29 April, 2007

spring cooking from the market

The day dawned warm and sunny today, so after John dropped Avery off at the stable for her day of glorious mucking and polishing and riding, we headed off with, as you see, the darling orange basket given me by my friend Becky, for some shopping at the Marylebone Farmer's Market. It has to be one of my favorite places in the world, among the top ten for sure. Sometimes the direction that the world seems to be headed gets me down: everything getting more and more like everything else, places getting larger and larger and more anonymous, people less and less connected to anything but the internet (not that I'm anti-internet! but there is a limit). At times like that, when the incessant people traffic a block away in Oxford Street threatens to turn me completely antisocial and petulant, it's time for a trip to the market.

What I love about it, even more than its excessively cool cousin Borough Market, is its scale and intimacy and familiarity. I could shop for a long time at Borough Market and not know where everything is, or necessarily recognise the fellow who sold me my mussels last week. But somehow, even though the location of the stalls often changes at Marylebone, the same faces appear to console me. There's Tim Norris, of Harvest Moon Organic Farms, there to sell us a gorgeous roasting chicken and, even more tantalisingly, three bunches of impossibly fresh watercress, plump and bright green. I came home to read of this farmer's struggles to get permission to build on his own land! Then the lovely folks at Grove Farm, Hollesley, who produce the most outrageously rich and fresh raw milk you have ever had. Come to think of it, have you ever tasted raw milk? I had not until last year at the Food Festival at the Royal Windsor Horse Show. It's unpasteurised, which means a lot of things, namely controversy. Of course the reason milk began to be pasteurised to begin with (heated to 145 degrees Fahrenheit, or even higher to get the -- to me -- scary shelf life of dairy products labelled "ultra-pasteurised") was to eliminate dairy-borne germs that make people sick. But the raw milk advocates (and like any advocates, they can get a little strident) argue that along with killing germs, the process kills valuable vitamins and valuable bacteria. Of course foodie types like me skip all the arguments about health and move directly to the issue that matters most: does it taste better? OF COURSE it does. It's unbelievably flavorful compared to pasteurised milk. Of course there are variables here. The raw milk I buy is also organic. I suppose the proper taste test would have to remove the variables and get down to comparing raw organic milk and pasteurised organic milk, and so far even I have not had sufficient time on my hands to do that. But I will, someday.

Anyway, since I have no soapbox on which to perch, I can say only that at my little farmer's market there is really wonderful raw milk. It makes me realise that the milk I normally drink is like water with a piece of chalk dissolved in it to make it white. You have not lived until you've had a cafe au lait at the market (the dairy farmer is wise enough to have a coffee maker right there alongside the milk) with raw milk foamed into it. I don't even like coffee; it makes me very jittery. But often I cannot resist and it's always worth shaking like a leaf for a few hours afterward. I can type faster, too.

We picked up some really lovely Estima potatoes too, and had a nice chat with Potato Man (as Lord Peter Wimsey would say, "I cannot lisp the tender syllables of his name because I do not know it") about the proper varieties for this or that dish. You know why I love him? He's not pretending to care. It was heartwarming to have him say, "Nice to see you all again, see you next week," and know he means it. He likes to see who's eating his Nicolas and his King Edwards and his Claret Reds (which are white as the driven snow, so go figure). I bet he's a member of the British Potato Council. I wish I were. Probably there's an American equivalent, but it won't sound as charming.

Then there's the lovely lady with the "iced lemon cake" that Avery adores for breakfast, and because I am a wicked mother with the wrong priorities I give it to her. So rich and handmade. We were tempted by the carrot cake, but Avery is not a nut girl (although she's a pretty nutty girl) and no matter how you chop a pecan, if you don't like them, they're not small enough. But lastly we came away with a loaf of onion bread for pastrami sandwiches for lunch, and were happy. I had had my dose of the kind of people I admire: people who devote their working lives to doing something unusual, old-fashioned and difficult, and who are so charming while they're at it. It reassures me that while teeming city streets still exist, peopled (I use the term advisedly) with really awful types at times, plugged into things so that they appear to be in another world, I still have my serene little market filled with things to bring home and cook.

So I did. Fancy a little healthy soup for your lunch?

Watercress and Potato Soup with Creme Fraiche
(serves six)

3 tbsps butter
2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1 banana or 3 round shallots, roughly chopped
3 medium or 5 small potatoes, peeled and quartered
4 cups chicken stock (or veg if you like)
2 large bunches watercress, stems removed (ish) and carefully washed
1/2 cup creme fraiche
salt and pepper to taste

I really mean it, wash that watercress. You don't want sand or dirt or whatever they grow it in to get in your teeth and ruin the fun.

Now, melt your butter and sweat the garlic and shallots till soft, then add the potatoes and the stock and simmer for 45 minutes. Add the watercress and give it a good stir, then walk away for just a minute. Toast some onion bread, maybe. Now whizz the soup with your hand blender, stir in the creme fraiche and season to taste. Isn't that beautiful? So green you just know it's good for you.


The creme fraiche I used is to die for: spoonably thick in a beautiful glass jar, from Les Peupliers in Normandy. They have a very sweet web site, but I also think you can get yourself over to the dairy purveyors (lots of French things in glass jars, but I don't know their names) in Borough Market and pick some up.

Well, enough ramblings about food. Tomorrow I have to post about something else or my father will stop reading the blog. And we don't want that.

26 April, 2007

hairdresser to the stars

I am glad to say that after my brief absence from the world of blogging, my readership is back. I was afraid you would all forget about me while I removed any potential bombshells from my innocuous little blog (sadly, I couldn't find any, but I removed lots of other boring stuff for you).

But about my haircut. I have to admit to always skimping on getting my hair cut. I'll go anywhere that might save money, because frankly I don't have very interesting hair and it's not really worth getting fancy over it. But a week or so ago, I had to admire my friend Becky's gorgeous locks, beautifully cut and styled, so I caved and asked her where she had it done. "Kristen, for once you need to go to an expert and get a really good cut, so promise me you'll call them," she said earnestly, so I did. I had no idea.

At the front desk I realised at once I was in another world from the usual places I turn up when I'm desperate to get my fringe out of my eyes. At those places, the phones are usually answered rather sporadically by a young person who clearly takes the notion of self-expression by hair quite seriously: the color is nearly always what you'd be hard pressed to call anything kinder than "experimental," and the cut is generally a work in progress. And there's always a sensation of people living on the margins, eking out a living, and recovering from some other experience in their lives. Not at the place Becky sent me to. This salon, Daniel Galvin in George Street, certainly has a client list to admire. Everyone under the sun seems to get her or his hair cut there! The staff, my goodness, everyone looks like a budding supermodel, all dressed uniformly in chic black something or others, and a vast array of computers behind the reception desk to manage the place like a well-oiled machine.

And Daniel Galvin himself was there, very flamboyant and doing the hair of someone I didn't recognize but who, for some reason, attracted no fewer than five stylists around her at all times. Then, just as I sat down with my wet, unattractive head in my stylist's chair, on the lower ground floor of the saloon, I could see a black town car pull up just above my head, and a man who looked as though he might be covertly armed stepped out. He looked up and down the pavement as if he were sweeping the street for enemies, and then opened the car door. Out stepped... Naomi Campbell. She walked quickly down the back steps to the private door just to my right, and swept past me with quite the theatrical air of escaping from imminent danger.

"Gee, was that Naomi Campbell?" I asked, and Dean the stylist shrugged with world-weary fatigue. "That's really not so exciting. More interesting people, people who've actually achieved something, have come in here. And you know what? She'd attract a lot less attention if she just walked in the front door like everyone else." Fair enough. But I was intrigued. Unfortunately however, my haircut required that I take my glasses off, and I wouldn't recognize my own child without my specs. So who knows who else came in and out. In the end, I got a great haircut, and my stylist turned out to be a foodie, so we exchanged recipes, dish ideas, impressions of Borough Market and restaurant reviews with abandon. What fun. And while it broke the bank somewhat, the cut is so expert that I don't need colour, so I saved money in the end. Ish.

I spent simply forever yesterday at the skating rink with my friend Victoria, while our children went around and around in glee. She is a complex, delightful person to be around: Italian born, Swiss-educated, with an air of quiet self-confidence that I can only admire. And yet she isn't one bit full of herself. It's more a complete sense of ease with herself, and with her approach to the world, that makes her stand out. She speaks English with the careful perfection of one to whom languages are not a challenge, but a set of ingredients among which she can choose, to get just the right dish. Every once in awhile she hesitates, with a gentle little smile of questioning on her lips, and says, "Well, as we would say in Italy..." and uses a beautiful expression that I can just grasp, but it's a choice she makes, not a fallback onto a more familiar language. She just knows that some ideas are expressed better in one language than in another. I am fascinated by people who have hidden depths, or if not hidden, then layers, that take time to uncover. I know I myself reveal absolutely everything about myself, whether my companion wants me to or not, within about ten minutes. But Victoria has a mysterious otherwordly quality about her that means I get to know her slowly, but it's worth it. And a truly empathetic spirit. And a great mother. So all in all, it made the three hours we spent shivering and watching our girls make googly eyes at us to get us to watch, quite a lovely interlude.

Oh, and we've found another two houses that are possibilities, but as in every real estate situation, there's something deal-breakingly wrong with each one. One is just the right size, on a nice road, convenient to the schools we're looking at for year after next, but a truly wretched kitchen. And it's too expensive. The other one is tremendously affordable, but in a dicier neighborhood, needs extensive updating, and has not so much a wretched kitchen as a room crammed with junk that serves as the kitchen, but only because no other room would do it better. A simply ancient Aga stove, cold as a herring's elbow (as one of my screenwriting class members penned) and surrounded by other lesser fry as far as appliances go. Just awful. But a gorgeous overgrown garden. But it feels cottagey, and as always happens in these situations, John seems to get bigger as the minutes tick by. By the time we left, he was hunching over as if he'd been touring a Wendy house. What to do? Spend much less money and always feel that he needs to be six inches shorter, or spend more money and be poor for the foreseeable future? Neither, probably, we'll just keep looking.

At this stage, though, one of the few really nasty personality clashes we suffer as a couple begins to emerge: John could happily look at houses in perpetuity, storing each detail away in his memory forever, living with the certainty that if we ever do buy a house, the one he REALLY wanted will come on the market the next day. Whereas I could make do with almost anything; I just want to settle down. So we exchanged some mildly acrimonious remarks and then repaired to the quite splendid butcher that popped up out of nowhere just around the corner from house #2. Now, see, that could decide me right there. Butcher around the corner? I'll take the house. It's J. Hunt at 173 Uxbridge Road, staffed by the loveliest central-casting British chaps you could ever wish for. "Now what sort of work do you do, my boy?" the chief guy asked John, as we gossiped about the neighborhood and our love for London. "Actually, I don't work right now," John said sheepishly. "But he will do, someday! We can't afford for him not to," I said, and the butcher laughed said, "Oh, you made a mistake there, my lad, not marrying a woman with enough money to keep you!" I came away with a simply to-die-for rack of pork spareribs, yum yum. But rather than doing the complicated marinade I did last year, I simply roasted them with salt and pepper. So good.

But the week's best dinner was probably my favorite chicken dish, the recipe for which I've given you before, but ages ago and it's worth repeating. I swear, someday I will have little clever links to the side of my posts with all the recipes lined up and you can just click on them. But until then:

Lillian Hellman's Chicken (to be served with Dashiell Hammett Spinach, but that's another story) Serves four

2 whole boneless chicken breasts, split and finely trimmed
1/2 cup Hellman's mayonnaise (get it?)
1/2 cup grated parmesan or pecorino cheese
juice of 1 lemon
freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 1/2 cups homemade bread crumbs

Now before you object, there is simply no need for canned bread crumbs to exist. Have you ever wondered what sort of bread the Progresso company deems bad or old enough to be pulverized and put in a can? So march yourself over to your pantry, take out that blue can, and pitch it. Go on, you know I'm right. Then start saving your leftover hot dog buns, that third of a baguette you righteously didn't eat last night, the crusts of the bread you used in your picnic lunch. If you just have a bowl on your counter where you can throw these little leftovers as they appear (don't cover the bowl or the bread will get moldy), then when you are in the mood you can grind them up. Just throw them in your Cuisinart and whizz away. The sound of stale bread in a Cuisinart, for the first few seconds, is a very satisfying, violent rattling noise like a car crash where nobody gets hurt.

Mix together the mayo, cheese, lemon juice and pepper in a bowl big enough to accomodate a single chicken breast. Pour your bread crumbs on a wide plate. Line a cookie sheet with aluminum foil for easy cleanup. Preheat your oven to a nice high temperature. My New York oven used to operate at only one temperature, no matter where I set the dial, so all my recipes can survive at 425 degrees.

Smear each chicken breast generously with the gooey mixture and then roll equally generously in bread crumbs. Lay each on the foil with some space between them. Bake for 30 minutes, and voila.


With it you have no choice but to serve the afore-mentioned Dashiell Hammett spinach, so here's that as well. Of course it's really by the incomparable Laurie Colwin, but literary needs must.

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.


Here's a bit of wisdom (gleaned from my clever hairstylist, of all people). Since you cannot find the cheese you really want for this dish, Monterey Jack cheese with jalapeno peppers in London (at least I can't), the closest thing turns out to be... Edam. Surprisingly. Just peel off the red casing and you're in business. It's slightly sharper, more aged-tasting than the Jack, but it's lovely.

Avery's had her first foray into the land of acting! She had her first class at the Sylvia Young Theatre School this afternoon, and loved every minute of it. She reported, somewhat disjointedly, on an exercise involving a mysterious letter, and improvisations thereto, and of her all-English classmates, which I love. I hate turning up for something truly British and then finding that it's full of other Americans. Why live in foreign places if you can't watch the locals at their own game? So I think acting class is a winner. Pretty soon she can support us, and then the butcher will be happy.

Then I had a fantastic long coffee break with my friend 6point7, fellow Matthew Macfadyen enthusiast of course. We dished a bit about his latest onscreen venture, a terribly upsetting but fantastically acted telly programme called "Secret Life." All of us whom adore him, including the lovely ladies at darcylicious, were worried that it was a rough career move, but the reviews have been universally wonderful. Now we can all sit back and wait for his next project, a play called "The Pain and the Itch" that's come from Steppenwolf. It's in June and I simply can't wait. 6point7 is a positive overflowing font of information on all things filmic and stagelike, and we talked nonstop for hours, trading opinions on various British actors, gossiping about who directs whom, who writes what. I myself would dearly love to turn a beloved novel into a screenplay and see if I could sell it. It's "Shine on, Bright and Dangerous Object," by the same Laurie Colwin who created my spinach recipe. Oh to be that multi-talented! A lovely story about grief and loss and rejuvenation, set in New York. Oh, I know, Matthew could play the lead! Not that I haven't thought about that before. We'll see.

Then, in my quest for felt so that Avery can complete a gift project for her Grandpa Jack, I came upon what I can describe only as a knitting shop for true believers. The people at I Knit London, while not able to supply me with felt, were so kind in their replies to me that I feel duty-bound to pass along the highest praise. Surely someone reading this blog has been desperate to know where to find yarn, needles and fellow devotees of purling, in London? Well, now you know. Still have to find felt, though. A trip to John Lewis may be in order.

Well, it's off to the grocery store for me. I'm thinking red-cooked shrimp...

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.

25 April, 2007

back with a flourish

I'm just happy to have the blog back. Some of you (the hundreds who emailed me, perhaps, among them?) may have noticed my hiatus these last few days. Let me explain.

A new reader to the blog, who happened upon it through an entirely accidental group of keywords in a search engine, expressed in no uncertain terms that there was FAR too much transparency, I think they call it, in my use of, say, real people. Real places, real whatever. So I have spent a laborious several days excising REALNESS from many stories and situations that, frankly, most of you never paid any attention to anyway. The scenarios in question were the least interesting of any I submit for your perusal on this blog, and so while it was very boring to do all the stuff I had to do to Change The Names To Protect The Innocent, it also makes almost no difference to the fascination quotient of the blog itself. I actually had some fun making up names, so there you go, lemons into lemonade. WHEW.

So I'm back! All search engines are GO. We're in business.

Most importantly, I must address the long-delayed (OK, three days) publication of my recipe for a new and extremely green soup. The beauty of this soup is that you can clear your conscience of that full, unopened bag of spinach you bought a week ago and still... haven't used. It's not fresh enough for salad, or even for pasta, but soup? Heck yes.

Spinach and Leek Soup
(serves six-ish for a starter)

4 tbsps butter
5 leeks, white parts only, sliced, washed and drained
1/2 white onion, chopped roughly
4 cloves garlic
at least 5 cups chicken stock
1 large bag or large bunch spinach leaves, carefully washed
1 cup light cream
salt and pepper to taste

Melt butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan and sweat leeks, onion and garlic till soft. Pour over chicken stock to cover, generously, and simmer for 45 minutes. Add spinach and stir carefully till softened, then whizz with a hand blender till completely pureed. Add cream and season to taste.

John suggests perhaps a drizzle of cream at the end to garnish. You could serve with crispy toast and goats cheese, but we were pretty happy standing up around the stove drinking it out of a ladle.


More later, but right now I must continue watching coverage of Boris Yeltsin's funeral. It is bringing back such strong memories of our time living in Russia in the early 90s when Yeltsin was the sweetest thing you could imagine, or at least so we thought, and we were all running around with breathless interpreters, discovering Russian artists and privatising the government willy-nilly. Much has been revealed to be foolish or at least quixotic about our actions, but we were young and it all sounded like a good idea back then. What riches, in memory.

21 April, 2007

things to do to keep us out of trouble

No, one of those things isn't shooting off cannons in Hyde Park. But somebody was, this afternoon. There I was, sitting innocently at my desk blogging or some such thing, when my mobile rang: John. "It's me. Somebody's shooting off big loud guns and there are lots of horses galloping around. Come out." So we met up on the corner, and crossed Park Lane, and sure enough, far off in the distance there was a huge cloud of smoke rising into the air, and the sound of cannons going off at regular intervals. And in the very near distance there were many, many glorious horses in full regalia of some kind, standing about looking skittish. Then all at once they went tearing off toward the cannons, so we did too, walking as fast as we could and trying not to look ignorant. There were a lot of other dumb-looking people standing behind a rope barrier, though, so we were in good company. "Now watch them come back this way, when we've nearly caught up," John joked, and sure enough, they turned around and went galloping back from whence they came. Just as suddenly, the cannons stopped and some gangly looking soldiers came and took them away, and the horses retreated off toward the Bayswater Road without a word of explanation. What gives?

Assiduous googling revealed that it was the 21-gun Salute for the Queen's birthday! Well, bless her heart. Happy Birthday. Apparently after the display in Hyde Park they were off to the Tower of London to repeat it there, and thence to Windsor Castle. Let the bells chime. Just another afternoon obsequy for the monarch. But in searching for the answer, I found an excellent website about things to do in London, so check it out. Who knows what else I'm missing.

We've been running around like the proverbial headless poultry these days, visiting houses that seem like possibilities on paper, and then finding out they're not, or are, as the case may be (a real possibility appeared yesterday, in Notting Hill, so fingers crossed). At least the location gave us the opportunity to pop into the charming Mr Christian's delicatessen in Elgin Crescent, for excellent sandwiches of pastrami and mustard mayo on ciabatta for me, and salami and Emmenthaler for John. If we did move to that neighborhood, I would be in food heaven with that place and the wonderful Grocer on Elgin just down the street.

And Borough Market was excellent. So quiet on a beautiful sunny Friday (well, not quiet perhaps, but better than Saturdays). At the peerless Sillfield Farms I picked up some lovely ham for Avery's picnic today on the way to her teacher's wedding (more on that when we collect her this evening), as well as a number of slices of something called "haslet," a sort of meatloaf of a recipe dating back to Henry VIII's time, apparently, full of sage and onion. Sounds like the perfect midnight snack to me, when I should be reaching for a carrot stick. Then some granulated garlic from "Spices From Hell," a lovely little stall that I wish I could have spent more money at, but there was nothing I really needed. Oh, I also tucked in a nice-looking jar of tahini for hummous, John's absolute favorite lunch.

(serves four as an appetizer with toasted bread and crudites)

1 410-gram [soup size] can chick peas (also known as garbanzo beans)
1/2 cup tahini (sesame paste, in foreign or Middle Eastern section of shops)
3 whole cloves garlic
juice of 1 lemon
salt to taste
1 cup olive oil, maybe more

Simply put all this in the Cuisinart and turn it on, pulsing occasionally and scraping the chick peas away from the sides. Then, if you want to, pour some more olive oil on the top and leave it. The flavors will improve. To this you can add any number of improvements like red bell peppers, little chunks of avocado, spinach, cilantro, you name it. And it's good for you.


From the fishmonger at the market (does it have a name? don't know it if so, but Nigella Lawson shops there, enough said) I picked up about a kilo of superb-looking mussels to steam for dinner. They turned out to be incredibly tiny, and succulent, but almost too much trouble to eat, to justify the bit of labor involved in debearding, scrubbing and checking for cracks and dead specimens. It was almost like eating periwinkles. I've done a bit of research but can't find the reason for the small size. In any case, the white wine sauce I invented was divine for dipping olive ciabatta in. To my usual recipe I added creme fraiche from a fabulous French dairy purveyor at the market, as well as a handful of santini tomatoes I had sitting on the counter which looked about to get shrivelly, which cut in half were quite lovely. At the last minute I just fished through the broth with my whisk and out came the tomatoes skins. Perfect. So here's my revised recipe. I also added more chicken stock. Keep in mind I make a lot of broth, for drinking like soup after you finish your mussels. You can cut down on the wine and stock if you don't want a lot of broth.

Mussels with White Wine and Fresh Thyme
(serves four)

3 tbsps olive oil
1 kilo mussels, cleaned
4 cloves garlic, chopped fine
3 shallots, chopped fine
1 tbsp fresh thyme (chopped without stems)
6 Thai fresh green peppercorns, chopped (from Spice Shop in Notting Hill)
2 cups white wine
2 cups chicken stock
handful cherry or other small tomatoes, cut in half
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 simmer a bit to reduce. Add tomatoes and whisk in butter. At the last minute, run your whisk through sauce and pick up tomato skins and discard. Pour over mussels and serve with warm bread and goats cheese.

Speaking of maturity, after long months of nearly forgetting I had called, I got a message from the Sylvia Young Theatre School that Avery's name had come to the top of the waiting list and she can start a week from today, in drama lessons! She was so inspired by the little girl in "Miss Potter" that we rang up, and now it's come. She is very, very excited. And I can enjoy the prospect of living vicariously through her, certainly a healthy attitude toward maternity. What fun it will be to pick her up and hear how it's going.

I have been in a tizzy of ordering tickets for things to do, in the coming months. It's that time of year when all the things we enjoyed so much last spring are coming around again. So, trying not to think about how much it all costs (and justifying it as part of the point of living in London) I have booked us for a play in Richmond starring my dear crush actor Edward Petherbridge, can't wait for that, and seats at the Royal Windsor Horse Show. And most exotically, John has booked us to fly to Morocco for our friend Vincent's 40th birthday party. Won't that be a hoot! After that we may be approaching cool enough to... have a dinner party of our own. I'll pop an invitation in the post for you, how's that?

We just came in from a lovely lunch at a cute little place literally around the corner, but to which until now we've never been. Fino's in the sunshine is a lovely spot, and the pizza was amazingly fresh, crunchy and simply slathered with fresh ricotta and red onions. I had a very nice crab mayonnaise, but my only complaint was the way the chef had presented it piled on what started life as a crunchy slice of Italian bread, but by the time I got to the last bite was quite annoyingly soggy. Served alongside would have been nicer. It's definitely worth a visit and we will eschew the ubiquitous Ask and Pizza Express in the future.

Well, we're off to take Anna and Ellie off their parents' hands for the evening, and then swing by to collect Avery at school and hear how singing for the wedding went. As long as the ceremony didn't put any ideas in her head...

17 April, 2007

the perfect day is really very simple

First off, I must tell you that this beautiful photograph comes from a very cool foodie blog you might enjoy, "What We're Eating. Check it out. It's written by an extremely cute couple (?) of people one of whom cooks, and the other eats, then they talk about it. And they take great photos.

But I digress. My point is, you think having a perfect day is an accomplishment, a sort of unusual thing that comes about when you've set yourself a task and it all works out the way you plan, don't you? So did I. But I'm thinking it's simpler than that. Mostly the perfection comes in the noticing how many pleasant things come my way on my average Tuesday, and taking the time to appreciate them. First of all, the way to start your perfect day is with fresh-squeezed juice. Whatever comes to mind when you're at the grocery: my glass today contained blood oranges, ruby red grapefruit, and clementines. It just makes all other juice, including "fresh-squeezed" that you buy in the refrigerator section of the grocery, taste like nothing. Or worse, that sulfur-y taste of pasteurisation. Go on, squeeze some for yourself tomorrow.

Then some more perfectly ordinary things begin to happen. I drop my child off at school, and there's the missing violin, behind the coat rack, whose absence at home was so disturbing on the night before the first day back from holiday. And two new gulls have appeared in the school! Tatiana and Isabella, already firmly called "Bella," found their way into Form Five after the break. The class is getting possibly too big, and we found out that they're being split up into two groups, alphabetically determined, which has everyone in a tizzy. And who will get the final speaking role in "Peter Pan" this summer term, the coveted Talking Pirate? Only Mrs Bickley the Drama Teacher knows for sure, and so far she's not telling.

Then I climbed the stairs to the very top floor to be read to by whatever four or five little seven-year-olds have been sent my way by Miss Armstrong, and are they sweet. Scrubbed and fresh from their holidays, the variety and poshness of which seem quite staggering to me, but then I'm a nice girl from Indiana. Athens? Why not. Val d'Isere, New York, the south of France, Dublin, Switzerland for that last-gasp ski trip. So I went to Iowa, is there a problem with that? Their little piping voices are so sweet.

Then a long-overdue tea break with Becky, to catch up on the craziness of our various family lives. Is a move imminent in their expatriate lives, and if so, where to? Not a relaxing thing to think about, but with typical grace, Becky rises to the occasion without delivering any blows in her domestic sphere. Having been through that myself more than once, I do not envy her. Not to mention that having the possibility of no Becky is NOT acceptable. I'll have to have a word with her husband's boss.

And who but me could count among her Perfect Day activities a mammoth Tesco shop? I do adore to grocery shop, especially when I'm all by myself with no wet-blanket husband to caution me about ingredients, quantities or price. Ha! Even the car got washed as I shopped, not that it matters with all the disgusting pollen falling all over this town. The flipside of the gorgeous spring week: the air is simply full of sneeze-making nonsense. But for about an hour, Emmy looked great.

And seemingly overnight, flowers have appeared in our communal garden, and all the trees are in bloom. Lovely (also contributing, no doubt, to the sneezing).

Home with Avery and Anna who promised faithfully to do their homework. Is there anything cosier than tying on an apron to prepare dinner, surrounded by children discussing their maths problems? I don't think so. It was an all-five-senses afternoon: the smell of buttered popcorn, the sound of their little voices and the scrapes of their pens, the sight of all my bowls of citrus fruits waiting to be juiced, the feel of a nice husband's no-occasion kiss on the cheek, and tasting my salmon sauce for seasoning... it doesn't take much to make me happy. Actually, that's quite a lot, come to think of it.

Becky popped in to pick up Anna, and we stood around in the kitchen admiring the salmon dish and the casserole of cheesy potatoes, which recipe I must tweak before I give it to you because I didn't realise how fine my grater grates (yes, the Matthew Macfadyen Memorial Grater! it's excellent), and there was not enough cheese and too much milk. A work in progress, clearly. I either need lots more cheese, or a much less fine grater. I'll let you know.

My perfect day ended with Avery secure in her bathtub talking about her book of the moment, "A Year Down Yonder," which I cannot recommend highly enough, either in book form or the book on tape we have loved. It's even better, I think, than the original book in the series of two, "A Long Way From Chicago." Richard Peck is a genius at portraying the life of wartime Indiana with a gun-toting, embarrassing but life-changing grandmother for a young girl transplanted from Chicago. Your kids will love it. Then it was onto our excellent dinner, although Avery did have some very useful suggestions about the potato dish which I am taking under advisement. She is becoming a very discerning eater, providing me with the suggestions that improved my mushroom soup immensely. Thanks, Aves.

Well, our household is busy listening to Avery practice the songs she and her choirmates will sing at tomorrow's country wedding of the school music teacher! "My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose." It's actually incredibly touching; the teacher invited them to come sing "All Things Bright and Beautiful," and they will, but secretly the singing teacher taught them this extra song to surprise her. I wish we were invited, but alas we are not included. We'll have to find some way to keep out of trouble. Borough Market is out, since on a Saturday it will be a madhouse and in any case I just came from there, hanging out with Twiggy and sipping coffee from the Monmouth Coffee Company. I don't even drink coffee normally, and neither does Twiggy, but it came so highly recommended and the smell was superb. Each cup is individually filtered, and there's help-yourself bread and jam on the tables. We had a fine gossip. Now I'm home to make my steamed mussels, once John and Avery return from the skating rink.

You all put your feet up and think of ways to enjoy a perfect day. Think SMALL.

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)
6 Thai fresh green peppercorns, chopped (from Spice Shop in Notting Hill)
2 cups white wine
½ 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.

16 April, 2007

British drama at show jumping

Well, no one can accuse me of being a prima donna about my appearance, that's for sure. First of all, I managed to get a dress for about $80 in New York for the big VIP event at the British Show Jumping Championships. $80! For a formal event, not bad, I thought. Gosh, it's hard to believe it's been a year since we went to the Championships last spring, just Avery and me, while John was in a long trip to Asia. So much has changed! We feel pretty firmly English these days; Avery and I are inundated with friends, John's quit his job. But a lot remains the same: same flat (to our dismay, with no news on the real estate front, although we've put in an offer on a house in Hammersmith Grove, near to both of the schools we're looking at for Avery), same crazy cats, same beloved school.

But I digress. I started out with my bargain-basement dress, and we packed up all our duds to head to Birmingham. John found out last minute, calling to confirm our tickets, that it was not black tie, but merely "lounge suit." This phrase conjures up unfortunate images from my childhood of my father in a Nehru jacket (can that be true, or was it someone else's dad?), but in any case John happily donned his favorite dress trousers, dumped all our belongings from the hanging bag into a duffel, flung his jacket on the backseat of the car and we were off. Two hours later we arrived at the hotel to find that one crucial (or not) item had not made it in the transfer of bags: my toiletries. That's right, no contact lenses, no hairbrush, no makeup, and most ominously, no antihistamines. I took a deep breath, fielded Avery's anxious inquiries about "what about the lipstick you were going to let me wear?" and headed down to the hotel shop. This establishment had its priorities firmly in hand. Hairbrush, check. Antihistamines, check. Toothbrush and toothpaste, check. But makeup? Forget it. So there I was, all decked out with not a speck of eyeliner, concealer, nothing. Of course, I didn't need blush, since I produce that all on my own, every day. And I found a sorry little lipstick at the bottom of my handbag, which addition was all Avery required to be perfectly, incandescently beautiful. It didn't produce the same miracle for me, sorry to say. But we looked nice.

Over to the arena feeling like Cinderella, passing all the people in ordinary clothes, as we would be in the morning, but for the moment feeling as if we were going to the prom. It was a beautiful, gorgeous spring evening, everything under the sun blossoming and a lovely sunset on the manmade lake.

And onward to the Hospitality Suite, right at the business end of the arena, where all the horses come out, and up to our elegant row of tables, and bowing waiters, and a little sign with the show logo, saying our last name. Very cool! Avery had her first taste of champagne, and I'm pretty sure she prefers ginger ale. Then it was onto some pretty average mushroom soup with croutons and creme fraiche (I will not abandon this post without giving you my own recipe for mushroom soup and you will not be disappointed), followed by some really sub-par roast lamb and vegetables, then a creme brulee of a really most strange bubbly consistency. I diagnosed gelatin of some kind, which should never breathe the same air as creme brulee. But it didn't matter, the food wasn't the point (well, it could have been, but it wasn't). The point was, we saw every rider close up, every horse entered the arena right under our chairs, and... we were invited to "walk the course." This is what the riders all do after the jumps have been set up. They appear on the course in either their full regalia of whites, jackets, helmets and boots, or just jodphurs and shirts, and they... walk the course. Find out, by their strides, how to calculate the number of strides their horses will need between the jumps. So we were taken out by one of the arena stewards and walked the course that the riders would do for the famous "Puissance" jump at the end of the evening.

The Puissance wall got up to nearly 7 feet 3 inches before finally the adorable young Ben Maher and Robert Maguire were crowned co-winners. Amazingly, none of the splendid Whitaker Dynasty made it to the finals. We are finally sorting it out. John Whitaker is Robert's father, Steven is Ellen Whitaker's father, and now there's young William who is someone's cousin but we aren't sure yet whose. I'll sort it out. Ellen did not disgrace herself, but nor did she live up to the impossible billing the announcers always give the entire family. The pressure! But what fun to be those kinds of people, solidly at the top of their game, and it's the only game in town.

Practically my favorite thing to watch is "arena polo," whose steward and champion is the saucy Jack Kidd. Actually I love all polo, indoors or out. We must remember to get back to the Windsor Polo Club soon.

Finally, sadly, the evening came to an end near midnight, and we trooped back to the hotel, and up to our passage to our room. Just as we came to the door, the door opposite ours opened and out popped... Jack Kidd himself! A quick look into the room he was occupying revealed more than a couple of young English roses, so I'm thinking we got a glimpse of what has marred his private life. But the boy can certainly play polo!

After our very late night, we had to be dragged out of bed, but it was for a worthy English breakfast of everything you can imagine: freshly poached eggs all lined up on a steaming platter, omelets to order, bacon and sausage, juice and cereal, pastries and bagels. Three cheers for the Hilton Birmingham Metropole Hotel! And onwards to the show.

Never having had front-row seats before (although no Hospitality Suite for us on day two, sadly), I didn't realize that there was a tradition of the showjumpers throwing their winning rosettes to the children in the crowd. But before she knew it almost, Avery was the proud owner of Mark Armstrong's rosette; we can't remember which place he got in the speed stakes, but it was exciting and fun to watch. Then there was the triumphant Tim Stockdale, for whom we felt all sorts of support and sympathy, thinking him to be sort of the elder statesman of the competition: then John said, "Wait a minute, he's 42!" Allegiances threatened to shift, but his performance was incredible. Not an old man, though, John, not at all. The biggest excitement of the day happened at the very end, in the showjumping finals, when just as favorite Markus Fuchs was approaching the last jump, two unwary jump stewards realised they were about to be run over and leaped to the side, frightening the horse and causing him to bring down the jump. The crowd went crazy: everyone was abuzz with the unfairness, the need for Fuchs to have a "do-over," and even he approached the jury table and protested. But to no avail. The jumps were brought down, and the trophy plate presented to the lovely (but we're not so sure deserving) Jessica Kurten of Ireland. Plenty of fodder for a family discussion on the way home. "I think she should have protested that she didn't really win, and offered to share the prize money," Avery felt. I thought there should have been a do-over. But John, typically, said, "He was a good sport, and that's what counts. But good on you, Avery, for not thinking you'd take the money and run." And what a shame for poor Jessica to go home not necessarily thinking she really won.

Well, we made our way home listening to "Unnatural Death" by Dorothy L. Sayers, a new favorite by an old master. How I have missed it all these years I do not know. Another far-too-late night for all of us, and so it was a challenge to get to the skating rink this morning. But go we did, and thank goodness, because the coveted Bronze Badge was Avery's by the end of the lesson. Another sewing job for me. That PE bag is absolutely covered by now.

We recovered somewhat from our travels with a nice comforting bowl of Cream of Mushroom Soup. Homemade, that is. And school starts tomorrow. Whether that's good news or bad, remains to be seen. Summer Term, here we come.

Cream of Mushroom Soup
(serves four as a starter)

4 tbsps butter
2 cloves garlic, sliced
4 cups chicken stock
1 pound baby portabella mushrooms, roughly chopped, with 4 reserved and sliced
3 tbsps Marsala wine
1 cup light cream
truffle oil to garnish
chopped parsley to garnish

(baguette slices on the side)

Melt 3 tbsps butter in a heavy stockpot and saute the garlic briefly. Cover with chicken stock and add chopped mushrooms, keeping 4 sliced mushrooms aside. Add Marsala wine and simmer for 45 minutes.

Meanwhile, melt last tbsp butter in a small skillet and slowly saute mushroom slices. Puree soup with a hand blender and add cream. Keep warm, then put in warmed bowls. Pile sliced sauteed mushrooms in center of each bowl, drizzle with truffle oil, sprinkle with parsley and serve with baguette. Simple and heavenly.

12 April, 2007

we're back

Can I just say? Seriously. Someone HIGH UP in charge of the betterment of my soul via fear-conquering was having a serious laugh yesterday. It's not enough I conquer big planes, nice weather. Then you got your big planes, bad weather. Ratchet up to tiny plane, nice weather. Yesterday we had the whole nine yards. Well, actually I take that back, the pilot did not have an actual heart attack necessitating my activation of the parachute mechanism. But we were nearly grounded by a freak snowstorm. Please! Don't wanna do that. But I did, kicking and screaming, get on the plane. And we were fine. But note to self: arrange NOT in the future to be the only people dumb enough to get up to 11,000 feet in a snowstorm so that we were the only people in the sky reporting on the weather conditions. Either that or arrange not to be listening to all of it on the radar headphones.

Ah, well, this too shall pass, and it did. We got ourselves happily on the Great Big Plane to come from Chicago to London, uneventfully. But seriously. Crazy scary.

We're back from our week in Iowa, where John's dad's not well and so we were all hands on deck, or whatever the expression is, when we all step up and play the parts allotted to us in family situations. Let's see, in our family that meant that John's mom completely threw herself into enjoying what the kids were doing: Avery, John's sister's girls, the grandkids of John's parents' best friends. Did they want to go swimming at the hotel? Fine, she was there with her camera, and willing to shampoo any number of girls' hair afterward. Did they want to dye eggs for Easter? Sure, how many dozen? Endless permutations of markers came forth from her craft boxes, trips to the Hobby Lobby for yet more notebooks, ribbons, stickers for projects. And John? He wrote letters, fixed computers, filled the cars up with gas, organized paperwork. John's sister devoted herself to endless research projects and of course on top of everything else she had on her plate, generously decided she wanted Avery to spend the night at the hotel with them, complete with a breakfast swim. Her husband, easily the most organized person I have ever met, completed a spreadsheet of more phone numbers and email addresses than I have ever seen. If the number isn't there, we don't need it.

And me? I cooked. Not that appetite is always first and foremost on everyone's list of concerns, but it generally heads up my list, and so I cooked. A roast chicken so we could have sandwiches and soup. And three variations on my celeriac soup: garlic-less for a more delicate constitution, vegetarian for John's sister, and one using very flavorful homemade chicken stock for... me, who happened to have some on hand. I would say that all these versions are worthwhile, but keep in mind that no garlic means very simple, vegetable stock can mean very carroty (still good, but not as delicate and very orange), and homemade stock means the celeriac gets lost. Not a bad soup, but not what I would say highlights the celeriac flavor. All these permutations are useful to know about, I think. But the best version is with plain old, watery, rather tasteless canned chicken broth, so use it and be glad there's a purpose in life for a thing in a can.

Oh, and quite a spectacular cooking failure. Word to the wise: if you burn the cheese sauce for macaroni and cheese, the finished dish will taste as if you are enjoying it through a Marlboro filter. Just pitch it and start over. Do not believe the various well-meaning relatives who pass through the kitchen, take a bite, and say, "It just tastes like you used smoked cheddar." It doesn't. It's awful and belongs in the garbage. I hate to screw up! But I took it as a learning point. You have to learn other people's stoves, and since John's mom's stove never turns on her, and has never before turned on me, I must assume I was really not paying attention.

And while I was not ruining the evening's meal, I was busy crashing John's mother's car into the post that separates the two parking spots in their garage. Well, "crashing" is exaggerating. More like rubbing up against and then just continuing to do so until all the paint on the post was transferred to the side of the car. As I did this, John's sister's family pulled up in their car and everyone just stood, open-mouthed. Now I know where the expression, "It was like watching a train wreck" comes from. No one could look away. Finally my brother-in-law said, "I don't think we're helping by just standing here," and thankfully hustled everyone away. John said, "That's just what we needed, one more thing," but then he took pity on me and said something like, "It's just a garage." The things we have to rise above, when I am around.

But in the end, we also spent a lot of time chatting, me getting to know my nieces who are dear, intelligent girls (I think Sarah is a great chef in the making, so I hope I didn't interrupt her progress with my mistakes, and Ellen is a terrific athlete and a real ball of energy), hanging out at our friend Stephanie's barn and watching the kids groom the horses, going to the bookstore with Stephanie's wonderful mom's gift certificates for the children, all of us drinking Bloody Marys and "helping" John and his mother scramble three dozen eggs for Easter brunch, hiding plastic eggs full of all the candy Target could offer, on Stephanie and David's enormous tree-filled lot. But it was freezing! Literally, below freezing. What was Iowa thinking? But it meant we had lovely evenings by the gas fire (the fireplace of which John and I, famously, checked as LUGGAGE lo these 15 years ago, when we moved back from London the first time), sipping single malt scotch, reminiscing about our many, many vacations together, the hundreds of times John and his dad have stolen the check from each other at dinner ("Hey, Dad, there's a reason I have the same name as you: you never know which credit card slip you're signing"), the hundreds of books John's mom and I have recommended to each other, the hundreds of treats they have both arranged for Avery, for all their grandchildren.

One evening I was up after everyone else went to bed (OK, that happens every evening I spend in Iowa), and I wandered around through the house, seeing the Battersea box with caviar on the top that I gave them when we were living in Moscow, the Russian icon I smuggled in through Moscow customs, the mercury glass flower vases John found in Portobello Market, the bronze architectural replicas John's mom collects and to which we've contributed the New York landmarks we could see from our first SoHo apartment, the enlarged photo of little John as Eeyore that I gave John's mom when I unearthed it years ago in her limitless photo collection. And the lithograph by Mauricio Lasansky, hanging by their front door, the only object that would comfort month-old Baby Avery when she came to visit for her first Christmas. "Look," John's dad would say, dangling her from his outstretched arm, "She loves this thing. Who says babies don't understand art?" It wasn't a week later that we found ourselves in the storeroom at the University of Iowa, letting the tiny baby choose a lithograph for herself, which has hung over her bed all her life.

Family is excellent. It's funny to me to see us all take our places, the same places we always take, in good times and bad. It gives me a nice sense of continuity. And now that we're back home in London, I know the old places are still there like squares on a chessboard, and everyone knows the rules of where to go. We just have to get all the pieces on the same board at the same time. What a rare treat it was.

But truth be told: Iowa also contains some very odd things. I will never forget being a new girlfriend and turning up in Waterloo to find, of all things, a "Grout Museum." I said in wonder, "Are there enough kinds of grout to justify a museum? Or was grout invented here, or something?" Silence prevailed. Finally someone said, "Kristen, the Grout family endowed the money for the museum. It's filled with priceless historical documents about science." Oh.

And get this: hot LEGS. No, not hot wings, which we've all had and enjoyed (or not) in our times in places like TGI Fridays, or Dennys, or whatever horror the town you're visiting contains. I myself adore hot wings, anywhere, of any description. But hot LEGS? This is what dieticians worry about when they analyze the diet of the Midwest of my homeland. If you can get it bigger, you'll get it bigger. So hey: it turns out the little roundy bit on a chicken wing? You can supersize that and you get a drumstick! I hate to say it made me laugh. Probably the next time I'm there I'll have some.

Well, in any case, the holiday is over and real life beckons. As in the much-vaunted, looked-forward-to, nay hyped opening of the new Primark department store at the corner of Park Street and Oxford Street. Open your mouth wide. Take a deep breath. Now... YAWN. Yep, a big yawn. Hordes of people, everyone fighting over the next sequined or ruched thing made of some not-cotton fabric. But Avery and I were the only people who did not exit with a bag filled with merchandise. We escaped in mortal fear.

Tomorrow John comes back from Iowa, and we head immediately to Birmingham for the British Show Jumping Championships! VIP tickets, for my birthday present, so we must pack tuxedo, formal black dress for me (darn, no one reminded me to diet this month), Avery will be a vision in Morgane Le Fay.

And before I go, I have to tell you the most successful menu of my week. It involves, strangely, one dish being dependent on another. At first I thought this was cheating, that my risotto would never taste the same for you as it did for me, because you wouldn't have the fresh roast turkey drippings I had. But then John's mom and I realized, they can if I tell them to! So here is the perfect comfort menu for people who don't want anything challenging, or expensive, or with hard to find ingredients. And it's DELICIOUS. Keep in mind the ingredient list is for the whole DINNER. Take it with you to the supermarket.

Roast Turkey with Mushroom Risotto and Broccolini
(serves five people awfully happy to eat dinner together in Iowa)

1 large turkey breast, on the bone (not split, crucially)
6 tbsps butter
4 tbsps olive oil
1/2 tsp each: dried basil, oregano, paprika, garlic salt
2 cloves garlic, minced
4 tbsps minced onion
1 1/2 cup arborio, or risotto rice
two handfuls baby portabella or button mushrooms, chopped roughly
1/2 cup white wine
at least 4 cups chicken broth (canned!)
1 cup fresh grated pecorino or parmesan cheese
1/2 tbsps fresh thyme leaves (not the stems)
3 bunches broccolini, trimmed and rinsed
fresh ground pepper, and salt to taste

So here's what you do. Two and a half hours before you want to eat, preheat your oven to 325 degrees. Spray an oven-safe dish large enough for the turkey breast with nonstick spray. Lay the turkey breast in the dish, sprinkle with herbs and place 3 tbsps of the butter, in pats, along the top of the breast. Roast for two hours.

Meanwhile, mince your garlic and onion and tear off your thyme leaves. Grate your cheese. Trim your broccolini and lay it in a skillet covered with 2 tbsps of the olive oil, and some salt.

Half an hour before you want to eat, place the remaining butter and olive oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Melt and saute the onion and garlic, then toss in the rice and stir till completely coated. Add the mushrooms. Add the white wine and stir over low-medium heat till absorbed. Now, add the chicken stock a bit at a time, maybe half a cup at a time, and stir continuously as you do so, adjusting the heat so the liquid is absorbing steadily but the mixture never spits at you. If you have a willing and gracious mother-in-law, she could do this while you do the other bits and pieces.

Ten minutes before you want to eat, put the heat on under the broccolini and stir with tongs, lifting up the stalks so they get sauted gently on both sides. Meanwhile, get the risotto to the consistency you want (I like wet but not runny), and remove from heat.

HERE'S THE MAGICAL PART. Take the turkey breast out of the oven and drain all the cooking liquids from the dish into the risotto. It will be a mixture of turkey juices, butter and herbs. Simply perfect, and you can't get that depth of flavor any other way. Stir gently, add the cheese and the thyme leaves and taste for salt and pepper.

Carve your turkey breast and you're in business. Enjoy.

10 April, 2007

Cirrus business

Well, I survived. As many of you know, my attitude toward flying runs on a spectrum from mild alarm to intense dread. But I was so good about taking my fear of flying course of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, listening to endless tapes, participating in the Wednesday Night Chat, taking advantage of the two-hour phone conversation with Captain Tom, the ex-commercial pilot turned therapist, who explains all about how airplanes work, how pilots of commercial jets are so safe at work that their life insurance premiums are the lowest of any profession (although my life insurance agent father-in-law regretfully informed me that that's not quite true). I went the whole nine yards and did the whole course, and I must say, it worked pretty darn well. I still don't love flying, but I don't panic at every unexplained sound, I don't think the plane's going to flip over like a beetle on its back, and I don't let myself think that all the statistics work only for the planes I'm not on. I got much better.

But as we approached this little plane to fly from Chicago to Waterloo, Iowa to visit my in-laws last week, one of the salient details of the course stood out in broad relief in my mind. None of the facts or figures applied to teeny-weeny private planes! In fact, the whole course kept emphasizing that it's only private planes that are dangerous. Harumph! This plane was unbelievably tiny. Like our Mini Cooper, only with wings. Seriously.

But I was brave. Mostly because I had no choice, since it was that or walk to Waterloo. Of course as luck would have it, it was incredibly windy that afternoon, so the nice calm pilot warned us there would be some "bumps," which I came to realize is like a doctor warning you that there might be some "discomfort," and then you're in mortal pain. Most alarmingly, as we sat listening to the engines rev, the pilot said as in an afterthought, "And if I were to become incapacitated for any reason, say a heart attack, you reach up here, to this lever, and just like you were chinning yourself, pull it down, and a parachute will exit the back of the plane and carry you down." Excuse me? I thought he was joking, but no, there was the ominous little lever, hovering above our heads like a bad dream.

It was like being in a little toy, bouncing around in a bathtub. But finally we climbed up through the invisible bumps, Avery clutching my hand in a death grip, while we listened on our headphones to John's excited questioning of the pilot, who at first was rather laconic and dismissive, but soon realized he had a very, very interested audience, and so we spent the whole journey listening to tales of how much ice is too much ice, how to compensate for strong headwinds, and how to divert to Rockford because there was radar difficulty in Dubuque. Then came the inevitable John question, when confronted with something he's never done before but decides he really likes. "How much would one of these babies set you back?" Too much, as it turns out. Thank you, God.

So here we are in Iowa, where the land is flat, the Walmarts plentiful, American flags adorn every surface you can imagine, the supermarkets are the size of airplane hangars and the weather is incredibly cold. But on the plus side, we've been seeing all our old friends and family, repeating the same old jokes we've been telling for the past 20 years, indulging in the kind of food we eat only when we visit the Midwest, like breaded pork tenderloins the size of frisbees, fried shrimp, iceberg lettuce, Lucky Charms for Avery, and unlimited ice. The first night we were here, after everyone had fallen asleep but me, I looked up from my book which I was reading propped up in John's childhood bed, and across the room on the desk was an enlarged photograph of Avery and her stable friends, seen from the back, all on their ponies, in Hyde Park Mews. I was visited by a very strange sense of unreality: that here in Iowa, in the middle of the dark night, London still exists, complete with the Bayswater Road for Avery to cross with her pony, and the Marble Arch roundabout with its zooming black cabs, and our placid little maisonette inhabited by the cats in our absence. How can both places be real? And yet in two days we'll be back there, doing our food shopping in the crowded, foreign aisles of Marks & Spencer, filled with spotted dick and mushy marrowfat peas instead of Pop-Tarts and fruit cocktail. I've got lots more to tell you about Iowa, but right now we're headed out to find some American lunch and drop Avery and her Nonna off at the dreaded craft store for yet another project involving yarn, glitter, googly eyes or metallic markers. Then to the grocery store for ingredients for the mushroom and parmesan risotto I'm planning for tonight. Every once in awhile we eat something that isn't deep fried, but not too often. More soon...