11 October, 2007

lots of culture (and some cooking too)



















Let's see, what have I been up to this week? Well, first thing that comes to mind was last night's first singing rehearsal for (we've got to find a name for ourselves) The Form VI Mothers Choir Ensemble! Yes, we really did it; after getting all excited at the school's birthday celebration, singing together and really enjoying it, one of the mothers actually booked us time with the school music mistress and five of us turned up last night to warble away. "Jesus Christ, the Apple Tree" (who knew he was one), "Early One Morning," "Scarborough Fair," you name it. I was not too shy to say right out that I'm no soprano, so I was in my familiar alto territory, and it was such an unexpected joy to discover that my (mostly childhood) musical skills came back to me! There were sudden surprising moments of clarity like realising that I "remembered" how it felt to have my voice go up two notes, so that the visual sign from an "e" to a "g" was a perfectly useful signal to me. And I hadn't forgotten how to read music, or to follow a part. And from some foggy memory came the absolute certainty that the key we were singing in would include an F sharp: and it did! The older I get the more I regret losing skills (although to be hopping around turning backflips at my age would be more than a little gruesome), so finding that all those years spent learning musical systems and skills were not lost after all, just buried under layers of picture book plots, recipes and the finer points of school volunteering.

Here's something to think about: when was the last time you DID something, just for yourself? And by "do" I don't mean see a movie, which is just watching someone else do something, or have dinner out, which is just eating, only more special than at home. No, I mean DO something, to express yourself and get out of the everyday mindset when you can multitask and walk and talk at the same time and look after other people? Because when you're not a very accomplished singer, and you're reading the music and listening to the other voices and paying attention to the accompanist, you can't do anything else at the same time. Or think of anything else. And to hear lovely sounds come from all our separate beings and make something lovely together: it was very satisfying. I think you should all find something similar to do, just one hour out of every couple of weeks. Why not?

We had a great time, and the lovely little teacher had a good time too. "This is my first time teaching an adult choir, and teaching people I can meet on eye level. You learn much faster, as well!" A real joy. I keep threatening Avery that we're going to buy enormous versions of the school uniform and perform at the Harvest Festival, but that's just a threat. Still, it could happen.

It was a very fulfilling end to an already full day: lunch with Dalia at Sagar, a superb vegetarian restaurant in Hammersmith. It's a definite keeper, so go on, get yourself there and order some rasa vada, an amazing dish of light-as-a-feather lentil doughnuts, with a hole in the middle and everything, swimming in a fragrant, spicy bath of something called rasam, a tomatoey broth with very complex peppery flavors. So exotic! So delicious. Then vegetable kootu, a liquidy curry with a strange but good sort of Indian marrow, carrots, beans and coconut. Divine! Next time I will definitely go for the garlic rice, which is described as being made with fresh garlic, cumin seeds and dried red chilli, served with raitha, that delicious and simple cucumber-yogurt delicacy. We had to roll ourselves to our writing class, whereupon it transpired that the tutor was giving us a miss. Just dumped us in favor of, apparently, a plumbing disaster, but how she could not have know this until five minutes after class was meant to begin, we could not fathom. A major irritant, and one I remember from this same tutor last spring.

We took a vote and five of us decided to stay and read our pieces to each other, I among them. Dalia took herself off to accomplish something, and truly it was a pain, to have arranged to get all the way to Hammersmith and have the class cancelled. But in the end, the five of us decided that it was much the nicest way to have a class! We all listened in turn to each other's pieces, and then made the usual sorts of comments, some supportive, some critical, some merely curious. Since we're writing autobiographical essays, everyone does want MORE at the end! Did you really spend summers in your grandmother's garden in Baghdad? No, you really lived in Germany with a host family who spoke no English? And Keith, seriously, a real live stage manager at the Royal Ballet in Covent Garden? Not to mention the lady who joined a bowls team after retirement and even bought the uniform! It turns out that everyone, absolutely everyone, has something interesting to write about. I felt rather bland with my story, but it turned out that possessing the dress that your mother wore for her engagement photo in a small town in Indiana is very interesting to English people, for its very foreignness. It was a wonderful afternoon, no less so for missing an alleged expert, because all of us seemed perfectly adequate to the task of listening critically and responding.

Home in a rush to find my sheet music for singing, and then a quick dash with John to watch Avery ride. It was a superbly autumnal afternoon, the trees beginning to turn and fall in the park. I must confess: why do tourists take pictures of our children on horseback? Not that I mind, particularly, but why? I know why I have hundreds of pictures of a small girl on horseback, but someone else's child? No thanks. And we reached something, later in the evening, of a behavior/attitude milestone. Now, I'm the first to say that Avery has a hard few months ahead of her, preparing for these exams, not getting the top mark in the class, not winning an election or two. And of course it's frustrating if she doesn't get to ride the exact pony she wants and gets put on scary Archie who flinches at a passing tissue left on the ground.

But I finally put my foot down last night and said, "You cannot hold our entire family hostage to your negativity. Of course school is hard, and there are disappointments, but we all have them. Please take a moment to think and reflect on how incredibly lucky you are to be where you are, and healthy, and with an awful lot to be happy about, and just... be positive. Of course you'll have negative thoughts, but don't let them overwhelm you." For a moment I thought she was either going to cry, or hurl her pencil at me, but wonder of wonders, the rest of the evening was MUCH nicer. Now I've probably caused her years of expensive psychotherapy, but you know what? By then she'll be out of the house. Call me selfish, but I just couldn't take the moaning another minute.

And we had a fabulous evening cooking together, for the first time! It has occurred to me many times that my practically-perfect mother's Extreme Dislike of Cooking has played no small part in my own love of it. Strictly speaking, my early experiences with cooking would fall under the category of self-defense, because a person who hates cooking cannot produce routinely delicious food that makes you sit up and take notice. So I had to learn. But lately I've been worrying that my loving to cook, and always being in charge of the kitchen, could produce a child who cannot open a box of cereal. What I discovered were several things: a child loves to cook! And it's MUCH slower to cook with her than to get on with it myself. But she followed directions perfectly, and was tremendously proud of the result. And I learned not to call the salmon "him," as in "make sure you cover him completely with the sauce," because in Avery's world, then she begins thinking of him swimming along with his friends and she doesn't want to eat him. I mean It.

Avery's Baked Salmon with Brandy and Creme Fraiche
(serves four)


1 pound salmon fillet
3 tbsps butter
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 shallots, minced
1/3 cup brandy
1/2 cup creme fraiche
1/2 cup light cream
squeeze of lemon juice
dried thyme (enough to fit in the hollow of your palm if you cup your hand, is a good measuring tool for a little girl)
sweet paprika, same amount
salt and pepper to taste

In a heavy skillet, melt the butter and saute garlic and shallots till soft. Now pour in the brandy, taking time to explain "deglazing" to your child. Then whisk in the creme fraiche, creme, lemon juice and herbs. Taste and season.

Place your salmon in a glass nonstick-sprayed dish and pour the sauce over him, I mean it. Bake at 425 for 25 minutes. Glorious.

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And to finish, a completely simple apple cake, from my Gladys Taber cookbook (so it counts as research for my editing project). Perfectly spicy and autumnal, and I can almost guarantee you you'll have everything you need without shopping. I'm going to write out this recipe in Gladys's own style, although I've made a few changes (more spice).

Spicy apple cake
(perfect for after dinner, and warmed up for breakfast)


Sift and then measure 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour, add 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder and set aside.

Cream 1/4 cup butter, 1/2 cup sugar, 1 tsp vanilla and 1 egg. Beat light and fluffy. Measure 1/2 cup milk. Add alternately to the creamed mixture with about 1/2 cup flour at a time. Stir smooth with each addition. Stir in 3 apples, peeled and coarsely chopped. Pour into well greased shallow pan [I used a springform and it was perfect]. Arrange 2 more apples, nicely sliced, on the top of the batter and sprinkle with 1/2 cup brown sugar, a mixture of cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves [to your taste], and 3 tbsps melted butter. Bake at 350 degrees for 25-30 minutes and serve warm.

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Now the suggestion to have part of the apples in, and part of them on, was Avery's and a very fine one it was. I think I have a budding cook on my hands. Tomorrow is Moroccan meatballs, which should be nice and messy and fun.

Well, we're about to run off and try a new restaurant since Avery's occupied at a sleepover. Her skating lesson today with her beloved friend Jamie was a non-event because guess what one of teenage Londoners' favorites to do to celebrate the end of Ramadan is? Yep, ice skating. I've never seen so many wacky boys and girls in my life, and they all had sharp blades attached to their extremities, so it was but the decision of a moment for Jamie's mother and me to confer with the teacher and decide that we didn't want to add our children to the list of those who had already been taken away by ambulance. So the two girls have gone off for an evening of blissful play. And so can we...

1 comment:

Wiola said...

Hey! Just a line to say that when I moved to London and started working as a riding Instructor (horses) I also wondered where on earth a name 'gymkhana' came from...;) It was interesting to read about it on one of your older posts.

All the best with your cook book:)
Wiola