25 February, 2007

friends, food, film and... a flop

First of all, drum roll please:

Vincent's Salmon with Cream & Vegetables

Preparation time: 10-15 minutes
Cooking Time: 25-30 minutes
Level of Difficulty: Very Easy
Occasion: Dinner Party or Sunday Lunch

Approx 1 Kilo of Salmon Fillet in one piece if possible - (Enough to
feed 4 generously or 6 if you're having a starter)
3 Medium to large carrots
1 Large fennel bulb
1 Medium Onion
1 Large Red Pepper
2 Large Celery Stalks
200g Green Vegetables (Green Beans, Asparagus etc.)
3 Tbsp Chopped Flat Leaf Parsley
1 1/2 Tbsp Chopped Dill
1 1/2 Tbsp Chopped Chervil (Not absolutely necessary)
Grated Rind of 1 Lemon
Juice of 1 Lemon
400 ml Creme Fraiche
150 ml White Wine (Chardonnay, Viognier, Sauvignion Blanc)

Preheat your oven to 200C (Medium hot oven). Put the vegetables through a food processor with a shredding/julienne blade. Transfer the grated vegetables to a mixing bowl. Add the grated lemon rind. In a separate mixing bowl, add the Creme Fraiche, lemon juice, white wine, chopped herbs and mix well. Season this with generous amounts of pepper and some salt. Pour the liquid mixture over the vegetables and mix thoroughly. When you're done, you should have a very wet mix of vegetables sitting in but not covered by liquid.

Partially strain and arrange 3/4 of the vegetable mixture evenly on the bottom of a large and flat backing pan/tray. Place the salmon fillet skin-side down on the vegetables. Season the salmon. Strain and place the remainder of the vegetables on the fish. You should have about 1 1/2 cups of liquid left in the bottom of your mixing bowl. Pour that over the salmon.

Bake the salmon for 25-30 minutes, checking half-way and basting the fish with some of the cooking liquid. When the time is up, check that the fish is cooked. It should be a bit "pink" in the middle.

Serve over white rice or boiled new potatoes and with some steamed green vegetables.

Chef's Tip: If the Salmon and vegetables render too much liquid during cooking, and the sauce looks watery/runny, then when you are done cooking, remove the fish from the pan along with most of the vegetable mixture. Take the remaining vegetables and all of the liquid and place in a pan. Add 2 Tbsp of creme fraiche, and reduce on a medium/high heat (stir regularly). When the sauce has achieve a pleasing consistency, add some of the fresh herbs if you have any left for color and pour over the fish and vegetables.


As you will have noted, I have kept in Vincent's charming recipe style, much more colorful than my own, but PERHAPS less honest, since I do think labelling this recipe as "very easy" is a bit, shall we say, optimistic? Not to say mendacious, since Vincent probably thinks this is "very easy." But I do know he is honest in his directions, so go ahead, dear readers, and enjoy.

At any rate, we did achieve our house, but not before Avery and I stopped to grocery shop at Marks & Sparks for dinner, SIGH! I never shop whilst full of food, all diet instructions to the contrary. I find myself much happier shopping when I'm hungry and I don't (although I know other people do) buy things I wouldn't normally want. What I do do is buy good food that I want to eat, and I enjoy myself doing it. But this trip was purely business: full as we were, five other hungry people were about to arrive at our house and want dinner, poor struggling tourists, Phoebe's family from Tribeca.

Little did we know. These people plumbed more exciting London destinations in four days than we have in a year! Well, not quite perhaps, but they were full of information. And did they eat. Fresh from tea at the Wolseley (so I don't know how they had any appetite at all). First, though, it was such fun to see Avery and Phoebe encounter each other, since it's been over a year and they had only one semester in school together before we moved here. But a great ice breaker is: matching spectacles. Or practically matching, plus both wearing brown t-shirts and with little plaits of hair. They stared at each other for a long moment while all parents held a collective breath... and then it was off to play. Phoebe's brother Julian hunted down a book in my study, sat down with Roald Dahl's "The Witches" and was down for the count. We adults repaired to the kitchen where, I have to say, I was getting kind of enthusiastic about my dinner, as full as I was. Two luscious roasted chickens were sputtering in the oven (this time I simply covered them with olive oil and salt and roasted them for two hours at 350-ish), sauteeing broccolini in olive oil, and good old English jacket potatoes, with sour cream and chives. A nice English repast for a Saturday evening.

Liz is a fascinating mixture of carpe diem enthusiasms for anything and everything ranging from English football (they had been to a Manchester United game (or "manyoo" as Liz wrote to me) and reported all the crazy antics there, like the fact that the song I thought was "God Save the Queen" all during the World Cup has its words replaced by long strings of profanity! who knew) to her daughter's sailing through the hell that is private school entrance exams in New York City. They are strongly considering Fieldston, where John and I envisioned Avery going, since it's a stone's throw from her stable in Riverdale; these are the depths to which a parent sinks, fresh from a 45-minute commute each way three times a week to watch a child go round and round on a pony. School nearby? Take it!

Liz regaled us with tales from Tribeca, the new principal at PS 234, the new hideous buildings jumping up on all vacant lots. I think we left at the right time. "But," she said, "where we're staying this trip, Hampstead, feels like the old Tribeca." So we planned to run up there after dinner and see the house-swap place they had found. Real estate: John was in heaven. But first we plowed through dinner, and I have never had such good customers! Phoebe ate her weight in chicken and scraped her potato completely clean. If I had been more inspired I would have rubbed the potatoes (nice Maris Pipers) all over with olive oil and sprinkled them with salt before baking, and then the skins would have been crispy. Do try that. We chatted about the ceremony of the keys at the Tower of London, to which they had acquired tickets by writing two months in advance! And they had seen "The Tempest" with Patrick Stewart. This is the sort of holiday you have when two brilliant parents with true historical motivation are in charge. I on the other hand drag my family through farmer's markets, cafes and bookstores. Ah well, we all have our strengths. I wish so much I had known Liz better, and Avery Phoebe, before we moved. But I think we're on track for a nice friendship across the pond, never a thing to despise.

We finished with Avery's fresh layer cake with raspberry jam filling, and she is justifiably proud of it. It stayed delicious for three days! Gone now, however. Good on you, Aves.

Avery's Layer Cake
(serves 9)

1 1/4 sticks butter, softened
1 cup sugar
2 eggs, separated
2 cups flour
1 cup milk
2 tsps baking powder
1/4 tsp salt

Cream butter and sugar together in a large mixing bowl at low speed, then add egg yolks, beat more, add milk, beat more. In another bowl sift together flour, baking powder and salt, then stir into batter. Beat egg whites till stiff and fold into batter. Pour into two non-stick sprayed layer cake pans and bake at 350 for about 40 minutes, or until they spring back from sides and a fork dipped in the center comes out clean. Cool slightly, then place one layer on a large plate and smear with jam. Put second layer on top and put jam all over the top and sides. Serve warm!


At that point, I threw the two chicken carcasses in a large stock pot, poured on water to cover, sprinkled in a lot of salt and turned the burner up high while we cleaned up in a hurry, then turned the stove off so as to get up to Hampstead and tour the amazing house in which they were staying. Owned by a writer called Simon Nye (author of "Men Behaving Badly") and lived in by him, his German wife and their four children, it's quite simply the coziest, happiest house I think I've ever seen. All old details like pocket doors and window shutters, moldings and old floors, a huge kitchen with one wall completely covered with blackboard material, and all the evidence of a busy family's life written on it: birthday parties, grocery lists, doodlings. Simply gorgeous. And exactly what we want, only smaller, except we can't afford it. Sigh. But it was fun to see.

So we left Phoebe's family framed in the doorway, surrounded by fairy-lit trees, and drove home, thinking that yes, the villagey atmosphere of Hampstead did feel like Tribeca. Maybe someday. Phoebe's dad, who I found as we parted company is a really significant writer (I felt very ignorant, having thought of him merely as... Phoebe's dad), with a new book coming out in October that sounds wonderful, "A Short History of the American Stomach") assures us that this holiday house-sharing scheme is a wonderful thing, so I think we'll give it a try at some point. Surely someone wants to rent a farmhouse in Connecticut?

Sunday found Avery at the stable to head out for the second round of the Pony Club Quiz, at which first round she had been so brilliantly clever last month. John and I repaired to the cinema and saw "Venus," which I am terribly disappointed did not win an Oscar last night. I hate it that every year, nearly, the most highly-acclaimed film is far too scary for me to see. "The Departed"? Forget about it, I'd never sleep again. But Peter O'Toole, oh, he was lovely. And the novice (but extremely talented) Jodie Whitaker. If it turns out she can do more than what I think might have been a Yorkshire accent, I would imagine the sky's the limit. Beautiful, aggressive, pitiful, childlike and seductive by turns, she benefits from a script that never lets you figure out exactly who she is. Do go see it.

Then my phone rang and it was Avery (I always find her voice so comical the few times I hear it on the phone, like a cartoon character speeded up), saying, "We're back from the Quiz!" "Oh, good, how did you do, darling?" "Well, we came in sixth place." (Underwhelming). "Good for you, out of how many teams?" "Six." Oh.

Well, at least this saves us from anymore mind-bendingly dull quiz sessions, as well as harboring the comforting knowledge that Avery can recognise sweet itch at a moment's notice, pack up a complete veterinary kit for ponies and small horses, and tell you how many feet in a furlong. No such thing as wasted knowledge, as I and my dormant PhD will tell you.

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