. Take them out with a slotted spoon and place them in the bowl you intend to serve in (no sense messing about with extra bowls!). Pour the liquid mixture into the wok and bring to a boil, mixing in the garlic and ginger left behind in the wok. Boil high for two minutes, then throw the shrimp back in and toss for 30 seconds. Serve with rice.

Now gather up a bunch of paper napkins and start pulling their little legs and shells off. This dinner is messy, spicy, and glorious. Thanks to Mrs. Chiang and my mother in law!

16 January, 2007

the drears, part two

It's taking longer than I thought.

The whole "don't be depressed, things aren't as dreary as they seem" campaign, I mean. How can it stay so grey?! Yesterday the sun came out briefly while I walked to the Lebanese food shop. By the time I came back out... grey.

And it's extending its nasty tendrils right into my house. And school. Even reading with the gulls this morning was a bit lacklustre. Little Elodie allowed as how she had a cold, which necessitated much swiping of sleeve over nose. Tissue? Why? Maddie was reading "Charlotte's Web" and as she rivals Avery in the drama-queen stakes, I felt in duty bound to tell her that the story ends in tears. "I already know, Mrs Curran. My sister's read it twice and she cried both times." I sort of slumped toward home and in the middle of the high street remembered some sappy adage from "Little House on the Prairie," or some Shirley Temple movie: if you want to feel better, think of someone else. So I stopped in the flower shop and ordered some potted plants for the school staircase, which makes three graceful turns from the top floor to the bottom, and in each curve is a pot. Empty now without the holiday poinsettias. So by the time I go to read again on Thursday, there will at least be something alive to look at on the long way up, and the much shorter way down.

Well, I'm sorry to say that my floral tribute did nothing whatsoever to leaven my mood. Once home, I cleared off my desk by putting things to post to America into envelopes. The upside is that my desk is clear, but I hate to think how much it will set me back in postage! Still, Janie's birthday approaches and now there is a nice fat package headed her way. Virtuously, I folded some random laundry, but when I went to put Avery's clothes away, fully six sweaters leapt from her cupboard and fell at my feet. I decided it couldn't wait another minute, so I dragged every last garment she owns out onto the floor and am now paying for it. So much outgrown! So much shabby. So a big bag for Oxfam and a little pile for Jane, and now kind John has gone out and bought storage drawers for me to put in the closets and start organising. What a bore.

However. Remember the persnickety guy's house we saw last week? Well, he might have been a neatness psychopath, but his WIFE had original copies of "Milly-Molly-Mandy," and I wanted them. Avery's copies are not only reprints, and so rather not so exciting, but they belong to Jane now, so when I got home from the wacky house, I tracked down original copies of two of the earliest books. If you have a little girl or boy, or need a present for a little girl or boy, you simply cannot do better than these books. She's a little English girl from probably the 1920s, with an extended family of quite unparalleled sweetness, several friends to play with, and most memorably, a rather addictive cadence of narrative. Her little friend Susan, for example, is referred to always as "little-friend-Susan," which is of course the way children hear things. The copies arrived yesterday, and Avery is thrilled to have them, plus they include some stories the American reprint did not. OK, things are looking up.

And why shouldn't our trouble-free cat, Hermione, get a little attention? Of course Wimsey and Keechie frequent the pages of the blog because they are insane. But poor Hermione and Tacy, the original unsqueaky wheels, are neglected. Of course Tacy told me exactly what she thought of my attentions by refusing to pose for a picture. So there. But how down can any spoiled rotten person like myself be, when a tabby of this sort will sit on my lap.

It seems fitting to close with one of the few recipes for ugly food that I have to offer. This is a very healthy, very tasty and inexpensive side dish of my own design, invented last night to take advantage of the lovely lentils I had bought at Green Valley. It has a strangely satisfying heft, a spoonful of this dish does. Life as a vegetarian might not be so lame as it always sounds to me, with this dish available. The lentils are nice and firm, al dente in fact. I adore the old Mario Batali quote, "Don't let me hear you pronounce it 'al Dante.' He's dead and he doesn't care about your pasta."

But this dish is warm, it's hearty, it's full of big flavors, it cooks itself, and the house smells divine while it's on the stove. And wonderful cold leftovers, tucked in a pita. But... it is ugly. So enjoy.

Ugly Curried Lentils
(serves four)

1 1/2 cups split lentils (green or yellow, or I mixed in both)
4 cups chicken stock
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium onion, minced
1-inch knob fresh ginger, peeled and minced
1 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp turmeric
1 tsp hot curry powder (or rogan josh)
1/2 tsp chili powder
salt to taste
3 tbsps butter

Go over the lentils and discard any little hard bits. Place in a saucepan and cover with water, swish around, discard water and repeat three times. Pour in 3 cups chicken stock and simmer for one hour, stirring and adding more stock if lentils dry out. When al dente (hee hee), add the garlic, onion, ginger and seasonings and the rest of the stock and simmer, covered, for at least an hour, but indefinitely if you like. Right before serving, add the butter and give it a good stir, adding more stock if necessary. Delicious. With it we had an inexpensive cut of steak sliced in strips and sauteed in peanut oil with Japanese mirin, soy sauce and oyster sauce, which we devoured wrapped in lettuce leaves, with sliced fresh mushrooms, sliced pears, fresh coriander leaves and chili sauce. Messy, cheap, crunchy and glorious. Oooh, I'm cheering myself up...

15 January, 2007

triumph at the Pony Club Quiz!

Yes, Avery's team in the under-12s won their "Area 12" group of the Pony Club Quiz! Area 12 is, I found out through assiduous googling, the "Northern Home Counties" of England, which includes all of London. As Venetia, head girl at Ross Nye Stables put it, "Avery won it for us!" She was positively jumping up and down like a jack-in-the-box last evening when we went to collect her at the stable, a little bouncing figure in the dark, clutching her blue rosette. "We won, we won!" So she and her little companions are all set to move on to the next round, which I think is all of Area 12, and then Regionals, near to Easter. Well done! That barn has been incredible for her self-esteem, not to mention leg muscles. As she fell asleep she murmured, "I never had anybody do a three cheers for me before. Hip, hip, HOORAY... for Avery!"

So she tripped off to school this morning with her rosette, and I'm sure she will have plenty of stories to tell.

I myself have not been idle. Did I tell you I finally got all the horrible ugly hair color from last spring cut off? Yes, on Coco's mother's recommendation I headed off to Shepherd's Bush and under the ministrations of Radina, got all the bad color gone, a new nice, subtle blonde-ish color put on in highlights, and a nice, if too-short cut. Took years off my appearance, I have to say. Plus they were terribly nice, and all just like characters out of a British television show. Very homey, lots of in-house gossip, advice given on all subjects from school choice to the best way to cook sea bream, and a little glimpse into the teenage years to come. Radina told me wisely, "Kristen, if your daughter comes to you at any time, come the teen years, and wants to do something with her hair, just you let her do it. Because it's either that or piercings, and hair GROWS BACK." As I sat there, outlasting all the other ladies who had less demanding hair problems, a nice English lady sat down to have a shampoo. Her hairdresser asked if she'd managed to get that birthday present off to her son in time. "No, I found out it would cost the price of the book to get it to Washington in time, so there's just a card in the post, now. I would have liked him to have a little something to open, on the day, but he's 42 this year and perhaps it won't matter so much." Oh, it made me homesick for my own mum! I'm turning 42 as well, this year, but I still want a present from my mum on the day. Just so she knows. Now it's public.

Then today I ventured off to a shop a friend has been urging me to visit ever since we arrived last year, but for some reason, some things just go undone until one day it's absolutely imperative to find roasted almonds in bulk, and poof! Off goes the little lightbulb about where my friend said to get nuts in bulk. And everything else exotic and Lebanese, as it transpires. Green Valley is the place to go if you want the most delicious lamb sandwich you will ever have, called a shawarma: in-house just-baked pita bread, stuffed with homemade pickles, peppers, onions, carrots and shavings of roast lamb, which I then topped with their yoghurt sauce with cucumbers and dill. Warm, delicious, and very filling. John of course inhaled his in the time it took me to lift the sandwich to my mouth, so I think he was pretty happy as well. I had such fun trawling the aisles. Every kind of olive you can imagine, and dozens of different sorts of chick peas, and many brands of tahini (I can't imagine why you'd need more than one, but then I'm not Lebanese). Really high quality produce (I bought a couple of guava, thinking surely they give juice?), seemingly hundreds of varieties of baklava, nougat and other sweet things that did not tempt me, but might you. Spices I had never heard of, like "lime powder," can't imagine what that's for, but some cook might not be able to exist without it and is searching Blogger for someone who can tell you where to buy it. There you go. And a lovely new beverage (because I'll try anything that smacks of a way to drink water that doesn't taste like water), made from hibiscus flowers. Becky would laugh so much, as she does every day at school pickup when I show up with a new bottle and either a thumbs up or resounding thumbs down. But do go to Green Valley if like me you adore food shopping.

Oh, and a place to visit if you need gifts. We went before Christmas and I meant to describe this shop right away, but the brochure found its way to the bottom of the pile of things on my desk that need attending. It's called The Big Tomato Company, in St. Helen's Gardens in West Kensington, and what they do is put funny expressions, epithets, nicknames, you name it, on coffee mugs, utensil containers, serving platters, everything. One of my favorites was the toast rack that read "nice rack." I bought "loser" for John, because of his obsessive rantings at bad drivers: "You're a big fat loser!" And I wanted "dark horse" for Avery, but they were sold out. I bought "footballer's wife" for Alyssa, and "drama queen" for Annabelle. You could get a teapot with "not for all the tea in china," or a coffee cup with "yummy mummy." The proprietors were there and very keen to chat. They've cracked the American market already, but John and I feel confident they could have a fabulous success in, say, Nolita in New York. Go, do, and indulge yourself in something funny.

Well, we're off to see another house, in Notting Hill. The one in Bedford Square fell through because a ginormous developer turned up with cash and the ability to close in ten days, so John is very sad. Something will turn up. Maybe it will turn out there's a highly lucrative quiz show called "Who Wants To Be A Stablehand?" and Avery will be the savior of us all...

13 January, 2007

Anguish Languish rides again

Oh, but before I get to my enigmatic (to most of you, I'll bet) subject matter of the day, I have to give you all an update (I'm still in shock over nearly using that as a verb, whew) on the story I told you all about in the summer, the public appeal for donations to save the surroundings of a Land Trust that was the original inspiration for "Wind in the Willows". They've reached their goal, and the land has been purchased, plus enough extra to start all sorts of gardening and conservation projects. I wonder if anyone from my blog clicked on the link and donated? It's just that sort of world. But I bet I never find out. Leave a comment on the blog, if you did, please. Oh, and that reminds me, I've been getting comments lately, which is new and exciting. I just love to get that email that tells me someone's had something to say about something I said. It's all part of the self-centeredness I was lecturing you all about recently, and it's very rewarding. Plus the people are so nice.

Anyway, I was rooting through all my books looking for something to read the other night when I stumbled upon my mother's old copy of just about the funniest book ever written, although as my comedy class is teaching me, not everyone finds everything funny. However, in this case, anyone who doesn't think it is completely clever is simply wrong. It's called Anguish Languish, and in case you were planning to run over to abebooks to get a copy, save your money (because it's a LOT of money!) and go right to the website that has all the stories nicely presented for you.

But I must begin again. Because you don't know what the whole point of "Anguish Languish" is, yet. Let me enlighten you. The whole point that author Dr. Howard L. Chace makes is "water larder warts sunned lack itch udder." Now say that fast and listen, or have someone else say it fast and you listen. And then you can't stop. Avery has been in my study at least four times in an hour trying to wrench this book away from me, laughing over the the bird and the worm chatting. The worm says, "Europe oily disk moaning!" and then bird replies with an evil grin, "Doily board cashes or warm!"

How many "furry tales" do you think you can recite off the top of your head? How's about "Ladle Rat Rotten Hut"? Or nursery rhymes? Think back to "Marry Hatter Ladle Limb," always a crowd-pleaser. I particularly groove to "Sinker Sucker Socks Pants," but then I've been listening to the Agatha Christie story "A Pocketful of Rye" on tape this week, so naturally it follows as night the day.

But you know what I just remembered? I have to confess that my husband, while practically perfect in every way, is not amused particularly by "Anguish Languish," and I think that probably that's all right. Because he does have so many other starling koala tees.