14 May, 2007

Devon beckons

Well, strictly speaking, an island right off the coast of Devon beckons. Just the two of us. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The last few days have been insane. There was Friday spent looking at houses: one too small but in a perfect location (plus owned right now, I learned from the estate agent AND the painting of their "country house" over the fireplace which was a CASTLE, by a Duke and Duchess of quite peerless beauty), and then there's the sort of nasty one in an even more perfect location, but it was, I'm not kidding, upholstered. I mean the walls. Upholstered. And a truly evil kitchen. Sigh.

From there we picked up Avery and Jamie and quite ALL their belongings in the world from school and took them ice skating, where I hung around with Becky, and my new skate-mother friend Heidi who has the two most beautiful little girls in the world. Heidi is going, guess where, Marrakesh for the long half-term holiday, so we had a lot to talk about. From there to the most delicious dinner at Mandarin Kitchen where we ate everything in sight (I think my hands-down favorite dish ever there is the soft-shell crab liberally sprinkled with sliced red chilis, scallions and cilantro, quickly deep fried. Divine. Avery and Jamie are peas in a pod, talking over each other in an attempt to better each other's suggestions for their favorite word game, "You think of a word that starts with the last letter of my word," really cute. Off to home and movies (we had thought about popcorn but were too full to consider it once we arrived), and a suitably late bedtime.

In the morning we had to drag poor Jamie off to see house #3 with us, an old favorite in a yucky street, now on the market for longer than it should be: why? Jamie and Avery were full of perspicacious comments, and the house did not wear well for me on this the second visit. A scary reno internal staircase, ugly, ugly, ugly. But a gorgeous ground floor kitchen-eating space which, given my tendency to live in the kitchen, is a bad thing indeed. Will we ever find a house?

We dropped Jamie at home, dropped Avery at her acting class, raced home to do all the little household chores, then raced back to get Avery and head off to the Royal Windsor Horse Show! I'm sorry to say, however, that for all the fun it was last year, this year was a bit of a disappointment. For one thing, it rained. Not a drenching, but enough to make all the public thoroughfares a big, muddy, sucking-at-feet disaster. And for some reason there was much less seating for the hoi polloi (I admit I tried to get Members' Enclosure tickets, but they were sold out), and so we were pressed six-deep at the fence of the Arena trying to see what was going on. Finally, though, people at the front got tired of watching and we moved up to the gate and could see the show jumping and the tail end of the Shetland Pony races. By the time we'd had a pretty decent grilled chicken wrap for lunch, there were open seats in the bleachers and THEN we could relax. I went off to the Food Festival and what happened there? Daylesford Organic was missing, the Prince of Wales Duchy label was gone, there was only one produce stand with fruit and veg. I wonder if it turned out to be unprofitable last year, so people stayed away? I also think I've got spoiled with farmers' markets and food shops and so I'm harder to impress this year. In any case, I got some things for our Sunday dinner with Vincent, so that was good.

As always, the best events were the Accumulator and the Puissance wall, so we stayed for those and then headed back in the bloomy almost-dark to arrive home quite late. I accomplished some desultory packing for both Avery's trip this week and ours, and then Sunday dawned rainy and nasty, which put a bit of a damper on my Marylebone Farmers' Market trip, but I persevered. Poor John has a nasty, lingering cold, so he stayed home while I got Avery to the stable (icky to imagine riding and mucking out in the rain, but the girls don't seem to mind).

I came home and spent the afternoon cooking. And what did I learn? If it ain't broke, don't fix it. As in, if one's roast chicken is always good, don't be a sucker for the latest Angela Hartnett recipe that insists you steam the chicken part of the cooking time and then open the foil package for the last 15 minutes to "brown." Why not? Because it doesn't brown, and you find yourself turning the heat up super high for an extra ten minutes hoping the skin will crisp but... it doesn't. It tasted fine (why not, with tarragon, fresh thyme, lemon halves, butter and garlic slathered all over it?) but roasting in open air is better. Sorry, Angela. Maybe all Gordon Ramsay's bullying is taking its toll.

Then, too, if I always have success with nice mashed potatoes (this time a lovely bag of Clarets from the Potato Shop at the market), why mess about and add celeriac to the mash? Either I didn't add enough and so it was just a dull hint of celeriac, or I added too much and it overwhelmed the potatoes. Boring! And in my bid to be not just the cook but part of the party, I let the asparagus cook too long and it was too soft! What a disaster, in minor proportions. The best parts of the dinner party were the guests (Vincent, Pete and Vincent's two little girls, Estee and Ines, easily the most charming children I know). Oh, and the salad with spicy chili oil dressing. No, the best part was the...

Coquilles St. Jacques au gratin
(serves four as a starter)

1 dozen fresh scallops
1 cup white wine (or dry Vermouth)
1 tbsp Madeira wine
dash cayenne pepper
3 tbsps butter
2 tbsps flour
2 shallots, finely minced
1 handful curly parsley, finely minced
1 egg yolk, beaten slightly
salt and pepper
fresh soft breadcrumbs
grated pecorino or parmesan cheese

If you've got your scallops on the shell, as I did (first time! scary), carefully remove the red roe and the membrane that connects it to the scallop. Remove the tough muscle that clings to the outside of the scallop, too. Is it all nice and smooth and white and clean? Wash and rinse and lay the scallops on paper towels, then scrub out four of the shells and rub with butter.

Pour the wine and Madeira in a small saucepan, dust with cayenne and bring to a simmer. Place scallops in the saucepan and simmer (don't boil!) for five minutes, then remove with a slotted spoon to a cutting board and cut each scallop in half, and place six halves in each scallop shell. Add the flour, butter, shallot and parsley to the saucepan and whisk until mixed, then add the egg yolk. Pour this mixture over the scallops and top with breadcrumbs and cheese. You can do all this ahead of your dinner. Five minutes before you want to eat, place the scallop shells in a glass dish big enough to hold them all and put in a very hot oven (425 degrees) for five minutes. Serve hot, with a fork AND a spoon. You will want every bite.


My cheese board was good, at least: one good cheese from our Waitrose, a prince among supermarkets: an ash-covered goat's cheese. And from the Food Festival yesterday I brought back a lovely Cotswold Brie from Simon Weaver, a blue from the Cornish Cheese Company, and a cheddar from Wyke Farms.

Well, we're off! We've deposited Avery at school with her gargantuan bag, for her five days' away on the school trip... when we walked into school with the bag, her backpack, her lunch and her bottle of frozen water, the thought of climbing the six flights of stairs to her classroom was too much! Luckily the PE teacher (central casting: young New Zealander, always in a track suit with a bottle of water in her hand, calling Avery "sweethaaat") Miss Ellis said cheerily, "Just leave you bags in the library, and head on up," so with a minimum of goodbye, she was off. And we're headed to Burgh Island. I'll report on our adventure (no serial murders, though, one hopes?) when we return...

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