08 September, 2008

from Lost Property to Chinatown

Is your garden full of these little guys? For that matter, is your house? Mine are. Yesterday Tacy leapt, from an apparently dead sleep, to capture a spider on the wall of the dining room and wolf it down. Yuck. But better than just seeing them crawl about. My friend Toni assures me it is the season, and they'll stop multiplying very soon. I seem to walk through the house and garden severing webs everywhere I go, and then have to wonder sickeningly if I'm carrying the web's creator in my hair. Tacy!

Well, I am coming to the realization that my very quiet and solitary house is my present, and my future. All those lovely months of having John at home, all the happy summer weeks of having at least Avery at home, then both of them at home, have given way to my current atmosphere of "now what?" And I have not been remiss in answering the question! I shook off my doldrums and joined... The Lost Property Ladies!

Now, I am going to tell you about this with the assurance that I have no intention of mentioning the name of Avery's school on this journal. At first I thought about just never mentioning anything that happens there, for fear of invading someone's privacy. But now I think that would make me crazy: the gaps in the story, the longing to share with someone how marvellous the place is. So I came up with the solution that as long as I don't divulge here what or where the school is, I can still express the wonderful details that are making us wander around lately thinking, "too good to be true, this Shangri-la..." Because it is. Too good to be true.

Last spring when I was feeling the upcoming sadness at leaving Avery's old school there was a meeting of new parents at her NEW school, inviting us all to volunteer for something, just to help out. And I was introduced to the head of "Lost Property," who I will call Mary. There was something warm and friendly about the way she held out her plate of walnut bread, and inquired eagerly about how excited my daughter was to start her new school, that made me ask, "Do Lost Property need any help?" To be clutched by the hand and told, "My dear, of course! And I will tell you something you don't know: Lost Property have a superb luncheon to kick off every term, and you can come. In September."

I nearly cried with gratitude! Somewhere to go! People to meet, and an occasional excuse to visit school and see what's what.

Well, the first luncheon could not have come at a more opportune time: just as my dear houseguests left me on a grey Friday morning, I realized I had not much time to get myself way down south to Putney where the luncheon was happening. And of course it rained, all the way there, and of course it turned out I had WAY underestimated the distance between the tube station and the home where the lunch was to be. With John's advice "Just take a cab" ringing in my ears, I slouched toward my destination, buying flowers for the hostess along the way, feeling sorry for myself. But not for long: the welcome of the other volunteers and the house itself made the whole day worthwhile. You could hardly get up the walk for the luxurious, overtowering trees, flowering shrubs and plants at your feet: they all bent under the rain and made you feel as if you were in a fairy story. Then I was greeted and given the task of setting one of the tables, and encountered in the dining room an enormous, fuzzy and wet Maine Coon cat! Perfect. I carried it around, looking into various rooms filled with ladies arranging a tray of lasagne, glasses of champagne, and, out in a magical conservatory positively dripping with grapes on their vines, I encountered a very friendly mother tossing a salad of her own design. I had discovered as I came in that the food contributions are on a rota, so I didn't have to feel guilty for bringing flowers instead.

This lady finished her task and we chatted about our children, and it was the first of many conversations I have had that go something like this: "Is your daughter enjoying school?" "Oh, she is absolutely BLOSSOMING! Thriving. How about yours?" "Just loves it." I know there will, someday, be something that is not wonderful about this school, but for right now I breathe a sigh every day of "thank goodness this all worked out." It feels like just the right place, and just the right group of people. I loved hearing the high flutey tones of lots of English ladies talking to each other, and the food? Gorgeous lasagne with spinach noodles, a Moroccan chicken dish with olives and preserved lemons, a lovely salad with mung beans, and very rich cheeses at the end. I had to tell my dear mother in law about the enormous tart, the size of a Wall Street Journal opened up, covered with... figs, under a shiny glaze.

So as the rain fell and the day got ever darker, we all exchanged ideas about the school, our own jobs, the schools we had come from, stories about siblings and the summer holidays. In short, what one writer I know has called "the comforting company of women." Quite so. Then we got down to business and listened to the joys of managing Lost Property: the girls who typically lose everything they bring to school every single day, the girls who come into the Lost Property office just to... shop! The girls who explain that they think they might have left a black sweater in the theatre block last March, is this it? We all signed up for our volunteer days. And would you believe who was there? Avery's new friend Izzy's mother, from up the street, and our neighbor a couple of doors down! "Kristen! Do you want a ride home?" Bliss.

Today in my email box I received one of the many messages I still get from Avery's old school in New York, announcing the celebration of the school building's 20th birthday! And you know what? I felt only a tinge of sadness, because already I feel quite welcome at the latest school, and that things will only get nicer.

It's nice living near to school for several reasons: while I am no longer allowed to walk her to school, I can still rescue her when things go pear-shaped, as the morning I found, in my phone voicemail, a message from her piano teacher from the evening before, announcing a meeting THAT DAY. And as I listened to it, my eyes alighted on Avery's locker keys, besides her empty breakfast plate. It was but the work of a moment to stuff the keys in my pocket, write a note to Avery about the piano teacher, and walk to school, where I braved the extremely intimidating lady in reception (although her eyes did twinkle as I chattered through my confusing message to Avery). She divested me of the envelope full of keys, note and pocket money, and said, "I imagine we'll be able to rescue the situation." I stammered, "Well, these first few weeks can be hard to manage, can't they?" For me if not for you, I realized as she merely smiled me out of the room.

And then too there's the fun of picking her up at the end of the day, which thankfully she still likes for me to do! We nearly always walk along with her friend Molly who lives just around the corner, and I get to hear about the magnificence of the lunch, the unfairness of some scheduling conflict, get a report on the crushworthy science teacher! "Like an attentuated James MacAvoy!" Avery diagnosed. I hope I get to meet this hunky paragon at some point. And then there was a funny morning when just as the front door closed behind Avery and her walk-along friend, I heard a taxi pull up and disgorge John and his luggage. "Run and catch her up to say hi, she just left!" I said, following him out. He ran and caught them up, and I waited on the corner for him to come back and let me in. And I waited. And waited. For heaven's sake, had he registered himself at school? Had a heart attack? Stopped for a full English breakfast? Our neighbors came by one by one and asked, "Just hanging out here on the corner, Kristen?" I laughed and said, "If I'm still here by the time you come home from work, maybe you'll let me in." Finally back John came, having stopped to catch up with a mother at school. Cozy.

And I have not been idle at my computer, although I've been rubbish at blogging. No, last week I was a good girl and went back over the blog, writing down every single recipe since I began writing in January 2006. And you know what: I have 220 recipes. Lots of them, of course, not particularly noteworthy, and some a bit repetitive, like how many variations of salmon in cream can there be? Or bean salad? But still, that strikes me as enough recipes to thoroughly dispose of any excuses for postponing REALLY writing this cookbook that's in my head. And we had the first meeting of our new writing class last week and ironed out our plans for structure, and listened to everyone's explanations of projects to be worked on. And our hostess's housekeeper fed us quite the most delicious cake I have ever, ever had. And you know how I am about sweets. She has kindly given me the recipe!

Fely's Banana and Apple Cake
(serves about 8 for tea)

1 1/2 cups plain flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
2 eggs
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup butter
1 cup sugar
1 cup mashed bananas
1 cup chopped apples
1 tbsp confectioner's sugar

Combine all dry ingredients. Cream butter and sugar, eggs and vanilla. Mix together dry and wet ingredients and add mashed banana and chopped apple. Bake at 180 c (350 f) for 45 minutes. Cool slightly and dust with sugar. Serve warm.


I imagine that given my child's delight in anything sweet and fruity, this cake would make the most welcome warm breakfast food. I think I'll try it this weekend.

So far, as far as the cookbook goes and my writing class, I've had just two chapters to contribute: macaroni and cheese, and Moroccan meatballs. So this week I worked on "Birthday Soup." It's all about vichyssoise, and boy I wish I had some right now. What I do have is a pot of chicken soup with garlic and little star noodles, in which I will poach some tiny little chicken meatballs later this afternoon. For some bizarre reason I woke up dreaming of such a soup, and then realized I had some random chicken parts in the freezer, plenty of carrots and celery, so why not?

We had our ritual September 11 anniversary dinner last week, which although a tradition, is changing. For instance, I don't think anyone mentioned September 11 all evening. We all knew that was why we were together, but... and new friends to add to the guest list! Dear Toni, the neighbor with several cats who threw herself heart and soul into the "Episode of the Missing Tacy" last spring, came along and brought another friend from our street, Alice, who also... has five cats. So there was an unusual air of appreciation for Tacy and Wimsey, the two who normally join us on social occasions. For a cat lover, I have a strangely high proportion of friends (and husbands, if it comes to that) who are either allergic (they say) or downright uninterested in cats. So it was a pleasure to talk cats! And for whatever reason, the chicken curry went down an absolute treat, so I shall give you the super simple recipe now. It is inexpensive and takes no time and very little effort, which makes the inevitable praise and second helpings all the more satisfying.

Perfect Party Chicken Curry
(serves 10 and then some)

3 tbsps vegetable oil
1 tbsp each: curry powder, ras el hanout, turmeric ground cumin, ground coriander
8 cloves garlic, minced
4 onions, minced
10 chicken breast fillets, cut in bite-size pieces
6 colored peppers: I mixed red, yellow and orange, cut in bite-size pieces
2 soup-size cans coconut milk
salt and pepper to taste

In a very large skillet or paella pan, heat the oil. Add the spices and cook until bubbling well. This step is very important. Do not think you can add the spices at any old time, although an adjustment of a bit more as you taste is all right. These spices release their flavors and at the same time cook off their bitterness but only if you cook them in the oil first.

Add the garlic, onions and chicken and cook, stirring well, until the chicken is nearly cooked. Add the peppers and stir until well-coated. Pour over the coconut milk, taking care to shake the unopened cans first to blend. Now, turn down the heat and bubble very low until the chicken is thoroughly cooked, about 10 minutes. Obviously, do not taste the sauce until this point! But now taste away and begin adding salt. It will require quite a bit. Add pepper to taste. Serve with steamed basmati rice. LOVELY.


The fragrance of this curry cooking as everyone opens the front door will make instant converts of anyone who says meekly, "I don't really like Indian cooking." And of course you can make it spicy if you are feeding people who like spicy: just as much chilli pepper flakes or powder as you like.

Well, Saturday found us dropping off Avery at her first acting class, and then Sunday to the stable to greet the horses after their summer lounging in Surrey on the farm. Sadly, old, old Bunny went to his reward over the summer. I think it is extremely healthy that the instructors and barn owner are open with the girls about ponies' dying, being put down by the vet when their time comes, and that it's not a tragedy or something they can't talk about. Very good. John and I had planned to have lunch at Angelus, the superb French place by the stable, but all the lovely outdoor tables were taken, and we simply could not sit inside on one of the rare fine London days, so we ended up at Chez Kristoff, on our corner, shivering because the sun was behind the building! Why was it imperative that we have lunch on that particular day? Because it was the 25th anniversary of our first date, that's why. There you go. And we had divine steak tartare and quite the best mussels mariniere AND the best frites! We will be back.

Monday I had a total adventure! Has it ever happened to you: that you had a perfectly good opportunity to have a friend, who happened to live next door to you, but you didn't take advantage of the chance until, say, the person decided to move to LA? That's what happened to me with my friend Janet. There she was, next door, hosting Tacy on regular visits through the living room windows, but did I ever do anything to make friends with her? No, not until she and her husband stopped by to tell us they were moving. Then for some reason we went out to lunch together, and over several dishes of unbearably spicy Thai food in Uxbridge Road, proceeded to make fast friends. Then she moved away. So when she emailed to say she was coming for a visit (apparently the car-yoga-sunshine culture of LA is making her crazy and in need of some traffic, grey skies and pessimism, as only London can offer), we immediately made a plan. To go to Chinatown! Where I had never been.

And you must. Go, that is. You would simply not believe you were in the Western world at all, at all. We met in Leicester Square, and then roamed all around Gerrard Street, Macclesfield Street, the quaintly named Horse and Dolphin Yard. Janet is an old habituee of the area and knew where the best place to get my sprouts would be, the finest sesame oil, the most exotic spicy bean sauces. My bags were so heavy! Thinking that her hotel would not appreciate her arriving with an entire deep-fried duckling, she let me do the honors on that one. "At least it's not oily at all," she laughed as the paper bag immediately soaked through, to be put into a plastic one. Still, even when I tied the top, it was quite a fragrant companion in the bus on the way home!

I bought garlic shoots, aged soy sauce the quality of balsamic vinegar, bags of rice and bean sprouts. Black bean sauce and chilli oil. We ended up starving at a fantastic restaurant called Haozhan, at 8 Gerrard Street, and I had my first tofu. And, I'm sorry to say, my last, although I think it was as good as tofu gets. Lightly fried, topped with a seared scallop and spinach paste and red caviar... I think if I was going to like tofu, that would have been the dish. Unfortunately the qualities I didn't like were the things that make it tofu. As in, slimy. Gooey. But I could see the point of the dish. More to the point for me was the light-as-a-feather softshell crabs, in a crunch cream-cracker batter. Oh, if I could produce THAT at home! But I never will, I know. And another scallop dish that I really could produce at home: a silky and light oyster sauce with sauteed scallops, asparagus tips and green onions. Go, you'll be glad to have a destination when you've shopped till you drop.

Her husband joined us for tea, and then we made one last pilgrimage to the Japan Centre in Piccadilly, where I bought the cutest thing: empty tea bags! For bouquet garni, in my Indian biryani. I have, I am ashamed to say, sacrificed several little tea handkerchiefs in the making of this dish, because the cloves stain the linen and I can never get it out. Now I have little disposable fillable tea bags. Happy! I also bought two different kinds of very thin-sliced beef, one called "shabushabu beef" and one called "sukiyai beef," although they look identical. I do not really know the difference, but my plan is, tomorrow evening, to marinate them in soy, sesame, garlic and ginger and then wrap them around asparagus tips, put them on skewers and grill them. Doesn't that sound nice?

Today I am forced to keep myself out of trouble and accomplishing things for even longer than usual: Thursdays are the coveted "Gymnastics and Trampoline After-School Club" days, and can you imagine anyone more deserving of a spot on an official trampoline club than Avery? Does everyone else spend all summer practicing? I'll be glad to get the report. Every day after school brings me a slightly more grownup, more articulate, more energetic person home with me: I'm astonished at the words she chooses to tell me things! Of course right now I can't think of any, that's what I get for failing to blog for so long. But I will try to remember and write some down, for "prosperity's sake," as my college roommate used to say.


payotbb said...

Absolutely wonderful about the school!! It sounds perfect, and it sounds as though Avery is perfect for it too. I am really so happy for you - what a great thing to know that things have fallen into place so well.

I am looking forward to your recipe index -- I love bean salad! And, I think we will try your Chinatown restaurant next time - we always end up at the same place because we aren't adventurous enough to try a new one. Final, pedantic comment is that shabu shabu beef is for boiling, while teriyaki beef is for grilling...

Kristen In London said...

Oh, thanks for the info on the beef. I wonder what the difference is in quality, because I ended up getting lazy and merely marinating the beef in soy and sesame and my husband grilled it, and while it was yummy, it was a bit tough in places. I would love to do the boiling bit, which a friend told me about at great length at the skating rink... sort of an Asian fondue?

payotbb said...

Yeah - they make a big huge deal of it in Japan, but I am honestly not a big fan. I think it's more like a really bland soup. I guess it's all about the freshness of the ingredients, but I agree that the beef is usually tough, and the vegetables they use are pretty flavorless. I am pretty sure that the broth is only water... But it's very expensive, and it's a good communal meal, so you get taken out for it ALL THE TIME in Japan and Taiwan (and lately, China, as they try to emulate extravagance from cultures far and wide).

Kristen In London said...

how cool it would be to have all those culinary experiences all round the world, although my husband always says that food in the context of work is rarely exciting...