07 December, 2008
Oedipus and saltpetre (plus the Chicken Couple)
I'll begin with my poultry romance. I didn't bring them together in the hopes of creating a culinary costume drama, obviously, but some things just have their own energy. I wanted to buy just one whole chicken, in my lovely local Shepherd's Bush Market, plus a whole breast on the bone, to joint up and cook for us and Avery's swimming chum Emily (who is an occasional dilettante vegetarian and I had been advised was on a carniverous day). But the butcher said, "Cheaper for you to take the whole two birds, my love," so I did. I don't mind jointing the odd chicken or two, plus getting the backbones and such for stock. But when I brought these two home and lay them on my cutting board... well, the chemistry leaps right through the ethernet.
And they made a lovely baked chicken dish as WELL as a damn good stock.
Chicken aside, two words: Ralph Fiennes. I know he is a rat of the first order, when it comes to love affairs. First it was Alex Kingston who he famously left for the youth-challenged but still lovely Francesca Annis. Far be it from me to say that there isn't something in an older woman to charm a younger man. I have seen it happen. But then (we knew it would happen) he left Francesca for... I do not know. Someone very young, I fear, which means that in addition to being a serial philanderer, he's inconsistent as well.
Never mind. We saw "Oedipus" at the National on Friday and gasp, gasp. We took Avery because I felt that if the National said "twelve and over" they knew whereof they spoke, but I was a bit nervous nonetheless, a feeling that was underscored when we reached our seats and craned our necks to see the rest of the audience and she was, in fact, the ONLY child. Only. But in fact she was riveted from start to finish. Fiennes at times overreached the emotion needed to convey his misery, confusion, hysteria, I felt. He could have been considerably more restrained and yet have stimulated much the same feelings in the audience. But it was an intense, overwhelming theatrical experience, shored up by a business-suited Greek chorus, a fabulous Clare Higgins as Jocasta, and the appearance at the ultimate moment of four small children as his offspring. A jarring and frightening experience for the actors, I would have thought. "That was beautiful," Avery said as soon as the bows were taken. It was.
In the morning I stepped up to my culinary plate and faced up to 45 grams of... saltpetre. Have you ever heard of it? It's quite famous, or infamous, as a substance that has been administered to sex offenders in prison to dampen their sex drive. So naturally it was but the work of a moment for me to procure some from my local butcher to marinate my silverside of beef.
I am not making this up.
It's also a massively unstable ingredient in explosives, it turns out. So why did I want 45 grams of this substance? Because it's the essential component in producing top-quality "Spiced Beef," a la Richard Corrigan (one of my favorite chef-writers) by way of Rowley Leigh of Cafe Anglais, in a recipe in the weekend's FT. I am not exactly sure what role the saltpetre plays in the 10-day marination of my priceless cut of beef, but like a good girl I went straight to Mr Stenton. As I sidled up to the butcher counter, telltale pink pages of the Financial Times in my hand, he said, "This looks dangerous." Then he explained the history of saltpetre and the IRA, and said, "Give me two days. I've got to get onto Boots with my butcher's license, and then you can come collect it."
So I did. And I mixed it with a veritable mountain of Maldon salt, and pounded-up peppercorn, juniper berry and whole allspice. Rubbed it all over the beef, wrapped it in plastic, and there he reposes in my fridge, to be massaged every day or so until it's time to roast it, VERY slowly, place it under a plate on which are piled four tins of tomatoes, and then slice it VERY thin. Serve it with Orlando's straw potatoes in goose fat, I'm thinking. So if you can proffer your heart surgeon's certificate of good health, I'll invite you over for the finished product, ten days from now.
Tomorrow beckons an unbelievable culinary adventure for me. Would you believe I have lived for 43 years with never having had the first cooking lesson of any kind, at all? As much as I love the field, and activity, it seems very silly that I've come this far without any professional help. Well, that ends tomorrow morning when a certain "Kitchen Queen" arrives in my kitchen with two pasta makers to help me make: focaccia, fresh ravioli with four different fillings (among them pumpkin and sage, crab, lobster with mascarpone and Avery's request: spinach, ricotta and prosciutto). Plus a winter fruits tart. I am terribly, terribly excited. Reports to follow.
We are getting excited, on this side of the Atlantic, for our trip "home" for Christmas in Connecticut. Added to our holiday plans is a long-planned trip to Washington, D.C., for a hard-won behind-the-scenes tour of private bits of the White House. John's mom feels very strongly that Avery needs a shoring up of her American roots, and that the best way to accomplish this (or at least one way) is a visit to the nation's capital. This should be a thrill. Avery's first response to this news was to conjugate the word "Obama" into full-on Latin, so that "I Obama, You Obama, We Obama," and so on. And they say Latin is a dead language. But since our tour is organized by a major Republican much beloved by all of us, we'll wait for the Obama chant till January 21st. D.C., here we come.