13 December, 2008

cauliflower and Cinderella

As usual, I'm in the position of explaining how two such disparate things can possibly be occupying my mind at the same time, but that is my life. It's been a nearly equally foodie and theatre sort of autumn for me, where it seems that every week I'm having the taste experience of a lifetime and also seeing some incomparable dramatic performance. And it won't slow down in January. I am applying for an Arvon Foundation fellowship (Arvon is the institution I hold entirely responsible for the dizzying experience of a week away food writing in October) which would, if I won it, mean another week away in March, and another the following January, plus a whole kitchenful of mentoring meetings with a published author in the year of 2009. And, we have tickets to both "War Horse" and "Twelfth Night" in the new year. So I have my work cut out to stay cutting-edge in my two loves, here in this marvellous city where my heart always beats a little faster than is good for it.

Cauliflower. I think I spared you the tale of my failed cauliflower soup, some weeks ago. I had been to The Botanist restaurant in Sloane Square and eaten the soup of my life: a perfect puree/veloute of cauliflower with diced scallops swimming under the surface, topped with tempura-fried florets and drizzled with truffle oil. Outrageous. And I came home filled with hubris and the firm intention of making the exact soup in my own kitchen. Well, pride goeth as they say and it was an unmitigated disaster. Sticky, greyish gold because of the homemade chicken stock I boiled the poor hapless cauliflower in... just AWFUL. I threw it away.

Well, on Thursday my novelist friend Jessica threw down the gauntlet and invited me to Texture, a restaurant in Portman Square with chef Aggi Sverrisson from the Manoir aux Quatr' Saisons running the show. "English with a Scandinavian flair" is the order of the day, although the only sign of such a fusion I saw was a singularly disgusting crunchy slice of some fish skin, offered with my sparkling water, tasting precisely of crunchy cat food (the salmon flavor). That was nearly the only wrong note of our lunch, however. "You have to try the cauliflower," Jessica baited me, "it's done something like five ways, with scallops, and one way is... that puree." Done.

But first we were given an amuse-bouche of diced Jerusalem artichoke, in a tiny cup, underneath which was a layer of chervil sorbet, and underneath that a mysterious creamy WARM custard. Neither of us could identify the central ingredient of the custard, and whatever answer my extremely authentically Scandinavian waiter gave, I could not understand it. I asked twice. No chance. There is such a thing as TOO authentic. But permeating the lot was a tiny hint of Perigord truffles, and there is nothing wrong with truffles in December. Lovely, unusual. Then we each had the winter vegetables with a celeriac infusion, and it was lovely. I hate to be compliant and say that the... textures of each vegetable were highly identified and subtle, and particular to each one (a completely different bite to the parsnip versus the morel mushroom versus the chicory), the name of the restaurant is entirely apposite.

Then came... the scallops and cauliflower. I salaam and say, "I'm not worthy, I'm not worthy," because the cleverness of the dish could not be denied. How do we feel about cleverness? If it is truly faintingly delicious, is clever acceptable? I think so. Let's see: two perfectly caramelized scallops, meltingly tender inside, and surrounded by: cauliflower puree, buttery beyond what I would have thought was the capacity of a vegetable to absorb butter. And then paper-thin slices of raw cauliflower dusted with fine black pepper. And then vinegar-marinated tiny florets. And... you knew it was coming... cauliflower foam. Now, here I knew I was done for. I hate foam. Full stop. It's spit. I cannot wait for the mania for spit on plates to fade, or at least lose its bubbles and dribble off the plate. But I was stymied in this case. The foam was delightful. Thick enough not to engage me too strongly with... spit, and subtly flavored with cauliflower, yet not a hint of acidity. Then, cleverest of all, cauliflower couscous. Someone, some poor person serving community service for points on his license, had separated the florets of the veg to its smallest common denominator. TINY tiny scraps, mixed with chopped hazelnuts and pumpkin seeds, quite lovely.

Somehow as we ate (and oohed and aahhed) we made a significant amount of progress in our ongoing discussion of writing, not writing, being criticised, hating being criticised, having writer's block, reading too much of other people's work... Jessica is a true professional as well as a formidable intellect, and, bless her, a New Yorker. I felt terribly homesick for that indefinable something (attitude, acerbic wit, twinkle in the eye) that is the New York spirit. It is very different to (see? in New York we say different "from") the London sort of spirit which can be a bit revelling in defeat. New Yorkers have undeniable spirit that can be expressed only in even mild expletives, and I miss it. No matter how long Jessica lives here, she will maintain it. I tend to cave to my surroundings, but I love it when I'm with it.

From Texture that day, I found myself at my London writing class yesterday for four hours, at which we ALL submitted work and were in fine fettle for criticism, both giving and receiving. The art of criticism is as complex as a recipe. There is absolutely no point, as far as I can see, in expressing criticism to ANY writer that amounts to, "I don't like your type of project," or "Your style doesn't resonate with me." Of course, a British expression of this reaction will not be so upfront as a New Yorker, or European might be. It will take the form of some phrase like "This could be so much better." A sort of backhanded, useless compliment that is in reality a formless slap. Much better is to try to understand what the person is trying to achieve, whether or not it's something you'll ultimately want to read, and THEN approach the text on the basis of its ultimate goal. And yesterday we worked hard on that, for each of the five of us. Among us we have a thinly veiled primary school memoir, an ecclesiastical cycle of moral stories, a novella of Mexican love and politics, a (perhaps) vision of Stoicism and obsessive-compulsive worrying, and a memoir with recipes. And we have all been able to find ways to read it ALL and offer helpful criticism. It's a gift, to be with these people every week.

What is "voice"? From Jessica to my writing class to my daughter, the prevailing opinion seems to be that it's inextricably linked to who you are. You can change your style of writing, or your "tone," but not your voice. Or if you do, you've defeated yourself, silenced yourself, killed yourself. I've managed, in the last few weeks, to change my voice in reaction to enormously painful criticism. NO MORE. I can't help my voice. I always sound the same, unless I sit down and try to kill it. Which I'm able to do, it turns out, but then I feel very sad. And my readers report sadness. So no more. Because if there isn't even a useful pelt to be had from the dead body of my voice, if it's all just garbage, it's not worth it in order to please an unpleasable body of readers. They can just read something else.

Which is not to say I don't welcome criticism! But I'm beginning, through tears and emotional bloodshed, to be able to tell the difference between criticism that runs alongside my project, cheering it on but saying, "Hey, adjust your stride," and criticism that places a giant tree branch in my path while insisting that falling down and bleeding is part of the process. Sorry, don't think so.

Then it was onto more theatre. It's a good thing that tickets to events are sitting on my desk, or waiting at a box office. Why? Because if I counted on merely following up on a vague plan to do something on a rainy Friday night after a gruelling writing class AND session at the ice rink, I'd never go out of the house. So off we were to Cinderella at the Lyric Hammersmith. Not for the faint of heart, I would have said, incredibly creative in its staging and use of no more than seven players, not a wasted physical gesture or prop, mystical and evocative Norwegian music. Avery's favorite bit: the fairy godmother is replaced by dozens of fluttering white pigeons, brought in on the hands of the players. And the interval happens just at the moment when she's about to go to the ball, and I won't spoil it for you, but the interval is... not quite what it seems at first! Go with the flow! Quite a crushworthy Prince in the lead, a certain Daniel Weyman, impossibly fragile and yet passionate, and then clearly a classically trained ballet dancer... heartbreaking and gorgeous. At the end, hundreds of white paper pigeons fluttered down from the ceiling... just gorgeous.

Well, today brought us to Notting Hill and Books for Cooks, the Spice Shop and Pedlars, trawling for Christmas presents. I was absurdly moved when the founder of Pedlars (such a clever and pleasing shop) said, "Your daughter has the most profound sense of style I've ever seen in a child! She could be a 1950s fashion designer, or a set designer, or... I just love it." "Well, I'm partial to her myself," I said, and he said, "Of course you are! I could look at her all day." Avery herself glowed when I told her. We managed to cross several things off our lists, and then head to an entirely buzz-killing and misguided trip to Westfield Shopping Centre in Shepherd's Bush. HATEFUL. The crowds of hideous, grasping people, the millions of energy-sapping lights decorating the mile-expanse of nasty exterior, and the miles of footsteps to go between where we ended up and where the car was parked. No more. Not us. SO NOT US.

But home for a fab dinner of my second go at foccacia. I could shout with triumph! And I can report that the second rising (meant to be a coddling 15 minutes in a warm place under a damp towel) can take place on a cold countertop for three hours covered with nothing, and no harm done! I also got brave and sprinkled grated Pecorino on top before baking, and combined fresh thyme, marjoram and rosemary all together: a delight. With this we enjoyed an old vegetarian favorite. Give it a try. Your house will smell like a proper Italian restaurant, and your heart will swell with pride.

Orrechiette ith Two Broccolis, Tomato and Pinenuts
(serves four)

1/2 pound dried orrechiette (or farfalle or another sort of stubby pasta)
1 tsp butter
1 tbsp olive oil
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 white onion, minced
1 tbsp Italian seasoning
1/2 cup pinenuts
1 soup-size can plum tomatoes
8 florets broccoli
8 stems tenderstem broccoli
1/2 cup grated Pecorino or Parmesan

Put water on to boil for the pasta. It will need to cook for about 12 minutes.

Heat butter and olive oil in a shallow skillet and cook garlic and onion till soft, then add Italian seasoning and mix well. Set aside while in a food processor or blender you mix the pinenuts and tomatoes till completely blended and a pleasing sort of reddish pink. Pour the mixture into the skillet with the garlic and onion and heat until bubbling, then turn off heat.

Steam the two broccolis until they smell good, and like broccoli. I can't explain it better than that: you'll know they're cooked (five minutes or so?) when they smell like you want to eat them.

When the pasta is cooked through, drain it nearly all the way and dump it into the skillet with the sauce, then throw in the two broccolis and toss all together. Serve with the cheese, and ENJOY.

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