07 February, 2007

Notes on a Scandal (and a cautionary tale about mussels)

It's so unusual for me to find a movie that is meant for adults (not that there's anything wrong with seeing a good children's movie, but still), not a comedy, and not so scary or evil that it gives me bad dreams. I just don't do scary and evil. I remember last year, to celebrate my birthday I went to see "The Constant Gardener," because of my devotion to Ralph Fiennes, but I didn't do my homework. Silly me, I thought the film might be about... gardening, not that I garden, but at least it would be palatable, and I could stare at Ralph. But my goodness, I was scared for weeks afterward.

So yesterday it was such fun to meet up with my gorgeous friend Dalia (always a bit demoralising to be with a friend who makes everyone's head turn, but it's worth it for her biting wit) and see "Notes on a Scandal." Of course everyone is talking about it. I had not read the book by Zoe Heller, but from the reviews of the book, the screenplay (by the brilliant Patrick Marber) is spot on, some of it taken verbatim from the novel. I don't think I have ever seen Cate Blanchett in a film before, but the range she displays in this movie is awe-inspiring: her voice seems to reach across several octaves, her face can go from flowerlike innocence to pure hatred in the blink of an eye, and she perfectly captures the idiocy, waywardness and panic of this character. And a virtual cameo from one of my favorite British actresses, Anne-Marie Duff, right at the end. I adored her, alongside one of Matthew Macfadyen's most wonderful performances, in "The Way We Live Now." I wonder if she took such a tiny part just to be associated with this film. The husband, played by Bill Nighy (who seems able to do anything, from ageing rock star to corrupt politican to this adorable victim), reminded me of my own husband, so good, and with such an evil wife, poor thing.

It did make me laugh that in one of the book reviews, the adulterous wife was described as "an older woman." Eeek, at 37? This makes my 42nd, tomorrow, seem all the more like the first, or even third, nail in my coffin.

So do go see it. Now, I think I can look forward to several more films that won't give me nightmares but will be food for thought: "Becoming Jane" and "Venus" at least. I wonder how long we could go, seeing only British films, or at least about British people (even if it took Americans to make the film). I'm thinking our time in America next week will be too taken up with real people to see any onscreen; we've added one more longed-for encounter to our list. My dear "other mother" Jeanne and her daughter Binky will be coming into the city from New Jersey to have dinner with us. We need a quiet spot for real conversation, so I've got to get cracking to find the perfect spot, preferably in Tribeca, hmmm...

Now, to close today, although this anecdote will only underscore my iniquities as a home cook, I have to tell how it is possible to screw up my much-enjoyed simple mussel recipe. This screwup is the result of too much preparation and not enough spontaneity, so I will confess and share all. I'm going to give you the recipe here again, and then tell you what went wrong, so it doesn't happen to you, not that you'd be so inept. But I learned something, so that's always useful, and I think sometimes you don't learn without messing up, because you proceed in the blissful ignorance that nothing could go wrong. But it can.

Mussels with White Wine and Fresh Thyme
(serves one hungry husband with a wife who doesn't like mussels)

3 tbsps olive oil
1 lb mussels, cleaned
4 cloves garlic, chopped fine
3 shallots, chopped fine
1 tbsp fresh thyme (chopped without stems)
3 tbsps chopped parsley
6 Thai fresh green peppercorns, chopped
2 cups white wine
1 cup chicken stock
2 tbsps butter

Saute garlic, shallots, thyme and peppercorns in olive oil, then add white wine and stock. Bring to a boil, add mussels, cover and steam for 8 minutes. Discard any that did not open, and lift good mussels into a large bowl with slotted spoon, bring wine sauce to a boil again and whisk in butter. Pour over mussels and serve with warm baguette and goats cheese.


OK. The beauty of this recipe was that I walked into the house one evening and remembered I had a pound of mussels given to me by my fishmonger because I had bought so bleeping many oysters for Christmas stew. What to do with them? With unwonted spontaneity (I am the least spontaneous person on the planet), I simply looked in fridge and in my pantry, got an indication online of how long to cook mussels, and in ten minutes flat, had this lovely dish on the table. Fair enough.

The second time I made them, I added chili flakes because I had no Thai peppercorns. All to the good, a little bite, very delicious.


Last night I had it all planned out: Avery and I would have lemon sole, and John would have the mussels, and I would share the broth, dipping in a nice baguette. But I was felled by my PLANS. Because it meant that I steamed the mussels, and then as I did everything else, I let the broth simply simmer, thinking what could it hurt? I lit the candles, made the fish, set the table, poured the milk, all the while letting the fresh flavors of my thyme and parsley die a slow, sad death in the liquid on the stove. The broth would have been completely bland and ugly, but for the SECOND screwup, which was far too many chili flakes. Yes, they were red and pretty, but we almost couldn't ingest the broth, and it killed all flavor of garlic, wine or anything else. Forget tasting the mussels: they totally disappeared. It was like casting me alongside Cate Blanchett and hoping that any male in the audience would listen to anything I said.

So there you go. The morale of the story: remember what personality each dish has, before you start. Not everything is brisket, nor is everything mussels. I have to learn to listen to what every dinner requires, and not paint them all with the same brush. Stick with jumping in at the last ten minutes, for a dish that relies on quick invention, and remember that brisket is better the second day. I'm sure there's an enormous life lesson in this, and if I figure out what it is, I'll let you know.

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