03 March, 2009

burning down the house

Gee, that phrase takes me back to college, when it must have been the title of some Top Forty claptrap song that we danced to... an innocuous little association, considering the havoc that such a situation really entails. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

So I was on my way to the dentist the other day, toiling up the endless hill that is the Wellington Road, walking the couple of miles or so that Transport for London assured me was the most efficient way to get to St John's Wood (this cannot be so, but I needed the exercise). As I ran into Panzer's Deli (quite the most expensive place to buy anything, in this most expensive of cities, but the fresh dill was crying out to me), something was nagging at me, something unnamed, indeterminate, but nagging. Had I forgotten an appointment, forgotten to send Avery's swimming costume to school with her, forgotten to call someone back? I could not get at exactly what it was. So I moseyed on over to the incomparable Kent Butchers in the High Street for some new season lamb (wasted a bit, mixed with garlic and spices for Moroccan meatballs, but... it was there). And still that annoying sensation of having left something... undone.

"AAGGH!" I nearly screamed as I left the butchers. "I left the stove on, underneath my pot of simmering black beans!"

Now, as I learned from everyone I spoke to in the following fifteen frantic minutes or so, this is a moment we have all experienced. I rang John, not at home, not picking up. I rang my next-door neighbor Sara in the hope that her nanny was home and would be able to find the spare key they have for us. No answer. I skipped up the steps to my dentist's office and asked Paula the Irish Receptionist for a phone book. "I've left the stove on under my black beans," I said in a rush. "A phone book, now? You're asking for a PHONE book? That's a blast from the past. I think it might here somewhere [drags a chair over to cupboard, stands on tiptoe, feels around on a high shelf]... ah yes, here it 'tis. Wrapped in its plastic, still, it is! I always think I've left the iron plugged in..." Just give me the phone book, I think. I found the number for our estate agents and rang them in desperation. "Paul, do you have a key for our house? I left the stove on under my black beans." Why did I feel compelled to specify what I had been cooking, to everyone I met? I do not know.

Finally Paul the estate agent advised that I call our landlady Joyce, so I hung up summarily on his tale of once thinking he'd left the coffee maker on when he was at an airport. I rang Joyce. As I apologized and apologized, she said, "Not to worry, Kristen, for me it's always the hair straightener I think I've left on. I'm out and about and I'll run over right now." This seemed so incredibly nice of her, until John pointed out to me later that while I think of it as my house, in point of fact it's HER house. Of course she ran over to check. This logic did not stop me from taking a nice flat of daffodils over to her later, however.

Then I was bundled into the dentist's chair whilst he chortled over once having thought he left oven turned on, and the hygienist remembered driving all the way back from Cambridge to unplug a curling iron that was already unplugged. My mother in law, however, wins the prize for retracing her steps once over the four-hour drive to Minneapolis for the coffee maker that... was already turned off. My phone rang. It was Joyce. "Of course you turned it off, there was no problem. I hope everything's all right at the dentist..." Then John rang, and I told him an abbreviated tale of the adventure, to which he replied, "Well, that's all right then," and hung up. My dentist was amazed. "I'd think he'd be within his rights to give you a right wind-up over that one, Kristen," and I explained that when you have been married as long as we have, you have LONG since learned to restrain yourself from the tempting scold. Why? Because tomorrow, or the day after that, it will be YOUR screwup for which you want a long backlog of having been tolerant of his screwup. Any married person will know whereof I speak.

Whew. Crisis averted. Then the place where I bit my cheek two weeks ago that hurts like hell turned out to be not oral cancer at all, but, guess what, a place where I bit my cheek. "This is a good day, then," said the dentist with British understatement. "Two bad things that didn't happen after all, and it's only noon." I assured him that I was Scandinavian and there was plenty of time left in the day for something bad to happen. My next-door neighbor rang to say she was sorry she missed my call, and how awful to think I'd burned down the house when I ALSO had to go to the dentist. It tells you something about British dentistry, that everyone I spoke to was at least as sorry I was having my teeth x-rayed as that I had torched my kitchen.

Long sigh.

Other than that, life has been quiet. I've been plowing, as we all must do now and then, through the mounds of paper on my desk. School permission slips, untried recipes, reviews of plays I think I want tickets to, bits of writing that might turn into a chapter or a blog post, thank-you notes I haven't written but at least I bought the cards for them. The detritus of a very quiet, predictable life full of predictable details. But punctuated by glorious times with friends! This week found me, when not running around after a mythical fire brigade, at the towering Saatchi Gallery in Chelsea with my friend Gigi. She and I feel compelled every now and then to bring out our PhDs, dust them off, say some intelligent things about something cultural, and then retreat to the real purpose of the meeting: lunch and gossip. Gigi is one of those people whose thoughts spring full-formed, in real sentences with punctuation and flair, so that conversation with her is very entertaining. We wandered through the gallery filled with the current exhibition of Middle Eastern art, talking about veiling, trying not to look at one particularly disagreeable installation of puppets representing Iranian prostitutes, admiring some blurry and evocative photographs covered in silk.

But the triumph of the whole show for me was this room, filled with life-size aluminum figures of women in full veiling, hollow and haunting. The installation had a very Rachel Whiteread feel about it, which of course made me happy. I can be made happy with almost any artwork that involves abstracted objects made out of unexpected materials in multiples (it was just that aesthetic that, as you can imagine, that made my gallery such a rousing financial success). But trust me, the room is beautiful. Each figure is bent in a slightly different way, as if listening to a different prayer, yet there is an anonymity to them all as a group that I'm sure says something about the artist's attitude toward women in Islam. Worth the whole price of admission (which is actually free). Go, do. Take an intelligent friend (I'm not sure Gigi's available, though) and open your mind. It was funny, our coming at this show from different cultural perspectives: me the unconnected Agnostic, and she a multi-cultural Muslim. And the next day she sent me our shared horoscope, which ran something like this. "Try not to spend all your time with people who think like you do." It was as if someone had been following us around the show!

Oh, and such a funny taxi experience yesterday; I keep thinking I have already written this down, but I don't think I have. I flagged one down in Chelsea, and asked the driver, "Would you take me to Whole Foods please?" and he said, "Don't see any reason why not!" so I jumped in and to be friendly said, "What a beautiful day!" and he replied, "Can't buy weather like this. In fact, the only weather that's worth worrying about is whether you can get up in the morning or not!" That's a proper London taxi driver for you.

Last night Vincent and Pete came round to supper, after a long absence. It was heavenly to hear their knock at the garden window, open the door, be crushed in big bearlike cashmere arms, kiss cold cheeks. And we ATE. Dinner was, if I do say so myself, sublime. I really want you all to go straight to the shops and load up on sweetcorn and rocket, and make my soup, the only thing I think I've ever invented all on my own. I'll give you the recipe again to save your having to hunt for it, plus for extra festivity last night (I always have to put on a bit of the dog for Vincent) I added sauteed scallops. I was completely happy with it, and even Vincent who (whatever he said last night!) really does not like soups very much, enjoyed it. We could not have seconds because... we ate it all the first time around.

Creamy Sweetcorn and Rocket Soup with Scallops
(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
2 additional tbsps butter
1 dozen large scallops, sliced in half across the width

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 soup 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.

Just before serving, place shallow bowls in a warm oven to take the chill off. Melt the additional butter in a large skillet and when it's really hot, add the scallops in a single layer. Fry until there is a bit of color on the hot side, perhaps 2 minutes, then carefully flip over to the other side, roughly in the order in which they went in the skillet. Fry on the second side until JUST cooked, less than a minute. Take off the heat. Quickly ladle soup into each bowl and divide the scallops among the bowls. Serve immediately.


We simply wolfed it down. I had forgotten how satisfying it is to feed Vincent and Pete, how enthusiastic they are, how appreciative. We talked our heads off: the Saatchi show, Heston Blumenthal and the Fat Duck (they will never convince me to go! I swear!), Vincent's girls' amazing command of the Italian language after just months living there, my cookbook. And we tried a new method of keeping Avery happy after a series of adult evenings: she repaired upstairs with a pizza and a movie! It was nice, just once in awhile, to be able to cook two courses that she doesn't like and not worry about her. For the main I served Richard Corrigan's crab tart, and although I'll never be a pastry chef and baking always still fills me with a bit of fear, it turned out gorgeous. I added a bit of fresh thyme and cayenne to the pastry which gave it an extra sort of flair, and may I say as well: buy the fanciest crabmeat you can find, with the biggest chunks, and do NOT flake them as you sprinkle them into the tart. Coming upon a big juicy chunk of claw meat cradled in cream and goats cheese was a delight.

Crab Tart with Scallions and Goats Cheese
(serves 12)

175 grams plain flour
75 grams cornflour (cornstarch)
1 tsp salt
120 grams cold butter
1 tbsp fresh thyme leaves
dash cayenne
2 eggs, beaten
sprinkles cold water

250 grams white crabmeat
250 grams goats cheese
1 bunch scallion, minced
600 ml double cream
6 eggs, beaten
salt and pepper
1 egg, beaten

Make the pastry by mixing, in a food processor, the flour, cornflour, salt, butter (in little pieces, gradually), and thyme. Then add eggs and water to make a nice stiff dough and form into a ball. Wrap in clingfilm and refrigerate for at least 20 minutes.

Roll out pastry to be at least 2 inches larger all round than the tart tin (21 cm diameter and 3 cm deep). Line the tin gently with the pastry, draping the extra over the sides (do not trim yet). Line with foil and weight with beans and bake at 160C for 40 minutes, then take out the foil and beans and check to see if the pastry is dry. If not, bake again for 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, beat the eggs with the cream and season well. Beat the leftover egg and brush the baked pastry crust with it, all over. Scatter the scallions and crabmeat over the bottom, then pour over the cream and eggs. Bake at 180C for 20 minutes, then lower the heat to 160C for another 40 minutes. Leave tart to cool to room temperature before serving.


I laugh as I read this, "serves 12." Not if three of your guests are big, hungry men who like their crabmeat. We barely had two servings left over with only FOUR of us! These men are Lucullan in their appetites and tastes. Make a big nice salad of yet more rocket, lamb's lettuce and chicory, with a good spicy dressing, to serve alongside.

We could barely bring ourselves to attack the cheese board, strawberries and grapes, but we managed. A feast, and a welcome return of old friends.


Rosemary said...

Kristen, after considering a day before sticking my neck out with an observation, I have to say that the sculptures look to me like a prepared baked potato ready to pop in the oven after you retrieve it from its plastic wrapping. Maybe you had to be there . . .


Kristen In London said...

I never say this, but LOL! My first uncharitable, anti-art history thought: Jiffy Pop. But then, my old training reared its ugly head and I quite liked them. Now I have to ask Gigi what she REALLY thought, before I bossily said I thought they were very cool...

Rosemary said...

Jiffy Pop is good. Oh my, you made me laugh which, under the circumstances, is a good thing.


Kristen In London said...

Laughing is good. Spent a lot of today imaging what else I could do to lighten your load and came up empty. How I do wish you could have shared our cozy afternoon with Avery and Elsa making cards for Cozy Crazy, or whatever their company is called, and then salmon in brandy and creme fraiche for dinner.

But honestly, you'd like the sculptures!

Foxi Rosie said...

Actually the statues reminded me of three hours spent in a body wrap to sweat off the excess pounds so that i could fit into my favourite evening dress!

AND you will have to do the Crab tart in May... it is the law...

Kristen In London said...

OK, so much for me trying to sell you all on Great Art! I give up! Everyone's much more interested in crab tart... fair enough! Goodness, baked potatoes, Jiffy pop popcorn, gym kit... I give up!

Vincent Keith Photography said...

It was such a treat coming over and enjoying your warmth, fun and amazing cooking. I got a thrill seeing some of my photos on your walls - especially satisfying as I know how picky you are about your art and what you display. Vincent is not a huge soup fan - that's true, but it's generally because the bulk of the meal is dominated by a single recurring (often bland) taste - your Corn and Rocket "soup" was a wonderful appetizer - subtle, interesting, beautiful to look at and I would love to have it again. We love you all...
Vincent (&Peter)

Kristen In London said...

Bless your hearts, Vincent and Peter, we had a fabulous evening as well. I'm beyond excited to have given you a positive soup experience! Here's to many more. And of course your art adds so much to our lives. More, please!