29 November, 2008

the great American musical (or not)












When Avery was a little, little girl, perhaps four years old, she made a brief foray into the world of ballet. All her friends were doing it, it seemed a shame to let her childhood pass by without a pink leotard and a tutu. So off she went to first the rather (very) serious Joffrey Ballet, where she was nearly kicked out for insubordination. She did not take kindly to the autocratic methods of "Miss Liz", the prissy instructor, but she kept going because her friend Annabelle was showing real talent and has continued to be a true Nutcracker ballerina as the years have gone by. But Avery? No. The lowest point came when Avery and all her friends decided to attend a dance class combining ballet and sort of modern movement, with a creature at the helm called "Miss Kimberley." Miss Kimberly had a high, grating voice like a character on the Simpsons, and a way of frantically clapping her hands as she lost control of the class, shouting ineffectually, "Dancers! Dancers!" After attending several of these classes with me, one of the other mothers turned and made poking gestures to her eyes. After class I said, "What the hell?" and she said, "I'd rather stick hot needles in my eyeballs than EVER go to that class again. Just so you know."

Well, sadly, John turns out to feel that way about the Great American Musical. Last night we saw "Carousel" at the Savoy Theatre with friends, and Avery and I were in heaven. Brought up on American musicals (not in person, not in Indianapolis, but on television and with records of all the soundtracks) I remembered all the songs and was bouncing along in a subdued way in my seat, muttering all the lyrics under my breath, when I happened to catch John's face out of the corner of my eye. A stony visage somehow combining intense boredom with sleepiness and annoyance. At intermission I said meekly, "You don't like musicals?" "I do NOT like musicals," he said flatly. "But why?" Avery asked. "Let's see: bad acting, bad American accents, endless choreography, cliched plots..." Fair enough. But that's all the stuff I LIKE.

Well, anyway, the rest of us had fun. Lots of memories of high school musicals (before High School Musical), my parents in the audience, all the behind-the-scenes romances that developed, but never with me! Alas.

Lesley Garrett was very impressive, the perfect vehicle for "You'll Never Walk Alone" which I remember clearly singing at junior high school graduation (naturally), making all the mothers cry. Afterward we walked in the typical London drizzle to the Embankment tube station which is always fun, late at night, seeing the bridge lit up and the Eye in the distance. One of those times when we remember we're living in London, not just in Shepherd's Bush. But I don't think I'll get John to any more musicals.

Thanksgiving was just lovely here, with Americanophile British friends. Our hostess Annie is a former professionally trained cook, so there was no question about her turkey turning out well, even if it was a very serious turkey indeed, as opposed to the Dolly Partonesque specimens I rebelliously insist on hauling out of the supermarket freezing compartment. No, this little guy came from my new best friend, Mr John Stenton of Stenton Family Butchers just up the street in nearby Brackenbury Village. Annie rang me up on Thanksgiving morning to ask if I wanted to come along to collect her turkey and incidentally be introduced to Mr Stenton and indeed I did. I had felt quite shy going alone. You know when people say to you, "Oh, you'll just LOVE so-and-so, everybody LOVES him and he is the best person," you feel shy? At least I do. I start thinking, "He's not going to want to meet ME if he's so all that," and so three months in my new neighborhood and I'm still buying my meat at Marks & Spencer (except for that ill-fated and now infamous attempt to secure pork from a Muslim).

Off we set, chatting all the way about the evening's menu, and there we were at Mr Stenton's. Red awning, doorway full of those fly-defying paper streamers, Mr Stenton presiding behind the counter. He is a spare, twinkling man with a strong handshake and a very firm meeting of the eye, sussing me up for any nonsense. He accepted Annie's introduction of me as a "food writer" with equanimity and pointed to the bookshelf behind him, groaning beneath the weight of the food writers and restaurateurs who he supplies with the finest Gloucester Old spot, eight-week cured hams, sausages made the night before with the thinnest of casings (mine melted, as per Mr Stenton's instruction, in hot water in less than a minute, leaving the perfect sausage meat, lovingly seasoned, to slip into the bowl, naked and ready for my stuffing).

Most intriguingly, Mr Stenton is quite, quite invested in the notion that Americans would, if they could, care more about the provenance and quality of the foodstuffs they buy. His daughter has recently married an American, and what's more, a Floridian and as such a "real" American as opposed to a New Yorker or Californian who, let's face it, could be ANYBODY. His son-in-law's father came recently for a visit to see exactly who produced the guy his beloved princess is shacking up with, and spent quite a lot of time in Mr Stenton's establishment, marvelling over his wares. "I pointed to the photograph of the cows on my wall, and then to the side of beef hanging in the back, and then I showed him these steaks that have hung for 45 days, and he was amazed. He's a surgeon, see. And he said, 'Things are going to have to change in America.' But look at this..." and as if by sleight of hand, Mr Stenton produces of all things a brochure from Ponderosa. "All you eat, breakfast buffet, $3.99. Who's going to want to cook when you can get all that for $3.99? The fact that it's all rubbish isn't going to bother anybody." Such a typical British reaction to most things American: they're bemused and half-admiring, but at rock bottom completely disgusted.

Then I was off to Kensington to meet my friend Dalia who injects me with sort of weekly doses of "Live life to the full! Get out of the loop! Embrace even suffering because it means you're alive!" She is a beautiful girl, which makes it fun to hang out with her, and she is an absolute walking advertisement for energy. Her black eyes sparkle and she runs her hands through her long, thick dark hair and when she laughs you just cannot help laughing, as it's as likely as not she's laughing at you and your silly pretensions and hesitation about... life. With Dalia, you cannot be hesitant.

More food shopping for the evening's festivities ensued, this time at Whole Foods where I succeed in finding buttermilk but not cornmeal for my Thanksgiving cornbread, requested by Annie. Ah well, it was but the work of a moment to discover that to almost everyone, cornmeal is just cheap polenta, and certainly my lovely local Frenchy delicatessen runs to polenta.

Thanksgiving itself was just perfect. Bobble-headed paper turkeys, autumn leaves and candles adorned the table in Annie's warm and open kitchen. The turkey was very nice, if a little spare from an American's point of view, obsessed as I am not with the dinner turkey but the prospect of turkey leftovers. There was a casserole of sweet potato with walnuts and honey, I brought an enormous saucepan of really creamy mashed potatoes, there were green beans and Brussels sprouts and my stuffing. And the most delightful children: Avery and her dear friend Emily, plus Emily's older sister Georgina and brother Sam, and three boys from Annie's best friend's family, so at least Avery for once had her pick of nice, acceptable, even entertaining and intelligent boys. Perhaps we can arrange for a once-weekly session or so, to dispel her natural scorn.

Since then, let's see, I've been reading, and writing. And reading and writing. I have become addicted to food writing. One book I can recommend whole-heartedly, and not just as food writing but as really touching autobiography, is Tamasin Day-Lewis's Where Shall We Go For Dinner? I looked forward to reading this especially because Tamasin read aloud from it to us during our Devon food-writing adventure, and in doing so she transformed herself from familiar, ranting tutor, a real person, into an actress to rival her brother Daniel Day-Lewis. She read a passage about the death of her father, the British poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis, very affecting. In the end, the whole premise of the book is a bit sad: it chronicles her love affair with both an American cheese purveyor from New York, and with America itself, and it turns out that after the publication of the book, he left her. Ouch. What an awful ending. But the book is beautifully written, evocative of every flavor you can imagine, full of wondrous and improbably complex recipes. A good ride.

I cannot on the other hand recommend Daisy Garnett's Cooking Lessons. This book had been touted to me by many people as "just what you're trying to write," so I suppose we were doomed to be a match not made in heaven. I learned as a professor, long ago, never to point out to students the similarities between two paintings because automatically they would then see only the differences. I think that's in part what happened to me with Garnett. While it's true her book is based on anecdotes from her life and then includes recipes, I balked at the recipes being nearly exclusively taken from other cookbooks: of course she credits them, but that seems a bit lazy to me. And there were repetitive anecdotes, several typos (someone "leant" her a book?) and other distracting mistakes that were irritating. She is a journalist and the book reads that way. Maybe it will be your cup of tea, but it wasn't mine.

Then I devoted a day to Richard Mabey's The Full English Cassoulet, and it was one of those books that would benefit from being spaced over several days. He's evangelical, not to say a bit cracked, on the subject of eating off the land (gathering everything under the sun, a book about which practice made him famous with Food For Free), but also about such earnest and worthy aims as "making do," in sort of Depression way (using absolutely everything, recycling ingredients for a stock that sits on the back burner of the stove every day for weeks, churning butter on a bicycle wheel, seriously). It's a hoot, really, and while I admire a lot of what he says about seasonality (and he is evangelical on that subject as well), I cannot claim to aspire to living in that way. I have to admit it: I'm evangelical about almost NOTHING.

I know I should shudder at the thought of buying strawberries in Britain in December. I know it. But if they smell good through the package, and Avery wants to eat them, I buy them. Of course it's more fun (I'm not really sure it's more delicious, but then there's my non-evangelical nature again) to buy asparagus in enormous, gluttony-inspiring bundles at the farmer's market in June, when you can choose between fat, medium and thin... but just the same, last week I had a marvellous salad of steamed asparagus, beetroot, mozzarella and rocket, and the asparagus was lovely. Full of flavor, firm, very green. Where did it come from? I really don't know, and I recognize that I am a lesser person for that. But there you go.

No, give me Nigel Slater's Toast any day of the week. Of course there are things Nigel Slater is evangelical about, in other books. (I have a clear memory of his saying in The Kitchen Diaries something along the lines of "I count a day lost when I do not have at least a tablespoon of Greek yoghurt.") But in "Toast" he is a pure raconteur. How on earth does he remember his childhood in such detail? The many times his parents tried to make him drink milk ("They tried chocolate and strawberry, but the only thing that changed was the color of my vomit"), the way his mother's Christmas cake tasted, what his stepmother wore on a picnic, the color of the kitchen curtains, it's endless. The book is nothing more or less than a series of generally unconnected vignettes about the space of his life between about age 8 to 14, during which time his father grows pink begonias and scares him to death with red-faced shouting, his gardener is sacked for undressing casually in front of little Nigel, he internalizes his stepmother's recipe for lemon meringue pie by stealth (since she won't share her kitchen). It's a wonderful ride.

Now I'm onto Fergus Henderson's The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating. Henderson runs St John restaurant in Shoreditch (John's been but I have not), a restaurant where the diner is expected to be able to stomach absolutely ANY part of the animal: snout to tail. I appreciate the notion that if we're going to eat any part of the animal, we should be able to eat ANY part, and I do think the modern obsession with wrapping up pristine, boneless, fatless, skinless parcels of someone's flesh in plastic is too far from the reality of meat. I do love to go into a butcher's shop where part of a real animal is hanging up in the back and I can see it being appreciated, taken apart, offered to me as part of something real. But ears and snouts? Testicles and hearts? Stomach linings? I know I am silly to be squeamish and probably what I need is just to be served some of these things in the best possible way and I would overcome my nerves. I'm looking forward to the book.

In the meantime our London writing class has really been heating up. We've decided that the most rewarding thing to do is to get together without the tutor and simply set ourselves exercises. It's imitating what we did in Devon, and to great results. Last Friday, all of us soaked to the skin from the relentless London rain, we all gathered at Gigi's house to write about... an object in the room. I wrote about a picture frame, and found the story turning rather darker than anything else I've written. Then my friend Venetia reached into a basket full of paper scraps and pulled out the first line of a short story, and we were to turn it into a story of our own. For the first time, I found myself writing from a man's point of view. I don't know who the man will turn out to be, but the line was "I once knew a girl who sat apart at the party, down on the floor." My character turned out to be madly attracted to this girl, although he already knew enough about her to know that he should turn away. I wonder what he knew? Time will tell...

Herbed Cornbread
(serves 12)


2 cups yellow cornmeal (or polenta)
1 cup plain flour
1/3 cup sugar
1 tbsp baking powder
1/2 tbsp baking soda
1 tsp dried sage
1 tsp dried marjoram (I used 1 tbsp fresh chopped)
1 tsp fresh ground pepper
1/2 cup butter, chilled, cut into 1/2 pieces
1 1/2 cup buttermilk
3 eggs

Mix all dry ingredients in food processor. Cut in the butter by turning on processor and adding butter pieces one at a time, letting them incorporate themselves into the dry ingredients. In a large bowl, whisk together buttermilk and eggs. Add dry mixture to wet and mix well. Turn into a buttered 9x9 dish and bake at 400F for 30 minutes.

25 November, 2008

something new to do with a pepper














Because I do get bored with peppers.

Avery can eat them - red, orange or yellow, but we both agree that green is loathsome - till they come out her ears. It's her default setting for any side dish, to go with any main dish. She likes them cooked down in olive oil with plenty of Maldon sea salt, till they're slightly caramelly and have probably left all their nutritional value behind in the sludgy oil on the bottom of the skillet.

So yesterday I was slouching around my beloved Shepherd's Bush Market, killing the time it would take my masterly fishmonger to fillet two sea bream for me, when I came upon a certain veg stand sporting red peppers. But not your ordinary kind that are the size of a half-pint of cream. These were tennis-ball shaped things and very round, with flat bottoms. "You look like you want to be stuffed with something," I said, actually out loud, thereby scaring the poor veg guy to death, I'm sure.

It was but the work of a moment to bring them home and scoop out their seeds and stringy little membranes and sit them in a foil-lined glass dish, whereupon they became:

Red Peppers Stuffed with Mushrooms and Boursin
(one pepper per person, serves four)


4 little round red peppers
1 tbsp butter
2 large flat mushrooms, or 2 handfuls small mushrooms, chopped rather fine
1 clove garlic, minced
1 package Boursin (an easy-to-find soft French cheese), with garlic and herbs
olive oil to drizzle

Line up your peppers and make sure they can sit without falling over. Saute the mushrooms and garlic in the butter till soft, then spoon in equal measures into each pepper. Stuff in as much Boursin as you can fit (it will obviously depend on the size of the peppers). Drizzle olive oil over as much of the sides of the peppers as you can reach. Do not add salt: the Boursin is salty enough even for me.

Place the dish in a hot over (around 400F, 200C) and roast the peppers for about ten minutes, then take them out and spoon the accumulating oil and juices over the peppers and return them to the oven for perhaps ten more minutes, or until the peppers have begun to look blackened and shrivelly around their cut tops. Divine.

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

Avery ate the entirety of her pepper, devouring every last scrap of mushroom and cheese, before she even began on the sea bream and mash. I was so pleased! Admittedly the sea bream was blameless but a bit dull: super fresh, but I didn't do anything very interesting with it, just brushed the skin with olive oil and stuck it under the grill, and anyway, we take the skin off, so why bother with the olive oil? Sheer habit. I was paying so much attention to my little pepper friends that I neglected my lovely fish. Ah well, next time I'll be all complacent about my peppers and I can do something creative with the bream. But one discovery per day is quite enough for me.

I've been writing up a storm, here at my solitary desk, broken up only by my weekly tennis game and installation of whatever bizarre activity is occupying Rocco the Mad Tennis Pro. That and making apple and banana cakes, for the School Fair, for Avery, and in fact for Rocco, who smelled it last week when I was delivering it to school and begged on bended knee for one. The writing is going well enough, I suppose. I think I have been READING too much cookery writing, and it's getting me down. After a bit I begin to think, "Why bother? There is so much good food writing out there already and I can't possibly produce anything as good." That's when it's time to walk away for a bit. But my desk is covered with books written by mind-bendingly impressive wordsters, like Adam Gopnik from the New Yorker, Jeffrey Steingarten, Lillian Hellman, Reeve Lindbergh, the list goes on. I am frustratingly intimidated by them all. But I must persevere.

And get this: I picked up Adam Gopnik's mesmerizing "Through the Children's Gate: a Home in New York," just to get a respite from brilliant food writing, and what do I find? A whole chapter called "The Cooking Game," all about his acquaintanceship with Peter Hoffman of the esteemed Savoy Restaurant in SoHo, our old haunt, and their adventures cooking and talking about food. The one simple chapter blows away anything petty I might write on the subject; I do not know any famous chefs, I've never held a cooking competition among three famous ones, that's for sure. Aargh. Add to that, as I'm trawling the internet for a way to tell Adam Gopnik I think he is next to godliness, I find an article he wrote for the New Yorker all about... food and writing, cooking in fiction, and again... diamond-bright, not a wasted word, full of perfect metaphors... I could go on, but for the sake of my self-esteem, I won't. Ah well, onward and upward. The least I can do is to include some of these brilliant people's ideas in my own writing, because it's fun to delve into who influences you. Even if it's a bit exhausting at times.

Right, tomorrow I shall be in the kitchen producing cornbread and Laurie Colwin stuffing for our Thanksgiving down the road. What fun to celebrate with new friends, but how we will miss all of you, at home, doing the American things we have left behind. Happy Turkey Day, everyone.

24 November, 2008

green tomatoes and fennel












Well. Cast your minds back to the day I told you of my chagrin at... green tomatoes. So pretty as you can see, so temptingly piled up at the farmer's market, so completely inedible. Impenetrable is even a fairer description. My esteemed Italian mother-in-law generously shared her idea of drizzling them with olive oil, sprinkling them with garlic and roasting them, perhaps with a few peppers for sweetness. That sounded like a stellar idea but I never did it. I left them in their blameless bowl on the kitchen counter and went about my business. They didn't take up too much room and they didn't say anything, so after a bit they became as part of the setup, like an extra drawer or faucet.

Until yesterday, when I realized that the green tomatoes in the bowl had been replaced with red tomatoes! In the two weeks that they've reposed there, they followed nature's call and ripened themselves with absolutely no help from me. No siesta in a paper bag to collect the carbon dioxide or whatever other nonsense people say about putting things in bags. They just held their heads high and did what green tomatoes do if left to their own devices. I think this development has implications for all sorts of other things in life, like child-raising. I remember once Avery was telling me of the extraordinary scholarly exploits of one of her little friends, extolling her virtues, describing all the events her parents took her to to broaden her little mind, the care that was taken with her homework. After a bit she said, "I guess she's like a hothouse flower, and I'm just a common garden variety, left to grow on its own."

Just like my green tomatoes. So there.

And so I decided to thank them for their independence of spirit by inventing a side dish just for them. And here it is.

Fennel with Tomatoes and Pinenuts
(serves four)

good glug olive oil
2 large or 4 small heads fennel, outer layer discarded, sliced thin
3 cloves garlic, minced
pinch fennel seeds
8 little tomatoes, halved
handful toasted pinenuts

Pour the olive oil into a skillet over medium heat, then throw in the fennel plus seeds and garlic. Saute till fennel is softish, then add the tomatoes and saute until they just begin to break up. Toss with pinenuts and salt to taste.

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

So simple and good. This dish would be very nice with the pork fillet I have in the fridge for tonight, but because I was being so very spontaneous, we had it with a scallop-linguini dish and it was an odd combination.

Today, would you believe it, I am going to make a loaf of bread. Seriously. I am. I have read a recipe from my dear mentor Orlando, and it sounds like something even I can do, baking-challenged as I have proved myself historically to be. But I have acquired, from the lovely Bushwacker Whole Foods in Hammersmith's King Street, a bundle of fresh yeast. And I also came away with a packet of polenta, which the nice organic lady behind the counter assured me is the same thing as cornmeal. Please God let this be true. It's only to sprinkle, though, not to be an integral part of the loaf. Even listening to myself I sound so lame that if the bread turns out to have the consistency of a tennis ball I will not be surprised. Wish me luck. I'll report.

My ankle has returned nearly to normal, which is a relief. Being literally lame is a drag. Avery's school Christmas fair was an enormous success, and I mean enormous: imagine 700 schoolgulls, with all their myriad siblings, parents, grandparents and anyone else they could drag along, stuffed into the Great Hall and surrounding classrooms, mothers running along with paper plates piled high calling, "Mince pies and brownies for a pound!" and "Staff panto in the music room at noon!" By the end of the afternoon, after I had collected untold amounts of money in our Book Stall, the mother in charge decided she'd almost rather pay people to take the books than have to box them all up for Oxfam, and the form IV gulls we had with us were only too happy to begin shouting, "Six books for a pound! Take as many as you can!"

It was lovely: an amalgam of all fairs past, from Avery's baby school through to PS 234 in Tribeca, where after September 11 every school event took on massive emotional significance, right through to the uniformed preciousness of her primary school here, and now to this year, where every week she seems to shed more of her little-girl-ness. John gave her money and she set off alone to trawl the fair, gathering up this or that little friend as she went. I saw her, out of the corner of my eye, periodically through the day, eating cotton candy (or "candy floss" as they call it here), laughing and chatting. Another milestone: off on her own.

Right, my unfamiliar little knob of yeast beckons. Really, from the counter it's waving at me: "Come on, Kristen, you can do it, put a little POWER to it!" Nerve-wracking.

21 November, 2008

it doesn't get better than Branagh













I have sprained my left ankle, in a very minor and yet extremely irritating way. How? Not as you might expect in my weekly very energetic tennis lesson with the man Rocco, nor in crossing a perilous street in London rife with construction detritus. Now, I have sprained it in descending the three, or is it four, steps from my study down to my dining room. The disaster lies, as it turned out, in my lack of understanding of PRECISELY how many steps it was. I am in mortal pain.

And on the eve of Avery's school Christmas Fair, for which I worked tirelessly all day helping the other mothers of her class sort the thousands of donated books into The Book Stall, which will be a thing of beauty when we open our doors tomorrow. Dirty, dirty, can I tell you, donated books are dusty. And games. And puzzles. But the extreme labor was mitigated by the atmosphere, well-remembered by me at least, of Fairs gone by, both here in London and at what I persist in calling, sometimes, Home. School volunteering: my strongest memories are of PS 234 in Tribeca, home of her kindergarten days and hence her post-September 11 days, where volunteering meant the difference between the school staying in business and NOT. And then the super-precious days of her primary school here in uniform, learning the ropes of words like "Tombola" and "Lucky Dip," which trip off my tongue these days like baseball and apple pie.

And while I was slaving away, pre-sprain, at the Book Stall? She was swimming in the city's only salt-water swimming pool at no less than the Riverside Health and Racquet Club Chiswick with her new friend Lissa. This child was born and raised in Paris until a few years ago when she arrived here with her American and British parents to attend the school most likely to feed into (awful phrase) Avery's current school. So added together, this girl is sort of the coolest profile you can imagine. American accent, fluent in French, coming from the best British school, and now with a ticket to a virtual sea on land. Avery was in heaven. "Mummy, they have machines to dry your suit! And special shampoos in little silver containers, and..." Mentally comparing this Shangri-la to our own grotty school pool where I drag home our wet suits inside our mandatory rubber swim caps and Avery flatly refuses to wash her hair with my tiny travel bottles... not cool! Well, she'll have to wallow again on Tuesday evening. At least the food at the cool pool was awful.

Anyway, I came home from volunteering and met up with Avery at the skating rink, then home for dinner, only to fall down the steps and into my current ignominy.

Which does not in any way reflect the Extreme Excitement of our evening last night. Ivanov! At the Wyndham, with Kenneth Branagh in the lead role. To see the curtain rise, reveal a tiny (not cheesy) bit of dry ice representing the Russian barren landscape, and Branagh himself, head bowed, back to the audience... you get an inevitable thrill of "there is the man, the man himself." I had never seen him perform live. It is a revelation. The compactness of his body, every single movement thought out and brought to life with decision and passion, his unexpectedly strong arms and hands, gesturing all the despair of a character we could all identify with! Midlife crisis! Restlessness, a sense that life around us was fragile... so many references to contemporary financial crises that John and I wondered how much Tom Stoppard, the playwright's translator, had played around with the text.

Just wondrous. I would say run, go, but... you probably can't get a ticket. Ours came months ago as a fundraiser from Avery's school, more spoiling. We loved it. And our pre-theatre dinner at Gaby's Diner was a hoot. Pretty darn good salt-beef, a close second to Katz's Deli in our beloved Lower East Side of Manhattan... and salads galore for next to no money. Credit crunch, here we come. But not until my ankle heals.

19 November, 2008

Sloane Square beckons















You would think, wouldn't you, that a day in anticipation of seeing "Ivanov" with the divine Kenneth Branagh would be a day out of the kitchen? Not in my house. Avery is going swimming without me this evening, in the company of her beloved friend Elsa, and then the two of them will come back here to meet up with Hannah, the friend of a friend who is looking after them for the duration. And they have to eat, don't they? So I have a chicken roasting, boiled Charlotte potatoes in a skillet awaiting being sauteed before I go, another skilletful of haricots verts in olive oil. And since Saturday is the Christmas Fair at school, a banana and apple cake reposes in the oven to be donated to the cake and cookies stall which is receiving everything today at school pickup. So even though I have no child to pick up, she being occupied at after-school Gymnastics Club, I will still be at pickup, donating a cake. Life does get complicated sometimes. Somewhere in there, I must fit in a tennis lesson with the always-entertaining Rocco. Then race home to get presentable for the play, which has got rave reviews and should be amazing.

Yesterday, however, I was out of the kitchen, in fact out of the house and the postcode, with my friend Gigi on a Chelsea adventure. Have you heard the term "Sloane Ranger"? It's meant to designate a sort of super-spoilt, rich as anything Princess Diana sort of socialite, living in an upscale flat with her equally rich and spoilt mates, dating everyone in sight and spending money. Sloane Square is the natural habitat for these creatures, and it was here that Gigi and met up for a dose of culture, believe it or not. Because just steps from the Sloaniness of Sloane Square is the unmatched grandeur of the new Chelsea Saatchi Gallery, housed in the former Duke of York's military management HQ, believe it or not. Pillared glory it is, several old and lovely buildings stripped of all their administrative clabber, emptied of their civil servant dullness, and painted white, streamlined, connected by elegant minimalist staircases. And filled with Chinese art, at the moment. Most of which we found stunningly unappealing if not downright disturbing: bodies marked with identifying sort of tatooes, hanging from the ceiling by ropes around their ankles, giant installations of black rubbery rock called "Indigestion," massive cartoon-like portraits. But among all this stood out one piece that made the entire exhibition worth a visit.

Called "Love it! Bite it!", it is an enormous installation of architectural-model renderings of famous buildings around the world: St Paul's Cathedral, the Guggenheim Museums in both New York and Venice, the Roman Coliseum, Les Invalides in Paris, the UN in New York... all sculpted out of... edible dog treats. Of course this designation of the material implies that there might be a dog treat that was NOT edible, but no matter: it's rawhide. Gigi and I just looked at each other and burst out laughing. A marvellous, wonderful thing stretching right the length and width of the enormous room. "What if you brought your dog?" Gigi whispered. There were lovely young scratchy looking students with wonky hair and skin-tight jeans lying on the ground all around it, taking pictures. And old elegant European gentlemen walking its circumference, looking gravely analytical. The piece reminded me very much of my favorite New York show almost of anything I've ever seen: Tara Donovan at the old and grandiloquent Ace Gallery on Hudson Street. In that show, she filled the entire back wall of a whole room with drinking straws pointing outward (you've got to click on the thumbnails on her hotlink to appreciate what I mean), the entire floor of another room with pencils of varying heights looking for all the world like a tiny Liliputian city, filled a whole room with layers of tar paper, like the lunar surface. Magnificent! By an artist called Liu Wei.

You'll love it. Take the kids. But not the dog.

From there we headed to a fabulous new-ish restaurant called The Botanist, in Sloane Square itself. Filled to brim with Sloane Rangers in all their highlighted, blingish glory, the restaurant was like a single beacon of affluence in a sea of credit crunch. There wasn't a sign of austerity as far as the eye could see, and far from tightening belts, there must have been quite a bit of loosening of them to accommodate the marvellous food. I had, as is my wont lately, two starters and no main. It's perfect for me: two different lovely dishes but not too much of any one thing. I started with a quite perfect and very simple creamy cauliflower soup that would be an absolute doddle to make, studded with diced seared scallops and topped with a drizzle of truffle oil and tiny little cauliflower beignets, or doughnuts. Really! Then it was onto one single and very rich lobster and salmon ravioli, the thinnest pasta I have ever eaten and so tender, resting on a bed of pea puree and floating in a tomato crustacean "dressing," according to the menu, but I would sooner call it a broth. Flavored very subtly with lobster shells, no doubt, very delicate.

Gigi had what she described as the perfect rocket salad: absurdly fresh greens, shaved parmesan and a balsamic glaze, and then a pan-fried sea bream with mussels in a saffron broth, and something called a crab and pepper escabeche, which was a new word for me. It turns out to be nothing more or less than a seviche, a marinated dish of fish and other ingredients that has cooked in its acid. Gigi was very pleased. Our only complaints were trifling ones: the rather pretentious front of house fellow told us that while he could give us a table (this uttered in tones that indicated a mild reluctance on his part), we would have to vacate it in an hour. I simply hate that. Either the restaurant wants you, or it doesn't. Time limits are not on. And then, after we rather rushed ourselves out of a cup of tea or even a glance at the dessert menu, we could not get our bill for love or money. Honestly.

And the waiter kept wanting to take our bread and butter away! Why? Why was it all right to have it on the table for the starter, but not for the second dish? I love bread with soup. We persevered and kept it, but I was reminded of the insanely clever Jeffrey Steingarten's edict in his "The Man Who Ate Everything" that you can judge a restaurant entirely by its bread. I think not only by its quality, but by the very simple act of offering it up, and letting you eat it.

These are carpings of very little significance. We had a glorious time and felt quite, quite self-indulgent. It's one of my favorite things: lunch with a girlfriend, and they don't get any better than time with Gigi. It's amazing to me what sheer intelligence can bring to a friendship: you laugh more, you say more, you listen better. Thanks for a great day, Gigi.

16 November, 2008

in memoriam

My beloved grandfather has died. I asked my mother's permission to talk about him here, because I have never written about him before and I would like to.

Firstly, it is no tragedy. He was in his mid 90s and absolutely not aware of his surroundings anymore, and it was more than time to go. But his going made me think of the 30 years he was part of my family, and how he changed my grandmother's life.

He was not really my grandfather at all, he was my step-grandfather. My mother's father died on the examining table having his retirement checkup when I was 12, leaving the house one morning never to return, his doctor taking off his white coat and walking down the road bearing my grandfather's name, to knock at the door and tell her he had died, in the hospital wing again bearing my grandfather's name. He was a big man in a tiny town in southern Indiana and every last thing in that town that could be named for him was.

My grandfather's best friend, when he died, was a man twice married and once widowed, somewhat younger than he and very much the moral compass of their social circle: "I never met a finer man," my grandfather said. They raised their children together, went to the Elks Club together, and fished together, on long manly trips into the Wisconsin lake countryside to smoke their pipes, drink their Kentucky bourbon, and fish. After my grandfather died, this man (Leonidas was his name although all called him Lon), comforted my grandmother and looked after her. His wife then died, and he was the subdued toast of the widowed and divorced population of their little town. But the woman he was after was my grandmother. After a suitable period of mourning for his wife, she invited him to dinner with old friends, in from their Florida snowbird winter home. And he declared himself. "All these years, Bettye, I have wanted you."

They were married at Thanksgiving time when I was 15 years old. He was stern but twinkling, very much the arbiter within the family of what was right and what was newfangled nonsense that needed to be set right. He and my grandmother drove me cross country to my (they thought) high-falutin' East Coast radical graduate school, disapproving all the hundreds of miles, why did I need to leave Indiana anyway, plenty of good schools there... but the fact is, they drove me there. And several years later, they drove again from Indiana to my new home outside New York, to deliver the Indiana antiques I had bought and didn't have a clue how to get delivered: and they slept, without protest, under my unmarried roof, giving an indication of their feelings about my husband-to-be. He would take care of me, they believed, therefore he was all right, and they could unbend enough to be our guests. I am sure this was this influence of my grandmother's husband: he was going to be modern.

His belts were always notched firmly above his belly, well-fed with good Southern-Indiana cooking: deep-fried catfish from the Brass Lantern restaurant in their little town (there is nothing more delicious), biscuits and gravy, fried chicken and rich coleslaw. His demeanor was dignified, a little removed, slightly starched and folded, until it came time for goodbyes after our infrequent visits. Then his arms came around me, his snaggle-toothed smile, innocent of orthodonture, loving and warm. "Love you, missy," he would say, with a bone-crushing hug. "You take care of that husband of yours, now, and be a good mother," he said every time. I'll try.

15 November, 2008

how to save your Friday night













I wish I could say I took this lovely photograph of porcini mushrooms, but alas the thought never occurred to me until we had eaten them all, so I am borrowing a photo from a really clever and GORGEOUSLY illustrated blog I'd like to recommend to you, crispy waffle. Sheryl has lovely recipes and even lovelier pictures.

But back to the mushrooms. Does your family melt down on Friday night? Obviously mine does or I would not be asking the question. We used to have what I called "Thursday collapse syndrome," where everyone was cranky and annoyed and tired, and then bounced back for the home stretch. It may have had something to do with Avery's old schedule of riding on Thursday afternoons after school, which by the middle of November meant that I was standing in Hyde Park for an hour in the DARK and likely as not some sort of angry precip. Now, Thursdays are spent at the pool which is lovely, and Fridays at... the *&^% skating rink. Give me the park any day. Let's see what about Friday afternoons might make me pissy: is it the subzero temperature, the smell of hot dogs, the screaming children, or the sight of dozens of highly sexed and caffeinated teenagers zooming around my daughter with blades on their incompetent feet...

And these days my long-suffering husband trails home on Fridays thoroughly sick of the stock market and everything else he's done all week, so he's a lost cause. And Avery never fully recovered all week from her dental ordeal, and so last night turned up with one of her nameless 24-hour high fevers. Oy veh.

What was required was a rich, delectable, complex dish that we could really sink our teeth into. Obviously garlic was indicated. But what else? Well, I had the fruits of my Good Food Show afternoon to choose from, and it was but the work of a moment to concoct:

Spaghetti With Cream, Porcini and Jambon Iberico
(serves four)

25 grams dried porcini mushrooms
3/4 lb spaghetti
1 tbsp unsalted (important) butter
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup single cream
2 egg yolks
10 slices jambon iberico
fresh ground black pepper to taste
a few gratings lemon zest
grated pecorino or parmesan to garnish

This dish is roughly inspired by a similarly creamy and decadent one in the brilliant Giuliano Hazan's Classic Pasta, where he combines prosciutto and asparagus. I love Hazan's book partly for its no-nonsense advice and obvious channeling of his mother's genius, but also for the presentation which has a Dorling-Kindersley appeal: ingredients lined up with Mondrian precision.

Now, two things about ingredients. I specify jambon iberico only because I bought some yesterday. You may easily use parma ham or prosciutto. Second, you must set the mushrooms aside in boiling water to cover them, for at least 20 minutes to rehydrate them. Remember this at the outset, because that will take longer than the sauce prep or the boiling water for your pasta.

So, set the mushrooms aside. Poke at them now and then to make sure they are all absorbing the water. SAVE that water when you've fished out the mushrooms because it is wildly fragrant and rich. I'm planning to use mine as a stock in tonight's sauce for chicken. Separate the slices of jambon and cut them into strips.

Put your pasta water on to boil about 15 minutes before you want to eat and start the sauce by melting the butter in a large saucepan and sweating the garlic till it's soft. Add the cream and whisk in the egg yolks, then grind in plenty of black pepper. Do not add salt as both the ham and the pecorino or parmesan are very salty. Take off the heat. Cook your pasta and save out a little of the water to thin your sauce if necessary.

As the pasta drains, put the sauce back on the heat, throwing in the jambon and the mushrooms which you've plucked out of the water, and the lemon zest. Whisk until it's bubbling softly. Toss in the spaghetti and mix with tongs, adding some of the pasta water if necessary. Top with grated cheese and serve immediately, if not sooner.

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

We were revived. Even a little girl with a fever will eat this, if not the vegetable you feel compelled to serve even though on a Friday night no one really wants to eat anything virtuous. I've heard all about the healing properties of chicken soup, and I believe in them, but I'm planning to proselytyze anyone who will listen on the undoubtedly medicinal gifts of cream and garlic.

14 November, 2008

from Chelsea to Olympia

















What a crazy Londony couple of days I have had: the sort when I emerge from my self-imposed Shepherd's Bush cocoon and enter the world of culture that's living on my doorstep in this wonderful town. And actually there's nothing more Londony than what happened last night at about 2 a.m. (I know, what on earth was I doing awake?) when, upon opening the window for some fresh air, I spied a silvery fox, reclining in the street, licking its tail! Now, seeing a fox in the middle of my neighborhood is not unknown to me, but it's still a bit unexpected, and this one was far from the usual desperately thin, tail between its legs version. This fox was quite magnificent: a plumy tail and glossy coat, perky ears. I whispered, "Hey you," and he looked up, right into my eyes and we stared at each other for a rather long moment. Then he went right back to his bath, smack in the middle of the (admittedly deserted) road. A Little Prince moment.

There was, actually, a reason I was awake at 2 a.m. We spent the evening with our friends Joyce and Matthew, next-door neighbors Sara and Selva, and another couple Emma and Chris, at the Chelsea Arts Club. And dear readers, may I report that this experience goes down as the single most eccentric, truly English adventure I've ever had here? Forget stomping the divets at the Prince's polo field, or picnicking at Glyndebourne for the opera, or watching Avery ride her pony to Buckingham Palace on New Year's Day. Those are all massively cool and to be appreciated. But the Chelsea Arts Club? As my Devon friends would say, "Oh. My. God."

First of all, you could walk right past it and not notice the tiny little sign, along with two ratty buzzers to let you in. But you enter, and it's a world of uneven floor and ceilings (John's head nearly touched at times, and Selva's at least as tall), paintings of every description lining the walls, salon style, floor to ceiling, a bulletin board announcing the recent deaths of members ("So you know how many names there are left on the waiting list before YOURS comes up," John hissed and I smacked him to shut him up, but of course it turns out to be true. Then there's a further bulletin board crammed with notices: "yoga instructor and mother-to-be looking for room to share from March," and "will trade studio in Shoreditch for bungalow in Ibiza beginning June," and so on. And this was merely the entryway, through which streamed, both in and out, men mostly, in elaborate satin waistcoats and cravats, long white beards, gesturing long fingers, or impossibly young men in trousers half falling off reaching out to take your coat, or scruffy looking men my age looking desperate around the eyes and talking sixteen to the dozen to other men looking just like them.

We were taken to the bar, a room entirely taken up with a green-flannel-covered billiards table and peopled with more of the same characters. Everyone, I mean everyone, looked famous only I didn't know who they were. I never know what painters look like, how do you? Where does anyone see them? I thought they should each have a representative sample of their work tatooed upon their foreheads because I could at least identify THAT and get excited. And no Americans. Which can be nice. We took our drinks out to a tent in what is allegedly a spectacularly neglected and beautiful garden in back, and chatted. Chris turned out to be rather a massively famous portrait painter who has just finished commissions from the King of Saudi Arabia and, oh yes, Queen Elizabeth. He proved incredibly modest and charming, and whipped out his iPhone to scroll past photos of his three daughters and come to the paintings. Unbelievable. It is this fellow's membership that will propel our friend Matthew into his own, if he lives long enough.

Finally in to dinner, which takes place in one of two rooms that one is FORBIDDEN to call a restaurant, but are "dining rooms." And they are, too: one with an enormous communal table around which were more famous-looking people, looking up to see if we were anybody important, then returning instantly to their food and conversation. Because people were constantly leaving from every possible doorway to smoke, there was a sort of old-fashioned smoky air to the room which was a nice combination of the old days and the smoking ban: just enough to give the place character, but you didn't have to choke.

We squeezed past everyone to our own table in the second room and sat down to paper menus and really average bread, but who cared? We were in a place Whistler founded, for God's sake, just on a whim, where invaluable paintings and drawings hang in seemingly forgotten splendor. And I was lucky enough to be sat between Matthew and Selva, two of the most attentive and charming of men, so it was an embarrassment of riches conversationally speaking. Matthew, the painter, is a gentle, vulnerable soul who punctuates many of his soft remarks with a beseeching glance and a gentle stroking of his fingers along one's arm. Selva, quite the opposite, epitomises the Anglo-Indian Oxford-trained barrister, with his tennis-player muscles filling out an impressive cashmere jacket that deserved some stroking too, but I restrained myself. Brilliant, supremely self-confident hand gestures of that Oxbridge English type I am totally a sucker for. We've been invited one day to lunch at the Law Court Dinings Rooms in Lincoln's Inn Fields, and that would rank as well as an amazingly English thing to do.

We tucked in to starters and mine was a surprisingly fresh and tasty tuna sashimi with a mouli (white radish), carrot and celeriac coleslaw and toasted peanut dressing: lovely and light. I had harbored a totally unfair fear that the Club could not possibly be massively old-fashioned and English AND serve edible food, but happily I was wrong. John had lamb's kidneys with green beans and hazelnuts, and for once I was glad to be separated from him as he would have wanted me to try them and I'm too close to the venison experience to have any unknown offal, thank you.

The waiters rushed around looking annoyed and harrassed and as if they had left paint drying on their canvases at a MOST inopportune moment, in order to bring us our undeserved food. In fact, all our main courses arrived and were plonked down unceremoniously on the table. "Who has the lamb shoulder?" the waiter barked, to silence.

"SOMEONE had the lamb shoulder!" he insisted, only to be joined by a colleague who instantly whisked away all the food except for mine, a lovely plate of sea bass. Hmm. Selva asked, "Doesn't anyone else look hungry? Well, I know Kristen will share." Finally mine was taken away too: we'd been given some other table's order.

It was a delightful evening. Because I am a food writer, I was given lots of samples from other people's meals: Matthew gave me my first taste of sardines not from a tin. Gorgeous! I would definitely cook them. Which would bring our family acceptable-fish list up to an impressive... five. Better than none. And Selva donated a scrap of pheasant with pearl barley and red cabbage, and sure enough, there was a little piece of shot in it. "That's how you know you're in England," he assured me. "Do you hunt?" I asked, and he said immediately, "I don't kill things." Interesting answer.

Although there was occasional talk about everyone's children (ranging from 4 to 22), the conversation was refreshingly undomestic: we talked about painting, writing, the Queen's personality (sweet), gardening (can't), the food, Obama (of course). Joyce has spent time as a food writer and as such was completely encouraging to me about my upcoming meeting next with with the Radio 4 fellow, which I'm steadfastly not thinking about in order not to flip with nerves. She's keen that I join the Guild of Food Writers, which I'd be more than happy to do, but first I have to sell, literally sell, two pieces before I can. Want to buy a blog post?

All too soon the cab was outside to take us home, since we all live within six blocks of one another, and we trooped out, again past all the ageing (mostly), dandified, slightly past their sell-by date artists lingering over their dinners. Fabulous. And in the cab Matthew asked if I'd like to write restaurant reviews, and I laughed and told them a bit about the experience in Devon where we all reviewed the previous night's meal and how I hated doing it. "I know what you mean," he said, "One of my best childhood friends is a food critic and he's so hateful about it! I don't know how he lives with himself, sometimes, and he's really a nice chap." "I always think about A.A. Gill," I said, "why anyone would want to incur that karma." "Oh, that's my friend!" Matthew laughed. For heaven's sake. Gill did write a hilarious piece for the Sunday Times Culture section a couple of weeks ago, railing against personal farming. I''m paraphrasing, but it was something like, "Of course you can grow your own food, but it's like whittling an automobile. You can do it, but it's stupid."

I would have liked to be a lazy bum today and rest on a fabulous evening out, but I had a ticket to the BBC Good Food Show at Olympia, and so I was a good compliant girl and went. Now here I want some praise: unlike my usual method of telling you about things that are over, or will be over so quickly you'd have to helicopter in to do them, today is the first day of the Show so you can go Saturday or Sunday. It was good fun, although I have made a mental note as usual not to go on my own next year. It's missing some of the fun not to have anyone to ooh and ahh with, frown critically with you, eat the last bite of something you don't like, convince you to stop sampling EVERY cheese you encounter. So I'm taking names to accompany me to the next thing. Still, I had fun.

What you do, as with the Taste of London, is buy little tokens that represent a certain amount of money (in this case a pound each, which made me wonder what was wrong with using the little token called a pound coin) and then you go around with a map of participating restaurants and have little two or three bite samples of their signature dishes. It's a great bargain, especially for someone like me who likes a little bit of a lot of flavors and for whom a restaurant portion is always too much. For five tokens I got Kai of Mayfair's unbelievably tender Wasabi Prawns, huge tiger prawns sort of napped with a wasabi mayonnaise and sprinkled with tiny cubes of mango and basil seed. Two of them! So exotic and while something I probably COULD do at home, I never will because of John's anti fruit+meat stance. Of course this lovely restaurant is about five blocks from our old flat, but did I ever go? No.

Then I moved on to Sumosan's T+T Roll, an improbable-sounding but astoundingly good sushi roll with tuna and truffle oil. Oh my. It does sound odd, and I was skeptical, but it's a marriage made in heaven. The softness of the tuna with the hint of aromatic truffle was hugely pleasing, plus there were some very nice crunchy fried leeks tucked in for texture. Three whole portions!

I really, really wanted to like Alan Murchison's cooking because he's such a big personality (and very interesting on nutrition), but I did not. Perhaps I chose the wrong thing. He himself was there, and enormously appealing: a rocklike, aggressive face that you wouldn't want to encounter in a kitchen close to a knife if your dice wasn't small enough. A true chef's face, which is both good and bad: good because it reflects strong character and impressive achievements, but bad because there's a LOT of attitude present as well, which is a massive turnoff. I always prick up my ears when chefs say there is no room for ego in their kitchens... methinks they doth protest a tad too much? So I had a portion of his smoked ham hock and foie gras terrine, topped with far too much apple chutney, and all I could taste was smoke and salt and sugar. The texture of the terrine was nice and firm, but I want my chutney on the side if at all, and I don't want to feel like I've smoked a cigarette and had a saline rinse when I eat. But you go, and try his fillet of salmon in oriental broth, or the lemon mousse which looked nice if you have a sweet tooth.

I knew I was defeated and had to turn in my remaining tokens. Next time, I swear, I will not eat so many cheese samples, but it's hard to resist! When there's Snowdonia's Red Leicester with Chili and Crushed Peppers, and Cornish Blue, so smooth and creamy, and ... stop me.

OK, there were also the Rossmore oysters on the half shell stand... but I couldn't resist the address. Listen to this, my American friends: Lakeview, Old Hollow, Worth, West Sussex. I'd eat anything that came from there. And I sampled (I know!) and bought a packet of fantastically expensive but delightful jambon iberico from Iberico Foods, which I think will work for dinner tonight in an improvised carbonara: not even cooked, just trailed along the top of the creamy sauce, with some porcini mushrooms from The Mushroom Troop, who were giving samples of porcini pate, yum. I may ever eat again.

Finally I visited the upper gallery with something like 100 food producers' stalls (more cheese! be strong), but by then I was flagging. I'm sure the Slow Food Movement people were interesting, so give them a try, but I was too tired. There were an awful lot of people, and it was HOT, and I hate to be hot. Amazing crowds: school tours, old people in wheelchairs, silly spiky-haired young men talking earnestly about wild boar, people with kids on leashes, elegant European tourists, you name it. But no Americans. I think I was the only one, honestly. Two days in a row! Life is looking more interesting.

13 November, 2008

a book I would marry if I were single



















But first: do you, devoted readers, notice the tiny little changes to my blog template? For one, a rare photograph of me (not often seen in captivity). It is just about the only photograph of me that I have ever liked, although my mother in law objects and says she likes laughing photographs better. Fair enough, but this one is just fine, plus I think it adds a little piquant, modern touch to my otherwise basic blog. The little wrenches everywhere? Not so sure about those and totally clueless about how to remove them. Suggestions gratefully accepted.

And, although I'm not sure what the point of this is when my poor blog is actually a private concern, you may show any allegiance you feel by listing yourself as a "follower" of the blog. Feel free. Keeping up with technology could be a full-time job if I let it.

Much more to my liking is to happen upon a book, about cooking of all things, that makes me laugh out loud on the bus, then slam the book shut and try to look out the window, only to dip in again and again find myself incurring covert looks of fear and loathing. Generally speaking, people who laugh out loud on London buses should be avoided. Finally I put the book in my bag. But you must find yourself a copy, The Pedant in the Kitchen. I've given you a link to the paperback, but I am proudly clutching my pre-credit-crunch hardcover bought at the incomparable Books for Cooks and apparently shelved immediately, I know not why. I know Julian Barnes to be a novelist, but I've never read anything else he's written (I did rush to my bookshelf to see if I have any of his other books, something that happens with embarrassing frequency: "Oh, look! I wonder where that came from"). I offer you this:

Being a great cook is one thing; being a decent cookery writer is quite another, and is based - like novel-writing - on imaginative sympathy and precise descriptive powers. Contrary to sentimental belief, most people don't have a novel inside them, nor do most chefs have a cookbook. 'Artists should have their tongues cut out,' Matisse once said, and the same - if even more metaphorically - applies to many chefs. They should be chained to their stoves and merely allowed to pass food through the hatch as we require it.

and

The relationship between professional and domestic cook has similarities to a sexual encounter. One party is normally more experienced than the other; and either party should have the right, at any moment, to say, 'No, I'm not going to do that.'

I'm about halfway through and it's all good. There's a common denominator to books I like about cooking: they are stories first, and then there is the food. Barnes does not provide a single recipe, which in a way lets him off the hook rather handily. I'm also greatly enjoying my second run through a little-known food memoir called Potboiler, by Robert Canzoneri, a lifelong professor of English at Ohio State University. The book is summed up in the subtitle (all academics add subtitles to their books), "An Amateur's Affair with La Cuisine." He was the rankest of amateurs when rather late in life he acquired a new, very young wife and with her a kitchen that did not contain, naturally, his old, not so young wife who had cooked every meal for him during their marriage. He plunged in with gusto and the recipes vary from the simplest pasta sauce and homemade baguettes to Crabmeat Justine and Rock Cornish Games Hens Stuffed with Pine Nuts. But it's the stories that anchor the book. The recipes are a bit of a cheese course: nice, but not necessary.

Another irreplaceable favorite is Lillian Hellman's Eating Together: Recipes and Recollections, which tells you all the dirt you always wanted to know about Dashiell Hammett but felt prurient so you never asked. And great recipes. I am heartbroken to discover I left this book in Connecticut over the summer and have, credit crunch or no, ordered another copy to have here. And of course there is Ruth Reichl, whose "Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table" is also not to be read on the bus, and none the worse for that: a simply crazy childhood for the New York Times food critic and editor of Gourmet Magazine.

It occurs to me what all these books have in common: they are written by writers, not chefs. Of course these people can all cook, and do cook, and very well I'm sure. But first and foremost, they write. Our intrepid tutors Orlando and Tamasin drilled this into our heads more than once in Devon: we are writers first, and secondly food writers. I think that an overlooking of this distinction accounts for 99% of the rubbish cookery books out there. You cannot just be able to cook, to be able to write about cooking.

Right, rant over. This evening will bring a reluctant me to the swimming pool (it's raining and cold and my firelit study is very appealing), and then a rare thing: dinner out! A couple of new friends are taking us to the Chelsea Arts Club, a place I have never been for the simple reason that until now I have never known a member of it. I'll report back if it's a blogworthy story, rest assured.

12 November, 2008

make do and fend














I often have the best of intentions.

As in, to pick up a recipe, follow the directions, behave myself in the kitchen.

And then real life takes over. Such was my experience today. I found myself inspired by my friend Edward's most recent blog post to try a recipe by his beloved Australian transplant chef Skye (seriously) Gyngell. She is serious, by the way, very much so, in fact in a way that normally irritates me a tiny bit, so perfect is she. I confess that as a non-chef but pretty devoted home cook, I am attracted to very tolerant, relaxed cooks and really read serious chefs only for fun. But because I respect Edward I decided to give it a try. And, hand over heart, I really did. Try.

It was so simple! Grilled sea bass with a sauce called salmoriglio, which for some reason all day long I could not spell properly for more than ninety seconds at a time. Normally I am quite a natural speller, but this one stymied me. At any rate, recipe in hand, there I was at my supermarket looking for the simplest of things: fresh oregano. Or even marjoram, the recipe assured me. Well. No go.

I contemplated a wild run to Waitrose in Westfield and then checked myself: no time. So I turned off my recipe button and turned on the common sense one, and it was but the work of a moment to think, salsa verde. As in, quite simply, green sauce: skip the possible capers, no vinegar, but GREEN SAUCE. There was a pathetic bush of basil. No thank you. What there WAS, in luscious green profusion, were flat-leaf parsley and coriander. That would work for me, especially with sea bass. So off I went.

And it was marvellous. The older I get and the more evenings my family troop hopefully into the kitchen at 7:30 sharp expecting something to get them through the night and the following day, the less I follow the rules. Needs must, in wartime.

Skye Gyngell's Grilled Sea Bass (yes, but a la my instructions),with Samoriglio (well...)
(serves 4)


2 sea bass, filleted and cleaned by someone other than me, into 4 fillets
1 tbsp olive oil
sea salt and pepper
4 small cloves garlic, peeled
pinch dried chilli flakes
1/2 large bunch each (perhaps 12 stems each, but only LEAVES) flat leaf parsley, coriander (cilantro in America)
220g olive oil
juice of 1/2 lemon

Please don't subject your fish fillets to a grill at fridge temp. It's shocking. Let it rest for a bit on a clean plate as you do everything else. Paint it with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper and leave it.

In a mortar and pestle or frankly a food processor, mash up the garlic, chilli flakes, then the parsley and coriander. Blend in the olive oil, and leave the lemon juice until you are JUST ready to serve, then blend it in.

Under a hot oven grill, just two inches or so below the elements, grill the sea bass fillets skin side up for 5 minutes. Put on your exhaust fan so your cats and neighbors are not unduly upset by the smoke alarm in your kitchen (I speak from experience, about three hours ago). Watch the fish closely and take out just as it is browned.

Serve with the sauce drizzled over top. We found that a side salad of tomatoes and mozzarella with chilli oil and chives sat right, plus sauteed tenderstem broccoli. Lovely.

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

My point is, don't be discouraged if your purist intentions are thwarted. The point is to feed the people around you something mind-bendingly tasty, nutritious, a little luxurious, a little rebellious if you can't get exactly what you thought you needed. Give yourself a break and enjoy your job: providing sustenance day in and day out.

11 November, 2008

quick amendment

For the lunch salad: I intend COOKED (as in tinned, since I rarely cook my own pulses) black beans and lentils, not dried. Just rinse them and drain them well! You can of course cook your own, by all means. But this recipe intends cooked. Sigh of relief, thank you Rosemary!

10 November, 2008

lunch when it's raining cats and dogs















You know, when you look out the window and the little subconscious hope you had of lunch out fades in the face of the deluge? I had really promised myself a bit of time in my local cafe, drinking a decaf latte and eating something I had not labored to produce myself. Alas, I just couldn't bear the thought. So after rummaging through the larder and the fridge, I came up with a frighteningly good salad, and with a little advance planning, you can easily have everything on hand, all the time. The only fresh ingredients are things you probably possess anyway: little tomatoes and sugar snap peas.

Everything Tuna Salad
(serves two easily, as in me, two days in a row)


190g jar of tuna fillets, the most pretentious and expensive you can get, packed in olive oil
1/2 cup black beans, rinsed and drained
1/2 cup lentils, rinsed and drained
handful sugar snap peas, sliced on the bias into bite-size pieces
handful little tomatoes, sliced in half
handful pitted olives, sliced in thirds
juice of 1/2 lemon
1 tbsp peperoncino olive oil
1 tbsp olive oil drained from the tuna (discard the rest)
freshly ground black pepper
salt to taste
2 hard-cooked eggs, quartered

Simply mix everything together but the juice and oils: shake those up in a jar, seasoned to your taste, and pour over the salad. Arrange one of the quartered eggs on a plate and place a nice mound of the salad beside it. It is satisfyingly pretty, and with a piece of Ryvita (or toast if you're feeling self-indulgent), it is quite the perfect lunch.

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

Alas, I DID have to go out. It was Wimsey's day for his sort of monthly shot of anti-crazy steroids, and he was definitely looking crazy so it was no time to be selfish. I wedged him into the carrier and set out with him over one shoulder and an unwieldy umbrella over the other, and felt distinctly sorry for myself. We were soaked by the time we reached the vet, which is that annoying distance away that is too short for a taxi (if such an apparition were to manifest itself in my neighborhood, which is unlikely), and slightly too long to walk in the downpour. I had settled him down on a chair beside me when the waiting room door opened and admitted a heaving, hurling, snarling canine thing that simply LEAPT at my poor cat, nearly knocking the carrier to the ground and completely terrifying the poor soul. "Georgia!" shouted the owner, grasping her by the collar and dragging her away. He was a picture: a huge, beefy, tatooed, toothless old soldier type, grunting and straining to control her. Georgia? For heaven's sake. With Georgia and her loving owner was a second man, a shriveled, tiny Japanese fellow smiling shyly and looking as if he wished he were wearing a bathing suit. I think they were a couple, and Georgia their loving offspring. For goodness' sake.

Wimsey put up with his shot and we came home. I felt quite, quite martyred. Now as a reward for my good behavior, after school I must shuttle Avery to the dentist to have two teeth extracted. I can tell you with absolute certainty that she has spent the entire day at school suffering in advance of this ordeal and I cannot say I blame her. Poor child. Do you think a person who's lost two teeth by professional intervention can eat lasagna for dinner? It's the only thing I could think of that was completely soft and yet with nutritional value. So in order to have it ready after the dentist and the compensatory trip to the swimming pool, I have undercheffed it and the dish reposes proudly in the fridge, ready to be slipped in the oven when we get home.

I've spent the day glued to my desk, absolutely determined to make something of my next book chapter: but it's hard going. I am beginning to think that when a chapter is sucking, and sucking badly, it's time to abandon it and move onto another topic. While belaboring and tinkering and persevering may work for writing a dissertation (actually I didn't belabor that one much either), it does not seem to work for more expressive, creative projects. The piece has to FEEL right, there has to be a sort of heart-pounding, "I'm loving writing this" feeling, a sparkle. I have felt it often enough to know when I'm not feeling it. So I'm going to walk away, try not to beat myself up too much, and come back to it later. You know it's bad when you'll do ANYTHING: fill out Christmas Fair raffle tickets, clean the litterbox, make a dish of lasagna: anything to avoid writing that *&^* chapter.

Right: I can delay it no longer. The dentist beckons. Wish me luck.

the first, and last, time I cook venison















I am increasingly of the opinion that I am not, in fact, a real cook. Certainly I am not a chef. I read of my mentor Orlando's brilliant escapades with sourdough, with triangular-shaped rolls that he bakes close together so that his restaurant guests can literally "break bread" together. The only bread that will ever be broken in my kitchen will be the hopelessly solid concoction that I am sure would be the result of me and yeast getting together. I just don't have it in me, the precision, the patience, the dedication.

And tonight yet another indication of my amateur status: deer. I mean, venison. But you get my point.

I am fine with chicken, beef, pork. As Avery points out, it's because the animals are not appealing. Lamb give me a minute, MINUTE pause. Partly because I can remember feeding their little selves at our Connecticut farmer friend's barn, and Avery later being given a hat made with their wool. But I tell myself they have had a long (well, not so very) and happy life in the fields of the very Cotswolds hills where we take long weekends. We should all have such a happy life and end up being eaten and appreciated.

Then, this weekend at my beloved Marylebone Farmer's Market (my weekly haunt when I lived nearby last year), I succumbed to the lure of the most beautiful display of meat I have ever seen: the butcher of Cleeve Farm, Devon, cutting up gorgeous venison into fillets, and "short-cook steaks." While John was waiting in the queue of Maldon Oysters, I ventured over and purchased three steaks. The deep purply red of the flesh! The soft texture, the assurance from the butcher that I would be back next week after I cooked his venison. And NO photographs of actual deer, at the stall.

I came away excited to try them. And I thought Orlando's sauce for fillet steak would be perfect with them, with a side of potato puree with creme fraiche and a nice big bowl of sauteed sugar snap peas with chili olive oil.

And... they were. Perfect, I mean. Gently sauteed in a mixture of olive oil and butter, seasoned perfectly, just medium rare so that the flesh was rosily pink. The sauce was a divine inspiration to go with venison, the sweetness of the shallots and Marsala a perfect foil for the intense flavor of the meat. But it was... deer. As in, the animals that crossed our lawn and our road in Connecticut this summer, to our awe and delight.

John had no such scruples. He happily devoured his steak, ate the remnants of Avery's once she had been defeated by her emotions. He was unmoved by our doubts, saying simply, "Just once, I wish you would cook something I like," grinning down at his plate scraped clean, and heading off to the new Apple store at Westfield to try to fix my computer. I was left to do the considerable dishes from this extravaganza, and to contemplate my moral dilemma. Deer.

The rest of my adventures at the farmer's market were quite peaceful and non-productive of ethical issues. I bought buffalo milk cheeses (one young and soft, almost like a mozzarella, and one a hard Cheddar-like confection called Junas, quite delightful) from Alham Wood Cheeses, and they were perfect to sample right at the stall. Although how we can have had any appetite for samples is beyond me, as we had consumed with total gusto a total of 18 oysters at the Maldon stall, farmed in the Blackwater River in Essex, ordered six at a time, and slurped down with the perfect combination of shallots in vinegar, Tabasco and lemon juice. There is no more divine thing to eat in this world than Maldon Oysters shucked as you speak, freezing cold and slippery. Heaven. Would you believe that on a given Sunday in my market he shucks 500 of the little darlings?

Then it was onto World Country Organics where I was suckered, I can only think of it now, into buying a quantity of small, GREEN tomatoes. Why did I do this? The stallholder assured me they would make lovely chutney. I don't want to make green tomato chutney. I bought them, God save me, and brought them home, and we tried to eat them, but they were a horrid combination of rock-hard and bitterly acidic. My mother in law, no mean cook, advises me to roast them with olive oil, garlic, maybe a real tomato or two and a red pepper to add sweetness... I will try tomorrow. Advice gratefully accepted.

This evening, before my deer adventure, found us at Avery's new school for Parents' Evening, to trail round the enormous Great Hall sitting down at five-minute intervals with her various teachers, being told of her exploits. And may I kvell? While we tried really hard, last year, not to obsess over school choice, it really was a thrill to have all six of her schools to choose from, and to feel we'd made the right decision pairing her up with this particular august institution. Tonight we were told in no uncertain terms that she's thriving. Absolutely doing wonderfully, asking thoughtful questions, looking out for her classmates, contributing imaginative ideas to the atmosphere. We both felt rather overwhelmed by happiness that she's been such a consistent personality: patient, intense, rather socially cautious (hmm, is that her father's influence or her mother's, one asks?), focused and dedicated. So funny to think that that is exactly how her kindergarten teacher described her, 8 years ago. I think there is actually not very much wiggle room in a child's personality: you get a certain person and it's the best you can do to nurture it and make sure it is listened to and appreciated. Well done, young Avery. We are very proud.

I have saved the best news for last: I am a new aunt! Devoted as I am to my beloved niece Jane, I have, in the last 36 hours or so, acquired a new little sprout, dear baby Molly. My sister is thriving after her ordeal, proud and peaceful, and happy to have it all over. I cannot wait to meet her, at Christmas time. Congratulations, everyone, on a new member of the family. How funny to think that suddenly, overnight, November 9 is someone's birthday. We love you already, Molly.

06 November, 2008

my beloved skeevy market














I know: it doesn't look like much. I was tempted to wait for a sunny day to make it appear at least marginally appealing, but I might as well wait for a rabbit to come down my chimney. This is London, after all, where we, like the Eskimos and snow, have at least 200 ways to describe "grey."

But my point is not the aesthetic, but rather the gastronomic pleasures of Shepherd's Bush Market. Someday I will discover why my neighborhood has such a funny name: it has either a bucolic or ecclesiastical origin, I'm sure, or just a city planner with a sense of humor. In any case, when I first moved here all the neighbors waxed lyrical about "the market" and I hightailed it there right away. To find... squalor. A bit. Pavements littered with scraps of rotted fruit and veg, shoppers routinely slapping their children, who never seem to mind, piles of baseball hats for sale alongside rayon underwear of every description. But I persevered. And what you really must do is judge the inside of the market by the very first fruit stand. Solid, bright red peppers, British sweetcorn on the cob, unwrapped, beautiful cauliflower, you name it. And I am a sucker for endearments from veg guys, so being given my change along with "my darling" or "my love" warms my heart.

Venture into the market and you will shortly come to a very mingy, temporary looking fish stall, but do not be fooled: these ladies know their sea bream from their plaice and can fillet a whole salmon faster than you can give them your recipe for a Marsala-creme fraiche sauce for it. I once bought two dozen scallops in the shell from them, for which I had to place an order a week in advance, and I was nearly rendered senseless by the disgusting chore that is cleaning a live scallop. But the freshness overwhelmed me. Always in their freezer are enormous frozen raw prawns in the shell for your Thai prawns (scroll down, my patient readers). And here are two fun facts: their stall must close every night, so all the fish is completely fresh EVERY day. And, there is no fishing on Sunday, so guess what? No fish stall on Monday.

Further into the market you'll find many more fruit and veg stalls, so be patient if the first two don't have your cilantro. And there are several halal butchers for your chicken fillets (can you tell I'm making my biryani this afternoon?). Just please, don't do as I did when I first arrived in Shepherd's Bush and encountered my first halal butcher. Do not go in, look around, and then ask, "No pork chops today?" I am lucky I got a butcher with a sense of humor. "No pork chops ANY day, my love, we are Muslim." For god's sake, you'd think I just got off the boat, from some very ignorant place.

There are countless little spicy-smelling shops where you can buy your basmati rice (in 20 kilo bags, if you prefer), your Greek yoghurt and your olive oil. But you must ask for the saffron at the till, because it's kept under lock and key and sold in 100g increments. I LOVE that. You feel you're getting a secret stash.

It must be said that along with all your food-shopping needs you may also assuage your desire for a genuine cubic zirconia tiara, a baseball cap with the American eagle emblazoned on it, a plastic rolling pin decorated with turtles and frogs, the best falafel wrap you have ever had, fingernail varnish (five for a quid), fake flowers in funereal arrangements, and wedding dresses. Something for everyone.

I am feeling particularly bloggy today because I had the nicest, most unexpected encounter in my local cafe with two blokes who have inspired me to ever further journalistic heights. I sat down at one of the communal tables and ordered a latte and then overheard the two guys sitting opposite one another discussing the turnout in our recent election. "You know, it was right around 64%," one said, "which is pretty much unheard of." I couldn't stop myself. "Which is really pathetic, when you think about it, what was the other 36% doing?" And they didn't mind at all letting me in on their conversation, which rapidly turned to telling me a bit about their professions: a rather political/documetary-ish writer one, and a comedy writer for radio the other. Writers! Wasn't I just singing their praises? We discussed the election, the state of BBC funding and firings, the politics of hunting (whether foxes or pheasants), and finally, food. I told them about my blog and invited them, and I got a lot of invective against the situation that made me go private. "There's a story for the technology section somewhere," Chris thought. Maybe when Avery goes to college. The morals of blogging and how much of a conversation or experience is yours to blog? Don't know the answer to that.

I rationalised sitting there for ages chatting with these two lovely young men as... research. There is a particular energy about talking to writers, and on my walk home I analysed what it is, and came up with: curiosity. They are endlessly curious, looking for a story, for a character, for an anecdote, a relationship between ideas. My cafe is full of them and I felt I should go and sit there more often, rather than hunching over my desk with a cup of tea by myself.

Right, must go cook, and then swim. I've been so good lately about fitness, with tennis and swimming, that I feel completely justified in an extra helping of biryani, with my writing friends, tomorrow.

05 November, 2008

anniversaries














My friends and family will tell you that I'm tiresomely addicted to anniversaries. Many of my sentences begin, "Just think, it was only a year ago that..." or "Just think, this time last week we were..." So it is no surprise that I'm thinking today about arriving a month ago at an obscure train station in the wilds of Devon in a spitting drizzle, diving into the unknown for a week of what was billed somewhat dully as "food writing," but what was ultimately rather a life-changing few days. I wrote, yes, but more importantly I spent a few days learning to give up a certain self-importance about my writing, self-preservation, self-consciousness. It may have been only the group that we were, but we formed an atmosphere where self-expression was de rigeur, dragged out of you rather unwillingly sometimes like a forced confession in a police station, other times exploding almost without will in a story of unexpected significance, but always into a space where that expression was protected and valued. The words were analyzed and valued (or not) for what they were. There was no pretense and very few barriers between us and our work.

It's intriguing what happens when you find yourself surrounded by other writers. You lose the sort of distance and anonymity you take for granted in other groups of people, people who go through life just living. Writers, even budding writers, go through life observing other people, finding hypothetical relationships among them, hypothetical words to describe them, imaginary situations to put them into. Writers live everything at least twice: once in the living and once in the imagining what sort of story the living would make. It makes no difference that we were all ostensibly writing about food, because as became abundantly clear during the week, to write about food is to write about life. As the great radio presenter and writer Simon Parkes said to us out loud (we had all been thinking it as the days went by), "You can ask people about their politics, about their families, about their lives and they will tell you nothing, but if you ask them about food, you get their observations on all the above." It's true. There is an intimacy, an inherent warmth to speaking about food, a conversational trick that sneaks up on you and before you know it, you've laid bare your most treasured and, until then, unspoken thoughts and memories.

I suppose if we'd been in Devon writing about crime fiction or screenplays or children's stories we'd have forged some sort of bond. It's inevitable when you have no other means of communication: no phone, no television, no newspapers, no computer. You have to bond with someone about something, for *&^%'s sake (we swore a lot that week). But we weren't there writing about crime fiction. We were there writing about food, and that meant we wrote about our childhoods, our parents, our travels, our marriages, our children, our lovers. And then to compound the intensity, we read it all out loud to each other and survived the process of reaction: individual words analyzed, rejected, replaced with other words, the whole intimate project on public display.

I miss it. Tomorrow is my once-monthly London writing seminar, a four-hour session with six people I've got to know fairly well over the past year or so. It's at my house and I'm cooking a biryani for lunch. We'll accomplish something. I'm reading out something I wrote in Devon, and I know there will be a silent dialogue in my head running something like this: "Just think, a month ago..." Thank you, everyone, for an unforgettable experience.

Chicken Biryani
(serves 8)

2 cups basmati rice
5 cardamom pods
5 whole cloves
1 tsp black peppercorns
1 bay leaf
1 stick cinnamon, snapped in half
1/2 tsp salt

1/2 cup oil (not olive, better sunflower)
3 onions, finely sliced
1/2 cup yogurt
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 tsps grated fresh ginger
4 green chillies, finely chopped

2 lb diced chicken
1/4 cup chopped tomatoes
5 cardamom pods, slightly split
1 tbsp ground cumin
1 tsp garam masala
1 tsp ground cloves
dash freshly ground pepper
2 bay leaves
1 tsp ground cinnamon
2 tsps coriander powder
1 1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon

3 tbsps lemon juice
handful chopped coriander
large pinch saffron, soaked in 4 tbsps warm milk
butter for dotting

Now. I know that looks like a lot. But I've divided the ingredients up into the categories in which they're cooked together. Picture the rice and spices as the potatoes in a moussaka, or the pasta in a lasagne. Then then onions and chicken and such are the meat sauce. And the last bits are the parmesan cheese topping. Trust me.

So steam the rice with all the spices in it, wrapped in cheesecloth or a little empty teabag like they sell at Japanese tea markets. Stop the rice cooking just before it's finished as it will cook more in the oven. Remove the spices and set the rice aside.

Now brown the onions in a large skillet until quite, quite brown. Save about 2 tbsps on a dish, and put the rest in a large bowl. Combine with the yogurt, garlic, ginger and chillies.

Brown the diced chicken in the onion skillet for about five minutes, and then add the yogurt mixture. Mix well, add all the other ingredients down to the cinnamon and cook VERY VERY low for 30 minutes. The oil will begin to separate. This is good. Remove the bay leaves.

Now you're ready to layer. Start with a chicken layer, then a rice layer, then chicken, then finish with a rice layer. Spread with the remaining sliced browned onions, then sprinkle the lemon juice over, the coriander, then the saffron-milk mixture. Dot with butter, cover tightly with foil, and bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour.