30 April, 2008

we have a house!

Oh what an exciting day we've had! And when on earth was the last time I said THAT?! Actually it wasn't so much an exciting day in and of itself, but it was the day we got the keys to our new HOUSE!

It was thrilling to walk around the newly-painted pristine, white, empty rooms and imagine where all our belongings are going to go, especially rejoicing in the goodly array of built-in bookshelves. Of course, I have my 11 foot by 11 foot system of removable shelving coming with us, which will make a divinely warm and fuzzy wall in the kitchen (I think books are highly underrated as a decorating technique, don't you? all that color and variety). But to have further space will just be heavenly. For once in my life, and Avery's life, there may well be room enough for all our books to have a home. I fully plan to alphabetize them this time, because I spend an inordinate amount of time, hands on hips, gazing over the shelves trying desperately to find something.

The landlady could not be sweeter. She brought tea bags and coffee, loo paper and soap, and a bottle of champagne! And for Avery a bottle of sparkly apple juice. How nice is that? She genuinely wants us to be happy there, which makes a big difference when you're writing out the rent check. "The neighbors will all call," she said, "but you needn't worry that they'll be intrusive. They'll just be there in case you can't find your tin opener." She has a daughter spending her gap year all over the world (today she's in Laos) and so was sympathetic with my nerves over mere Normandy. "They do go off," she said, "just make sure that if it's 3 a.m. and she's drunk in a pub and needs a ride home, she calls you and not someone else." Hard to believe that will ever happen, but one never knows! Adolescence makes fools of us all, I suppose.

We went all through the house with the little booklet she made up for us with instructions on how everything works. The only thing not working at present is the ice maker in the freezer, but she has a technician coming, knowing that insane Americans cannot live without ice. I couldn't believe it: this morning I went to Marks and Spencer to get ice, and there... wasn't any. No one else seemed bothered about this, but I felt it was an outrage! No ice.

From the house we went up to Kensal Rise to the furniture warehouse we'd seen in a booth at the antique fair this weekend, and found a perfectly fabulous partner desk, made of ash and covered in rather battered blue leather. What fun that would be! We rushed back home and measured the front room and it could fit. Rushed back to our current abode and immediately we both went into frantic telephone mode: I called the vet to get the cattery number in Kent, called the cattery and booked all four felines into a "family chalet" for the week of the move. I love it: the girl who answered the phone took down the cats' names before she asked mine.

Then I called the upholsterer who is holding our sofa and bench hostage and had his assurance that the fabric had been ordered. That would be entirely good news only he hasn't told us how much he is charging, and now it sounds as if we're committed, with the fabric already on its way. Sigh. Then I called the bookshelf people and scheduled a "de-install and re-install" on just exactly the day I wanted them to come: when the movers have departed with the boxes of books and are on their way to take them to my new kitchen.

This lovely vine is jasmine, it turns out, framing our blue front door. The landlady says that when the weather is fine, we can open the sitting room windows and the smell of jasmine will come floating in. And the fireplaces work! All three of them, in what will be the Avery-do-your-homework room off the kitchen, in my study at the front of the house, and in the big reception room upstairs.

Whew! Tonight we're going out to dinner with our lovely neighbors, to a French restaurant around the corner and we can bore them both with our enthusiasm. I think it's just possible we'd be even more excited if we had bought the house, but how's this for a coincidence: just this morning there were economic reports of the first official house price drop in 12 years. Long may it continue! My last story of the day really makes me laugh, in a frustrated sort of way. We had a lovely chap from the oldest moving company in England come to give us a quote. This firm has been in business for 400 years, for heaven's sake. But guess what? Last week they went into receivership. Bankrupt! Four hundred years in business and it takes OUR JOB to put them under! Ah well, we've found another company, so I can only hope they don't realize the sort of curse we put on a business...

28 April, 2008

a food festival, a play and a furniture fair!

Well, Avery's been put on her coach, at 4:30 this morning (getting up in the dark in April is definitely too early), the incredibly youthful-looking teachers who are chaperoning the trip have herded them all together and pumped them up with words of girly encouragement. It was really a landmark sort of moment, a "this is the last time" sort of feeling: never again will we know every parent in her class, have happy memories of birthday parties, singing festivals, Michaelmas Fairs and Christmas parties with all the girls, know them all by name. The last two years with this group of people have been so happy, so defining. We all stood around on the pavement and commiserated about missing them, hoping they eat their lunches and don't get carsick, hoping they don't need a loo until they get to the ferry... and I think we all felt some combination of happy and melancholy. How odd it will be to have no schedule this week: no dropoff, no riding, no skating, no pickup. Ah well, soon it will be Friday and we'll be back to normal.

As it is, we've been in absolute Culture Mode, trying to take advantage of all the myriad opportunities there are in this lovely town. I was discussing this matter with my lovely mother in law over the weekend: she was very distressed that I feel our lives here are quite... ordinary! "No! Don't say that!" she wailed, and I do feel guilty that after being in London for two and a half years, it's not as exotic as it used to feel. I think that the reality is, the place where you grocery shop, clean the litter box, do laundry and pick your child up at school becomes... ordinary. But I mustn't let it! And life is definitely enhanced by doing something out of the ordinary.

In that vein, therefore, Friday morning found me at the Real Food Festival at Earl's Court. It's something for you to put on your map for next year (the festival finished at the weekend), and don't be put off by the rather heavy-handed sponsorship of Whole Foods Market. At first when I went in and was confronted by smiling Whole Foods people wearing aprons emblazoned with... "Whole Foods," passing out eco-friendly jute bags with... guess what, "Whole Foods" printed on the side, I thought, "this is merely an enormous advertisement for Whole Foods," and given the controversy here over the hugeness and extravagance of that place, I didn't really want to be spoon-fed an entire festival about how wonderful they are. But I persevered and soon was immersed in a beautiful maelstrom of admittedly twee sawdust-covered floors, but also hundreds of unique food purveyors, offering every sample under the sun. I succumbed to honey made in London's Royal Parks (it will make the perfect addition to my chicken wings' barbecue sauce later this week), kippers from the Isle of Man, deliciously salty and my first taste of that revered breakfast food! I am tempted to sell John on kippers by making a traditional kedgeree: boiled rice, kippers, hard-boiled eggs, curry powder. Doesn't that sound good?

Then there was the little lemon cake for Avery's journey lunch, from Country Fare in Cumbria, and hot chilli olive oil from Chilli Pepper Pete. Only DO NOT sample their "dragon's blood" if you value your life! I thought I would die. "Where are you from?" the cheery pepper lady asked, and when I answered "Originally New York," she beamed and said, "Oh, this dragon's blood sauce just won a competition there!" so I felt I must try it. OH NO! I cried. I gasped. I rooted around in my bag for a bottle of water. "That doesn't help," she said." You think? No, it doesn't. I nearly died. But the chilli oil is lovely! Although John felt it quite overpowered the crabmeat pasta dish I made that night, so I'll have to adjust the recipe and get it properly balanced before I blog it.

I sampled goat's cheese, garlic and chive cheddar cheese from Isle of Man Creameries, chorizo from Yorkshire, who knows what else. And: celebrity alert, I saw Matthew Fort, one of the judges from "Great British Menu," our favorite cookery programme on the BBC. I screwed up my courage and went over to tell him how much we enjoy the show, and he replied, "Oh, how lovely of you to tell me, I'm very pleased indeed!" Then he turned away to greet Tom Parker-Bowles, which was also cool, and they walked on together. My last purchase was not a sample, but a group of three spice blends from The Spice Specialist, where a lovely attentuated young man assured me that their celery salt is more celery and less salt, which is what I'm looking for when I make my cheesy spinach casserole. I'm finding that commercial celery salt is simply too salty, especially because I used a lot in order to get the celery flavor just right, and combined with the salt of the Gruyere is slightly off-putting, so I'm hoping this is the solution. Then, too, last time I made it I added chopped celery leaves and that made a difference.

I rode home on the bus feeling so fortunate to live in a country full of so many committed small producers, producing such extraordinary ingredients. I hope I'm wrong, but something tells me that the US is lagging behind in such a prevailing interest in honest ingredients, properly grown and reared. In time...

Saturday evening saw us heading off to Windsor to the Theatre Royal to see Agatha Christie's "Murder on Air." Well, I say that, but what actually happened is that I was at the front door, my tart for our picnic in my hands, ready to head off to Richmond to the theatre there, where I thought the play was to be, when I noticed that the ticket confirmation I was also holding said quite plainly "Theatre Royal WINDSOR." Good grief, I could have got us all the way to Richmond only to realise we were at the wrong theatre. John was briefly and silently apoplectic at my incompetence, Avery was defending me, and then we all calmed down and headed off to... Windsor. And in the end it didn't make any difference: we were in plenty of time to spread out our picnic by the swans floating down the river.

Goats Cheese Tart with Chiavennasca and Spinach
(serves 6)

1 cup wholemeal flour
1/2 cup cold butter, cut in chunks
1/2 tsp dried thyme
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup soft goats cheese
2 tbsps creme fraiche
3 handsful spinach leaves
8 slices Chiavennasca
2 tsps butter
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 medium white onion, minced
1/4 cup grated pecorino or parmesan cheese

Now what, you ask, is Chiavennasca? Well, it's an Italian air-dried beef, marinated in spices and peppercorns and white wine and aged, then sliced thin. It is simply delicious, but if you can't find it, you can always use Parma ham, or indeed, skip the meat and keep it a vegetarian dish.

Put the flour and butter and thyme in your Magimix and whizz until the butter is wholly incorporated and the mixture begins to stick together as a dough. Add more butter if needed. Press evenly into a 12-inch tart pan.

In a medium bowl, mix the eggs, goats cheese and creme fraiche. Whizz the spinach leaves in the Magimix until finely chopped, then mix in with the cream mixture. Saute the garlic and onion in the butter and mix into the cream mixture. Roughly chop the dried beef and mix in with the cream mixture, then pour all into the tart pan and sprinkle with the grated cheese. Bake at 375 degrees for 25 minutes or until the grated cheese is slightly browned and bubbly. Delicious warm or cold!


Along with the tart I packed up a light and refreshing crabmeat salad, and the two were delicious together.

Crabmeat Salad with Tomatoes and Lime
(serves 2)

1 cup lump white crabmeat, the best you can get
2 cups wild rocket
handful Santini tomatoes, quartered
1 tbsp snipped chives

2 tbsps olive oil
2 tsps balsamic vinegar
juice and zest of 1 lime
pinch sea salt

Simply toss all the salad ingredients together and pack it up in a plastic box with a tight-fitting lid, and shake the dressing ingredients up in a glass jar (also with a tight-fitting lid), and they can travel separately, to be tossed together when you're ready to eat. Very springlike!


The play itself, "Murder on Air," was such a pleasure! Avery and I are tremendous fans of the BBC full-cast dramatisations of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers mysteries that were originally broadcast as serials on the radio, and are now available on CD. I always felt envious of the audiences who heard them around their firesides, and jumped at the chance to see this play. It's actually playing through May 3, so you could go see it yourself. The concept is wonderful: the set is an authentic reproduction of a 1930s radio station, complete with the prop man sitting behind his tables full of implements to produce all the proper atmospheric sounds like doors shutting, coffee cups and spoons tinkling, glass breaking, etc. Then the cast came in: actors dressed in period 1930s costumes and taking their places at microphones to read the plays! Three 30-minute Agatha Christie original plays, being read by actors playing actors reading plays on the radio! Tremendous fun. And there was the added bonus of one of my all-time favorite actors, Hugh Fraser, famous for playing Captain Hastings to David Suchet's Hercule Poirot. There he was in the flesh, reading away. What fun.

Sunday we dropped Avery at the stable, all of us peering anxiously at the dark skies, but what can you do: someone has to polish all those bridles and saddles, and she always wants to go, no matter the weather. John and I headed to Battersea for the Decorative Antiques and Textiles Fair, and while it's over now, you must make plans to go to the second opening at the end of September. Superb variety of displays, lots and lots of shops from all over the UK showing their wares. But you know what, as much as anything the fair was fun because it got us out of our rut and over to the other side of the river (such a gorgeous display of Chelsea houses to be seen from the Park), and into something NEW. And Avery would have been bored stiff, so it all worked out perfectly. We are in shocked awe at the prices, of course, of any of the things we wanted, but I think we'll be able to find some pieces we can live with. There was a wonderful warehouse represented called Retrouvius, a little pun on their stated purpose which is giving new life to abandoned objects. What caught our eye immediately was an elaborate Victorian shelving system from the gutted Patent Offices years ago. I think if Avery's bedroom ceiling is high enough, we'll get some of the shelves for her clothes and toys. There were also fabulous ceiling light fixtures taken from the abandoned Rover factory outside London, and a pair of old leather armchairs whose previous life was I know not where.

So we came away pretty excited! As well, on Church Street on Saturday we found a 1930s green leather Chesterfield sofa with what are called "drop ends," or "drop arms," so that it becomes a sort of settee you can stretch out on. So, once we get the keys on Wednesday we can scout out where to put things, and then pretend we can afford them. Went by today to visit the house just from the outside, and the vines over the door are beginning to flower, little pale pink flowers against dark-red vines, spilling over the blue door! It is really going to be fun, if a lot of work to get out of here and into there. Some potential renters have been coming through our flat, which is powerfully annoying as everything must be neat and tidy at all times. Wimsey seems to feel it's his personal duty to escort every visitor around the flat, whether they're cat people or not. "How many cats do you HAVE?" the estate agent asked John. "I don't have cats," he muttered. She looked at him as if he were daft, and finally he said, "My wife and child have four cats. I don't have any. Not a cat person." No wonder Wimsey and Keechie are insecure!

The house feels so empty! But no news is... as they say, and looking at the clock I think Avery is in the land of croissants and berets even as we speak. Hope she's having fun...

27 April, 2008

a whirlwind of activity (and a great new recipe)

Before I tell you about all our adventures lately, I must report that my crush on Richard Armitage proceeds along quite a healthy path: aided and abetted by the lovely people at Richard Armitage Online, who provided this gorgeous photograph. I am well on my way to watching every single thing he's ever been recorded doing, and I'm not even close to tired of him yet. Nice Avery and John to put up with watching the entire series 1 and 2 of "Robin Hood" with me: good fun! What makes a great crush actor, you ask? Well, for me, it's outstanding smouldering good dark looks, an ability to pay a lot of different roles with convincing emotion, and most important, a dangerous edge. A sense that just around the corner, in this character's life, total lack of control could result. Richard fulfills all in spades, always a sort of "I know I'm bad, but with your love I could redeem myself." Having had a completely uneventful boyfriend life myself, beginning and ending with a practically perfect husband, it's natural I should go down these cumbersome emotional roads in fiction. "North and South" is simply beautiful, and I do think you'd thank me if you went out and rented the DVD. Save it for a rainy day!

However, real life does tend to make demands upon one's time, and I have found myself actually living, in addition to fantasising, so I suppose it's a good balance. On Wednesday we go to the final inventory of the house! They make a note of the state that every inch of the place is in before we get there, the better to charge us against our security deposit when we eventually move out, leaving holes in the wall, etc. We in turn get to make sure that the very nice landlady has done all the small things she promised: painting all the walls white, getting the place cleaned, checking on the viability of the various Victorian fireplaces: does the gas work, is the flue clear? She was also planning to wash down the garden paving stones thoroughly and I forget what all else. So as of Wednesday we'll have a really good sense of the future in this house. Which is good because we've been doing some desultory but exciting imaginary furniture shopping. Not imaginary furniture, you understand, but furniture that we've bought in only an imaginary way so far, not wanting to jinx the handover of the keys. But more on furniture shopping later.

After several days last week of absolutely nothing interesting happening, more interesting, that is, than cleaning closets, suddenly on Thursday everything hotted up. My new writing course began! I was a bit on pins and needles, because I had roped two of my good friends into taking it with me, and suddenly panicked: what if they hated it and blamed me? Or were (highly unlikely) unsupportive classmates and my old classmates and tutor blamed me? Plenty of blame to go around, as you see. Thankfully, none of these scenarios came to pass. The class was fabulous: readings by the two most talented (I think) members, lots of energy, the tutor seemed motivated and happy. Good all the way round!

Listen, the title of this post is very misleading: I really will tell you about all the stuff we've been doing, tomorrow, I hope (a festival, a play, a fair! and a great recipe to go with this one below). I just wanted to check in and let you know all is well. But for now, I simply must go help Avery finish packing for her week-long trip to Normandy tomorrow. We must have her at school at 4:30 a.m.! I am in a fever of anxiety that the coach not crash on the way, the ferry not sink, and that I not expire from missing her too much. Let me leave you with the perfect comfort dish, should you need one. You must have a cast-iron casserole with a heavy lid. And afterward, simply remove the rest of the meat, throw the whole lot, carcass, extra veg, juice, everything, into a saucepan, cover with water and simmer for a couple of hours, then strain, throw the chicken bits in, and you've got the BEST chicken soup you will ever, ever eat. It can cure anything. Even, MAYBE, missing your little girl.

Slow-Braised Whole Chicken With Root Vegetables
(serves four for dinner, then the rest for soup)

1 medium whole chicken
4 parsnips, sliced in 2-inch bits
4 carrots, sliced the same
2 onions, cut in eighths
6 stalks celery, cut in 2-inch bits
2 handsful button mushrooms, cut in half
6 cloves garlic
1/2 cup white wine
1/2 cup chicken stock
2 tbsps butter
3 stems fresh thyme
sprinkle sea salt and fresh black pepper

Lay the chicken in the pot and arrange the vegetables all around, then sprinkle the garlic over them. Pour the wine and stock over the chicken, and smear the butter over the chicken, and lay the thyme on top of the vegetables. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and cover.

Cook in a medium oven (350 fahrenheit, 180-ish celsius) for at least 2 1/2 hours. Your entire HOUSE will fill with the scent and comfort of this dish. Enjoy, and say a quick prayer for Avery's safety tomorrow!

18 April, 2008

moving looms...

So here it is! Unassuming, you say? Yes, but I think it will be cosy when it's all kitted out with our gatrillions of boxes of books, and boxes of cats, and art and such. Isn't the kitchen appealing? But look, there to the right of the glass doors: a cat hole! For a cat a third the size of mine, but still, it's there.

I must say, for all the angst of moving, there are some good points: namely, the prospect forces you to get rid of all your junk, because you know every piece of junk has a dollar sign (or pound sign, as it happens) attached to it: "picture me wrapped in brown paper and carefully placed in a cardboard box that you then will pay to see carried out to a truck and pay again to see carried in your new house and then unpack and find a place to store." It makes you ruthless!

So last week saw me disposing of half-eaten packets of dried blueberries, bags of couscous (I don't even like couscous), pasta in every shape you can imagine with best-by dates that revealed they had been brought with us from New York. In fact, I decided that anything with a price tag in dollars should probably... go. Then it was Avery's room, where the most cursory of searches led us to... homework from kindergarten? "PONY" magazines from 2006? Plus my personal favorite, candy wrappers in her desk drawers. What makes a child think she should keep such things? It's the same impulse that makes her, after eating a banana at the skating rink, for example, reach out to hand me the peel. With a rubbish bin at her elbow.

Then there were the t-shirts far too tiny, some nice enough to keep for my niece and some not, the endless drawings of skating costumes Avery dreams of designing one day, an unbelievable number of notebooks, sketchpads and journals each filled with half-written stories, all of them far too sweet to throw away. Still, we ended up with four garbage bags full of stuff from around the house, plus a box to go to Oxfam. There's still the front hall closet to go, and considering that I haven't seen the flat surface of its floor since we moved in...

And I am hot on the trail of a Cattery in Kent to take our felines for the duration of the hostilities, I mean the move. It's felicitous, actually: I can drop the cats off at our local vet, in their little plastic prisons, and the Cattery in Kent comes to collect them, then drops them back at the vet's on the date of our choosing. Now all I have to do is coax our porter into letting me into the storage space under the house that contains the four kitty prisons, pray that I kept all the hardware in a plastic bag close to hand, and re-assemble them. Then set them up in the living room with some catnippy toys in them to make them appealing, or at least not terrifying. Then the kids will run in and out of them for the ensuing days and it will be much easier to stuff them inside when the day of travel arrives. I say, with confidence.

To enliven this rather dismal list of chores, I must tell you that we were entertaining this week! No, not entertaining per se, but hosting. Avery's beloved babysitter Amy, from New York, came through on her way home from two months in India working in orphanages and child-care homes. What a delight. If there are Amys in the upcoming generation, the world has a chance. She is an absolute bubble of generosity and energy, pausing at nearly every photograph she showed us of the children to say, "Oh, now HE was adorable..." How do people raise children to turn out like Amy? I remember her babysitting days with Avery, once a week while I stayed late at my gallery, and I'd come home to the two of them flat on their stomachs on the floor, surrounded by drawings. "I like your collar on that one, Amy," Avery would be saying, "but look at how my fabric flows." "Oh, cool, Avery, I think I'll copy that for my next dress if you don't mind..." She is a vegetarian, so for dinner we had an old favorite of Avery's that for some reason has fallen off my radar screen. But it's worth telling you about. It requires a fair bit of prep, but it's colorful and good for you.

Farfalle with Spinach and Roasted Red Peppers
(serves 4 with leftovers for lunch)

1 lb farfalle pasta
3 red bell peppers, roasted and peeled
2 tbsps olive oil
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 red onion, minced
2 tbsps Italian seasoning
sprinkle hot red pepper flakes
1 can plum tomatoes, crushed by hand
4 handfuls spinach, chiffonaded
1 handful flat-leaf parsley, chopped fine
1 cup grated pecorino or parmesan cheese

Now, do you know how to roast red peppers? Of course you may buy them in a jar, ready-roasted. But they're usually suspended in either vinegar or oil, and let me tell you that means... slimey. Why not cut them in half, remove the seeds and put them under your oven broiler? Or if you have a gas stove, turn on a burner and hold them over the flame with tongs, turning them until they're blackened all over? Then put them in a brown paper bag you've been saving from Starbucks for that purpose, and let them sweat for a few minutes, then peel. Slice small, in bite-size pieces.

And chiffonaded spinach? It's fiddly. Lay the leaves on top of one another with the stems sticking out to one side, and slice thin.

So do all these things as the pasta water comes to a boil. Then heat the olive oil in a skillet, saute the garlic and onion till soft, throw in the Italian seasoning and pepper flakes and add the red pepper bites. Ask your houseguest to grate the cheese, then boil the pasta. Add the tomatoes to the sauce in the skillet: just squeeze each one separately, because did you ever think what nasty bits and pieces a tomato company would save for a can of "chopped tomatoes"? Buy whole and squeeze.

Toss the spinach and parsley in at the last minute and stir till warm, then throw in the pasta and toss all together. Serve with the cheese on top. Lovely!


In addition to dear Amy, we had Avery's best friend Anna all late last week while her parents house hunted in America, poor things. What a joy to have Anna. The girls spent all three afternoons after school writing a play, and then Friday night they acted it out. Mostly it was costume changes, but there was a sort of pre-teen animal-obsessed theme as well: girls meet bunnies, girls get bunnies, girls lose bunnies. Oh no! They find them in the end, don't worry. It was very heartwarming and innocent.

This all came on the heels of Avery's acting agency sending us a script for a play for her to audition for: playing a little American girl who becomes obsessed with her town's local ordinance that orders sex offenders (yes!) to stay 2000 feet away from schools and playgrounds. It was but the lying-awake of a night to come to the conclusion that we really didn't want Avery coming anywhere near that script. I just couldn't picture her uttering the words, much less having to explain the content to her. Let the agency drop her if they must, but no. Too much. Much nicer to have her put on a play about... bunnies. Anna is the perfect influence in that direction.

What's my current worry? There always has to be one. This week it's the upcoming school trip to Normandy, leaving a week from today, on a coach that departs from school at 4:45 a.m. I can't decide what to worry about first: the string of school trip coach accidents that have been making the news in Europe lately, or... no, that's it pretty much. How can the driver be properly awake at 4:45 a.m.? Who on earth thought that was a good idea? And you know the speed limit will not be adhered to. I am really a bit concerned, but what can I do? The girls themselves are far too obsessed with the auditions for the school play "Alice in Wonderland" on Thursday even to think about what might happen a week from today. Should I speak to the school and just say, "How are you going to keep that driver awake?" But I'll look like a lunatic. Plus what if they decided to the solution was to pump him full of amphetamines and then he put his foot to the floor and passed every other vehicle on the road?

Oh, what to do. I should just relax and make the cheesecake our friend Peter made over the weekend: it's the best you'll ever have.

Peter's Birthday Party Cheesecake with Lime Juice
(serves at least a dozen)

1/2 pack plain digestive biscuits
1/2-cup (ish) melted butter
500 grams mascarpone cheese
500 grams ricotta cheese
1/2 cup Greek yoghurt
caster sugar to taste
juice of 2 limes
4 sheets gelatin

Crush digestive biscuits and mix with enough melted butter for it to go moist but not so much that it is a heavy mix. Put that in a large flan dish (I think his was about 15 inches across and quite shallow), spread out evenly and press it down fairly firmly. Put that in the fridge for 30 mins to cool and set.

Mix the cheeses and yoghurt till smooth, then add sugar to taste (I like a quite un-sweet cheesecake, but it's up to you) and lime juice.

Meanwhile prepare the gelatin according to the instructions, and when melted, add 2 large spoonsful of cheese mixture and mix well with the gelatin. Then add all the gelatin to the cheese mixture and mix well. Pour the mix onto the biscuit base, level and then cool for a couple of hours. Done.


Peter adds that he's experimented with a few variations to this basic recipe: adding double cream to the mixture to soften it down and make it less sharp, adding some lime zest in to the mixture as well for some added colour and flavour and finally candying some strings of lime zest and putting them on top.

I'm going to interrupt my blogging and laundry to go have coffee with Dalia. A little girl talk is in the air, I feel. Then can I just say how nicely my crush is progressing? We have been slogging through the early part of Season One of "Robin Hood," and all I can say is, Richard Armitage's evil sneer is far, far sexier than a smile or even a leer on a lesser man. The early part of the series is campy, badly written and very silly, but stick it out: toward mid-season everything gets better and by then, for whatever crazy reason, you'll care about Guy of Gisbourne and his leather costume and greasy hair and cruel twisted attitude. Trust me! He can act everyone else off the screen, and without much in the way of a script to get troubled about. He is simply irresistible, and it's put a little spring in my step. He could be anywhere! Reading a script in Grosvenor Square as I saunter along to meet Dalia, picking up a friend's daughter at what will just happen to be my daughter's acting class, having coffee at the deli around the corner from my new house... one never knows! I'm glad I washed my hair.

14 April, 2008

finally: a new crush!

Just what every girl needs to get her mojo back: yes, I'm back in crush world. I've survived Matthew Macfadyen, James MacAvoy and Edward Petherbridge, and they will all remain dear to my heart, but... it's time for Richard Armitage. Do you get the smouldering thing? OK, he's dressed in a leather suit for "Robin Hood," but I couldn't download the photograph of him as John Thornton in the BBC drama "North and South" which has led to my succumbing to his charms. This lovely photograph is from a great website called "The Stage News," a great gossipy site perfect for anyone who wants to keep up to date on what's coming onscreen and stage. We have been watching "North and South" lately and just finished it last night: at times a bit too girly for John and at times a bit too grisly for me, so I suppose it's the perfect date-mini-series. He positively towers over the storyline, and like all my favourite actors, can do more by lifting his eyes than most can do with an entire set of body language tips. He's about to join "Spooks" next autumn, which will offer a tremendous lift to that programme and help them survive the inevitable departure of Rupert Penry-Jones, also a leading man not to be sneezed at, but blonde? Doesn't do it for me. Give me the brooding dark leading man every time. Poor John, having to put up with all this. At least he's dark, if not the least brooding, smouldering person on earth. Jolly and indomitable, yes. Heathcliff, no.

Let's see, what have I been up to? Easter break is finally over, having spanned three weeks and far too much time on our hands. Although I argue that Avery is still recovering from exam and school acceptance angst, and so probably some down time accomplishing absolutely nothing is no bad thing. The horses from the stable are still down in Surrey for their spring break, so at least that part of our routine has not got back to normal, but there's been ice skating, time to see friends, and...cooking. I have a new fabulous salmon recipe to tell you about, plus I cannot burble on too enthusiastically about the easy-peasy cheesy spinach I raved about recently. And they're nice together.

Salmon with White Wine and Mushrooms
(serves three)

3 salmon fillets, skinless and boneless
2 tbsps butter
4 cloves garlic, minced
two handfuls button mushrooms, sliced (you could go more exotic)
good splash white wine
drizzle of cream
sprinkle of dried thyme leaves
salt and fresh black pepper to taste

So all you do it: melt the butter in a large skillet and sizzle the garlic gently till soft, then add the mushrooms and toss around till coated in butter. Move them to the sides of the skillet and place the salmon fillets in the skillet. Pour the splash of white wine around them and drizzle the cream on top of them, sprinkle with thyme. Cook over medium heat until the salmon is no longer bright pink but rather an opaque pink: perhaps 3 minutes? All this while, spoon the mushroom sauce of the fillets. Now turn them over and turn off the heat. Prepare the rest of your dinner and at the last minute, heat the fillets through again. Season as you like. Done.


The beauty of this dish are many-fold. Salmon is good for you. This method cooks it just through, but it's super moist and tender from simply lying in the hot skillet. Dry salmon is terrible, and this is not dry. Second, it's flexible about time, so you can mash your potatoes and steam your Chantenay carrots. And just the drizzle of cream makes it luxurious, but it's not over the top. The salmon actually seems to absorb the sauce, and becomes infused with it. Lovely.

Well, John and I have decided to go legal and get our driving licenses. Yep, you can all report us, we've been driving with US licenses. So we actually became motivated to study the Highway Code, then go online for practice tests, which are a huge source of amusement for us. "You have had an upsetting argument with a friend, and now you must drive home. Which of the following should you do before getting behind the wheel: 1) have a cigarette, 2) have a quick alcoholic drink to calm your nerves, 3) take a deep breath, or 4) wait until you have calmed down before driving." I love it! And how about, "You have come upon the scene of an accident involving a motorcyclist. You should not remove the helmet because 1) his head could get cold, 2) you could scratch the helmet, 3) the helmet could roll away, or 4) you could exacerbate head injuries."

So far we're doing really well, so now we can schedule an official theory exam, and then an official practical exam. I really can't say that I'm enthusiastic about driving in London, always feeling much more defensive than I used to in New York, as if anything dreadful were just about to happen to me. But it's not intelligent to live in a town where you cannot drive, so drive I shall.

Oh! I can't believe I got this far without telling you: we have a house! Just a rental, with this crazy market, but it's a lovely, simple Victorian abode in a nice street, with a fairly wonderful kitchen, at least two working gas fireplaces, and two little rooms for Avery and her library (not sure which takes up more room) at the top of the house. The views from the top are just like watching Mary Poppins: all uneven roofs and chimneys and slate. And it has a paved garden with nice climbing things on the walls (you can tell I'm a real horticulturist: "climbing things.") and get this: a cat hole cut in the wall to let the cat out into the garden. But I'm sorry: none of my cats will fit through it! Wimsey couldn't even get his HEAD in that hole.

So we'll move in the middle of next month sometime. A very nice removal man came last week to look over all our possessions, make enigmatic notes, ask us if there's anything we feel "especially strongly" about. That question always makes me nervous: why aren't they going to pay attention to EVERYTHING? Why must I triage my belongings? I'm casting an eye over the two enormous piles of photograph albums, and thinking, "Please don't lose those." Everything else could be replaced, but not those. Not to mention all the tubes of glue stick I've invested.

Listen, I must go start dinner. Avery and John have planted themselves in my kitchen every dinner prep time lately, with a chess board between them and an air of massive competition in the air. They have 50 pounds going that Avery will never beat John, so this is serious business. I thought John summed up his entire approach to life when he told her, after one spectacularly bad move, "Avery, you can't move your pieces for their own sake. You've got to move your pieces in order to smash the competition before he gets YOU. Always be looking for what he has planned for you, not what you have planned for your pieces." Wise advice!

Thank you all for your patience waiting for me to get my blogging mojo back: it feels so nice to type! And I have appreciated all your kind words so very much. Back to normal!

01 April, 2008

Being Tourists

Well, first I must say again that this blog will migrate to "invitation only" in a few days (I'm happy to say that requests keep coming in so I want to give you all plenty of time to email me at kristen.blog.london@googlemail.com to request a spot on the invitation list). Just let me know! All will be revealed when we're on our own. Whew.

But we have been so incredibly busy lately being tourists, in these days of Avery's end of term break, that I thought I'd better let you know all the cool things there are to do within a tiny distance of central London, or even within it. Then you can plan your trip!

First, last week saw us at Osterley Park, a stately home just outside London proper, and an absolute mecca for fans of Robert Adam, which it turned out... Avery and I are not. John just revels in all the opulence, which is funny considering that his idea of proper real estate for himself would be a big Georgian house, completely empty. I too like the odd Victorian ceiling decoration and carved mantelpiece, but Osterley: crazy! The paintings, the tapestries, the secret-drawer tables built just for the room. Just too much! But lovely if you like that sort of thing. What I think will bring us back, at least according to my friend Victoria, is the gorgeous parkland surrounding the house where one is, apparently, welcome to bring a picnic! This was, sadly, not an option for us, since as we left the house it began to SNOW. Horrible! I love snow, but after Easter? No, thank you. I don't even have a photograph of the place to show you because it was simply too miserable to document our visit. But I think it's worth a second trip, when I'm able to be certain the climactic conditions don't drop a load of hail on us!

More to our liking was the Handel House Museum in Brook Street, where the great man wrote, I'm ashamed to say I had forgotten, "The Messiah." We sat primly in the little video room and watched a short programme full of intimidating opera singers assuring us of the "humanity, and the passion" of Handel (never thought of him that way), and we did find ourselves bursting occasionally into a stanza or two of the "Hallelujah Chorus," whose strains have been known to get me in trouble before now. I tend to get very giggly when I try to sing serious music. Imagine our consternation on leaving the video room for the museum, to find a sweet little volunteer camped out just beyond the door, no doubt listening in horror to our every note. Mortifying! But it's a lovely, tiny museum. Apparently Handel was, between operas, quite the bon vivant, and one of the most amusing bits of the displays was a pair of lithographs of him as a pig!

There was a darling musician perched at the spinet, or whatever it is, practicing away for an upcoming concert. They do concerts nearly every Thursday night, and it seems that everyone I know has been to one. I'm embarrassed to tell you that I can take only about as much opera and spinet music as the museum tour lasted: after that I start wanting to pull my fingernails out. I am really not very cultured. Here's how lame I am: my favorite part of the entire museum was the dress-up area where Avery found, to her intense happiness, a full boy's suit just her size! Velvet knickerbockers, a waistcoat and frogged velvet jacket, plus a tricorn hat! She looked absolutely adorable, of course we had no camera. It's a fascinating place, and there are snippets of music you can listen to over simply the BEST headphones I've ever experienced. Amazing!

From the sublime to the completely unbelievable, Monday found us in Greenwich, having taken the absolutely delightful ferry from Embankment Pier. What a ride! And the LONG walk up to the Observatory at the top of the hill. I don't know about you, but I find astronomy to be very giggle-inducing indeed. When the learned experts begin talking about millions of years and billions of something else, I just can't register the notions. I have a hard enough time with the London tube system, and remembering what happened last week, without trying to envision galaxies and how long light takes to travel from wherever, much less imagining what will happen when the intricate gravitational pull from something changes and we all go whirling off into the sunset. And I mean SUNSET. Avery and John lap all this information up, however, although Avery admitted to being a little "freaked" by the vastness. But what a fantastic museum, and it is always fun to stand on the meridian line and be first in the east, then in the west. I am always impressed by the knowledge that my beloved can trot out on these occasions, really understanding longitude and latitude and where we are, and time zones. And who knew there was such a political controversy around "Daylight Savings Time," nearly 100 years ago? And the VIEW. And possibly our favorite bit: the camera obscura. There we were, huddled in a round room surrounded by black velvet curtains, looking down on a projected image of the Christopher Wren hospital and the street below. I didn't believe it was a real live view until Avery pointed out a red bus making its way across the table. So impressive! One teenager dressed all in black breathed, "It's a bleeding video projected from the sky! Wicked!"

As we walked down the hill from the Observatory (it seemed a much longer walk UP! not for the faint of heart, be warned), Avery mused, "You could write a wonderful murder mystery about that, you know. A person is alone in the camera obscura, and witnesses a murder in the scene below, but by the time she gets to where she saw it happen, there's no sign of anything." Yes, that's an idea! I wonder if it's already been done.

While you're in Greenwich you must have lunch at the lovely, inexpensive and terribly friendly Italian bistro "La Cucina Di Soteri," in Nelson Road. We've discovered, after many pricey lunches out that left both Avery's and my meals half-eaten, that the secret to success is to share. She was craving steak frites, and I was skeptical about finding it, but would you believe the first restaurant we came up walking up from the ferry... steak frites! And lovely spaghetti carbonara for John, plus a very fresh insalate tricolore for me, with really nice mozzarella, tomatoes and avocado. And if you and your puny appetite share with your small daughter, let me tell you every bite gets eaten, which is very satisfying! Try this lovely little place, and you'll have the energy to get up that Observatory Hill!

The weekend found us hosting Avery's dear friend Jamie, after a wonderful skating lesson for the two of them. John and I actually put on our skates earlier in the week just to keep her company, and to get a little exercise, and boy are we BAD. It's even more apparent how good Avery has become when you're on her level on the ice! Mortifyingly bad. Well, we don't hold on to the rail, but it's not much better than that. John has "hockey skating," which means the only fun is going really fast and trying to knock down teenage girls, and I forbade it. But Jamie and Avery are superb. We brought her home and had fabulous Moroccan meatballs (with dilled cucumbers in yoghurt, and buttered noodles, it's the perfect dinner in my opinion), and watched, I'm ashamed to admit, "I'd Do Anything." Yes, it's true. We've become quite addicted to Andrew Lloyd Webber's latest casting scheme for the upcoming revival of Oliver! "YOU COULD BE NANCY!" The hysteria! But it's good clean fun. And the recent BBC version was out of this world! That and "Bleak House" have been keeping us out of trouble over the holiday, plus you can always tell yourself, "Hey, it's Charles Dickens, it's EDUCATIONAL."

We met up over the weekend with Jamie's family and they took us to their local Italian eatery, and it's well worth a visit if you're in Notting Hill. Osteria Basilico is very difficult to get into on a Saturday and they don't book, but if it's a nice day, put your name in and go shopping and come back. Lovely carpaccio di manzo (I drizzled it with rather too much chilli oil and was sweating!) and gorgeous pizzas.

Finally, yesterday we ambled up to Highgate and took in... the cemetery. You MUST do this. Not so much for the celebrity graves (odd phrase, that) but for the sheer atmosphere. The West Cemetery take only guided tours at 2 p.m. (get there 15 minutes early, because we didn't and they callously shut the gate in our faces), but the East Cemetery is just as much fun and totally open. Karl Marx is buried there! And Virginia Woolf's father Sir Leslie Stephen, and the man who invented the phrase "survival of the fittest," Herbert Spencer. Now why did I think Charles Darwin invented that phrase? And Avery was absolutely gobsmacked to see her current favourite author, Douglas Adams. She's deep into about her hundredth reading of "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" right now, inspired by seeing his modest little tombstone. It certainly makes one think, reading all the encomiums, prayers and aphorisms people choose (or someone chooses) for their gravestones. I like the morbid ones about decay and bitterness, but Avery grooved to one particularly winsome notice: "To Mary, a Real Good Mother." Fair enough. We all wondered: is the place so rundown because of lack of funds, or because the powers that be recognise the atmosphere that overgrown ivy provides? Once in awhile you come upon an obelisk or angel wrapped in caution tape, and you know it's coming down in a matter of... minutes. Wonderful.

Well, I must run and sizzle up some lamb chops for dinner, but not before telling you about the latest incarnation of my ever-metamorphosing spinach casserole. Let me tell you, recipes have to evolve when you can't find the right ingredients, and then when you find better ingredients and think up better methods. I still love my original version, but since you can't get Monterey Jack jalapeno cheese here and I've yet to find something that tastes just like it, and since my oven was on the fritz last night and I had no frozen spinach, I have come up with what I think is an even better method. Because it's not baked, the spinach retains more of its nutrition, I'm sure, and it doesn't take but a nano-second to make. Get yourself a big bag of baby spinach, already washed, and read on:

Quick Cheesey Spinach
(serves four)

1 large bag (a pound, about) fresh washed baby spinach
2 tbsps butter
4 cloves garlic, minced fine
1 medium white onion, minced fine
8 ounces Gruyere cheese, grated
4 ounces evaporated milk
1 tbsp celery salt

Now here's all there is to it: put about half the spinach in your Magimix or Cuisinart and, pulsing carefully, chop till just chopped, but not smooshed. Take it out and put it in a bowl and put in the other half, same treatment. Now melt the butter and saute the garlic and onion till nice and soft. Throw in the cheese and milk and stir till melted and soft. Add the celery salt and remove from the heat.

Now take care of the rest of your dinner (my special baked chicken breasts are superb with this spinach) and just at the last minute, when everyone is seated and about to gnaw each other's hands off at the aromas, throw in the spinach and return to the heat. Warm just through. Done.


Lillian Hellman Chicken
(serves four)

4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, nicely trimmed
3/4 cup each: mayonnaise (get it? Hellman's?), grated pecorino cheese
juice of 1 lemon
pinch garlic powder
1 1/2 cups fresh breadcrumbs

Simply mix the mayo and cheese and lemon juice and garlic powder and smear it all over the chicken breasts. Coat them thoroughly in breadcrumbs and baked on a foil-covered dish at 425 or so for 35 minutes. Simply delicious, and so SIMPLE.


Right, I'm off to those lamb chops. Now don't forget to send me your email and I'll migrate this all away to Etherland very soon... hope to see you there!