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.


payotbb said...

I love the idea of chopping raw chicken breast in the food processor - it would save so much time on stir fries! - but does it come out kind of uneven? Maybe depends on a really sharp blade?

On cats, I'm sure they'll be fine in the long term but will definitely a bit stressed out for a few days or even weeks. We too have a cat. Poor baby spent 2 months in quarantine, and came out half his weight, ungroomed (he is usually very meticulous), and having "savaged" (her word) one of the attendants at the cattery. If it were the US, we probably would have been sued. But he has since adapted marvelously to his new home and is as sleek and affectionate as ever. We didn't let him outside for a few weeks. I always say to my husband that the member of our family who suffers most when we move is the cat!

min said...

Hang in there with the move. It is never easy but just try and project forward to two weeks from now when all is in place (or at least hidden from view). I am happy that you have decided to include your personal stories and anecdotes in your cook book. Those are what inspire to try out a recipe--not just the list of

Kristen In London said...

Do you know, you two Deb and Min: two of my most loyal readers: I never knew until tonight that you commented here? I guess I never set the thingy to "tell me when someone comments." I feel so bad: you two have always been so marvellous, I'm not sure why you bothered!

Love to you both, so long after!