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.

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