22 April, 2009

Lost Property redux

To begin with, I know this photograph does not adequately represent the sumptiousness (as long as you're not vegetarian) of the pierrade platter of meats ready to grill, but it's not too bad. John diagnoses something like "not enough depth of field." I'll try again someday, but in the meantime, the thin-sliced sirloin, duck breast marinated in sea salt and cracked pepper, and new season asparagus, baguette slices to dip into the raclette cheese... the elements are all there. It's the most entertaining dinner to eat, but don't count on any meaningful conversation while you do it, because everyone's concentrating on "Is that my duck bite?" and "When did you put on that salmon piece?" and trying to avoid the hot splatters. It was not the best way to cook asparagus, but it worked, so I've got to give some thought to how to make the vegetable aspect of the experience better. Maybe more fragile veg are better: tomatoes, red peppers, Swiss chard? I don't know. Marinate them all in seasoned olive oil? Trust me to make something that's inherently fat-free, fatty.

The next night we had some ratty, somewhat battered but charming old teak furniture, purchased by my clever husband on eBay, delivered and placed in the garden, so spatchcock chicken happened out there, in the summery twilight, to the accompaniment of (I'm not joking) an ice cream truck behind the garden, and... live bagpipes. I have no idea.

Spatchcocked Grilled Chicken with Herbs
(serves four easily with leftovers for lunch)

1 large organic chicken
2 tbsps olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
handful chives, chopped
handful flat-leaf parsley, chopped
1 large stem rosemary, leaves removed and chopped
1 stalk lemongrass, outer leaf discarded, the stalk minced
sprinkle hot chilliflakes

To spatchcock the chicken, lay it on a cutting board breast down and feel in the center for the backbone. Cut front to back along the backbone on each side of the bone, and remove. Turn the chicken over and spread it out, cutting the parson's nose off (the nob of fat where the head was!) and smashing the chicken flat, cutting through any fat you need to, in order to get it completely flat.

Mix all the other ingredients and smear mixture all over the chicken, front and back. Marinate till at room temperature (perhaps an hour).

Heat grill to 400F degrees. Grill chicken back side down for 20 minutes. When you check it at this point, if the back is getting too blackened, turn the grill down and let the heat stabilize before you cook on the breast side. Grill breast side down for a further 20 minutes, or until the dark meat registers 170F with a meat thermometer.


The meat simply fell off the bone and we fell upon it. What a lovely, quick, summery way to get a whole chicken cooked. At least an hour shorter cooking time than I would ever ROAST a chicken. Lovely with whole red peppers grilled alongside till their skins blackened (rub them with olive oil before putting them on the grill and grill for the last 20 minutes of the chicken cooking). Plus we had warm chickpea, feta and rocket salad, and a sliced avocado in lemon juice. Yum yum.

For our last day of freedom before school started up again, we found ourselves at Richmond's Ham House, sort of a yawn as far as stately homes go, but with a lovely, lovely garden and maze (and a dairy with very creepily believable cast iron cow feet, as you see) and a gorgeous cafe in the 17th century orangery, covered, COVERED with wistaria. Almost unbelievable as a vista. I think what makes the house a yawn is that it was only one of many properties owned by the family, and no one could be bothered to take it on, so the National Trust got it. It felt emotionally abandoned, and empty, yet cared for. Rather like a Victorian child with a mother in the attic and father dallying with the nanny. If you know what I mean. Which is nothing.

And we were able to check in, afterward, on the progress of the nearby Petersham Nurseries' fight against closure, against ridiculous accusations of the traffic brought to the village by the restaurant. In this economic climate! The idea of closing a successful restaurant because it's too successful and its success brings TOO many people calling? Simply outrageous. All luck to them. All they can do is wait for judgment.

Today was one of those days where I suffered agonies of nightmares in the wee hours, and thus woke to a feeling of reasonless anxiety. The subject of my bad dreams? A bizarre experience wherein I saw a word typed out, and yet could pronounce only a wrong, off version of it. The example I remember clearly is seeing the word "Flesh" and being able to utter only "Irish." See what I mean? In my dream I could conceive of the relationship between the real word and my mistaken pronunciation, but I could not control it. At times like that I should just get the hell out of bed, but such is my ingrained habit of appreciating a lie-in that I just couldn't. Like waiting months for a movie date with your husband, and then in the first ten minutes you can tell you HATE the film, but you don't want to leave because you LOVE movies. And you were really looking forward to it. But that dream threw me. What on earth can it mean?

So I got up in a fog, and for some completely irrational reason, had one of the most productive days I can remember in months. I edited three chapters, wrote out a long list of the chapters to come, made name labels for all the guests expected at Friday's Lost Property luncheon, wrote the copy for the school newsletter, emailed the secretary for a crime records check on a new volunteer. And that was just the morning and afternoon!

This evening I sauntered through the breezy, blue early evening to my first Parents' League meeting at Avery's school. This is a post I now hold because of my new, exalted position as Head of Lost Property, and I may tell you now, that is one hell of an intimidating table of women. And one man (poor fellow). Seventeen of London's best and brightest (and then there was me), gathered around under the watchful oil-on-canvas gazes of many former head mistresses, crowned over all with the most perfect, elaborate, silvery-white plaster ceilingwork, and surrounded on all four sides by floor to ceiling antique books, complete with teak and brass ladders to swing all round the room.

Goodness. I am well known to have a sort of problem with female authority figures, and there I was with seventeen of them! And one man. The agenda was dispensed with with alacrity and efficiency, I was duly elected and seconded (guess they never tracked down that GBH in 1979), my predecessor was praised and raised to her new post as Chairman of the League. It's a bit frightening: the past three Chairmen of the League have come from their most recent post as... Head of Lost Property.

Just lovely. I didn't embarrass myself, everyone was kind and friendly. Plans were made for coffees to plan further bits of brilliance to come. I came away feeling exalted, responsible, a bit in denial at the intense coolness that is Avery's school. The wit around that table was palpable, everyone listening to every comment with a view to contribute a clever response, an intelligent and funny suggestion. It's the perfect combination of qualities in a certain sort of woman (completely recognizable on either side of the Atlantic): having achieved something glorious on her own before becoming a mother, this type of woman brings all that energy, all that generosity and brilliance, to her child's life and the school she goes to. A formidable group of ladies. At least I didn't throw up or hiccup, but my stomach did growl a bit as dinnertime came and went. I got a ride home from the new Chair and simply fell upon a plate of leftover spatchcocked chicken with homemade pesto.

So the lesson is something like this: you can start out a day feeling nauseatingly sunny and positive, and accomplish exactly nothing. Or you can take your black and blue mood, sit down at your desk and try to justify your existence. I said that to my friend Gigi today and we both sighed simultaneously and agreed that there are some days when just emptying and refilling the dishwasher is about all that can be done. But when a day like today happens, it gives me a bit of hope.

And did I hear you say you needed something to read? I just finished The United States of Arugula: How We Became A Gourmet Nation by the brilliant writer David Kamp, and it's a hoot. I'll give you a hint: the chapter I finished writing this week is all about arugula/rocket, and this book was Way, Way Better than anything I could ever write. You'll see your eating and cooking life flash in front of you with Kamp's tales of The Galloping Gourmet, Julia Child, Alice Waters, Craig Claiborne, Gael Greene. A roller-coaster tale but one written with a lot of humility and just enough optimism. I feel quite optimistic when my child's best friend asked from me for Christmas a bottle of aged balsamic vinegar. Either that, or we're approaching Armageddon. You decide.

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