30 December, 2008

the most fun you can have

With the simplest ingredients: your practically best friend (who happens to be your mother in law), your sister who you hardly ever get to see and her completely charming family, your 19th wedding anniversary with a perfectly good husband you're more than happy to keep for another 19 years, a charming child who can write poems for your Christmas present AND control the iPod that you yourself cannot understand, so providing Christmas music for the duration...

We have had, in short, the loveliest possible holiday. The only dark spot has been this lung-crushing cough that I cannot seem to shake: the very one I caught just as we left London, the sentiment ringing in my ears from SO many sources, "This thing hung on for WEEKS." It's officially three weeks tomorrow, and I'm thoroughly sick of losing a lung every other hour, I can tell you. But no fever, and I feel fine, so I just sort of persevere.

Right now I am ensconced in bed, typing away, watching the very occasional car pass slowly down our road, through the old, wavery glass of our bedroom windows, wondering who is passing by so late at night, wondering what they make of our candles lit in the window sills (our nightly communication with Anne and David and Kate across the road), our Christmas tree twinkling in the window of the front hall. I love sitting up here in any season, looking up as the infrequent headlights make their way down our bumpy, untended road, passing through summer and winter mists, rain and snow.

Part of the delight of the holiday has been the success in giving the right gift to the right person. Our big gift to Avery was an original illustration from her favorite book ever, "The Mysterious Benedict Society." After much laborious and (I must say) annoying correspondence with the illustrator's agent in Seattle, we managed to arrange for what I thought would be her favorite illustration, to be sent to my sister in Connecticut, and here it was. And although most of our friends thought we had lost our tiny minds to give such a gift ("why would she care?" being the most frequent response), she was in HEAVEN. Just in awe. The hand of the artist! And a hand-written thank-you note to go with it. Heaven.

And Jane, can I tell you how much she adored her felt? Well, you can tell. Her Uncle John explained helpfully that felt is made to be thrown in the air (so sorry, I must say, to her parents) and so we have been finding felt for days. But the point is, that little girl was awfully happy for that bit, throwing her felt in the air.

And then we went visiting: to see the adopted family of our lovely Hastings, kitten of the summer... Thank you, Shelley, Erik, Cassandra and Rebecca for the perfect evening, a glorious coq au vin, and for the sweet assurance that our lovely kitten is happy and quite, quite cosseted.

Then we received a visit from my dear friend Sarah, with whom I used to speak at least seventeen times a day when we were writing our book, raising our babies, feeding our husbands. I fed her roast chicken salad with pine nuts, sweetcorn, chives and lemon zest, and stuffed mushrooms. Those alone were worth the price of admission.

Stuffed Mushrooms
(serves four)

12 medium white, button or baby bella mushrooms, stems removed to make a little cap
1 tbsp butter
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 slices Canadian bacon, outer skin removed and diced very small
3 tbsps goats cheese
2-3 fresh breadcrumbs
squeeze of fresh lemon juice

In a small skillet, melt butter and saute garlic till soft. Add bacon and goats cheese and stir till cheese is melted. Remove from heat and stir in breadcrumbs till you achieve a thick consistency, suitable for spooning. Add lemon juice and mix well. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Spoon into mushroom caps and bake at 350 till bubbly and beginning to brown, perhaps 10-12 minutes. Stand back and watch them be devoured.


With these lovely dishes we had completely un-seasonal but very refreshingly tasty towers of tomato and mozzarella, sprinkled with pine nuts and lemon zest, balsamic and olive oil, drizzled with homemade pesto. We feasted. And gossiped, and caught up. The tricky part of seeing Sarah is that I remember how much my life was enhanced by seeing her, or talking to her, all the time; I simply have to stamp down my feelings of regret at the sad infrequency of our fun together.

Then we found ourselves cruising the cozy holiday streets of West Hartford on our way to dinner with my sister and her family. Can I tell you how many ways there are to make bolognese sauce? At least two: mine, and my brother in law Joel's version, made with GORGEOUS huge chunks of fennelly Italian sausage and big tomato bites. Baguette bites, steamed broccoli, it couldn't have been a better set of flavors. Jane is revelling in her various roles: big sister to tiny Molly, happy recipient of everyone's Christmas largesse, adored niece and cousin to us. Does it get any more exciting than colored bath water and a bevy of relatives to admire it? I don't think so, not for Jane. Their house is a haven of comfort: warm, happy, elegant, teeming with holiday spirit and the most perfect food. A memory to comfort us in the long, chilly grey London winter ahead.

And then... then we made pasta. You know how scared I was, in London, before I had my lesson. And I didn't follow the cardinal rule of things you're scared of: do it RIGHT AWAY AGAIN once you've done it once. I just left it aside. Until yesterday. We spent the day, sunny and cold, getting to and shopping in Litchfield, one of our favorite family outings, revelling in the all-white houses, the perfectly restrained Christmas decorations, the supremely friendly all-American attitude of everyone we meet. And on the way, in the otherwise forgettable hamlet of New Milford, we ran into the Maine seafood truck that comes to Woodbury on Thursdays in summer, and acquired two lobster tails and a quantity of shucked oysters. And came home, in an impossibly orange sunset, to... COOK our hearts out.

In a welter of flour, garlic, boiling lobster, claw crabmeat, celery salt from Wales and the last throes of Christmas music, we made fresh ravioli: one batch of lobster and crab flecked with lemon zest and sea salt, and one of spinach, ricotta, Canadian bacon dice and nutmeg. With a sauce of browned butter and fried whole sage leaves, two and a half hours later we sat down to a huge platter of ravioli and proceeded to devour it ALL within fifteen minutes. Slightly out of proportion to the effort it took, the meal was hilarious and happy and short, and we were in heaven. Altogether one of the happiest, most frantic, laughing and creative evenings ever, spent the way I like it: with my best cooking companion in Rosemary and a mad spirit of energy pervading over all. At the very end John got in on the action, making tagliatelle of the leftover dough and laughing with childhood memories of pasta extravaganzas... a completely happy night.

In between chores for dinner, we managed to put together a second holiday season oyster stew which played its part as lunch today, during the fluffy snowstorm that lasted all afternoon. I made a banana and apple cake, took a nap, watched my soap operas, generally took advantage of the last luxuriously lazy day of the holiday. Tomorrow brings my dear, dear friend Alyssa and her family from the city, Jill and her family, for a New Year's Day celebration. I've instructed everyone to bring extra clothing so the kids can get good and cold, good and wet, sledding and such, and then come in for homemade pizza and hot chocolate. The grownups will be tucking into brisket which simmered all evening today. The watchwords for my holiday? Family, friends, long car rides getting to each, food and snow. If 2009 is the same, I count myself lucky.

26 December, 2008

a glorious Christmas was had by all

An absolutely classic couple of days: frantic wrapping of presents ("Don't come NEAR this table until I tell you you can!" "Who took all the Scotch tape?" "Why do you get the good scissors EVERY time?"), last-minute gathering of ingredients (ice cream, watercress, ALL the votive candles that KMart had to offer - I stripped them bare in the summer as well), impromptu visitors. Rollie and Judy appeared last evening just as I was lighting the last candles for Anne and her family to come from across the road for oyster stew, to deliver a flawless poinsettia and news of their new stone wall, the wedding of young Rollie in October, the massive annoyance of their new milking cows... as always, I felt immediately that I should have invited them for oyster stew as well, but I would have had to seat them in the dishwasher, as we were awfully cozy already in this tiny farmhouse with 8 for dinner.

Oyster stew. Is there anything better? Why do I never make it except Christmas Eve? John avers that one year I did make it again, over and over, having asked myself just that question, and finally he had to say, "Stop, enough oyster stew," so perhaps once a year is just the ticket. Buttery, studded this year with no less than 8 pints of oysters. Can a pint per person be true? There was almost nothing left over of the creamy celery-laden broth, spiked with a touch of Tabasco, lemon juice, a generous amount of celery salt from the great Welsh Anglesey firm Halen Mon). Huge handfuls of oyster crackers, that was IT. Pure oyster stew with its briney breath of the sea, the Christmas Eve tradition. Anne and David and baby Kate, Anne's mother Connie and sister Alice, all gathered around the candlelit table and we all slurped our way through the evening.

Old friends, John's mom smiling around us all, photographing every moment as always, admiring Kate's absolutely unusual achievements (breathing, turning her head, that sort of thing), all of us grateful to be there, and together, in what is undeniably a magical house at Christmas. Why is it? I can't account for the immeasurable peace that everyone feels in this place, this tiny crooked house perched on a meadow and a pasture, flanked by barns and ancient trees and permeated over all by the history of what must have been happy families, or at least happiness triumphing over grief, at times.

Then today... presents, and the cooking marathon. Needless to say, the turkey who had been brined in kosher salt, fresh rosemary, thyme, oregano, marjoram, bay leaf and peppercorn for two days, was slow-roasted (sorry, Joel, for being too chicken to use your clever free-standing roaster) in the old-fashioned oven, all day long, as John's mom and I chopped, sauteed, buttered and washed up our afternoon away: dressing with fresh sage, celery, Baby Bella mushrooms, garlic, the one precious onion I had left, cream and chicken stock all soaked up by good honest white bread torn into little bits and dried overnight. Spinach casserole made of nearly 2 pounds of fresh chopped spinach, swirled into a purely American concoction of butter, garlic, evaporated milk, Monterey Jack cheese with jalapeno peppers, and more celery salt (the condiment of the holiday, clearly). Untold pounds of potatoes peeled and resting in a salty bath, waiting to be boiled and mashed with yet more butter and cream. A holiday menu not for the faint of heart.

There was time at sunset to follow Avery up the hill to John's dad's bench, to sit and reflect for a moment on our last Christmas with him, a year ago, to be glad he has such a view over the meadows and hills from that bench. Then she was off sledding! As you see, even with the melting snow, or perhaps because of it, she was able to get up a decent speed, whizzing over the little grassy hillocks and threatening the ancient stone wall. Her shrieks echoed over the beehives of Young Rollie and the pastures hayed by Chris in the summer. There is nothing but good feeling in those places. I could feel John's dad all around me, as the setting sun's light lit up Avery and John on their sledding hill.

Home to make the gravy, let the turkey rest, and light the candles on the hydrangea tree, my most quixotic and anxiety-making holiday tradition. Will it rain on Christmas day? It has done in the past, and extinguished every candle as I light it. Will it be windy and blow them out as we light them? There was a bit of that tonight, but not enough to spoil the fun. Anne and David came across with baby Kate to see the lights, and as we gazed and thought our separate, private thoughts, a waft of wind came and every candle flame turned to a fragile, temporary blue. "No, don't go out!" we all breathed, and as we waited, the blue, wavering light drew breath and turned bright gold again, with a strong, steady flame. I am sure there is a lesson there to be learned, about perseverance and faith.

Three little girls! Tiny baby Molly slept, largely, held by someone or other (not me, who has never been the biggest fan of tiny babies), Jane ran around playing crazy games with her toy cars (now, Jane, I could eat whole she is so lovely), and my own Avery, gracious in her nearly-teenage dignity, bending down to play games and sing songs with Jane. Gravy bubbling, John beating potatoes with a vigor that made us all look at his undulating bottom! "Go for it, shake your booty," we all had to sing, with great maturity. Joel carved the turkey with professional aplomb. We ATE.

And then opened presents. John explained to Jane that the whole point of her new collection of felt characters and accessories was to THROW THEM in the air. Her poor father will suffer for this, I fear, and equally I fear this was John's entire intention. Those two boys.

A jolly, warm, cozy, gently familial, delicious holiday. I felt so grateful for my sister, a great companion during childhood but even more so now, providing me with nieces to cradle and appreciate, a husband to love, old jokes to appreciate. And for my mother in law, coming to us this year, to remember and celebrate and feel both the weight and the lift of the past. Thank you, all.

Christmas Eve Oyster Stew
(serves 8 generously)

6 tbsps butter
4 tbsps flour
6 cloves garlic, minced
6 stalks celery, finely minced
1 white onion, finely minced
8 pints shucked oysters with their liquor
1 tbsp celery salt (however fancy you can go, or not, is fine)
1 quart whole milk
1 pint heavy cream
to taste: more celery salt, Tabasco, lemon juice, pepper

In a large heavy stockpot, melt the butter, then add flour and cook till frothy but not brown. Add garlic, celery and onion and saute until slightly soft, then add oysters with liquor. Stir over medium heat until the edges of the oysters curl up (this means they are nearly cooked). Add celery salt, milk and cream, and heat gently until the broth is hot. Try not to let it boil, but if it does, whisk it thoroughly to prevent any curdling. Season with more celery salt, Tabasco, lemon juice and pepper till it's just to your taste. I must warn you: a great deal of tasting may be necessary, but try to avoid getting a bowl to taste. Limit yourself to a teaspoon at a time. Glorious. Even better if you can make it a day ahead and bury the stockpot, firmly lidded, in a snowdrift overnight. Serve with plenty of oyster crackers.

23 December, 2008

sigh of relief

As promised, just to get right away - from the pressures to achieve something, be on time, say the right thing, remember people's names, the whole list - is a tonic. Our flight was late leaving, long flying, late arriving, the drive up to Red Gate Farm impossibly long. But all it takes is to leave the main road, to turn up onto Jeremy Swamp Road, to remember the thousands of times ("How many times have we made this turning?" John asks as always after a long absence) we've... left the main road, as it were, to arrive here, to peace.

We found homemade chili in the fridge from Judy, a roasted chicken, eggs, bread, juice, butter from Anne and David (who also made the beds), the heat and lights turned on by Farmer Rollie, the walks shoveled, perfection at midnight.

It isn't as if bad things haven't followed us to Red Gate Farm. The place has seen jobs won, jobs lost, illness, worry, fear and recovery. But the prevailing sense, in the small panelled entrance way, smelling of woodfires, wool and leather, is one of acceptance. All can happen here, and most has. The place has stood for nearly 200 years. The peace is in part the tiny scale of the house itself, set inside the hilly, ranging landscape of its setting. As the great cookery writer Peg Bracken always said, "Just give me a window over the sink," and mine looks out over the expanse of my back lawn, littered in summer with trampoline, sliding slippy thing, birdbath filled with goldfinches... and today overlaid with a quietening blanket of snow, punctuated by red barns and permeated with the gurgling of an overfilled brook running into the pond.

But then you enter the house, whether through the lovely front entry into the warmth of the Christmas tree, or more likely, through the messy kitchen door into the smell of chicken stock on the stove, the sound of kids singing, people wrapping presents, somebody shouting, "Get me a Phillips screwdriver, quick!" and "The Holly and the Ivy" playing in the background. It's always full of boots people have shoved off their feet in a misguided hope to keep the wide floorboards clean, shopping bags full of ingredients for some dish I've decided I can't wait to make: pesto, meatloaf, potatoes dauphinoise. And then someone knocking at the back door: Anne and David with baby Kate, here for the first dinner of the holiday, Rollie in his winter worksuit and hat, asking, smiling, "Was the Christmas tree what you wanted, then, Kristen?" a bone-crushing hug, his only expression of his feeling for me. Then the UPS guy, "You're back, I see," and then Jill poking her bright face in this morning, "Just making sure you're here before I bring in Molly," and my magical, gorgeous, sprite of a newborn niece... and her big sister Jane, giving me a hug with arms AND legs tucked tight around me.

Bliss. Candles lit in the windows, the silver bells John's mom gives us every year with a legend from the past twelve months engraved on them, the stockings hung by the fire, ribbons strung along the dining table, an enormous pot of pork ribs simmered in garlic tomato sauce ALL afternoon. An entire luxurious afternoon with my sister to chat, get to know her baby ("she's really just a baby," we say, unconvincingly to each other), admire Jane's growing personality of staggering humor and memory for all our conversations and fun of the past, thankfully handing over the task of wrapping presents to my crafty, clever daughter who ENJOYS it, bless her heart! It must have skipped a generation, the love of wrapping, because I have clear Christmas memories of my own mother contentedly running through roll after roll of paper, tape, ribbon.

Today the snowstorm had stopped and the landscape was that impossibly perfect Version Number Two of what everyone back in England expects we have when we're here: in summer, it's the green, green grass, the blue sky, rushing brook, waving tiger lilies. Today it was blue sky, yes, but also the red of the barn against the blinding white snowscape, the dead hydrangea blossoms waving in the wind, white picket fence with the red sign my dad made saying "Red Gate Farm" hanging close beside the (you guessed it) red gate. One moment when John said, "Would you have time to help me to get everything looking really nice for when my mom and dad get here?" And silence for that moment... He's on his way to get his mom at the airport right now, and while some of the memories will be sad, his dad will be here with us, and the blissful, grateful memories of years of fun will overcome the sad bits, I know. Nothing here has ever changed, even when everything does. This place remains to open its forgiving arms to us, "I know you've been away for months, but come on inside, it's all still here."

It's not all sweetness and light, of course. There are the many evidences of our furry friends, for example, taking refuge in the house while we're away, and hastily removed by Rollie before we arrive... when we used to come here every weekend, I left butter out on the counter so it would be nice and soft when we arrived. I will never forget the LAST weekend I did that: on the Friday night we staggered into the house with all our clobber to settle in and find... distinct rows of TEETHMARKS in the butter. So not inviting, so not yummy.

And today, would you believe: I made a gorgeous pot of red pepper soup with thyme and brandy, and poured it through the sieve into... a stockpot full of SOAPY WATER. Truly. Yep, homemade stock from the roasted chicken Anne left us, peppers laboriously picked up by me and John in TWO separate trips... and I poured it into Fairy liquid. But here's my family for you. I said, "That's the dumbest thing I have ever done," and what does my husband say? "I bet not," while my loving sister chimes in, "You mean today?" Well, we're none of us perfect, I say, while pouring cups and cups of lovely red ambrosia down the sink. Grr.

After a prolonged search through the house's many bookshelves, we finally found the scattered favorite Christmas picture books: A Pussycat's Christmas, A Child's Christmas in Wales, A Christmas Carol, The Birds' Christmas (a little-known lovely story by Kate Douglas Wiggin), and my personal can't-read-without-crying favorite choice"When It Snowed That Night", by Norma Farber, which I first read about in my favorite Christmas mystery, "The Body in the Bouillon," by Katherine Hall Page. It sums up my Christmas: mothers, presents, Kings, children, babies, and chicken soup, plus a fair number of miracles, actually.

The Queens came late, but the Queens were there
with gifts in their hands and crowns in their hair.
They'd come, these three, like the Kings, from far,
following, yes, that guiding star.
They'd left their ladles, linens, looms
their children playing in nursery rooms,
and told their sitters:
"Take charge! For this
is a marvelous sight we must not miss!"

The Queens came late, but not too late
to see the animals small and great,
feathered and furred, domestic and wild,
gathered to gaze at a mother and child.
And rather than frankincense and myrrh
and gold for the babe, they brought for her
who held him, a homespun gown of blue,
and chicken soup -with noodles, too-

and a lingering, lasting cradle-song,
The Queens came late and stayed not long,
for their thoughts already were straining far -
past manger and mother and guiding star
and child a-glow as a morning sun -
toward home and children and chores undone.

19 December, 2008

a rousing success

I know one of the cardinal rules of entertaining is NEVER to make a dish for guests that you've never made before. I have never adhered to this rule. I think that if you choose your guests wisely, inviting only people who are adventurous and generous of spirit (and come to think of it, why would you have any friends who are not?), all will be well. Make sure your guests are in the experimental mood, tell them in advance what invention they're in for, and let the bells chime.

It was in this spirit that Annie and her family arrived for my much-dramatized spiced beef on Wednesday. As you will recall, I acquired a solid gold 2-kilogram chunk of brisket from my dear butcher, Mr Stenton of Brackenbury Village, nearly two weeks ago. In the intervening time, I had to wait for the federal authorities to vet Mr Stenton, ascertain that he was not a card-carrying member of the IRA or any other paramilitary organization, and let him purchase 46 grams of saltpetre. Then I had to trek up to Notting Hill to the Spice Shop and hunt down juniper berries and allspice, plus some very intriguing sort of black peppercorns. Once this was accomplished, I was ready to go.

Rowley Leigh's Spiced Beef
(serves 10 at least)

1 2-kilogram piece of brisket, with fat but no sinew or membrane
100 grams Demerara sugar
15 grams saltpetre
125 rock or sea salt
30 grams black peppercorns
15 grams allspice
15 grams juniper berries

Rub the beef with the sugar, top and bottom, cover with clingfilm and refrigerate overnight. The next day, grind the spices coarsely in a mortar and pestle or in a food processor and combine with the salt and saltpetre. Rub this mixture vigorously into the meat, cover again with film and refrigerate for 10 days, turning the meat from time to time and ensuring it is evenly exposed to the curing mixture.

After 10 days, remove the meat from its brine and rinse off any adhering spices. Place the meat in a tight-fitting casserole with two inches of water. Cover with greaseproof paper and the lid of the casserole. Place in a moderate oven 150C for three hours so that it gently steams and braises.

Remove the meat from the oven and leave to cool in the casserole. Once cool, remove to a dish and place a weighted plate -four tins of tomatoes is the usual prescription - on top. Refrigerate overnight. The next day, serve the meat cold, in thin slices.


Well. I can report that this dish, positively Rubenesque in its audacity and fleshliness, is MAGNIFICENT. I put my nose down to it right away and was transported to the corner of Houston and Avenue A, the location of the most superb Jewish delicatessen on earth, Katz. The aroma is at once robust and delicate, smelling faintly of a gin and tonic (that's the juniper for you) and making you think of Henry the Eighth with a stein of ale in one hand and a huge roasted turkey leg in the other. This beef is not for the faint of heart, but then what good food is? It's hearty, generous, and very, very exotic.

We revelled. The candles gleamed, the Christmas snow that we'd sprinkled on the table provided the perfect vehicle for young Fred to write messages to everyone, Annie's usual ringing laughter mixed with Elsa's determined, "Let me tell my story, somebody: stop interrupting!" And the side dishes were perfect, though I say it. I had intended to produce Orlando's outrageously rich straw potatoes in goose fat, but the afternoon got away from me and I did not have time to julienne anything or anyone. So it was mash: rich and decadent with double cream. I had also intended to serve a lovely crunchy red cabbage slaw with fennel, but someone had cruelly bought all the red cabbage in Shepherd's Bush, so I improvised and ended up with:

Sauteed Savoy Cabbage with Fennel and Fennel Seeds
(serves 10 generously)

3 tbsps olive oil
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 head Savoy cabbage, shredded as for cole slaw
4 heads fennel, sliced thin (be sure to include the ferny tops)
2 tbsps fennel seeds

Heat the oil in a large skillet and fry the garlic until just soft. Throw in everything else and saute gently, taking care not to burn the garlic. When the fennel is soft, you're done.


Keith was right when he said that the soft (and dare I say it) unctuous vegetables were the perfect foil for the beef, and with a nice dab of mash on one's fork to go with it... heavenly.

Interestingly, the meat that weighed nearly exactly 2 kilograms when fresh had diminished to about 1.3 kilograms when we were ready to cook it. And yet there was nothing approaching 700 grams of liquid in the dish the beef marinated in. A mystery, to be sure. It was intriguing to note how, as the days went by, the texture of the beef changed; it started out that rather pliable and lumpy feeling of raw meat, but by the end of the marinating process it had solidified and hardened. Fascinating. And delicious, too. John mused that he might prefer the beef without the final step of refrigeration, just lifted from the hot braising brine and eaten immediately. Perhaps next time.

The dinner was the perfect festive occasion to usher in a little more Christmas spirit. I look back on that evening now with nostalgia, as I am writing now from a bed of dizziness and misery. I have the Virus That Ate Shepherd's Bush, or even the Greater London Metropolitan Area. Just miserable. I only hope I don't pass it on to Avery, and that I feel somewhat less dire when it's time to get on a plane tomorrow evening and head to Connecticut. People have been frowning darkly when they find out I am under the weather and muttering things like, "Mine hung on for two weeks." That is not on, not at all.

I'm wading through Christmas cards and stamps and piles of presents and books I cannot live without for two weeks and cameras and all the other detritus needed for our holiday. I feel nowhere near ready to leave home for such a long time, but I know from experience that once I arrive at Red Gate Farm, my cares will melt away and I'll be ready to celebrate.

16 December, 2008

brisket drama

The brisket.

Remember, the enormous slab of beef that I marinated in the controlled substance and all sorts of peppercorns and juniper and eye of newt and whatever else? I have massaged the beef every day, and I must report a rather eerie development of its substance. It went from a rather flabby, large red piece of meat to, over the course of ten days in its marinade, a much more compact, flatter, dark piece of meat. Interesting. Well, the day of judgment is nearly here. Today I took it out of its marinade, washed it off, place it in a nice watery bath and clapped the lid of the pot on tight, and cooked it low for three hours. Now it's cooled off, and been placed on a plate with another plate and two cans of haricot beans, one can of lentils and one can of peeled plum tomatoes on top. I know it may not seem relevant to specify the contents of these cans, but lately I am taking recipe writing very, very seriously.

Tomorrow, then, my good friend and culinary victim/guest Annie and her family are coming to sample this beef, and to complement the beef/rescue the dinner if the beef is horrible, my mentor Orlando's straw potatoes in goose fat. Plus red cabbage and fennel slaw, and some rocket salad, I think, plus I had better come up with a dessert in case the the beef is... really bad.

In the meantime, let's see, I've been devoted to the Christmas card list, and to putting finishing touches on the Christmas tree decorations. I admit it: now that Avery's old enough to care about the traditions and the stories behind all the ornaments, she has the temerity to ask to hang some of them herself. And as the kind of nasty mother who doesn't really want to share her kitchen with her child, I feel I should at least let her share in the hanging of ornaments. But... secret of secrets... once she's asleep I... rehang them. Isn't that awful. And she lets me, and never seems to mind seeing that this or that angel or silver ball has mysteriously moved place in the night. That is the sort of real-life angel she is.

The tree is just lovely, this year, and having a tree in the kitchen is perfect for me, since I spend all day in there anyway. If you look closely at this photograph, you can see on the far right a figure that hung from my baby mobile that, in her typically generous way my mother let me have, and down low a red bow that I bought for my first married Christmas 19 years ago, and the two pumpkins small and large that my mother in law gave me, and the gift-toting fairy that appeared in Avery's advent calendar this morning.

I also just reread "The Latke Who Couldn't Stop Screaming," by Lemony Snicket, a gift from my best friend Alyssa two Christmases ago. Do not, repeat do NOT attempt to read this book if your child or a houseguest is trying to sleep nearby. "Nearly everything in this world is born screaming, and the latke was no exception, even though the latke wasn't conceived and born in the way you and I were conceived and born, but instead was fashioned from grated potatoes, chopped onion, beaten eggs and dash or two of salt. Once these ingredients were properly mixed, the latke was slepped into a pan full of olive oil heated to a very high temperature, and this is when it began to scream. AAAAHHHHHHH!"

Report on brisket tomorrow evening... unless it's bad and then I might just keep it to myself... especially since Alyssa reported by text to me that she was picking up her brisket in New York at Whole Foods, and when I think of her delectable brisket I just want to lie down and wish I'd never thought of trying some bizarre European version of my own. Involving high explosives, no less. We'll see.

13 December, 2008

cauliflower and Cinderella

As usual, I'm in the position of explaining how two such disparate things can possibly be occupying my mind at the same time, but that is my life. It's been a nearly equally foodie and theatre sort of autumn for me, where it seems that every week I'm having the taste experience of a lifetime and also seeing some incomparable dramatic performance. And it won't slow down in January. I am applying for an Arvon Foundation fellowship (Arvon is the institution I hold entirely responsible for the dizzying experience of a week away food writing in October) which would, if I won it, mean another week away in March, and another the following January, plus a whole kitchenful of mentoring meetings with a published author in the year of 2009. And, we have tickets to both "War Horse" and "Twelfth Night" in the new year. So I have my work cut out to stay cutting-edge in my two loves, here in this marvellous city where my heart always beats a little faster than is good for it.

Cauliflower. I think I spared you the tale of my failed cauliflower soup, some weeks ago. I had been to The Botanist restaurant in Sloane Square and eaten the soup of my life: a perfect puree/veloute of cauliflower with diced scallops swimming under the surface, topped with tempura-fried florets and drizzled with truffle oil. Outrageous. And I came home filled with hubris and the firm intention of making the exact soup in my own kitchen. Well, pride goeth as they say and it was an unmitigated disaster. Sticky, greyish gold because of the homemade chicken stock I boiled the poor hapless cauliflower in... just AWFUL. I threw it away.

Well, on Thursday my novelist friend Jessica threw down the gauntlet and invited me to Texture, a restaurant in Portman Square with chef Aggi Sverrisson from the Manoir aux Quatr' Saisons running the show. "English with a Scandinavian flair" is the order of the day, although the only sign of such a fusion I saw was a singularly disgusting crunchy slice of some fish skin, offered with my sparkling water, tasting precisely of crunchy cat food (the salmon flavor). That was nearly the only wrong note of our lunch, however. "You have to try the cauliflower," Jessica baited me, "it's done something like five ways, with scallops, and one way is... that puree." Done.

But first we were given an amuse-bouche of diced Jerusalem artichoke, in a tiny cup, underneath which was a layer of chervil sorbet, and underneath that a mysterious creamy WARM custard. Neither of us could identify the central ingredient of the custard, and whatever answer my extremely authentically Scandinavian waiter gave, I could not understand it. I asked twice. No chance. There is such a thing as TOO authentic. But permeating the lot was a tiny hint of Perigord truffles, and there is nothing wrong with truffles in December. Lovely, unusual. Then we each had the winter vegetables with a celeriac infusion, and it was lovely. I hate to be compliant and say that the... textures of each vegetable were highly identified and subtle, and particular to each one (a completely different bite to the parsnip versus the morel mushroom versus the chicory), the name of the restaurant is entirely apposite.

Then came... the scallops and cauliflower. I salaam and say, "I'm not worthy, I'm not worthy," because the cleverness of the dish could not be denied. How do we feel about cleverness? If it is truly faintingly delicious, is clever acceptable? I think so. Let's see: two perfectly caramelized scallops, meltingly tender inside, and surrounded by: cauliflower puree, buttery beyond what I would have thought was the capacity of a vegetable to absorb butter. And then paper-thin slices of raw cauliflower dusted with fine black pepper. And then vinegar-marinated tiny florets. And... you knew it was coming... cauliflower foam. Now, here I knew I was done for. I hate foam. Full stop. It's spit. I cannot wait for the mania for spit on plates to fade, or at least lose its bubbles and dribble off the plate. But I was stymied in this case. The foam was delightful. Thick enough not to engage me too strongly with... spit, and subtly flavored with cauliflower, yet not a hint of acidity. Then, cleverest of all, cauliflower couscous. Someone, some poor person serving community service for points on his license, had separated the florets of the veg to its smallest common denominator. TINY tiny scraps, mixed with chopped hazelnuts and pumpkin seeds, quite lovely.

Somehow as we ate (and oohed and aahhed) we made a significant amount of progress in our ongoing discussion of writing, not writing, being criticised, hating being criticised, having writer's block, reading too much of other people's work... Jessica is a true professional as well as a formidable intellect, and, bless her, a New Yorker. I felt terribly homesick for that indefinable something (attitude, acerbic wit, twinkle in the eye) that is the New York spirit. It is very different to (see? in New York we say different "from") the London sort of spirit which can be a bit revelling in defeat. New Yorkers have undeniable spirit that can be expressed only in even mild expletives, and I miss it. No matter how long Jessica lives here, she will maintain it. I tend to cave to my surroundings, but I love it when I'm with it.

From Texture that day, I found myself at my London writing class yesterday for four hours, at which we ALL submitted work and were in fine fettle for criticism, both giving and receiving. The art of criticism is as complex as a recipe. There is absolutely no point, as far as I can see, in expressing criticism to ANY writer that amounts to, "I don't like your type of project," or "Your style doesn't resonate with me." Of course, a British expression of this reaction will not be so upfront as a New Yorker, or European might be. It will take the form of some phrase like "This could be so much better." A sort of backhanded, useless compliment that is in reality a formless slap. Much better is to try to understand what the person is trying to achieve, whether or not it's something you'll ultimately want to read, and THEN approach the text on the basis of its ultimate goal. And yesterday we worked hard on that, for each of the five of us. Among us we have a thinly veiled primary school memoir, an ecclesiastical cycle of moral stories, a novella of Mexican love and politics, a (perhaps) vision of Stoicism and obsessive-compulsive worrying, and a memoir with recipes. And we have all been able to find ways to read it ALL and offer helpful criticism. It's a gift, to be with these people every week.

What is "voice"? From Jessica to my writing class to my daughter, the prevailing opinion seems to be that it's inextricably linked to who you are. You can change your style of writing, or your "tone," but not your voice. Or if you do, you've defeated yourself, silenced yourself, killed yourself. I've managed, in the last few weeks, to change my voice in reaction to enormously painful criticism. NO MORE. I can't help my voice. I always sound the same, unless I sit down and try to kill it. Which I'm able to do, it turns out, but then I feel very sad. And my readers report sadness. So no more. Because if there isn't even a useful pelt to be had from the dead body of my voice, if it's all just garbage, it's not worth it in order to please an unpleasable body of readers. They can just read something else.

Which is not to say I don't welcome criticism! But I'm beginning, through tears and emotional bloodshed, to be able to tell the difference between criticism that runs alongside my project, cheering it on but saying, "Hey, adjust your stride," and criticism that places a giant tree branch in my path while insisting that falling down and bleeding is part of the process. Sorry, don't think so.

Then it was onto more theatre. It's a good thing that tickets to events are sitting on my desk, or waiting at a box office. Why? Because if I counted on merely following up on a vague plan to do something on a rainy Friday night after a gruelling writing class AND session at the ice rink, I'd never go out of the house. So off we were to Cinderella at the Lyric Hammersmith. Not for the faint of heart, I would have said, incredibly creative in its staging and use of no more than seven players, not a wasted physical gesture or prop, mystical and evocative Norwegian music. Avery's favorite bit: the fairy godmother is replaced by dozens of fluttering white pigeons, brought in on the hands of the players. And the interval happens just at the moment when she's about to go to the ball, and I won't spoil it for you, but the interval is... not quite what it seems at first! Go with the flow! Quite a crushworthy Prince in the lead, a certain Daniel Weyman, impossibly fragile and yet passionate, and then clearly a classically trained ballet dancer... heartbreaking and gorgeous. At the end, hundreds of white paper pigeons fluttered down from the ceiling... just gorgeous.

Well, today brought us to Notting Hill and Books for Cooks, the Spice Shop and Pedlars, trawling for Christmas presents. I was absurdly moved when the founder of Pedlars (such a clever and pleasing shop) said, "Your daughter has the most profound sense of style I've ever seen in a child! She could be a 1950s fashion designer, or a set designer, or... I just love it." "Well, I'm partial to her myself," I said, and he said, "Of course you are! I could look at her all day." Avery herself glowed when I told her. We managed to cross several things off our lists, and then head to an entirely buzz-killing and misguided trip to Westfield Shopping Centre in Shepherd's Bush. HATEFUL. The crowds of hideous, grasping people, the millions of energy-sapping lights decorating the mile-expanse of nasty exterior, and the miles of footsteps to go between where we ended up and where the car was parked. No more. Not us. SO NOT US.

But home for a fab dinner of my second go at foccacia. I could shout with triumph! And I can report that the second rising (meant to be a coddling 15 minutes in a warm place under a damp towel) can take place on a cold countertop for three hours covered with nothing, and no harm done! I also got brave and sprinkled grated Pecorino on top before baking, and combined fresh thyme, marjoram and rosemary all together: a delight. With this we enjoyed an old vegetarian favorite. Give it a try. Your house will smell like a proper Italian restaurant, and your heart will swell with pride.

Orrechiette ith Two Broccolis, Tomato and Pinenuts
(serves four)

1/2 pound dried orrechiette (or farfalle or another sort of stubby pasta)
1 tsp butter
1 tbsp olive oil
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 white onion, minced
1 tbsp Italian seasoning
1/2 cup pinenuts
1 soup-size can plum tomatoes
8 florets broccoli
8 stems tenderstem broccoli
1/2 cup grated Pecorino or Parmesan

Put water on to boil for the pasta. It will need to cook for about 12 minutes.

Heat butter and olive oil in a shallow skillet and cook garlic and onion till soft, then add Italian seasoning and mix well. Set aside while in a food processor or blender you mix the pinenuts and tomatoes till completely blended and a pleasing sort of reddish pink. Pour the mixture into the skillet with the garlic and onion and heat until bubbling, then turn off heat.

Steam the two broccolis until they smell good, and like broccoli. I can't explain it better than that: you'll know they're cooked (five minutes or so?) when they smell like you want to eat them.

When the pasta is cooked through, drain it nearly all the way and dump it into the skillet with the sauce, then throw in the two broccolis and toss all together. Serve with the cheese, and ENJOY.

12 December, 2008

beauty in the Grosvenor Chapel

All right, you've got me, this isn't the Grosvenor Chapel. It's my own kitchen countertop where Avery and her friend Emily concocted their wax and flocked-tree Christmas village last evening. I took pictures of them doing it, but they've suddenly hit an age where instead of looking up smiling falsely and charmingly when you say, "Hey, look up, girls!" they hide their faces and say, "I hate having pictures taken of me." What a nice memory: the girls getting so involved in the decorations that they couldn't bear to be parted; securing permission for Emily to stay, finding in the freezer a couple of salmon fillets to feed an unexpected dinner guest, listening to her silly family stories, watching the two girls throw their heads back and howl with laughter.

But seriously, I know it's Christmas when the annual candlelit concert rolls around at the incomparable Grosvenor Chapel in Mayfair. Now in years past we have been the guests of Grosvenor in their capacity as our enormously overcompensated landlords, living as we did in the shadow of the American Embassy. This year I sighed a sigh of both disappointment that we would not be invited because we had moved away, and sheer relief at the lifting of that enormous rent bill every month. And you know what? Someone in the heavenly sphere reached out and said, "Kristen, you SHALL go to the ball even though you live in darkest Shepherd's Bush." That someone took the shape of my dear friend Annie who lately seems to be my partner in crime in so many little jaunts. She has done work for the Home Farm Trust, recipient of the concert's ticket income, and so had four tickets and only herself and her daughter, my dear Emily, to go. What luck! So my holiday season could begin bang on schedule, in the pine-scented, white-pillared elegance of the Chapel.

The concert came on the heels of the afternoon gathering at Avery's school of all the pupils of the two singing teachers. They'd organised themselves into groups, or soloists, and had lovingly chosen their music, according to the staff. (Although Avery, typically refusing the sentimentality of schoolteachers, denied this account of events saying, "I hardly know Emma and the teacher said we had to sing a duet, and do you really think I'd choose 'Amazing Grace' if I had anything to say about it?"). Fair enough, whatever the organising principle, there they were, 30 girls in all, ranging in age from the littlest MIVs (Avery's age) to young women of 18, and filling every conceivable rank of talent as well! There were several phenomenal singers, several astonishingly terrible singers, and lots in between. Avery and Emma were, contrary to the expectations that had been raised by Avery's practicing at home, extremely good and very touching. There is something affecting and pure about that song, and also they looked so very small and defenseless compared to the big girls who had gone before. They had also dressed up, unlike the older girls who seemed to make a point of turning up in ratty tieless sneakers, short skirts with tattered tights underneath, and the ubiquitous fringey scarf. Dreadful sounding, I know, but with their extreme youth, squeaky clean hair, hesitant shy smiles and hands plucking at the clothes with nerves, they were all irresistibly vulnerable and lovely.

Why must I cry at these events? It is impossible to pretend I have an itchy eye. I end up spending so much emotional energy trying not to make a fool of myself with a tissue that I miss a good part of the performance. I'm sure there's a metaphorical lesson there somewhere.

From there we jumped on the bus and headed to Mayfair. In one of the moments that defines living in London, I read on the programme that we would be "In the Presence of HRH Princess Michael of Kent," how thrilling. The lady leading us in gave us each a tall white candle and suggested, "Why not try a seat upstairs, where you will be directly opposite the speakers in the pew?" Speakers! Another quick glance at the programme: the Princess herself! Charles Dance, Patrick Godfrey, Amanda Walker, Tim Piggott-Smith! What a galaxy of stars, and two of them we'd seen onstage in the London theatre in the past year, Charles Dance in "Shadowlands" and Tim Piggott-Smith in "Pygmalion." They did not, I must clarify, so much speak, as READ.

I am an absolute devotee to the art of reading aloud. From the time Avery was born, John and I propped her up between us on pillows and, holding a book above her, read to her at bedtime, each taking a page in turn, for an hour or so before she went to sleep. She thrived on the ritual, taking comfort, I think, in the predictability, the closeness, and in turn she bestowed on the written and then spoken word a sort of trust that has stayed with her all her life, and with us too. Whenever she has one of her periodic and mysterious little day-long fevers, the first thing she asks for is for me to read aloud to her. It is a precious return to a long-ago ritual, one that seemed to last so long for the years it did, and yet now reveals itself to have been short-lived indeed. She is so independent now that those nights of the evening read-aloud seem like a chapter from some fictional person's life.

Being read to as an adult takes on more nuanced meaning, of course. We have all been in situations where someone reads aloud a deeply affecting text. Perhaps the reader is a famously dulcet-toned actor, holding his audience almost unwilling in its rapture, or perhaps only a beloved person close to one's heart. One is caught up in the moment, spellbound by the performance, seduced for that moment into believing the performance to be true. How magical it is, that suspension of disbelief! How ready we all are to listen, to absorb, to take away something that will ease the unexpected pain and confusion of human relations.

How easy it is, really, for one to read aloud something profound: the act requires nothing more than a revealing, wise and emotional text from the writer, concentration and delivery from the reader, and a rapt audience. How much more difficult it is, as an adult, to understand what one has read aloud, and infinitely more difficult still to live by the tenets of what one has read. We can choose carefully all the elements, but sometimes putting them together is beyond our capability.

But there are times when one suspends all such judgment and merely revels in the beauty of the voice alone and hears only the wisdom of the words, revealed by the one wisest enough to have written them down. That was my experience at the Grosvenor Chapel this week. We lit our candles, then watched the collective smoke rise when we blew them out. We listened as each reader ascended the podium and read: from Dylan Thomas and Clare Boylan, from Dickens and "Yes, Virginia, there IS a Santa Claus," and from Isaiah. I listened, and as is my wont tried to absorb some bit of knowledge through listening that might help me with my thoughts. We stood and sang when it was time to sing, and sat back and admired the choir and tiny orchestra when we were meant merely to admire. I felt that particular sort of unplaced grief you feel when you look around and remember that everyone in your sight is the most important person in the world to someone. I thought a great deal about the people dear to me who have been delivered enormous losses in the past few weeks, with more to come in the weeks to come.

Sometimes it is awful being an adult.

But then I looked around at Annie and Emily and Avery and I could feel my heart contract at the luck of being with them, in such a beautiful place, surrounded, in the heart of London, by the best and brightest of the stage and screen, by HRH for heaven's sake, and by luscious greenery and candlelight. It all exists at the same time, and in the same place, and that means it's Christmas.

09 December, 2008

conquering kitchen demons

It is a truth universally acknowledged that when a certain type of person possesses a skill, he or she will look with contempt and scorn at another person who does not possess that skill. And not just look, mind you, but express that contempt and scorn quite readily, with apparent blindness to the possibility that there are things he or she is also not capable of doing. This is such an unpleasant human quality that I'm making it an early New Year's Resolution never to do it again, if I ever have.

The problem with the contempt and scorn school for me is (aside from the basic one that it makes me feel bad) that it stops me doing things I don't know how to do. I just crawl away into a safe dark place where I can carry on doing the things I already know how to do. And while that generally works out all right, since I can do a fair number of things, in my current mini-mid-life-crisis mode I don't want ANYTHING standing in the way of my getting something I really want.

As a result of all this analysis and a sudden decision to step up to the culinary plate, I resorted to the method that nearly always solves a problem for me: I found a friend. Yesterday I welcomed into my kitchen one Hannah Goodyear, of The Kitchen Queen, to help me overcome some of my most persistent kitchen fears. You know we all have them. I know a lot of people who are scared silly of a whole chicken. These same people will happily cook the much more intimidating version of this, the Thanksgiving or Christmas turkey, but would blanche and even faint at the notion of roasting a chicken every Sunday, for example. I know other people who would never consider gutting and filleting a whole fish. That would be me. For some reason, though, I feel no need to acquire this particular kitchen skill, whereas I do have a secret desire to be a butcher.

My particular kitchen terrors were, until yesterday, threefold: bread, fresh pasta and baking. All three of these areas seemed to me to involve a couple of areas in life where I am at my weakest: science and mathematics. I tend to avoid activities that require more than a passing acquaintance with either of these subjects, and I was absolutely certain that to bake a loaf of bread, make ravioli or produce a successful dessert, I would have to shake hands with not only scientific rules, but also NUMBERS.

Now, in this I was correct. But in my ambitious heart of hearts, I knew instinctively that all I really needed was a teacher. Until yesterday, everything I ever knew about cooking I learned by myself, just slogging along imitating other people's successes.

I speak from experience as a longtime teacher myself when I tell you that there are two sorts: the sort who revels in being smarter than other people, and the sort who remembers very well not knowing ANYTHING and just wants to help people out of their ignorance. There is room for both sorts: it can be surprisingly motivating, in a sick sort of way, to learn by fear and intimidation. But that's not the sort of person I wanted in my kitchen. Happily for me, I got Hannah. And so should you.

I found her in the way that people in the modern world find everything: by googling. "Cookery lessons London," got me to an array of cookery SCHOOLS. The trouble with an institution, however, is that you have to do things their way. You have to sign up, for example, for "Baking." But I knew I didn't want to spend a day learning to make biscotti or a chocolate cake. I wanted to learn to make a tart. Or I could have had a day of "Pasta, Pizza and Risotto," and while it would have been fun, I already know how to make pizza and risotto, and I knew I didn't want to learn to make spaghetti. I wanted to reproduce the gloriously decadent raviolis I have been encountering at some of my Ladies Who Lunch adventures. Even the most luxurious ready-made raviolis on the commercial market fall short, I think, and have to be covered in a garlicky, creamy sauce and topped with fried sage to make them interesting. And by the time I'd done all that, I found, the whole point of ready-made food had been lost.

The beauty of Hannah's approach is that I got to tell her EXACTLY what I wanted to learn, and I got to learn in my very own kitchen. So a flurry of emails and phone calls later, I had a massive shopping list and a huge sense of purpose.

I felt as if I were welcoming a blind date into my house! Only even more so: at least on a date you're looking at three, four hours, maximum. Hannah and I cooked together for over seven hours yesterday, and I can tell you that it was one of the best days of my life. I love nothing more than spending a day cooking in any case, but to spend the day WITH someone in the kitchen, and to know that as every hour passed I could do something I couldn't have done before was a tremendous thrill. And you know what: there's nothing to any of those jobs that had scared me so. I just needed a helping hand.

We started off at the deep end: making foccacia dough. Why was I so scared of a little knob of fresh yeast? I bought it two weeks ago, and every time I opened the fridge it stared at me from its plastic bag, mocking my fear. But with Hannah here, I bravely put it on the scale (a scale in my kitchen! who would ever have thought), mixed it with sugar, and watched as it turned liquidy, just as Hannah said it would. Like magic. I mixed and kneaded and shaped it and stuck it in an oiled bowl and that was that. Left in a warm oven to rise while we attacked pasta. A challenge! I confess to being a cook who tends to use a utensil to mix messy things, but there was no tool to replace my own two hands, getting sticky with eggs and flour. I made a well in an enormous pile of flour on my granite counter, plopped in the eggs, and watched as they ran away from me. "Just catch them with your hands and bring them back into the flour!" Hannah laughed, and in no time there was a lovely ball of pasta dough, to chill while we made sweet pastry for the tart.

Tarts and I have had a stormy relationship. The pastry shrinks, the filling doesn't set, the flavors are dull, the whole presentation has a sort of Girl Scout rough-and-ready quality to it. Not yesterday! I learned to roll the pastry out so it more than fills the tart pan, and we made a creme patissiere, a very thick custard, to fill the case, and then VERY precisely covered the whole top with strawberries and raspberries, and glazed it all with melted apricot jam. So simple and perfect.

The foccacia dough was turned out onto the counter and I punched it down and put it in springform pans to rise again, then we made dimples on the two loaves with our knuckles, painted the tops with olive oil, sprinkled rosemary and thyme and sea salt on them and baked them. Absolutely nothing to it. And as you see, they turned out just like a restaurant. I could feel my doubts slipping away!

We made four decadent fillings, one of which turned out to be very boring and so we didn't use it. It was a pumpkin base, and no matter how much garlic, lemon juice, pepper, pine nuts we added, it was just... dull. It tasted of all the things we added, but not of pumpkin, and it wasn't pumpkin colored, as the ravioli I had had at Petersham Nurseries had been. Any suggestions accepted. I hear from my mentor Orlando, however, that pumpkin filling is tricky. Maybe the Lebanese pumpkin I started out with was the wrong ingredient. I really don't know. But the lobster, crab and tomato filling was divinely rich, as was the saffron cream sauce to go with it. Then there was crab and chestnut mushroom stuffing (John's favorite), and finally Avery's requested spinach, ricotta and prosciutto mixture. With that I served a fried sage and butter sauce, and I can tell you right now, you cannot make enough fried sage leaves to make a dinner party happy. We invited my friend Annie and her family to join in the delights, and oh! It was a delight.

Hannah has all the right qualities to make her a pleasure to spend seven straight messy hours with: she's super speedy and efficient (the fastest washer-upper I have ever known), she's flexible and unflappable, she's seen it all twenty times and so is surprised by nothing, and she's encouraging. She gets you down and dirty and asks all the time, "Would you rather be doing..." to make sure you're getting the experience you want. She is also drop-dead gorgeous which doesn't hurt when you spend the whole day with her. Best of all, she truly enjoys bringing her charge up from ignorant to capable, and no question was too stupid for me to ask. And she stayed far beyond the time limit, to make sure I was really ready to feed my guests. When she left, I felt a bit like a babysitter must when the parents leave: was I really in charge?

The dinner went off without a hitch. One caveat I would offer you about fresh pasta: make sure you don't let it get too warm before you cook, because it will stick to whatever surface you put it on. On the off chance that something wouldn't be edible, I had decided to roast a couple of chickens as a supplement (we didn't even TOUCH them!), and as a result the kitchen was very toasty. Some of the lobster raviolis died a sad death on their greaseproof paper, no matter how much flour I sprinkled on to try to save them. But I was feeling so confident by then that you know what I did? I simply scooped the lovely savoury filling (fully cooked) out of the sad dead pasta, and shook it up in my salad dressing. And it was the best dressing ever, for crisp, strong rocket, baby beetroot leaves and spinach. I am not normally very inclined to think out of the box, but it was lovely to find little bites of crab, lobster and tomato in that salad.

What a triumph! I am trying to think now if there are any other frightening spectres lurking in my kitchen cupboards, mocking me with my incompetence. Because I have no doubt that Hannah dispel them. Give her a call, do. What a great Christmas present, thank you, John.

Fresh Pasta

800 grams Type 00 (or pasta) flour
8 large free range eggs

Place the flour in a heap on a work surface and make a well in the center. Pour the eggs into the well (catch them when they run away!) and mix well until you have a ball of really stiff dough, then knead it really well. You want to end up with a nice silky, glossy, smooth ball of dough, quite firm. Be patient and scrape your hands off now and then and don't worry if you can't incorporate every scrap of flour. You will need to knead at least 10 minutes. When finished, wrap in clingfilm and chill for at least half an hour in the fridge.

After the resting period, pinch off a piece about the size of three fingers, and feed it through your pasta machine first in the widest setting. Then fold it in half and continue at the widest setting several times, and then continuing through to the finest setting. Lay the pasta out on a floured surface and place an egg-yolk-sized spoonful of the filling of your choice about 2 inches apart, then brush with egg white around the filling to make the top layer of pasta stick. Then play another layer on the top and press all around the mound of filling. Cut around the filling leaving an inch or so of pasta all around. Drop into boiling water for no more than three minutes and drain well.


The Kitchen Queen's Lobster, Crab and Tomato Ravioli with a Saffron Cream, Served with Pan-Fried Courgette and Leek Ribbons
(serves 8 as a starter)

enough fresh pasta for 16 large raviolis
2 medium lobster tails
1 tbsp butter
splash olive oil
100 grams white crab meat
2-3 tbsps tomato puree
juice of 1/2 lemon
salt and pepper to taste
pinch chilli powder
1 tsp fresh thyme, chopped
100 grams mascarpone cheese

Sauce and Topping

large pinch saffron
1 1/2 cups chicken stock
1/2 cup double cream
2 cloves garlic, minced
salt and pepper to taste
4 tomatoes, deseeded and finely chopped
2 courgettes, made into ribbons using a potato peeler
white part of 1 leek, julienned

Bring water to boil in a saucepan and cook the lobster tails until not quite fully cooked, about 4-5 minutes. Let cool and then shell and cut off the very end (about 2 inches) of the tail and set aside. Chop the remainder of the lobster fairly fine and fry in the butter and olive oil until fully cooked. Lift out of the skillet and leave the skillet to one side to fry the courgettes and leek in later.

In a mixing bowl, mix the crab, tomato puree, lemon juice, salt and pepper, chilli powder, thyme and mascarpone, then the cooled lobster. Taste and adjust seasonings. Chill until ready to stuff the pasta. Cut the small ends of lobster tail into eight equal pieces and set aside.

For the sauce, mix the saffron with the chicken stock in a saucepan, then add the cream, 1 clove of garlic, and salt and pepper and simmer high until the sauce reaches a nice thick consistency. Set aside until nearly ready to serve. Make the courgette ribbons and leek julienne and saute them with the remaining clove of garlic in the skillet you used for the lobster.

To serve, boil the ravioli for no more than 3 minutes and place two on each plate. Place the chopped tomatoes in the sauce and heat through, then pour the sauce over the ravioli and top with a little courgette and leek. Finally top each plate with a bit of lobster tail and serve right away.


The Kitchen Queen's Rosemary and Rock Salt Foccacia
(serves eight)

30 grams/1 ounce fresh yeast
1/2 tsp sugar
600 ml/1 pint 2 fl ounces warm water
4 tbsps olive oil, plus more for oiling bowl
680 grams/ 1 1/2 lbs strong white flour, plus more for dusting
2 tsps rock salt, plus 1 1/2 tsps for topping
leaves from 4 rosemary sprigs

Mix the yeast with the sugar in a small bowl and stir until the yeast liquidizes. Stir in two thirds of the water and the olive oil. In a large bowl stir together the flour and salt. Pour the yeast mixture into the flour and salt and mix with a wooden spoon to form a soft dough. Add more water if the dough is a bit dry (rather it be wet than dry).

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for ten minutes until smooth and elastic (Hannah does this by holding onto the dough with one hand and then FIRMLY pushing half of it away with the other, then turning the dough 90 degrees and repeating many times). Place the dough in an oiled bowl and put in a warm place (my 50-degree oven worked fine) under a damp teatowel and rise till doubled in bulk, about 1 1/2 hours.

When the dough has risen, knead it again for about five minutes on a clean floured surface to "knock it back." Then shape the dough into two circles and place them each in an oiled 9-inch springform pan. Place in the warm spot and let rise again to twice their size (about 10-15 minutes). Make 20 or so "dimples" in the dough with your knuckles and brush generously with olive oil. Then sprinkle with salt and press rosemary leaves into them, then sprinkle the rest of the rosemary over the top.

Bake at 220/400 for ten minutes, then lower heat to 190/375 and baker for a further 20-30 minutes until cooked through and golden brown on top. Remove springform and when bread is slightly cooled, remove to a cooling rack. The foccacia is best eaten the day it's made. Enjoy!


The Kitchen Queen's French Raspberry Strawberry Tart
(serves eight)

For the Creme Patissiere:
2 tsps vanilla extract
scraped-out seeds of 1 vanilla pod
560 ml whole milk
50 grams plain flour
4 tsps cornflour
8 egg yolks
120 grams caster sugar

For the Sweet Pastry:
200 grams plain flour, plus extra for dusting
50 grams icing sugar
125 grams cold butter, cut into small cubes
1 large egg, beaten
tiny splash milk

3 tbsps apricot jam
1 punnet each raspberries and strawberries

Whisk the egg yolks, vanilla and sugar together, then add flour and cornflour. Boil the milk and whisk it slowly into egg mixture. Pour the mixture into a clean pan and bring slowly to the boil, until it thickens (it gets very thick!). Simmer for another minute and then chill completely, under a piece of clingfilm to prevent a skin forming.

Mix the flour and icing sugar together in a big bowl. "Rub" the cut-up butter into this mixture, shaking the bowl occasionally to bring the lumps to the surface. If your hands are hot (mine always are), run them under a cold tap to keep you from melting the butter. Mix until you achieve a texture of breadcrumbs. (Hannah says this can be done in the food processor, but we did it the old-fashioned way so I'd know how.) Add the egg and splash of milk so that a dough forms. Wrap in clingfilm and chill for an hour if possible.

Get your flan/tart tin. (Mine did not have a removable base, and it was fine, but one with such a base is preferable.) Roll out pastry on a floured surface until it's large enough to fit over the tin, up the sides and with some left over. Press the dough into the tin and up the sides, then trim to be even with the edge of the tin. Lay some greaseproof paper over the dough, then put a couple of hands of rice, pasta, or baking beans on top of the greaseproof- this helps stop the pastry from rising when we cook it, and is known as "baking blind" (i.e. with nothing else in it).

Bake for 15-20 minutes until pastry is dry and biscuit-like (you don't want a soggy bottom on your tart!). When the pastry case has cooled, transfer it to a nice plate and fill it with the creme patissiere. Top with halved strawberries around the edge and fill the rest of the top with raspberries, hole side down. Paint with the melted apricot jam and enjoy!


Thank you, Hannah, for making my day so exciting and rewarding, for not laughing when I panicked and for answering every question thoroughly and never giving away when it was a silly one, for the incredibly precise and readable instructions (left with me on laminated, beautifully decorated recipe cards), for the Kitchen Queen apron and canvas tote. But mostly, thank you for your willingness to help me with my kitchen demons. I'm a happier person for our time together.

07 December, 2008

Oedipus and saltpetre (plus the Chicken Couple)

I'll begin with my poultry romance. I didn't bring them together in the hopes of creating a culinary costume drama, obviously, but some things just have their own energy. I wanted to buy just one whole chicken, in my lovely local Shepherd's Bush Market, plus a whole breast on the bone, to joint up and cook for us and Avery's swimming chum Emily (who is an occasional dilettante vegetarian and I had been advised was on a carniverous day). But the butcher said, "Cheaper for you to take the whole two birds, my love," so I did. I don't mind jointing the odd chicken or two, plus getting the backbones and such for stock. But when I brought these two home and lay them on my cutting board... well, the chemistry leaps right through the ethernet.

And they made a lovely baked chicken dish as WELL as a damn good stock.

Chicken aside, two words: Ralph Fiennes. I know he is a rat of the first order, when it comes to love affairs. First it was Alex Kingston who he famously left for the youth-challenged but still lovely Francesca Annis. Far be it from me to say that there isn't something in an older woman to charm a younger man. I have seen it happen. But then (we knew it would happen) he left Francesca for... I do not know. Someone very young, I fear, which means that in addition to being a serial philanderer, he's inconsistent as well.

Never mind. We saw "Oedipus" at the National on Friday and gasp, gasp. We took Avery because I felt that if the National said "twelve and over" they knew whereof they spoke, but I was a bit nervous nonetheless, a feeling that was underscored when we reached our seats and craned our necks to see the rest of the audience and she was, in fact, the ONLY child. Only. But in fact she was riveted from start to finish. Fiennes at times overreached the emotion needed to convey his misery, confusion, hysteria, I felt. He could have been considerably more restrained and yet have stimulated much the same feelings in the audience. But it was an intense, overwhelming theatrical experience, shored up by a business-suited Greek chorus, a fabulous Clare Higgins as Jocasta, and the appearance at the ultimate moment of four small children as his offspring. A jarring and frightening experience for the actors, I would have thought. "That was beautiful," Avery said as soon as the bows were taken. It was.

In the morning I stepped up to my culinary plate and faced up to 45 grams of... saltpetre. Have you ever heard of it? It's quite famous, or infamous, as a substance that has been administered to sex offenders in prison to dampen their sex drive. So naturally it was but the work of a moment for me to procure some from my local butcher to marinate my silverside of beef.

I am not making this up.

It's also a massively unstable ingredient in explosives, it turns out. So why did I want 45 grams of this substance? Because it's the essential component in producing top-quality "Spiced Beef," a la Richard Corrigan (one of my favorite chef-writers) by way of Rowley Leigh of Cafe Anglais, in a recipe in the weekend's FT. I am not exactly sure what role the saltpetre plays in the 10-day marination of my priceless cut of beef, but like a good girl I went straight to Mr Stenton. As I sidled up to the butcher counter, telltale pink pages of the Financial Times in my hand, he said, "This looks dangerous." Then he explained the history of saltpetre and the IRA, and said, "Give me two days. I've got to get onto Boots with my butcher's license, and then you can come collect it."

So I did. And I mixed it with a veritable mountain of Maldon salt, and pounded-up peppercorn, juniper berry and whole allspice. Rubbed it all over the beef, wrapped it in plastic, and there he reposes in my fridge, to be massaged every day or so until it's time to roast it, VERY slowly, place it under a plate on which are piled four tins of tomatoes, and then slice it VERY thin. Serve it with Orlando's straw potatoes in goose fat, I'm thinking. So if you can proffer your heart surgeon's certificate of good health, I'll invite you over for the finished product, ten days from now.

Tomorrow beckons an unbelievable culinary adventure for me. Would you believe I have lived for 43 years with never having had the first cooking lesson of any kind, at all? As much as I love the field, and activity, it seems very silly that I've come this far without any professional help. Well, that ends tomorrow morning when a certain "Kitchen Queen" arrives in my kitchen with two pasta makers to help me make: focaccia, fresh ravioli with four different fillings (among them pumpkin and sage, crab, lobster with mascarpone and Avery's request: spinach, ricotta and prosciutto). Plus a winter fruits tart. I am terribly, terribly excited. Reports to follow.

We are getting excited, on this side of the Atlantic, for our trip "home" for Christmas in Connecticut. Added to our holiday plans is a long-planned trip to Washington, D.C., for a hard-won behind-the-scenes tour of private bits of the White House. John's mom feels very strongly that Avery needs a shoring up of her American roots, and that the best way to accomplish this (or at least one way) is a visit to the nation's capital. This should be a thrill. Avery's first response to this news was to conjugate the word "Obama" into full-on Latin, so that "I Obama, You Obama, We Obama," and so on. And they say Latin is a dead language. But since our tour is organized by a major Republican much beloved by all of us, we'll wait for the Obama chant till January 21st. D.C., here we come.

05 December, 2008

Petersham Nurseries

It turns out the credit crunch isn't all bad: it's convinced the great Richmond restaurant Petersham Nurseries to offer a shockingly reasonable prix fixe lunch. I would never have thought of going, so famously pricey is this brainchild of Australian import Skye Gyngell, but my journalist friend Louise emailed, "They're having a Christmas bazaar in the nurseries and even if we can't afford lunch, we can get a cup of soup in the cafe and wander around." Our dear friend Sam was in from Bath to spend the day with us, so a short tube ride it was, and Louise picked us up from the station and took us on a quick tour of Richmond's hidden treasures, among them a trip through the enormous Park. Rather unnerving was a sign announcing a deer cull, which although undoubtedly necessary, made me hope there wouldn't be venison on the Petersham menu, given my recent squeamish-making encounter with that too-red meat.

Upon arrival at the restaurant we decided we'd take a look at the sample menus just to make ourselves miserable, and lo and behold, prix fixe. Three courses, 27 pounds. Done. Minutes later we were sampling paper-thin square ravioli filled with velvety pumpkin and flecks of fried sage, in a sauce that was described as "sage and butter," but my goodness, that butter had undergone the most religious of clarification because it was all but transparent, with just the essential flavor of butter. Magic. Sam went for grilled squid with chorizo (a word our dear tutor Orlando apparently hates to say, as I feel about "moist"), padron peppers and a paprika aioli. I am no fan of squid, but we all shared and shared alike and I will say that if I were to like squid, it would be in that dish. Not a hint of rubber, very chewy and dense and charred to perfection.

Then it was onto baked ricotta for me, a too-generous wedge of it with fresh thyme and marjoram, and topped with an olive and tomato crush (this seems to be a new and to me annoying foodie term: everything lately that isn't a foam is a crush when to me it is a sauce, pure and simple, or since mine was room-temperature, perhaps a salsa?) and what was described as a "winter salad." Sam diagnosed lemon mint, and I could identify beet leaves, but beyond that it was purely fresh and simple and not drenched in dressing, just enough of a garlicky vinaigrette. Sam and Louise both had a monkfish curry with coconut milk (very little, which made the curry pleasingly light and subtle) and kaffir lime leaves and bhatura. What, you ask, is bhatura? So did I. It's a fried Indian bread, in this case thin and slightly crisp, topped delightfully with fennel seed.

As you know, I do not gravitate to sweet things, but it was a three-course lunch, so sweet things came. We ordered one of everything and shared. Hazelnut ice cream served cleverly in one of those gilded and painted short glasses that Indians drink tea from, and chocolate mousse with a very gingery caramel sauce, and a disappointingly ordinary apple gallet with creme fraiche. To my essentially tidy mind, apples need to be peeled or not peeled, but not both in one dish. It's disconcerting and looks like someone wasn't paying attention. As well, the creme fraiche was just that: a rather messy blob of pure creme fraiche. A sprinkling of vanilla bean or cinnamon would have added a note of thoughtfulness. Small complaints.

It's a treat to find oneself in a restaurant offering only eight dishes, and among them no fewer than five ingredients I had to look up in a food encyclopedia to know what they were. I still don't know exactly what sort of cheese is "caprini freschi," so please enlighten me if you do. Farro? It turns out to be the sort of mother of all grains, and I wish I knew what it was doing with a beef fillet, but none of us ordered it, dash it all. Farinata? A sort of pizza-like Italian pancake.

A funny aside about ingredients, pretentious and otherwise: Sam has been helping out a rather famous chef and food writer, testing recipes and such, and he had lots of juicy stories to tell, in his inimitable Sam manner: wickedly teasing, very much in the English taking-the-piss tradition. But he's harder on himself than anyone else. "She asked me, 'could you fetch harissa for me, Sam?" and I wondered if that was her child, needing to be collected from school. It's tomato paste."

All in all a gorgeous, luxurious meal. We talked over and over each other, reminiscing about our insane writing course, comparing notes on the feedback we've got from our erstwhile tutors and from each other. I've hit a wall, however, when it comes to my writing (of course I except my dear blog from this; this isn't writing, really, it's conversation). The wall is due, I fear, to too much reading of other people's work. This overexposure hits with a double whammy: it makes me want to write like these other people, and convinces me that I can't write anything near as good as their work. This is a bad situation. There is something almost mystical about the published word anyway: work takes on an aura, deserved or not, of quality when it's between the covers of a book, while mine languishes on a computer screen, or even worse, trapped within my shadowy brain. So I'm taking a bit of a break from my chapters right now, to try to see with some perspective the gap between what I want to accomplish and what I've actually done.

The same conundrum occurs with cooking, actually. I read too many recipes, have too fine a lunch out, and come home feeling that I cannot myself produce any food of great interest. It's a hell of a lot easier to cook than to write, however, so I can dispel my fears on that level pretty easily.

Sea Bass with a Polenta Crust
(serves four)

4 sea bass fillets
1/2 cup polenta (yellow cornmeal)
2 tsps Penzeys Fox Point Seasoning
dash garlic powder
dash olive oil

Trim and rinse and de-bone the fillets if your child is extremely finicky about fish issues, as mine is. One bone will put her off the entire dish and I can't say I blame her. Mix the polenta and seasonings in a small bag and shake the fillets in it till thoroughly coated with the mixture. In a heavy, nonstick skillet, heat the oil till very hot and place the fillets in, skin side down. Fry till skin is crisp, about two or three minutes. Turn over gently and fry for another minute and serve immediately with:

Couscous with Savoy Cabbage and Garlic
(serves four)

1 cup couscous
1 1/4 cup hot chicken stock
1 tbsp butter
1 tbsp olive oil
1 small head, or about 2 cups finely chopped Savoy cabbage
4 cloves garlic, minced

Couscous makes me laugh because it prepares itself right before your eyes. Place the dry couscous in a bowl that can accommodate twice its bulk. Add the hot stock and watch. Just a few minutes and you can fluff it with a fork and stir in the butter.

Heat the olive oil in a skillet or saucepan and saute the Savoy cabbage and garlic till soft. I know it may look like too much oil, but this is essentially the only dressing the couscous will have. Mix the cabbage and all the oil with the couscous and fluff well. Lovely and so light.


Avery didn't rave about the couscous and cabbage but she ate it. Her verdict was "I'll eat it if you give it to me, but I probably won't ask for it." Fair enough.

Listen, we're dashing off to see Ralph Fiennes (one of my original crushes, but I don't think he ever knew) in Oedipus. Avery keeps screaming at me to pronounce it with a long "E." "My acting teacher AND my drama coach can't be wrong!" she says, but I'm sticking to my American roots. Ralph won't mind, and I DO know that's with a long "A" and no "L." Goodness, theatre is complicated these days.

29 November, 2008

the great American musical (or not)

When Avery was a little, little girl, perhaps four years old, she made a brief foray into the world of ballet. All her friends were doing it, it seemed a shame to let her childhood pass by without a pink leotard and a tutu. So off she went to first the rather (very) serious Joffrey Ballet, where she was nearly kicked out for insubordination. She did not take kindly to the autocratic methods of "Miss Liz", the prissy instructor, but she kept going because her friend Annabelle was showing real talent and has continued to be a true Nutcracker ballerina as the years have gone by. But Avery? No. The lowest point came when Avery and all her friends decided to attend a dance class combining ballet and sort of modern movement, with a creature at the helm called "Miss Kimberley." Miss Kimberly had a high, grating voice like a character on the Simpsons, and a way of frantically clapping her hands as she lost control of the class, shouting ineffectually, "Dancers! Dancers!" After attending several of these classes with me, one of the other mothers turned and made poking gestures to her eyes. After class I said, "What the hell?" and she said, "I'd rather stick hot needles in my eyeballs than EVER go to that class again. Just so you know."

Well, sadly, John turns out to feel that way about the Great American Musical. Last night we saw "Carousel" at the Savoy Theatre with friends, and Avery and I were in heaven. Brought up on American musicals (not in person, not in Indianapolis, but on television and with records of all the soundtracks) I remembered all the songs and was bouncing along in a subdued way in my seat, muttering all the lyrics under my breath, when I happened to catch John's face out of the corner of my eye. A stony visage somehow combining intense boredom with sleepiness and annoyance. At intermission I said meekly, "You don't like musicals?" "I do NOT like musicals," he said flatly. "But why?" Avery asked. "Let's see: bad acting, bad American accents, endless choreography, cliched plots..." Fair enough. But that's all the stuff I LIKE.

Well, anyway, the rest of us had fun. Lots of memories of high school musicals (before High School Musical), my parents in the audience, all the behind-the-scenes romances that developed, but never with me! Alas.

Lesley Garrett was very impressive, the perfect vehicle for "You'll Never Walk Alone" which I remember clearly singing at junior high school graduation (naturally), making all the mothers cry. Afterward we walked in the typical London drizzle to the Embankment tube station which is always fun, late at night, seeing the bridge lit up and the Eye in the distance. One of those times when we remember we're living in London, not just in Shepherd's Bush. But I don't think I'll get John to any more musicals.

Thanksgiving was just lovely here, with Americanophile British friends. Our hostess Annie is a former professionally trained cook, so there was no question about her turkey turning out well, even if it was a very serious turkey indeed, as opposed to the Dolly Partonesque specimens I rebelliously insist on hauling out of the supermarket freezing compartment. No, this little guy came from my new best friend, Mr John Stenton of Stenton Family Butchers just up the street in nearby Brackenbury Village. Annie rang me up on Thanksgiving morning to ask if I wanted to come along to collect her turkey and incidentally be introduced to Mr Stenton and indeed I did. I had felt quite shy going alone. You know when people say to you, "Oh, you'll just LOVE so-and-so, everybody LOVES him and he is the best person," you feel shy? At least I do. I start thinking, "He's not going to want to meet ME if he's so all that," and so three months in my new neighborhood and I'm still buying my meat at Marks & Spencer (except for that ill-fated and now infamous attempt to secure pork from a Muslim).

Off we set, chatting all the way about the evening's menu, and there we were at Mr Stenton's. Red awning, doorway full of those fly-defying paper streamers, Mr Stenton presiding behind the counter. He is a spare, twinkling man with a strong handshake and a very firm meeting of the eye, sussing me up for any nonsense. He accepted Annie's introduction of me as a "food writer" with equanimity and pointed to the bookshelf behind him, groaning beneath the weight of the food writers and restaurateurs who he supplies with the finest Gloucester Old spot, eight-week cured hams, sausages made the night before with the thinnest of casings (mine melted, as per Mr Stenton's instruction, in hot water in less than a minute, leaving the perfect sausage meat, lovingly seasoned, to slip into the bowl, naked and ready for my stuffing).

Most intriguingly, Mr Stenton is quite, quite invested in the notion that Americans would, if they could, care more about the provenance and quality of the foodstuffs they buy. His daughter has recently married an American, and what's more, a Floridian and as such a "real" American as opposed to a New Yorker or Californian who, let's face it, could be ANYBODY. His son-in-law's father came recently for a visit to see exactly who produced the guy his beloved princess is shacking up with, and spent quite a lot of time in Mr Stenton's establishment, marvelling over his wares. "I pointed to the photograph of the cows on my wall, and then to the side of beef hanging in the back, and then I showed him these steaks that have hung for 45 days, and he was amazed. He's a surgeon, see. And he said, 'Things are going to have to change in America.' But look at this..." and as if by sleight of hand, Mr Stenton produces of all things a brochure from Ponderosa. "All you eat, breakfast buffet, $3.99. Who's going to want to cook when you can get all that for $3.99? The fact that it's all rubbish isn't going to bother anybody." Such a typical British reaction to most things American: they're bemused and half-admiring, but at rock bottom completely disgusted.

Then I was off to Kensington to meet my friend Dalia who injects me with sort of weekly doses of "Live life to the full! Get out of the loop! Embrace even suffering because it means you're alive!" She is a beautiful girl, which makes it fun to hang out with her, and she is an absolute walking advertisement for energy. Her black eyes sparkle and she runs her hands through her long, thick dark hair and when she laughs you just cannot help laughing, as it's as likely as not she's laughing at you and your silly pretensions and hesitation about... life. With Dalia, you cannot be hesitant.

More food shopping for the evening's festivities ensued, this time at Whole Foods where I succeed in finding buttermilk but not cornmeal for my Thanksgiving cornbread, requested by Annie. Ah well, it was but the work of a moment to discover that to almost everyone, cornmeal is just cheap polenta, and certainly my lovely local Frenchy delicatessen runs to polenta.

Thanksgiving itself was just perfect. Bobble-headed paper turkeys, autumn leaves and candles adorned the table in Annie's warm and open kitchen. The turkey was very nice, if a little spare from an American's point of view, obsessed as I am not with the dinner turkey but the prospect of turkey leftovers. There was a casserole of sweet potato with walnuts and honey, I brought an enormous saucepan of really creamy mashed potatoes, there were green beans and Brussels sprouts and my stuffing. And the most delightful children: Avery and her dear friend Emily, plus Emily's older sister Georgina and brother Sam, and three boys from Annie's best friend's family, so at least Avery for once had her pick of nice, acceptable, even entertaining and intelligent boys. Perhaps we can arrange for a once-weekly session or so, to dispel her natural scorn.

Since then, let's see, I've been reading, and writing. And reading and writing. I have become addicted to food writing. One book I can recommend whole-heartedly, and not just as food writing but as really touching autobiography, is Tamasin Day-Lewis's Where Shall We Go For Dinner? I looked forward to reading this especially because Tamasin read aloud from it to us during our Devon food-writing adventure, and in doing so she transformed herself from familiar, ranting tutor, a real person, into an actress to rival her brother Daniel Day-Lewis. She read a passage about the death of her father, the British poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis, very affecting. In the end, the whole premise of the book is a bit sad: it chronicles her love affair with both an American cheese purveyor from New York, and with America itself, and it turns out that after the publication of the book, he left her. Ouch. What an awful ending. But the book is beautifully written, evocative of every flavor you can imagine, full of wondrous and improbably complex recipes. A good ride.

I cannot on the other hand recommend Daisy Garnett's Cooking Lessons. This book had been touted to me by many people as "just what you're trying to write," so I suppose we were doomed to be a match not made in heaven. I learned as a professor, long ago, never to point out to students the similarities between two paintings because automatically they would then see only the differences. I think that's in part what happened to me with Garnett. While it's true her book is based on anecdotes from her life and then includes recipes, I balked at the recipes being nearly exclusively taken from other cookbooks: of course she credits them, but that seems a bit lazy to me. And there were repetitive anecdotes, several typos (someone "leant" her a book?) and other distracting mistakes that were irritating. She is a journalist and the book reads that way. Maybe it will be your cup of tea, but it wasn't mine.

Then I devoted a day to Richard Mabey's The Full English Cassoulet, and it was one of those books that would benefit from being spaced over several days. He's evangelical, not to say a bit cracked, on the subject of eating off the land (gathering everything under the sun, a book about which practice made him famous with Food For Free), but also about such earnest and worthy aims as "making do," in sort of Depression way (using absolutely everything, recycling ingredients for a stock that sits on the back burner of the stove every day for weeks, churning butter on a bicycle wheel, seriously). It's a hoot, really, and while I admire a lot of what he says about seasonality (and he is evangelical on that subject as well), I cannot claim to aspire to living in that way. I have to admit it: I'm evangelical about almost NOTHING.

I know I should shudder at the thought of buying strawberries in Britain in December. I know it. But if they smell good through the package, and Avery wants to eat them, I buy them. Of course it's more fun (I'm not really sure it's more delicious, but then there's my non-evangelical nature again) to buy asparagus in enormous, gluttony-inspiring bundles at the farmer's market in June, when you can choose between fat, medium and thin... but just the same, last week I had a marvellous salad of steamed asparagus, beetroot, mozzarella and rocket, and the asparagus was lovely. Full of flavor, firm, very green. Where did it come from? I really don't know, and I recognize that I am a lesser person for that. But there you go.

No, give me Nigel Slater's Toast any day of the week. Of course there are things Nigel Slater is evangelical about, in other books. (I have a clear memory of his saying in The Kitchen Diaries something along the lines of "I count a day lost when I do not have at least a tablespoon of Greek yoghurt.") But in "Toast" he is a pure raconteur. How on earth does he remember his childhood in such detail? The many times his parents tried to make him drink milk ("They tried chocolate and strawberry, but the only thing that changed was the color of my vomit"), the way his mother's Christmas cake tasted, what his stepmother wore on a picnic, the color of the kitchen curtains, it's endless. The book is nothing more or less than a series of generally unconnected vignettes about the space of his life between about age 8 to 14, during which time his father grows pink begonias and scares him to death with red-faced shouting, his gardener is sacked for undressing casually in front of little Nigel, he internalizes his stepmother's recipe for lemon meringue pie by stealth (since she won't share her kitchen). It's a wonderful ride.

Now I'm onto Fergus Henderson's The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating. Henderson runs St John restaurant in Shoreditch (John's been but I have not), a restaurant where the diner is expected to be able to stomach absolutely ANY part of the animal: snout to tail. I appreciate the notion that if we're going to eat any part of the animal, we should be able to eat ANY part, and I do think the modern obsession with wrapping up pristine, boneless, fatless, skinless parcels of someone's flesh in plastic is too far from the reality of meat. I do love to go into a butcher's shop where part of a real animal is hanging up in the back and I can see it being appreciated, taken apart, offered to me as part of something real. But ears and snouts? Testicles and hearts? Stomach linings? I know I am silly to be squeamish and probably what I need is just to be served some of these things in the best possible way and I would overcome my nerves. I'm looking forward to the book.

In the meantime our London writing class has really been heating up. We've decided that the most rewarding thing to do is to get together without the tutor and simply set ourselves exercises. It's imitating what we did in Devon, and to great results. Last Friday, all of us soaked to the skin from the relentless London rain, we all gathered at Gigi's house to write about... an object in the room. I wrote about a picture frame, and found the story turning rather darker than anything else I've written. Then my friend Venetia reached into a basket full of paper scraps and pulled out the first line of a short story, and we were to turn it into a story of our own. For the first time, I found myself writing from a man's point of view. I don't know who the man will turn out to be, but the line was "I once knew a girl who sat apart at the party, down on the floor." My character turned out to be madly attracted to this girl, although he already knew enough about her to know that he should turn away. I wonder what he knew? Time will tell...

Herbed Cornbread
(serves 12)

2 cups yellow cornmeal (or polenta)
1 cup plain flour
1/3 cup sugar
1 tbsp baking powder
1/2 tbsp baking soda
1 tsp dried sage
1 tsp dried marjoram (I used 1 tbsp fresh chopped)
1 tsp fresh ground pepper
1/2 cup butter, chilled, cut into 1/2 pieces
1 1/2 cup buttermilk
3 eggs

Mix all dry ingredients in food processor. Cut in the butter by turning on processor and adding butter pieces one at a time, letting them incorporate themselves into the dry ingredients. In a large bowl, whisk together buttermilk and eggs. Add dry mixture to wet and mix well. Turn into a buttered 9x9 dish and bake at 400F for 30 minutes.