12 March, 2007

kicking up one's heels in Hackney

Well, as I write this I am juggling lots of feelings: total delight over the success of the salmon dish (for which I will give you some additional bits of advice), lingering memories of an excellent day out with Vincent yesterday in East London, and dismay at the huddled, feverish little girl on my sofa, surrounded by concerned cats. She woke up this morning seeming quite normal, but then when I kissed her I realised she was quite hot, and then I noticed that her cheeks were too pink and her eyes too bright. So off with the uniform and on with pajamas, and I've been force-feeding her icy apple juice ever since, watching her fall in and out of sleep. Poor dear. It means she misses the dreaded Dance Competition at school for which she had Coco and Anna had assiduously prepared, as well as a rare Monday playdate after school with Anna while I had planned to go see the new Matthew Macfadyen film, screening for just two days, in Leicester Square with another fan. I have to admit I was really looking forward to meeting this English lady with whom I have been corresponding about our love for Matthew, yes, but mostly our love for London.

Ah, the best-laid plans. I have been reading a very dark but very rewarding book called "Chasing Daylight," and in it the author says something quite profound. I cannot remember the exact words, and just now I can't find the passage, but the gist is that a good day is a day that goes the way you plan. I think there's something to that. Because most of us plan a good day, one that includes at least a couple of accomplishments, however minor, in which we manage to appreciate our families and friends, notice the weather and enjoy it for whatever it is, and have something really good to eat, at least once before the day is out. I know a lot of people have much more elaborate plans for their days, but that's my typical plan. And I think it is very useful to realise that it doesn't take more than that to have a good day. But when things don't go according to plan, whether in a big way or a small way, you do notice the felicity of the planned day, and watch it go by in favor of another day. And if you can manage to be truly wise just for a minute, you get to enjoy being with your child when normally she would be almost a whole postcode away at school. So there. (And even now my plan to blog is being replaced by a request for me to read aloud, so I'll have to pause here...)

All right, now we can focus on salmon, and then on Hackney! Here is my bit of wisdom as far as Vincent's totally brilliant recipe goes, and it applies to a lot of other situations as well. Don't do a job if you don't have the right tools for the job. Or at least, you can do it, but you'll find yourself alone in your kitchen, expecting guests, and irrationally cursing practically your best friend for telling you the recipe was easy when it wasn't. Let me just tell you now, in case you don't know: julienning vegetables without a julienne blade on your Magimix is like peeling a carrot with a candle. It can be done, but you'll be wanting to crack your head against the window after about an hour. Then after discovering that I had no proper blade, I hauled my old mandoline out to see how dull the blades had got (very), and then discovered while fiddling with it that I had bloody cuts and scrapes on all my fingers and I hadn't even touched a VEGETABLE yet. A gadget with blades too dull to work but too sharp to touch on BOTH sides of its evil self is just a recipe for disaster. I realised I had julienned myself.

In the end I got the mandoline to work, sort of, but while it cooperated with my carrots, it turned its back on the more stubborn fennel bulbs and celery stalks so I had to do them by hand. I'm sorry: life is too short. That being said, the rest of the recipe was... easy! It's definitely a keeper.

Vincent's Salmon with Cream & Vegetables

Preparation time: 10-15 minutes (IF you have the right machine!)
Cooking Time: 25-30 minutes
Level of Difficulty: Very Easy (it will be, for you)
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.


I actually substituted a leek for the advised onion, and didn't have any chervil but did have lemon thyme. I have to confess, being not a very precise cook, that I mixed all the vegetables, creme fraiche, wine and herbs all together before reading that I should have done them separately, and it didn't matter. Also, I got involved in my dinner guests' conversation and completely forgot to baste the salmon as it baked. At all. It was fine! Everyone tucked in and was happy, and ate mammoth portions along with the mashed potatoes and sauteed asparagus. Just delightful. With a nice spicy watercress and rocket salad, and a cheeseboard, and finally brownies and raspberries soaked in Amaretto, it was a delicious dinner. And we had fun. Sophia's family are always up for a nice gathering, plus they have a European enjoyment of the table, and tons of glittering and intelligent conversation. I am always slightly ashamed of my ignorance, in a purely enjoyable way, when I ask Claus a question. Something very basic about an episode in Poland elicited a comprehensive and totally fascinating explanation of issues in Polish history over the past 500 years! And of course there was the requisite rehashing of parent-teacher conferences, Susan diplomatically occupying the spot between hot-headed me and super-cool Claus. And even the girls liked the salmon. Altogether a super evening.

And here's an idea, nicked from my friend Peter: treat the leftover salmon as if it were crab, and make cakes. I mixed up a handful of the salmon with a handful of the leftover mashed potatoes, added some fresh breadcrumbs and a beaten egg and made them into nice hockey-puck-sized patties, rolled them in more breadcrumbs and fried them in canola oil. Well-drained on paper towel and with a nice blob of mayonnaise mixed with chili sauce and lemon juice, they were perfect for dinner last night. Avery preferred her leftovers straight from the baking dish, however.

Yesterday while Avery was at the barn (mostly leading smaller children around by the leadline, instead of riding, to her chagrin), I took a deep breath and drove myself all the way to Vincent's house, in London Bridge. As I dropped Avery at the stable, I realised with a shock that while I had explicit directions from the Bridge to his house, I did not arm myself with any instructions on how to get from the Bayswater Road to the actual river. Oh dear! However, I refused to be daunted, put the top down on Emmy, and resolutely set forth. And I didn't get lost! Not a single wrong turn. Now, most of you will ask yourselves why this is cause for celebration: most people could not MISS the river. But I could. Thrilling to arrive safely!

I had decided it was time, at least for one day, to scotch my academic look and go for contact lenses! And a little makeup. Vincent has very precise standards of how people should look (as he has high standards about everything), not that they need be beautiful or fancy, but they should be true to themselves. I didn't want to disappoint, and after all that scrutiny during the portrait photo shoot, I knew that a little gussying up would not go amiss. And you know what? It felt good, to make a little effort. I picked him up and we drove I cannot even begin to remember where, but ultimately ending up Shoreditch, which I remember from the Christmas children's song that goes in part, "Oranges and lemons, say the bells of St Clements... when I grow rich, say the bells of Shoreditch..." A really charming part of town, sort of Tribeca-feeling. Finally we were in Hackney, and desperately searching among council housing and warehouses for the restaurant, Bistrotheque. I think we saw every street in the postal code! But I didn't mind, because it was a beautiful blue sky day, we had a convertible, and best of all, I wasn't in charge! Finally we ran the place to earth, and honestly you would never even know it was there. Not marked on the outside, a total flat-front warehouse, and the restaurant itself was past an inner courtyard. But once there, as you see, it was gorgeous.

And everyone there (including the waiters) all seemed to have been cast in a play, or a gritty BBC drama, or were in the final throes of preparing for their opening at whatever gallery will become the next White Cube. Or else they looked famous or as if they were about to become famous. We discussed what makes people attractive. Not beautiful, but interesting. Vincent said in his typical urbane sotto voce, "Now, there's style. That girl is wearing a vintage Chanel suit with a ripped t-shirt. She isn't pretty, but..." I agreed and said, "Don't look now, but behind you is a man with yellow hair sticking straight up, like Woodstock, and the person in sequins opposite him is NOT a girl." And before he could look, the girl in the Chanel suit went over and kissed them both. See? Intriguing! What luxury to sit in the muted sunshine of a London March day with a friend and people-talk.

And the food was fine. To be brave and do something blogworthy (it's embarrassing how many times I catch myself doing that), I eschewed the very yummy and rich-looking chorizo with scrambled eggs that Vincent had, and ordered steak tartare and seared red mullet. The steak tartare was excellent, as good as we had in Paris: icy cold, flecked with plenty of capers and chopped cornichons, topped with a perfect, deep-gold egg yolk (and surrounded, unaccountably, by a ring of what turned out to be olive oil, don't know why, but it was pretty). And I discovered I don't much like red mullet. To my mind there are three kinds of fish: shellfish, tall fish, and short fish. Tall fish include cod, and now I know red mullet, and they always seem a bit tough to my taste. Avery and I both are devoted, on the other hand, to the queen of short fish, lemon sole. In any case, I'm glad I tried it, and it was beautifully cooked and lying demurely atop a gorgeous crunchy, garlicky toasted slice of baguette and surrounded by sauteed heirloom tomatoes.

Then Vincent ordered a very refreshing drink for us, which was one of those English traditions that I'd always read about but never tried: elderflower presse. And for once enough ice in an English beverage! I'd say the bartender was catering to ice-happy Americans but I think actually we were the only ones in the room. The drink was long and tall and stuffed with mint and lime, so whatever elderflower itself tastes like, it didn't matter very much.

Through it all we chatted and exchanged recipe ideas. He's trying to sell me on the notion of mashed potatoes with THINGS in them, like Bramley apple, or leek and sundried tomato added while boiling, then mashed and drizzled with lemon juice and olive oil. I myself prefer potatoes unadulterated. And we people-watched. At one point a chap came in in very pointy shoes, distressed jeans, a Fedora and super-dark sunglasses, surveyed the room and seemed to choose the people he found most amusing, and sat down. Minutes later he was striding out of the room deep in conversation on his mobile. One wonders what script was accepted, or what part offered, or what gig dangled. I said in my usual state of self-absorption, "I wonder what anyone would say about me if anyone I know had a blog," and he said, very satisfactorily, "That you go through life sucking all the marrow out of it." Ugly image, but I do like getting the most out of a situation.

After lunch we repaired to the car once more and intended to drive Vincent to a supermarket, but ended up winding our way through parts of Hackney that were rather less savory than the Bistrotheque street. "I'm channeling... Flatbush," I decided. "Or Bensonhurst," Vincent agreed, and strangely enough we found ourselves finally in Bloomsbury and I dropped him at a very dull Sainsburys and collected Avery from the stable.

Well, she has perked up, her fever has dropped (according to assiduous applications by the patient herself, of the intriguing digital thermometer), and she's on the phone with my mother, talking about their... new kitty! Welcome to the family, Maisy, and how clever of Baby Jane to think of such a perfect name. We can't wait to meet her.

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