31 March, 2007

of Surrey, scallops and Scotch


















We've been in rather a whirlwind lately, I must say. Thursday evening found us sans Avery as she celebrated Anna's birthday with a sleepover, so we immediately made plans with Twiggy and Ed to go out for dinner. They were keen for us to try their local (ha! one should be so lucky) Italian place, so we bundled into the car and headed to Bermondsey to try out Tentazione Restaurant. And oh, my it was delicious. First of all, I have to admit to a weakness for Twiggy in any case, with her doll-like proportions and bright black eyes, her total devotion to Ed, and her unexpected little temper spurts. Not that I've ever seen any, but she always has impressive stories of her encounters with repairmen, bus drivers, mean salespeople and anyone else who does not behave with the grace that Twiggy expects of life. The idea of such a small, elegant and delicate person have a temper explosion under any circumstances is outlandish, but she insists. It's nice to be with newlyweds who are still living in the blush of novelty. They really are a lot of fun. And the meltingly perfect little cheese puff pastry tart, the sauteed duck's foie gras with celeriac and porcini mushrooms, the fritto misto (I don't even normally love calamari, but it was terrifically light, and I discovered I love fried scallops), all very good. A lovely evening.

Then the momentous day of Avery's Pony Camp arrived on Friday, and we made our way (arguing all the way to the Putney Bridge about the best way to get there; nothing like a bad map or two to cause marital strife in my household), finally tooling successfully down the Portsmouth Road, arriving in the little village of Ripley where we found some gorgeous silver plate forks at a darling antique shop, and bought a big trug of yellow daffodils for Mrs Nye as a thank-you. Onward in the rather dismal spitting rain to Longfrey Farm where, as we approached the house, I was embarrassed to see THOUSANDS of yellow daffodils actually growing in the lawn. Ah well, coals to Newcastle, and Mrs Nye couldn't have been more gracious. "Oh, lovely. I never seem willing to pick daffodils until they've been blown over in a storm, so these are perfect." Now that's good manners. How To Accept A Completely Unnecessary Gift With Grace 101.

The place is beautiful, a series of redbrick attached houses with peaked gabled roofs, all cobbled together to make one house, climbing rather erratically up and down a sloping hill, surrounded by twittering birds and, in the distance, swans! And all the horses from the stable, dotting the landscape and looking strange without saddles. Dogs spilled out everywhere, cats climbed on the backs of furniture, Mr and Mrs Nye made cups of tea and offered shortbread. He is the most charismatic 80-year-old man I have ever met (and I have a real weakness for approaching-elderly gentlemen, as you know), completely at ease with himself, wearing layers of faded and tattered tattersall shirts, threadbare cardigans, worn denim jacket and topped with an ancient Barbour waxed cotton coat. Blue, blue eyes twinkling under a pure white version of the Hugh Grant-style English schoolboy forelock, a rough hand reaching out to Avery: "Now, my dear, I hope you know the barn handshake," and she did! The kitchen sink, where Mrs Nye was peeling carrots, looks through a picture window onto a walled garden with a series of birdfeeders, and much birdsong. "Shoo, sparrowhawk!" Mrs Nye called severely. "Find baby birds to eat in someone else's garden. Where are those cats?"

Avery and I took her clobber up to the bedroom she was going to share with Alexa, since the weather made it too damp to sleep in the Mongolian yurts we saw looming behind the house. But probably by now, since it's cleared beautifully, they've had their outdoor sleeping adventure. She unpacked, while Alexa opened her birthday presents and discussed who else would be arriving, and when. Avery had expressed some nervousness in the morning, but here in the actual place, she seemed perfectly at ease. Finally we took our leave, and while she did walk us to the door with Mr Nye, she didn't seem at all worried about her stay, so I kissed her quickly and left, feeling like I'd lost my handbag.

It didn't take long to feel not only completely reassured that she would have a marvelous time, but also rather gleeful to be on our own! While we've had the occasional day and night to ourselves since she was born, I've only ever spent one night without her, and we've never had three days in a row just as a couple. I must say, there is a lot to recommend a little break on one's own. Loyal readers of this blog will know how ridiculously devoted I am to that child, but it has been heavenly to be just the two of us. I think three days is just about right.

We repaired to the rather larger than I expected town of Guildford, where I had booked us a night at the Angel Posting House and Livery, parts of which date to the 15th century, and there is a 13th century crypt underneath. Amazing. It is a very elegant, classic but quirky hotel right in the center of the High Street; we're fearing a bit for the hotel's future because it was very, very quiet there. We settled in, had a lovely cocktail while we each caught up on duelling mobile phones with our respective fathers. It's shameful how often I catch up with my mother, because she tends to answer the phone, but don't get a chance to chat with my father, who was full of excellently entertaining stories about his life as a forensic psychologist, but the details of those stories I cannot divulge here for reasons of privacy. I guess. Something tells me the 400-pound serial killer he's been interviewing probably doesn't read this blog, but one never knows.

A perfectly acceptable French-ish dinner of crawfish and rack of lamb at a rather chainy place called Cafe de Paris, at the end of which we had quite an adventure getting the bill. John kept trying to make eye contact with any of the four or five people who had brought us various things to eat and drink, but no one seemed willing to notice. Finally he grabbed the attention of a young man about to go through the swinging doors behind our table. "Could we have the check, please?" "Possibly," the man said, laughing, "But I don't work here. I was just on my way to the loo." "Oh, my god," John said, blushing, "it's not like you LOOK like you work here, I was just..." "Flirting?" the young man suggested. "I met your eye only because I felt sorry for you, having a table by the loo." Too funny. When he went back to his table, he murmured something to the girl across from him and they both completely exploded laughing. Finally we paid, and on the way out, John leaned over to the guy and said, "Excellent service. We'll be back."

A quick visit to the Castle on our way out of town left us annoyed that such a gorgeous ruin has been, well, un-ruined. We have had so many wonderful visits to really ruined castles in the hills of Scotland, armed only with our copy of "Castles and Strongholds of Scotland" and a picnic, that we could hardly bear to see the new plaster walls, grilles over the windows, constant health-and-safety signs warning you about all the ways you could die during your visit and other annoying indications of modern life. The gardens are painfully formal, but still quite lovely in the early spring day. Home with the top down!

I spent the afternoon food shopping (oh, the glorious Ginger Pig butcher! be still my heart) for what I planned to be a "Masterchef" quality no-child meal. It was my sincere ambition to cook something really restaurant-quality, really beautifully presented, and using only ingredients that Avery doesn't like. And I think I succeeded! For the first time in living memory, I was actually nervous as I prepared dinner. But here were the results. Thank you, Vincent, for the scallops recipe. I hope you don't mind I added lime juice...

Scallops with Single-Malt Scotch and Creme Fraiche with Celeriac-Potato Mash
(serves 4)

16 King Scallops (the biggest you can get, roe on or off as you like)
4 tbsps unsalted butter
1 cup creme fraiche (or a mix of single and soured creams)
two shots good single malt scotch
juice of a quarter lime
salt, pepper
crusty toasted bread

In a heavy skillet, melt the butter and simmer until it begins to brown, then lay the scallops in, clockwise so you remember which went in first. Cook until the edges begin to brown on the underside, and then turn the scallops over in the order in which you laid them in the skillet. Expect major splattering of butter. When the second side browns nicely, remove the scallops (again, in the proper order) to a waiting plate. This whole process should take about 4 minutes. Do not overcook.

Put your baguette or whatever bread in the oven to toast, and turn back to the skillet. Lower the heat to medium and add the creme fraiche or creams. Simmer until the mixture is thick and coats the back of a spoon. Add the scotch and cook down until no more smell of alcohol rises from the skillet. Taste and add lime juice, then salt and pepper until perfect. Remove the toasted bread from the oven and butter one side. Return the scallops to the skillet and toss in the sauce for a minute. Plate up with sauce on the bottom, a nice helping of celeriac-potato mash, top with scallops and serve with sauteed asparagus.


Celeriac and Charlotte Potato Mash
(serves 4 with scallops)

1/2 large head of celeriac, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
6 medium Charlotte potatoes, peeled
6 tbsps unsalted butter
1/2 cup single cream
salt and pepper

Place celeriac and potatoes in salted water and bring to the boil. Boil for at least 30 minutes of until all are soft to the touch of a fork. Push through a ricer and mash with butter and cream, then salt and pepper to taste.

************

Do you know why you should buy unsalted butter? Because the salted varieties are able to get away with lesser quality cream, since the salt masks the flavour. Always buy unsalted, and then salt the finished dish yourself. But I digress.

It was delicious! And very pretty, although simply piling up the asparagus wasn't very special. I suppose I could have tried making them into a little teepee? Tortured, no, you're right. Then to follow we had something that in reality should have come first, but I could not think how I could eat the first course and then jump up from the table and produce the scallops, which really have to be cooked right then. So we reversed the courses. But both were sublime.

Carpaccio with Shaved Pecorino, Rocket and Chilli Oil Dressing
(serves 4 as a light starter)

1/2 lb fillet of beef, trimmed of all fat and sinews
3 handfuls fresh rocket, soaked in ice water and spun dry
16 shavings of strong aged pecorino or parmesan

About an hour and a half before you want to eat, place the beef in the freezer. This will solidify it sufficiently to make it shave-able, but you'll have to work fast. The warmer your hands make the beef, the more difficult it becomes to slice extremely thin.

Wash and spin the rocket and mound on each plate, in the center. Slice the beef paper thin with a very sharp knife, and arrange the slices around the rocket. Pile the shaved cheese on top of the rocket, and drizzle generously with:

All-purpose Spicy Chilli Dressing

3 parts chilli-infused olive oil
1 part aged balsamic vinegar
1 part lemon or lime juice
1/2 tsp dried oregano
1 clove garlic, finely minced
generous pinches of salt and freshly-ground pepper

The chilli oil you want is by Danilo Manco, and you can get it, as I did, at the little Saturday market at the top of the Marylebone High Street, or you can order it like this. Try the truffle oil, too. I'm going to make a risotto this week and drizzle some on top.

Place all ingredients in a sealable jar and shake until emulsified. Shake again just before serving. This dressing is extremely versatile and is perfect with carpaccio, pan-seared duck salad, simple watercress and lamb's lettuce, a little avocado-tomato salad, anything. Try it on a really good tinned tuna, tossed with chickpeas and minced red onion, topped with lemon zest. Yum yum.

************

So there you have it. It was very satisfying to make something new, something a little daring, something I'd loved in restaurants and had fun recreating at home. And served with candlelight and a little white wine to just one other person. A very nice evening.

But something tells me we'll be ready to get Avery back tomorrow...

28 March, 2007

chasing your devils



















We all have them, don't we? Family troubles too far away to help, can't-find-a-house troubles, no-job troubles, whatever they may be, we have devils. My devils follow me around during days when on the surface all is well: nobody I love in jail or in the hospital, which my Scandinavian father only somewhat jokingly claims are his criteria for a good day. Avery's thriving in school, at least we have a nice flat to live in while we search for the right house, and my unemployed husband seems perfectly happy with his state. But rumbling under the surface are my devils. So what is a girl to do?

Well, I have a number of tried and true methods (I have to confess that today my new method is writing them all down, since actually using the other methods hasn't helped yet). First, I take a picture of Avery at her riding lesson to remind myself that it is a cosy and good place for her to be. Just look at these faces. One would never dream, looking at Alexa in this mood, that she actually spends most of her time screaming at the little angels to correct some (to me) incomprehensible travesty of equestrianism that they have perpetrated at that moment. Here she looks quite jolly! She'll be supervising Avery's Pony Camp in Surrey this weekend, and I quizzed her mercilessly yesterday about safety standards (yes, that has been added to my list of devils: one's child at the mercy of instructors and ponies 60 miles away in the English countryside. I have to remind myself that the one time Avery had a serious fall at Ross Nye Stables, far from being vigilant as I always intend, I had my nose buried in People magazine and didn't even see what happened. A fat lot of help I would be on the scene in Surrey, for sure.)

So OK, we've tried appreciating our child's mentor. Black mood prevails. How about an undeserved extravagant dinner out with friends? Now, dear readers, you know how I love to cook. I have even been known to count cooking dinner as one of my devil-chasing methods. But sometimes, after weeks and weeks on end of loading the dishwasher every single night with the used dishes of one's labours, it's time for a night off. So my pal Amy and I met up at... wait for it... Nobu. Wild, rank extravagance, since the prices are fully double the already-outrageous New York costs. But every once in awhile? Yes. I arrived somewhat early for our reservations, and sat nursing a Matsuhisu martini, so delicious with its undertones of sake, and floating tiny cucumber slices. Amy appeared and opted for a Cosmopolitan, which are prettier than martinis, but too sweet for me. The snobby bald waitress in black did her best to ruin our fun, but we were having none of it. "Are you ready to order, ladies?" she purred, committing one of the few wait-staff sins I notice: if I am still holding my menu open and my eyes are still glued to the delicacies on offer in print, I'm NOT READY to order. She began circling us like a shark, and then finally said in exasperation, "You know that this booking has an end time." End time? What's that? "When you booked, you got the table just for a certain period of time; they should have told you at reception." "Well, they didn't, so perhaps you could tell us what the 'certain period of time' is?" I asked patiently. "You must vacate the table at 8:30," she said with satisfaction, since we had faffed our way to seven o'clock already. "She thinks we will," Amy said, and when it comes to Amy getting her way versus a mean waitress getting her way, my money's on Amy.

Did we ever eat. I shall detail the dishes for you so you know how much I appreciated my treat: yellowtail with jalapeno and cilantro in a ponzu sauce, soft shell crab roll, spicy tuna roll, wagyu beef in some spicy sauce I couldn't break down (and I forgot to ask for a menu as I left) with a sate-like dip on the side, and pickled ginger. Then lobster ceviche on little curls of butter lettuce, DIVINE. Then large prawns in a spicy sour sauce, THEN rock shrimp tempura with a creamy spicy sauce, with lots of tiny chive snippings on top. So rich and delicious. Finally just when we were about to admit defeat, along came a slab of sea bass in a sticky marinade, a bit overgrilled on top but luscious enough to make us try to make our way through it. Then unaccountably, at the dot of 8:30, the waitress asked if we wanted coffee. Mixed messages! Every parent knows that mixed messages are the kiss of death for disciplining your dependent. She saw the error of her ways, but it was too late. Everyone ordered tea, and when she said, "Can I bring you the cheque?" I said, "Certainly," and as she departed Amy said, "We just won't give it back, but yes, you can bring it."

Ah well, it was a lovely evening of friend chatter. I just don't know what one would do without girlfriends. And guess who was there? Kyle MacLachlan, once one of my absolute favorite crush actors, although I haven't seen him lately because I refuse on principle to watch "Desperate Housewives."

But the gloomy thoughts were back this morning, so I tried another old favorite: good English television drama. This time we were onto "The State Within," a BBC programme quite mind-bendingly complex, so that we have to pause it every so often to ask each other, "What just happened there? Was that the senator who is bribing the chemical plant CEO..." We interrupted it so I could go fetch Avery and Anna from school, and I have to admit, a ride top-down in a Mini Cooper is a pretty good way to chase the blues, especially with two girls chattering in the back about coming up with 75 words to describe the achievements of the Earl of Sandwich.

Well, Avery's asked for chicken in her favorite sauce, featuring paprika, sour cream and mushrooms (I know, I can't explain it either, but hey, it works for me too). I will take refuge with my chopping board, problems that can be easily solved in under an hour (like mincing garlic and keeping a sauce from curdling), and if it turns out well, I'll post the recipe. Then I'll count my blessings, and the dark devils will be banished for another day.

26 March, 2007

cooking from a legend


















It's proving daunting.

I'm really trying hard these days to plow through the hundreds and hundreds of Gladys Taber recipes, to choose the absolute best in all the myriad categories, to test, update possibly, and surround with some meaningful verbiage. She cooked so much! And I have to say, as I've said before, that many of the recipes are dated to the point of being fun to read, as perhaps fiction, but not something you would ever want to cook. The dire words "dried" and "chipped" often appear in a single sentence, sometimes followed even more depressingly by "beef." And the things that appeared in tins in the 1940s, to follow the unsuspecting cook home from the supermarket and take up residence on her pantry shelves, there to sit menacingly until used in some way on her innocent family. Canned sausages! Canned oysters! The things she thought to grind up, mix with gelatine and sour cream, and bake into one sort of "loaf" or another. Everything designed for minimum cost and maximum fillingness. And ways to use leftovers that nearly always involve a can of cream of mushroom soup. Plus turkey with spaghetti! What? And I adore any recipe that includes the word "mock."

And some of the reading is enjoyable purely on a vocabulary level. It took me a moment to realize that "edible-podded peas" were not something from Star Trek, but rather what was called in my childhood "peapods" (appearing only at the Hong Kong Chinese restaurant, never at home), and are now called "snowpeas" in America and "mange tout" in England.

What really shines through the writing, underneath the recipes, is her boundless hospitality. How many dishes had to be invented from what she had on hand because someone dropped in unannounced and fully expected to be fed? And she did. "Baked Noodle Ring," "Cheese Dreams" and "Mrs. Bewlay's Rhubarb Crusty." Somehow I think the substitution of the word "crumble" for "crusty" would better convey a thing to eat than, say, a medical condition.

Oh, and if you feel in need of a laugh, here is a completely hilarious website containing Weight Watchers food photographs from the 1960s, dishes like "Fluffy Mackerel Pudding," with captions like "Once upon a time the world was young and the words "mackerel" and "pudding" existed far, far away from one another. One day, that all changed. And then, whoever was responsible somehow thought the word fluffy would help..." Reminds me of the cookbook published by the association at the lake where we had a summer house. I am absolutely positive there was a dish called "Twinkie Tuna Seven-up Bake." Really!

In any case, last night found me staring at a container of chicken livers I bought in a moment of weakness at the farmer's market on Sunday. Organic, free-range, you name it. About a half pound, I think. What to do? Then into my mind snaked the memory of a Christmas Eve party at Red Gate Farm several years ago to which I invited Anne and David of Stillmeadow (Gladys Taber's beloved farmhouse), our farmer friends Rollie and Judy, and both our sets of parents happened to be visiting. My mother-in-law and I spent the afternoon concocting various party foods from the Stillmeadow Cookbook, including a lovely cucumber dip, and... chicken liver pate! My clever mummy made hand-calligraphied menu cards for the table, and with many, many candles lit and glasses of wine poured, the fun began. And the pate was so good. I really felt Gladys' spirit would have been pleased, to see us all enjoying the Connecticut winter with a nice neighborly party, and with her food to bring us together.

So I made the pate again last night, while John read his newspaper in the kitchen to keep me company, and Avery laboriously glued rhinestones on her skates to celebrate Level 10. A cosy evening together, and the taste of Madeira-laced chicken livers in butter did not disappoint. Give it a try.

Gladys Taber's Chicken Liver Pate
(serves many at a party, on toast)

1/2 lb fresh chicken livers
1 medium white onion, sliced
4 tbsps butter
about 1/2 cup Madeira wine
salt and pepper to taste

In two separate skillets, divide the butter and melt gently. Saute the onion in one skillet and the liver in another, taking care not to brown either skillet. Just sweat them gently. After about five minutes, they will be cooked through and can be combined in your food processor. Add the Madeira and whizz until as smooth as possible. Add more Madeira if the texture is too thick. Salt and pepper to taste, and then if you insist on a purely smooth pate, you can run the mixture through a sieve. Enjoy this affordable and generous post-War treat.

25 March, 2007

Abraham Lincoln's take on butternut squash soup













Before you get all scared, this photograph is not a soup of any kind, it's the macaroni and cheese I made as an antidote to the soup, which was odd. Wasn't it Abraham Lincoln who said, "If you like that kind of thing, it's the kind of thing you'll like"? If not, then I said it, because this homily perfectly expresses the way I feel about the soup I invented today (vaguely inspired by a recipe in Hello! magazine, maybe that's the root of the problem). I think it was good, if only I liked that kind of thing. But I don't. And neither does John. So I passed it along to Becky, who is the sort of friend who will try something you preface with, "I didn't really like it, so why don't you have a go?" The jury is still out with their family, as I fear she may make everyone try it. The more tastebuds the better.

But before I go any further with that, my macaroni and cheese turned out completely wonderful, and I'm ashamed to say that in the run-up to dinner, when Avery is meant to be in her bath, I should be doing the salad, John's paying bills online, in reality we are all snatching little bites from the perfect bubbly surface. So all was not lost in my culinary day.

And the memories of last night's dinner in London Bridge at Vincent's house should have been enough, alone, to propel one through a Sunday afternoon. For a ton of people, including lots of children, on a cold, spitty, rainy Saturday night in London, the enormous pot of ragu he served (with penne and shaved parmesan) was the perfect dish. Now do not be intimidated by the number of ingredients. For one thing, all the vegetables can be chopped in your food processor. And anyway, this is the type of recipe that you putter at, while listening to Edward Petherbridge reading "A Presumption of Death." Have you heard about Jill Paton Walsh's stewardship of the Lord Peter Wimsey legacy? Dorothy L. Sayers left behind notes for several Wimsey books, after her death, and Walsh has done a remarkable job with this one, recreating the characters of "Busman's Honeymoon" perfectly, but not as a parody. Anyway, with a great audiobook at your ears, you can tie on your apron and get cooking.

Spicy Party Ragu
(serves 8 easily)

1 pound minced lamb
1/2 pound each: minced beef, veal, pork, smoked streaky bacon (American style)
2 large chorizo sausages
1 large onion, roughly chopped
1 pound mushrooms, roughly chopped
1 each red, green, yellow peppers, roughly chopped
1 medium aubergine (eggplant), roughly chopped
4 fresh tomatoes, roughly chopped
2 soup-size tins peeled plum tomatoes
1/2 large bottle of tomato sauce
2 tbsp of tomato puree
1 tbsp sugar
1 tsp each dried oregano, basil, thyme
chili flakes to taste (but don't be a wimp!)
2 bay leaves
1 cup red wine
Handful fresh oregano
Handful fresh basil
Handful fresh thyme
4 large cloves of garlic, minced

Optional:

3 cups frozen prawns
3 cups frozen oysters
3 cups chicken pieces cut into 1cm cubes

Put a large pot to the side of the stove. As you cook each batch of ingredients, place them in the large pot. In a large frying pan, begin by cooking all the meat (In separate batches, though you can combine veal and beef) until browned and season with salt and pepper to taste. Whizz the bacon in your food processor till it is in 1 cm pieces. Cook until crispy, and be sure to add at least some of the rendered bacon fat
with the meat to the pot. Saute the chorizo last. When the sausages are done, set aside to cool. In a food processor, prepare the vegetables.

With plenty of olive oil, start by sauteing the onions in the same pan you cooked the meats in. When they are starting to brown, add the mushrooms. When the mushrooms have softened a bit, add the aubergines and finally the peppers. When the vegetables are all done, add them to the pot with the meat. Whizz the cooled chorizo to the same size bits as the cooked ground meat you already have in the pot, and add to the pot. Add the fresh, tinned, pureed and pasted tomato to the pot along with the bay leaves and the red wine. Bring the mix to a roiling simmer and turn the heat down to a medium-low level. Add the rest of the dried herbs, chili and sugar. Cook for at least 2 hours (the longer the better), stirring from time to time. The sauce will render quite a bit of liquid and look soupy for a while, and then as you continue to simmer it, the liquid will boil away. Turn the heat down low and add the optional ingredients if you choose to use them. Just before serving, add the chopped fresh herbs and the garlic. Taste for salt and pepper, give it a good stir and leave it alone until you're ready to serve. Serve over penne with shaved parmesan.

***********

This was sublime. Of course as well there was a beautiful salad with beetroot sprouts, a luxurious cheeseboard and an enormous, massive, lime-spiked cheesecake for pudding. There with us were Vincent's elegant French stepmother, two rather famous English architects and their beautiful blond children (I think we could fix up the little boy with Avery right now and save all that dating nonsense later on), an American diplomat and his German wife, and a Nigerian fashion designer. It was like eating at the UN. And we stayed so late! I am so old now that I really feel it if I've been up late, plus I find I have to stay up for a certain number of hours after I get home, thinking about what everyone said and did. So Sunday found me rather lazily walking around the Marylebone Farmer's Market, trying to be inspired. Unfortunately what I was inspired to do was this soup, on which I welcome comments, or better versions. Was it too much orange?

Butternut Squash Soup with Orange
(serves 6)

3 tbsps butter
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 butternut squash, seeded and peeled and cut in small cubes
juice and zest of 4 oranges
800 g chicken stock
2 tsps curry powder
1/2 tsp chili powder
salt to taste
1/2 cup creme fraiche
chives to garnish

In a medium saucepan, melt the butter and soften the garlic, then add squash and stir till coated with butter. Cover with stock, add juice and zest, and simmer until soft, then puree with a hand blender and run through a sieve if you like a finer texture. Add spices and whisk in creme fraiche. Simmer until thick, and garnish with chopped chives.

***********

So what went wrong? I tasted it, John tasted it, we added more spices, more salt. It was tasty. But I didn't like it, and neither did he. So I packed it up and took it to Becky, who tasted it and at first she liked it, then she thought perhaps it had a bitter aftertaste. Did I simmer it too long and the zest got nasty? Too much orange? I don't know. I still think the concept is good, and it was certainly very pretty and undoubtedly nutritious.

But dinner time saw us crouched happily over our macaroni and cheese, and bangers, and a huge salad of my favorite lamb's lettuce and rocket, with cucumbers. Ah well, you experiment, sometimes you succeed, friends cook brilliantly for you, and then you end up with the old favorites on a Sunday evening. I'm sure there's a moral in all that somewhere.

This will be rather an odd week, I think. Or at least toward the end. Avery's school term ends on Thursday at noon, at which point she and her little friends will repair to Build-a-Bear in Covent Garden for beloved Anna's birthday party. Becky is a saint to host them there yet another time. Then a sleepover, then Friday we drive Avery down to Surrey for three days and nights of... pony camp! At the country outpost of Ross Nye Stables, where she'll sleep in something called a yurt (?) and eat who knows what, and spend all the days mucking out stalls and riding. She has never been away from home for more than a single night, and I don't think she's ever done anything that John and I have never done. Been somewhere we've never been! What a milestone. I wonder what on earth John and I will find to do in her absence. Well, for one thing we're going to spend the Friday night in a very sweet-sounding country hotel, the Angel Posting House, near the camp. But then we'll have the whole weekend on our own. I'm sure we can find something to keep us out of trouble...

24 March, 2007

when life throws you risotto...

















Ah, you ask: why a film reel when I'm meant to be talking about risotto? Because I want to give you the links to my film friend's amazing blogs, all about the films and plays she manages to see in this glorious town of ours. Go on, you'll learn a lot about all the things you're not doing while you're stirring your risotto instead of going to the theatre. Oh, wait, that's my life.

But yes, about risotto. I am having a whole bunch of people over for Sunday lunch tomorrow, which would be a no-brainer, an ordinary enough event, except that Twiggy and Eddie are very dedicated vegetarians. So I've been asking all my friends what I should make. These lovely people have been here before and I admit to cooking two of my best vegetarian dishes then, a lovely creamy red pepper soup and an aubergine (that's eggplant to us Yanks) stew with tomatoes and tons of garlic. You can cook them too; here are the recipes. But alas, what now?

Well, my Italian friend Victoria said to me yesterday that "arancini" are the answer to a maiden's prayer. By typing "arancini" into my google search engine, I found a hilarious and very useful blog called "Amateur Gourmet" that I think you would enjoy. He's posted over 1000 posts. I can but admire, with my lowly 200-something efforts. But I admit to a certain nervousness, not to say trepidation, at cooking something I have never cooked before, for... Vincent. I know he'll try to be kind, but friendship will not get in the way of a genuine response to a misconceived or badly executed dish.

But how hard can it be to roll up some lovely risotto (mushroom, saffron and parsley? with white wine? fresh thyme, as my friend Susan made this summer?) in a ball, stuff it with mozzarella and tomato sauce, roll it in breadcrumbs and fry it? It can't really go too far wrong, can it? With cream of celeriac soup to start, perhaps? Except that, hmm, both dishes will be white? No, frying the risotto will make them crispy and brown. Sigh of relief. I know, I know, I've been watching too much "Masterchef." I find myself waking up in the middle of the night worrying that my presentation is tepid. Clearly I need to get a life. John just listened to my potential menu and said sternly, "What else will be on the plate?"

Avery has a life. Yesterday she achieved Level 10 in her skating lesson, and the world is her oyster. In a moment of maternal weakness I agreed, months ago, that when she got to Level 10 she could buy sparkly somethings to put on her skates, so last night found her glued to the computer looking up "crystals," and finding all sorts of ridiculously priced options that seemed, suddenly, unlivewithoutable. We shall see. As well, I can report that she achieved the coveted "Distinction" for her efforts with the English Speaking Board, talking about her stamp collection (thank you, Grandpa Paul!). A big improvement over last year's mere "Merit," how amazing that it's been a whole year. So some of us are thriving.

Well, we're off to take a nice long walk on this grey day, through the park. I'll still be thinking about side dishes...

22 March, 2007

what to cook when in a spot of bother














Say you're in a mood. You have something on your mind you don't want to think about, something you can't help, can't control, can't stop from affecting the people around you that you love. Say, per mirabile, you also like messing about with food. I have you covered.

Get your long-suffering husband to pick up a baguette for you, the only fresh thing you won't have to hand when you get home. Then stand in the hail and snow and freezing rain watching your child go round and round on a pony and think up crostini ideas. What are crostini, you ask? Ah, let me entertain you.

Crostini are, quite simply, crusty slices of bread (in my case the baguette brought home by my long-suffering husband) drizzled with olive oil and toasted on a cookie sheet, then set aside. Now comes the fun. Gather up all the tasty bits and pieces in your fridge. No, don't tell me there aren't any. You've got fresh mozzarella, I bet (if not, add it to the husband grocery list). And a jar of tapenade from your adorable friend Becky who often gives you comestibles just to see if you can figure out what to do with them. If you don't have tapenade, you can chop up some olives. Then somewhere in your pantry you've got a jar of anchovies. Scoop out five or six in their olive oil and put them in a tiny saucepan with some butter, over low heat, and with a potato masher mash them up and simmer.

Then how about that dish of pesto you made and didn't do anything with, except slather it on a chicken sandwich? Get that too. Goat's cheese? Leftover roasted peppers? Marinated artichoke hearts? Sure, you bet. And for a truly scrumptious added touch, if you have a little glass of sage leaves, standing in water by the side of your sink and languishing slightly, pull off the leaves and put them in a skillet with some melted butter, on low heat, until they're crispy. That's heavenly.

Now, line up your little toast slices. Start piling things on. You could also add some tiny tomatoes cut in half, open sides up. Just add anything to anything. By the time you've finished assembling them all, a sort of zen calm has come over you (trust me, it has). At that point you make:

Totally Lazy Creamy Tomato Sauce
(serves four)

1/2 stick butter
3 tbsps olive oil
1 large can or two soup-size cans peeled plum tomatoes
4 cloves garlic
1/2 cup ricotta cheese
salt and pepper

Melt the butter with the olive oil in a medium saucepan. Whizz the tomatoes and garlic together in your Magimix and add to saucepan. Simmer low while you finish your crostini, then boil water for pasta. We used a sort of snail-shape whose name I cannot remember. Whisk in ricotta and salt and pepper. Drain pasta, add to sauce, and simmer while you put your crostini in a medium oven for 8 minutes, or until the mozzarella is melted, then arrange them on a plate. If you happen to have a ripe avocado, you could add a little slice and a squirt of lemon juice, to any of your crostini.

Provide plenty of grated pecorino, parmesan, mozzarella or a combination of all three (I did end up having all three sitting around) to scatter on top of the pasta.

There. Easy, cheap, comforting. And with the added bonus of cosy prep and assembly which helps you feel in control of life. (Hint: you're really not. In control of life, I mean. But tonight's dinner: you're all over it.)

21 March, 2007

of friends, and a quite perfect sandwich


































Now, normally nothing in the world would induce me to post a portrait of myself on this blog. Normally it would not enhance your perceptions of me, dear readers. But I have to tell you about my friend Vincent's photography, so you can say you knew him when. And he managed to make a not cringe-worthy image of me, so that tells you something.

I'm going to go out on something of a limb now and provide you with a link to Vincent's artistic website, but with a very clear caveat: you must be 18 or over to look at his site, and I will tell you that some of the images are quite shocking, even to my relatively professional artistic eye. He concentrates on the nude male body, no holds barred (so photographing me was a complete departure and an awfully nice favor!). I see his work as standing on the shoulders of the great activist photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, since no one can photograph men's bodies without incurring the legacy of those works of the 1970s and 1980s. But because Mapplethorpe achieved what he did politically, Vincent doesn't have to be political. He can choose to explore the pure physicality of the body, and celebrate the limitless variety of the human body, and revel in quite riveting and startling detail, without having to make any political statement at all. His generation of photographers reminds me of my generation of feminists: because of what people achieved with their intense boundary-testing 30 years ago, we can now happily enjoy cooking and raising our children, AND having a job, or not, without making a new political statement with every choice.

As Mapplethorpe's organization publishes on their website, "Some of these photographs were shocking for their content but exquisite in their technical mastery." I think Vincent goes beyond technical mastery (although he has that quality without question) and imbues his subjects with sensitivity and a great sense of humor.

In any case, my take on Vincent's work is that he is tremendously talented and expressive, and he takes incredible joy in bringing out the true spirit of his sitters, all of whom know we're in the presence of a really generous artist. And there's always a chance that someone reading my blog will be taken enough with his work to give Vincent some cool opportunity. He's already been approached by the fabulous international photography magazine Eyemazing, for a special feature in the autumn. Good on you, Vincent, and may the art world embrace you. Plus you're an awfully entertaining companion, and about the best friend anyone could wish for, in good times and bad.

Well, enough serious business! I had such fun yesterday meeting up with a new friend, who I will identify only as "6point7" as she appears on the internet. Can you imagine (probably you can, but I am very old-fashioned, really) having a friend you've met only online? We tiptoed around each other on the super-entertaining Matthew Macfadyen fan room, realizing that we share not only our enthusiasm for him, but even more for London. We both simply adore the fantastic spirit of this city, she rather more for its film and theatre worlds, and I more for... what? Its food side, and the fun of raising a child here, and just the irrepressible British personality that walks its pavements. So we cautiously decided to meet for lunch, and yesterday afternoon found us at Getti's in the Marylebone High Street. I stood outside the restaurant in the overwhelming wind, feeling buffeted and wishing I was carrying a rose between my teeth, when a lady approached me and said, "Are you Kristen?" and there she was! It wasn't even a bit awkward, as I had thought it might be. It's funny how you can gain a real impression of a person just through written correspondence, and it was very intriguing to try to match up the typed person with the real person, sitting opposite me in the sun with impossibly blue eyes.

We had a lovely time. She was very sweet asking about Avery; I think it is a special and unusual quality when child-free people have any interest in other people's children. Lord knows I could not be bothered to give the time of day to anyone's kids before Avery, but then I think we've established I am more self-centered than the average bear. We talked movies, television, star encounters we have reveled in, family, everything. She expressed the opinion that she's less intense in real life than onscreen, and I would have to say that seemed true; her real persona was unexpectedly gentle and warm, when I think I was anticipating a very strong opinion on lots of things. I wonder how differently I present myself on line? When I get the link to her film/theatre blog I will pass it on.

And the food was lovely. I had, I have to say, a completely forgettable plate of sliced tomatoes (I'm pretty sure I ordered tomato and mozzarella, but who knows), but it was followed by the best carpaccio I've had in London. I do tend to order it when I see it, because done well it's so simple: just thinly-sliced raw beef tenderloin with traditional accompaniments of shaved parmesan and a little salad. This beef was quite perfect, completely tender, and added to the plate were beautiful little crispy curls of celery. I am an utter sucker for celery in any form, likewise cucumber, so it was such a nice addition. And a tiny dollop of fresh pesto, always a good thing. 6point7 reported that her pumpkin soup and risotto were very good as well, so I think it's two thumbs up for Getti's.

Speaking of pesto, I have come up with possibly the perfect sandwich (I do love a good sandwich), and it's practically free. I am, as you know, devoted to roast chicken. It's cheap, it cooks itself, it's comforting, and after dinner you can make roasted chicken soup, and then you get sandwiches with the leftovers. Here's what to do. Click here and scroll down for instructions on roasting your chicken and making your soup. Then, once you've got your nice little dish of the chicken breast meat that you didn't finish at dinner time, at lunch time the next day you get it out of the fridge (hoping no one has eaten it at midnight, but since you're the only one up at midnight this should not be a problem). Then:

A Perfect Chicken Sandwich

1 whole meal pita, toasted and opened into a pocket
1 roasted chicken breast (skin on PLEASE), sliced thin
1 slice red onion, separated into circles
1 tbsp fresh pesto
1 tsp butter
four slices Double Gloucester cheese

Simply slather the inside of the pita with butter on one side and peso on the other, then tuck your chicken, onion and cheese inside. The result is pretty, with the purply onion and bright green pesto, and it's got crunch, herbs, creamy cheese and virtuous whole wheat. Plus, as I say, it's practically FREE. Of course if you wanted to skip roasting a whole chicken (one wonders why that would be, but one never knows), then you could easily buy a chicken breast alone, herb and butter it up, and roast in the oven for 30 minutes. In any case, tuck in.

20 March, 2007

another great British actor














Have you seen "Becoming Jane"? Well, it's worth seeing, I think, especially if you are a chick looking for a flick for yourself and for your 10-year-old daughter. Taking a jet-lagged male along with you is asking for trouble, because really not enough happens in it to keep a man's attention (aside from looking at the delectable Anne Hathaway) even if he were fully awake, which mine wasn't. Avery said, "But, Daddy, there was good real estate," which was sweet of her, but really, they were just country houses. At least in "Miss Potter" the real estate was in Bedford Square, where we were actually looking at a house.

But that's not the point. The point is, James McAvoy is, while not an actual current crush, definitely crush-worthy and may be called upon by me at a later date if one of my other candidates is unable to fulfill his duties. He played the faun in "The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe," and as the message boards say (yes, I've looked him up), for a man with hooves, he's very nice-looking. A similar type to, dare I say it, Matthew Macfadyen (although slight instead of beefy) and Edward Norton, really versatile and intelligent. "Becoming Jane" is like a fluffier "Pride and Prejudice," partly I think because Anne Hathaway brings a lot of plucky humor to whatever role she plays (although I did not see "Brokeback Mountain," in which I cannot imagine plucky anything played much of a role). And whether or not all these romantic interludes actually did happen to Jane Austen or not, it is fun to compare the things they claim happened to her with the various events portrayed in her novels.

Well, seeing movies aside, the last few days have remarkably unproductive for me. I decided that I needed to branch out from cooking the same old things I always cook, and for three nights running have been an absolute (or almost absolute) washout. Branching out reminds me why I usually cook the same old things I always cook: because they're good. But I had to learn this the hard way. On the advice of nearly everyone I know, I recently acquired the River Cafe Cookbook. I have never eaten there, because I almost never eat anywhere, but everyone raves, and it's paperback, so I thought, why not? Well, maybe it's just me, but...

The recipes don't work! That's actually not fair, since I messed with both the recipes I tried. I just can't seem to leave a recipe alone, so I know it's my fault. But first I tried a pasta dish that was meant to be with crabmeat but it was so ruinously expensive at Selfridges (36 pounds a kilo! sorry, no) that I substituted tiger prawns, and probably they did not provide the juice that would have helped the dish. The sauce was meant to be just olive oil, chopped parsley and garlic, and red chilies, and obviously with seafood, no cheese. Well, it was just plain BORING. Too much spaghetti for the amount of sauce, and too oily, and just plain dull. Then last night, I tried a veal chop recipe, only all the veal chops in London seemed to have run back to the country in fear, so I subsituted pork chops, which should have been fine. I was meant to rub them with a paste made of prosciutto fat, lemon peel, garlic, fresh sage and salt. Which smelled divine. Only I was also meant to grill them, but I don't have a &^%$ grill, so I decided it could not hurt to pan saute them. Only it did hurt, because they simply stuck to the pan and all the paste burned. It still tasted relatively all right because all the ingredients were so good, and John and Avery manfully downed them, but what a bummer.

Set in between these two unsuccessful and demoralising dinners was another total disappointment: I tried to recreate the delicious chopped beef-in-lettuce that I had with my friend Julia at E&O last week. Only why do I do this? Try to recreate things I've had in restaurants where, say, an actual CHEF is in charge? It was totally labor intensive to chop the beef, and alongside I had sliced mushrooms and pears, red radishes and a chili dipping sauce, AND homemade fried rice, and can I tell you how boring it was? It was edible, but everything tasted like I had been put on a diet where no flavor was allowed.

Grr. Through it all, Avery and John have bravely sat at the kitchen table, eating these dull and failed dinners, accompanied by untasty side dishes, and offered their suggestions. But my friend Becky this morning offered the most sane advice of all: go back to the basics. So I think tonight will be... meatloaf and mashed potatoes. No new innovations, no weird uncharted vegetable on the side, maybe I'll even be radical and have NO vegetable on the side. And if anyone says, "But we have this all the time," I'll... well, let's not think about that.

In the meantime, I'm off to meet up with a lady I have met only on the computer screen! Through a message board! How exciting. A new friend, and maybe a snowstorm. Who could ask for more, on a Tuesday in March in London.


Kristen's Pretentious Meatloaf
(serves six easily, with leftovers)

1/3 pound each: minced beef and minced lamb
1/3 pound pork sausage
4 slices wholemeal bread, without crusts, torn into shreds
1 cup milk
1 egg, beaten
1/2 cup grated parmesan
3/4 cup ricotta cheese
1 medium onion, minced
3 stalks celery, minced
1 handful curly parsley leaves, chopped
1 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp dried basil
salt and pepper to taste
six slices streaky bacon

It couldn't be any simpler: mix everything together, except for the bacon, which you drape over the loaf once it's shaped in a glass dish that you've sprayed with nonstick spray, or lined with aluminium (note the darling extra "i" there) foil. Bake at 400 degrees for one hour.

19 March, 2007

the most superb London walk



































Are you ready for a true travelogue from my esteemed city? I almost hate to tell you about the London Walk I went on yesterday, because... it's the last one of its kind. Why do I so often get in on the tail end of something wonderful? Although that's a very typically glass-half-empty way of looking at it. A more positive, chirpy person would think, "How lucky I am to have gone on Edward Petherbridge's Last London Walk." But no, I just growl about how deprived I am that it was The Last. It's hard not to be carping when you're about to be deprived of any more contact with a genuine crush. But I digress. Let me explain.

Yesterday morning found John and me shivering slightly at the Embankment Tube Station at which we were to meet up with the group to follow my lovely Edward around on his "Theatre Walk," one of the most famous of all the London Walks (we went on the Jack the Ripper walk many years ago and it was really entertaining as well). What made Edward so much fun was his infectious sense of humor! Right from the beginning, standing up on a flight of steps above his adoring audience, his white hair lifting in the wind when he took off his straw boater to make a point, he had us all in stitches right away. "I've been told by one American lady that having me take her around London was like being shown around New York by Dustin Hoffman. It's wonderful that he has that to fall back on."

We were off, a group of perhaps 25 strong, around the corner to the Playhouse theatre which the infamous Jeffrey Archer bought some years ago (and quite soon gave up on). He and Edward had starred together in 2000 in "The Accused," which Archer wrote, with the innovation of an audience-dictated ending: was his character guilty or innocent? The audience decided, and then there were two alternate endings to play out. Quirky. I wonder if it was any good? Edward's demeanor on the subject was (I thought) reserved and perhaps a bit self-deprecating on the experience of having anything to do with such a nut as Jeffrey Archer. Apparently on his last night, he turned to the audience and said his last line, as he did every night, "Now I'm going to go back to work," only on that last evening he added, "Making 75,000 pounds as an MP and 15 million as a novelist." Terrible!

From there we were onto Craven Street, where Benjamin Franklin lived, subject of what must be a wonderful radio play, called of all things "Craven Street: Benjamin Franklin in London." Edward pointed out eloquently the fact that while we have the gift of hindsight and can quite easily imagine being dressed like, living like Benjamin Franklin, the sight that would have greeted his eyes if he opened his door to us would have boggled the mind. Then we fought the wind and followed Edward through to the low-ceilinged curve of the arches under the Hungerford Bridge, leading to Charing Cross station, to stand outside what was once a Gatti music hall, and has now become Players' Theatre and listen to Edward sing a lovely, touching song about sleeping rough in London. It was to our delight! He finished with a flourish and said, "We all need hyperbole in our lives. Actors get it automatically, but even we have to add some... For example, I often lose my keys. When Emily, my wife, suggests, 'Where did you see them last?' I simply have to shout, 'Well, if I knew THAT...!"

We came upon a statue honoring Sir Arthur Sullivan, composer of among other things "The Mikado," draped as you see here with a nearly-naked woman. "She is 'the Muse,' naturally," Edward deadpanned. "She is so overcome with her muse-like responsibilities that all her clothing has simply fallen away. One does not like to imagine what the Muse on a statue of Oscar Wilde might be, here in our culture that so problematises sex. My daughter is reading English, and so I have learnt words like 'problematise.' They do make me feel so... academic." At the river he stopped to tell us about the events of January 24, 1965, when he was rehearsing "Much Ado About Nothing" at the National Theatre across the Thames, with Franco Zeferelli, and Edward's obvious closest rival in acting, Ian McKellen. "We were all just contemplating performing the entire play with Italian accents, when the death of Churchill was announced. We all, Franco included, stopped in silence. And then here, on this side of the river, Noel Coward sat in his hotel room at the Savoy, just behind you there, and contemplated the event as well. What a moment, both great men on either side of the river, at that great moment in history. And the cranes on the river, when the funeral barge passed them by, all bowed in respect." To think I was just two weeks away from being born, when all this was happening a world away.

Then we were onto the back entrance of the famed Savoy Theatre, subject of the Mike Leigh film "Topsy Turvy," which I would love to see, and the old stomping grounds of Henry Irving. And directly across the road from it Edward pointed out a gaslight, permanently lit, which is apparently fueled by the sewer fumes from the Savoy! Ick, if true. But entertaining as a story even if not. We crossed over to Covent Garden to stand outside the now-defunct Theatre Museum, whose demise Edward greatly regrets. "I went by early in the day on the final day the place was to be open, to find a sign saying, 'The museum will not be open today.' I found some janitor-ish fellow and asked him what was going on. 'Well, it's like this, sir. They didn't want no trouble.' So I told him I'd leave my petrol bomb in the bin." From the corner where they museum used to be we could see the enormous Theatre Royal Drury Lane, as well as the infamous Bow Street Police Station, the only police station in the country with no blue lamp! Edward explained that once Queen Victoria had come out of the Royal Opera House nearby with guests, and when they asked what the blue lamp meant, she was forced to admit that it was a police station. Apparently this disclosure spoiled her evening, and so the lamp was ordered removed. She was not amused, one gathers. The Metropolitan Police have a different explanation for the removal, namely that the lamp reminded her of the blue room in which Prince Albert died. Now that would be an inconvenient sore spot. One does encounter blue in the world. "The police station is one no longer, unfortunately. It has been bought by a investor and will be turned into... a luxury hotel." Laughter. "One wonders where, finally, any work will be done in this modern world that seems to have become an amusement park," he said acidly.

Just behind us, then, was the famous Victorian flower market that once housed the real versions of Eliza Doolittle, selling her wares. And nearby the Royal Opera House, taking up an entire city block. At this point, one of our number spoke up and announced he had once been a stagehand there! "If any of the rest of you have such gems of theatrical history up your sleeves, do speak up," Edward enjoined us. At this point, it was time to take our leave of him, sadly. He will be appearing next on television, he says, in an upcoming episode of the hugely popular series "Midsomer Murders," and then, excitingly, will be off to New Zealand to appear as Lear. "And can you imagine: guess who will also be in New Zealand, at the same time, playing Lear? Ian McKellen. He has emailed me to say he is searching for the naturalism in the words. Hmmm..." I suppose it would be taking my crush a little overboard to fly out to Auckland, but it's sorely tempting. What a day. What a man! Right now I am looking for a copy of a book of historical essays on Shakespeare that includes a piece of writing by him, and I have ordered my copy of his new book, "Pillar Talk: Backcloth and Ashes," about a 5th century Syrian saint.

Ah, well, back down to earth. But sadly, this was his last London Walk. Just too difficult to work into his schedule of work. I'm so glad I was in on the last big adventure. Even my self-soaking walk home in sleet, hail and rain could not dampen my spirits.

16 March, 2007

a slightly surreal day


















Okay. I fully accept that I have, in the past (all right, also fairly recently) made some internet-purchasing errors. Not serious errors. But somehow the cat litter I order doubles, or even triples in quantity before it arrives. Not that we won't use it, but still, storing 40 kilos of cat litter in a relatively small flat can pose unusual logistical issues. My friend Becky can relate to this, once having accidentally ordered something like ten years' worth of guinea pig bedding all at once. Fair enough.

However, after my latest screwup (don't count on using the guest bathroom anytime soon unless you want to share it with a lifetime's worth of Klumpfenbildende Katzenstreu), I thought I was finished. This morning, unaccountably, arrived YET another enormously heavy box. "Cat litter," John said succinctly. "But how? I haven't ordered any," I protested. "You have no idea," he replied, and that's probably true. "You know what you've done?" he asked. "No, go ahead, what have I done?" "You've enrolled yourself in the Litter of the Month Club. This month it's "Kiwi and Vanilla," next month "Pine Nuts and Sundried Tomatoes." You're done for."

As if that wasn't enough, then we turn on the news as we're getting dressed to go see a (yet another) house. In Hammersmith. John suddenly said, "Wait, that's where we're going." And it was, tragically and oddly enough, the same street where a rare and vicious murder occurred yesterday afternoon. Hmmm. "Well, it can't hurt to look at the house," John said.

So as we're approaching it this afternoon, we come upon an enormous traffic jam, and television vans, snappy-looking presenters, and the location itself, crowded with bouquets of flowers (why don't the people donate the flowers to the hospital which doubtless tried to resuscitate the victim? much more useful than lying on a pavement). "Lordy, it's not even a block away from the house we're seeing," I said. Double hmmmm. The estate agent met us at the house and said regretfully, "I can't tell you how upset the seller is. Today, of all days, just when her house is going on the market." A slight disarrangement of relative bad luck, I would say, considering that an actual person had died, as compared with her potential drop in property value. But such is London real estate these days. That seller probably does find her misfortune to be quite on a par with murder. It reminds me in a sick way of the line in "When Harry Met Sally," when Harry wonders why the New York Times never thought to combine the obituaries with the real estate section... "Mr. Smith leaves a wife, three children, and a lovely two-bedroom duplex on Central Park West with a fireplace..." All succumbs to the irrepressible energy of real estate.

And it was a nice house, too. A real fixer-upper, but with potential. John has all the vision for this sort of project, while I prefer to sit back and imagine our first dinner party in the kitchen that as yet doesn't exist.

Ah well, it's Friday, we're all together, and after a good night's sleep I'm sure all will look brighter. And hey, maybe tomorrow will bring "Parmesan and Cheddar" litter. You never know.

domestic bliss



















Seriously. My husband spent two weeks in Iowa and this was my gift upon his return.

Yes, John is home again, safe and sound, and I have to say this sign makes me laugh. The cats are all circling it and whispering among themselves. I can only wonder.

Avery and I were happily cuddling together very early this morning, trying to ignore the ticking clock telling us that we were perilously close to being late to school, when Tacy's ears pricked up and she sat bolt upright. I too thought I heard an intruder, only strangely the intruder seemed to be, from all available sounds, taking out the recycling. Do intruders take out the recycling? I got up cautiously, crept up the stairs, and there was all John's myriad luggage strewn around and the man himself... taking out the recycling! Honestly, he wasn't home for a minute and he was already taking care of the domestic chores I had neglected.

It is excellent to have him back. He waded through miles of mail as I made scrambled eggs for Avery and adjured her to eat her blackberries and Nutella toast. Finally I got her to school and am sitting peacefully here at my desk while my poor jetlagged husband sleeps off his dreadful experience as a man of 6 foot 3 in coach for nine hours from Cincinnati. The day holds nothing more momentous than a trip to the supermarket, an ice skating lesson after school, and... a real estate visit. Yes, it's official. John's home.

I spent the better part of last evening watching Stephen Poliakoff's "Shooting the Past," which I have to say is a lesser cousin to his "Perfect Strangers," not the least because it's lacking the mercurial and sexy presence of Matthew Macfadyen. As well, I am annoyingly distracted by the terrible American accent of one of the leads, an innocent miscast Irishman called Liam Cunningham (who I recognized from "A Little Princess," thank you, imdb) and the Englishisms the script forces him to utter. I have spent so much time in this adopted country of mine listening to English people complain perfectly reasonably about American actors' bad English accents and being scolded in my fiction class for having my characters say such outlandish things as "sidewalk" instead of "pavement" that I had quite forgotten the shoe could easily land on the other foot. Hearing this "American" (who of course is written as arrogant, greedy, insensitive and ignorant, all the favorite hallmarks of any American character in British hands) say things like "the post" instead of "the mail" and roll his Rs as if he were recovering from a holiday in Dublin just made me cringe. There were funny subtle anti-Americanisms, though, that I don't think the average shtew-pid American not living in London would actually get (not that any American has probably ever seen "Shooting the Past", but even so), like Emilia Fox's character pouring out a glass of lemonade ostentatiously clinking, and saying evilly, "Ice?"

Ah well, normally I am as anti-American as an American can be, if my country is represented by things like McDonalds, iPods, reality television and certain politicians. But I do dislike a terrible American accent. I'll play the role normally played by British people objecting to Gwyneth Paltrow (a perfectly reasonable thing to object to): "Couldn't they find an American actor to play that part?" I will have to wade through the rest of the programme, but I don't think it will stay in my film library, sorry to say.

Anyway, now that John's home I won't be watching television anyway. He has already announced firmly that it is real estate, real estate, real estate that will occupy us for the foreseeable future. We have really got to find a place to live that doesn't involve the words "Grosvenor Estate." While he was away, we lost yet another house that could have been perfect. I think looking a bit farther afield might be a good idea. Parsons Green, anyone?

Comedy class yesterday was quite entertaining. I just love being in that totally British atmosphere. I constantly have to stop people talking and ask for clarification of an arcane (to me) cultural reference. The number of television programmes I have never heard of! I must watch "Green Room," and I must get familiar enough with comedian John Inman to be, belatedly, sorry that he died this week. As well, I love hearing the conversation peppered with my favorite London expressions like when plans go "pear-shaped" and the ever-popular rebuttal, "Fair enough." We are trying valiantly to write an episode for our sitcom (set inexplicably in a gym owned by a petrochemical plant, but there you go), and everyone was madly contributing ideas yesterday. Finally we have our main evil lady lead being told by her titled CEO to shut down the gym and replace it with a restaurant for his rich, spoiled daughter to run. We're contemplating a cameo by Gordon Ramsay. Naturally he would grace us with his presence. My fellow classmates and the tutor are really such charming, intelligent people that I will really miss them when term ends in just... sob... two weeks.

I must find another class to take. I hate to think that I'm running through every possible skill to be taught at CityLit, only to find out every term that I'm not good at that EITHER. Let's see, so far I've attempted acting, fiction, screenwriting, and comedy. What's left? Underwater basketweaving, I suppose, or computer programming. Ah well, even if I never write a successful sitcom, I have learned a number of valuable life lessons, among them this gem from yesterday: "Misunderstanding is your best friend. If you ever run into one, take it home, give it dinner, and take it to bed with you." Who knew?

Well, I'm off to turn last night's roast chicken into soup for John for lunch. He has spent such a busy, draining, rewarding, life-changing two weeks away from home that I feel he needs to be coddled. And anyway, everyone should make chicken soup, and you get a mighty nice roast chicken dinner on your way to making soup, so where's the harm in that. Here's how.

Coddling Soup
(serves the masses)

1 large roasting chicken
1/2 cup white wine
1/2 cup chicken stock
herbs to scatter (take your pick: basil, rosemary, garlic salt, thyme, or ALL)
3 tbsps butter
1 onion, peeled, quartered and separated
handful small tomatoes
salt and pepper
1 cup uncooked Manischewitz small noodles

Place your chicken in a large roasting pan thoroughly sprayed with nonstick spray. Pour over the wine and chicken stock. Scatter your choice of herbs over the chicken and place the large dollop of butter just at the top of the breast, so it will run over the whole chicken as it melts. Roast for two hours at 400 degrees, basting if you think about it. Carve off the breast for your dinner. Pour the cooking juices into a gravy separator. Do you know about these tools? Here's one in America and here's one in England. Normally I subscribe to the Laurie Colwin rule of having no item in your kitchen that serves only one purpose. The two exceptions to this are can openers and gravy separators. It looks like a measuring cup, and it is. But it also magically makes all the fat in the cooking juices rise to the top, whereupon you can pour the good juice out of the spout and leave the fat behind. Do this, and then pour the juices into a skillet, throw in a tablespoon or so of flour and a half cup of cream and whisk over low heat until there are no lumps. Perfect gravy for the chicken and whatever on the side, for your dinner.

Now, after dinner, remove the rest of the really good meat from the bones and reserve in a dish in your fridge. Throw the carcass into a large stockpot, cover with water and lots of salt, and boil low for the rest of the evening while you go about the house putting dirty horsey clothes in the washer and cleaning up cat barf. Every once in awhile, poke at the chicken with a spoon to help it fall apart and flavor your broth.

When the soup has boiled a long time, say a couple of hours, strain it through a colander into another stockpot (I know that sounds obvious, but can I tell you that once in a fog late at night I actually strained my precious broth right down the drain? don't let it happen to you). Refrigerate overnight and then skim off the fat that rises to the top. Cut up the reserved chicken and add the noodles to the broth, bring to a nice simmer and test for salt.

Nothing is more comforting. Enjoy.

14 March, 2007

achoo



















I think I caught my friend Julia's cold. At least, I sneezed about three hundred times while making Avery's breakfast and, as well, drove to school in what seemed like a fog, although it's a beautiful sunny day. Could our hugging and kissing and sharing lunch have contributed to this situation? Perhaps. I got to the car this morning to find it nearly buried under a lorry full of scaffolding equipment and lots of cheerful Irish dudes unpacking their wares, swinging boards and rods and whatnot with abandon over our dear convertible. Then just as I pulled cautiously out of the parking spot, a vagabond taxi and a marathon runner came out of nowhere, but I did not hit them. Then there was another scaffolding lorry parked opposite our little road, which I neatly avoided, only to be nearly run down by an enormous vintage Bentley and a motorcycle. Whew, I was glad to drop Avery off and get home safely and now I think I will drink an enormous glass of Lemsip and do some laundry.

Avery had a marvelous time at Westonbirt yesterday, for what was touted as a "Science Challenge" but actually sounded much more like a cross between a murder mystery weekend and a prolonged picnic. It's a school to which I was all prepared to send her, abandon London and move to the Cotswolds, she could ride every day, the house is gorgeous, and the food not to be despised... but it's a boarding school, it turns out. Shoot. Not even for a pony will she go to boarding school and I don't blame her. But it is a beautiful spot. The four of us parents stood around in Paddington Station last night, amid clouds of what we could only think was diesel fuel pollution, watching all the hapless commuters, waiting for our little darlings. What an interesting group of people: Italian Victoria, waiting for her little Jamie, German Claus sternly inquiring why the train was four minutes late, waiting for Sophia, and English rose Alison, wearing several pieces of jewelry of her own design and tapping her fingers impatiently for Coco. And there I was, a nice girl from Indiana... sneezing. Wish me luck.

13 March, 2007

the worst job in London (but also a great visit from NY)







Wouldn't you hate to know that every single person who calls you, all day long (and so many people call you that your line is nearly always busy) hates you? And has never even met you?

This is what it must be like to answer phones at... The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Declamping Unit. Yes, it finally happened. I got clamped. That's how it feels. I don't even feel as if they clamped the wheel of the car. I feel as if the horrid yellow triangle was attached to my very own foot and tightened until I bled pounds. As in 115 pounds.

Does any other city have such a nasty little parking scheme? Or as many rabid traffic wardens who walk along in their ugly reflective waistcoats (probably because they know most motorists would dearly love to accidentally run them down), waiting by parking meters until the last pence drops and then pouncing on the windscreen with glee and the satisfaction of having bled yet another driver of yet another enormously inflated fine? We have, several times, come upon a traffic warden writing out a ticket for us, even though there were, say, five minutes left on the meter. Just hoping we won't come back in time. They must be on a commission system.

The problem is for the motorist that these wardens are only occasionally caught in the act. Mostly you come back to your car to find the ticket flapping in the breeze. And there's no one to scream at. But the poor man answering the phones when you call in to get your car declamped, now he's a sitting duck. A tethered target for my wrath. The nasty parking regulators had played a cunning trick on me: they put a parking sign indicating a "pay and display" spot on a spot that was actually, if one looked down at the road and noticed an extra little white painted line, a "resident's only" spot. I fell for it, bought my ticket, displayed it proudly in the window and went off happily to have lunch with friend Julia, visiting from New York. Only to come back two hours later to the ugly truth.

Well, enough about that. The rest of the day was lovely. Yesterday, during Avery's brief but unpleasant little illness, I had got a text message from her science teacher indicating that "we will all meet at Paddington at 8:15 a.m. next to the ticket counter." Indeed? And why would that be? "Oh, Mummy, I forgot, Daddy signed the permission slip. It's the 'Inter-Schools' Science Challenge', in Westonbirt. We will spend all day there, and it was a real honor to be asked; just four girls in the class can go." Well, it's nice to be told. So I packed a lunch and hoped for the best, and sure enough, this morning she was well enough to go. So we got ourselves to Paddington, met up with the other little girls and the teacher, and I had just said, "See you at pickup," when the teacher smiled and said, "No, indeed, Mrs C, we'll see you HERE at 6." "P.M.?" I asked in amazement. "Oh, yes, I asked Avery if you needed another permission slip to know the details, but she said you knew all about it." Sigh.

So my seven-hour free day became a 10-hour free day, and suddenly my planned lunch with Julia, such a treat to see her, became a potentially even nicer whole afternoon with her. Suffering from a dreadful spring cold as she was, she bravely met me at home after I had done all my little household chores of dishwasher, litterbox, laundry, bedmaking and the like, and then I confidently led us to the car, since I'm not afraid of driving anymore and not (very) afraid of getting lost. Up to Notting Hill to a gorgeous place called E&O, one of the brainchildren of the hot Australian chef and restaurateur Will Ricker. He was not in evidence this afternoon, however, which is too bad since by all accounts he's an amazing, energetic man. The name stands for "Eastern & Oriental," and I'm not sure why we need both designations, but the food was simply sublime.

Julia and I kept interrupting our by no means boring conversation to exclaim over another unexpected texture, or lightness of touch, or unusual sauce. We started with two dishes to share: prawn and chive steamed dumplings, and a sauteed beef dish called "san choi bau" (the bits of beef a perfect compromise between strips and mince) with red chilis and bean sprouts, to be wrapped in a lettuce leaf with basil leaf and what I think were ground pinenuts sprinkled on top. Spicy, light, salty and crunchy, it was simply perfect. And Julia declared that one bite blew her cold right out of the top of her head (although this prognosis proved actually a bit too optimistic on her part).

Then we went our separate culinary ways and I had a tempura soft shell crab, nicely halved and therefore manageable with chopsticks. There was a sour green dipping sauce that could have been parsley and citrus? Don't know for sure, and I should have asked. Julia went for a green curry with lichee and and aubergine and the presentation alone -- topped with curls of slivered red bell pepper, daikon and a crispy fried aromatic herb -- was worth the money. And the heavenly curry aroma, rich and coconut-milky, just perfect. We ended up sharing everything, and talking about her daughter Nina, one of Avery's riding pals in New York, her work at the Guggenheim on James Rosenquist and other Pop artists (she's knee-deep in her dissertation on Pop and collage, poor girl), my cookbook project, our various family entanglements, joys and sorrows.

Well, I'm flagging. Avery's safely home from her Science Challenge, which was perhaps both more, and less, than what one expected. More on that later. We are full of chicken in a calvados and mushroom cream sauce, and ready for slumber.

12 March, 2007

kicking up one's heels in Hackney


















Well, as I write this I am juggling lots of feelings: total delight over the success of the salmon dish (for which I will give you some additional bits of advice), lingering memories of an excellent day out with Vincent yesterday in East London, and dismay at the huddled, feverish little girl on my sofa, surrounded by concerned cats. She woke up this morning seeming quite normal, but then when I kissed her I realised she was quite hot, and then I noticed that her cheeks were too pink and her eyes too bright. So off with the uniform and on with pajamas, and I've been force-feeding her icy apple juice ever since, watching her fall in and out of sleep. Poor dear. It means she misses the dreaded Dance Competition at school for which she had Coco and Anna had assiduously prepared, as well as a rare Monday playdate after school with Anna while I had planned to go see the new Matthew Macfadyen film, screening for just two days, in Leicester Square with another fan. I have to admit I was really looking forward to meeting this English lady with whom I have been corresponding about our love for Matthew, yes, but mostly our love for London.

Ah, the best-laid plans. I have been reading a very dark but very rewarding book called "Chasing Daylight," and in it the author says something quite profound. I cannot remember the exact words, and just now I can't find the passage, but the gist is that a good day is a day that goes the way you plan. I think there's something to that. Because most of us plan a good day, one that includes at least a couple of accomplishments, however minor, in which we manage to appreciate our families and friends, notice the weather and enjoy it for whatever it is, and have something really good to eat, at least once before the day is out. I know a lot of people have much more elaborate plans for their days, but that's my typical plan. And I think it is very useful to realise that it doesn't take more than that to have a good day. But when things don't go according to plan, whether in a big way or a small way, you do notice the felicity of the planned day, and watch it go by in favor of another day. And if you can manage to be truly wise just for a minute, you get to enjoy being with your child when normally she would be almost a whole postcode away at school. So there. (And even now my plan to blog is being replaced by a request for me to read aloud, so I'll have to pause here...)

All right, now we can focus on salmon, and then on Hackney! Here is my bit of wisdom as far as Vincent's totally brilliant recipe goes, and it applies to a lot of other situations as well. Don't do a job if you don't have the right tools for the job. Or at least, you can do it, but you'll find yourself alone in your kitchen, expecting guests, and irrationally cursing practically your best friend for telling you the recipe was easy when it wasn't. Let me just tell you now, in case you don't know: julienning vegetables without a julienne blade on your Magimix is like peeling a carrot with a candle. It can be done, but you'll be wanting to crack your head against the window after about an hour. Then after discovering that I had no proper blade, I hauled my old mandoline out to see how dull the blades had got (very), and then discovered while fiddling with it that I had bloody cuts and scrapes on all my fingers and I hadn't even touched a VEGETABLE yet. A gadget with blades too dull to work but too sharp to touch on BOTH sides of its evil self is just a recipe for disaster. I realised I had julienned myself.

In the end I got the mandoline to work, sort of, but while it cooperated with my carrots, it turned its back on the more stubborn fennel bulbs and celery stalks so I had to do them by hand. I'm sorry: life is too short. That being said, the rest of the recipe was... easy! It's definitely a keeper.

Vincent's Salmon with Cream & Vegetables

Preparation time: 10-15 minutes (IF you have the right machine!)
Cooking Time: 25-30 minutes
Level of Difficulty: Very Easy (it will be, for you)
Occasion: Dinner Party or Sunday Lunch

Approx 1 Kilo of Salmon Fillet in one piece if possible - (Enough to
feed 4 generously or 6 if you're having a starter)
3 Medium to large carrots
1 Large fennel bulb
1 Medium Onion
1 Large Red Pepper
2 Large Celery Stalks
200g Green Vegetables (Green Beans, Asparagus etc.)
3 Tbsp Chopped Flat Leaf Parsley
1 1/2 Tbsp Chopped Dill
1 1/2 Tbsp Chopped Chervil (Not absolutely necessary)
Grated Rind of 1 Lemon
Juice of 1 Lemon
400 ml Creme Fraiche
150 ml White Wine (Chardonnay, Viognier, Sauvignion Blanc)

Preheat your oven to 200C (Medium hot oven). Put the vegetables through a food processor with a shredding/julienne blade. Transfer the grated vegetables to a mixing bowl. Add the grated lemon rind. In a separate mixing bowl, add the Creme Fraiche, lemon juice, white wine, chopped herbs and mix well. Season this with generous amounts of pepper and some salt. Pour the liquid mixture over the vegetables and mix thoroughly. When you're done, you should have a very wet mix of vegetables sitting in but not covered by liquid.

Partially strain and arrange 3/4 of the vegetable mixture evenly on the bottom of a large and flat backing pan/tray. Place the salmon fillet skin-side down on the vegetables. Season the salmon. Strain and place the remainder of the vegetables on the fish. You should have about 1 1/2 cups of liquid left in the bottom of your mixing bowl. Pour that over the salmon.

Bake the salmon for 25-30 minutes, checking half-way and basting the fish with some of the cooking liquid. When the time is up, check that the fish is cooked. It should be a bit "pink" in the middle.

***************

I actually substituted a leek for the advised onion, and didn't have any chervil but did have lemon thyme. I have to confess, being not a very precise cook, that I mixed all the vegetables, creme fraiche, wine and herbs all together before reading that I should have done them separately, and it didn't matter. Also, I got involved in my dinner guests' conversation and completely forgot to baste the salmon as it baked. At all. It was fine! Everyone tucked in and was happy, and ate mammoth portions along with the mashed potatoes and sauteed asparagus. Just delightful. With a nice spicy watercress and rocket salad, and a cheeseboard, and finally brownies and raspberries soaked in Amaretto, it was a delicious dinner. And we had fun. Sophia's family are always up for a nice gathering, plus they have a European enjoyment of the table, and tons of glittering and intelligent conversation. I am always slightly ashamed of my ignorance, in a purely enjoyable way, when I ask Claus a question. Something very basic about an episode in Poland elicited a comprehensive and totally fascinating explanation of issues in Polish history over the past 500 years! And of course there was the requisite rehashing of parent-teacher conferences, Susan diplomatically occupying the spot between hot-headed me and super-cool Claus. And even the girls liked the salmon. Altogether a super evening.

And here's an idea, nicked from my friend Peter: treat the leftover salmon as if it were crab, and make cakes. I mixed up a handful of the salmon with a handful of the leftover mashed potatoes, added some fresh breadcrumbs and a beaten egg and made them into nice hockey-puck-sized patties, rolled them in more breadcrumbs and fried them in canola oil. Well-drained on paper towel and with a nice blob of mayonnaise mixed with chili sauce and lemon juice, they were perfect for dinner last night. Avery preferred her leftovers straight from the baking dish, however.

Yesterday while Avery was at the barn (mostly leading smaller children around by the leadline, instead of riding, to her chagrin), I took a deep breath and drove myself all the way to Vincent's house, in London Bridge. As I dropped Avery at the stable, I realised with a shock that while I had explicit directions from the Bridge to his house, I did not arm myself with any instructions on how to get from the Bayswater Road to the actual river. Oh dear! However, I refused to be daunted, put the top down on Emmy, and resolutely set forth. And I didn't get lost! Not a single wrong turn. Now, most of you will ask yourselves why this is cause for celebration: most people could not MISS the river. But I could. Thrilling to arrive safely!

I had decided it was time, at least for one day, to scotch my academic look and go for contact lenses! And a little makeup. Vincent has very precise standards of how people should look (as he has high standards about everything), not that they need be beautiful or fancy, but they should be true to themselves. I didn't want to disappoint, and after all that scrutiny during the portrait photo shoot, I knew that a little gussying up would not go amiss. And you know what? It felt good, to make a little effort. I picked him up and we drove I cannot even begin to remember where, but ultimately ending up Shoreditch, which I remember from the Christmas children's song that goes in part, "Oranges and lemons, say the bells of St Clements... when I grow rich, say the bells of Shoreditch..." A really charming part of town, sort of Tribeca-feeling. Finally we were in Hackney, and desperately searching among council housing and warehouses for the restaurant, Bistrotheque. I think we saw every street in the postal code! But I didn't mind, because it was a beautiful blue sky day, we had a convertible, and best of all, I wasn't in charge! Finally we ran the place to earth, and honestly you would never even know it was there. Not marked on the outside, a total flat-front warehouse, and the restaurant itself was past an inner courtyard. But once there, as you see, it was gorgeous.

And everyone there (including the waiters) all seemed to have been cast in a play, or a gritty BBC drama, or were in the final throes of preparing for their opening at whatever gallery will become the next White Cube. Or else they looked famous or as if they were about to become famous. We discussed what makes people attractive. Not beautiful, but interesting. Vincent said in his typical urbane sotto voce, "Now, there's style. That girl is wearing a vintage Chanel suit with a ripped t-shirt. She isn't pretty, but..." I agreed and said, "Don't look now, but behind you is a man with yellow hair sticking straight up, like Woodstock, and the person in sequins opposite him is NOT a girl." And before he could look, the girl in the Chanel suit went over and kissed them both. See? Intriguing! What luxury to sit in the muted sunshine of a London March day with a friend and people-talk.

And the food was fine. To be brave and do something blogworthy (it's embarrassing how many times I catch myself doing that), I eschewed the very yummy and rich-looking chorizo with scrambled eggs that Vincent had, and ordered steak tartare and seared red mullet. The steak tartare was excellent, as good as we had in Paris: icy cold, flecked with plenty of capers and chopped cornichons, topped with a perfect, deep-gold egg yolk (and surrounded, unaccountably, by a ring of what turned out to be olive oil, don't know why, but it was pretty). And I discovered I don't much like red mullet. To my mind there are three kinds of fish: shellfish, tall fish, and short fish. Tall fish include cod, and now I know red mullet, and they always seem a bit tough to my taste. Avery and I both are devoted, on the other hand, to the queen of short fish, lemon sole. In any case, I'm glad I tried it, and it was beautifully cooked and lying demurely atop a gorgeous crunchy, garlicky toasted slice of baguette and surrounded by sauteed heirloom tomatoes.

Then Vincent ordered a very refreshing drink for us, which was one of those English traditions that I'd always read about but never tried: elderflower presse. And for once enough ice in an English beverage! I'd say the bartender was catering to ice-happy Americans but I think actually we were the only ones in the room. The drink was long and tall and stuffed with mint and lime, so whatever elderflower itself tastes like, it didn't matter very much.

Through it all we chatted and exchanged recipe ideas. He's trying to sell me on the notion of mashed potatoes with THINGS in them, like Bramley apple, or leek and sundried tomato added while boiling, then mashed and drizzled with lemon juice and olive oil. I myself prefer potatoes unadulterated. And we people-watched. At one point a chap came in in very pointy shoes, distressed jeans, a Fedora and super-dark sunglasses, surveyed the room and seemed to choose the people he found most amusing, and sat down. Minutes later he was striding out of the room deep in conversation on his mobile. One wonders what script was accepted, or what part offered, or what gig dangled. I said in my usual state of self-absorption, "I wonder what anyone would say about me if anyone I know had a blog," and he said, very satisfactorily, "That you go through life sucking all the marrow out of it." Ugly image, but I do like getting the most out of a situation.

After lunch we repaired to the car once more and intended to drive Vincent to a supermarket, but ended up winding our way through parts of Hackney that were rather less savory than the Bistrotheque street. "I'm channeling... Flatbush," I decided. "Or Bensonhurst," Vincent agreed, and strangely enough we found ourselves finally in Bloomsbury and I dropped him at a very dull Sainsburys and collected Avery from the stable.

Well, she has perked up, her fever has dropped (according to assiduous applications by the patient herself, of the intriguing digital thermometer), and she's on the phone with my mother, talking about their... new kitty! Welcome to the family, Maisy, and how clever of Baby Jane to think of such a perfect name. We can't wait to meet her.