29 September, 2007

"Shadowlands," and Charing Cross Road, finally















Goodness, I just came from seeing "Atonement" again, and it was even more riveting and more admirable than the first viewing. Each shot is like a perfect moment under glass: every object in every room a necessary evocation of a moment in time, every performance, and I mean EVERY, noteworthy. No character is imperfectly cast, the music is completely waterworks-producing (especially this little bit of Debussy's "Clair de Lune," which I remember my mother playing on the piano when I was little, so even more reason to get emotional). It is a wonderful, wonderful film and I only wish it were a little less, shall we say, mature in theme, so that Avery could see it. In a couple of years, perhaps. Please go!

Well, Avery was able to accompany us to the PLAY! On Friday night, in Richmond (little did I know it was coming to London at the Wyndham, next week! ah, well, Richmond's always a treat) It's called "Shadowlands", and I've always loved Charles Dance, the actor playing CS Lewis, since seeing him (as you probably all did) in Gosford Park. Then he was magical in Bleak House, as well as in the new series of Marple. And the silly Woody Allen Scarlett Johanssen vehicle Scoop, from last summer, if you can imagine.

In any case, he has always played supercilious, slightly cruel Englishmen, to my experience, and to see him so vulnerable, not to mention LIVE in PERSON, was really a treat. I wasn't sure Avery would enjoy it, being number one a child, and number two, a rather cheerful sort of person, but we dragged her along anyway. Needless to say, as when we saw "Office Suite" there, she was the youngest audience member by at least 30 years, but she loved it. It's a lovely evocation of the love affair between CS (who knew he was called Clive??) Lewis and an American writer. Great performances and a great set depicting an Oxford don's study. Avery thought they were all clergymen, never having seen a don in robes before! Well, of course neither have I, in real life, but I'm so fond of Dorothy L. Sayers that I feel I have.

On a completely different topic, before I forget: my new writing class takes place in the unexpectedly random and unappealing section of Hammersmith adjacent to the tube station, and it is not in any way a destination. Except perhaps one: there is a fantastic food shop to patronise, and I did. Bushwhackers Wholefoods is a darkish, earnest shop that takes itself very seriously indeed, with many posted notices, "Please do not open the olive oil bottles as it spoils our sales," and "Please take as many carrots as you want and close the bag," and "Please let us know if you do not like the music playing and we will certainly switch it off." I bought a fantastic loaf of French sourdough bread, a lovely bottle of olive oil (no sampling) and very fresh beetroots. It's worth a trip if you find yourself in deepest Hammersmith with some time to kill.

Let's see, yesterday found us with an hour while Avery was at acting, and we trotted up to Maida Vale and picked ourselves up what Avery later described as the "best pain au chocolat since Paris," at Baker & Spice, and a very tempting shoulder of lamb from
Sheepdrove Organic Farm, owned and operated by Peter Kindersley, co-founder of Dorling Kindersley, one of the (to my mind) best publishers of educational children's books and videos in the world. Good for them! I must defend them against my husband's understandable objection to food costing too much: of course the shoulder of lamb cost more (about 25 percent more) than at Tesco, but perhaps the proof of the lamb will be in the eating? I will keep you posted. I do love supporting real people making real food, although of course some real farmer must produce the lamb I buy at Tesco; it's just so far removed from me that I can't feel it.

Our life lately has been beset with some minor aggravations this week: the arduous process of choosing and analysing various senior schools that Avery might be able to attend in a year's time, then the applications to fill out and the worrying over how to decide what's best for her. I would like her to stay where she is forever, but alas, she will all too soon outgrow all possibly sizes in uniform and that, after all, is what determines these things. And to wait to collect our completely revamped and refurbished enormous sofa cushion until after we get back from Ireland? Something deep inside me balks at leaving our neurotic Keechie, she who is responsible, after all, for the awful state in which we found the sofa after our summer's absence... will she fall a victim to recidivism? I can't bear to think about it. I'd call you to get your advice only... I still have no phone!

Yes, stupid me, I left my mobile in Connecticut somewhere at the end of the summer, and poor John has spent literally hours on HIS phone with the stupid so-called service people. They keep insisting that we don't have a real address (a mailbox full of bills notwithstanding). Finally he asked them to send the new SIM card to my friend Becky, just to get them to DO something. Of course then the next day, what's in the mailbox? Three SIM cards. We got all excited for a minute, then it turned out that because he reported them undelivered, they're... deactivated. I thought he would explode. A tiny confession: I like not having a phone! I really don't like talking on mobiles, and it's been interesting to see how much more organised and thoughtful in planning ahead we all must have been before we had them. You actually have to BE where you said you would, because you can't change plans! And it's perfectly possible to do. But John's sick of playing social secretary for both me and Avery, on his phone. It's annoying, the whole situation.

To console us, there's the last-ever season of Parkinson! And my darling James McAvoy and the totally charming Harry Connick, Jr. have been stellar guests. Only 10 weeks left, I think, so tune in.


Yesterday found Avery and me in one of my favorite ever sections of London, and I'm ashamed it's taken us nearly two years of living here to get there: the bookshop alleys of Charing Cross Road! Being the bookworms we each are, it's ridiculous that we've stayed away so long, but one gets in a rut, and just goes to the old walking-distance places. And she's a huge fan of 84, Charing Cross Road as well, so double bad mummy me. But it was worth the wait. We were very naughty at my old stomping grounds, Murder One, quite simply the best mystery bookstore ever, topping even, I think, Murder Ink in New York, although I loved that too. I just found out that it closed permanently in January! What is happening to New York? First Claremont Riding Academy, now Murder Ink. The city is in danger of losing its soul of paying the rent continues to kill off business. I can certainly attest to that, after the glory and then tragedy that was my gallery. Ah wel. I'm told there are great mystery bookstores in Dublin, and when we get back from our half-term break there, I'll be sure to report. Avery is beginning to want her own copies of books in my collection, against the eventual day that she'll "pack up all my very own books and arrange them as I please," was her gleeful imagining yesterday. Mostly Agatha Christies, she chose, and it gave me ridiculous pleasure to hearing her wax lyrical over some of my favorites.

Then we were off to Any Amount of Books, a gorgeous musty old place where we picked some of the classics Avery's been asking for, and some poetry, too, since she's a finalist in the school Poetry Reading Competition! Very exciting. She's unstoppable as far as reciting "The Lady Of Shalott" goes, as well as singing Loreena McKennitt's lovely rendition of it. The finals are on Thursday, fingers crossed.

We finished our Charing Cross adventure with a completely indulgent trip to Cybercandy, an over the top candy store, filled with lots of foreign treats, among them American candy from my childhood. Avery was in heaven, and gloated over her finds during our cab ride home through Trafalgar Square, up the Mall. A great way to spend the afternoon.

Well, we're off to collect her at the stable, so enjoy your Sunday, wherever you are. I'll leave you with a cosy Sunday recipe, a nice variation on my original mushroom soup recipe. So easy and so good.

Cream of Mushroom Soup
(serves 4)


4 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1 sweet white onion, roughly chopped
3 tbsps butter
1 pound portobello mushrooms, roughly chopped
4 cups beef stock (commercial works fine)
1/2 tsp dried thyme leaves
1/2 cup whole milk
1/2 cup light or single cream
fresh black pepper and salt to taste

In a heavy saucepan, saute the garlic and onion in the butter till soft, then stir the mushrooms in the mixture until coated with butter. Cover with the beef stock and simmer high until soft, about 20 minutes. Puree with a hand blender and sprinkle with thyme, then stir in milk and cream, and season to taste. Be careful with the salt; commercial stock is quite salty already. Enjoy.

27 September, 2007

things to appreciate


















Do you ever have one of those days when everything you encounter seems like something you just can't live without, and you start worrying about when they won't be there anymore? Or am I just morbidly fearful and Scandinavian? Well, I have those days quite frequently, and so today I've decided to turn myself around and instead of worrying about losing them, just concentrate on being glad I have them. I don't know how successful this strategy will be, going directly counter to my usual method of making even positive things potentially negative, but I'll give it a try.

I have to start with this morning's visit to the "Cafe Rouge" at Avery's beloved school. Every autumn the French teacher organises a coffee morning to benefit the Macmillan Cancer Trust. All the mothers at school are invited to come, in carefully organised groups, and sit in the dining room of the school and be served croissants and coffee by our little gulls. All this is accomplished in what I will again describe as "French," and is very funny. There is a little script on each table denoting what the gulls are meant to say, and what the mothers must say in response. Believe me when I say that any deviation, however small, from this script is met with the blankest of stares. "Bonjour, madame. Bonjour, mademoiselle. Vois avez choisi?" and so on.

Now while I feel understandably that my child is practically perfect in every way, I have to step up and say that her French is not, shall we say, her strongest point. In fact it's dire. How this can be when one of my few talents is foreign languages, I do not know. But even so, we had fun. "Mummy, I'll go get your pain au chocolat, but I don't think you'll really want it, and if you want me to, I can eat it for you." And silly me, I actually asked for three further helpings which it then turned out I did not want. I really think these children would benefit a LOT from having several helpings of pastry at 10:30 in the morning every day. They were all very chipper.

I kept thinking that this time next year, she'll be at a different school, and I will not be welcome anywhere near. I won't be able to buy myself a seat in her school dining room. And soon after that she'll be getting to and from school on her OWN, unbelievably, so no more of my official favorite moment of the day, when she emerges laden with all her clobber and lots of stories about her day. Sob.

Then, get this sad news flash: her uniquely wonderful headmistress has announced her retirement in July. Double sob! From day one, she has been the perfect combination of stiff upper lip and warm hand on one's shoulder. A sense of humour, great tact, genuine love for each child, the whole nine yards. Of course they will find a great replacement no doubt; I would imagine it's a pretty plum job. But it will be an enormous loss. So I stood and chatted with her after the gulls had gone back to class, and we made plans for the Leavers' Annual Book which we're planning to organise all year: a photograph of each child, plus a piece of work from every single one. That will huge fun to accomplish. Sob.

Then, let's see, I sat up very late one night this week and just chatted with my mother. Too infrequently does this happen. It's the time difference, and the general sense that once it's late enough to call her, there's school pickup, homework help, dinner to organise, eat and wash up, bath, stories, songs. But this week I just sat down when everyone else was asleep and we had the nicest time. I got brought up to date on their household projects, and health and cuteness of their new cat, my grandmother's health. And of course there is no better audience than a grandmother for stories about a remarkable child, so I got to spill all my little tales to the one person besides her other grandmother who never gets tired of hearing about Avery. And who is always on my side, in any dispute! I love that.

Also, on the subject of things to love, yesterday I came out of my study to find a note in the hallway from our next-door neighbor saying, "Dear Kristen, Have you lost a torty kitty? There is a very friendly one in the garden that I have never seen before, and I wondered if you had an escapee. Janet." Because yes! Tacy and Hermione have become vagabonds. They discovered, somehow, nearly two years after we moved in, that they can squeeze through my open bedroom window and escape. And after accompanying them a couple of times, I decided that it was worth the tiny risk of some predator being back there (or that rarest of criminals: the kidnapper of worthless mutt cats), and they've been happily coming in and out since, many times a day. Hermione came in once, with something in her mouth. I screamed slightly and said, "John, you've got to go look. If it's dead... and if it's not..." So we both went stealthily over to where her little tabby body was crouched protectively over her prey, and looked. It was a leaf! That first day she went out, she killed at least six leaves and brought them proudly in to give to us, so like fools we find ourselves saying, "Good hunter! Good kitty!" Clearly we both need to get a job.

And yesterday at my class was one of those days when I really adore living in London: the amazing variety of people you meet! Plus I guess when you narrow your cross-section of humanity down to people who want to write autobiographical short fiction, you've already got an interesting bunch. Or at least a memorable bunch. Well, this group of thirteen students promises to live up to its statistical potential. We've got two professional translators: one of Dutch instruction manuals (how big can that market be). He expressed his sort of existential dissatisfaction with his job by observing, "No matter how good you are, and how much you get praised, your greatest accomplishment is in being just like someone else, only in a different language. I need to express MYSELF." In instruction manuals? Why not?

Then, funnily enough, another translator, who's translated all Jean Cocteau's original screenplays. For what purpose, one is tempted to ask, but it's a big city. She's also a psychiatrist, naturally. Then there's a lady who's apparently thrown up her in West Sussex to learn to write her life story, and finds Hammersmith the most confusing place in the world to find one's way around. And a French girl with a degree in comparative literature from the Sorbonne, and a West Indian lady with a lilting voice and giggle, and a lady who speaks French, English and Arabic, and of course my friend Dalia, Lebanese-born and raised in Nigeria and English boarding schools, who's a life coach.

We had a great first day, with one glitch that only time will tell how we can iron out: one of the students, a very frail little lady with a superbly luxurious Italian gilded notebook, interrupted the tutor after perhaps the first ten minutes of the class had gone by and said, "You know, I have no hearing at all in this ear, and very little in the other. I have not heard one word you've said." Silence. What could we do? "You've got to throw your voice, you know," she continued, "throw it right to me. And if anyone else speaks, I cannot possibly notice." Hmm. The tutor said that she would try to speak up (writers are notoriously soft-voiced, Dalia pointed out!) and then gamely suggested that if anyone wanted to make a comment, to raise a hand in warning. "But you see," persisted the lady, "If I'm trying to read your lips, I cannot possibly also be looking for people putting their hands up." Oh dear.

And before we could think of a solution to this, another lady said politely, "And please, no writing on the board, or if you do, you must please tell me what you've written. I have no sight." The tutor looked truly dashed at this point, and a man in a wheelchair said kindly, "We're merely talking about access issues here. Perhaps for our deaf friend we can all speak very firmly, and for our blind friend we can make sure we do not communicate in a way that requires sight. It's all just access issues." All these people have my complete respect because I feel certain if I were similarly challenged, I would just stay home and shrivel up. The blind lady had a fascinating computer system whereby she typed what she was hearing into a laptop and then somehow the laptop spoke back to her what she'd written, in little headphones. And she explained that having this process occur whenever she wrote was actually very instructive, because hearing your own words spoken to you gives a whole new perspective on what you've said. Now that's a positive attitude.

Well, I think my experiment in enjoying rather than dreading has paid off! I'm feeling quite cheerful. We're headed to the skating rink with Avery and Jamie, and then off to Richmond tonight to see "Shadowlands," with Charles Dance who is one of my favorite British actors, and I've just been reading some fantastic reviews. I'll be sure to report. TGIF!

26 September, 2007

Saint Joan, lasagne, and... a new writing course!


















All right, it's an odd combination of subjects. Such is my diverse set of interests these days. First, the play.

I have never read "Saint Joan," by George Bernard Shaw, and it's highly unlikely that I ever will, but the play was an absolute revelation. Now, I confess that I was first drawn to see the play because it stars my crush's wife (well, one has to do what one can to feel close to one's crush). And I have loved her in Shameless and The Way We Live Now. She even had a tiny cameo at the end of Notes on a Scandal. But she, Anne-Marie Duff, was tremendous.

I feel really remiss that I saw it on the last day, so I can't send any of you to it. But honestly, over the summer when I bought the tickets from Connecticut, it was sold out every evening and I got matinee tickets only by the hair of my chinny-chin-chin. I thought: three hours long, burning at the stake, maybe NOT the place to take my ten-year-old child? So we went on the last day, just the two of us. And it was shattering. From the introductory music with old-fashioned bell-ringing and a haunting vocal score by Melanie Pappenheim, through the very disturbing battle of Orleans, and Joan's eventual collapse at her trial, and the last moments of her time at the stake, Duff's performance was a tour de force of every emotion possible. She was vulnerable, passionate, flirtatious, innocent, violent soldier, religious fanatic, and finally at the end, a fragile vision in white blowing ashes over the audience. Amazing.

See her in anything she's in!

From that it was a bit of a comedown to have ordinary life resume, picking Avery up in a rainstorm at Anna's, homework supervision, dinner prep and the like. But I must tell you while I have always felt I had a good lasagne recipe, I have discovered two secrets that I will share with you: and both of them were the result of my laziness. First off, you need to start your tomato sauce in the afternoon because you won't be home until 6 and you don't want to deal with creating it that late in the day. The beauty of this is that the sauce had time to simmer off a large part of its liquid, without which step I find a lot of lasagne is watery. SO make your sauce at noon or so, and rashly leave it out on the stovetop to (you think) shrivel up and die. But NO. This waiting period is a good thing. Then you can turn the heat up under it when you're ready to assemble your lasagne and it is thick and rich and NOT watery.

Second lazy bit: I was at Marks and Spencer grocery shopping and there was no ricotta. Lasagne without ricotta! It surely cannot be. But faced with the choice of "make do with something else" and "go somewhere else," I improvised. And it turns out: half mascarpone cheese and half cottage cheese is FABULOUS. Provides a rich, creamy layer among the pasta and meaty tomato sauce, and is simply divine. Give it a try.

Well, let's see, today it was onto the new writing course. I have been quite devoted to CityLit since I've been here, taking at least four courses in writing various things and really enjoying myself. But I decided to follow the tutor from last term to Birkbeck where our course was today to begin, and I must say she was marvelous. My friend Dalia and I signed up together, and it seemed so strange to me that something planned months ago, in a farmhouse in Connecticut, should be coming to pass in a Hammersmith school building. I never really believe that the things I'm planning for will come to pass, and feel continually amazed when they do; just think, that in March, when this course ends, we'll know where Avery's going to senior school, John will doubtless have a job after our glorious year of no-job, we may even have found a house. It all seems hard to believe.

I confess to being completely whacked right now, having consumed our dinner of roast pork fillet with rosemary, garlic, olive oil and lemon juice, and roasted beetroot, sauteed carrot and asparagus, baked squash and mashed potato. Can you tell I was cleaning out the fridge? I simply took care of every last languishing raw ingredient and we ate, discussing Avery's short story from class today. Is there anything more sensitive than a writing project, having received a bad mark? I don't know, but the brave little soul has revised it to her teacher's content if not her own, and is tucked up with hot water bottles against the early-chill September night. Be cosy, wherever you are.

24 September, 2007

September in London


























Naturally on a sunny autumn Sunday in London, young ladies' thoughts turn to... a little scooping detail after The Blessing of the Horses. Not that you'd know it to look at them, but the girls had a thoroughly good time on Sunday (I turned these photos black and white because they looked SO Dickensian with their brooms and baskets). After last year's experience with this arcane and bizarre (but somehow very sweet) ritual, we definitely were not going to miss the ceremony. Simply dozens and dozens of horses clamoring for attention, whinnying and rearing, lining up in the square to be blessed.

Avery was put in charge of the barn dog, Zola, and struggled along with Ava who had hold of the family dog Holly. The riders were chosen by lottery, and sadly none of our girls won out, but the dog duty was pretty nice as well. Then home for a quick lunch while Avery ate hers at the stable, and we all met up again at the ring on the Knightsbridge side of the park for the gymkhana. Avery has progressed (or simply aged, I guess) to being in charge of the little ones and spent most of the show trotting with a lead rope in her hand, kicking up immense amounts of dust while she led a little girl across the jumps. But she was rewarded by being classed with the big girls for the real jumping later! A glorious afternoon hanging out with Becky and Mark, and Avery was more than happy to repose for a long time in a warm bath afterward.

We spent Saturday evening with Avery's friend Julia's family seeing "As You Like It" again, at the quaint little Curzon Mayfair cinema (a hidden little Mayfair jewel)and I would highly recommend it if you have a chance. Great casting wtih lots of faces you'll recognize (Kevin Kline and Adrian Lester among them), and all the girls enjoyed it. Pizza afterward at a little joint in Shepherd Market and lots of conversation about the upcoming school poetry reciting competition (they can find ANYTHING to compete about at that school!), plans for October break, the hidden Jungian meaning of the play (well, that was Julia's intellectual mother, not me). A really nice night.

Saturday itself was one of those afternoons that makes me truly love living in London, on a gorgeous sparkly autumn afternoon. We dropped Avery off at her acting class (she says a casting agent came to watch!) and then John left me up at the top of the Marylebone High Street to run a couple of errands, and it was such a pleasure! Starting off at the little food and clothing market that runs on the weekends, I was able to pick up a bottle of my favorite Danilo Manco super-spicy chilli-infused olive oil, which makes any salad better. And a great olive-oily rosemary foccacia from The Flour Station, and even a stem ginger cake from Rummanco. Such nice people, and so pleasant to buy real food from actual people who made it.

From the market I sauntered on to Daunt Books, always a dangerous thing to do, especially if I have my wallet with me. I ended up with a copy of Amsterdam, the Booker Prize-winning novel by Ian McEwan, whose Atonement is such a stunning film this fall. I can't stop thinking about that film, although it could be that I just can't stop thinking about James McAvoy. An understandable obsession these days! Plus, some travel books about Ireland, to get ready for our October break: two days in Dublin and four days at a haunted castle in County Kilkenny! Can't wait for that. There's something about the experience at Daunt that makes me feel there's hope for us all: staff who genuinely want to help you find something good (and they're nice to Avery, which always makes a big difference), piles of books you would never find in America like biographies of obscure gardeners and diarists), a soaring sunlit travel section (I love it that Shakespeare appears in the English travel section), and lots of contented customers perusing the dark wood bookshelves.

It was but a step from there to FishWorks, which while I recognize is a chain of sorts, and not the family-owned fishmonger that used to inhabit the shop, is nonetheless a solid purveyor of great fish, and the guys in the front who filleted my lemon sole for me are so kind. We discoursed about my discovery of The Fish Society as a place to buy softshell crabs, and recipes for lemon sole, and I felt happy. To be here! I suppose someday all these little errands will become commonplace, but not yet.

Right now I must eat some lunch (yellowfin tuna with red peppers, red onions, lemon zest and horseradish, anyone?), but then I'll tell you about..."Saint Joan." What a play! I'll leave you with a perfect simple autumn recipe. It just about invented coziness.

Applesauce
(perfect for a little girl's breakfast)


4 seasonal apples (I love the classic Bramley)
1 tsp each: cinnamon, ground cloves, nutmeg
juice of 1 lemon
1/2 cup brown sugar
splash apple juice

Put all ingredients to simmer and let the smell comfort you as you try in vain to understand your child's maths homework. Factors? Never heard of the things. After about half an hour you can mash the apples with a potato masher (or leave them chunky if you like it that way. Perfect with an oatmeal cookie.

19 September, 2007

"As You Like It" (and we did), plus Maze, oh my
























Oh, my film and television friend Sue took me to the most impressive and enjoyable screening (I'm throwing about that cool word) of "As You Like It," at Bafta! I've never been to 195 Piccadilly, home of the British Academy of Film and Television Awards, but it's very swanky, very plushy, all the chairs in the screening room labelled discreetly in brass with "Endowed by Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones," or some such luminary's name. There is a strict house rule that no one makes a sound from the moment the lights go down until the last credit rolls, which makes the atmosphere much more anticipatory than your ordinary theatre. And the film was lovely! Great performances from the gorgeous Bryce Dallas Howard and David Oyelowo made the entire film worthwhile, and Kenneth Branagh's direction is fresh and energetic. It opened last night in regular theatres and I would say it's worth an evening. We're going to take Avery and her friend Jamie to see it tonight, and I think it will be very interesting to see if 10-year-olds can follow a very cheerful and cheeky but still Shakespearean plot.

Where on earth did the week go? I saw the film on Monday night, and now what do I have to show for the following four days? I can't imagine. Well, first paired reading on Tuesday morning with my little Form Three gulls, who have grown quite shockingly since last July. Enid Blyton, Dick King-Smith, all the favorites were trotted out in their posh little accents. I hate to think that this time next year, I will have no reason to hang out at King's College, where there are truly little children. Instead Avery will be the youngest at a new school, surrounded by... teenagers. How did that happen?

We made a ruinous trip to Riders and Squires in South Kensington, for new half-chaps and gloves. This world is littered, from sea to shining sea, with riding gloves Avery has left in one barn or another. It's like socks in the dryer. Anna came with us, since the girls were in a state of delirious happiness at having been named "Environment Prefects" at school. Now, while you might think that this job would entail encouraging their schoolmates to recycle, it seems that it's actually to do with making the school environment more appealing. So right away, they took bunches of flowers in the next day. Surely we can't have signed on for supplying the school with flowers all year?

And I made a nice trip that afternoon to the nearby Whole Foods, as tantalizingly stocked with glorious choices as ever. I came away with three whole lemon soles, having watched them be filleted right before my eyes. Trying that process once was enough for me. Leave it to the professionals, I say. But it was completely delicious. Be sure to get wholemeal flour (it's often labelled "for breadmaking", I like Hovis). It has much more body, grain and flavour than all-purpose flour. Save that for a nice apple cake.

Completely Simple Sauteed Lemon Sole
(serves 3)


1 whole lemon sole per person, filleted and skin removed
strong wholemeal flour for dipping
1 tsp each: garlic powder
dried basil
paprika
lemon pepper
pinch salt
2 tbsps vegetable oil
2 tbsps butter

Mix the herbs into the flour on a plate with a fork. Have another empty plate ready.
Rinse each fish fillet and dredge thoroughly in the herbed flour, piling them on the plate to await sauteeing. Now, heat the oil and butter in your largest skillet and when it's hot, lay each fillet in carefully in a single layer. Saute on relatively high heat for about 2 minutes, then carefully turn over and cook for another 2-3 minutes. Perfect.

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

And how about another night of completely simple fish, for your Omega-3 oils?

Salmon with Soy, Ginger and Garlic
(serves 3)


4 fillets of salmon, skinless
1-inch knob ginger, peeled and minced
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tbsps soy sauce
1 tsp sesame oil

Lay the salmon fillets in a glass dish in a single layer. Sprinkle with ginger, garlic, soy and sesame. Bake at 425 degrees for 20 minutes. That's it.

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

In our experience, you need to allow for one fillet per person plus one extra if you're three. It's so light and delicious that you'll find each person needs one more little helping. With both these dishes, a generous blob of mashed potatoes and a nice green veg are all you need. Or if you're Avery, copious numbers of slivered red peppers, sauteed in olive oil.

But really, what did I accomplish this week? Not much. Avery had her first weekday riding lesson since summer, and the ponies were feeling fresh. Little Ellie was tumbled off Seymour, Brody gave Anna a hard time, and even Amber was a little frisky for Avery. But the rain that threatened the beginning of the lesson blew over, thankfully, so I was left just shivering, but not actually soaking wet.

John and I have been taking long, long morning walks in the park, and I realize something odd: you'd think that a summer spent in the countryside of Connecticut would leave you really fit, with plenty of exercise, but not so. It's much easier to stay fit in a city where you've got to walk everywhere, than in the country where you jump in your car. So my legs are thankful it's autumn.

Well, one thing I did manage to organise: our Irish holiday in October! We'll be staying in a castle, mind you, lovingly restored by Irish Landmark Trust, just outside Waterford. I've still got to get a hotel for us in Dublin for the first two nights. Has anyone stayed at the Dylan? It sounds frightfully chic, when I'd really rather a place that was old Irish, cosy and warm. But Dublin seems to run to either threadbare and smokey-smelling, or frightfully chic. It sounds like such a great adventure.

Then, without a doubt the crowning glory of the week was yesterday's lunch at Maze. We have been intending to go there since we moved to London, such is the reputation of the Gordon Ramsay stronghold in Grosvenor Square. But as so often happens, it takes someone else's motivation to get the thing done. My barn-mother friend Kristin mentioned at pickup on Thursday that she was going for her birthday with our mutual friend Becky, and did I want to join? Well, I really should have been grocery shopping, or getting up to date on my photo albums, or writing the introduction to this cookbook I'm working on, but it was the work of a moment to drop all that nonsense. And I'm so glad I did. It was ridiculously... over the top.

I thought I'd seen about everything as far as precious presentation and funky ingredients go, but this restaurant is beyond the pale. I have never before needed to keep back a copy of the menu as a reference guide during the meal! We began laughing when the first course came (carpaccio of tuna and swordfish with lime and cucumber marinade, soya dressing) and never stopped till the last bite. I could have eaten six helpings of the tuna dish: little translucent medallions the size of pound coins, of each fish, topped with edible flowers (the waiter said, with a surprising degree of humour in one so doggedly French), "Don't, of course, eat the flowers. They are quite lethal. Just kidding." Then Becky had ordered "Jerusalem artichoke veloute with braised Gressingham duck leg," and was most surprised when along came a tiny white bowl with a scattering of little brown objects in the very bottom, which was promptly covered by a stream of liquid from a gravy boat by the assiduous waiter. The little brown objects turned out to be the duck leg, cubed incredibly small, and the liquid the soup. Unbelievably subtle and delicious flavours, quite indescribable. Then there was "honey and soy roasted quail with Landes foie gras and spiced pear chutney," and would you believe Becky does not like foie gras? I felt it was the least I could do to take her portion away: every so lightly sauteed with a crust of minced chives, sea salt and fresh black pepper, YUM.

Then I had "Roasted Orkney sea scallops with cured ham and maple syrup, egg and peas." But this description cannot convey the minute perfection of the dish: "egg and peas"? Try one minuscule quail's egg, sunny side up, and a lashing of bright green pea puree. Magical!

We had so much fun. And while it was expensive (about 30 pounds a person), we all felt that for the ridiculous luxury and the absolute perfection of every bite, it was worth the money for a special occasion. And Gordon was there! He signed copies of his latest cookbook, "Fast Food," for us. Now I must say that even with the celebrity glow, and the memory of the fabulous lunch, the cookbook itself is... very lazy. Only a celebrity chef could get away with such a nebulous concept, such forgettable recipes, and such bad photography. I have to be honest. I think I would have been better off with one of his over-the-top silly cookbooks with uncookable fancy food. More like fiction than real-life.

What fun. It was one of those afternoons when all was right with the world: good friends, a beautiful atmosphere, the early-autumn leaves of Grosvenor Square just beginning to fall outside the windows, perfect food. Thanks for including me, girls.

16 September, 2007

the mystery of softshell crabs, and a gorgeous chicken dish




















Just a photo to add to the endless compilation of images of Avery harassing wild birds in public places. She will not be disturbed in her quest to catch one, and follows them around saying, "Here chickabiddy, here chickabiddy," a la Betsy-Tacy.

Well, I can report a qualified success on the softshell crabs! I say "qualified," because while they were very good, they were nothing at ALL like the restaurant crabs I love so much and wanted to replicate. Somehow in the space between getting the list of ingredients and the cooking method from the nice waitress at Mandarin Kitchen, and producing them in my own kitchen, a crucial element (probably magic) was lost. They were very good, and since you probably haven't sampled them from Mandarin Kitchen, I can give you this recipe with all confidence that you will enjoy it. It just wasn't what I was expecting.

Deep-Fried Softshell Crabs with Garlic and Chilli
(serves three)


6 softshell crabs, thoroughly thawed and drained
2 tbsps peanut oil
1 tsp sesame oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 medium-hot red chillies, minced
1 bunch scallions (salad onions), sliced thin
1-inch knob ginger, chopped
generous pinch sea salt, preferably Maldon
generous amount fresh-ground black pepper
peanut oil to come up 3 inches in cooking utensil (I used a borrowed small wok, thanks, Vincent)
bowl of all-purpose flour

In a small skillet, fry the garlic, chillies, scallions and ginger in the two oils. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and keep on low heat.

Now be ready with a platter lined with several layers of paper towel. Heat the peanut oil in the wok until a little piece of bread or onion fries instantly. Dip the crabs one by one in the flour to coat thoroughly and place carefully in the hot oil. Be prepared to be spit upon occasionally, so wear an all-covering apron. Carefully turn the crab over (mine tended to want to lie on their sides) to make sure all surfaces are cooked directly in the oil. The crabs will float, which means the top bit will not be submerged. Turn frequently. After about five minutes in the oil, remove with a slotted spoon or tongs and drain on the paper towel.

I had two crabs in the oil at any given time, watching them carefully to remember which one had gone in first.

Place on a pretty plate and sprinkle with the garnish. Serve immediately.

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

They were delicious! I cannot praise "The Fish Society" highly enough. The crabs arrived promptly, completely frozen in dry ice packs. Their quality was much higher than the actual crab in the restaurant: meaty and substantial, and tasting of perfectly fresh seafood. I will happily order from them again. Apparently, this UK-run company gets its softshells from Thailand, but the purveyors there are former Bostonian fishermen! I love that. You would not believe the variety of seafood available from this company. Dive in and order something exotic.

When I told Becky blithely last week that I was going to buy some softshell crabs (not knowing that it simply can't be done outside Chinatown and I was too intimidated), she laughed and said, "Oh, Mark will be by later then to pick up Anna and... some softshell crabs. He adores them." So it was but the work of a moment to pick up the phone when they arrived in the post and arrange a dinner. Naturally not one single child would consider eating one, nor would Becky herself, so she brought her incomparable Chicken Marbella, chock-a-block with garlic, olive, capers and prunes. It was perfect, and the noodles and sprouts I made to go with both went down a treat. Anna, Avery and Ellie were all rather filthy in their horseback riding gear, after a day at the barn, but never mind. Ashley was, in her teenage way, perfectly turned out and sat with the adults. That mysterious transformation from little girl to young lady is, of course, taking place.

Becky and Mark have the loveliest aura of Southern gentlefolk! I love to hear Becky say "visit" as she does. "It's so nice to have a chance to visit," she will say, or tell Mark on the phone, "I'm just here visiting with Kristen." It's good to have people in your life who you know instinctively (and by now with a fair amount of practical proof!) will always, always do the right thing in any situation. In any big city, any big competitive environment, I've found, there's a goodly display of expediency. What will this relationship, or this decision, net me today? some people ask themselves. This was SO not a part of my growing up in the Midwest (or at least in my family, with our friends) that when I first encountered it in the East, and certainly in London, I was taken aback. It's not evil, it's just... expedient. And happily, Becky and Mark are just about the least expedient people I know. They are in it for being good, and honest. It's certainly an example I like having in my life, and set before my daughter. And they're a hoot, besides! John and Mark know lots of business people in common, so stories were fast and furious about "idiot hedge fund managers I have knows," and "investment bankers who have screamed at me," and extravagant birthday parties run amok in the business world.

It occurred to me, not for the first time, that the life John has been living for the past year, happily unemployed, has run its course. His mind really thrives on all those stories, all that knowledge and history. It's about time for him to get a job. But nothing, nothing could ever replace the world we've had for a year. A world with one small child and two parents to look after her, lunch together every day, my husband to tell everything to all day, get his perspective, a year when he knew all the stories, all Avery's friends, never missed a performance or a party or a playdate. Still, all good things must come to an end, and the realisation of this dawned last week when a bunch of us mothers (John included) were talking about senior school decision. "It's all about the uniform," John declared. "The Godolphin gray and red is really nice..." Suddenly he caught Becky's eye and she burst out laughing. He said ruefully, "It's time for me to get a job, when I have opinions on SCHOOL UNIFORMS!"

In any case, we had a lovely evening. Becky brought just enough dessert for all of us (to supplement my dessert-challenged contribution: mixed berries with Cointreau): peanut butter cookies topped with mini Reese's peanut butter cups and chocolate chips. Only... while the little girls were away from the table playing dressup or whatever, we ate them ALL. Oops. A super evening with super friends.

Becky's Chicken Marbella
(serves 10-12)

4 chickens, 2 1/2 pounds each, quartered
1 head of garlic, peeled and pureed
1/4 cup oregano
coarse salt and ground black pepper, to taste
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 cup olive oil
1 cup pitted prunes
1/2 cup pitted Spanish green olives
1/2 cup capers with a bit of juice
6 bay leaves
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup white wine
1/4 cup Italian parsley or cilantro, finely chopped

In a large bowl combine chicken, garlic, oregano, pepper, salt, vinegar, olive, oil, prunes, olives, capers and bay leaves. Cover and let marinate refrigerated overnight.

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Arrange chicken in a single layer in 1 or 2 shallow baking pans (depending on size) and spoon marinade over it evenly. Sprinkle chicken pieces with brown sugar and pour white wine around them. Bake for 50 minutes-1 hour (you know your oven).

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

So today was another day, and I traipsed over after school to my friend Nancy's house with Avery and Nancy's adorable daughter Sally, to have a snack and do homework and catch up on life gossip. On the way Avery and Sally commiserated on the not so much evil, as completely incompetent French teacher at King's College. "Mademoiselle... Stanway!" Sally chortled. "My brother calls her Mademoiselle Steinway, because he's obsessed with piano," she added, and Avery said, "We learned the signs of the ZODIAC today. Why? I can't even say 'down.' Or 'up' for that matter!" We arrived at their gorgeous Nash house off Regent's Park and Diana served us a lovely fresh apple cake and the girls settled down to homework while we chatted. Diana is the UK coordinator for Barack Obama's campaign, so I was happy to get a bird's-eye view of that situation. I don't know enough, frankly, to have a strong opinion on the various candidates, but Diana is passionate about Obama (as she is about everything she cares about; Diana is an intense and intensely passionate person in general), so I listened. I wish I had the firm conviction that any one person can change anything as enormous as the American political scene (and therefore, I'm afraid, a lot of other things). I'm too much of a dreamy non-politician to have a firm grasp of any given year's choices to get too awfully committed to any one of them. But it's a lot of fun to have the chance to learn from the woman behind the man (at least one of them!).

Tonight I'm abandoning my family to leftovers (Becky's chicken will not go unappreciated, thank you!), while I head with my friend Sue (aka 6point7 to see an advance screening of "As You Like It" at Bafta. I'll be interesting tomorrow, I promise.

Atonement


















I really mean it. If you are in the UK and "Atonement" is playing ANYWHERE near you, run, do not walk. It is staggering.

Of course I adore James McAvoy, who wouldn't. He was spectacular in Narnia, in Last King of Scotland, in the BBC telly programme "Shameless." He was even wonderful in "Becoming Jane," a sort of Jane Austen Lite. But in this film he is incandescent. You can't take your eyes off the screen. The man can act more with a lift of his eyelids than most actors can with their entire bodies. Quite simply the most compelling love scene ever in a film I've seen, and done so stunningly in a sort of postmodern now-and-earlier fashion, where you see the eventuality from more than one point of view: breathtaking. How anyone could come away from this film never having been deeply in love, and survive... I don't know. I wish he had more chance to smile in any film: his smile is enchanting and wicked. Luckily I had my loyal husband with me, who was similarly (if not equally) enthralled. A fabulous film.

And the sound editing! You can hear cigarettes light, kisses happen, drops of water fall. And the DP! Whoever he is: the fall of garments! And the art director: the bedrooms full of 1930s clobber that puts you RIGHT in the scene. And the MUSIC. One Debussy strain will leave you weeping. Gorgeous. I'm still thinking about it 10 hours later, and plan to see it again.

You must see it. And when it comes to the US (don't know when exactly) you must not say, "Well, it will come out on DVD." No, the World War II scenes especially MUST be seen on the big screen. Do go. You will be captivated for 2 hours and 3 minutes. Take tissues. You will need them.

15 September, 2007

a trip to Kew, and a birthday party









































First I have to say: this is the crazy kitty who has been such a problem to us. And yet: since we got home from the summer she's been nothing but a delight. Look at this serenity. Cats are a mystery.

Saturday dawned incredibly fair and cool, truly the perfect weather in any city, anywhere. Slightly chilly in the shade, perfect in the sun. Blue skies and tiny white clouds. I think we brought this weather with us from Connecticut. So we decided the day could not be spent indoors, and in a rush jumped into Emmy and headed to Kew, to the and the Henry Moore show that opened today. Why wait? We are such suckers for anything advertised on the sides of buses, I hate to say. Henry Moore at Kew? Done! No research needed.

Except that we did. Need research, that is. So consider your research done, my friends: I have suffered for you. Not suffered in any significant sense, mind you, and probably everyone knows what I'm about to tell you, but I didn't. Tip one: the traffic can turn wicked on the way to Richmond, and it took us nearly an hour to get there. Tip two: the cafe is disgusting and the snack-ish shop worse, and both very expensive. Tip three: one could spend an entire day, even more, at the RBG and not make a dent.

So here's what happened. We had three hours to enjoy between sleeping late and Avery's acting class, so we blithely headed off. Got stressed, in a minor way, by the unexpectedly inflated traffic. Arrived starving and were forced to eat repulsive sandwiches and drink something unfathomable called Fentiman's Dandelion and Burdock Something or Other, AWFUL. And by the time we arrived we had just an hour and a half to spend and didn't get to see a tenth of what we wanted to.

But that's the bad news. The good news is I was with the two least complaining, most agreeable people I know, and so we made the proverbial lemons into... well, at least not Dandelion Elixir. In future, I think I'd drive through town and Chiswick and avoid the motorway. As it was, we all just bit the bullet and enjoyed the walk from the car park to the Gardens (hop the brick wall and you'll find yourself on the tow lane for the river, looking right down to the Thames and all its exotic water birds), then paid the surprisingly enormous fee to get in, and swallowed our awful lunch with good humour. Mostly we planned on the picnic we would bring the next time, when we'd have all day: egg salad with cress, duck pate sandwiches, roast chicken, potato salad with scallions and dill, strawberries and cream. It's easy to dream. With a book each (as it was only Avery had something to read, "The Princess Bride," with which she is obsessed lately in an adorable way, but at least she loves to read aloud), a nice waterproof rug to lie on, and all day to spend, it would be heaven.

And plan to spend all DAY. There are nearly 30 sculptures by the genius Henry Moore, one of my mid-century favorites, heavily influenced in the negative by my old chum Rodin, scattered around the acres of gardens. We got to see almost a dozen, wandering around toward the Palm Court and taking a brief trip through the marine life centre, a sort of mini aquarium. Lovely.

But it ended all too soon. We got back into town just in time to deliver Avery to her acting class, and for me to birthday-shop for our friend Estee, celebrating her eighth in style in Bermondsey. And luckily her father Vincent was cooking, in a BIG way.

Whole Gammon
(serves at least 10 adults and 8 children, plus leftovers that can be dangled cruelly over guests' heads as "ham and eggs" next morning)

1 whole smoked gammon (it weighed at least 10 kilos)
honey and mustard

Boil the gammon in water for 3 hours. Then remove and place in roasting pan and cover with a glaze of honey mixed with mustard, and roast in a medium oven for at least 2 hours. Alternatively, you may roast it in a low oven all day, at least 7 hours.

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

This, with the simplest of potato salads, tiny new carrots steamed and drizzled with olive oil, and a green salad, was the perfect large party menu. And an ENORMOUS chocolate cake of Vincent's own design, studded with Smarties.

And the presents! We gave her the present of the moment, in my opinion: simple and perfect. A pile of white t-shirts and a set of fabric markers. She immediately had everyone sign it, as a memento of her birthday party, dear girl.

What great guests: Kate and Malcolm, architects extraordinaire, Tara and Brian, happy former owners of "Fresh and Wild" (I had a stirring discussion with him about the sale to Whole Foods, that bastion of epicurean controversy). Brian is now deeply into his new concern, Nude skincare, a completely organic cosmetics group if you can imagine. I can scarcely be bothered to slap my face with whatever's left from my body lotion after a shower, but fair enough, I know most women are much more careful of their appearance. Lord knows I should be. And there was our old friend Boyd. This made me very sentimental: Avery caught sight of Boyd and hissed under her breath, "You never told me Boyd was here!" The friendships that were nurtured by that trip to Morocco will never die. And there were new friends Nick and Tony, a tremendously congenial and happy group.

We all simply ate and talked until we couldn't anymore, watched the present-opening and Vincent's heartwarming joy in the gathering of his beloved daughters, their friends, his friends. Perfect company, delicious food, good music, a great birthday. Thanks for inviting us, Estee. The next party's on us.

14 September, 2007

a really funny film, and the new best lamb















Well, it's not a classic yet, but it might become one. "Run, Fatboy, Run" is really worth seeing, if you like self-deprecating, sophisticated English comedy. I don't know if it will have wide release in the States, but it should. It always amazes me that we here in England can really love an actor like Simon Pegg, and he can be phenomenally successful here, and yet there aren't a lot of Americans who will recognize him. Whenever I think that our two cultures are gradually merging and losing all individual identity, I comfort myself with that fact. Although I'd like him to be successful.

Anyway, my gorgeous friend Dalia and I met up yesterday for lunch (I was in food-spy mode as I tried to identify all the ingredients in my favorite soft-shell crabs at Mandarin Kitchen), and to see the film. First we had to catch up (her summer trip back to her Lebanese family in Nigeria (how exotic is that?) and discuss the food. She recommended the crabmeat and sweetcorn soup, and it was delicious, but take a leaf from Dalia's book and order soy sauce and chilli sauce to go with it, as it kicks the flavor up from its original rather bland stance.

I can't wait till our new writing course begins week after next: "Prose Fiction and Autobiography" at Birkbeck, part of the University of London. Everyone not employed fulltime should take note: so many colleges do part-time courses, and it's a great inexpensive way to try out a new subject and make English friends. It will be so nice to see Dalia every week, instead of the random get-togethers we manage now. She is my polar opposite in nearly every way: little and dark, with a fiery temper and very strong, passionate opinions about absolutely everything. She is a fascinating combination of terribly strong and very gentle, and one of those comforting friends where I could turn to her in any situation and know that she would be on my side. And we haven't even been friends for a very long time. But it's been a joy to have her to play with. Plus she's married to a saxophone-playing model with what has to be a devastating Irish accent. I can't wait to meet him.

So I weasled what will have to pass for a recipe from the head waitress (most importantly, no batter, just flour), and I'll be giving it a try when Becky and her family come to dinner on Sunday. Becky's bringing her famous Chicken Marbella as well, since neither she nor any child would consent to eating soft-shell crabs! I hope I'll have both my recipe and Becky's when Monday morning comes around.

The movie was great fun. A rather silly premise: man throws pregnant fiance over at the altar, then fast-forwards five years and wants her back, but has to compete with her obnoxious American (sadly a rather repetitive description over here, I'm afraid) boyfriend who runs marathons. So Simon Pegg's character decides to run the marathon as well. But running underneath is a sweet story between Pegg and his little son, and a hilarious friendship between Pegg and the DIVINE Dylan Moran. I am such a sucker for an Irish accent! Or Scottish, come to that. And it's an in-love-with-London film. Great panoramic shots as well as cosy neighborhood rambles. You'll love it.

I met up with Avery and John at the incomparable Daunt Books in the Marylebone High Street, and we came away with an embarrassing stack of books. I can't seem to say no to a book purchase. She is in such heaven in a bookstore or library, and then reads them all over and over. "Are you sure you need ALL those books, Avery?" She thought for a moment. "I suppose I could go over them again," she said, and came up with a couple she thought she could live without, including a gorgeous book on the Flower Fairies she loves so much. "How about if you wait until your birthday for that one? It's not very far away," I suggested, and the little dear agreed, because she is a nice person. "But Mummy," she averred, "I know to a grownup seven weeks is not a long time, but to me..."

Now the last few days there has been a little nip in the air, and more than occasional leaves drifting down into the garden. The giant tree (that if I were a real English person I could identify) at the bottom of the garden is turning from its dark summer green to a sort of yellowy shade, and I know it won't be long before the whole garden is stripped of its leaves, so I'm enjoying it. It also makes me think of wintry foods, and so last night's dinner was appropriately warming. I need to think of a better name for this recipe, clearly, schmier being the only word that comes to mind (in Alyssa's voice, since this week was Rosh Hashanah). But the coating wasn't crispy so it couldn't be called a crust, nor was it dry so it wasn't a rub. Help!

Shoulder of Lamb with a Pinenut-Spice Schmier
(serves four)


1 whole lamb shoulder
juice of a lime
2 tbsps olive oil
8 cloves garlic
3/4 cup pinenuts
1 tsp each: ground cumin, coriander, turmeric
1/2 tsp ground white pepper

Place four of the garlic cloves into the lamb with the help of a sharp little knife. Place the other four cloves and all the schmier ingredients in a food processor and whiz until nicely chopped and mixed. Line your roasting dish with foil for easy cleanup and... well, there's no other word for it. Schmier it all over the lamb, top and bottom. Roast at 400 degrees for at least 2 hours, turning twice and basting. Let rest for five minutes or so before carving, which I do spectacularly badly.

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

With this we had our favorite spinach and cheese casserole. It's a very forgiving recipe. Because I was feeling lazy, I reverted to frozen spinach, and because I had not adequately grocery shopped, I had no evaporated milk. I used skim milk and some parmesan cheese instead, and it was lovely. There being a refrigerator full of cheese, I did not indulgently buy something special for the casserole, and it turns out Red Leicester is fabulous in this dish.

Well, today is back to the skating rink for Avery. I will just be glad to get away from this desk and its piles of passport applications, school applications, insurance forms, accountants' bills and the like. TGIF!

10 September, 2007

Pakistani politics and sprouts














So. We're walking home from the car yesterday evening and there's a huge crowd of Asian photographers with huge furry microphones and all sorts of equipment, hanging about the doorway of the block of flats across the way. John approached one of the guys sitting on the stoop of our building and said, "Hey, who's coming out?" "The former Prime Minister of Pakistan," the fellow answered, and sure enough, like clockwork, up went a bunch of green flags with a man's picture printed on it, and the man himself emerged from the building. "Cool," John said, and aside from watching in my apron from the kitchen window, I didn't give the matter much further thought.

Until the Breakfast News this morning.

"Former Prime Minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, left his posh red-velvet flat in London's Mayfair today for Heathrow Airport, to fly to his native Pakistan where the Supreme Court has overturned his exile." Then, later in the day, he was deported to Saudi Arabia, pending further Supreme Court machinations with General Musharraf. To think this was all happening in our very own neighborhood! One day last spring John said, "Run to the window, there's David Frost across the street!" He must have been going to interview this chap. Amazing!

Nearly as interesting as these international politics on our doorstep is... a lovely sprout dish I invented tonight. It's a variation on the leftover flank steak recipe I made for lunch at Red Gate Farm this summer. This requires no leftovers, and includes even more veg, for your health. Enjoy.

Stir-Fried Chicken with Sprouts, Noodles and Red Pepper
(serves four)


1 1/2 lb chicken breasts, skinless and boneless, cut in strips
juice of 1 lime
juice of 1 lemon
3 tbsps soy sauce, plus more for sprinkling
2 tbsps mirin
1 tbsp sesame oil
3 tbsps peanut oil
2 red bell peppers, cut in strips
1 red chili, chopped and seeds removed
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 2-inch knob ginger, peeled and minced
1 bunch scallions, sliced thin
3 cups (one standard package) bean sprouts
100 grams Asian noodles (I like Sharwoods, here in the UK)

First, marinate your chicken in the juices, soy, mirin and sesame oil. Then boil water and cook your noodles, and set aside. Chop your peppers, garlic, ginger and scallions, and you're in business.

Heat the peanut oil as hot as you can in a skillet or wok, and throw in the chicken. Cook just until not pink inside and remove from skillet. Add the vegetables and saute until just cooked. Throw the noodles and chicken (and the juices from its dish) into the mix and toss thoroughly with tongs, sprinkling with more soy sauce to make a nice texture. Voila.

**********

This was fantastic. So simple, so inexpensive, so easy. Colorful and children will LOVE it. It had all Avery's favorite things: chicken, peppers, noodles and SALT.

Let's see: tomorrow will be the unhappy anniversary, which does not mean so much here so it was perfectly normal for the school to plan its 5th anniversary celebration. So tomorrow afternoon will find us gathering at All Souls Church in Langham Place to hear the sounds of little piping voices. I myself still find it hard to buy milk or anything else whose sell-by date is stamped September 11. Such a dumb thing, but I feel that way. It's just too evocative, still. Ah, well, some people assert that after six years it is time to move on and stop observing anniversaries and reliving and such. I'm not sure about that, so we will be getting together with our New York friends, the McBs and Vincent and Peter, but just to get together. And to cook and eat! I haven't a clue about the menu yet, but I will let you know. Doubtless, with that cast of characters, the food will be noteworthy. Wherever tomorrow finds you, be safe and put an arm around someone you love. Even maybe two, arms and a someone.

09 September, 2007

autumnal-ish developments


































I simply cannot believe it's been only a week since we got home. I must just be slow-witted or something, but it takes me a goodish while (more than a week, apparently) to incorporate that we don't get to see Jill, Joel and Jane anymore (sob), we don't have daily visits from Farmer Rollie keeping us informed on the price of fertilizer, I can't call my mother without checking my watch, and there is never enough ice.

On the other hand, it feels more lucky than possible to be back at the steps of King's College at pickup time, listening to the stentorian and authoritative (but strangely dulcet) tones of the headmistress saying, "How good to see you, Mrs Curran," turning on the television and seeing not mind-numbing "Wheel of Fortune" (Avery's absolute summer favorite), but on the BBC presenting "How We Built Britain," a television programme that would turn any American who doesn't appreciate the British spirit into an absolute Anglophile. In fact, John says seriously that if I get an opportunity to leave him for David, he will understand, and in fact he would leave ME for David if the chance arose. He's just that charismatic. I love men of that age who charm department store clerks and chimney sweeps. Of course if you can't play the British DVD, then buy the book. I love it.

Then, too, to help heal the wounds of leaving Connecticut, there is always... a visit to my British doctor's office. Just a checkup for Avery (blooming, perfect in every way, knock wood), but well worth it to read the notices in the waiting room (furnished with sagging leather sofas, layer upon layer of threadbare Oriental rugs and festooned with plaster roses in the ceiling, lovely), and to peruse the covers of the many issues of "Country Life" magazine on the table. Let's see: "Please refrain from use of mobile phones whilst in the waiting room," and "Please do not change babies' napkins in the waiting room." How civilised. And the magazines: "All Hail the Westie," "How Wordsworth Lived At Home," and my personal favourite, "Gundogs: Why I Would Never Shoot Without One." Indeed. And the doctor herself, so calm and patient. And admiring, so I love her. "I do so admire the way American children are able to speak right up to an adult, look her in the eye, actually hold a conversation," she said, which surprised me because in my experience of English children that's just the sort of thing you get. I hope her comment wasn't a sort of veiled, "American children are very forward." Ah well, interpret it as a compliment until proved otherwise, I always say. When she asked if I thought Avery was tall for her age, I said, "I think she's about average," to which the doctor snorted, "I should say NOT! Average, no!"

And London brings the sight of a pair of Chelsea Pensioners, slowly crossing the grass in Hyde Park, in their long scarlet coats, one with a walking stick and the other with his arm through his companion's. You don't get that in Connecticut. Nor a long newsy chat with Becky nor taxi drivers who say, "Thank you, my love, run along with the kiddies now."


Anyway, I find it hard to reconcile the two worlds, and suppose we're stuck with a life in which, as Avery says when she's feeling melancholy, "There is always something to miss." But that's a very glass half-full attitude, instead of being glad to have both. It's made me think of a new title for my cookbook (ha! if I ever write it): "At Home on Both Sides of the Pond." What do you think? I need a semi-colon and a second half, obviously, but I think I like it.

We're thinking too about the death of Pavarotti this week. How's this for a memory: in the summer of 1992, when we were living in Moscow (I was between my doctoral exams and my first teaching job, and John was doing all sorts of secret things), the Fourth of July came and guess what we did? We sat in Red Square, by special invitation, and listened to... the Three Tenors. Seriously! 1992 was a very, very weird year in Moscow, obviously. But it was SUBLIME. I will never forget looking up over the stage and watching the lights play on the Kremlin and the Cathedral. What a time.

Well, I must fly. I am sorry to post with no recipe! But honestly, I had a bit of a yawn-making dinner last night that I intended to blog about, but it wasn't interesting enough to tell you about. Except to say that scallops with Chinese five-spice and sauteed red chilis and scallions is... a bore. I hope to redeem myself this week! My great wish is to learn to produce fried soft-shell crabs in the manner of the Mandarin Kitchen, but guess what? They're not indigenous to the UK, and so FishWorks don't sell them, and Selfridges Food Hall didn't have any good reason why they don't sell them. I've just ordered some from Thailand, if you can imagine, so wish me luck.

05 September, 2007

turn up the volume: we're home


















Goodness, was it just a week or so ago that I was describing our sense of relaxation, nay, even peacefulness?

Well, we're home.

How do they do it? The powers-that-be in our London life, sucking the self-confidence right out of me, sending me back into a "what now?" state of nerves.

Don't misunderstand: I'm happy to be home. I love having "Balderdash and Piffle" turn up on the BBC, calling our attention to the development of colloquial English with phrases like "a Glasgow Kiss," or "spiv," or "taking the mickey." I'm thrilled too to have my trip to the local supermarket turn up absolutely incredibly sweet and flavourful tomatoes under the forgettable moniker of "little plums," just a fantastic quality of produce with no flashy headlines. The same for the blueberries and chicken:no special label, no big price tag, but just an accidental encounter with perfect ingredients. I'm not sure what happens to a lot of American raw ingredients, could it be the breadth and width of the country and oceans that stuff has to traverse? Maybe the smallness of my adopted island means that the foodstuffs are just better, automatically. I love it.

And the grey skies, with the occasional flash of blue between scudding clouds, are a pretty welcome-home.

A glorious afternoon's catch-up with Becky, with the easy shorthand of friendship where a couple of sentences suffices to describe someone, or the exchange of news about someone else, or reports of our summer activities. Avery and Anna of course were blissful to be reunited, and it was so cosy to sit in Becky's kitchen like a lazy lout while she made pizza and pasta and fed everyone in sight: all the little girls with new haircuts, and lord knows in my jetlagged state I was more than happy to be fed.

No, the nervy-making thing is... school. And not even my school, it's my child's school! First day today. I must have residual first-day anxiety from my own childhood (lord knows I have residual any-kind-of anxiety for any situation!), because every first-day of school of her life I've felt stressed. It used to be separation anxiety (for me! not my hard-hearted child), then it was concern over all-day school (again, only me), then the move here, now, I have no idea what would make me anxious. I think it might be the relative unfamiliarity of all these other parents, and the sense that I really don't have a place. Partly because the school isn't really all that interested in parental involvement, and partly because the cross-section of parents in the school, perhaps particularly our class, is so mind-bendingly varied! I feel still a bit out of my depth socializing with every nationality, religion, socio-economic profile under the sun, with people who can speak many languages fluently, have lived all over the world, have three children older than Avery and so have seen all these exams and processes many times before. Somehow all my own dubious accomplishments desert me at these times and I just stand, silly with intimidation.

At the meeting tonight to prepare us parents for "the hardest five months of your daughters' lives" (surely this cannot be true! how about PhD orals, or dare I say it, pregnancy and labor?), I felt completely overwhelmed. Not just with information, but with the sense that this is all way more important than I can ever really conceive it to be. Or (possibly) I have the right idea in thinking school issues to be less than earth-shattering, but I'm in the tiny minority? The headmistress always scares the living daylights out of me (can she be real?), and the unquenchable perkiness (and yet stunningly English composure) of the teachers just makes me feel like a child myself. When we got home John said, "Why do you feel that way? You're plenty smart..." I don't know what it is, but I always do just fade. We stood around the kitchen when we got home, analyzing my paralysis, while I chopped up some garlic and fried sage leaves in butter, to pour over ravioli.

Ravioli in Sage Butter
(serves four)


1 lb fresh ravioli, stuffed with whatever
6 tbsps butter
1 clove garlic, minced
dozen leaves of fresh sage
1/2 cup pecorino cheese, grated

Melt butter in a heavy skillet and lay the sage leaves out in an even layer. Bring pasta water to a boil as the leaves simmer, then cook pasta. Throw the garlic into the simmering butter and cook gently as the pasta cooks. Drain pasta and toss with sage leaves and butter. Top with cheese.

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


Lunch yesterday with Vincent at FishWorks in Marylebone, much catching up over summer activities. For him, a spa in Switzerland and a trip to the south of France to visit his parents. Who ARE these glamourous people I'm surrounded with? I had the most sublime grilled scallops with a hollandaise sauce, followed by a whole little seabass grilled with rosemary under its skin. And a side of cavolo nero, which I have to say I do not love, not being a fan of leafy greens. I know, I know, they will save my life someday, but I find them... chewy.

I am thinking: is a sofrito the Italian version of the French mirepoix? Each of them being a dice of carrots, celery and onion, with variations of garlic or peppers? It always makes me laugh when all I have going in the kitchen is garlic simmering in olive oil, and both John and Avery say, "Something smells really good!" It doesn't take much to make them happy.

Let's see, today is a trip to Harrods for Avery's school shoes. Like clockwork, as soon as everyone else in London has descended on John Lewis to buy school shoes, she discovers that hers don't fit. So we end up somewhere else. I think John and I will walk over there today and work off all that butter from last night. We've got to get set to play tennis here, since we got so enthusiastic over the summer. Becky and Vincent both recommend the Harbour Club, but I fancy outdoors, actually, so we may be looking more at just Regent's Park. We'll keep you posted.

02 September, 2007

a nice roast to welcome us



















We're back. Gorgeous grey skies, calm chilly air, cats beside themselves with happiness to see us. Of course Keechie's happiness is mostly in direct contrast to her extreme misery while we were away, measured by the now-unusable state of our sofa cushion. I think the feline child must have gone seven weeks without being touched by a human hand, frightened to death as she is by even someone as familiar as our dear Dorrie, the housekeeper who stayed here during our summer away. Well, I have my work cut out, as they say in England, replacing the sofa cushion and fixing whatever is going on in Keechie's psyche. I'll keep you posted.

We left behind a pear tree laden, LADEN with thousands of pears, and Anne promises she'll harvest some and send them to us FedEx. Take THAT, the push to eat locally!

But you know what made me feel the best about leaving America? The one, single sign that the country was in good hands and it was safe to return to England? (Keep in mind that Jon Stewart was on vacation for the week and so it had be something I found on my own). The Second Avenue Deli is returning! Just a couple of years after that icon of the Lower East Side was forced to leave after its rent increased a trillion fold, and I was about to cry (even thought in my heart of hearts I'm loyal to Katz), the Deli has found a new location on... Third Avenue! But it will continue to be known, in that baffling tradition that savvy of which distinguishes real New Yorkers from fakers, as The Second Avenue Deli. It is the job of each and every one of us who have ever loved the city (especially my child who is the only bona fide born New Yorker among us) to remember why, and tell everyone so. Toidy-Toid and Toid it is. So there.

Well, enough New Yorker patriotism. We're back! Unpacked, cats petted, and in order to make us feel at home again, the ultimate early-autumn London dinner. I love America, but there is, sorry, NOTHING like British Pork. Welcome home.

Roast Pork with Garlic
Steamed, then Sauteed Potatoes with Mushrooms and Asparagus
(serves six)


1 2-kg leg of pork with crackling, rolled and tied
6 cloves garlic, split
Maldon sea salt
1 tbsp fresh rosemary leaves, chopped
1 tbsp chili-infused olive oil
2 tbsps butter
1 pound miniature British potatoes
1 pound button mushrooms (or baby bellas, cut in half)
1 bunch asparagus tips

Heat the oven to 425 degrees, and time the roast to cook in 90 minutes. Slide a sharp knife very deep in a dozen places and slide the split garlic cloves in as deep as you can get them. Sprinkle the roast with the chili oil and salt and rosemary and place in oven.

In the last half hour of cooking, steam the potatoes for 15 minutes. In a heavy skillet, melt the butter and throw in the potatoes and mushrooms. When the roast is finished, take it out of the oven and pour the roasting juices into the potato skillet. Let the roast rest for 10 minutes or so while you throw the asparagus into the vegetable skillet and toss them all till the asparagus is cooked. Slice the roast thick and enjoy bites of everything together: garlicky pork, crispy potatoes, juicy mushrooms and green asparagus. LOVELY.

We're home.

01 September, 2007

we're nearly on our way















































I'm such a basically homebody-ish, untechnical person that it always seems quite literally incredible to me that tonight we could share a fabulous dinner with Anne and David, candlelit on our picnic table overlooking our peaceful lawn and barns, and tomorrow at this time we'll be high above the Atlantic courtesy of British Airways winging toward home, and 43-ish hours from now we'll be cozily ensconced in our London flat, surrounded by kitties and unpacked luggage and looking forward to the Michaelmas term, that fresh and autumnal term of the English school year in which all resolutions about homework and playdates, diet and exercise seem possible, and the spectre of Christmas has not yet raised its head!

Avery already has a plan of play with Anna, whose mom, my dear friend Becky, called today, bringing the spirit of our London life into my Connecticut kitchen. I found it so hard to reconcile the sounds of my American washer and icemaker with the sound of Becky's voice, which conjures up her London kitchen, our London coffee dates, London school functions. The odd thing is having such entrenched, cozy, and encompassing lives in both places.

Judy stopped by today as we were reading and lazing out on the terrace, to say thanks for dinner the other night, for the return of her pieplate, a promise to hand on her cookie recipe, and to report on the funeral we observed from the tennis court today, the funeral of a beloved community fire marshal. Something in me was so touched to have a friend who would include us in this story, to help us understand the town we call home for only seven weeks a year, now, let us in on what we observed from afar, watching vintage fire engines leaving the churchyard, knowing someone important had left the town.

And then to have Anne and David here tonight, helping me gather thoughts on the cookbook I'm working on, a reissue of her grandmother's recipes. And thoughts on contributing to the new Southbury Library for which there are still fundraising paving stones and other dedicatable items available. The Avery Memorial Late Returns Window? The Paul Frederickson Hand-Dryer in the Men's Room? We can't afford the Children's Circulation Desk ($45,000!), but we can still think big.

We are just tremendously lucky to have everyone we have where we have them, that's all.

Well, leave we must. To pick up the threads of what was so absorbing seven weeks ago, and now seems like a dream! What will the school play be (Peter Pan being so wonderful last year), to be announced before Christmas? Will we end up in Ireland for October break with John's parents? How will my new autobiography writing course go? What to do for Avery's birthday in November? Who will be Head Girl, and Head of Curie House at King's College Prep? When will our porter bring back our beloved Mini Cooper from her summer sojourn in Kent? What sort of seats did I manage to get for us at Saint Joan at the National Theatre? Horse of the Year Show in Birmingham beckons, but do we have tickets? So many unanswered questions needing our attention.

And it's something that I go back to London armed with at least two new great recipes. Our last dinner of dill-butter shrimp with Jill, Joel and Jane was wonderful, but since my shrimp tonight turned out so well I'm going to privilege Joel's classic chicken dish that we have enjoyed so much chez Grove.

Parmesan Crusted Chicken Breasts
(serves 4)


2 tsps Dijon mustard
2 tsps extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 tsp chopped thyme
4 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves
salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tbsps freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 475 degrees. In a small bowl, combine 2 tsps of the Dijon mustard with 2 tsps olive oil and the thyme. Season the chicken breasts with salt and pepper and brush them all over with the mustard mixture. Put 2 tbsps of the Parmesan all over each breast. Transfer the chicken to a rimmed baking sheet and bake for 15 minutes, or until just cooked through and nicely browned.

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

Avery has a new best friend, who Anne kindly informed us this morning is a caterpillar about to become an American Dagger Moth. She has named him Marcus, and he comes everywhere with her. "Would you watch Marcus for me, Mummy, while I get a book? He's very well-behaved, so you shouldn't have any trouble with him." He came with us to tennis this morning, and wandered over to meet Rollie who came to say goodbye. She did leave him at home while we went to the famous Rich's Farm Ice Cream Shop in nearby Oxford, one of Anne and David's favorite spots, which they've been waxing lyrical about for years now, so we finally got there. Pumpkin ice cream! Sounds absurd but it was delicious, totally simple and rich. We all stood around in the breezy first-of-September sunshine, under the perfectly blue sky with just a few early autumnal leaves floating about. The perfect last activity.

Well, I can report that my first experience cooking clams was, last night, a total success. Here's what you need to remember about clams: each one cooks at a different pace. So unlike mussels, which if they don't open after, say, ten minutes, are assumed to be dead and therefore inedible, clams need to be coaxed along a bit. And since my horror was to overcook them and end up with garlic-flavored rubber bands, I took each little one out of the steaming liquid as soon as it opened. There were fully 10 minutes between when the first one opened and when the last finally succumbed, and it didn't seem to have anything to do with size, which surprised me.

Linguini With Shrimp and Clams
(serves four generously)


2 dozen littleneck clams, carefully washed
1 1/2 pound large uncooked shrimp, shells on

3 tbsps butter
6 cloves garlic, finely minced
2 large shallots, finely minced
2 tbsps finely chopped Italian flat-leaf parsley
1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
12 ounces good white wine
12 ounces clam juice
12 ounces chicken broth
2 tbsps sour cream
3/4 lb linguini

In a large skillet with a lid, melt butter and saute garlic and shallots gently until soft. Add red pepper flakes and parsley (reserve a pinch or two of parsley to sprinkle on the finished dish) and stir till everything is coated in butter, then add white wine and turn the heat up until the wine simmers high. After five minutes, add the clam juice and the chicken broth and heat until simmering high. Now add the clams and cover with a lid.

I happened to have a glass lid, so I could see through it to monitor clams opening. But a general rule is that the first clams will start to pop open after about 5 minutes. You don't have to be obsessive about this, but try to remove clams as soon as possible after opening. So perhaps open the lid after 6 minutes and remove the opened ones, then again after a couple of minutes, and so on until all clams are cooked and removed.

Now you can wait until just before eating to do anything but let the sauce simmer. When you want to eat in 10 minutes, put the linguini into boiling water and whisk the sour cream into the sauce. Then put the shrimps into the simmering sauce. Stir and toss about until the shrimps are completely pink all over (about five minutes). Now add the clams, then drain the pasta and add to the shellfish and sauce. Toss and sprinkle on reserved parsley.

You can serve directly into bowls and ladle on sauce, or pour into a large serving bowl and let guests serve themselves. HEAVEN!

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

Well, I don't love clams, but I tried one to assure myself that they were delicious, and they were. The shrimp were luscious and fun to peel (be sure to provide body bowls for your guests to dump their shells), and each strand of linguini coated with buttery sauce. With a little toasted focaccia on the side, and a tomato-mozzarella salad after (and Anne and David brought luscious berries and ice cream), it was the perfect end-of-summer meal.

Next post: LONDON!