05 July, 2008

it's all spinning out of control

Where on earth to begin?! I knew the last two weeks of school would be insane, but the reality was so much more out of control than I could ever have guessed by looking at my scary to-do list. Let's see, my mother in law arrived on Monday to kick off the festivities, and immediately found herself sucked into the miasma that is "our daughter is graduating to middle school, we're leaving for America in two weeks and my husband just got a job." I realize that I could write an entire blog post on the complications of any one of these little details, but such is life that I will barely be able to touch on them all, just to have a record of our lives, and then I'll have to move on to the next bit of insanity. First off I must tell you of my very successful first time cooking "pork belly," an inauspiciously named ingredient that results, nevertheless, in the glorious dish of what is essentially boneless pork ribs. Try it: it costs next to nothing and cooks itself. And it's RICH, as you can see.

Oven-Roasted Pork Belly
(allow about a 2-3-inch slab per person, but keep it whole for roasting)

pork belly
olive oil
garlic powder
fresh chopped or dried rosemary
salt and pepper

Yes, it's just that simple. Have the butcher (or you can do it) score deeply into the skin of the pork. Then line a baking dish with foil, and lay the pork belly in it, skin side up. Make a paste of the oil, garlic powder, rosemary, salt and pepper. I know, garlic powder sounds very... not good cooking, but real garlic will burn and turn bitter. Trust me.

Spread the paste into the scored slits of skin. Then roast uncovered at about 400 F (210 C) for two hours. Done and dusted.


Now, it's rich as I say. So have a nice, unctuous but ultimately ascetic side dish with it. I suggest:

Borlotti Bean Confit
(count on one can of beans for every two people, seriously)
(this serves four)

2 cans borlotti beans or about 4 cups dried and rehydrated)
1/2 cup olive oil
5 cloves garlic
1 large or 2 small red onions, diced
1 tbsp dried oregano
juice of 2 lemons
handful each chopped coriander (cilantro) and mint

Drain and rinse your beans in a colander and set aside to drain. Heat the olive oil in a large skillet and gently saute the garlic and onion, taking care not to burn the garlic. Now add all the beans and the oregano and stir till mixed. Pour half the lemon juice over and turn the heat down. This can cook, being stirred occasionally, for at least 45 minutes. At the very end, add the rest of the lemon juice and sprinkle with the coriander and mint. Perfect.


Each day of the last 10 or so has been full enough of events, surfeit of emotion, and micromanaging of schedules to give me something to think about for days. And yet they just kept coming. And getting more complicated by the hour. In a good way!

I think partly that's due to the inevitable adding of things ("yes, let's buy a whole foie gras and cook it three different ways, after picking Avery up at horseback riding when my writing class has just departed from lunch here of Morrocan meatballs and macaroni and cheese!"). Yes, it's true: I did cook my two writing-sample recipes for my classmates and we had a gorgeous time. Plus cucumber dill salad, watercress and rocket salad, and my friend Angela's donation of a superb Eton Mess. What's that, you ask? I will tell all. First of all, she greatly prefers Marks and Spencer's meringues to any other brand, much less homemade. Apparently it's to do with the sticky, gooey inside and crunchy outside. Never mind why, just do as she says.

Angela's Eton Mess
(serves 10-ish)

2 packets of M&S meringues, crushed in a freezer bag
4 punnets (about a pint-ish) of strawberries, cut into quarters (and save a few big ones for decoration at the end)

2 pints double cream, whipped until it is at a thickish consistency

Use quite a deep bowl and start layering: meringue, strawberries, cream, until you get to the top of the bowl.

I told you it was very easy to make!


The luncheon was lovely, but then we barely had time for any writing business, so I ended up deserting my fellow class members to hustle Rosemary off to meet Avery at the stable and watch her lesson. John was, meanwhile, racing around Marylebone collecting my special order of foie gras at the Ginger Pig and dishes suitable for the "foie gras creme brulee" I rashly planned to make. Out of whole cloth, as it were.

I can't give you any foie gras recipes for the simple reason that none of them turned out as I wished. The creme brulee itself was not foie gras-y enough (too much custard) and didn't set properly. And the slices I poached in a Hungarian sweet wine were... boring. The best bits? Scooped right out of the skillet as we all stood over the stove salivating! I will work on the recipes more and let you know. But we had fun.

Then it was onto the Form Six Leavers' party at the gorgeous house of one of Avery's classmates. John brought Avery and Julia straight from skating: not for us the cancellation of one activity just because it rang smack dab into another! I brought my Thai larb (cold chicken salad with minced Thai herbs), that lovely chickpea and broccolini salad I told you about with cumin seeds, and an enormous bowl of mixed berries. But everything was eclipsed by the WHOLE LAMB brought by a Moroccan family! I mean it, everything but the head. The hosts' black Lab was beside herself and had to be restrained with a severe lead, and finally taken for a walk! It was unbelievably juicy, tender and lovely. Every other dish was eclipsed, honestly. All the teachers were there, including the English and maths teachers who retired in January. So much fun to thank them all and get lots of lovely compliments on Avery's development from innumerate, inarticulate American dodo (well, they didn't put it QUITE like that) to accomplished English schoolgirl.

Saturday saw us at John Lewis shopping desperately for a bathing suit for Avery, for the upcoming Fourth of July birthday party of one of her classmates. No luck, but the Brasserie was simply LOVELY for lunch: the best fish and chips I've had in a long time, plus my own confit of duck and Rosemary's chicken Caesar salad. A real find, with glorious views of Cavendish Square.

Sunday, it must be told, was nothing but EATING. We dropped Avery off at the stable and then completely impromptu (the nicest way to do these things!) we simply sat down at an outside table at Angelus in the adjacent street and had a stupendous lunch: the coveted and inspiration (but ultimately secretive) foie gras creme brulee! And an interesting but, in Rosemary's and my final analysis odd, vanilla-marinated ceviche of salmon. Vanilla and fish? No, sorry. But the quality of the salmon, and the darling little dice of steamed carrots and celeriac underneath, made it all right.

Then we cooked all day. Rosemary is the ultimate companion in the kitchen: she does all the nasty little bits like chopping untold amounts of garlic and onion and making all the skins disappear into the rubbish bin before I even see them! And she is so enthusiastic! And so inspiring, with unquenchable joy in each dish. It was wonderful! I had invited Anna's family for a farewell (gulp) Indian feast in advance of their departure from London, and I put all my love for them into the dinner, I can tell you. Rosemary and I simply churned out one dish after another, and I must say that were all delicious, and easy if time-consuming to do. It was a replica of my Indian extravaganza for our old neighbors right after we moved here: a lovely chicken biryani (a layered rice and spice and veg and chicken dish), a saag paneer (its sauce turned rather too thick, but it was all right), potatoes sauteed in turmeric and peanut oil, and the simplest possible chicken curry: merely sauteed onion and garlic in sunflower oil, chunks of chicken, yellow peppers and eggplant, lots of curry powder fried in the oil, and finally coconut milk and yogurt whisked in, and all left to simmer. What a treat.

The evening did not, thankfully, feel like a wake (that was yet to come at the last day crying/hugging session). We all relaxed on the little terrace near the top of the house and spied on people, and quizzed Ashley, the ultimate teenager, about what Avery should shop for when she gets to America. Sadly I fear that no such enthusiasm for fashion commerce will visit Avery any time soon. Actually I'm not terribly sad about it: I'm sure it will change!

Listen, for the first time in living memory I am not cooking dinner, so I must go order a pizza. Heaven! But I've lots more to tell you in the saga of "Bring Plenty of Tissues: It's Going to be a Bumpy Goodbye"... We've still got the school play, Prize Day, the headmistress' leaving party and the Last Day to celebrate. And I will.

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