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
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
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
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:
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.
Lentil Salad with Red Pepper and Onion, Pinenuts and Mint
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...