28 June, 2007

get us off this treadmill!

Oy veh, as my friend Alyssa would say. The clock is winding down to the end of the school year and everyone involved (me included) seems determined to fill every available hour. Let's see, in the next seven days we have: an art exhibition at school, a horseback riding lesson, a skating lesson, an acting lesson, one after-school party, one birthday party, a play to go to on Saturday, my own dinner party on Sunday for ten, two performances of the school play, another riding lesson, my writing class, a friend's going away-Fourth of July party for 80 to help organise, the school Prize Day and a pizza party. Can this be true? Surely by the end, when we step onto the plane to go home for the summer, we will all be in a state of nervous collapse. And consider this: we adults aren't actually even DOING most of this stuff. It's the getting-to and home from more than anything else.

But there have been wonderful bits. The stable-wide Pony Club horse show on Sunday was, despite the persistent drizzle, an absolute delight. The day started off with a bang when Figaro, the largest horse in the stable, threw Avery off and onto one of the jumps. Ouch. Her little finger still hurts today (luckily she doesn't need it much). She was roundly applauded for getting right back on, but Figaro was having none of it and finally the instructor decided caution was the better part of valor, and put her on Smokey. This fulfilled her long-held dream, because normally Smokey is held back for inexperienced riders, while Avery's put on the back of anything that moves too quickly for other people. A nice reward for bravery.

A friend had called the night before to ask if I wanted to take part in a bake sale at the show, to pay something toward the farrier's inevitable bill, so sure, I produced some really odd brownies from a couple of boxes of Betty Crocker mix. Two things proved to be true as a result of my efforts: Thing One is that you really do need the number of eggs the box says you need. My casual, devil-may-care attitude of around 1 a.m. the night before the show ("Four eggs, three eggs, what difference does it make?) was proved misguided in that the brownies simply didn't rise. They remained obstinately slumped, which the rain did nothing to improve. Thing Two I learned, however, was that slumped brownies are, in the eyes of hungry young pre-adolescent horse-crazy girls, much better than the kind that used four eggs. So there.

Becky contributed delicious cookies and my other friend rice-krispie treats (which virtually melted in the humidity), and other delicacies. Through it all we consumed our own lunches, brought in husband-boggling abundance (Mark asked, "can't we just each pack a sandwich?", silly man), to be consumed under the amazingly effective tent my friend brought along on the shoulders of her son, on his way to college. What a way to spend your last day, shouldering burdens in the rain with a lot of girls in jodhpurs running around on sugar highs.

It was so cozy to be there with two of my favorite girlfriends in the world, gossiping, praising each other's completely remarkable children, watching our husbands chat and take pictures. Once when John and Becky walked to her car to get something, and I watched their backs as they strode away, talking sixteen to the dozen, I thought, "Don't let anything change. Everything is perfect just as it is." Later that day Avery was to be found in her bedroom, adding the day's quantity of rosettes to the already bulging ribbon strung around her bed. "I can't really justify these two being here, since I didn't earn them. They were just the favors, remember, from my last birthday in New York." She's nothing if not brutally honest.

Let's see, what else has been happening? Oh!! Tuesday I met, in person for the first time, my blog friend Lara. We have long been corresponding about the enormous probability that we've already seen each other, since we haunt the same grocery store, patisserie, bookstore. But finally we made a plan to meet up at her flat quite near to me, and size each other up in person. And "size up" was indeed part of the experience, as she is unexpectedly tall and quite simply gorgeous, in the way of a particular sort of English girl, I'm finding. Perfectly natural, casual, and yet with the sort of effortless grace that I think comes from being descended from generations of interesting people. Truth to tell, she's a dead ringer for one of my favorite British actresses, Keeley Hawes. If Lara weren't such a nice person I'd be dreadfully envious, but we got down to serious chatting right away and the couple of hours we had at our disposal disappeared very quickly. I've said it before and I'll say it again: life would be very sad without girlfriends. I had a serious case of toddler envy when her little boy woke up from his nap and entertained us by saying the words for everything that crossed his field of vision.

Then yesterday I had a lovely time with my friend Dalia, gossiping over lunch at Richoux just around the corner, and then we headed to the Curzon Mayfair to take in "Tell No One," a really scary but clever French filmic take on the hugely popular Harlan Coben novel. Great acting, characters you really care about, a complex plot with a couple of holes (or maybe I'm just being dumb). If you can take a bit of violence, and quite a bit of frantic nail-biting, go see it.

I would close with a recipe, as is my wont, but... I don't have one! I've been cooking all the same old stuff lately, but I promise to try something new in the next day or two so I have something to tell you. Wouldn't want to let you down.

27 June, 2007

a new era

I have no photo for today, because I don't want to appear political and post either Tony or Gordon! But it is quite a day here, we have a new Prime Minister, Gordon Brown. A solemn acceptance speech outside Number 10 Downing Street (did you know that even if the Prime Minister has been accepted by his party he still has to be invited by the Queen? Well, she did). And a very intelligent, I thought, and entertaining, goodbye by Tony Blair. Say what anyone might about decisions taken: he is a well-spoken person and a lovely family man, and it seems a bit sad to have his departure take this note. But it did, a bit understated, I thought. Ordinary removal men coming to pick up his bits and pieces, to take to the house in a nearby square that we drove past tonight on the way back from skating: "oh, there's his house."

At the same time I was thinking of the 1990-ish (we were headstrong newlyweds, not paying enough attention to politics), was it, departure of Margaret Thatcher that we witnessed our first time around in London: "It's been a funny old life."

And of course this weekend we're honouring the tenth anniversary of the death of Princess Diana. I remember so clearly waking up that morning in August 1997 with little Baby Avery, to the horrible news of Diana's death. All the cliches about a mother leaving her children, terribly real, me clutching a tiny baby in New York.

It's odd, not being either British or American on a day like this. You know you're watching part of history, and part of me feels that someone is being unfairly judged today for having followed someone else doing what he thought was right, and that an entire career and life is being put in only one prism. But of course we'll see in future what it all means. Much richer, and more personal, are things like watching our daughter at her rain-soaked horse show on Sunday, with Becky and me selling our hard-baked brownies and cookies and such for the benefit of the next farrier's visit to the stable, and a lunch with a friend Lebanese-born and British-raised, not sure where her allegiances lie, and planning a Sunday dinner with school friends who mean so much to us that we didn't know existed a year and a half ago. It's a sentimental evening.

more Taste, and the theatre!

I simply have to kvell a little more about the Taste of London, which was such fun. Of course being crazy busy the last week or so, I did not do my blogger duty and post about it in time for you all to do it too, however... There's always next year, plus I came away with some incredibly delicious things to eat that you can order online, and I think you should.

Far and away in first place was a chicken liver pate with chilli and lemongrass, from The Patchwork Traditional Food Company, although this flavour was highly un-traditional, I'd have to say. Quite spicy and with a beautifully decorated top of little peppers and what I suppose to be lemon grass leaves, finely chopped? I have never seen a stalk of lemon grass with leaves, only the long bamboo-like sticks, and I'm completely flummoxed as to how they got the flavour into the pate. It was distinctly lemongrass, not lemon, and very fresh, with a smooth texture that made it perfect to spread on a nice picnic sandwich. But even nicer would be to unmould it onto a platter with little biscuits. There were other flavours as well (a Stilton stood out), so sample everything, I'd say. The pate comes frozen so it will stay good nearly as long as you want it to, and you can keep it for several days in your fridge after it thaws, as well. Simply divine, and if you don't do piquante, you could try one of the milder varieties, plus they're devoted to a vegetarian range as well.

Then I bought some rhubarb yogurt from Rachel's Organic (they supply all the milk for Pret a Manger, I know, and as much as I object to the whole big corporation food thingy, Pret is always delicious when you're in a hurry to get to writing class and simply have to have a cup of miso soup because it's raining and 60 degrees at the #@*&^ end of June). Tart, fresh, so tasty, plus I came away with creme fraiche, butter and a cherry yogurt that was completely delicious and very highly flavoured. So much cherry-ish foods taste like candy, but this tasted like the real fruit. Then, because I looked at my watch and noted that it was happy hour in France, I sampled some luscious Polish vodka with a really clean, flowery edge, called Uluvka. The bottles (I'm a sucker for packaging as you know) has a lovely curvy neck that makes it very nice looking in your freezer when you're searching for breadcrumbs. Do keep it frozen and serve it in a glass you've stored in your freezer. Plus you've got to love a vodka maker that invites you to sign its guest book on its website. Why on earth?

Then because my friend Jill is always going on about spelt (I always want to pronounce it "shpelt," I wonder why? the word is reminding me of something else), I meandered over to a table called "rude health organic foods," feeling the name should be rewarded by a visit. Also, I like to support a grain that has its own website. Can I just say that it was completely, but completely tasteless. I'm sorry, spelt! You do not rock. I can see that my problem is, as the very earnest lady behind the table assured me, I am accustomed to food loaded with (even if the very best) salt. Or sugar, if it comes to people with a sweet tooth. But I have to jump in and say that there are many foods that taste good (heck, that taste like at least something) with nothing added, like cucumbers, tomatoes, milk, melon, lots of things. Maybe I just don't eat a lot of grains with nothing added, so I should carry on about the poor spelt. And if I couldn't tolerate wheat, perhaps I would be very grateful for spelt. Right now I'm inclined to say that I can't tolerate food that has to have things added to it to taste good. But I can see that drenched in Rachel's Organic rhubarb yogurt it would be all right. I did feel good meeting Ruth, my first agronomist, and boy that's a serious profession. But then being put in a white apron and placed behind a table forced to extol the virtues of spelt could put a serious cast on almost anyone.

Let's see, I felt that I needed a little gluttony and free living after that, so I headed over to the booth manned by the Scott's restaurant people to have some oysters on the half-shell. I have always longed to go to Scott's, and it's practically in my backyard, but then when I see pictures in Hello! magazine of Jemma Goldsmith and Hugh Grant coming out, I realize I am better off sampling their wares standing up at a plastic table in the rain. And Mark Hix was there, winner of this year's "Great British Menu," so I shook his hand and said how much fun we had watching the programme, and he was very gracious. And the oysters were sublime, plus I had to applaud the attitude of the chap opening them and serving them. "I have only 6 crowns left to spend, and your oysters cost 8. How many oysters could you give me for six?" And he said grandly, "Darling, you help yourself!" So I got three different types of oysters amply sprinkled with Tabasco, lemon and shallots in vinegar, yum yum. You know me and oysters, and it only made me want to spend my life's savings at the restaurant even more.

In my yo-yo act between gluttony and ascetism, I stopped and had a sample of perfectly good sweet potato and mushroom casserole at a stand with the rather unfelicitous moniker "The Intolerable Food Company," where they make ready-to-eat foods for people who... can't tolerate food. Gluten-free, dairy-free, no additives or preservatives. Would you believe that Avery has a little friend who is severely allergic to sulphur dioxide? I cannot imagine the maternal devotion it would take for me to determine that what was giving my child a rash was... dried apricots. But there you have it. So if you, or someone you know, is in this unfortunate position of having ingredients disagree with you, now you have a resource.

By this time I was ready to be rolled home (actually it was a blessing I was so stuffed because we had the world's worst dinner out on the way to the theatre). I stopped to register for a free dinner at the new Galvin at Windows restaurant in Park Lane, with reputed 180-degree views over London. The menu does look unbelievably tempting, with ballotine of foie gras, chicken, celeriac and truffle mayonnaise just for one starter. Maybe my ship will come in.

I trudge to Becky's house a mere few blocks away, burdened with my purchases, and John picked me up to run out to the Old Vic to see "Gaslight," which was lovely. We had bought a ticket for Avery but she, child that she is, opted for a sleepover with a friend moving back shortly to New York (the callous creature). Rosamund Pike was simply gorgeous, and it's a nice take on a classic with the wonderful Kenneth Cranham was was so evil in "Layer Cake."

Then Saturday it was onto a completely thrilling afternoon at the Royal Court Theatre Open House for a panel discussion called "Do You Remember Your First Time?", bringing together actors, writers and directors to talk about their first experiences at "The Court," as they call it. I was spellbound, completely fascinated, at my first in-person glimpse of two actors I adore, Lennie James and Lindsay Duncan, live, talking about the job they love so much. And although they, and all people in the theatre apparently, are a bit derisive about television, I had to thank them for their fabulous work in great British drama series that I have enjoyed so much. It's a sort of six-degrees game I play with my drama friends: Lennie James was in "The State Within" with Eva Birthistle, who was in "Middletown" with Matthew Macfadyen, who was in "Perfect Strangers" with Lindsay Duncan. Oh, well, it amuses me, anyway. My friend 6point7 and I had a marvelous time, and even more so that evening at the current play at "The Court," "The Pain and the Itch" starring my dear crush Matthew. It's a great social satire about an American family (although the word has to apply pretty loosely) at Thanksgiving dinner, faffing on about liberal values and child-rearing, sibling hatred and phoney social values. Definitely worth seeing, and Matthew's American accent, while verging ever so slightly toward the midwest rather than Brooklyn Heights where the action is mean to be set, is still convincing. Go see it, do.

And now I must be off to meet my gorgeous friend Dalia before taking Avery skating this afternoon. John and I have reckoned that there is something special going on every day between now and when we go back to the States for the summer next week. Yikes. I know I will forget... something.

23 June, 2007

Taste of London!

Oh, I wish you'd been there with me! I don't mind going places by myself (John is always mystified that I will go to lunch by myself, his idea of sheer torture, but the people watching is good!). But sometimes when you don't just go somewhere, but you're filled with enthusiasm for the place you're going to, it's a shame not to have anyone along to gurgle with. I had hoped to go with Vincent, but imagine this: he had to WORK. Honestly, I have got so spoiled with Vincent being between jobs, and my husband being between jobs, that I never imagine going anywhere on my own. I felt ashamed that I had nothing better to do with myself than traipse around the Taste of London, but that's what I did. I couldn't think of anyone else obsessed enough with food to accompany me, so there you go.

I don't know what I was thinking, arriving at 2 o'clock and knowing I had to be at school pickup at 3:20! First of all, naturally, I got lost. Well, not lost as in didn't know where I was (all right, a little that) but as in couldn't find the festival inside Regent's Park. I wandered until finally I saw lots of posh-looking people coming toward me carrying plastic champagne glasses and realised I had struck pay dirt. Once I was in, I don't know how I could have missed it: it was enormous! The whole setup of posh people, tasteful wealth and white tents reminded me of nothing so much as the Hampton Classic, last summer. There were portable rubber paths set up in the expectation that the occasionally blackish purple clouds overhead would see fit to empty their contents upon our hapless foodie heads (it sprinkled a bit but that was all, in fact).

I had no sooner arrived, bought my little "crowns" (the tickets that enable you to "taste" the chefs' creations) than I looked at my watch and thought, "Holy *&^%, it's practically time to get Avery." Whereupon my phone rang and it was my saintly, impossibly perfect friend Becky (except that she can be counted on for a nice gossip and a little friendly cattiness when you need it). "Listen, why don't I pick up Avery and take her to my house, the girls can do their homework, and then you can come bring her sleepover stuff and I'll take them to Elizabeth's?" Done! Suddenly nearly two hours stretched out in front of me, and I could only wish I had not eaten lunch. What was I thinking?

Let's see, where to start. I didn't feel that my lack of appetite justified spending tons of money on "crowns" for sampling the famous chefs' wares, so I tasted just a few things. One, a glorious thing called a "prawn pomelo with peanuts on a betel leaf," from a Thai place called Busaba Eathai. Lovely and fresh and so exotic: nothing I could produce at home.

All right, I must confess; if I don't post this now, I don't know when I will. More tomorrow, but I didn't want you to think I fell off a cliff. Life is busier than I can keep up with, this week...

20 June, 2007

be your own pizza delivery guy

Be honest: how many times have you ordered a pizza and when it comes, and you're eating it, you think, "This tastes like nothing." Then you start to think that you paid, what, 8 pounds for it, 15 or so pounds if you got two, and it tastes like... nothing. Plus you have to get rid of those boxes. The whole scenario is annoying. And the only reason you did it was to save time because you got home late from the stable or the skating rink and it was all you could think of. Well, that can be history. All you have to do is invest a little bit of time and a little bit of kneading, and a really fabulous pizza is in your future. Trust me: if you hate to cook, have scrambled eggs, but if you like to cook at ALL, don't order another pizza, just do this:

Pizza at Home
(serves four today and four later in the week)

4 cups "strong flour", like Hovis, plus more for dusting
2 cups-ish warm water
1 sachet powdered yeast (Hovis fast action is good)
1 tsp sugar
1 tbsp dried thyme leaves
1 tbsp dried oregano
1 tsp sea salt
olive oil for brushing

Veggies: thin-sliced red peppers, red onions, tomatoes
Cheeses: shredded commercial mozzarella, sliced fresh mozzarella, goats cheese
Meats: prosciutto, parma ham, salami, sausage
Sauces: fresh pesto, tomato sauce, harissa

Don't be shy. I was shy about getting my hands messy, but it was fine in the end. Of course, I was with my intrepid cooking friend Vincent when I made my maiden dough voyage, but you can do it too. Just pretend that someone brave is standing beside you to guide you through the uncharted waters. Take off all your rings, bracelets and watch, wash your hands thoroughly, and go.

Pour the flour into a large bowl. With a whisk, mix the yeast and sugar into the warm water (the temperature should be like that of a baby's bottle of milk). Let the water and yeast sit for a bit while you find your herbs and scatter them onto the flour. Now begin to mix the herbs into the flour, add the salt, and the water should be ready: a bit bubbly on top. Pour yourself a little mound of extra flour on a VERY clean countertop (I don't have a pastry insert, but some lucky people do). Pour about half your water onto the flour and DIG IN. Mix it with your hands in a sort of scooping, rolling motion. It will stick to your hands like crazy, but don't fret. It will come off. Add more water and keep mixing until the dough is elastic-feeling and sticky, but not liquidy. If you add too much water, don't worry: add more flour. As Vincent says, "It's its own thing, you can't hurt it." Gradually the ball will pick up most of the bits inside the bowl and then you know you're done mixing. Does that make sense? It's easier to do than to describe, I'm finding!

When the dough is a nice sticky ball in the bowl, cover it with a clean dishtowel and leave it for about an hour and a half. All you have to do to get your hands clean is to dust them with lots of flour and rub them together: the dough gets dry and falls off, very neatly.

The dough should just about double in bulk. Then give it a few nice whacks with your fist and turn it out onto your very clean, flour-covered countertop. You should have enough for two pizzas, so cut the dough in half and wrap one of them in plastic wrap to save in the fridge for the next time (this dough will stay nice and fresh for at least three days). Knead the dough, dusting with flour all the time, turning the edges under and turning the ball around so you're constantly turning under a new edge. Knead for about 10 minutes.

With a flour-covered rolling pin, roll out the dough into the shape of your pizza pan (I used a nice perforated-bottomed round pizza pan, but you can use anything, even a cookie sheet). Remember to keep flouring the countertop so the dough does not stick.
Spread the dough out onto the pan. With a pastry brush, brush olive oil over the whole surface.

Now you can top your pizza. Start with the sauce, whichever you choose (or all!). Then layer the vegetables over the sauce. Avery intelligently pointed out that the onions should be under everything else, so they don't just frizzle and get black, since they're not very liquidy. Add whatever meats you like (or all! or none), and finish with cheese. Bake in a hot oven (400-ish) for about 25 minutes, or until the cheeses are nice and bubbly. Voila.


I guarantee you that this pizza will be more savory, more fresh, and more nutritious than anything you could bring in. Plus cheaper, and your kitchen will smell cozy and inviting. And if I can do it, anyone can. I never bake, and I can tell you that I had to buy a new pastry brush, and a rolling pin, just for the purpose of making this pizza. And I'm glad I did. Thank you, dear Vincent, for making it so easy and tempting to do on my own. I have to say, a silicone pastry brush is a dandy little item to have in your kitchen: it comes perfectly, elegantly clean every time. I'm sure in no time I'll be glazing every flat surface in my home with egg white, but for now, olive oil on pizza crust is quite enough.

If you don't want to go to the admitted bit of effort that a pizza takes, how about a nice shoulder of pork? So inexpensive and so delicious. And effort-free, nearly. And the cooking aromas will bring everyone in your house into the kitchen, asking, "When do we eat?" Last night Avery was curled up in the chair in the kitchen, book in hand, and said, "Gosh, it's cozy in here."

Roast Shoulder of Pork with Rosemary and Garlic
(serves eight)

1 shoulder of pork, rolled and tied

four stems fresh rosemary, leaves removed and chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
juice of 1 lemon
1 tsp sea salt
several grinds of fresh black pepper
1 tbsp olive oil

Mix all the marinade ingredients and smear (awful word) over the shoulder of pork. Place in a baking dish sprayed with nonstick spray. Roast at 350 degrees for at least two hours (if you turn the oven down lower it can roast even longer). Couldn't be easier, and the meat is simply divine: tender, juicy, salty.

If you can get pea sprouts where you live, DO. I'm not 100% sure why they are called pea sprouts, when they look like nothing so much as little spinach leaves. But Marks and Spencer say they're pea sprouts, and ever since I had them at E&O in Notting Hill, I have been devoted to them. You need a LOT to feed even three people, because like all green leaves, they cook down instantly into almost nothing. So count on a package per person, at least. They are so good for you, too.

Asian Wilted Pea Sprouts
(serves four)

4 packages pea sprouts (about 8 cups, loosely packed), washed and spun dry
1 tbsp sesame oil
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp mirin (Japanese rice wine)
juice of 1 lime
2 cloves garlic, finely minced

In a large skillet, place all the sauce ingredients and simmer until garlic is nicely softened. Pile all the greens into the skillet and hold over low heat, lifting the greens with tongs until all have been coated with the sauce. The leaves will gradually wilt down to a fraction of their volume. So simple, so delicious. The stems have a little crunch and the leaves are silky and refreshing.


All right, we're off to make a little tour of the neighborhood that encloses our latest house possibility. It's a former vicarage, so the estate agents say, just below Hammersmith Road. Not a location to make you sit up and sing, perhaps, and the house is so ridiculously over-priced that it makes you wonder if anything the estate agents say can possibly true. Maybe it's not a vicarage at all; maybe it's the former headquarters of MI6. We are getting seriously fatigued by the house hunt. Even John, who previous to this excursion could have, I would say, looked at houses infinitely, is tired of the search. We have just two weeks before we leave for the summer in Connecticut and something deep within me would like to have a house before we go. Wish us luck...

18 June, 2007

of English English and writing projects

I adore living in a country that takes so seriously the general public's treatment of its native tongue. Is there anyone in America who cares how we speak? Any institution or authority, I mean? I don't know, probably there is, but in any case it wouldn't be as touching and intriguing as the British mindset about this issue. There are whole BBC programmes about pronunciation! And the growing scourge that has everyone so up in arms is, wait for it... "estuary English". I know, it sounds like a kind of bird, or fish, if you reverse it. "This autumn has seen a gradual return of the migrating English estuary." But no, it's a dialect.

I am continually fascinated by the many different accents we hear in London, and I have plenty of examples and questions stored up every time I get together with my friend Peter, or my friend 6point7 (they don't seem to find my interest completely barmy - a nice English word there). Let me explain.

I first began thinking about these things when Avery got the crazy "homophone" homework early in her first term at King's College. The notion that the words "raw" and "roar" might conceivably RHYME was a complete mystery as she looked at them on the page, but of course upon trotting out her newly acquired English accent, they quite did rhyme! And one of the nice mums at her school, when I told her of our struggles, said politely, "It's really quite a shame that RP [Received Pronunciation, I later found out] so limits the number of vowel sounds we produce." The more I thought about it, the more sense that made. It's too bad, in a way, to have a language in which such diversely- pronounced words as "pour", "poor" and "paw" in American English all sound alike if spoken in correct Queen's English here. In other words, however, English ways treat the letters with more respect than American ways do. For example, Proper English speaking pronounces, even accentuates the "t" in for example "stutter." Whereas the American treatment of the words quite swallows it. As do many utterances in... Estuary English.

Apparently the sounds of other towns along the River Thames are beginning to infect Proper English with their idiosyncracies, like missing or swallowed 't' sounds in the middle of a word. Of course take that too far, and you've gone all the way to Manchester. I often marvel, while watching "Shameless," at the incredible facility Anne-Marie Duff (a very proper English speaker indeed) has with the very difficult to understand speech patterns of that town, but to my untutored ear she's spot on.

Also in the line of fire is the pronunciation of words like "duke" or "Tuesday." Should the 'u' be pronounced like Americans do, a rather dull 'oo' sound? No, it should, properly, sound like 'ew', as in 'Chewsday." Then, too, there is the accent my screenwriting tutor had, in which the word 'assume' was pronounced "ashew-m." Where the heck do you suppose he was from? Anyway, I'm having fun with it. But Avery is resolutely taught Received Pronunciation, and is tested on it, too, if you can imagine. I love it.

What else am I loving about England right now? There is so much, but one is... hearing people talking about the biscuits they love. It brings every English person to his or her knees, remembering childhood teas. For example, as I learned from 6point7, "Penguin Bar" there are British people who take the Penguin Bar (and other teatime comestibles) very seriously indeed. Pull up a chair and take a look at this website, "A Nice Cup of Tea and Sit Down," for example.

And I'm loving my writing class. As you may recall, it's called "Creative Nonfiction," the idea being, to my mind, to find a way to use this blog to write something publishable. I want you all to appear in real print! I know I use the blog as a diary, primarily, but I also really treasure all my readers (whose presence I can spot when I bother to go on Google Analytics and see where you all are), and I would like to have more. Plus I would really like to have something to hold, and shelve, and keep. So I have been beavering away at my class, and it is really a lot of fun. This week's assignment for homework had been to decide upon one "small thing," as in a small object, that had emotional reverberations for us, and to write an essay about it. Or a "piece," as the tutor always says. Immediately I knew I wanted to write about what I call Avery's "hair thingys", the little elastic bands she uses for her braids and ponytails, and that in America (before the days of the prohibition-obsessed school uniform!) she wore all up her wrist, in colorful profusion. And I loved my essay! And my mother in law loved it. And I'm sure my mother will love it when I send it to her (right now), so hey: I'm sure it must be...awful, only my relatives don't want to say so. But I am really thinking hard about writing something good. I'd like to have something to leave.

Well, speaking of leaving, I must. Go pick up Avery, that is. She's playing with a friend and doing homework after riding together, so we could go to our parent-teacher conference. Can I kvell for one minute? She is doing so well at school. Not one even hidden reference to Dumb Americans came up. I think we can hope for great things, and I'm so proud of her.

busy June days

Between Sports Day, summer concerts, sleepover guests, dinner guests, yikes there is a lot to remember this month. I am beginning to have that slightly frantic feeling that is familiar from other end-of-schoolyear times, when I really don't want to think anymore about what clothing needs to go in Avery's gym bag, what lunch she needs for the barn, what permission slips to go see Damien Hirst's diamond-covered skull next week, tickets for the school production of "Peter Pan," deposits for next year's school trip (heavens, they just got home from this year's!).

Plus I've got us tickets to see "Gaslight" with the delectable Rosamund Pike. I remember loving the film, so I can only imagine we'll all love the play. I have as well a ticket for me to go all by my lonesome to see my revered crush Matthew Macfadyen LIVE on stage in "The Pain and the Itch." I've never seen him perform live before, so I am planning to be quite overwhelmed. John is very nicely putting up with my fevered enthusiasm, without pretending in the least to share it. He and Avery will go and see her beloved form teacher Miss Leslie perform a cello concert instead, which will be a perfect evening for everyone.

Speaking of which, the school summer concert was absolutely wonderful, at the lovely Hinde Methodist Church in Marylebone. Avery reported breathlessly after the final rehearsal that little Molly in Form Three fainted from the heat and had to be taken home, but by the time the concert began, it was very pleasant and we sat upstairs to get the best view (John being unofficial photographer for King's College!). The highlight, I think, was the whole choir singing "Green Eggs and Ham" with enormous gusto, to huge applause, so much so that Miss Potts the music mistress turned to the audience and said, "That was so wonderful, and the gulls enjoyed performing it so much: would you like to hear it again?" That's genius, working with children, to be spontaneous and celebratory. Darling Miss Leslie, their form mistress, had also showed that sort of spirit earlier in the day during Latin lessons, Avery told us. "Sophia started off with her recitation using a funny accent, and after that Miss Leslie told us we all needed to have a funny voice for our readings, too." I love that school.

Let's see, what else is keeping us busy? Well, a film crew spent all of Thursday in our street filming a movie with a cast of... well, almost no one I'd ever heard of, except Vinnie Jones whose name sounded vaguely familiar and then I was pretty sure I saw him. "Black leather jacket and slicked back hair, Mummy? Yep, that sounds like a 'Vinnie' to me." Given that the film turns out to be called "The Heavy," it seems highly unlikely that any of us will see it, but still. Unknown actors or no, it was exciting to be trudging home from the stable with Avery, dragging all her clobber, and to come upon a real film set, and to be held back from walking down our street. "If you could wait here, just for a moment, they're filming right now, and then you'll be on your way. Thank you SO much," gushed the little go-fer with a clipboard and a walkie-talkie. A far cry from the film crews who used to clutter up our old street in Tribeca with alarming frequency, dropping their craft services litter on our stoop, crouching outside our door so that we could not get in, and generally behaving as if it were their street, not ours.

Avery's deep in the Form Five test prep for next year's all-important examinations to get into senior school. I continue to lag behind in the ambition stakes, playing as ever the role of slacker mother who simply cannot get into the competitive spirit on behalf of my child. Granted, I spend most early evenings cooking dinner while Avery does her homework at the kitchen table, and certainly my ears prick up if I hear, "Mummy, can you help me with..." But in general my heart is not in hovering over her with her work. This attitude seems to have trickled down to Avery herself, who after reporting how she and one of her little chums had done on a practice exam said, "Her mummy assigned her essays to write on every day of the half-term holiday, and then her mummy corrected them and they revised them together." Yikes. "Do you think I should be doing that with you, darling?" I asked. "No, not really. The way I see it, the other little girl is like... a hothouse orchid, a really well-tended flower. Whereas I am... a wild rose, just occurring naturally in the garden." Hmmm. I went a little further and asked, "Do you think it would be better to be an orchid than a rose? I happen to really like roses, but your Nonna loves orchids." She thought a minute, and said, "No, roses aren't better than orchids, and orchids aren't better than roses. It's more a matter of the kind of flower you like and the kind of gardener you are. And I think your gardening suits me."

I looked over at her, sitting beside me in the car, with her hair blowing all over since we had the top down on such a pretty day. It seemed there couldn't be a nicer maternal moment. But of course John, upon hearing the story, is flexing his pruning shears and buying compost as we speak. Well, one of us should be paying attention, I guess.

All right, a celebratory evening beckons. Avery has achieved her Silver in her skating instruction, and a scoop of Baskin Robbins "Grand Slam" is being consumed as we speak. She has been working so hard on those spins and triple whatevers that, as much as I dislike the skating rink, I have to be proud of her. I must go prepare my broiled salmon, couscous with pine nuts, orange peppers and red onion, and sauteed sugar snap peas. Both the salmon and the couscous are experiments, so if they're good, I'll provide recipes. And... last night Vincent convinced me to take part in some homemade pizza dough-making (at Vincent's house the phrase "we'll have pizza" does not involve a cardboard takeaway box, needless to say). So I am the proud possessor, this evening, of a bag of "strong" flour, and a box of yeast. Tomorrow will see me playing around with herbs to add to the dough, and one hopes I will produce a side dish worthy of the shoulder of pork reposing in my fridge. Stay tuned.

17 June, 2007

FIRE! wait, no...

Fire? In fact, no, despite having been awakened "rudely" not even beginning to describe our chagrin, at 4:45 A.M. this morning to the dulcet tones of the building fire alarm. I have been, all day, as a result, CRANKY. How did I ever get through the months, even years, of interrupted sleep with Baby Avery? I have no idea. At any rate, my attitude toward wakeup, always verging on hostile, today reached epic proportions. All cats under Avery's bed in terror, so I spent the hours from 5 till 8 crouched down, lying down, turning on my side so I could see them all, convincing them it was safe to come out. Tacy was, not surprisingly, the bravest, but surprisingly Hermione was next out, then Keechie, the ultimate scaredy-cat, and coming in a distant last, the giant Wimsey. In fact, he stayed underneath the entire time, his big white hands stretched out in front of him and every white whisker and eyebrow an exclamation point of dismay. Poor boy.

Finally the porter (Giovanni, replacing the aristocratic Laurie while he's on a well-deserved holiday) came and shut the *&^% thing off. By then it was school time, so bleary-eyed Avery made her way to the car. "Call me immediately if you need to come home," I said, but she seemed intrepid. School day finished, she was up for a round of horseback riding.

I can't tell you how busy we've been. Of course, the fulcrum is Avery and her schedule, so John and I spend most of our time taking her places, waiting and watching while she does things, then taking her someplace else. And looking at houses, and I taking my writing class, and looking at more houses, and then there was last weekend, which included Sunday in the park with... Swans! Yes, you can rent a paddleboat and pursue them, offer them dried apricots, and have friends for life.

Then my life being a daytime rather than nighttime one, I have been having lunch with friends. My chum 6point7 and I met up for lunch at the Royal Court Theatre Cafe, which I would highly recommend for excellent soups (6 had "green" soup, which proved to be watercress, spinach and broccoli, while I went for the spicy tomato), and an unexpected gluten-free foccaccia that made 6 happy. We happily dished about our shared favorite actors (Matthew Macfadyen and James McAvoy), and compared English English to American English. There aren't a lot of English people who are fluent in both, but she is nearly there. A quarter to twelve, or a quarter of? Different to, or different from? Does "rubbish" mean "not true," or "worthless?" In America, of course, it means "garbage," and a bin has become a can. Lots of fun.

Speaking of which, each Saturday from 12 to 1 has been an hour most mysteriously spent for Avery, or at least for us having taken her to acting class and picked her up an hour later. "What did you do today?" elicits nothing more forthcoming, normally, than, "I don't remember," which is odd considering she's usually a very good storyteller. Maybe it was an activity too amorphous to describe? But last week we got this gem: "Today we did accents." We jumped on this. "You mean, Italian or French or something?" "No, American. I had just made up my mind to confess that I'm American, since I've been English in class so far. Then the teacher asked, 'Who here thinks he or she can do a good American accent?' so I raised my hand. And mine was really good!" "Well, yes, Avery, seeing as how you're American, "I objected. "But so then I confessed, and he said that my English accent was just as good!" she chortled. That's some sort of odd milestone. She can be either.

Well, I must leave you right now with a couple of foodie bits. One is simple: SPROUTS. Did you know that sprouts are a living food? That left to their own devices, they would continue to grow? And boy are they alkaline, which I have now, lately, decided, is a bit of a key to good digestion. Since observing some (I do everything halfway as far as diets go, can't take too many restrictions!) of the rules of more alkaline than acid, I have totally got rid of indigestion. I'd recommend a bit of attention to the rules, totally. Anyway, no one can do any harm by eating some radish sprouts, which are gloriously crunchy and spicy, and some bean sprouts which take me back to old Indianapolis Chinese food days of my childhood. Chick pea sprouts I decided I don't like, preferring chick peas themselves, which are elderly and dead and lack the emotional wrench of eating a living food (or "embryonic food," as 6point7 pointed out, ICK). Make yourself a really packed-with-flavour dressing, and even add a can of fancy tuna, and it won't matter what's underneath:

Crazy Flavour Dressing
(make as much as you want)

olive oil (I am favouring chili infused lately)
balsamic vinegar
lemon juice
soy sauce
Dijon mustard
chopped chillis
chopped rosemary
dried oregano
tiny minced garlic
sea salt
freshly ground pepper

The key here is three parts olive oil to one part other liquids (so mix up your vinegar, lemon juice and soy, and then use three times that much oil). Then season it as you like with the rest.


Then you can't beat a nice fruit crumble in the summer. I will go on record and say that, along with a nice hard-boiled or scrambled egg and a glass of apple juice, it's the perfect breakfast for a little kid trying to get through a day without lunch. Now in England, rhubarb appears from late May until a second harvest in late August, so we're eating it now.

Rhubarb and Strawberry Crumble
(serves one little girl for four breakfasts, ish)

2 pints strawberries, hulled
2 stalks rhubarb, peeled lightly and chopped rather small
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 dark brown sugar
1 tsp each: cinnamon, ground cloves, nutmeg, allspice
1/2 cup cold butter, cut in large cubes, plus a little extra for dotting
juice of 1 lemon

Nonstick-spray an oven proof container, and lay in the strawberries, left whole. Top with the rhubarb. Then in your Cuisinart or Magimix, whizz together the flour, sugars and spices with the butter, until it is completely mixed and starts to lose its powdery texture and begins to look like it might stick as a dough. Don't let it become a dough, but stop it when it starts to stick. Sprinkle the lemon juice over the fruit and scatter the flour mixture on top. Dot the top of the crumble with some bits of butter and bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes or until the fruit bubbles and top browns a bit.


Lastly, for now, I have two scallop recipes for you. I adore scallops and I don't know why I stopped cooking with them. Yes, I do, because Avery said she didn't like the texture. Well, here's the solution. I got some beautiful scallops for a crazy-reasonable price (six pounds for a dozen!) at Marks and Spencer. Then, too, I had leftover bresaola and mozzarella from the school Sports Day picnic that afternoon. Who knew Avery would decide that dried cured aged beef was GOOD? Well, bresaola it was, in my fridge. So I stopped for some flat-leaf parsley, ground up the leftover baguette from the night before in my Magimix and was in business.

Two Pasta Dishes in One Evening:
Scallops with Fresh Herbs and Olive Oil AND
Linguine with Bresaola and Mozzarella

(serves two adults and one anti-scallop child)

3/4 pound linguine

1/2 cup olive oil
5 cloves garlic, minced
sprinkle red chillis
12 scallops, muscle and roe removed (don't like roe, sorry)
large handful parsley, chopped
1/2 cup fresh breadcrumbs, toasted in the oven till crispy

4 slices bresaola, sliced in slivers
1 ball mozzarella, cubed very small or shredded
parmesan cheese to grate over

So, boil your pasta water and put in the linguine. Now, you have 11 minutes to work with. Warm the olive oil in a medium saucepan and add garlic and chillis and sizzle until garlic cooks gently. Turn up heat and add scallops turning constantly and covering with hot oil until cooked, about 3 minutes. Take off the heat and stir your pasta. When the pasta is done, put the scallops back on the heat and add the parsley, drain the pasta, and have two hot bowls ready: put most of the linguine in a big one for the scallops, and the rest in a small one for the bresaola. Immediately throw the scallops and oil on the big bowl, and add the breadcrumbs. Throw the bresaola and mozzarella on the smaller dish of pasta. Toss both thoroughly.

Voila. Everyone's happy.


Now, I must to bed. I still haven't told you about my writing class! Or Avery's Summer Concert (teary-making, I'm ashamed to say). And tomorrow's a picnic in the park, so writing may have to wait. Enjoy this beautiful London weather...

07 June, 2007

to Whole Foods, or not to Whole Foods?

But before I get to that pressing dilemma, I must tell you we had an incredible lunch at E & O yesterday, which I had visited earlier this year with my New York friend Julia, in Notting Hill. Because I like doing the same things over and over, I did order several of the same things I had had in the wintertime, so that John could taste what I had raving and reminiscing about ever since. Divinely light soft-shell crab tempura (and this time I found out the dipping sauce was vinegar-based, with a parsley edge to it), beef san choi bau, with its mysterious spicy sauce, and tantalizing bits of mushroom and tender beef. In our new relatively carb-light diet (must I keep these ten pounds I don't want?), we ordered fried-rice to share and in the end left most of it behind, but it was a nice little bed for what we both agreed was the best dish of the day: a little side order of something called tau miu. I've done a bit of research, and it seems to be a snow-pea leaf. Tiny, tender, a little bitter. I must ask my Hong Kong friend Amy where I can get them here. Just a little wilted pile of leaves in soy and garlic. Sublime.

We walked off lunch by heading to what we thought was going to be our... new house. Alas, in less than the time it took me to come here to blog about it, it's sold to someone else. We are in a bit of a state. We had gone so far as to see an architect, imagine where the furniture would go, plan how to stop up the fence holes so the kitties couldn't escape the garden, and... someone else bought it. If you can believe this, the current owner is the former Nanny to the Royal Family, and apparently the other buyers are Lord and Lady Something Or Other, so you can imagine how pleased the seller was to sell to some of her own, as opposed to nasty Americans like us. We are a bit heartbroken, in the way you are about something that really isn't that important, and yet it is. Where are we going to live?

Then it was off, for me, to the Event of the Day (even more thrilling than possibly buying a house). It was the Grand Opening of the Whole Foods in Kensington High Street, in the former Barkers building (a masterpiece of art deco design). Now, mind you, not everyone in London is thrilled by the event. I ran into serious opposition at school pickup from my friend Diana, who is passionate about two things: organic food, and small businesses. She was not at all keen on the idea of an enormous American supermarket, however organic it is, taking over 80,000 square feet in South Kensington. And it's true, Whole Foods did buy out a UK-owned company called Fresh & Wild in 2004 and just in the last two months closed down its enormously popular branch in Westbourne Grove. My friend Sarah, later in the day, concurred with Diana's skepticism. "They can't just put all the other organic food shops out of business," she objected. "Well, they can if they buy them out," I said reasonably. "The key word being 'buy.' After all, they didn't just close Fresh & Wild, they bought them out. Fresh & Wild didn't have to let them."

Now, is that true? Can a small outfit really resist an acquisition? When does an acquisition become a takeover, surely two different things? Yes, John explains, Fresh & Wild was a privately held company and the owners sold up. Voluntarily.

I have to think more about that. John likes to prick both Diana's and Sarah's righteous bubbles when he can, and also being the Compleat Capitalist, he feels that in the end, stores like Whole Foods are doing what Diana and Sarah would like: making buying and eating organic easier and more affordable for the masses. Well, ish. The prices while not exorbitant were not on a par with Tesco, certainly (and we all know I've racked my conscience about THAT store). It's a dilemma, this food-buying situation.

Well, in the end I thumbed my nose at all nay-saying, wet-blanket killjoys, even if some of them are my closest friends, and off I went. Mind you, Sarah had a shopping request from the evil, wicked store: an obscure Romanian honey that I was kind enough to forgive her judging me as superficial and buy for her. I am just that good a friend.

And dear readers, it was a glorious experience. I didn't get through even a third of the place and I spent over an hour there. Massive! Words cannot convey. Three storeys of nearly 30,000 square feet EACH. I had to get Sarah's honey, and tomatoes for Becky, so I headed downstairs to the groceries and produce (and everything else under the sun, can't imagine what occupies the two floors I didn't get to! Now, all sorts of editorials in London are whingeing about the probable waste involved in the perishables, since one can hardly imagine they can sell it all (although with 30 tills and everyone of them occupied at every moment perhaps they can). Whole Foods themselves say they cook the things that don't sell at the end of whatever period, and that's their prepared foods. Fair enough, I believe them. But in general I think the newspapers and other objectors are objecting to the undoubted Americanness of the entire project. It's unabashedly enormous, filled to the brim with more choices than you can ever imagine, and everyone on the staff is smiling, optimistic, very can-do. Now, as anti-American as I can sometimes be, I can't fault those qualities. I guess it is silly to imagine that one needs 47 types of mustard to choose from. It is very self-indulgent. I can see that.

But here's the flip side. Isn't it nice to give 47 different mustard-purveying concerns a chance to succeed? And while all the editorial writers are madly poking fun at the notion that cheese can need a room of its own to age in, isn't it nice that there are people in this world still caring enough to age their cheeses? I like the idea that lots of farmers are finding markets for the heirloom varieties of tomatoes that so many nay-sayers are mocking. Of course it's elitist. Not everyone can afford to get to South Kensington, pay for organic lamb and the organic rosemary to put on it. But as long as there are people who can, I can't complain about a company deciding to supply them with all these choices. Let me tell you some of the things I came away with.

Most memorable, I think, was the fillet of beef. Not any special kind, specially aged or coming from Japan or anything like that. Just nice English fillet, 27 pounds a kilo which I think is fair game, albeit a special purchase. I went all gourmet and rolled it in a mixture of Turkish Aleppo pepper (which I already had from the box of Penzeys spices I told you about once before, from my darling brother in law Joel), and some other yummy bits.

Roast Fillet of Beef With Herbs and Spices
(serves 4 hungry people easily)

1 kilo beef fillet, rolled and tied
1 tbsp each: Aleppo pepper (it's very mild but flavourful)
1 tbsp dried oregano
1 tbsp lemon pepper
1 tbsp sea salt (Maldon is and always will be the best)
lots of freshly ground black pepper
2 tbsps vegetable oil (not olive, it smokes too easily)

Rinse your fillet to make sure it can pick up the herb mixture, which you've mixed together and placed on a cookie sheet. Roll the fillet all over, helping the bits adhere if they don't go on their own, making sure the coating is even. Heat the oil in a large skillet until nearly smoking and sear the fillet all over, holding it with tongs (don't pierce it with a fork!) and turning it over till the whole thing is nicely browned. Then place in a baking dish and roast at around 350-375 degrees for about 35 minutes for rare, 45 for medium. Don't even think about cooking it any longer than that.


Absolute perfection. So tender and tasty.

Then I'm looking here at a tin of "sustainably-fished tuna fillets in organic sunflower oil," from a lovely company called Fish 4 Ever, and distributed by another lovely company called Organico Realfoods, in Reading. Now don't you think that tuna will just taste better, when you know that no sea mammals were caught in its eco-friendly "purse seiner net"? And it did taste better.

A lovely English lady in the prepared foods aisle laughed with me over the jars of "authentic smooth French mustard" we were buying, from a very English company called Stokes. Normally I do buy real French mustard, but I fell for the very austere and pretty label. Embarrassing, I know. And it made marvelous vinaigrette. Also quite remarkable for my vinaigrette was the not-expensive bottle of balsamic vinegar from Seggiano that I couldn't resist, having sampled it in the aisle with a bit of breadstick. Rich, dark, sweet and puckery, perfect.

Well, I have to come down on the side of liking Whole Foods. They consistently make Fortune Magazine's list of best companies to work for. I will go back and see the bits I didn't see, like the cafe upstairs with deck chair designs by British artists, and whatever else is up there. But chances are you'll still find me at Blandford Fruit Stores on the way home from school, where there's always a completely barking mad political discussion going on among the staff. And I won't neglect any of my farmers' markets on Sunday, and the halal butcher in Portobello Road, and if John lets me, the Fromagerie in Moxon Street for some divine Doddington cheese (pricey but lovely). And frankly, I'll never get tired of Selfridges Food Hall. Variety, it's the spice of... well, you know!

05 June, 2007

did you ever roast a duckling?

Oh, I'm just pulling your leg. The duck I roasted wasn't caught by Avery. Although she gave it the old college try. This photograph is just coincidentally about ducks. Isn't Richmond-upon-Thames lovely? Whether you end up at the theatre or not, you should go, just for the views.

Seriously, though, about ducklings and roasting. Why have I never roasted one until last night? I think that, while I have pan-sauteed many a duck breast in my time, I have always been intimidated by the thought of a whole bird. I think I've also been put off a bit by all the recipe warnings about extreme spitting. Of fat, I mean, not the duck itself (although one could hardly blame it for spitting, when one thinks of its future in my dinner table). I know some people are intimidated easily by just the idea of roasting a chicken, whereas my household would soon starve without that staple. At any rate, Sunday morning found me haunting the Marylebone Farmers' Market, as is my wont, and while the game purveyor had partridges, quail, capons and suchlike, there were no duck breasts, all sold out. There were whole ducks, however, the coveted (I later found out) Aylesbury variety, apparently snowy white and much sought-after. So I bit the bullet and snapped one up, thereby increasing the weight of my shoulder bag by nearly 4 kilos, and staggered home. What to do with it?

I ended up pricking the copious skin all over many times with a fork, and scoring several shallow cuts across both breasts, and salting and peppering him quite heavily. Then I put him in a deep roasting pan and, while I slaved away watching Avery skate, and gossiping happily with Becky as we shivered together, John put him in the oven at roughly 2 1/2 hours before we wanted to eat. And let me tell you, that duckling was a revelation. The crunchiest, crispiest, meltingly fatty skin you have ever tasted, and rich, dark, juicy meat. Even Avery, who has been known to object to duck on cuteness principles (as she used to lamb as well), succumbed and had three helpings. Mind, however, the duck was not madly meaty, so you'll need one for about every four people.

Roast Duckling
(serves four)

1 Aylesbury duckling
salt and pepper

First treat your pan with nonstick spray. Take the giblets out of the duck and lay them alongside the duck. I was surprised to find offal that is not included in your average chicken carcass: namely, a recognizable heart. Eeew. However. Salt and pepper all over, with the best quality sea salt and freshly ground pepper. Roast about 2 1/2 hours at a medium temperature, somewhere between 350-375 degrees. I turned the broiler on for the last five minutes or so, and the skin was really crispy. Let duckling sit for five minutes before carving, to let the last of the fat that will trickle out to trickle out. Lift the duckling out of the fat and onto a carving platter. The breast meat will virtually fall off the bone, and if you have a great suggestion for getting much more than a sliver off the legs, please let me know. I found the thighs to be nearly meatless.


Now, left with the lovely carcass, what was a girl to do? "Make duck stock," Avery advised. "What does one do with duck stock, pray tell?" I asked skeptically. "Look it up, I'm sure there's something," was her blithe reply. Not to be intimidated, I put the carcass in a huge stockpot, threw in a tired onion half, several even tireder celery stalks, a half a red pepper that had been neglected, and two cloves of garlic, a handful of bay leaves, and covered the lot with water. It simmered all the rest of the evening, filling the house with the scent of duck, which was not to be despised. Full of duck, mashed potatoes and asparagus as we were, we were all tormented nonetheless by the aroma. By bedtime, it was ready to be poured through a nice sieve, the bones discarded, and the pot put into the fridge overnight, so I could skim off the fat in the morning.

Better than looking up a recipe, however, I asked my mother in law, she who knows everything about food. "I would think it would make a lovely mushroom soup," came the confident advice, so that's what I did. You know me and soup. If you can simmer it in broth and puree it, I'll eat it. Almost any kind. Watercress, or even celeriac, you name it. Even sweet corn, if I have to.

Cream of Portobello Soup With Duck Broth
(serves four)

3 tbsps butter
3 cloves garlic
6 cups fresh duck stock
dash of Madeira or sweet vermouth
6 large portobello mushrooms, roughly chopped
4 tbsps creme fraiche, or sour cream, or light cream

Melt your butter in a nice heavy stockpot and saute the garlic gently. Carefully pour in the duck stock, add the liquor and the mushrooms. Simmer for about 45 minutes, remove from heat and puree with a hand blender. Whisk in the creme fraiche and voila.


It was, John and I agreed, much richer than mushroom soup made with chicken stock. A very deep flavour. I think you couldn't go wrong with a drizzle of truffle oil, but for the first time round I wanted to taste it all on its own. Lovely. Maybe I can get Avery to catch me another duck...

To ease your conscience, should you have one (or cholesterol issues, heaven forfend), here are two lovely salads to have alongside, to cut the fat. Whatever that means, it just seems intuitively true.

Cucumber Salad
(serves four)

1 large hydroponic cucumber
1/2 red onion
handful fresh dill, chopped slightly
3 tbsps sour cream (or creme fraiche or yogurt if you're dieting)
juice of 1 lemon
sea salt and pepper

Slice the cucumber lengthwise and, using a small spoon, drag all the seeds out. Slice thin and place in a medium bowl. Slice the onion very thin indeed and add to cucumbers. Place the dill, sour cream lemon juice and salt and pepper in a small jar with a lid and shake until blended. Toss the cucumbers and onions thoroughly in the dressing and bring, ideally, to room temperature.


Tomato and Avocado Salad
(serves four)

2 cups of the most varieties of small tomatoes you can find
1 large ripe avocado
1 medium-hot red chilli
1/3 cup chilli-infused olive oil
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
1 tsp Dijon mustard
1/2 tsp oregano leaves
salt and pepper

Quarter the tomatoes and prepare the avocado (halved, pit removed, diced large). Place all the other ingredients in a jar with a lid, shake well until emulsified, and pour over tomatoes and avocado.


John and I often have one or both of these salads for lunch. With a nice wholemeal pita bread, toasted, to soak up the dressings, they're lovely.

Well, later on I'll tell you about my "Creative Non-Fiction" class yesterday. I'm really inspired to write something now, and John says, "Something besides the blog!" I think he's jealous of you...

02 June, 2007

it's all about alkaline, did you know?

Say you're a person with a sometimes iffy, not to say dodgy digestion. I have myself a little history with digestive things run amok, a condition that first visited me when I owned an art gallery in New York City. For a time, the technical term for my condition was "Galleryitis." It went briefly underground when I closed the gallery and gave up on my illustrious career as an entrepreneur. Ha!

My delicate stomach returned to bite me, however, when last summer the craziness of the move to London caught up with me. And then I recovered nicely. But it's definitely a thing that comes and goes, and I spend a lot of money on little tablets called Rennie, which get me by from day to day as I rebelliously eat everything under the sun instead of "white foods" which are meant to be less challenging. "White foods"? Mashed potatoes, perhaps, yes. Lemon sole, definitely. But all the time? I don't think so.

But then it was suggested to me that the solution to all my problems was to adjust the PH balance in my diet. As in, ingest far less acid and far more alkaline. That made sense, a bit. What doesn't make sense, entirely, is figuring out what's what. I have been doing a bit of research on this, and sadly, some of the obvious ones are true: orange juice is a big, enormous no-no. And considering that I get fully 25% of my calories per day on a huge glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice every morning, that's not a welcome fact. But get this: lemon juice is alkaline. Who would have guessed it? I've replaced my orange juice with something rather less racy but still nice called "lemon water," which is a lot of lemon juice squeezed into a glass and then it's filled with water. Tepid water, mind you, because cold things shock the digestion. So they say. This notion coincides nicely with the stubborn British refusal to provide adequate quantities of ice in drinks (it's the only flaw in anything British, as far as I can see, and perhaps grew out of wartime rationing, that's what I'm going to think).

So I have come up with some lists of things to eat to compensate for the things that are bad. You cannot imagine the number of websites devoted to this issue, and some very very interesting indeed. Guess what? Scotch and vodka are the virtual kiss of death. Maybe not even virtual. So to make up for my cocktail, I must have... a cucumber. Why not? Maybe that's why Nobu serves a vodka martini with cucumber slices floating in it.

I am pleased to see that I am encouraged to avoid winter squash, but dismayed to see that all dairy and all meat are bad, bad, bad. For protein I can have an... almond. Or tempeh. What's that? I have no idea, but I must make a mental note that it should be the fermented variety, should I come across any.

I'm not going to go crazy on this, believe me. But I have had several very stomach-happy days in a row by giving up (sob) my OJ and substituting lemon water. Fair enough. But then I think, I really want some Moroccan meatballs. Hence, the glorious profusion of alkalising vegetables to have on the side. I adore kohlrabi and so does John, so why not dip some in hummous before dinner? Oh, bl**dy h***, chick peas and olive oil are acidising. Well, then, just plain kohlrabi. And some new variety "stripey beets" sound good, with a little drizzle of balsamic vinegar. Don't even tell me. Yep, ingesting vinegar is like ripping out your entire digestive system and putting it under a broiler. Well, plain beets, then.

Enough of this nonsense. What else is going on? We're beginning to make our Connecticut plans for the summer, which is exciting. I can hardly remember a year ago when we really didn't feel as if life could be lived in two places at once, but we proved that you can go home again, and then you can... go home again! It is wonderful have to have school year in London and then return to cosy little Red Gate Farm in July and know that the lambs and goats and neighbors and dart board and pond and chicken house are all still there.

Then, too, we're trying to get more exercise, so today we walked from Marble Arch to Notting Hill, to look at "our" house. Yes, we may have found a place to live, after all these long months of searching. It's just this side of affordable, which means it's frighteningly expensive. But it's on a rather sad, tired block of houses that seem to call out after one, "Take care of me, please..." The bulk of the houses are still flats, but there are a few who've taken the plunge and returned to single-family use. "Ours" doesn't seem ever to have been flats, but then, too, it has been virtually ignored by the family for perhaps 60 years, so it's full of lovely period details, and also not so lovely period decline. But it would be our chance to restore a piece of history, I feel, and yet not completely break the bank. Watch this space. This week will be crucial in the Handling My Husband area. I have to judge very precisely how excited to get: if I get too rambunctious, he will feel he needs to throw a bit of cold water on me. If I'm too dismissive, he'll take it as license to keep on house-hunting FOREVER. So I have to alternate between cautious optimism and skeptical pessimism. It's a tightrope, but I haven't been married for nearly 20 years for nothing. I can do this.

Oh, and I tested another recipe for my re-issue of the 1940s Gladys Taber cookbook project. I am going to give it to you here, not because it is gourmet food, but because it epitomises what Gladys was all about: simplicity, economy and ready availability. There are some things I'd change. For example, I'd chop the pepper instead of slicing it. And I did add some grated cheddar cheese between the beef layers, and on the top, and I'd add more. But it reminds me of something my mother might have made (under duress as with all food preparation; she'd much rather be refinishing a Hoosier cupboard, or embroidering a sampler, or indeed sticking hot needles in her eyeballs if it comes to that). It's named Stillmeadow after Gladys's house, across the road from our very own in Connecticut. I've retained her minimalistic recipe style, with a couple of additions in brackets from me. Give it a try, why not?

Stillmeadow Special Hamburger
(serves four generously)

Take ground beef or hamburger [about a pound and a half] and pat half of it into a round cake tin. Spread it well with prepared mustard, salt and pepper, and lay thin slices of onion over it. Then lay slices of tomato over that, and slices of sweet green pepper. Put another layer of meat on top for a lid, with a slice of tomato on the top.

Bake in a moderate oven (350 degrees) until the meat is thoroughly done [45 minutes]. This is an easy and wonderfully good dish. The onion and tomato cook into the meat and the juice that comes out is rich and brown. Be sure to use a deep cake pan.

01 June, 2007

an orgy of entertainment, British style

Now you all know of my quest to enjoy (or at least experience) all things British while living here. To fulfil this quest we have, for example, not subscribed to any cable telly channels, which limits us to only British things like the BBC (nothing to complain about there). And I've set up a whole host of Google alerts to let me know when things and people I care about are happening and doing things, and it was by this method that we found ourselves, last evening, spending a glorious time doing something truly... British. As in, seeing a play by Alan Bennett. Last year we so enjoyed the film of "The History Boys" that I knew we'd like the play "Office Suite," even the more so because it starred... My Crush Edward Petherbridge. All right, all right, also the two ladies pictured above, Patricia Routledge (who we used to love even back in New York in "Keeping Up Appearances, don't you love that programme?), and Janet Dale, certainly not to be sneered at. But so not Crush Material.

It was lovely. Firstly we dashed around getting Avery to skating in the morning and riding in the afternoon, dashed home to do all our household chores and pine over Keechie, who seems to be backsliding into anxiety again (grr), and then dash to get her at the stable and drive to Richmond-Upon-Thames. What a perfect name. It is, you know, upon the Thames, and I know this because I ate upon it. The Thames, I mean. We walked down to the river and looked in vain for a fabulous restaurant (would it have killed me to look up restaurants instead of blogging about meatballs? apparently so). Avery kept walking us past the H2O Restaurant, worryingly perched atop a... boat, but finally we succumbed. The waitress said, "Convinced you, has she?" and we proceeded to have a most pleasant, if not mind-bendingly interesting, dinner, with the most splendid views you can imagine. Stuffed mushrooms, Caesar salad, margherita pizza, and my grilled salmon which was quite delicious. And just a great touristy experience.

Off from there to the Richmond Theatre, where to judge by the wine-sipping crowds outside, we would be the youngest (and for Avery by six decades) youngest people there. The play was lovely. There were several English references that we didn't understand, and which I'll have to ask someone about, but all the performances were spot on, touching and funny and very, very dated to the 1970s, pre-Thatcher-era Britain. I'd advise you to go see it, but it left Richmond today and went I know not where. I cannot honestly imagine why Avery enjoyed it, seeing as how it was about retirement aged British office workers in an era she can't even have read about, but there you have it. She said, "I enjoyed the triviality of it," so fair enough. It was all about trivia, and yet with an undercurrent of emotion about loss of youth, loss of security, that was very sweet. And there were some very funny Malapropisms, like "I wouldn't want to be casting nasturtiums," which Avery loved. Altogether an experience that I cannot imagine having understood two years ago. I am fairly certain we were the only Americans there, which is always a good sign as far as doing British things goes.

Home super late in top-down Mini Cooper, and today we... picnicked in Hyde Park. A couple of evenings ago we walked all the way down to the rose gardens near the Mile where Avery rides (as she always reminds us when we see it), and there found an enormous tree under which you can walk! And stand, and feed squirrels, and carve your initials into the trunk (although we refrained). If anyone reading this can tell me about the history of this tree, please do! I haven't found anything online about it. So we took Avery's friend Jamie and a whole enormous picnic basket and had lunch. Oh, the sandwiches: duck pate, smoked salmon, salami, and my personal favorite, homemade chicken salad. I don't know what you'd call it here, as normally the designation "chicken salad" would get you... chicken and salad, as in lettuce. No, what I mean is what you make when you've had the ultimately budget-friendly two days of eating. Let me explain.

Chicken on a Budget, Three Ways, Three Days
(serves about the same number as the loaves and fishes)

DAY ONE: you buy a large roasting chicken and cut it up. Leave the entire breast intact, on the bone. But take away the legs, thighs and all, and the backbone, and the wings. Place all these bits in a stockpot, add a couple of carrots, a parsnip, an onion and some celery, with LOTS of salt and bay leaves, and cover with water. Simmer this all afternoon, but remove the thigh and drumstick meat after about an hour, and set aside in the fridge. Leave the rest of the stock to cool overnight, skim off the fat, strain it into another saucepan and make darling matzoh balls to plop on top. A little dill, and the sliced thigh and drumstick bits you saved... dinner number 1. Practically free.

DAY TWO: Remember that breast you saved? Right. Place it on top of a giant stem of rosemary in a nice glass cooking dish. Smear butter over all of it and sprinkle with oregano, salt, pepper and roast at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. Some steamed rice and a bunch of sauteed asparagus... dinner #2. Still practically free. Save the leftovers.

DAY THREE: Leftover chicken breast in the Cuisinart with a good teaspoon dried oregano, the juice of a lemon, salt and pepper. Whiz till nicely chopped, then mix in a tablespoon or two of mayo, and bob's your uncle. Lunch, sorted. On nice wholemeal bread with butter. And still, practically free.


Then, we are addicted to a programme, sadly now in archives and available only on DVD, "The Vicar of Dibley." We have long been huge fans of Dawn French (I especially loved her in last year's Marple, "Sleeping Murder"), but she is at her absolute best in this series, set in an Oxfordshire village, where she comes to take the townspeople by storm as their first female vicar. The guest stars are lovely, and you can watch it with a ten-year-old, thank goodness.

Listen, Jamie and Avery are calming down for their sleepover, and I must get Avery's things ready for her last riding day with her beloved trainers Alexa and Karin, who are leaving to pursue "other opportunities," sadly. What will we do without those shouting sessions from Alexa? Why, oh why do things have to change... Alexa told a hilarious story last week at the barn. "I lost Zola in the park today," she said airily, gesturing toward the enormously stout yellow lab trotting at her side. "She got off her lead and was away. I went back to the barn and the phone rang and it was the bl**dy police, telling me to come and collect her. When I got there, she was lying flat on the floor, eating a biscuit. 'Come away,' I said, 'that's how she got lost in the first place, following some bl**dy fool with a biscuit!'" Alexa's promised me her nan's recipe for Polish Chicken Soup (which sounds suspiciously like my own chicken soup with matzoh balls from Alyssa), so I'll make it the Memorial Alexa Post when I get it.