20 June, 2008

if it didn't move...

today, I ate it... I can hardly move tonight. It sort of snuck up on me: I just kept choosing things at Taste of London, and eating them, and it was all glorious and made me very happy, and all the bits jiggled up and down happily together in my stomach as I walked along (choosing more bits). Then I took a brief break to watch Avery's skating lesson, and then it was onto... dinner. At nothing less than my favorite all-time Chinese restaurant in Queensway, so I could certainly not skimp on any of my favorites. And I didn't even think much of it, until... we got home and I sat down and now I feel that all the foodstuffs in the greater London metropolitan area are trying to be digested all at once. Still, I don't regret a single biteful, and while I'd separate them by a day or two, I would recommend my two foodie activities today to anyone.

I think as a matter of public record I must list all the things eaten today. Perhaps it will serve as a cautionary tale, if in fact I am unable to get up from my desk chair in an hour or two. In fact, I may pour myself a digestif before I'm rendered static, and see if a spot of brandy does the trick.

But what trick? All that is required is the passage of hours and the ingestion of nothing more tomorrow than a lettuce leaf, and bob's your uncle. First I must tell you that I did not suspend myself from a tall pole and take this photograph - Channel 4 did, and it must have been last year, because the weather here has been very odd lately and certainly would not encourage people to sit upon the ground in shorts. However, the fact remains that I wanted the festival to look appealing because it's on for two more days, and you'd love it.

So what happens is you buy little tickets called "crowns" and each is worth 50 pence, and all the little tidbits cost a certain number of crowns, usually 6 or 8, but a couple of fancy lobstery things cost 10 crowns. I bought a ticket that included 40 little crowns, and that was just about right, except that I was going out for dinner the same night. But I did think ahead, and in my long gossipy coffee with my dear friend Gigi this morning I restrained myself from having breakfast and stuck to iced coffee. Then I meandered off to Taste and here is what I did.

First of all, I got lost. Then I made a number of the happy mistakes that I specialize in. I thought I had figured out the tiny little map and reached Tom's Kitchen, where I reckoned the single most delicious-sounding dish of the day was being served: seven-hour braised lamb shoulder with balsamic onions and potato mash. Totally divine. Tiny little portion, about three bites of each thing. Only then I realized that all the time I was eating I thought it was by chef Tom Kitchin, when it was in fact the famous restaurant called "Tom's Kitchen." Tom Kitchin was nowhere to be seen. Do you suppose other people confuse them, or only me?

Then it was onto Le Gavroche, where I was planning to have lobster bisque with brandy cream. It came cold, and bright green, and even dim I twigged to the possibility that I had made an error. As I ate it, quite happily, I realized I had misread the booth number and ended up with Benares' chilled pea soup, redolent of cumin powder and crowned with edible flowers. Not sorry about that! It's the first time I've eaten at the hands of Atul Kochhar whose recipe for chickpea and broccolini salad I gave you the recipe for and which I've enjoyed several times since.

I decided I owed it to Le Gavroche, though, so I wandered back and there was the winning chef of our beloved telly programme "Masterchef"! James something or other. Typical me, again, I went up and ordered the smoked chicken and foie gras terrine and told him how much we had enjoyed his work on "Great British Menu." Wrong programme, Kristen! What on earth. Being accustomed to dealing with the foolish public, he merely smiled and said, "Thank you, enjoy," and I did. Unusual terrine: studded with lentils! And accompanied by a very subtle truffle mayo-ish sauce. Lovely.

Finally I staggered over to Sumosan and had the largest scallop I have ever seen, marinated in teriyaki sauce and served over a shitaake mushroom and topped with fried leeks. Delicious, lovely.

Mind you, my journal to date does not take into account the numberless things I sampled: balsamic vinegar on strawberries, pesto on foccacia, lamb sausages, Welsh beef burgers, Isle of Man pepper cheese, some random Indian jalfrezi sauce on a little cracker (I always think I'll like bottled sauces but I never do, somehow). And I people-watched, but I didn't see anyone but our BBC chef. So finally it was time to pick Avery up at school and I could not eat another bite, but had four crowns left, which I happily spent on two bottles of the new Firefly vitamin water, and took them home. I did not regret the long walk through Regent's Park to get to school, I can tell you that! Perhaps without it my heart simply would have stopped beating, with overwork supporting my belly.

Then dinner: two softshell crabs, without which life would be much less tasty, my favorite chilli and ginger dry-fried chicken, steamed pak choy, barbecued pork to keep Avery and her skating chum Jamie happy, goodness. Those two girls are so much fun to have around that I'm always pleased to get them together. They dished about their classmates, their exam results this week, ranking their teachers in order of competence and sense of humor, the works. Then we put the top down on the car and took Julia home, and I must say I am now recovering. Whew. Tomorrow I shall be spending all day doing guess what... cooking for the horse show picnic on Sunday. But eat I shall not. Definitely not.

Instead I shall devote myself to working on my next homework assignment for the increasingly successful writing class! People are so funny. This week Angela said, "If I might speak?" and Keith immediately said, "As if we could stop you?" I have found my niche, I think. So far I've written and presented and had critiqued two pieces: one a collection of memories of macaroni and cheese, and then the recipe, in a chapter called "Comfort Food." Second, a similar sort of memoir and ode to Moroccan meatballs and our trip to Marakkesh and the friend who took us there, and the recipe, in a chapter called "Exotic Comes Home." I have got the most helpful comments about themes, and tone, and voice, and detail, so that I feel ready to write lots more of them and finally have something to show an agent.

Next week I must write something that's been rolling around in my head for nearly 20 years: memories of the year (on and off) that my husband and I spent in Moscow, and the recipe that I brought home, for very simple oven-roasted chicken wings. I'm going to call it "Golden Domes and Chicken Swings," which is how our Moscow hostess pronounced the chicken part, and I have felt in all the intervening years that those two elements (one so luxurious and one so spare) encapsulated what it was like to live in that place in that time. When you could hop in an ordinary citizen's car, give him a dollar, and be taken anywhere in the city. And not be kidnapped and murdered for your pains.

Then I think I'll write up a lot of my blog bits, like taking Avery and Anna apple and blackberry picking and then bringing them home and helping them create a pudding from their efforts, and call it "Pick Your Pleasures." And I have in mind a chapter called "The Chicken That Kept On Giving," about when you're embroiled in some dreadful ongoing event like moving, or children's exams, or a work crisis, and you need food that cooks itself in several different ways: all-day braised on Day One, chicken salad on Day Two, and chicken noodle soup on Day Three. I'm getting all excited! I wish I could print out the blog but I think that would be directly contravening all environmentally sound strictures against stripping the world of our tree supply.

Well, I'm recovering. I think it's time to do a spot of laundry and kick back, but NOT with a snack, for sure! Ah well, tomorrow is another day, and no doubt... another meal. To quell my appetite, I must concentrate on these latest pictures of Crush Actor Richard Armitage: he would not, most definitely NOT, go for a girl who wasn't fit. Be still my heart!

19 June, 2008

Life, Speeded Up

Why the silence, you ask? I shall explain. Since I last put virtual pen to paper for my blog, I have: bought a lacrosse stick and meltable mouthguard, run unsuccessfully in a three-legged race, lost my cat (and found her again), eaten brill (a fish I had never before tasted) in three separate recipes, found out that my vagabond upholsterer is actually dead, and discovered that my other cat, not the lost and found one, is allergic to... cat food, and had my street torn up and my water turned off. And I've had dinner at the city's best fish restaurant and been taken to see "Romeo and Juliet: The Ballet." (As Avery said, at least it wasn't "The Musical.")

As well, I've been to the last primary school Sports Day, the last primary school Summer Concert, the last primary school Art Exhibition, and have read aloud and had critiqued my cookbook chapter on Moroccan meatballs. Plus I invited my next door neighbors to dinner only to find I'd double booked them another family entirely. And I have met the several hundred girls and parents who will be our new school family next year, and ferried Avery to two hideous Official Royal Something or Other singing and violin exams. She is quite sure she failed violin, and frankly the day she takes the wretched instrument back to the shop will be a day too late in my book.


Seriously. As you can see from the above beautiful photographs, Avery came through the last Sports Day perfectly well, not minding when we were crushed in the three-legged race. And who were we crushed by? My husband and Avery's friend Sophia, so that was galling. But it was a nice foxy day where when the sun was behind a cloud you rushed to borrow a cardigan from someone wise enough to bring two, and when the sun came back out, you smothered. We brought an enormous picnic of shrimp with homemade cocktail sauce, tomato, mozzarella and pesto salad, smoked salmon sandwiches and... the piece de resistance... two pound of English strawberries dipped in melted chocolate. THAT was fun, not that I eat them, but Avery and I dipped them together and she had to test quite a few, I'll tell you. "Well, I have to be sure they're all right!" This adventure came at the end of the day that saw us at her new school, buying said lacrosse stick and mouthguard and several gatrillion pounds' worth of other essential PE gear: the games skirt (what? I know, it sounded odd to me too), the trousers and matching hoodie, the lacrosse socks and dance leotard and swimming "costume" and white t-shirts with the school logo... very impressive! A real milestone, and she was so gracious and grownup with the nice Irish lady who helped her find her sizes. Every time we go to the new school we're more impressed with the seriousness and yet friendliness of everyone involved.

And yes, we had a renegade cat. Tacy, who has always been the visiting type anyway, strolled out of the garden in the middle of one super hot night (through a bedroom window rather high up) without her ID tag and collar. Two agonising days of searching ensued, with me walking up and down the fronts of the houses whose gardens back onto our garden, knocking at garden-flat doors to see if anyone had seen "a gorgeous sleek tortie with one orange foot, one black foot, and aqua eyes." Seen her? One dear lady called Pippa answered the door in her dressing gown and was quite shirty with me until I uttered the words "lost cat," and then she all but dragged me in and couldn't have been sweeter. "Oh, I know Tacy," she assured me. "A frequent visitor here, but I can't say my Tilly is too fond of her visits. But then Tilly is an old gentlewoman of 16 and doesn't like surprises. Don't mind my dressing gown. I have just seen my husband off to our house in France and I can't BEGIN to tell you how exhausting it is, having him in the flat here. Sheer bliss sending him away again."

But alas, none of this produced Tacy. Pippa did, however, provide an encyclopedic inventory of every cat in the street, on both sides of the garden, and indicated which might let her pass and which would not. As well, she promised to enact the "Cat Neighborhood Watch" act which seems to operate in my neck of the woods, and within an hour (I was out getting flyers laminated) two little old ladies plus Pippa had come to offer their combined condolences and determination to John, promising to find Tacy ASAP. I ran off to my writing class feeling utterly sick. "I hate to say it," John said, "but she's our highest quality cat, really." It's true: she is friendly, good-looking, doesn't beg for food, doesn't fall off things and scare herself, or chew off all her belly fur or vomit all over or run away when you try to pet her. Like SOME cats I could introduce you to.

Well, just before class began I got a rather incoherent text from John, obviously typing quickly: "Racy is home!" Well, she can be rather racy. And here's what happened. John saw an RSPCA van in our street and thought there was just a chance... and sure enough, there she was! Wearing a paper collar saying that the RSPCA had dealt with her and the owners needed to call an agency to have her microchip registered in the UK. Fair enough. She had apparently found herself in garden several doors down and beaten on the lady's garden window to be let in! Thank goodness it was the window of a person who did not want a high-quality tortoiseshell cat, but also didn't NOT want one enough to, say, poison it. She merely called the authorities. So home Tacy/Racy came, none the worse for her adventure. And now firmly collared and tagged at all times, although she's learned to take it off if she really wants to. I've found it deposited politely on the lap of one of Avery's dolls, and buried deep under Avery's bed covers, and most amusingly, set into my bedside water glass. That is one funny cat.

In the midst of all the drama, John and I had dinner out at the local fabulous restaurant, The Brackenbury, where I had brill for the first time. Totally simply sauteed, on a bed of bean salad made with something else I had never had: borlotti beans. Lovely! Then the next day I was taken to dinner with Avery by one of her chums and mother for the child's birthday, to J Sheekey, quite the most divine fish establishment in London. And there I saw brill on the menu again and thought, why not. This time it was on a bed of new asparagus and drizzled with a mousseline sauce which sounded very exotic. Actually it turned out to be nothing more or less than hollandaise mixed at the last moment with whipped double cream.

So it was but the work of a moment this week to acquire some brill of my own and produce a combination of these two dishes, with a side of sauteed steamed new potatoes. Can I tell you how pleased I am at how this dinner turned out? And Avery and John devoured every bite, no one complained about anything, and the leftover sauce was just fine on broccolini a few nights later. Let me tell you more. You can do the beans, asparagus and potatoes ahead of time, pretty much, and leave them sit while you prepare the fish and the sauce. I'm not sure I'd be much good at producing this for more than about two extra people, but for our little family it was DIVINE.

Borlotti Bean Salad
(serves three)

3 tbsps olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 small red onion, minced
juice of 1 lemon
1 soup-size can borlotti beans
handful each of fresh mint and flat-leaf parsley, chopped roughly

In a medium skillet, heat the olive oil and very GENTLY fry the garlic and onion, then add the lemon juice and beans and stir over medium heat till the onions are soft. Remove to a bowl and add more oil or lemon juice to taste, and to create the sensation of a soft, unctuous dressing. Set aside and use the same skillet uncleaned for:

Sauteed Steamed Charlotte Potatoes
(serves three)

1/2 pound Charlotte potatoes
1 tbsp butter, 1 tsp olive oil
sea salt and pepper to taste

In a double boiler, steam the potatoes for about 25 minutes or until perfectly soft. Cut them into bite-size pieces if they are not already. Heat the butter and oil in the bean skillet till quite hot and add the potatoes. Stirring occasionally, crisp the potatoes nicely and salt and pepper to taste. These can be removed and set aside in a serving bowl alongside the beans. Now in the same double boiler, prepare:

Steamed New English Asparagus
(serves three)

Bring water to a boil in the double boiler and add the asparagus which you've snapped at the vulnerable points on the stem and skimmed a bit of rough stem off with a carrot peeler. Steam the asparagus JUST until it smells good, and is bright green, if you like it to have a little bite, and longer if you like it soft. Remove to a nice pretty place and set aside alongside the potatoes and beans.


Now you can go about your business telling your daughter how wonderful she was on Sports Day and cleaning the litterbox, until about 10 minutes before you're ready to eat. Then...

Quick Hollandaise Sauce (turned into Mousseline if you like)
(serves about six, 1 1/4 cups)

2 egg yolks
2 tbsps boiling water
1 cup butter (two sticks), melted and hot
2 tbsps lemon juice
sea salt to taste

Put the egg yolks in the blender of food processor and blend at low speed just to mix. Then, keeping the blender going, add the boiling water and then the butter, VERY slowly! Just a thin stream. Add the lemon juice and salt, keeping the machine going all the time. Voila.

Now, if you want to turn this already perfect sauce into the more festive mousseline, fold in gently about 1/2 cup whipped double cream RIGHT before serving. Don't add it ahead of time or the sauce will get runny. Otherwise, you can keep the plain hollandaise just at room temperature while you prepare:

Pan-Fried Brill
(serves 3)

2 whole brill fish, filleted assiduously by your fishmonger
3 tbsps butter
sprinkle sea salt
freshly ground black pepper

Run the fillets under cold water and rinse well, then pat dry with kitchen paper towels. In a large skillet, melt the butter and get it quite hot but not brown. Add the fillets skin side down and cook for about 4 minutes, basting with the hot butter. At the VERY last minute before serving, turn onto the other side and cook just for a minute.

To serve: lay the asparagus on each plate, then top with the fish fillets and place a generous dollop of hollandaise over all. Add a spoonful of bean salad and a spoonful of potatoes and... you're in business.


I will tell you: the perfect dinner, truly. I was so proud of myself! It was just like both restaurants and I had the fun of doing it myself.

So let's see, other than that, what else has been happening? Actually, what else COULD have been happening? "Romeo and Juliet" was truly spectacularly lovely, so do go if you possibly can. The saddest pas de deux at the end where Romeo tries to recreate his first dance with Juliet, only this time she is a dead, limp weight in his arms. Heartbreaking!

John's been on a very strange eBay kick: he decided we needed a drinks trolley (have you ever had one? neither have I), so off he went bidding to his heart's content and finally got a lovely cheap veneer and stainless steel one which he has proceeded to art-direct with fancy prop gin, prop Scotch and prop tonic water. Then he bought a silver plate tea-seat that "if it were the real designer, would cost a LOT of money," he assured me. I never make tea. Then I thought he'd kill poor Hermione last night when she slept on his computer and cancelled his bid for an ice bucket. Perspective, please? But the reception room is looking lovely. Except for...

The missing sofa and bench. Remember them? The cats peed on them and scratched them and generally made it highly likely that they would appear someday with their knees broken by their father. Then we found Ye Olde English Upholsterer, who came to our house so charmingly and helped us choose durable yet lovely fabrics and had all sorts of clever ideas for helping us save money. Chief among which, as it turns out, was simply never doing the job, never returning my phone calls, never being at the shop when we stopped in, and, insult to injury, it turns out he's... dead. I wish I were making this up. Finally after four months of waiting, we got a call from some survivor or such of the poor man who broke the sorry news and then compounded it by confessing that the material we liked had been discontinued. It was not clear from his voice which tragedy was the greater.

So today we stopped by again and brought home several books of fabric. Can I tell you, from my secret heart, and don't tell John... I really don't care. That much. As long as it is nice quality and will stand up to pets and children, and doesn't clash horribly with anything else we own, I don't have my heart in the whole debate. Isn't that awful. I fake it for John, that and looking over his shoulder at all the potential treasures we could own from eBay and feigning interest in umbrella stands, nesting side tables, the lot. Poor man. Luckily his mother arrives on Tuesday of next week and she can commiserate. If only my interior-design happy mother could be here as well! It's as if he inherited from MY mother all her home interior interests, and I got his mother's cooking spoon. Odd.

Oh, and do you need, during these happy June weeks, a couple of cool salads that are super easy to make? Try these. I invented them both in that mood of "there must be something I can make out of all these things I have in my fridge."

Scallop, Beetroot and Goats Cheese Salad
(serves four for lunch, or as a dinner starter)

1 tbsp olive oil, chilli infused if you like spice
1 lb sea scallops, muscle removed (and roeless, if you're me)
handful cilantro (coriander), handful parsley, chopped
6 small beetroots, roasted, peeled and quartered
however much goats cheese you like, flavored or not
juice of half a lemon
sea salt and pepper to taste
more olive oil for drizzling

Heat the oil in a skillet and quickly sear the scallops over very high heat, turning frequently with tongs and trying not to break them up (but it's not a crime if you do). When they are just cooked through (perhaps 3 minutes), pop them into a large-ish bowl, pouring any extra olive oil over them. Throw in the herbs and the beets and mix well, then crumble the goats cheese over top. Drizzle with the lemon juice, sprinkle with salt and pepper and drizzle over the oil. Toss lightly. This is perfect with baguette slices, lightly toasted.


Then there's:

Lentil Salad with Red Pepper and Onion, Pinenuts and Mint
(serves six-ish)

250 grams green lentils (about a cup)
1 red pepper, diced
1 red onion, diced
1 cup pinenuts, toasted or not
handful mint, chopped
juice of one lime
drizzle balsamic vinegar
olive oil to taste

Cook the lentils in plenty of salted water until just soft (maybe 30 minutes). Drain and rinse well and place in a large bowl. Add everything else, and test for the amount of dressing you have in the bottom. If you want more (to soak up with more baguettes?), add more lime juice and more olive oil, relying rather more on the oil so it doesn't get too tart. Divine.


Well, I think I'm caught up. We just came back from the distressingly sweaty school Art Exhibition where Avery's drawing graced the cover, and she has been soaking in a nice cool bath while I talked to you. John's probably been bidding on a leopard-print chandelier or a coffee table made entirely of cat skeletons held together with string, so I'd better check on him. Oh, but one last story: Avery and I got turned out of a tube station when it closed for "signal failure" and found ourselves instead on a bus yesterday, with a very upset little woman who was clearly lost and also clearly not terribly familiar with the English language. I recognized her accent and we ended up speaking in French, hers from Geneva and mine suffering from neglect, but we got along all right. She finally stopped sniffing after I reassured her that she headed in the right direction, that we'd get off at the same stop. We fended off the friendly interests of a large man with lots of bling who was sure that if he shouted and gestured profusely, her command of the language would improve.

Finally, just as we got to our stop, I said, "I'm certainly sorry the train station closed and you had to go out of your way for no reason." And do you know what she said? "Everything happens for a reason, even if we know not what it is. We see a leaf fall, and it seems for no reason. But somewhere there is a blade of grass that is waiting to be protected from the hot sun, and the leaf falls there. We do not see the reason, but that does not mean it is not there." Very nice...

06 June, 2008

kebabs al fresco

Isn't it funny how each day has a sort of karma of its own, an immutable flavor that you can't alter, that really has nothing to do with what you're doing but simply infuses the day with a particular mood? Well, yesterday was a good one, a delicious day. Could it have been the perfect blue sky and warm sunshine? Possibly. After dropping Avery off at the stable we headed over to Islington for the latest installment of what has become akin to the search for the Holy Grail: a wardrobe for Avery's bedroom. Honestly, sometimes I wonder what on earth difference it makes when the child it the Compleat Slob: will she even hang things in it, put things in drawers if she has them? Not sure about that. But definitely she can't if she doesn't have a piece of furniture to face up to.

We keep losing wardrobes on eBay, getting all excited, agreeing on how much we want to spend, and then in the last seventeen minutes some evil person grabs it away from us. So we thought maybe real furniture, as opposed to virtual furniture, would be easier actually to buy. No luck on a wardrobe, but we did come away from Castle Gibson (our favorite place for vintage stuff, now sadly going out of business) with a lovely little metal table and two matching chairs for the garden, and leather footstool for the reception room. John later accused the footstool of being "leatherette," but I say err on the side of optimism. For once we were completely decisive and simply bought the things, instead of dithering and finding the next day that someone else had beat us to it. It was so much fun! We left the things at the shop to collect later, and wandered up the high street, popping into Oliver Bonas for a picture frame for a birthday gift, a tiny little fruit and veg stall for kebab ingredients (as you see!), and then discovered (we must be the last to know) the Islington Farmer's Market! As it happens, the oldest farmer's market in London, would you believe it? A lot of the same purveyors as I encounter at the Marylebone Market, but it turns out that just before closing time, as it was, you can get amazing deals: two apple pies for the price of one and a chocolate muffin thrown in, an extra bunch of beetroot, the price of a jar of horseradish rounded down... bargains!

Finally we loaded up the poor Mini with all our purchases and raced home to put the things in their new places: the reception room looks amazing! Our brilliant art installer Mark is here as we speak, hanging all our bits and pieces on the walls and generally turning the place into an art gallery right before my eyes. I always forget during moves how much I love all the pieces we've collected over the years, so many of them from my very own gallery, gifts from artists, gifts from me to John and from him to me, a beloved portrait of Avery here, an abstract collage there... and we've had several things framed over the past couple of weeks, so there are even new things to look at! The poor cleaning lady is beside herself: Mark's tools are everywhere, he's leaving dust from drilling holes in the wall... conflicting agendas for sure.

Back to town to pick upu Avery who was completely filthy and wilted from the sun, and from leading some hapless little girl around the dusty riding ring for an hour on Wodehouse, never a happy task I fear. "I know you'll laugh when I say this, but I NEED ICE CREAM. I don't just want it, I NEED IT." Even her dismay could not dampen my enthusiasm for my day, and it got even better with:

Grilled Kebabs with Tamarind, Honey, Saffron and Lime
(serves four)

2 chicken breast fillets, cut in cubes
4 lamb steaks, cut in cubes
2 red bell peppers, cut in chunks
1 medium eggplant, cut in chunks
1 dozen mushrooms
1 dozen small tomatoes

1/2 cup honey
1 tbsp tamarind paste, mixed with 1 tbsp very hot water
pinch saffron threads, dissolved in hot water
juice of 1 lime
3 cloves garlic, minced
1-inch knob ginger, minced
1 tsp ground cumin
sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Place the chicken and lamb in one shallow dish and the vegetables in another (this is for reasons of raw meat hygiene). Mix all the marinade ingredients together and pour half over the meat and half over the veg and leave them as long as you like, stirring occasionally. When you're ready, shove all the bits and pieces onto metal skewers (if you use wood or bamboo be sure to soak them in water beforehand to avoid scorching) and grill over an open flame about 4 minutes, then turn over and grill another 4 minutes. I didn't have an open flame, but I did have my handy grill within my oven which has elements above the cooking surface, and the same timing worked perfectly.


With this (and didn't John take a brilliant photograph?) we had a nice couscous dish, and I'm going to cheat and tell you what I did wrong so you don't make the same mistake. Make sure you don't cook too much couscous! I nearly always cook too much, or too much pasta for a pasta dish. Far nicer to err on the side of too many of the other ingredients.

Couscous with Beetroot and Goats Cheese
(serves 4)

200 grams (a little less than a cup) raw instant couscous
2 tsps olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
125 grams (about 1/2 cup) chicken stock
1 small white onion, minced
6 medium roasted beetroots, cubed
1 cup crumbled goats cheese
1/2 cup toasted pinenuts
sea salt and pepper to taste

Put the couscous in a bowl and cover with water, JUST cover. The couscous will soak up this water instantly. Fluff a bit with a fork and set aside.

Saute the garlic and onion in the olive oil until soft. Heat the chicken stock until boiling and pour over the couscous and fluff well. Add all other ingredients and toss thoroughly. Lovely!


Well, then today decided to have its own flavor, and it was not quite so magical. Wimsey, poor guy, has been taking all the white fur off his belly, the bottoms of his feet and his fingertips. I know, I know, it sounds crazy. The vet calls it "overgrooming," which seems like an enormous understatement to me. It also sounds vaguely volitional, which I'm positive it is not. Nobody wants to remove all his white fur! There must be another reason. When he stayed in the country at the Family Cat Chalet (I'm not making this up) during the move, he got a cortisone shot to see if that would help, and he managed to let the fur grown back for nearly a week. But he's been back it in a big way lately, so there was nothing for it but to get him back to the vet today. Sigh. I tried to distract myself from his fate by studying all the items for sale in the waiting room. There is something funny about a cat food labeled "Adult Chicken." Of course there's also "Senior Chicken," not to mention "Kitten Chicken."

Alas, laughter was far from my mind when the nurse emerged with a rip in her tunic and the terse comment that they had decided to sedate the cat in order to draw his blood. I simply saw the pound signs mounting up, but there was nothing for it, so off we went to leave him there being tormented. Awful! Home to help Mark the art installer measure and mark the walls for all the art to be hung. Our cleaning lady followed him around glowering, and I can't really blame her, as the job satisfaction meter cannot be very high when dust accumulates right where one just hoovered. A better organised person than I am would have asked her to come tomorrow. Sigh. The sorts of problems one has when one has no problems, clearly.

Can I just tell you how much we adore our new neighborhood? Every day I discover something new to love about Hammersmith. For one thing, a fabulous little Italian delicatessen tucked away on an unprepossessing street adjacent to the Hammersmith Tube Station, called Sundrica, full of tempting olives, pates, cheeses, pastries, yum yum. I was restrained and bought only a bit of soppressata for Avery's breakfast and two little goats cheese disks swimming in herby olive oil. Deliriously good. Then on the way home I stopped at Turner's Flowers, a little tiny bedsit of a shop filled with growing and green things. And a lovely grandmotherly owner who helped me, and then turned to the lady behind me and said, "You're looking so well. Is it three and a half months now?" Imagine, a neighborhood where the shopkeepers know how pregnant their customers are. We're not in Marble Arch anymore, clearly.

And why, you ask, did I need flowers? To say thank you to our next door neighbors, Sara and Selva and their two little children, who invited us all to dinner Friday night, and introduced us to two other families, both with girls at Avery's new school! That is, one is there already and one's starting with Avery, so they already have plans to meet up at the New Girls' tea next week and stand shoulder to shoulder, come what may. Isn't it lovely to have a familiar face or two to look forward to? Dinner was lovely: baked chicken stuffed with sundried tomatoes on a couscous bed (that's what inspired me) and yogurt. And the company: we laughed all evening long. Avery simply dived in with the other girls (and one boy) and our host reported that he heard a lot of laughter there, too, and that they were discussing Shakespeare, which were their favorite plays. I think that's what happens with you get a bunch of eggheady girls together: they will all have their own interests to bring to the table, but they share a general love of reading. After dinner Sara gave us a tour of their house, the mirror image of ours, and then we all trooped next door and looked at OUR house. What a total pleasure to be brought into the circle, and to feel welcomed. We are so happy here.

Well, listen, some mind-bending noises are coming from the kitchen where Avery, Anna and Coco are making a snack for us. Did we want a snack? Is the cleaning lady having a thousand fits because not only was the art hanger here, but three children are wreaking havoc in her until-then pristine kitchen? It's better than computer games... and a small price to pay for an afternoon of fun.

Lastly, before I go I want to give you the recipe my reader Jack told me about, and has kindly provided. I haven't made it yet, and I think I'll substitute smoked trout for the haddock, but it sounds lovely. Give it a go.

Rick Stein’s Mild Potato Curry topped with Smoked Haddock and a Poached Egg
Serves 4

4 ounces undyed smoked haddock
2 teaspoons white wine vinegar
4 eggs

350g (12oz) waxy potatoes, peeled and cut into small cubes
2 tbsps vegetable oil (sunflower/rapeseed)
1/2 tsp (more?) yellow mustard seeds
1/2 tsp (more?) turmeric powder
100gms (4oz) onions finely chopped
2 tomatoes, peeled, deseeded, and diced
1 tbsp chopped coriander.
Maldon salt and freshly ground black pepper

Cook the potatoes in salted water for 6-7 minutes until just tender, drain. Meanwhile, heat the oil in the pan, add the yellow mustard seeds and cover the pan with a screen, while you stand back from the popping oil! When they pop, add the turmeric and onions and fry them until soft and lightly browned. Add the potatoes, Maldon salt, black pepper, and fry a couple of minutes
Add tomatoes, stir in coriander, set aside and keep warm.

Bring about 5cm (2 inches) of water to the boil in a shallow pan. Add the pieces of haddock, bring back to simmer and poach 4 mins. Lift out with a slotted spoon, cover and keep warm. At the same time bring another pan with 2 inches of water to a gentle simmer. Add the vinegar, break in the eggs (as will fit), and poach for three minutes. Lift out and drain on kitchen paper.

Serve potato curry on warm plates, remove the skin from the fish, place on top of the potatoes. Put the poached egg on top of the fish, and garnish with coriander.

Doesn't that sound tempting? I wish I had some right now.


04 June, 2008

the last bits of moving

Well, we did take a break from the whole annoying moving job to spend a day in Oxford with my dear friend Jo Ann, who shares my passion for Richard Armitage. This is only one of the long list of qualities that makes her a hilarious and energetic companion, though, so we managed to get through the whole afternoon without resorting to crush-talk, to the undisguised relief of my husband, child and visiting child Sophie. (She did come to lunch today, however, and once John went to run errands we were straight onto the computer, howling with laughter over the various fansites devoted to our man. A girl has to have some silly fun now and then.)

Spent the night and next day in Stanton, Gloucestershire, watching the girls ride, had high tea in Upper Slaughter, and as you see fed the ducks in Lower Slaughter. And then real life reared its ugly head again and we were back to the boxes and boxes of stuff in the new house. But you know what, we are so happy here that we don't even really mind any of the annoying things we do in service of the house, and of settling in. I think we protected ourselves while we were in the old flat, not thinking about it too much, how much we weren't suited to that house, how horrifying the rent was, but now that we're out I can tell you, Hammersmith is HEAVEN.

Real people live here! We see little boys bouncing footballs across the road to each other, mothers wheeling babies, neighbors bicycling around so frequently that I already recognize people (something that never happened in two and a half years in Mayfair). I am already great friends with my dry cleaner who suffered through removing all the cat hair from two sweaters upon which, I fear, the tabbies had been sleeping in my closet for, yes, two and a half years. Harry the dry cleaner, lately of Baghdad, the first Kurd I have ever met, and he treated me to a far more learned exposition on the political situation in Iraq than I have managed to glean from any recent newspapers. Imagine, an actual merchant who is a real person and doesn't mind a chat.

And the corner store guy knows now that I always have my own bag and he doesn't need to offer one to me. And there is an Irish butcher, and a halal butcher to choose from, but so far nowhere that I can buy basil. Hmm. I must succumb to Marks and Spencer because I am moved to make pesto for dinner. Oh, how I can cook in this kitchen! Gas stove, a total delight, and that grill? It is changing my life. AND a huge fridge and freezer with... drum roll please... an ICE MAKER! Let me never complain again, now that I have an ice maker and a dryer that is separate from my washing machine. Laundry had gone from being an absolute drudgery to quite a pleasant little task, and one that doesn't absorb my entire day as well as taking off all the varnish on the banister as it did in my old flat. Where else could I dry sheets and pillowcases? Ah well, we survived the walk-through in the old flat yesterday and it looks just fine, now that the carpet's been cleaned and the holes in the wall filled in and painted over. Whew.

It's so hard to believe that just three weeks ago, everything we owned was in an other postal code being lived with, and now we have almost completely settled in. Yesterday we hosted the homeowner's insurance appraiser, and he complimented us on our degree of being settled. All we're waiting for is to find a proper wardrobe and chest of drawers for Avery's room, so we can empty the last three boxes. Her room is so charming, set at the top of the house with her horsey rosettes strung along the ceiling and books everywhere. And our room? Airy, light, sunny, gorgeous. We look out onto a long row of grotty looking houses that are mostly flats, lived in by some very interesting looking people. And the street and garden are filled with birdsong.

At our Indian feast the other night, we let Tacy out into the garden and she went away. Don't know where, but she disappeared for a couple of hours. So I have just now ordered a collar and tag for her, with my phone number and her name on it. Just in case. Not that she has a mobile, but...

I'm a bit at loose ends because Avery's class is going to the Globe Theatre tonight to see "A Midsummer Night's Drea," and she's spending the intervening post-school hours at Anna's house to avoid the long commute there and back, both ways. We'll pick her up late tonight at the theatre, so I've got to come up with some Avery doesn't like, for dinner. But first I must tell you about two perfect new salads. My friend Olimpia in particular is looking for barbecue side dishes, and I can recommend these totally. The first one I invented, but the second one is the brainchild of the great Anglo-Indian chef Atul Kochhar, and boy can that man combine flavors to make you sing. And guess what? They're both chock-ful of super foods.

Chopped Spinach and Chickpea Salad
(serves four)

1 can chickpeas, drained
4 cups spinach leaves, somewhat tightly packed
1/2 cup toasted pine nuts
1 red onion, diced

3 tbsps olive oil
dash hot pepper oil
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
juice of 1 lemon
2 tbsps fresh coriander pesto (or basil pesto)
dash salt
1/2 tsp oregano

In several batches, carefully blitz the spinach leaves in the Cuisinart or Magimix, in short bursts of power. Don't let the leaves get mushy. Just pulse the power and take care to shift the leaves with a spatula occasionally if need me. You want the leaves chopped somewhere between coarse and fine, but not mushy. Combine all the ingredients and dressing and toss VERY well. Lovely!


Atul Kochhar's Warm Salad of Tenderstem Broccoli and Chickpeas
(serves four)

2 tbsps olive oil
1 tsp cumin seeds
2 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced very thin
1-2 small red chillies, deseeded and finely chopped
2 handfuls tenderstem broccoli, cut into whole florets with stems sliced diagonally in bite-size pieces
1 can chickpeas, drained
1 medium red onion, thickly sliced
1 medium red pepper, julienned
2 tbsps lime juice
sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
handful fresh coriander (cilantro)

Heat the oil in a skillet or wok and add the cumin seeds and garlic, cooking until the garlic is translucent but taking care not to brown it. Add the chillis and broccoli and cook until tender. Add the chickpeas, onion and red pepper and saute for 30 seconds. Toss with the lime juice and serve on a platter, topped by the coriander leaves. Very refreshing!


Now Atul says to serve his salad immediately, but I couldn't as I had guests to entertain and wanted to cook ahead of time. Room temperature was wonderful, although I did wait to add the coriander until just before serving.

Tonight is lamb chops because Avery's not here to complain about our cruelty to animals, plus steamed potatoes with pesto. And then tomorrow's my writing class and I've submitted a piece on Moroccan meatballs, about which I'm quite nervous. I'm afraid that if someone says, "I'm afraid I don't quite see the point of the story, combined with the recipe," I might just say, "Neither do I," and crawl under the desk. Such is the pressure of writing for the public!