29 May, 2008

dinner from the fridge and... Inspector Lynley! for real

We're in the throes of transferring all data from one computer to another (this just exhausts me to think about, and I know nothing about how it is happening, which further exhausts me: that feeling of lack of control over something immensely important to oneself?!). So I cannot show you any lovely photos of our two-day jaunt to the Oxford area, which was a complete jape, a total pleasure.

And before I even start with that sojourn's record, I must tell you about our dinner tonight: no recipes, just a celebration of what actually was in my fridge, and I'm sure a version of this is already in yours. Add one or two fresh things, and you're there, feeling quite self-righteous with your budget and your health-consciousness. Trust me.

Avery had asked for sauteed red peppers for dinner, plus mushroom soup if you can imagine. I had a rare craving for red meat, and I knew had leftover potatoes dauphinoise in the fridge, plus a smidgen of creamed spinach. I stopped by the halal butcher (if you don't know, it's the muslim equivalent of kosher, no big deal). I asked, in my spoilt Mayfair way, for fillet of beef. It became quite clear, as it had become at the Irish butcher I tried before, that our new digs do not spring for fillet. And why should they? The world's most boring cut of beef, to my mind, but Avery loves it. So tonight, soaked to the skin from watching her ride for an hour in the rain, I stopped by the halal butcher and said, "What would you cook if you wanted beef tonight?" "Rump steak, ma'am," he said without hesitation. "How would you cook it?" "Grill it," was the laconic advice, and since I now have a grill integral to my oven, I said, "Fine. Bring it on."

Well, it turns out I already had red peppers in my fridge, but I had to buy mushrooms. Then I resurrected an elderly-ish chicken stock from a roast chicken earlier in the week. Saute some garlic and onions, pile it all in a saucepan and cover with stock, simmer for half an hour with some dried thyme and a splash of brandy. Puree with a hand blender and stir in a bit of cream. Done.

The beef: I salted and peppered it and stuck it under this mysterious grill for about five minutes on one side and then got SCARED. So I took it out. It smelled divine. I left it on the countertop while I reheated my scalloped potatoes and smidgen of spinach, and sauteed the peppers. Another five minutes on the other side, let it rest a minute, slice it and brush a buttery knife against the slices... PERFECTION! Beef for three for what would cost you $5 in the States, 5 pounds here. HEAVEN. Tasty, not perfectly tender, but tasty which to my mind fillet never is. DULL.

So we sat down amid the torrid rain in the garden to these myriad delights: the garlicky green of leftover spinach, the unctious creaminess of leftover potatoes, lovely red peppers, effortless mushroom soup that used up my stock in the fridge... I was completely happy. If wet from the stable, still!

But our Oxfordshire weekend... What happened was this: we had arranged to take a school chum of Avery's out to the Cotswolds for a day and a night and it was... raining cats and dogs. That combined with the EXTREME closeness of the Mini Cooper ("bring as little as you can POSSIBLY bring," I warned the hapless child) made me a bundle of nerves as we set out on Monday morning. "I tend to get carsick," topped the departing child, so I supplied her with a bottle of cold water and our entire car with a Nancy Drew on tape, which saved our lives. Out to Oxford we went, to visit my friend Jo Ann, partner in my adoration of Richard Armitage (the crush that keeps on giving).

And the first thing that happened was that we got slightly lost. I knew we'd gone too far, so we stopped at a British Petroleum station for directions, and I left all potential carsick people in the car and marched into the station with my google map, and there... was INSPECTOR LYNLEY in person! Seriously! Nathaniel Parker in PERSON! In front of me in the queue. I simply gathered my courage and said, "I hate to invade your privacy, but I must tell you how much pleasure you have given us with "Inspector Lynley." We enjoyed "Bleak House" first and that led us to your performance as Inspector Lynley, and we just love it. Thank you!"

And I strangely did not feel like a complete fool. With his chocolately gorgeous voice, his hands clutching small bottles of apple juice and some yogurt, he said graciously, "That gives me great pleasure."


So I confessed that I was lost, and he actually gave me directions! To the proper roundabout. What a TREAT, to get lost under those circumstances. A dear, generous and gracious man. What fun! More on our Oxford adventures later... and photos, I hope, technology permitting.

23 May, 2008

cat in chimneys Part Two

Well, for heaven's sake. After a completely crazy afternoon and evening yesterday (let me see, what was involved? four girls at the stable, four girls for dinner, a champagne bottle falling out of the fridge door and exploding, Avery's bed collapsing in what all four girls insisted was a completely innocent game of Sardines), I figured today would be a yawn. Quite literally, as we're having to get up a half hour earlier than in our old place because we've moved so far west. I got Avery fed (blueberry pancakes are the new breakfast of champions, so I'll give you the recipe), off to school on the very crowded Hammersmith and City line, and I came back home to find John back from his travels and hosting the British Gas guy, investigating all our chimneys and the boiler.

Yes, you've twigged to the story, I know. The gas man actually LIT the coals in my study, actually LIT them, and out of the chimney leapt Hermione. Through the flames, mind you! It's a miracle she didn't catch on fire. "Well, I've seen some things in my career, I have," mused the gas guy, "naked ladies answering the door, walking in on old grannies as they was in the loo, but a cat in a chimney, that's a new one." I bet.

He rallied, however, to complete his task AND to point out to me that one of the bricks in my limestone installation, so painfully assembled on Monday, was turned around. Fair enough. My whole body went into dreadful total recall as I bent down to rectify the problem. Actually I'm pretty much recovered. And John's back! So we can put Avery's bed back together (I was the mother from h**l last night with absolutely no sympathy for a small girl who did not want to sleep in the guest room: "then think about that, perhaps, before you jump on your bed the next time!" I snarled, but she denies it absolutely). John's dashed off to school collect Avery and assorted friends for a celebratory "half-term" lunch at our house. It's one of my favorite English girls' school traditions: on half-term half-days, the girls can wear their Own Clothes, for which privilege (actually to pay for which infraction) they must each donate a pound to charity. Much musing went on last night over what to wear. Also, they were to bring in a favorite teddy bear dressed in some special way, for a competitive (naturally) Assembly. Avery dressed her bear up in the American Girl-sized school uniform her grandmother made for her, and if that doesn't win a prize... I'll set my cat on fire.

The cats have actually been remarkably normal in their settling in. Oh my, getting them home from the vet was a scream. John was unavailable for assistance, so I bravely set out on my own in a taxi whose driver listened with commendable interest to my story and offered to wait outside the vet while I went in, settled up, and brought them back out. "They will be... restrained, won't they?" I briefly toyed with the idea of telling him I had planned merely to throw them in the back and let them fight it out. But I felt sorry for him, and my goodness, with good reason. The entire 20-minute journey from the vet to the house, they... meowed. All four, constantly, in slightly different tones and voices. Keechie in particular uttered one word over and over, plaintively, "AIR!" That is her version of meowing. Wimsey on the other hand cried quite convincingly like a cat in a novel about animal cruelty, Tacy screeched in a high repetitive yowl, and Hermione uttered little yelps while blinking very rapidly, as if holding back tears. Never again! But I got them out of the taxi, onto the pavement, paid off the driver who looked massively relieved he wasn't me, and then trundled them, one by one, into the foyer.

They slunk around on their bellies for awhile, and since then have seemed perfectly at home. They sniff with fascination at all the Hammersmith smells coming in the windows, they gaze in fascination at the dove and robin life in the garden. In fact, one morning while Avery was having breakfast, Hermione saw the robin land on the paving stones and ran full tilt toward it... into the plate glass window. Poor dear. She really has judgment issues.

Let's see, today we made a very wise and prudent purchase (and look at the new partner's desk and chairs to go with! I love them), the only downside to which was that we had to bring it home at the same time that Avery had intended to take up that space in the car herself. There's a wonderful little place around the corner from her acting school called Church Street, lined with antique and junk shops, some very high end, some complete rubbish, and many in between. At one of the in between shops we found our old leather sofa and chairs, so we always go back while waiting for her to achieve theatrical splendor on Saturday afternoons. And today we found a gorgeous, dusty Victorian wicker log basket, perfect for Avery's stuffed animal collection which is now residing in her laundry basket. Inexpensive and deep and very charming. So I said to Avery at pickup, "Do you want the good news or the bad news?" "The bad news." "Well, you're going to be completely squished in the back seat to make room for a piece of furniture." "What's the good news?" "It's for you."

I am getting excited at the prospect of our next dinner party: a get-together of all our old friends, three couples, from the old flat. Let's see, there's one who cannot eat significant fat, and one vegetarian. These two constraints point to, I think, a sort of pan-Asian feast. I think I'll make lots of pappadums with various chutneys and yogurt dips to start, then my Thai prawns in a spicy coconut milk curry sauce, my many-versions creamed spinach with, this time, garam masala in addition to the celery salt, a really nice vegetarian version of my biryani, and John's all-time favorite potato dish:

Stir-Fried Potatoes with Turmeric and Mustard Seed
(serves 8)

3 lbs new or Charlotte potatoes
3 generous splashes vegetable oil (rapeseed is the new rage)
3 tbsps mustard seed
3 tbsps turmeric
juice of 1 lemon
salt and fresh-ground pepper to taste

Steam the potatoes in batches and set aside. When they have cooled, cut either in half or in quarters depending on the size. You want bite-sized pieces. Set aside.

Plan to work in three batches. Heat a generous splash of oil in your wok until very hot, and throw in 1 tbsp mustard seed. STAND BACK! Be sure to wear an apron as the oil can fly a bit as the seeds heat up. Gradually they will POP! It's so much fun to watch and listen. When you reckon the popping is finished, throw in 1 tbsp turmeric and a third of the steamed potatoes. Stir religiously and pour in a third of the lemon juice. Salt and pepper to taste and remove from wok. Do this all two more times and stir it all together in a large serving bowl. Delicious!

And did you know turmeric is an anti-carcinogen? It has been known for years to have medicinal properties in fighting cancer, so be generous! It does not have a tremendous flavor, but it's bright yellow and just looks... healthy. And it adds a smoky, exotic flavor to the potatoes. You'll love it.

Well, Avery has returned from Pony Club Day filthy, exhausted and frustrated, in equal measure, so I think a nice long bath with a bowl of strawberries on the side is in order for her. Why frustrated? "The 10-11 year-olds had a GREAT time," she fumed at pickup. "That should be good news," I said, "since you're 11." "Not at the stable, I'm not. Kirsty says I'm too skillful to be with the 10-11s, so I had to be with the 12-16s, and all we did was lead the other children around the park with ropes!" Ah well, nothing a nice soaking won't cure. And tomorrow for breakfast:

Perfect Blueberry Pancakes
(makes about 4 large, and the batter easily stays good for four days)

1 egg
3 tbsps butter
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup plus 2 tbsps all-purpose flour
1 tbsp sugar
2 tsps baking powder
dash salt
1 cup blueberries (Avery likes a lot)

Beat the egg in a small-ish bowl and set aside. Melt the butter with the milk in a small saucepan and let cool a bit, then mix in with the egg (if it's too hot it will scramble the egg). Put the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl and mix well, then add the milk mixture to it and stir JUST until blended.

Heat a skillet with a little bit of butter in it until quite hot. Turn down the heat to medium and pour about a quarter of the batter in the middle and scatter with as many blueberries as you want. Now, resist the temptation to play with the pancake. Leave it be until little bubbles appear, then turn it over and cook till firm. Now you can butter it, or sprinkle powdered sugar over it, or drizzle warm Vermont maple syrup over it. Or if you are a mother who is a fool about her daughter, you can do all three.

This with a piece of the Giggly Pig's unsmoked bacon (virtually fat-free) and a sliced banana is the perfect breakfast for a little girl, whether she's really 11 or not. Enjoy!

21 May, 2008

cats in chimneys, or "is this over yet?"

Yes, I know this looks like a Victorian fireplace, and it is. But look closely. See the little stripey hands and pointy face? That's Hermione, the world's smallest tabby and latest inhabitant of my... chimney. That's right, she climbs over the pretty convincing (but cold) fake coals and shimmies right up inside. Can I convey to you how dirty she is after she's done this?

Yes, the cats are home. I cannot adequately explain to you what it was like to get them into a taxi, all of them mewling and yowling (thankfully I had a cat-friendly taxi driver: believe you me, I ascertained this before hiring him for the duration), all of them in their incredibly heavy and bulky kitty prisons. They yowled all the way down the Bayswater Road, all the way through the Shepherd's Bush Roundabout (it's sad that I no longer find that name amusing), and finally home. I dragged them all out to the pavement and then had to pay off the taxi ransom, refusing the driver's half-hearted, "You don't need help, then, miss?" and then dragged them individually through the door of the house and opened the cages. Freedom! Craziness! Chimneys, obscure basement corners, trying to weasel through tiny window openings, all the while meowing like they were being skinned. A VERY LONG DAY. Add to that: I spent the morning reconstructing our 90-piece limestone brick sculpture in which each brick has a specific place, only the codes on the back of each had been worn away in the packing. Grrr! Hours later, hamstring muscles completely shot... and a Sharpie code on the back of EACH!

Now a new wrench: I cannot divulge the details because the secret is not mine to tell (one of my favorite Victorian dramatic phrases), but John is off on a mission to perhaps accept a job. He's in a sandy land far, far away doing lord knows what for the next two days (I certainly have but a sketchy notion of his whereabouts and activities). Why during moving week, you ask? To keep life interesting.

So I am beat. I apologize for the brief, recipe-less post. Tomorrow is even less promising as far as writing time goes, as I have my class in the early afternoon, and then no fewer than four girls from three different families to ferry to the riding stables, home for dinner, and back to their respective homes. OK, OK, one of them is mine, but it makes a better story to say three different families. It will be an insane day among insane days. Wish me luck... And thanks for all the great comments! Yes, the dining room is very cozy, and inviting. I will try to post more house pictures soon. And the dishy antiques guy who delivered the partner's desk? Crushworthy? Perhaps...

18 May, 2008

how long is a week?

My goodness, I know all 24 hour-periods add up to a day each, and presumably the whole 24/7 is true, and there are seven such periods per week, but this has been the longest week ever! And yet a good one, and so much has changed.

Since I last spoke to you, the cats have been delivered to their week in Kent relaxing in their "Family Chalet", and I finally stopped calling to check on them because the news was always... no news! Still the friendliest cats anyone has ever met. No doubt they will have to be dragged kicking and screaming to come home tomorrow. And we spent our last few wretched days in the Marble Arch flat, watching as the last vestiges of our own possessions that made it homey were stripped away. Poor Avery felt quite bereft the last night, and spent her reading time that evening ensconced in her (dry) bathtub, surrounded by pillows, saying, "It's the only room that's still the same." Only Becky's luscious gift of chicken cooked with prunes, olives and capers made the night bearable...

But then it was onto the onslaught of moving itself, and more on that later. Suffice it to say that we are very much settled in, on day four, at the price of total and complete exhaustion. Our great friends Vincent and Peter came to dinner tonight to help us celebrate, and it was a fabulous motivation to get things arranged. As you see, the kitchen and dining room were ready to feed people! Slow-baked barbecued chicken wings, potato salad with chives, dill and red onion, and red cabbage and fennel cole slaw with a spicy dressing. Plus chocolate mousse with strawberries! A proper dinner party. We are SO happy to be here. Tomorrow we get the kitties back, plus we have Becky's girls for the evening, and an audition for Avery, out in the hinterlands. And the delivery of our long-mused-over partner's desk: blue leather, gilding, all very worn and untidy, but that's all right! And a pair of worn-out red leather armchairs to go with. Pictures when ready! But right now... I'm collapsing. Wish you were here...

09 May, 2008

are we there yet?

Well, in the mad run-up to moving day on Tuesday (yikes) I've been filling our calendar with things to do to keep our minds off the impending drama and chaos. And for once, I have a play to tell you about that I didn't see on its last day! In fact, it's still in previews, and you simply must go if you can. The delightfully versatile Tim Pigott-Smith plays Professor Henry Higgins in "Pygmalion" at the old Vic across the river, and his performance, while to my mind lacking a subtlety in the last act that would have elevated the play, is well worth seeing. This photo is from a site devoted to him and believe you me, once you start thinking about it, you've seen him in lots of things. He was in one of my favorite early "Spooks" episodes, and did the voiceover for the lovely little BBC series about the life of the British monarchy behind the scenes, and then he was in "North and South" with my beloved Richard Armitage (it's hard not simply to post a photograph of Richard every day, but that might be tantamount to... stalking?)

Plus the gorgeous newcomer Michelle Dockery is divine: to my ear perfect Cockney, but then as well cut-glass posh English, very funny, but also touchingly vulnerable. That's my only tiny complaint about the play in this incarnation: I wish Pigott-Smith had made Higgins more vulnerable. I think to care about him, to feel sorry that the relationship will never work (I had forgotten the play does not have a happy ending, sorry Lerner and Lowe) the audience must feel for Higgins, if only in the very last act, must see him as truly, if inarticulately, heartbroken, and Pigott-Smith played him more petulant, without a convincing level of regret for what he's losing. I suppose that could have been the direction, too. In any case, it's a very small quibble about a very good play. Avery was in heaven! But we did all agree afterward that we kept expecting the characters to burst into song, which was disconcerting. And: our dinner at the Pit under the theatre was lovely too, and just in time for the curtain going up. So go, do.

Well, that's not all that's been keeping us busy these days. We took Avery for her first time to Camden Market, or rather the Stables Market across the road since the fire destroyed so much of the place last year. We did admittedly drive all over northwest London trying to find it, since our latest satnav was lifted from the car (grr). I know real Londoners will complain that the market has lost some of its truly quirky appeal, but there was enough idiosyncracy and charm to make us happy (not to mention the still-warm homemade doughnuts sprinkled with cinnamon sugar that made even no-sweet-tooth me sit up and beg like a dog). Avery discovered a latent passion for vintage clothing, and we could suddenly fast-forward about five years to see her shopping there with her friends for the latest 1950s bargain. In the end she bought a fabulous fitted (well, it will be someday!) leather jacket, a tweed hat and pair of slinky white gloves. One of her friends is having a birthday party next week with a "cocktail party" (I know, I know), so the gloves will come in handy. It was a gorgeous sunny day and nothing could burst our bubble, not even finding out that the bean-bag stall we'd come to visit had... burned down. Now we must find another source, for Avery's new room.

Speaking of new room, we've been spending a lot of time there taking over bits and pieces, waiting for furniture deliveries, trying to figure out why the phone doesn't work (and consequently our broadband), laying out newspapers in the shapes of rugs and furniture to see if they fit. One day I sat in the kitchen waiting for something or somebody and just drank in the serenity. Of course it will considerably less serene when the kitchen is filled with our stuff and our people and our issues, but that day... it was quite windy and the many plants and trees in the garden waved in the breeze, throwing shadows on the garden paving stone. Our little resident pair of tiny robins flew in and out, sometimes perching on one of the Moroccan lanterns our landlady kindly left behind. Pure peace. Won't last, I know, but it was a nice moment.

What am I most worried about with the move? Without a doubt it's the situation with the cats. I know that at 9 a.m. tomorrow morning I must get them stuffed into their carriers, the carriers stuffed into a taxi and us all driven to the vet, where the cattery will collect them and take them to Kent for their "holiday." Nervous! I don't really want to do any of that, and I'll miss them for the week. Avery is beside herself whenever she thinks about it.

To distract her, we went yesterday to the Royal Windsor Horse Show, always a great event. We took Anna along, and because last year we stood seatless in the rain for the duration of the afternoon, I bought tickets to the Members' Enclosure, for not a lot more money (I'd definitely recommend it, if only for the really clean loos). For all it sounded so snooty, the people were perfectly normal, just dressed up (John huffed and puffed over having to wear a TIE). And the Queen came and sat quite near to us! All our favorite events happened: the accumulator, where each successive jump is worth more than the last, with "the joker" at the end: a jump that if you dare to try it, wins you lots if you get over it, and costs you lots if you don't. It was thrilling! The winner was a chap I had never heard of called Graham Lovegrove (great name, but not crushworthy sadly) who simply tore through the course (as well as clearing the jumps, the win is based on time against the clock) and positively galloped out of the "joker." Wonderful stuff! Then there were the Pony Club games, and at the end of the day the Shetland pony races, which the girls absolutely loved. It was hot, hot, hot, and by the time we left we were all a little wilted and dusty. A great day out, although the Food Festival associated with the show gets more pitiful every year, which is a disappointment. I wonder if the organizers have concluded that horsey people don't buy much in the way of exotic ingredients? At least not for humans.

Well, it's nearly time to get Avery from the stable (she will be positively FILTHY after both yesterday and today, but it hardly seemed worth it to scrape the dust off her last night when today would only bring more horsey muck). First, however, I must give you an absolutely SUPERB recipe that struck me as the perfect buffet dish, should you need one. I think, too, that mixed with some chilled wild rice it could be even nicer. I've been thinking a lot lately about what prompts me to cook a given thing (I took a bit of cookery writing with me for my homework to class this week and got loads of helpful feedback). I must find a way to organize all my recipes, and I'm fairly committed to hedging them all round with some reminiscences, some context, some suggestions of the friends and family I feed. This dish really took me back to old New York days, not even Tribeca but before that: as newlyweds in SoHo (before it became the Short Hills Mall, back when the neighborhood still had real charm, before every fabric and stationery store became a Gap or a Starbucks... end of rant).

Back in those golden olden days, there was a Thai place that delivered, and we ordered out every Monday night after I taught my art history class and got home pumped and full of myself, but not interested in cooking. Our favorite dish was called "larb," an unappealing name, but a fabulous light dish. We'd eat it directly out of the aluminum container, feeling hip and cool and New Yorky, standing out on our fire escape and looking at the view to the south of the Woolworth building, and the view to the north of the Chrysler building. What fun that was! It was in that first New York loft that we discovered Avery was on the way, so we both have very fond memories of the whole period in our lives: the last as irresponsible babies.

Well, for some reason John has been talking about "larb" all the time, only neither of us remembered the name. Instead we resorted to the clumsy moniker "that chilly minced chicken spicy dish." And since we have no Thai delivery place (in fact I have no Thai place at all), it was gradually borne in upon me that I would have to learn to make it myself. I finally asked him why he was obsessing about one of the few things I have never tried to cook and don't know how to cook, and after thinking about it for awhile, he said, "You know why? It was the first meal we had in our old Tribeca loft, the first night we moved in. Surrounded by boxes, eating that chilly minced chicken Thai thing." Fair enough! Well, as long as it's not some complicated dessert that I'll undoubtedly screw up and not want to eat anyway, I'm game to try to make anything. All I had to do was type "Thai minced chicken" into google, and I was sent right to the excellent BBC "GoodFood" site (although their solemn assurance that "every recipe is tested before publication" makes me laugh a bit: is there any other way to publish a recipe? do some cooks not bother to test it before publication?).

There it was! Larb, in all its glory. Being me, of course I had to mess around with the recipe a bit since it is against my nature to enter the city of Mecca or to follow a recipe exactly. I had no lemongrass or lime leaves as the recipe required, so I substituted the grated zest of a lemon and a lime. Perhaps it would be even more exotic with the proper citrus bits, so I'll try it again (I'll test it! hee hee) and see if it makes any difference. But I'm pretty sure that most of you don't always have lemongrass and lime leaves on hand, so let's be flexible. I also was lazy and blitzed the chicken in the food processor instead of chopping it, and it was perfectly fine. I also omitted the suggested red chillies and used chilli-infused olive oil instead, and it was lovely. And just so you know (I didn't), Thai fish sauce sounds off-putting, but is actually a very simple clear mixture of anchovies and oil. Essential for any Thai cooking, it turns out.

(allow one chicken breast fillet per person; this serves four)

zest of 1 lemon and 1 lime
5 garlic cloves
1-inch piece of gingerroot, peeled
1 tbsp chilli-infused olive oil
1 tbsp sesame oil
4 chicken breast fillets, skinless
50 ml (about 3 1.2 tbsps) Thai fish sauce
1 red onion, finely chopped
3 tbsps lime juice
handful each, roughly chopped: coriander, mint, basil leaves
1/2 cup chopped mixed nuts or pinenuts
1 head butter lettuce or 2 heads Baby Gem lettuce, separated into leaves
1 cucumber, seeded and cut into strips lengthwise

Throw the zest, garlic and ginger in the Magimix and whizz until very finely blitzed. Scoop it all out with a spatula and then throw in the chicken and whizz it until finely chopped, but not mush. I don't know if it could become mush, but don't let it!

In a large skillet or wok, heat the oils and sizzle the citrus mixture briefly, then add the chicken. Fry the chicken, constantly chopping and separating it into tiny bits, for 4 minutes, then add the fish sauce. Turn down the heat and let the chicken bubble for a few more minutes, then add the chopped red onion and bubble just briefly, about a minute. Remove to a serving bowl and chill until it's at the temperature you like: it's lovely warm, we found, but very refreshing cold.

Just before you're ready to eat, pour in the lime juice and sprinkle over the herbs and nuts, and toss. Serve in the lettuce leaves with the cucumber strips: it's messy!


This is simply DIVINE. And since I am occasionally accused of trying to clog your arteries and create love handles with too many creamy buttery recipes, MAY I respectfully point out the ostentatious lack of any such ingredients? It's practically a diet dish! You might want some steamed rice on the side, to catch all the little bits that will fall out of your lettuce leaf as you eat. Lovely, I guarantee it. I tested it! Just for you.

05 May, 2008

two great restaurants

We've been taking a couple of breaks from the endless list of details that is The Moving Process (why are activities called "processes" always unpleasant: "recovery," "grieving," "healing"... no one really wants to do any of them). But between buying a new laundry basket, deciding where the litter boxes will go, giving away yet more clothing, toys and electronic items, and pretty much constant wrangling over which sofa we like, we've had a couple of amazing restaurant experiences that I want to tell you about.

Our good friends and neighbors Andrew and Laura have been trying to get us to go out to eat ever since we had them here for Thanksgiving in November, so I suppose it's slightly pathetic that it's taken until May to find an evening! But Wednesday saw us trooping together in the rain toward La Petite Maison here in Mayfair, in Brooks Mews behind Claridge's, and boy was it worth the wait. The place opened in July to much fanfare, but such is my experience of the big city that I have never even heard of it, and it's right around the corner from my house! I am such a stick in the mud. Thank goodness for friends, to get you out of the kitchen. The signature dish must be ordered UPON your arrival, as it takes upwards of an hour to cook and they don't start till you order it. French black leg chicken, whole, cooked with an enormous knob of... wait for it... foie gras, along with some crusty croutons of baguette in the roasting pan, soaking up the butter and chicken juices. Now, as divine as this was, and it was, I am going to be brave and say that I think my method of slow braising chicken in a tightly sealed container might be the better way to go, rather than roasting, as the chicken was slightly dry, although very flavoursome. The question would be: how to prepare the foie gras in that case, as I'm sure what made it so wonderful was its proximity to the juices that emanate from a roasting chicken, as opposed to the more liquidy environment of braising.

I plan to experiment at some point and I will report on the results. Maybe it's a matter of taking the lid off the braising casserole a half hour or so from the end and letting things sizzle, also maybe raising the cooking temp at the end? I don't know exactly, but I fear copious amounts of butter are involved. We had such a good time. It's rare for us to hang out with people who don't have small children (theirs are long grown and producing grandchildren by now), and let me tell you, it raises the conversation level some! Our friend Vincent is always moaning at his dinner parties. "Here I have a foremost expert on 19th century French art, several of the best architects in London, a former successful investment banker, a famous entrepreneur, and you're talking about... SCHOOL UNIFORMS!" True enough, we do. Or how high is too high for a fever, or what school our children aspire to attend. Boring!

So the four of us tucked into first our starters (divine tempura courgette flowers, and my personal favorite, thinly sliced raw scallops sprinkled with snipped chives, chili peppers and flaked almonds, drizzled with olive oil and lime juice), and we talked.. politics. They had been with John at an Obama fundraiser last week and so we had a very energetic (if somewhat depressing) discussion of the future of American politics. It was wonderful to stretch my brain, remember things I had read in the paper that had nothing to do with beetroot or pesto or the best books on explaining puberty to one's child. Honestly, my mind is about as flexible as a ruler these days. But we had a wonderful, wonderful time. I envision a reunion of this apartment building in our new kitchen, about five minutes after we move in. "Foie gras three ways?" John joked. Maybe!

Then today we repaired for lunch to the venerable J. Sheekeys just off Charing Cross Road, near St Martin in the Fields, which has undergone an enormously expensive renovation lately. We picked Avery up from Anna's where she had spent the night (with poor Becky slaving over the dirty clothes of Avery's brought back from Normandy and mysteriously stuck in Anna's luggage!). I must digress and say that this batch of dirty clothes emerging from Avery's bags is simply the most disgusting chore I have ever taken on. Worse than a child with stomach flu, because it goes on for days, not just 24 hours. The smell? I can't describe it: well, I'll try. There are notes of sewage, with an aftertaste of dog poo, and overtones of boxwood, or something other noxious plant. "What on earth did you DO, Avery?" I asked in some mystification. "We rolled in mud. Smelly, smelly mud." It is not for me to ask why.

But anyway, we arrived at J. Sheekeys and were greeted, seated and tended to by an endless parade of deferential, lovely men who treated Avery quite as another adult, which I love. We made the mistake we nearly always make of having Avery and me each order the same thing, when in the back of my mind I knew we should share. Sure enough, minor consternation when it was evident that she would eat... half of her fried haddock and chips, and so did I. But John knows what he's having for lunch tomorrow, anyway! The fish was incredibly fresh and the batter light and delectable, but I must take issue with the chips which were completely forgettable. Rather limp, not hot, not charming. But the first helping of so-called "mushy peas" that has ever tempted me to lift my fork and try some, and they were lovely! I don't love the flavr of peas, but I was happy to see that "mushy peas" means just that: no scary ingredients, not a bad pea to begin with, just lovely new sweet peas that have been... mushed up. Why this is a cherished English tradition I do not know, why they don't merely serve them whole? But it proves that traditions are good when they are good. We'll be back, and for something more adventurous than fish and chips. My starter was incredible: crab pate, with a slick of potting butter on top and a very nice kick of chillies in there somewhere. Lovely.

This has all been gorgeous, but it's basically a distraction from trying to furnish the house and yet leave some money for Avery to go to school. After much wrangling on both our sides, and visiting a (to me) endless array of antique shops and auction houses (John would not say it took very long, but then he loves furniture), we have chosen a wonderful 1940s French leather sofa with two not-quite-matching chairs! And to go underneath, yesterday we got a very impressive (but not expensive!) HUGE Persian antique rug, at Lots Road Auction House. And a sweet little red, blue and green really worn-out runner for the entry hall. When we picked them up today, the auctioneer assured John, about the big rug, "You got the bargain of the day, sir. There are only about 10 looms in the world that can produce a rug this size, you could easily have paid 10 times what you did." As John was gloating over his incredible perspicacity when it comes to rug bargains, the auctioneer continued, "And you also got the biggest ripoff of the day. That runner is crap."

Ah well. You can't win them all. So we struggled up the steps to the reception room with the rug and it fits... just barely! Literally an inch on either side to spare. But it just glows, with appreciation more than anything, at having been rescued from the auction house where it suffered in silence being trodden on, picked at, furniture dragged over it. Poor thing. Now it resides in solitary glory in our house, ready to spend its life being scratched at by cats, probably.

We still are in desperate need of a wardrobe for Avery, and not quite so desperate need for a rug for her. I think tomorrow we'll go pick up a set of bean bag chairs for her.

Avery's form teacher called me up in distress this morning, saying she had completely forgotten to get parent chaperones for tomorrow's field trip and could I help? Naturally, so I'm leaving John to supervise the bookshelf people as they measure at the new house to make sure (just make sure! we're nearly sure) the unit from here will fit the kitchen wall. Becky and her family had a pizza lunch with us yesterday, sitting on the floor of the new kitchen, imagining where everything will go. And we met our new neighbor to the right, who is really really sweet. Good thing too, because I had to beg her for a pizza cutter! Might as well begin as we mean to go on. How nice it will be to have a proper neighborhood.

Right. Nothing much else to say except that Avery's on pins and needles for tomorrow's expected announcement of the parts in "Alice in Wonderland," the school play. Maybe Wednesday, though, with the field trip? I'll let you know...

03 May, 2008

she's home

Just to let you know: after precisely five days, ONE shower, NO teeth-brushing, mudbathing, bunk-bedding and other adventures we shall learn about tomorrow... she's safe and sound. It was quite the reunion at the school tonight in the dark: they were two hours late and we all huddled around on the pavement exchanging "how hard was it for you to have her away" stories, and then the coach pulled up and we all cheered, and they piled out, sunburned, filthy, full of chatter and exhaustion. "I can really speak some French now! I feel like saying "bonjour" to everyone!" Home. Home! We're all here tonight. What a joy.