24 February, 2009

a blow-away play, a lazy Sunday

What HAVE I been doing with myself since Friday? Well, the first report is that War Horse, at the Olivier Theatre at the National through March (and thence to the New London theatre in the West End) is superb. Incomparable, and I don't use that word lightly.

Of course going to this play with a daughter who is not only horse-crazy but extremely horse-savvy could have backfired badly. One wrong step with the enormous and intimidating horse "puppets" might have been tolerated, but not more than one. And Avery assured us from the very first movements of the gawky, awkward but touching foal at the beginning, right through to the tearful end with the war-ravaged animal surrounded by his human co-stars, we were all quite convinced that there were living horses inside those creatures. A sweet plot, designed to teach children (and well, me too) the lessons of World War I and in fact about the futility of any war, well-presented and just frightening enough to be effective. Adult language and attitudes were handled with subtlety and humor, and the slightly off, stubbornly loyal teenage lead... simply a massive talent. It is his first professional engagement! What a phenomenon.

Avery was solidly inspired to work even harder at her acting classes. In fact, she has an audition tomorrow for something relating to an emu ("a story with a man and his really big bird," the agent said blithely on the telephone to me today).

Saturday was the last lazy day of Avery's half-term (which seemed to fall about a day and a sneeze after Christmas, to be honest). John shot his wad at brunch, wolfing eggs Benedict at the local cafe, when our gorgeous neighbor Selva stopped by our table to say he was on his way to the butcher. "Wild boar tonight, for guests: I'll let you know if it's all right." "Want to stop by the butcher ourselves?" I asked John when he'd strolled away. "Wild boar? I'm game," he said. Badaboom.

By mid-afternoon Avery and I were frustrated by John's enforced immobility with his ankle (he finally went to the doctor yesterday, inconclusive) and so we ended up at Westfield, shopping for his birthday which will be Friday. She is such fun to hang around with: puns and silly jokes, stories about her friends and school, musings about what I ought to write my next chapter about. Her use of language is a joy: I nearly forgot to write down the latest hilarious example, when we were at the Gothic Temple in October. We all jumped down from a stone wall to cross the sort of ditch so common in the grounds of English country houses, called a "ha-ha." Avery looked up and down the length of it and said, deadpan, "Let's ditch this ha-ha."

Sunday she spent at the stable and we adults repaired to Annie and Keith's house up the street, bearing my "Everything Bean Salad," and my new sweetcorn and rocket soup, to be eaten right along with their son Fred's array of homemade pizzas. Fred took a much-needed break from his French essays to take orders for toppings. "Chorizo? Mozzarella? Olives?" We were all very dull and said "Yes, please" to everything. Keith demonstrated his recipe for the delightful crisp salty cayenne-y pastry slivers he'd brought to our house a couple of weeks ago: I watched and learned, and envied him his pastry thingy on the mixer machine. My pastry thingy is my hands, sadly.

Annie ran around calling doctors for John's ankle, stopping then to discuss films we all have to see... I recommended "La Double Vie de Veronique," and Annie waxed lyrical about "The Talented Mr Ripley." Then we moved on to "Desert Island Discs." I can never think of ANY music I would prefer over any other, on a desert island or anywhere else: my brain simply freezes up. When it came to the "what's your luxury item"?" question, John dodged all the rest of it neatly by saying, "My iPod." Next time I want to play their other favorite game: "Desert Island Dishes." Mashed potatoes, anyone?

We ate and ate and ate. And talked, about parenthood, our childhoods, the girls' future educations, swapping stories of the funny things they do and say as they tread this space between little girlhood and teenagedom. If they go on as they have begun, we'll be all right.

Finally Keith took the pastry for his crispy thingys out of the fridge, and as you can see, went right through the assembly of them for my education. I would always rather learn pastry-making for the first time by watching someone who knows how. That way I can ask all my gormless questions and see it done by the master. He is the least bossy but most competent of teachers and, most important, not mean to me when I don't understand. Therefore I came away with a supremely readable, followable recipe, which I offer to you. I have retained his measurements, and his style, because... I like him, and I LOVE his reference to my sexy new ceramic rolling pin, a birthday gift from my beloved.

Keith's Crispy Salty Pastry Treats
(Makes about 25)

250g plain flour + extra for dusting
1 tsp baking powder
115 ml cold water
25 ml olive oil
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp paprika
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1/4 tsp black pepper
coarse sea salt for sprinkling.

1) In a large bowl (or in the mixer using the dough hook) mix together all the ingredients except the sea salt to form a soft dough. You might need to add a little more water. work it until it becomes firmer, wrap in cling film and put to rest in the fridge for an hour.
2) Heat the oven to 220c/gas mk 7.
3) Turn dough out onto clean surface & have bowl of flour ready for dusting ( You'll use quite a bit!) Cut off walnut size pieces of the dough. Roll out each piece with your NEW rolling pin until they are paper thin and like long wide cat's tongues, bout 20 cm long
4) place crackers on a baking tray lined with baking parchment or one of those super non stick liners. Brush with plenty of olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt. Bake for about 6 mins until crisp and golden.

I did them [Keith says] in batches: ie, I would roll out 3 and bake them, and whilst they were baking roll out the next 3, and when the first batch were ready I would remove them from the oven onto a wire rack and place the next 3 on the baking sheet, brush with oil & salt etc etc.


I must warn you that these little creatures are ADDICTIVE. If you are lucky enough to have any left when your guests leave, they are the most sublime carriers for hummous, a creamy goats cheese, a thin slice of pate. I imagined that one could sprinkle on garlic granules, or grated pecorino cheese, or more cayenne to make them really spicy. But Keith sprinkled on black mustard seeds and they were lovely, as were the plain salty ones. Gorgeous. Thank you, my friend.

There is, I must digress, something heroic and divine about a man who spends his working week in the city, in this environment a quite backbreaking and worrisome task, and then comes home to spend his Sunday teaching a friend to make pastry treats. Equally his wife, reaching into her imagination for films for me, her Rolodex for a doctor for my husband, her love for her kids in her advice to Fred (between pizza bites) on his essay on Richard III... how lucky we are to have them up the street, to be fed by their gorgeous son, have Avery spend the afternoon with their delightful horsey first daughter, and thence to school with sweet Emily, all week long. That family is a miracle. And yet quite down to earth! I'll tell you, Annie's planning to give up "fighting with Emily" for Lent.

Let's see, somehow this Sunday lunch feast was not too much for us to be quite, quite hungry by dinner time, and then it was but the work of a moment to concoct, in that spontaneous and inspired way that ALMOST NEVER visits me, the best potato salad ever.

Potato Salad with Fried Pancetta, Lemon Grass and Goat's Cheese Dressing
(serves four as a side dish)

1 lb small waxy potatoes, skin on (I like Baby Charlotte)
3 stalks celery, diced
1 large red onion, diced
4 oz pancetta, cut in cubes
1 stalk lemon grass, outer leaves removed, minced

1/4 cup goat's cheese
2 tbsps single cream
dash red chili flakes
juice of 1 lemon
1 tbsp mayonnaise

Steam the potatoes till just tender, perhaps 15 minutes. Meanwhile, fry the pancetta cubes in a little skillet until crisp and brown. Drain on paper towel. Remove potatoes from steamer, drain and quarter, place in a large bowl. Add the other salad ingredients and toss. Shake up dressing ingredients in a jar with a lid, then pour over and serve immediately.

I needed to prepare this ahead of time and come home to it, so I kept the pancetta in a little uncovered bowl (on a high shelf away from cats!) so it would stay crisp. Do not refrigerate the pancetta if you need to do this, as it will become quite soggy and with a texture like the clammy paper towel you drained it on.

When ready to serve, mix everything well. Lovely, fresh, unusual.


Monday I was taken to a blowout lunch at a two-Michelin-starred restaurant (a first for me!) by a an MI5 agent masquerading as a food writer... but more on that later. Just for now, make yourself a bowl of potato salad and order your tickets for "War Horse." You'll thank me.


A Work in Progress said...

So glamorous! Never mind the rolling pin, this Keith guy sounds very sexy. I love the descriptions as always (though I think I will probably buy flatbread and fantasize about the pastry crackers - sounds time-consuming, especially with guests arriving). I hope the book is coming along well.

Kristen In London said...

Quite, quite a lovely man. His wife and I are constantly trading tales on men we have crushes on, but actually we each have a crush on Keith. But he'll never believe it.

The little crackers are time-consuming: I'd say the pastry making itself didn't take more than 10 minutes, but then the rolling and baking altogether took more than an hour. But if you had a book on tape, or some music to listen to, or a great companion, it would fly by and then you'd be the star of the show, with a platter full of these little guys. I now thing they should be called "Cats' Tongues."