28 March, 2008

Top Secret

Well, here's a turn-up for the books. Due to unforeseen circumstances of a friendly but potentially "I'm shutting you down" nature (I know, how can those two things be true at the same time? it's complicated) this blog is going to turn into...

DRUM ROLL PLEASE...

A by-invitation only experience for you, dear readers. So, if you'd like to be given the password, the secret handshake AND the cuddly toy, email me your email address at a special, super-secret email address that is:

kristen.blog.london@googlemail.com

I know, I know, it sounds insane. But truly, for the happiness of all concerned, it's the only way. After all, we can't have the WHOLE WORLD getting ahold of my recipe for pesto, now can we? Once I get your email addresses, I will add them to my list of invitation-only addresses which will then be able to get the blog.

I'll look forward to hearing from any and all, and this should take effect in about three days, unless you opted for the fizzy tablet in which case it should enter your bloodstream in about 15 minutes. See you there...

23 March, 2008

"pan-basting" if you like








































But first, before I tell you about my new approach to cooking (I know there's nothing new under the sun, but it's new to me), just look at our Easter. Snow! I ask you. I am a big fan of snow, but on Easter? It absolutely pelted down for the better part of the morning, even sticking on the grass in the garden for a bit. Insane. First we were caught in the hailstorm the day before, and now this. Poor Easter bunny. But our egg-dyeing was a huge success. As we found on our first Easter in this lovely land, there are no white hen's eggs to be found, at least I've never found any. Blue, green, pink and brown, but no white. And no egg dye, but we have long known a dirty little secret: just plain food colouring works a treat. The colours turn out so intense, as you can see, that they put white eggs and all those fancy dyeing kits to shame. We had a ball, but Avery's apron will never be the same. Oh, and you want white eggs? Gotta go for duck.

So, enough about unseasonable weather and the everlasting smell of post-Easter sulfur in the air, what I want to tell you about is my new cooking method. It's something I have seen on all the fancy cooking shows like Masterchef and Great British Menu (we are pathetically addicted to these programmes and it's turning Avery into quite the little food critic), but I'd never tried it myself. I have named this approach "pan-basting," because that's what you do. Now, normally when I cook from a skillet it's pretty boring. I heat up some oil or butter or a combination of both, stick the foodstuff in and let it cook. But listen to this: how about if you tip the skillet to one side now and then to gather up the oil, butter and cooking juices in a large spoon, and then pour it all over whatever you're cooking? If you do this constantly throughout the cooking process, and you don't just let your meat or chicken or fish sit there while all the basting liquid travels to the edges of your skillet into a wasteland of oblivion, the flavours are amazing! And it makes cooking more fun, as well, because there's something to do and you can watch and keep track of the juices accumulating and USE THEM.

I discovered this in the Cotswolds with a lovely pork tenderloin. The poor little thing looked so dry and lonely! And then I noticed all that lovely juice and olive oil, plus the chopped rosemary and grated lemon zest I'd marinated it in, accumulating at the edges of the skillet. So I poured in a dot of white wine and let the skillet deglaze, tipped the skillet, scooped up all the lovely glop, poured it over, and my life will never be the same. It's such a rich, celebratory method! Then, right at what I thought should be the end of cooking time, I decided that since it was only us, I'd cut into the fillet in the middle and just check, and lord have mercy, it was nowhere near done. So I rashly cut each half in half, giving me four tidy little pork logs, and proceeded with my basting, plus I stood each little log on its ends so they got seared and juicy too. Oh, it was a revelation. If I were willing to go whole hog on the butter, it would be even better, but for some misguided health reason, I kept it to olive oil.

Well, since then I've been "pan-basting" with reckless abandon. Salmon fillet? You bet, baste him with that lovely dill butter he's cooking in. Pour it all over the fillet, then turn it over and do the same again. Lovely! And perhaps the nicest experiment was this:

Pan-Basted Chicken Breasts with Prosciutto, Mozzarella and Spinach
(serves 4, with a bit left over, probably)

4 large chicken breasts, boneless and skinless (although skin might be nice)
2 balls buffalo mozzarella, sliced thick
8 slices prosciutto
2 handfuls baby spinach
1 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsps butter
1/2 pound button or chestnut mushrooms, quartered
sprinkle dried basil
sea salt
fresh-ground black pepper
8 toothpicks (or you could tie them up if you know how: I don't)

Lay the chicken breasts one at a time on your cutting board and flatten them out, pushing that nice little tender bit to the side but keeping it attached. Cover the surface of each breast with mozzarella slices, prosciutto and spinach leaves. Then roll it all up, or fold it, depending on how thick it is, and secure it with the toothpicks, folding any straggly bits in and catching as much as you can with the toothpicks. The idea is to keep as much mozzarella as possible inside the pocket, since the ham and spinach won't try to move.

Now heat your oil and butter in a large skillet and sprinkle in the basil, salt and pepper. When it's all sizzling and bubbling and lovely, place the breasts carefully in. Throw the mushroom quarters in as well. Cook the chicken on one side until it becomes opaque and white, no longer pink (about five minutes, perhaps). Turn and do the same on the other side. By this time some juices will have been released and turned into a delicious liquid with the oil and butter. Don't taste it, though! Too raw. Wait till it's thoroughly cooked before you taste it for salt. Tip the skillet and spoon up the juices in a soup spoon, and drizzle it over each breast in turn, continuing to tip the skillet when the spoon's empty.

What you'll find is that the mozzarella melts and some of it escapes into the cooking juice, which means you're pouring INTO and on top of the delicious pocket of chicken a complex ambrosia of oil, butter, cheese, basil, salt, pepper and chicken juices. Turn the pockets on their sides, too, and brown all over. It's hard to overcook this dish because the ham and cheese moisturise the chicken, so don't worry too much. Keep spooning those juices as often as you like. It's fun!

When you're sure the breasts are thoroughly cooked (you can verify this by looking at the bit of inside pocket that's visible, and make sure it's no longer pink at all), taste the cooking liquid and add salt or more pepper as needed. Finally, lift the breasts and mushrooms out carefully with tongs and just leave all that oil and butter fat behind: it's done its job. Lovely.

***********************

I'm devoted to this method now. It would be a wonderful way to cook a beef fillet, as that cut can run to dryness. A rack of lamb would be simply fabulous this way, with fresh chopped rosemary and lemon juice added to the oil or butter. Sadly, a by-product of our lovely Cotswolds holiday and visit to the Mecca of Baby Lambs has meant that Avery is no longer willing to countenance lamb as FOOD. But there will come her school holiday to Normandy next month and you can bet that hard-hearted John and I will be reaching for that rack. "Mummy, how CAN you? After you fed it with a bottle!" Needs must.

Right. We must run Avery over to her friend Sophie's house for a sleepover and tomorrow's matinee of "The Jersey Boys." I'm celebrating the only good thing about having her gone: eating things she doesn't like. It's crabcakes and that lovely scallop dish I told you about a bit ago, with beetroot and potatoes. We'll see if the first time making it was a fluke... I think I'll pan-baste them! And then I promise to stop talking about it. Seriously.

Oh, and I nearly forgot to tell you about the dessert Avery invented on Easter Sunday. We had an absolute ball cooking together, but I must confess: she's rubbish at washing up. I guess great chefs have people to do that sort of thing for them (mothers).

Avery's Strawberry Nests
(one per person!)


8 sheets puff pastry, cut a little larger than the size of your individual tart pan
3 tbsps melted butter
handful chocolate chips, melted
homemade strawberry whipped cream (recipe below)
2 strawberries, halved
1 tbsp raspberry coulis (recipe below)

Brush butter on each sheet of puff pastry in turn and pile them up. Then nestle them into the tart pan. Spread the bottom with melted chocolate, and fill up the tart with whipped cream. Arrange the strawberries on the cream and drizzle with coulis. Gorgeous!

Strawberry Whipped Cream

1/2 pint whipping cream
dash vanilla extract
2 tbsps sugar (less if you like)
3 strawberries, quartered

Place all the ingredients in your Magimix and whizz until the cream is whipped, taking care that you don't whip it too long and end up with strawberry butter!

Raspberry Coulis

1 pint raspberries
2 tbsps sugar
juice of 1/2 lemon

Simmer all ingredients in a small saucepan, pressing on the berries with a spoon. Cook down until liquidy, then pass through a sieve into a cup, to eliminate the seeds. Return to saucepan and cook down till reduced by about half.

******************

Enjoy!

21 March, 2008

Happy Easter Eve


















































I love Easter Eve. I love dyeing eggs and making a mess, and ever since Avery was two and a half, she's been an enthusiastic sidekick, donning her apron (at first a Hello Kitty specimen, but now she's graduated to plain white as befits the budding gastronome), and we used to put wine glasses in the sink, filled with dye, and let her dip to her heart's content, secure in the knowledge that any drips would run down the drain. I'm happy to report that at age 11 1/2, she's still very happy to spend the day with her mother and father dyeing eggs. "Whoa, this blue is too intense. Let's add some red and dilute it, and see if we get lavender..."

We are completely caught up this weekend with, if you can believe it, politics. Now mind you, I haven't been truly political since graduate school when I campaigned for Dukakis (lord, that's a long time ago now), but I've always been happily Democrat. My beloved has, by contrast, always been a stalwart Republican. We always voted anyway, knowing that we cancelled each other out. One has to vote, after all. Well, since listening to the Barack Obama speech on race issues in America, I am pleased to say that we are united for the first time ever. Any presidential candidate who can combine his intellect and peace-loving nature with the ability to use "complicity" in a sentence (and I bet he can spell it too) has my vote, and amazingly, John's as well. To Avery's chagrin, we brought her in to watch the speech, and she was soon transfixed. "How can anyone not see the sense and the goodness in this speech?" I asked rhetorically. "Well, Mommy, if there weren't some of those sad people out there, he wouldn't have to make the speech to begin with." It takes the wisdom of a child.

Which led to a very interesting discussion of the "I Have a Dream" speech and the Gettysburg address. Did everyone listening to those speeches stand up and applaud? No, sadly, much as we all wish to think so now, and to revere these people, they were shot dead. Something to learn about what sounds like absolute received wisdom: for some people listening, it takes awhile.

But enough about serious things. We went out this afternoon for a nice brisk walk and found ourselves, in the Marylebone High Street, in a HAILSTORM! Something between hail and snow, but at the end of March? Come on! Our heads lowered, we pressed on to buy our Easter weekend's worth of food, and by the time we got home, blue skies prevailed. But as my friend Becky reported later, it didn't last long. These storms time themselves for the moments one is out of doors and unprotected. Ick!

I must tell you about these last photos from our Cotswolds holiday: the Cotwsold Farm Park! You must all go, right away. Situated just between Stowe and Chipping Campden, it's a nirvana filled with baby everything you might want to hold: chicks (you can't even see anything but a tiny black head in my hands!), lambs, goats, guinea pigs, bunnies, you name it. We were able to see a lamb being born, believe it or not, and then the guys brought over a lamb needing a mother and covered it in the birth fluid and voila: the mother adopted it. I felt quite woefully inadequate in my fussing over Avery's birth lo these many years ago: the sheep said nothing! Out in the acres beyond the birthing pen there were Exmoor ponies, pigs, goats with dreadlocks, bison and sheep and ducks and peacocks, a heaven of animals. Do go, you'll be so glad you did.

Before I go I must tell you about a lovely tart I made for our lunch today, in between madly juicing beetroot, celery, ginger, carrot and pear for breakfast, and dyeing eggs. Here goes:

Goats Cheese and Parma Ham Tart
(serves at least 6)


1 full package short pastry, squeezed and prodded to fit a 12-inch tart pan
2 tbsps butter
2 shallots, sliced thin
8 button mushrooms, chopped
1 tsp dried thyme
6 slices Parma Ham, torn up into pieces
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup single cream
100 grams goats cheese
grated parmesan cheese to sprinkle

This is so heavenly simple. Just saute the shallots and mushrooms in the butter and drain them on kitchen paper. Then cover the bottom of the tart crust with the goats cheese and the Parma ham. Beat the eggs with the cream. Pour them over the tart and top with parmesan cheese, and bake at 350 degrees for 15 minutes or until the tart looks cooked and the top golden brown. Delicious hot or cold, as Avery and John can tell you, having eaten slices both ways all afternoon.

**************

Tomorrow, once the Easter Bunny has come and gone, I shall tell you about two things: my new cooking method for all meats and fishes done in a skillet, and Avery's invented strawberry tart. Both are worth a look. In the meantime, set out those carrots for the bunny, and... wait.

20 March, 2008

nothing like the Cotswolds






















































We're back! All I can say is, three days in Chipping Campden, in our old familiar places, were not enough. Actually it wasn't even that long. We arrived around 4 in the afternoon on Monday and left first thing this morning. But it was long enough for us to remember everything we adore about that part of the world, and the East Banqueting House in particular. I know, it seems all I do is rave about the Landmark Trust, but if I get even one of you to cancel your trip to Mombasa or Lucerne or wherever, and decide to explore the British countryside from the vantage point of one of these irreplaceable houses, I will consider my time here well worth it. We must support these people! Trust me, you will find that the magic, the history, the majestic grandeur, and the coziness, well worth the lack of adequate hot water at times! Avery read gleefully in the logbook (all visitors are invited to write up an account of their stay) my 1991 entry, waxing lyrical about everything except... not enough hot water. But it's worth it!

Plus, it's been an absolute pleasure for us while we've lived in London to spend most of our holidays exploring our adopted land, whether it's the incredible green of Ireland, the endless fields of sheep in Wales, the wild ponies of Exmoor (guess who voted for THAT holiday) or the golden stone of the Cotswolds. Goodness, I sound like a tour guide. But I do love this country. And every pound you spend staying in these places goes toward rescuing more derelict and deserving buildings.

So on our little errand of giving (otherwise known as our holiday), we headed out of town on Monday afternoon with our tiny Mini COMPLETELY filled (Avery could not move, and we had to lift up a suitcase in order for her to buckle and unbuckle her seatbelt, poor child) with the clobber necessary for even a brief stay away from home: plenty of candles for the dining room table, a handblender (naturally, for the cream of mushroom soup), a very amusing variety of hot water bottles, a giant dish of macaroni and cheese, a huge (but as it turned out, insufficient) stack of books, Blunny boots for those endless hikes we seem to find ourselves on. Gosh that's a small car. Forget clothing! We just resign ourselves to looking the same every day, pretty much. Oh, and add to the list all the riding gear with which Avery must travel to nearly all destinations. Once we filled the car so full, she had to wear her riding helmet. There wasn't room anywhere but on her head for that last item.

Our approach to Chipping Campden and the East Banqueting House was filled with nostalgia. We have been coming to that village, to stay in that house, on and off since 1990, by ourselves, with John's parents, before and after Avery. And it's always the same. A simply magnificent building, one of two banqueting houses flanking the original manor house that was burned down sometime in the 17th century. And sheep grazing everywhere! To our chagrin we realised we were too early for lambing season (at least for OUR sheep, but we found some more who were on our schedule, but more on that later). We retrieved the two wheelbarrows from their shed at the driveway and trundled all our bits and pieces along the subtle little mowed path across the sheep field, up to the house, and to settle in. Macaroni and cheese in the oven, red peppers simmering on the hob, and bob's your uncle. It's worth posting the macaroni and cheese recipe again, because it's just that good, if I do say so myself. It's currently Avery's favorite meal, and it's got everything to recommend it: good British cheese so you get your calcium, breadcrumbs that you thriftily produced yourself with your stale baguette and Magimix, a hint of nutmeg: perfect. And don't worry that this doesn't match my previous mac and cheese recipes: I do it a little differently every time. You can too.

Macaroni and Cheese
(serves 8, and the leftovers are superb)

1 lb elbow or other traditional macaroni shape, cooked and drained
4 tbsps butter
3 tbsps flour
1 pint whole milk, the best you can get (Jersey is my favourite)
1 1/2 lbs British cheeses (Wensleydale, Cheddar, Double Gloucester, anything!)
4 slices good old Dairylea, for creaminess
pinch nutmeg
pinch or two Maldon sea salt
pinch white pepper (unless you don't mind the black pepper look)
1/2 cup fresh breadcrumbs
1/2 parmesan cheese, grated

Now, make a roux with your butter and flour, melted nicely and bubbly, but not browned. Whisk in (the whisk is very important!) the milk and bring to a near-bubbling point, then add the cheeses, cut in cubes. As near as you can, whisk constantly until the cheese is melted, then add the seasonings and check to see that it's perfect.

Nonstick-spray a large glass baking dish (we like our macaroni and cheese deep and round, but some people like it shallow and rectangular) and throw in the cooked noodles. Pour over the cheese sauce and stir thoroughly to make sure that all the noodles are submerged and their little air bubbles released. Now, you can travel to the Cotswolds with this dish, covered in aluminium, and it will be fine for hours. When you're 45 minutes away from wanting to eat, bake it in a medium oven (375-ish) and there you go. With a couple of bangers on the side and a sauteed colourful veg or two (broccolini, peppers, asparagus, what you want is colour), you're good to go.

******************

Evening saw us marching around the grounds, investigating the rabbit warrens where we always leave a little something (they don't like tomatoes, it turns out), watching the sunset light up the exquisite leaded windows facing west (and the West Banqueting House that's under renovation right now, no doubt financed by our series of holidays this year!). The sheep munched happily, some on their elbows, which completely cracked Avery up. One brown sheep! Just one.

Tuesday found us off to the nearby village of Stanton, home to Jill Carenza's riding establishment where Avery has been put, over the years, through tougher paces than at any other riding school she's tried (and Lord knows we've tried MANY). At first we were slightly miffed that Avery was not being taught by Jill herself, who I'd specifically asked for on the telephone, but it soon became apparent that whoever Anna the Instructor was, she was SERIOUS business. Big jumps! On a darling pony called Gypsy, with a rear end like an ottoman (how Avery hates it when I say that, but it screamed Ralph Lauren Home) and a heavenly little face. John and I kept thinking about the number of times Avery's grandfather leaned on the same fence we were leaning on, proudly saying over and over, "She has such a good seat. Look at that straight back," and on and on. The joy he took in her, and the pleasure she gave him, comforted us a bit, but not enough to make up for the loss. But honestly, what more can you do than provide a beloved grandfather with chances to enjoy his granddaughter? The fact that it cannot last forever seems almost impossible to believe. But her grandmother will be the first to smile at any picture of Avery on a pony and remember the times we all stood at the fence together, in totally fatuous admiration of Avery.

Lord, it was cold! But we couldn't say so, because Avery was pink-cheeked with exertion and bravery. Eight jumps in a course, and they got progressively higher as the hour went on. For whatever reason, as much of a worrier as I am, I don't really fret when she's riding. I think it's because after all the gazillions of hours I've put in hanging on a fence watching her, I have faith in her knowledge of her skills. She's the least reckless of children, and no matter how often she falls, she gets back up fearlessly. Can I tell you how I did fret, however, when I arrived to collect her at her London stable last week to be regaled with stories of how her pony ROLLED OVER with her on his back? Not a funny story. "I managed to get off before he actually crushed me," she said nonchalantly. Well, I guess that's SOMETHING.

Listen, I must go produce dinner. Tonight's going to be chicken fillets stuffed with parma ham, mozzarella and spinach. No recipe, because that's all it is! Just stuff them, toothpick them, and saute in olive oil with some oregano thrown in. I'll be back soon, though, with more stories from the Cotswolds. Now book your holiday, I mean it.

16 March, 2008

paprika wins on Sunday



















Goodness, I often feel that too much is going on to absorb without just falling down. The latest is that Avery was given an envelope from her acting school with a million forms to fill out as to her eye colour ("green-gray," "blue-brown," who could say?) and teeth quality ("suitable for toothpase advert"? not really), and skin tone ("fair" or "golden fair" or "milky fair"? couldn't possibly say). Heavens. So we filled out the forms as best we could and got her photographed as for a passport, and then began the preparations for the... audition DVD. Anything further I ever have to hear about "Princess Esme and her abandonment on the island awaiting rescue" will be too much, too soon. Maybe this stage mother thing is not for me.

Importantly, tomorrow we leave for three days in the Cotswolds, in a Landmark Trust house that we've stayed in many, many times, from our days as newlyweds lo these nearly 20 years ago, to just a few years ago on our "shall we move to London" trip with Avery. What will bring tears to all our eyes will be our memories of Grandpa Jack in that house, on those grounds, tramping about in his sturdy walking boots, helping me track sheep I might hug, looking for the proper footpath and carefully observing the kissing gates with my mother in law. How we wish either of them we were with us tomorrow. The memories of the meals cooked and eaten, the baths negotiated and hot water doled out ("Just once: if you could think of me FIRST!" being our favourite holiday legend ever), the lambs petted and the rabbits lured with vegetable remains, the trawling through Chipping Campden antique shops and butcher stalls, the cocktails drunk by a small but valiant fireside. It will be so wonderful and yet so difficult at the same time. That's the point of memories, I guess: to comfort you and also tempt you. To go back...

But we don't really want to! Tonight was a lovely evening with Becky and her girls: she brought them all, two plus our one, filthy from the stable, and her own perfect teenager, to have dinner. Becky brought her fabulous but by no means diet "Cheesy Potatoes," which I complemented with my own by no means diet:

Chicken With Pojarski Sauce (adapted from a terribly complex recipe from a 1949 New York Times)
(serves eight)

4 tbsps butter
3 tbsps flour
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium onion, minced
2 tbsps sweet Hungarian paprika (NOT smoked, too strong)
2 tsps dried thyme leaves (or 1 tsp fresh thyme)
8 chicken breast fillets, cubed
1/2 cup brandy
1 cup chicken stock
1 1/2 cups sour cream
salt to taste

Melt butter in heavy saucepan and add flour. Stir and cook until frothy but not brown. Add garlic and onion and cook over low heat until soft. Add paprika and thyme and brandy and stir until thick. Add chicken breast chunks and stir until chicken is coated thoroughly. Cook until chicken is no longer pink and remove chicken to a resting bowl.

Into the stockpot, pour in chicken stock and sour cream, whisk thoroughly and simmer for 25 minutes. Puree with a blending stick (a handheld pulveriser). Add chicken chunks and simmer while you prepare the side dish (in case you're not fortunate enough to have Becky bring her cheesy potatoes): rice, mashed potatoes or noodles, and a nice colorful vegetable (broccoli, beets or red peppers) because it is a pale dish on its own.

*************

With this bounty we had broccolini with asparagus sauteed in olive oil with sea salt, a fruit salad of raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, pineapple ("guess why?" I teased Anna, and she said "because it's my favourite?") and bananas, and Becky's special dessert of peanut butter Rice Krispies treats with chocolate icing. A fantastic evening of just being together: the teenager, so charming and grownup, yet vulnerable, the middle girls being sweet to the little one, and just appreciating being together. How we missed Mark. He'll be home soon! In the meantime, have a great week, everyone, while we slosh through Oxfordshire...

13 March, 2008

being green can be fun




























Yes, I've been trying really hard to tuck a reusable shopping bag in the bottom of my handbag, so I don't have to take any plastic bags at the supermarket or farmer's market, even spur of the moment. And, much more fun but almost equally green, are these milk bags from Waitrose. You buy a little plastic jug one time, and then you bring home these darling little bags and slip it into the jug, and voila! It's apparently 75% less packaging than a carton or plastic bottle. And the milk tastes lovely as well.

We're off to Avery's skating lesson, then she'll change her clothes lightning fast in the car and we'll race to Marylebone to get her friend Sally, and then race to the Globe to see "Much Ado About Nothing," armed with a picnic of sandwiches: Parma ham with Double Gloucester cheese, homemade chicken salad with tarragon and red onion, and salt beef with mustard. Plus pears and tomatoes, should be nice. I'm trying to picture if we will have time once we get to the theatre to sit out and eat, or if we should have a nosh in the car. I can't believe we've lived here for two years and have never been to the Globe. Except to visit it, closed for the season, when John's Shakespeare-mad lovely sister came and insisted that we go! We have just standing tickets, so fingers crossed the little sprouts with us will be able to see anything but people's trouser pockets.

Theatre is much on the lips of our household today, because Avery had an audition this afternoon at an acting agency and was not only taken on as a client, but they already have a role they are putting her up for! I'll tell you more when I know, but suffice to say she is chuffed to bits. Gobsmacked! Tomorrow morning we must fill out reams of paperwork, drop it off at the agency, pick up the script, videotape her at home reading the part of the princess (naturally) while one of us reads the other part, and race the tape over to them. Apparently casting is well underway but they feel she's right for the part, so they're going to get her in under the wire. Exciting! I told her I was actually very pleased that is such a very, very bad violin player. "Why is that, Mommy?" "Because as Lord Peter Wimsey said to Bunter about bell-ringing, 'I'm always pleased to find there's something you CAN'T do."

Right, off we go for our whirlwind of activities. TGIF!

12 March, 2008

Cafe Anglais (and Ye Olde English Upholsterer)














Yes, I've tried a new restaurant, believe it or not! I know, I can get in such a rut with the few restaurants I feel loyal to, but unfortunately today's lunch, while very nice, just confirmed my curmudgeonly attitude toward most restaurants. Let me explain.

My friend Gigi and I met up today at the much-hyped Cafe Anglais in Bayswater for a gossipy lunch out. I think I am not alone in preferring lunch out to dinner out, almost every time. Why? Well, look at it this way: you don't need a babysitter because your child is gainfully employed at school, you tend to eat less at lunch and so feel less guilty, you're (at least I'm) not tremendously tempted to drink a cocktail or wine as you would be at dinner, so you spend a lot less, and maybe my favourite bit, you can walk the longish walk home afterward and work off some of your gluttony. Plus most of my girlfriends are not really interested in girls' dinners out, since most of them hardly ever see their husbands (not a problem in my 24/7 state of wedded bliss). It makes me laugh to remember something my GP said when John quit his job. "My husband can never retire. I have told him, I married you for life, but not for lunch."

Well, 29 days out of 30 or so I'm happy to have lunch with my beloved, but then there comes a day when it's time for a spot of girlfriend time. And Gigi's one of my favourite lunchtime companions. Whether it's kvelling about our remarkable daughters (hers at age five is an absolute reading prodigy), catching each other up on films and television series that each other simply has to see, or dissecting the food, we always have fun. And as you well know, I'm no intellectual snob, but there's something to be said for raw intelligence in a lunch companion. She's just clever. We had a great time.

However... the food. It was all nice, I don't want to mislead you. The menu is interestingly constructed: lots and lots of hors d'oeuvres each priced at 3 pounds, so it was tempting to order about six of them. Then a number of fish choices, lots of gamey roast options, and a surprisingly large selection of side vegetables. I was attracted by all the various potato options: Bordelaise, dauphinoise, Anna. But I didn't really want the roast that they would naturally accompany, and I didn't want to look like a freak and order three potato dishes and nothing else. So I opted for two hors d'oeuvres (anchovy toast soldiers with a pot of parmesan custard, and cubed yellowtail tuna with a dot of wasabi and soy) and a terrine de foie gras. And here was my problem. Everything was nice, but I could have made it all at home, and greatly enjoyed doing it. And I'm no rocket scientist when it comes to cooking. I just find increasingly that all I want to eat out at a restaurant is something I couldn't conceivably pull off at home. Asian deep-fried softshell crabs, a real Indian saag paneer, creme brulee de foie gras.

That being said, it's a lovely, lovely place. It's located in what was, unbelievably, a McDonald's in the iconic Whiteley's department store building in Queensway and the ambience is very chic and yet peaceful. We were the first diners today, and I was quite skeptical at the notion that all 170 chairs would ever be filled, but they were. So go along, do, and bring a large appetite because then you can order up one of the roast entrees and have all those potato side dishes, and report back to me.

Let's see, today brought us a visit from arguably the most English person I have yet met here in our adopted land. As you may remember, crazy Keechie has caused an awful lot of family strife, to say nothing of hundreds of dollars in dry cleaning, by her inclination to use the furniture as a litter box when she gets stressed. And ironically, while she used to get stressed by people, now she apparently gets stressed by... no people. As in when we try to go away. Over the summer she had an absolute field day with the sofa cushion, and at Christmas with the lovely bench covered in suiting fabric. This has not made her popular with her father who is always looking for ways to reduce the number of cats in his household. At any rate, for months now we have been trying to find an upholsterer, and actually did find one, who took our sofa cushion and then apparently went into the witness protection program, for he's never been seen or heard from again. I just can't imagine that the sudden acquisition of one very smelly sofa cushion would drive him from his home and business, but he never answers phone calls or the bell if we visit him. Fair enough, by now I don't think we want the blasted thing back.

My friend Susan is a decorating marvel, with a truly deserving house, and so I turned to her. And up surfaced her little man today, one C.H Frost of Abingdon Road, with a pullover AND an ancient suit jacket (but not the suit trousers to go with it, you understand), a very conspicuous hearing aid and a wonderful turn of phrase that took me right back to, oh, say 1939? Well, it took me there, if not BACK. "Oy, I'm a mean man myself, sir, not wanting to spend other people's money. But you'll get every farthing's worth from a good fabric," disregarding the disappearance of this currency from the realm. Shall we have to pay him in shillings?

And when his mobile phone rang, "If you'll excuse me, sir and madam..." and then when he finished his conversation, "Now I don't 'old with these things as a general rule, because people can ring you any time. Mind you, there was a day when I was a young man when a client called me on Christmas Day! Christmas Day! People will take liberties, they will take liberties." He caressed our sofa and admired its proportions, albeit cushionless, and asked if we'd like the material on the arms replaced by the material under the cushion. "Just as well use it, since folks won't be seeing it, 'idden as you might say it is under there." Now that's common sense! John and I felt that we were lying safely in the lap of competence and frugality, and he went away with assurances that he would be back soon with samples for us to choose from. Whew. I don't even care about the cushions: I feel we got our money's worth just to meet him. I do love elderly English gentlemen.

Well, homework beckons. I can't make the last class next week, so I've got to produce my writing samples for the final now, as well as tomorrow's bit. Get this exercise: first you choose a neighbor, someone you know but not well, and list his or her salient qualities. Then you make a separate list of people you know who have had "bombs" in their lives. That is, events that define them, that change their lives. Then you have to give one of those "bombs" to your neighbor and write up the moments before the "bomb" and after. It's so difficult! I can describe my neighbor (I chose Janet who borrows Tacy) with no difficulty, and I can think of any number of people I know who have had "bombs," but somehow the assignment to combine them is totally throwing me. As well, why do I have no problem producing thousands of words for this blog, but the necessity of thousands of words for my homework is so daunting? I think it's the fictional aspect of it. Also it's the dreaded adage, "Show, don't tell" that I find completely impossible. I have to tell! Don't know how to show. But I must buckle down. It's very hard to turn my attention to fictional matters when real life is so... interesting!

08 March, 2008

Scallops Three Ways: and one triumph

















Well, Friday night saw us sans Fifi as she went swanning off to see "Much Ado About Nothing" with Julia's family so, naturally I took the opportunity to cook something she doesn't like. Now I know, normal women would take the opportunity to go OUT to dinner, but honestly, restaurant prices are so astronomical in this adopted town of mine that it's a bit of a buzzkill, frankly, getting the bill. Whereas for around 25 pounds for even the most expensive ingredients, I can cook something really delicious, and anyway it's fun to experiment. I must say, however, that the things she doesn't like are dwindling to pretty much: seafood. No shrimp, no crabmeat, no scallops or lobster or mussels. Which limits the choices. That being said...

I'd had my gentle mandate from my beloved about his wish for "scallops three ways," and whereas two of the ways were old, tried and true ways I led you to at the end of my last post (with a creme fraiche and single malt Scotch sauce, and the ever-delicious Coquilles Saint Jacques Gratinee), I decided to go all out on the third and try to recreate the fabulous starter at my new favourite restaurant, Angelus near Avery's stable. The lunch we had there the day we got her school results will go down in my memory as one of the most delicious and celebratory meals ever. Yum yum. And you know what? My attempt was more than successful! I added beetroot because I love it. And it was all a lovely combination, plus I had a really playful time getting the presentation just right, and making it really pretty. I wish I had taken a photo but I did not. Next time!

Warm Scallop Salad with Beetroot and Charlotte Potatoes
(serves two as a starter)


1 tbsp gentle-flavoured oil (not olive)
6 extra-large king scallops, roe removed
2 large beetroots, roasted and peeled
2-3 Charlotte potatoes, peeled and steamed
2 handfuls fresh rocket

dressing for rocket: (shake this up in a jar)
3 parts olive oil to 1 part white wine vinegar
dash lemon juice
salt and fresh pepper

sauce for scallops: (you can whisk this in a teacup)
2 tbsps butter, melted
good pinch Aleppo pepper flakes

handful chives, snipped

Get a heavy skillet very hot and add the oil. When the oil is hot, place the scallops in carefully. Let cook until browned on one side (about 2 minutes) then turn carefully and brown the other side for 2 minutes. Remove from skillet to a waiting cutting board and slice them each in half from side to side (not from top to bottom, if that makes sense). Now for the assembly.

If you are lucky enough to have a little metal ring about the size of a scallop, get it out of that drawer where you threw it and wash it. Then press it down on the peeled beetroots and peeled potatoes to make cylinders of them (you can save the rest of the beets and potatoes, cut them up and toss them with a little dressing for a salad next day). Slice the cylinders of beetroot and potato until you have 12 slices of each. Divide up all your sliced things between the two plates. Now, you can choose: either stack them on top of each other in four piles, or layer them around the edge of a white plate. Then place a handful of dressed rocket in the center of each plate and drizzle the melted butter and Aleppo pepper over the scallops, beets and potatoes. Scatter the snipped chives over all and VOILA!

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I am a huge fan of this lovely salad now. It has everything: red, green, white, soft scallops, crunchy rocket, refreshing beet, relaxing potato. The peppery butter (or is it buttery pepper?) goes beautifully with the salad dressing, so every bite is a perfect combination of sweet, spicy gorgeousness. And did you know how good all these ingredients are for you? Well, you know beetroot is a superfood, and scallops themselves are a dream as far as nutrition goes; low in all the bad stuff and high in the good.

Tomorrow I'll tell you about the nice Indian chicken dish I made last night, with mushrooms and cashews and yogurt. But right now I have three filthy, cold, wet and hungry little equestrians in my sitting room demanding popcorn. I must fly. Enjoy your Sunday!

05 March, 2008

All's Well That ... (well, you know the rest)



















Well, we've been in a bit of a tizzy this week, although things have calmed down now. On Monday night, in the wee hours, Avery became very ill and by the morning had developed a really frighteningly high temperature, nearly 40 degrees (that's nearly 105, to you at home). Being a "helicopter mother" under the best of circumstances (my friend Carol's adorable term for mothers who "hover"), I was immediately thrown into a panic. Then matters turned from bad to worse when my friend Becky called with a letter from school in her hand: a warning that a kindergartner had been hospitalised with meningitis and a list of symptoms to look for. The first two on the list: vomiting and a high temperature. TOTAL panic by then. It was very difficult to be rational and calm and ask Avery if she had any other symptoms (just so you know, they're stiff neck, sensitivity to light and headache). She didn't, but then she went into her usual tailspin of fear at the thought of going to the doctor. I called and got an emergency appointment, and sitting in the taxi with her, all I could think was that we have had too much good luck, too many good things have happened to her, and the price was going to be... you can imagine my thoughts.

Avery sat on my lap waiting for the doctor and repeating over and over, "I can't do th is, I can't do this," just shaking with pure fear. This is the child who walked fearlessly into six interviews and three exams a few short weeks ago! The doctor asked her how she was feeling and she piped up, "Well, not very good, but what really worries me is that the Form Six Entertainment is tomorrow evening, and we're doing Shakespeare, and I've worked so hard! And there's no understudy..." On and on, warbling away in perfect comfort. The doctor took a long look at her and said, "24-hour virus," and admonished her about drinking plenty of fluids. She took her temperature and it was falling already. Waves of relief replaced the panic.

In the taxi going home, I said, "Now, you have to admit that that was nothing to get panicked about. She is so nice, and you certainly seemed to enjoy talking to her." Avery just looked at me over her glasses and said acidly, "Mommy, that's called ACTING." Sigh.

Anyway, the chicken soup I had put on the stove as soon as she got ill was the perfect panacea, and the Calpol didn't hurt either. All she wanted was for me to read aloud to her, and from a comforting baby book, so Betsy-Tacy it was. By bedtime she felt miles better and in the morning was good as new. Double sigh. The doctor had said that if she had no fever in the morning and rested all day, she could go to the Entertainment, so she rested determinedly, sitting and reading in her box of soft toys, which always cracks me up. There she is, surrounded by a bed and a chair and a floor, and she sits in her toy box.

The long and short of it is that she's fine. No sword of Divine Retribution has as yet fallen on the heads of my family, but no doubt, given my capacity for reasonless anxiety, I will continue to expect one to do so. Honestly, if I could find the part of my brain that produces anxiety and dig it out with a grapefruit spoon, I would. But John objects, saying that it's probably connected to some other trait of mine that he likes. Like being super-super appreciative of all the good things I have. Fair enough, but it makes life very, very stressful when anything remotely bad happens.

So it was in this mood of intense appreciation/fear that I approached the Entertainment on Wednesday evening. And it was absolutely the sort of event that makes me want to take Avery, and all the other little girls, and put them under a nice glass jar to keep them safe. They had put themselves into groups of four or five, and each group had chosen a Shakespeare play, one girl had written a short synopsis of it, which they took in turns to read out to the audience, then they performed a scene from it with the real words, THEN they performed a modern version of the scene which they had written themselves! It was just stunning. Avery's group chose "As You Like It," which she already loved (we gave her a little stack of the old red leather "Pocket Falstaff" editions of the plays for her birthday), and she was given the job of writing the synopsis. We heard a great deal about the impossibility of this task in the weeks leading up to the Entertainment, but she did an amazing job! They all did. Mrs D said at the end, "I have been a teacher for a very long time, but I've never understood these plays as well as I do now!"

In between the plays were darling musical numbers, one hilarious song we've been hearing a LOT of at home that includes lines like, "Romeo, Romeo, I think you're terrifico!" and a lovely ballad with lots of "hey nonny nonny" bits. I tend to want to cry whenever I hear Avery and her friends sing, so it was a bit of a struggle not to embarrass her completely.

I have had to cut the apron strings today: Avery has gone off to see "Much Ado About Nothing" at the National Theatre with her friends Julia's family, and to spend the night. She's been on quite the Shakespeare kick, hasn't she? In English class at school they've been watching the old Franco Zeffirelli "Romeo and Juliet," and when I looked it up on imdb to find the name of the actress who played Juliet (it was Olivia Hussey), I saw the funniest thing. imdb lists "Plot Keywords" and one of the categories is "dysfunctional family"! Well, that's one way to put it!

I told John I would cook whatever he liked for dinner, and he rashly said, "Scallops: three ways." Hmm. Now, I love scallops, so this is a welcome challenge, if a bit daunting. I think I'll do my darling friend Vincent's scallops with creme fraiche and single-malt Scotch, then I'll also try to replicate the divine dish at Angelus in Bayswater: grilled scallops with steamed charlotte potatoes, truffle oil and snipped chives. But the third way? I cannot decide. Seared, with a buttery Aleppo pepper sauce? Swimming in a parsley-laden creamy broth? Or how about the old favourite:

Coquilles St. Jacques au gratin
(serves four as a starter)


1 dozen fresh scallops
1 cup white wine (or dry Vermouth)
1 tbsp Madeira wine
dash cayenne pepper
3 tbsps butter
2 tbsps flour
2 shallots, finely minced
1 handful curly parsley, finely minced
1 egg yolk, beaten slightly
salt and pepper
fresh soft breadcrumbs
grated pecorino or parmesan cheese

If you've got your scallops on the shell, as I did (first time! scary), carefully remove the red roe and the membrane that connects it to the scallop. Remove the tough muscle that clings to the outside of the scallop, too. Is it all nice and smooth and white and clean? Wash and rinse and lay the scallops on paper towels, then scrub out four of the shells and rub with butter.

Pour the wine and Madeira in a small saucepan, dust with cayenne and bring to a simmer. Place scallops in the saucepan and simmer (don't boil!) for five minutes, then remove with a slotted spoon to a cutting board and cut each scallop in half, and place six halves in each scallop shell. Add the flour, butter, shallot and parsley to the saucepan and whisk until mixed, then add the egg yolk. Pour this mixture over the scallops and top with breadcrumbs and cheese. You can do all this ahead of your dinner. Five minutes before you want to eat, place the scallop shells in a glass dish big enough to hold them all and put in a very hot oven (425 degrees) for five minutes. Serve hot, with a fork AND a spoon. You will want every bite.

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Ah well, something will come to me. It always does. And you know, all's well that... well, you know.

02 March, 2008

chicken wings: A Cautionary Tale



















Nearly forgot: one thing I discovered (sadly during John's mom's visit, so she had to suffer through it) during my cooking extravaganza over break: NEVER, EVER buy chicken wings with the skin removed. Or, let me rephrase that: you may BUY them, but do not COOK them. Use them as sculpture, or doorstops, or cat food. But do not ruin my lovely recipe for slow-cooked wings by not noticing that the butcher from whom you bought them has gone to all the trouble to remove all the skin. John looked at them dubiously and said, "But isn't the whole point of chicken wings the skin?" I was foolish enough to contradict him, and I paid the price. Dry, dry, dry. So to underscore this basic tenet of cookery, I am reproducing here my most favourite way to prepare the wings. Skin, skin, skin!

Slow-Cooked Chicken Wings with Blue Cheese Dressing
(serves four)


2 dozen chicken wings
1/3 cup each: maple syrup, chilli sauce, tomato juice, black treacle
2 tbsps sesame oil
juice of 1 lime
4 cloves garlic, minced
small knob ginger, peeled and minced

Mix all the marinade ingredients in a large ziplock bag and toss the wings in, making sure they are adequately coated. Set aside for as long as you like in the fridge. If you're like me and have a very crowded fridge, the bag method is best, rather than trying to find room for a large Pyrex bowl as I used to do with my satisfyingly massive American fridge (one of two in my kitchen, I weep to say). With a bag you can squish it around and make room.

Line a baking dish with aluminum foil and bake the wings in a slow-ish oven (325f, 160c, about) for at least an hour and a half. You can turn your oven even lower and cook them longer. Turn at least once. Serve with:

Blue Cheese Dressing
(serves lots)


1/3 cup sour cream
3/4 cup homemade mayonnaise (recipe below)
1/2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
dash garlic powder
dash salt
dash black pepper
3 ounces blue cheese, crumbled

Mix all ingredients well with a whisk, then fold in crumbled blue cheese. Chill.

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Homemade Mayonnaise
(makes one cup)


1 egg yolk
1/4 tsp salt
pinch cayenne
pinch white pepper
pinch dry mustard
juice of half lemon
1 cup olive oil

With a wire whisk, beat egg yolk with salt, cayenne, pepper and mustard until thick and yellow as a lemon. Then add half the lemon juice slowly and beat again. Now, one drop at a time for about a minute, add olive oil. Then after the first minute, a steady but TINY stream of oil will do, whisking constantly until the oil is used up. Now whisk in remaining lemon juice slowly. Chill, and enjoy. And ask yourself: how do they get commercial mayo to be so... white? Doesn't make sense. One of those life mysteries.

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Ah well, one cannot know what one hasn't learned. But there's no point in YOUR learning from experience when you can learn from MINE. Seriously!