18 February, 2009

a riot of rocket

Actually I'm taking contributions under advisement: you have your murder of crows, your pomposity of professors, your cloud of bats and leap of leopards. But what do you call a very large gathering of rocket leaves?

These are, of course, known to Americans as arugula, in which case I'm quite sure there's an entirely different collective noun. An amalgamation of arugula? Not romantic enough.

In any case, imagine my circumstances. I invited 11 people for dinner, fair enough, to conclude with an enormous salad of rocket leaves, my absolute favorite green leaf and unprocurable in America, therefore of great cachet during the 10 months of the year I live in England. It turned out only nine of my invited guests could come so already I had too much rocket, and THEN we turned out to be far too full after the dense and perfect 72% dark chocolate tart brought by my guests... so no salad. Still the rocket lived in my fridge.

In these days of simultaneous credit crunch budgetary considerations AND environmental guilt over the tiny little drawings of airplanes on every package of veg these days ("air freight!" the bags proclaim), I simply could not let the rocket languish as I might have done in more careless days. What was a girl to do?

Well, first I took a look in the other corners of the fridge and found beetroot, goats cheese, and some little cubes of pancetta I bought in a mood of laziness and hunger, and a little dish of homemade pesto. In the freezer were some luxurious whole tiger prawns. It was simplicity itself to buy some supplementary scallops and produce:

Warm Scallop and Prawn Salad with Beetroot and Rocket
(serves 4)

1 dozen frozen raw whole tiger prawns
1 bag rocket (about 2 cups loosely packed or about 70 grams)
1/2 cup pancetta, cubed
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp butter
2 dozen small scallops
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 medium beetroot, roasted and cubed
1 small log (about half a cup) goats cheese
1 tbsp pesto
1 tsp balsamic vinegar
juice of half a lemon

It's an assembly job. Thaw the prawns in cold water and pat dry. Gird your loins and take the heads off the prawns, making sure to get the antennae as well. Scatter the rocket on a nice platter. In a heavy skillet, fry the pancetta till crisp, then set aside. Add the olive oil and butter to the skillet and cook the prawns until thoroughly pink, but not so long as to let them get tough. Remove from the skillet and set aside. Turn up the heat under the skillet and cook the scallops for about a minute on each side, till nicely browned, but again, not tough. Remove from skillet and set aside. Now fry the garlic gently, gently, just till soft but not browned.

Throw the beetroot cubes onto the rocket, then crumble the goats cheese over. It's all very pretty now, like the Italian flag. Scatter over the scallops and prawns and pancetta, then whisk together the pesto, vinegar and lemon juice and drizzle it over all. Spoon up the garlic in its olive oil and butter bath and scatter it over top of all.


This salad was very satisfying and stimulating to eat. "There are too many ingredients, I can see that," I said, wolfing down another mouthful, and John agreed. "But what would you leave out?" We couldn't think of anything.

Well, that took care of one package of the long-suffering green guys, but I had three more packages to go. They spent another day in the fridge while I racked my brains for something to do with them. Clearly I have too much time on my hands. "Don't invent anything, Mummy!" Avery wailed. "Not just for the sake of inventing something. Wait till you have a really GOOD idea." And then it came to me.

Creamy Sweetcorn and Rocket Soup
(serves 4)

2 tbsps butter
4 cloves garlic, sliced
2 shallots, sliced
4 ears sweetcorn, kernels cut off
3 cups chicken stock
3 bags (about 6 cups loosely packed, or 200 grams total weight)
1/2 cup cream

Melt butter in heavy stockpot and saute garlic and shallot just until soft, then add sweetcorn and cover with stock. Simmer high for about 10 minutes, then add rocket and stir just to soften. You will be astonished at how it simply disappears. Blend with hand blender, stir in cream, and pass through a sieve to catch the corn kernelly bits (or not, if you like more of a potage than a smooth liquid). I find that the best way to get soup through a sieve is to put the stockpot that is your destination pot into the sink, pour the into it through the sieve, and then SHAKE the sieve gently till the solids are left behind. It's a bit messier than just stirring (hence the sink), but it's much faster.


How to describe this soup? I am well known, I realize, for being inordinately fond of any veg simmered with chicken stock and pureed with a hand blender. I could be made to eat almost any quantity of any vegetable in this manner. But this soup... it boasts a very appealing golden yellow color flecked with the bright green rocket, and tastes much creamier than the scant amount of cream actually in the soup would lead you to believe, and it's unexpectedly SWEET. A surprisingly complex flavor, given the small number of very ordinary ingredients. But there is something in the strong bite of the rocket combined with the, dare I say it, unctuous smoothness of the sweetcorn that is extremely happy-making. And I've googled it and I think... I invented it. I know there's no new recipe under the sun, but I haven't seen this combination and I think you should all try it, right now. Of course I am extremely lucky to live here in England where rocket can be found around any corner and the Normandy cream is mine for the taking, but look at it this way: if you live in Iowa or Indiana, your corn will be better than mine. I bet canned corn would be just fine, too, and would make the soup even less expensive than it already is.

I am very proud of myself for this invention, in no small part because it encourages me to try new things. Of course for every successful invention (or even small departure from the norm) there will inevitably be several culinary howlers, but how else do we rise above the relentlessly quotidien in the kitchen?

Let's see, in between these rocketish discoveries, I went shopping. I know, I know, credit crunch. But two things happened: a Boden catalogue landed on my desk, and my parents sent me a check for my birthday! Found money! Like what you find in your jacket pocket from last winter. Pure manna from heaven. So when my friend Annie saw me perusing said catalogue on a recent trip to the charmless Westfield Shopping Centre in my fair borough, she said, "Save the postage: I'll take you there." Now that's why one has friends who are real Londoners. They know where the bodies are buried. So off we went.

It was a sort of milestone: my first real grownup clothes shopping trip with my on-the-verge-of-teendom daughter! Of course I've taken HER shopping countless times: for rewards for an exam well-passed, or desperate for shoes that don't pinch. But to go to a shop where we could both find things? And with friends? It was a great afternoon. Spitty grey skies, we were perched high in Annie's SUV-ish vehicle (as opposed to either of the orange Minis owned by our families), not noticing traffic because we had so many stories to tell. Our girls are at an age where they are fascinated by any motherly reminiscence about things familial that happened before they appeared on the scene. "How did Keith propose to you, anyway?" I asked, and that was good for several miles. We seem to do nothing but laugh when we are together, and before we knew it we were at Boden, I with my metaphorical money burning a hole in my pocket. Annie and the three girls were on a mission to help me spend it. Shopping is actually fun with the right staff, I found!

"No brown! And no grey," Emily instructed me, and insisted on bringing over many selections in fuchsia and teal, all of which I vetoed. "And no orange!" Avery opined, which cramped my style. An entire shop, mind you, with no black garments; it's amazing I found anything to buy. "Am I too old for a cropped cardigan?" I asked meekly and at least four ladies turned around and said in tandem, "No!" We have to help each other through these little shaky moments.

So today I am proudly wearing a new jumper with blue stripes. I feel I've disappeared and been replaced by an exact replica. Thank you, Hoosier family.

It's an unusual half-term holiday in that we have NO plans. None. A day with a skating lesson to remember feels quite crowded. John of course is still limping around with his bum ankle, Avery nursed one of her mysterious one-day febrile adventures, and I have been feeling monumentally unmotivated to do anything more lasting or significant than cook. This afternoon is a positive ode to greyness: the ground, the skies, the very air. So I have a pot of carrot and coriander soup on the stove (I know, veg in chicken stock again) and a new novel on my desk. Have you all discovered Sophie Hannah? My friend Katherine will be glad to see that I'm recommending some fiction instead of the endless lists of cookery books I've trotted out for your perusal. Sophie Hannah is CREEPY. All her stories involve double lives, lying, dead people who aren't dead, faked identities. They are all plots that you can imagine someone (Sophie Hannah apparently) coming up with by watching or experiencing one odd thing and thinking evilly, "What if the bizarre thing I imagined happening really did? What if the person involved went just that bit further down the road of bad behavior than I would ever dare? What's the worst that could happen?" I just finished "The Point of Rescue" and am now embarked on "Hurting Distance." When did you last stay up till 2 a.m. to finish a book? They're just that good. I'll be lucky if I remember to take my carrot soup off the stove...

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