06 April, 2009

A slice of life

Right, it's a first. Walking Avery's friend Emily home last night, we encountered a lady with something on a lead, actually harnessed, and it was a giant white bunny. I asked the lady, "Is this...?" and she said proudly, "Yes, it's the Easter bunny. I bring her out at night so she isn't overwhelmed by attention. But pet her, she's very friendly." I thought the girls would jump out of their skin. And Emily happened to be carrying a wicker basket (why? no idea) so she put it down on the pavement and right on cue, the bunny jumped into it and settled right down, nosing around, no doubt looking for the Cadbury Creme Eggs that were the only props missing from the scene. Long, white ears of impossible softness, actual hopping, and then sitting on its heels and stroking its face with its little hands. Both girls (and I, to be honest) suffer now from serious bunny envy. They immediately went into a campaign to convince John that we need a bunny. "The lady says she has two cats and they ALL GET ALONG!" Apparently bunnies are easily trained to a kittylitta tray, so the objections are dwindling. John's taking a simple line. "No." Watch this space.

I have a new favorite book. It's out of print, but relatively easy to find, as I stumbled upon it out in Lincolnshire last week. "A Slice of Life," a title of which I am massively envious (why didn't I think of that for my book?), it's a compilation by Italian-American writer Bonnie Marranca of a huge number of essays on food. Some are written by foodie people, but some by fiction writers, anthropologists, historians. There's the irreplaceable Michael Pollan on food ethics and what constitutes "natural", and Adam Gopnik (he of "Through the Children's Gate", a book about New York post-September 11 that never fails to make me cry) on the crisis of French cuisine in the world of expanding fast food. There's Frederick Kaufman, amazingly the dad of one of Avery's old school chums, writing about culture of dieting (enough to send you straight to the grocery store to avoid these traps). And a searingly painful essay about a concentration camp book of "imagined recipes" by Cara de Silva, recipient of her ancestor's writings. I cannot imagine. Then Rachel Laudan writes about how silly it is to complain about "fast food," when the mechanisms of producing food fast feed the ENTIRE world.

I could go on and on. I won't. But there are dozens of varied, passionate, articulate, move-you-to-tears essays about... food. It's what I always say: ask people about politics and they will stay silent as the grave. Ask about their families, and they say smiling, "We all love each other." But ask them about food and... you get politics, family, history, tragedy, tradition. You get everything. Trust me.

I'm working on an essay about rocket. Do you call it arugula, or roquette? No matter, I have something for everyone. And no doubt, for someone, a tearful memory of Grandma will result, or a recipe from one's favorite restaurant where one celebrated one's 19th wedding anniversary. And had a wicked fight. And... You see what I mean.

As far as simple recipes go, and in the interest of slightly narrowing our girths, this month, I offer:

Grilled Salmon with Pancetta and Peppers
(serves 4)

4 fillets (about half a side) salmon
1 tsp Fox Point seasoning
1 tbsp olive oil
1 cup diced pancetta
4 red, orange or yellow peppers, sliced lengthways
4 handfuls rocket leaves or mixed leaf salad

3 tbsps olive oil
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
juice of half lemon
1 tsp prepared horseradish
1/2 tsp mustard
salt and pepper

Rinse and pat dry the salmon and lay it on a large platter. Mix the Fox Point with the olive oil and smear it over the fish. Leave to take the refrigerator chill off.

Fry the pancetta in a heavy skillet until crisp and brown and then lift out of the remaining fat onto a paper towel to drain. Fry the pepper strips in the pancetta fat and then lift them out and set aside. Place a handful of salad leaves on each person's plate.

Grill the salmon skin side down for four minutes, then turn and grill for a further four minutes, then peel off skin and discard. Divide evenly among the four plates and scatter the pancetta and peppers around the fish. Drizzle with dressing. Voila.


This is perfect diet food in my opinion, because it has the satisfying salty fat of the pancetta, only you leave the fat behind, and the peppers take on that lovely flavor as well. The fish is robust and beautiful, the salad wilts nicely, and the dressing is light. You will love it.

Of course I ruined the diet by having cheesy spinach on the side, but in the Kristen volume of dieting, the cheese is cancelled out by the loveliness of feeding people entire bags of spinach at one sitting.

Here's something that will make you laugh. I told John yesterday, "I got tickets for us to 'Grease,' and Avery goes for free!" He stopped dead in his tracks. "We're going to Greece? Hmmm." As if I would make international travel plans without consulting him, not to mention that the Nasty Immigration Dudes still have our passports so we're stuck here. Then our local little cafe owner asked if we had plans for the break, and I stupidly said again, "We're going to see 'Grease' tomorrow night," and sure enough, "Oh, lucky you, for how long?" So yesterday evening we rented "Grease" and Avery and Emily watched and my God, I felt old. To have been her age when it first came out! Just awful. Stockard Channing has not changed appreciably, but it was shocking to look her up afterward and find that she was a marginally believable 18-year-old at age 34. I can't even get away with being 44 when I AM 44. Sigh. More salmon, please, hold the cheesy spinach.

Today I'm dragging Avery to the optician (better than the orthodontist, but that's coming too), and then she's spending the night with Emily, so I'm casting about for something to cook that she doesn't like. I'd like to say it's awareness of credit crunch that keeps us from going OUT to dinner when she's away, but truth be told, I never want to go out to dinner. Lunch yes, but dinner belongs at home. What to make? I'm leaning toward shell-on king prawns marinated in lime zest and garlic, then grilled on a skewer, with their heads turned into a nice rich stock with a little white wine, reduced into a glaze to pour over the prawns. Couscous or cannellini beans on the side, some tenderstem broccolini. If the prawn dish turns out well, I'll give you the recipe tomorrow.

In the meantime, chew on this: we're actually reduced, or elevated depending on your point of view, to investigating possible Italian citizenship to ensure we can stay here. You would be astonished, at least we have been, at how hard the British government is making it for us to be legal immigrants. With John's job in dicey territory due to this awful economy, our visas are hanging in the balance and we are turning over every stone in our vicinity to stay. I hate to whinge, but it would seem logical to let people stay who are buying things, paying rent and taxes, not using the NHS or the state school system. But no, they'd really rather we left.

So John's deep into birth, immigration, marriage, military, every record you can imagine on his mother's side to make us Italian. Wouldn't it be odd to become Italian in order to become British? Avery immediately averred that she would much rather learn Italian than French, so there's something to celebrate. John's having so much fun finding his grandparents' census records from the 1920s (I know my father has greatly relished finding similar evidence from his side of the family, all online!). Get this: John's grandfather actually emigrated to America in order to fight in the First World War, on the American side. Without even having citizenship. That's patriotism for you.

It's a mark of how important Avery's education has become to all of us. I imagine that without her in her magical school, so happy and blossoming, it would be much easier to jump ship (one hopes not literally) and swim home. After all, there's Red Gate Farm there for the enjoying, and family and friends. But we do adore it here and we hate to be defeated. So probably I should be scrapping my prawn menu and whipping up some cannelloni with a ragu sauce and a frittata. We'll see.

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