27 June, 2009

Anyone for Pimms?

Well, the time is approaching to say goodbye to our London life for the summer. I walked Avery this morning up the street to meet a friend, chatting cheerfully all the way about getting to the pool in Connecticut, seeing our old friends, babies grown suddenly into little people, settling into the vacation routine. But once I'd left her and come back on my own, I could only think of all the things I will miss about London!

Part of this feeling is my love for our neighborhood, and how we've settled in like a stone in its setting. On my walk home I passed the house where a little group of elderly people sit on hard chairs in the front window, playing classical music on a whole variety of instruments, some sort of tiny chamber orchestra, the sounds spilling out the open window onto the pavement. Then I passed the garden where a lady grows rhubarb, squashes and tomatoes, with her children's toy farm animals carefully positioned among the plants! There is my beloved friend Annie's little vintage car, which makes me think of her and how we'll all miss each other over the summer months, no more sharing rides to acting class and the stable. Up to Chez Kristoff to get a latte for John and a gorgeous runny St Marcellin cheese for me, to say hello to my friend Alan behind the counter, generous as always, giving me a block of chocolate from the fridge case, saying, "Try this, it's the best ever, and how is French ham in your sandwich instead of salt beef? The beef is gone..."

And the BBC! There is nothing like its presenters and their cheerful, analytic commentary of Wimbledon! Even the zany Americans gain some stature and seriousness sitting next to their British colleagues, over a pitcher of what is probably iced tea, but I'd rather think is Pimms! And I don't even like Pimms, but it's English summertime in a glass, so I have a slight soft spot in my heart for it.

So hard to believe there are only five more days to pick Avery up at school. I have a sinking feeling that next year I may not be so very welcome at the school gates, that she might want to bring herself home from school, or even stay after to do whatever near-teenagers want to do. Next week will bring the crazy energy of the Lost Property Sale, with girls racing in on Preview day for the last chance to retrieve items they seemed perfectly willing to live without for months but NOW, the idea that some other girl might buy them the next day and wear them to school! Horrors! I have spent more hours than I can tell you, writing emails to the Form Teachers and Sports and Drama and Music teachers, wailing plaintively, "Please tell your girls to come and collect their textbooks/pencil cases/violins/tennis rackets before they are all sent to some deserving charity." And further hours on the telephone frantically trying to snag all the best mothers for next year's efforts, to replace the mothers of the girls who are graduating! They are called the "Leavers", which term for some reason cracks me up. It's so... unpoetic, for the English. So cleverly, I have found a place at school that isn't dependent on Avery's being willing to put up with me, next year.

I'll miss my beloved rocket, all summer being forced, if I just can't live without it, to buy bags of enormous leaves of something labelled "arugula," which I know purports to be the same thing, but it ISN'T. It's tough and huge, not the delicate little peppery leaves I'm so addicted to here. And I'll miss running around the corner to The Everything Store, so named because aside from fabric dye and a digital thermometer, the store has EVERYTHING. Basmati rice, Danish salami, French cheese, laundry pellets, baking powder, Orangina, birthday cards, toothpaste. Everything! And I've graduated, over the past week or so, from being treated with scrupulous respect by the lovely Pakistani family who own it, to being called "darling girl." That's when you know you've bought a LOT of everything. Or they're just nice people.

So we're slowly accumulating the piles of things to take away with us: photographs to frame and place about the Connecticut house (mostly of my niece Jane, if truth be told), boxes of Maldon salt without which I cannot cook, torn-out recipes that I'm absolutely sure I'll try once I have loads of time on my hands (but it never feels that way, once I'm there). Novels and cookbooks and biographies that have piled up on my desk and are now destined for summer reading, an English chequebook in case I've forgotten to pay some essential bill and find out only when I'm across the ocean. The vet's number, our neighborhood cat lady's number, and the cleaning lady's number, all gathered together in case something happens to a cat (heaven forfend).

So we're nearly ready. One more acting class and day with the horses for Avery, a lovely barbecue to attend at Annie's house, a dinner party to give, a picnic for the last day of school, and "The Importance of Being Earnest" to see at the Regent's Park outdoor theatre! It's the very favorite play for all of us, and I simply can't wait. One last English celebration, under the stars and wavering plane tree branches, before we're off. And one more fantastic English recipe for you before we go! This might not be the most obviously summery dish, but it is falling-off-the-bone delectable, and it cooks itself. And it makes use of that underrated cut of lamb: the shoulder, who often hangs its head before its racier and much more expensive counterparts like the rack, the chop and the leg. I've changed the recipe slightly to suit our tastes, but I wanted you to know that the version by Tom Aikens at last week's Taste of London was my inspiration. Avery is not keen on balsamic vinegar, so I've substituted chicken stock. I had no French Roscoff onions (do you?!), so I've substituted plain old white onions. And I love red lentils, so they've made a surprise appearance. You'll love it.

Tom Aikens' Eight-Hour Braised Lamb Shoulder with Lentils and Garlic
(serves 4 with lots of leftovers)

1 shoulder of lamb, room temperature
2 heads of garlic, cloves separated and peeled
2 white onions, quartered
2 tsps dried thyme or about one bunch fresh, leaves separated
3 tbsps olive oil
1 cup red lentils
1 cup chicken stock

Set your oven to 180C, 350F. Place the shoulder of lamb in a large, heavy pot with a good heavy lid, and surround it with the garlic cloves and onion. Sprinkle with the thyme, drizzle with the olive oil, and salt and pepper it well. Place it in the oven and roast for 20 minutes. The onions will have colored and the lamb, too. Turn the heat down to 110C, 220F and cook for 90 minutes. Then remove the lamb to your eventual serving platter, and remove the onions and garlic to a bowl. Pour the lentils into the pot, place the lamb over them and pour over the chicken stock. Cover the pot and cook for another 4 1/2 hours.

Remove the lid, turn the oven up to 150C, 300F and cook for a further hour. Remove lamb to your serving platter, pour off the cooking juices as best you can into a gravy separator and discard the fat on the surface. Scoop out the lentils into a bowl and then put the onions and garlic that you've set aside back into the pot. Put them over a medium heat on the stovetop and stir until nice and sticky, about 15 minutes.

The lamb will fall off the bone with the use of spoons, which is lovely. Serve with the lentils, onions and maybe a side of mashed potato.


This dish would be absolutely gorgeous, if you're a fruit-and-meat person, with apples instead of lentils. In that case, the balsamic vinegar is probably a must. Give it a try.

Right, must produce some lunch for us and then get back to... packing. Departure beckons.

22 June, 2009

when the child's away...

Well, Monday is here again and last night saw us at Paddington Station picking up Avery from her weekend in Cornwall: how odd to have a child old enough to go somewhere with other people, to a place we've never ourselves been. We missed her pathetically, wondering all the time where she was and what she was doing. Being my child, much of her very picturesque storytelling involved the food she ate (lamb cooked to perfection, many desserts involving an ingredient I'd never even heard of, called tamarillo), the best ice cream on the face of the earth, mint fudge that she brought back in a hot little bundle providing the sorts of clear fingerprints our burglary coppers could only dream of. And her little orange spotted silk scarf, a recent present from me for no good reason, tied up around a perfect treasure trove of things found at the sea: pottery fragments, little shells and stones with one tiny hole in them, begging for a leather thong or ribbon around the neck. Sea glass, little tantalizing glimpses of the sea. What fun she had. And how we missed her. But she's back. "The AIR, you guys, you would never believe it." I think we're Cornwall-bound pretty soon.

After, that is, our approaching summer at "home." It's funny, now we've approached the summer return three times, it's beginning to take on a pattern. First is patent disbelief that such a place exists: as Avery mocks my saying each summer, "the green of the grass, the red of the barn, the white of the fence, the blue of the sky," but it's all ridiculously true. A picture-postcard snapshot of America, and yet impossibly true. Tennis courts, children on bicycles stirring up the dust on our unpaved country road, bumblebees in the hydrangea tree that every single summer seems to flower too late and I say to anyone who will listen, "Shouldn't that tree have bloomed by now?"

And crayfish in the pond, whose elusive and slightly creepy presence my neighbor Anne assures me means our water is really clean. "Crayfish won't live where the water isn't pristine," she says, which relieves Avery who nevertheless forestalls my parochial fervor with, "Do NOT ask me to drink that water, Mommy!" The tiger lilies will be stretching their random orange blossoms toward the house and road from their little bed in front of the house when we arrive, and the grass will show where it needs seeding, the wall will have lost a few more stones and a few days will pass before we implore Rollie the Farmer from up the road to see if he Knows Someone who might possibly repair the wall. So far this conversation has taken place for about six years running, to very little action.

We'll check to see if the 1967 Land Rover (just a bit younger than me and in far better nick than I am) runs at first shot, and if the VW runs at all. The neighbors will drift by to say hello and remark on how tall Avery has become (she really has), I'll run to the farm stand for tomatoes, sweet corn, peaches, and the black plums that Avery begins to eat right in the car, dripping juice all over the seats, only to swipe it up with a towel wet from the swimming pool.

Ah, so, you can see I've progressed right from the first stage of "we'll never be THERE, THERE doesn't really exist," to imagining all the precious bits of being THERE.

Right now, though, we've got the last straggling bits of the school year to get through (that pesky permission slip for next spring's trip to Pompeii, oops, nearly missed that deadline), a trip to the vet for poor itchy Wimsey, silver polish to buy so my dear cleaning lady can while away the boring day once a week when she's here seeing to our bits and pieces. Several days at Lost Property to fill in for volunteers who can't make it - today saw me dealing with no fewer than 60-ish items from irresponsible girls who strewed everything from tennis racquets (seven) to PE trousers (six pairs) to science block eyewear, lacrosse mouthguards (ick), swimming towels and German homework. Last week was the much-vaunted second-hand PE kit sale and a massive success it was! My dear friend Annie was in charge, and her combination of bright-eyed enthusiasm and subtle sales pitch ("these leggings are really nice under the games skirt on those cold days") was perfect: everything sold out that first day, while I made the rounds at the New Girls' Tea, looking for new volunteers for our esteemed Lost Property.

A singularly awful writing class on Wednesday: fully deserved derision for an old piece I'd submitted for the pure and simple reason that I have not produced anything new for at least two months. But you know what? As dismal as I may find my writing skills (I use that last term loosely) these days, I find they were even worse two years ago. Better in the end not to submit anything at all than to be in the unenviable position of defending, or even not, a piece I know to be s**te. What on earth to do to kickstart my creative impulses, put pen to paper, tap those computer keys?

My parents have successfully celebrated, at my sister's able hands, their 50th wedding anniversary, Back Home in Indiana, and a mighty celebration it was. Special photo albums, cake, flowers, all the right guests. My mother sounded high as a kite on the phone, with my dad sounding capably pleased, taking it all in his stride. We'll redouble our efforts with my mother's birthday in August, to encompass the big milestone. Happy Anniversary, you two!

John and I spent the weekend without Avery mostly with him handling insurance details for our burglary, renting a car for the duration until we leave for the summer, with my handling Avery's school details, doctor, dentist and orthodontist, emergency contact lists, all the detritus that piles up on a desk when I'm not looking! And tennis, which I called what we play, until I began watching... Wimbledon today. Oh my! It's like cooking dinner and then watching the Food Channel. As if!

Speaking of the Food Channel, we threw all our recent diet-ish restrictions (no bread, potatoes, butter) aside on Sunday and went for a lunch to end all lunches, inspired by having seen the chef at Taste of London on Friday. The Blueprint Cafe, the domain of one of my favorite celebrity cooks, Jeremy Lee, is a definite destination south of the river. His food, as he said himself in his cooking demonstration at Taste, is one where "the food looks as if it just... landed on the plate, not these little bits placed here and there." Just so! His dish at the demo was chicken fillets marinated in a GREEN paste made of parsley, thyme, rosemary, garlic, lemon, pepper and loads of mustard, in the blender, then baked. Lovely, and his banter was too, too funny. "Have you lost weight, Jeremy?" the commentator asked, and Jeremy answered without skipping a beat, "Why have a six-pack when you can have the whole keg, I always say!"

So I knew we wanted to go to his restaurant, and off we went, with no Avery to ferry to and from the stable (sob). And what a lunch. Grilled pork liver on skewers with bacon, sage and butter, which we both greedily had although we could have shared. Then John had a HUGE plateful of sweetbreads with black butter and lentils, and I had a whole little grilled mackerel (bone heaven, I'm afraid, but lovely) with a salad of cucumbers with dill and mustard. Everything swimming, rather, in butter and oil and loads of salt, which is, sadly, how I love to eat when I'm indulging myself. The side dish of steamed spinach was a revelation: a hint of garlic, and, the very knowledgeable waiter said in an aside, nutmeg. LOVELY. The table came equipped with a pair of tiny binoculars so we could spy on the boats going by just outside the window.

Why is it that conversation is so much more interesting, one makes so much more effort to be GOOD company, when one is out, eating food cooked by other people? Perhaps it's because one's husband dresses up in a specially swanky shirt, looks gorgeous, is full of funny anecdotes and I had to raise my game. In any case, we felt quite, quite swell and luxurious and happy to be out together. Too much home cooking can make Jill quite a dull girl.

That being said, I can report that the marinated halibut with wasabi and ginger that I described to you last time is quite sublime at home, and sprinkled with a little chopped chillies and lemon grass, and served with a dollop of creme fraiche and a slice of good sourdough bread, is a very good dinner for people who've indulged in a buttery lunch. And that, my friends, will count as a recipe for now, because... it's bedtime, and the vet beckons tomorrow. I've got to get my game face on.

20 June, 2009

what to do tomorrow?

I'm catching you just in time to tell you to hotfoot it to the Taste of London tomorrow, because I promise you it will be one of the most enjoyable afternoons you can spend in London, especially if the weather is decent, which I believe it is meant to be. Of course, I must be honest and confess that you won't be able to have quite as much fun as I did, because my friend Charlie was available only to me, yesterday, and his banter, wit and general English gentlemanly charm added that indefinable something to the day. But more on that later. Right now, you just need to book your ticket for the last day, Sunday. Let me tell you why.

My God, we ate. As in years past when I have gone to this event, I've felt completely exhilarated by the sheer variety and virtuosity of the cheffiest food you can imagine. Here's the concept: you buy your ticket just to get you in, and then you spend more money on little tickets called "crowns," which enable you to buy little tiny dishes (usually not more than three or four bites, which means you can share, but not with Charlie) from THE top restaurants in London. So you get a little "taste" of a dish that might set you back 30 pounds at the restaurant, and would probably be a lot more than you wanted to eat, for just about 3 pounds or so.

Charlie and I tucked into many, many dishes, sharing nearly all of them, which was quite perfect, because it doubles the different bits and pieces you can enjoy. I had, all to myself because it was tiny, dressed crab with toast at Launceston Place, home of the adorable young chef Tristan Welch, then it was onto completely delightful and inventive sushi rolls - would you believe FOIE GRAS and sweet soy - from Dinings. Then we returned to my favorite of last year's festival, the T&T sushi roll, truffle and tuna, from Sumosan, as good as I remembered. Fusion food can be brilliant when it's not tormented or random, and somehow truffle and sushi work perfectly together, the slimmest, most delicate of seaweed completing the perfection.

Then we enjoyed a dish from Nahm (the first Thai restaurant in Europe to earn a Michelin star, in case you care) , and while I cannot remember the name of the dish, it was white crab with citrus, peanuts, shredded coconut and ginger in a betel leaf, very inventive and fresh. At Tom's Kitchen, we shared an impossibly creamy and luxurious chicken parfait with grape chutney and brioche, Charlie had Daylesford Organic seven-hour braised shoulder of lamb with mash and caramelized red onions. Finally, last treat was at Le Pont de la Tour, seared Scottish salmon with fennel salad and grapefruit juice. Everything (and there were hundreds more tastes we left behind) such a pleasure.

Here's Charlie in a nut (and I use that term precisely!) shell. As we were leaving, we bought a couple of jute bags from a nice Taste employee at the gate. As we exchanged bags for money, she asked if we'd had a nice time. Yes, very much so, we assured her. But, Charlie said, "The only disappointment was that we did not see more celebrity chefs. That's always fun." "Oh, there've been loads of them here, though," she said earnestly, definitely wanting to please. "I saw Richard Corrigan today in the BA VIP tent, and of course Hugh Fearnley-Whittingsall has been demonstrating." Charlie didn't skip a beat. "How about that hot new television chef, Kristen Frederickson? Have you seen her?" "Oh, yes, indeed, she was here yesterday!" the lady enthused, grinning from ear to ear. Oh dear! Charlie, Charlie. We chortled over that all the way to the tube station.

Right, before I close, I'll tell you what to do with the rest of your day after you've feasted at Taste. Go straight to Trafalgar Square and see the BP Portrait Award show at the National Gallery. The image I've included here is the first prize winner. It's a stunning show of perhaps 100 portraits, chosen from the 1900 submissions the museum received. Some are rather abstract, some quite photographic in their realism, but all are interesting. And it's culture for you, isn't it? I went with my friend Jo last week, still in the throes of suffering over the burglary here, and it was a soothing balm to the soul, to be in the presence of so much artistic effort and loveliness.

And while you're there, check out the exhibition called "Fabiola." If you're anything like me, sheer whimsey and personal eccentricity is cheering, and wait till you see this installation. Apparently in the 5th century there was a saint called Fabiola, the patron saint of abused women, and a 19th century portrait of her became iconic: THE representation of this esteemed lady. So iconic, in fact, that a sort of cult of copying the portrait grew up all over Europe. And now, an artist has gathered over 300 of these copies and brought them all together for this show. Two rooms FILLED floor to ceiling with copies of the same portrait. Some in oil on canvas or board, some pastel, some embroidered, if you can imagine it, and some in glass. Plus a case full of cameos and ceramic boxes, and even a hat pin: all bearing the enigmatic profile of... Fabiola. Fabulous.

More soon on foodie things, because I brought home a lovely thing from Taste in the form of cured halibut. Charlie and I succumbed to a sample that was cured in wasabi and ginger, sort of like the concept of salmon cured with salt and dill. So refreshing and light! So I'll make a sort of salad of it tonight and let you know. And you can tell me how much you loved Taste. Go, there's JUST time.

16 June, 2009

From Ealing to Athens in less than a week

I cannot offer a decent explanation for how long I have been since last writing: it's an odd combination of 1) husband being home distracting me in any number of ways, the most recent being our obsessive tennis playing. 2) I have no new chapter ideas for my book that are really hotting me up, so I feel a bit like a failed writer. 3) too many interesting things pile up and then it's like the photo album: I can face a pile of 40 photographs, but 400? I just want to pull the duvet over my head and look away.

So here I am, midweek on a sultry, oppressive, grey, sprinkly day, and can I tell you something very briefly? We were burgled the other night. Real people in our real house as we really slept, stealing our things. Including our... car. Our beloved Mini Cooper. So at the risk of, as my dear friend Jo says, spoiling your visions of my life as a Shangri-la, a sort of Garden of Eden where only good things happen, this happened. But it's real life. Sadly. We woke up to minor mayhem, missing things, frightening dirty handprints on the wall from one floor to another. They'd been all about, as we slept. NOT NICE. So that, the fallout from that, poor John's having to spend hours and hours cancelling credit cards, filling out insurance forms, you name it, have all kept me from being in a blogging, sharing, self-expressing mood. We keep trying to tell ourselves: after 20 years of married life in major cities, if this is our first encounter with the criminal element, we must count ourselves lucky. If mute.

But I suffer when I don't write. I feel all the warp and woof of our lives is lost if I don't record it, appreciate it. And so a week of activity, so much of it lovely and memorable, has gone by without my making it more than a breath drawn and let out.

So let's see.

I've been playing piano like crazy, and I would heartily recommend your getting ahold of (great Midwestern expression, that) the score to our beloved "Band of Brothers", it's playable, emotional, sensitive and comforting in times of stress. In fact, playing the piano at all has been something I turn to when a recipe is not turning out well, when a chapter is lagging behind my expectations, when a misunderstanding with a friend has got me down. All else seems to iron itself out after a half hour or so at the piano.

Our neighborhood has acquired... a chicken! There is a dear little garden-obsessed boy whose garden is adjacent to ours and who is quite intimately curious about the running of our little household. "Where's that girl who lives with you, and what are you having for dinner?" are typical opening conversational salvos for little Andre. Well, over the weekend he turned up in the gap in our hedges saying, somewhat unbelievably, "I have a chicken." Surely not. "Surely not, Andre," I said, and yet, there, barely visible through the spreading branches of bamboo, calla lily and whatever else provides the greenery between our houses, was a flapping of brown wings. Andre promptly brought over an egg carton, containing two lonely blue eggs. "She lays one every day," he said proudly. So if you add up what it costs to buy the hen, the feed, the henhouse... each egg probably costs about twice what it would to buy it in a posh shop full of such lovelies. Still, if she keeps Andre busy and less likely to scale our wall and enter our house unawares...

Last week found me in a completely new spot: is it called West Acton? Or is it called Ealing? The tube station is Ealing Common, so there's a clue, but it's a curious question. And why do I care? Because my dear friend Janet was in from Santa Monica, of course, and whenever she comes to town, we food shop. Not content with the normal destinations like Chinatown or Little India, anymore, we felt we needed to go slightly more... shall we say, unknown? So we found ourselves somehow in West Acton. I met her off the tube station at Ealing Common, and of course like any self-respecting Londoner, I had to ask parochially, "Don't you miss London?" She didn't skip a beat. "Of course I miss London! People wearing gloves in June! Where else could I get that?" Fair enough.

We sloped along Station Parade Road, as it's called, waiting for our sushi restaurant to open, and as we waited, we came upon the brilliant Cope Brothers fishmonger, now Mo's Fisheries: a perfectly old-fashioned shopfront furnished with marble fittings the likes of which I have never seen: huge old countertops, nicely angled and fitted with water sprays and drains into the floor, for the old days when the fishes were set out on piles of ice. Slightly disappointingly, but I'm sure very cleanly, the modern fish peeked coyly from boxes of polystyrene: sea bream and salmon were what I came away with, fabulously fresh, filleted on the spot. I wish I could say I did something exotic with them, but I didn't. I took advantage of the unparalleled freshness and simply pan-fried the bream (I'm a fanatic about deboning because if Avery finds a bone, that's IT for dinner), and grilled the salmon the next night. Go. You won't find fresher fish unless you catch it yourself. And in unassuming West Acton!

From there we moseyed over to the lovely sort of catch-all food store Natural Natural for searing wasabi paste, wonderful miso soup paste packets for 20p, rice flavoring mix containing everything but the kitchen sink. Lovely helpful staff. I have since made that miso soup and can I tell you? Deliciously rich, no tofu. And the wasabi was wickedly HOT. Which I love.

Finally we sat down to lunch at Sushi-Hiro, a most unattractive restaurant with a singularly silent waitress who for some reason told us that we could have tuna rolls with pickled radish but NOT, NOT with spring onion (I nearly offered to run to Natural Natural for some and come back), and while the menu said "no miso soup before dinner," she brought us some when we saw that other people had some. Hmm. But the freshest tuna belly you can imagine, and Janet adored the spicy chilli roe roll. Good on her, as they say, but no thank you. As usual we talked over and over each other, trading stories of life in New York, her new life in California (don't get her started on missing London, gloves in June or not), Tacy who she fostered without being asked, when we shared a house in Mayfair... a dear friend, is Janet, whose forays into London always make my heart sing.

I shall wait until I have slightly (slightly? a lot) more energy to tell you about our dinner at Feng Sushi Southbank and the evening's play, Phedre, on Saturday. I'd give each about a seven out of ten, which is why I'm not madly keen to spend the energy right now. But let me leave you with two recipes which have brightened the otherwise dark last few days. One will see you through many dishes, if you can stomach it (I bet it can be frozen!), and the other screams summer in England, and as such, is lovely.

All-Purpose Mushroom Stuffing
(make as much as you like but this serves four for the first purpose)

1/2 cup cubed pancetta or smoked ham
2 tbsps butter
10 medium mushrooms, stems removed
2 shallots, minced
3 cloves garlic, minced
handful fresh thyme leaves
1/2 cup goats cheese, crumbled
handful spinach leaves, chopped fine
fresh ground pepper to taste
3 tbsps grated parmesan cheese

In a heavy skillet, saute the pancetta till crisp then lift out with a slotted spoon and set aside.

Set aside 8 mushrooms to stuff, then chop the final two plus all the stems.

Add butter to the pancetta fat in the skillet, then fry the chopped mushrooms, shallots and garlic and thyme leaves till soft. In a nice bowl, mix this with the goats cheese and chopped spinach, then pepper well.

Line up the mushrooms without stems in an aluminum-lined dish. Fill as high as you can with the mushroom mixture, then sprinkle with cheese. Bake at 350F 280C for 20 minutes.


Now comes the fun. Make a whole lot of this mixture: because here is what you can do with it: shove it gently under the skin of a chicken and roast it, idea number one. Number two, fill red bell peppers with it and roast them for half an hour with a little olive oil drizzled on top. Idea Number Three, break several eggs, whisk them with a little cream, pour it into a skillet and cook very gently, then when the eggs are nearly cooked, spoon this mixture lightly onto the surface, turn over twice for the omelette of your LIFE. Fourth idea: slit a hole in a boneless chicken breast, stuff some of the mixture in, close it up with toothpicks and grill for four minutes on each side on a hot grill.

There you go. At least FOUR, FIVE dinners, easy.

And before I collapse with post-traumatic stress disorder, I offer you:

Watercress Pesto with Pistachios
(serves?? depends what you use it for)

2 cups lightly packed watercress
1/2 cup roasted pistachios, shelled
2 cloves garlic
1/4 cup grated parmesan
juice of 1/2 lemon
olive oil till runny: 1/2 cup? depends on your taste

This recipe descended from my random mind: if one green leaf (basil) and one nut (pine nut) make pesto, which means in Italian only "paste," why not mess around with it? Whizz all the ingredients in your food processor. DONE.

We ate this tonight tossed with grilled scallops and spaghetti, nice. You try your own ideas. Drizzled over tomatoes and mozzarella, that sounds good. Or on a fillet of sea bass, or brushed over toasted bread. Yum yum...


Right, I'm knackered, as they say. My blogging conscience is clear, except for "Phedre," and you know what? I'm going to be lazy and say, it was fine, if you care about Athenian politics and are remotely moved by a 62-year-old professing her love for her 22-year-old stepson. Helen Mirren did not walk on water, or perform complex dentistry without anaesthetic, but she said her lines and emoted. Dominic Cooper was convincingly hunky and gorgeous. The set looked, as another reviewer aptly noted, like Stilton cheese, and I am ashamed to say that once this was noted to me I could think nothing otherwise. The play itself was Racine by way of Ted Hughes, and as such was a sort of watered-down (sorry, Ted!) French intensity. Beautifully cast, but the entire effort did not stir a heartbeat. Mirren seemed to be trying to convince us that she felt what she felt. Is that the script's fault, or hers? But you go, and tell me where I got it wrong.

Meanwhile, I'll clean up a little more of the SOCO boys' fingerprint detritus and count ourselves lucky that we lost only THINGS... I promise to be more cheerful next time.

08 June, 2009

all things British, plus more black garlic

What a thrill it's been, living in England during the 65th anniversary of D-Day. I confess to a special interest in the subject because of one unforgettable summer of my life, spent in Brittany and Normandy when I was a junior in high school. For the Fourth of July, our school group spent the weekend in Ste. Mere Eglise, a tiny town in Normandy where the 101st and 82nd Airborne Division paratroopers landed on June 6, 1944. I actually got to stay overnight with the man who had been mayor of the town the night the paratroopers arrived, and I will never forget the stories he told, taking us to the bridge that divided the Germans from the advancing Americans, with a white line down its center to show the exact boundary. Anyone who ever gets a chance to see the museum at Ste. Mere Eglise, see Omaha and the other beaches, GO.

So to commemorate the anniversary we've been watching "Band of Brothers," a stunning HBO miniseries from 2001. All I can say is that this portrayal of wartime underscores the extent to which I am made of The Wrong Stuff. I just don't think I could survive the sheer terror these men lived with. Not to mention the food.

In true British spirit, this weekend our neighbor Toni knocked on our door and enlisted our help in a little neighborhood cooperation. There's a council house (government sponsored housing) across the road from us whose hedge has gradually encroached onto the pavement outside the house and nearly covered all walking space. Toni, whose community spirit is second to none (she regularly pushes flyers about neighborhood safety and cat identification requirements through our letterbox), decided that rather than wait for the council to do anything about it, we should all just get together and take care of it ourselves. Two lovely neighborhood men turned up, one with electric clippers and one with heavy duty rubbish bags, so we met up with them carrying our ladder and a broom. "How are we going to plug this thing in?" the clipper man mused aloud, and Toni marched up to the door of a nearby house where we could hear activity, knocked loudly, and waited. Two young girls threw open the window over our heads and said, "What do you want?" "For you to plug THIS into your electrical socket, young lady!" and she threw up the extension cord. The girls giggled and sat in the windowsill as we worked, dangling their legs over the side of the house. "It's my birthday, I don't normally sit in the window," one girl explained. Why not?

We made short work of the hedge, swept up all the debris and enlisted the help of a passing Hammersmith stranger to take our photograph. It was a lovely, peaceful, friendly sort of afternoon, spent on an activity that absolutely encapsulates the British spirit: pitching in, gently deferring to the lady in charge, quietly contributing the necessary bits and pieces to get the job done. No fanfare. These council house people will come home to a bit of unexpected gardening having been done!

Well, Avery's dreaded exams are finally over. That is, she's suffering her Modern Languages Orals even as we speak, but the written exams finished on Friday, to her total joy. She's given me permission to tell you a funny story, a story that reflects how important it is to be funny, if you're going to be wrong. In Religious Studies, the examiner asked, "Which were the two churches involved in the Great Schism?" Having absolutely no idea, Avery answered, "The Sistine Chapel and St Paul's Cathedral."

Friday saw me on a little London art adventure, sponsored by my Oxford friend Jo. As usual, in my lame way, I am telling you about something you cannot do because I went on precisely the last day. Have you ever been to West Dulwich? Well, until Friday neither had I, even though my erstwhile crush Richard Armitage is reputed to live there. And believe you me, we kept our eyes peeled for him, but to no avail. No, what actually took us to West Dulwich was "Sickert in Venice" at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. Now, not being a person who particularly likes representational art, and being especially not fond of portraiture, Walter Sickert has never fluttered my heartbeat. But Jo wanted to go and I wanted to see her, so Sickert it was. I'm not really any more moved by him than I ever was, but there were some extremely good drawings: figure studies whose lack of embsellishment made me wonder how quickly he might have produced them. When it comes to gritty realism, I think I prefer the American Ashcan School to the Camden Town School but to tell you the truth, I don't like either one very much. But I was a good girl and went, and just about my favorite thing about the afternoon (other than sharing Jo's company which is always uplifting and hilarious) was the excellent lunch in the Gallery Cafe.

Don't you love going out to lunch with someone who likes to share? We ordered three starters: a asparagus and goats cheese tart, smoked salmon fishcakes with herb mayonnaise, and a meze plate with hummous, couscous, feta and roasted tomatoes. Perfect! So now you know where to eat when you've fulfilled your cultural duty and looked at the paintings.

And West Dulwich itself has a lovely shopping street, with one-off clothing shops and a really gorgeous tiny deli called Romeo Jones (scroll down to the shop name and click on 'read more'). It's owned by two locals who are excited about getting all their produce as close to home as possible, and several things are made in-house, including the superb (and strong!) garlic pate I brought home. I also bought a pecorino cheese with rocket and pistachios, not sure exactly what I want to do with it, other than just scarf it down, but it might be good shaved over pasta. They carry a fantastic bresaola that they brought from Italy (so much for local produce!) which is Avery's new favorite breakfast meat. That plus a good helping of summer fruit crumble, and breakfast is sorted for her.

I raced home to take Avery and Jamie ice skating, then John met us with Avery's friend Lille and we raced them to Covent Garden, there to see "Ondine" at the Royal Opera House. A thrilling reward for their exam week. They were all dressed up and feeling quite frisky, meowing at passing pedestrians as we drove along in the Mini, top down even in the sprinkling rain. And then to be met at the door of the Opera House by a manager who didn't think they were OLD ENOUGH to be allowed to stay on their own! I swallowed my anger and irritation, realizing that the whole honey-rather-than-vinegar thing was going to have to kick in (rather than my kicking HIM). "They're nearly 13, and in senior school, and VERY responsible," I cooed, and they put their heads to one side and looked responsible. And innocent, not at all as if they had spit balls in their handbags. Finally he relented. As if I was going to walk away having given up on their fabulous evening! Lille's mother had arranged for them to have elegant little sandwiches at the first interval, and chocolate fondants at the second. What luxuries.

John and I, unlike normal people who would have taken the opportunity to eat out in Covent Garden, came home to an old favorite, spiced up with my new favorite ingredient: black garlic.

Szechuan Chicken with Black and White Garlic, Red Peppers and Pistachios
(serves four)

4 chicken breast fillets, cut in bite-size pieces
1 head black garlic, cloves squeezed out and sliced
5 cloves garlic, minced
3 tbsps soy sauce
2 tbsps sesame oil
1 small hot red chilli, deseeded and sliced thin
1 bunch scallions (spring onions) sliced: white and green parts
1 2-inch knob of ginger, peeled and sliced rather thick
4 red peppers, cut in bite-size pieces
1 tsp peanut oil
1 cup shelled raw pistachios

This dish is a winner on many levels: it's a snap to make and you can have everything on hand in your pantry except for the chicken and peppers. It's pungent and unforgettable from the two sorts of garlic, and slicing the ginger instead of mincing it adds a surprising element of spice and energy.

Combine all the ingredients except the peppers and pistachios in a medium bowl and stir around thoroughly to coat the chicken. Marinate for as long as you like: at least 15 minutes.

Heat a wok or frying pan and throw in the contents of the chicken bowl. Stir fry over a high heat JUST until chicken is cooked, perhaps 4 minutes depending on your heat: be brave and stop before it's too done because the tenderness is an unbelievable addition to the dish. It will cook a bit when you take it off the heat, anyway. Remove from wok with a slotted spoon and place in your serving bowl. In the oil and sauce left behind in the wok, fry the peppers until just softened, then remove from the wok to the serving bowl.

Still over high heat, add the peanut oil to the wok and fry the pistachios for several minutes, until they're crunchy instead of chewy, but take care not to scorch them. Throw the chicken and peppers back into the wok and stir till everything's hot. Serve with steamed rice.


This was fabulous. With, I must aver, the proviso that everyone you are planning to see that evening has some. Because the garlic is wonderfully pungent! It's not for the faint of heart, this dish. You'll love it.

And while it's not worth writing up as a recipe, how's this for credit crunch cooking: if you're like me, you have several bags of tomato sauce in your freezer ("for an emergency" although what emergency would involve tomato sauce I do not know) and you might even have, as I did, a bag of bolognese sauce, and a bag of minced pork or beef. Now I am perfectly capable of keeping such things in my freezer for MONTHS and then throwing them away. Isn't that awful? Well, on Saturday I just felt too guilty doing this, and so came up with the idea to use them ALL as sauce for lasagna! And you know what: it was wonderful. If you had a vacuum packer, as I do now, your leftovers will stay even nicer, but even with that little bit of freezer burn, the sauce was very tasty! And typical me, not having labelled the bags, one of the tomato sauces was Moroccan spiced. I held my breath: would Avery and John like it? And would you believe: one bite and Avery said, "Wow, Moroccan lasagna, that's new!" I felt very virtuous. Just get fresh cheeses (mascarpone, ricotta and mozzarella) and make sure you have noodles in your pantry, and dinner's done.

Well, tennis beckons before the heavens open (the sky looks very threatening), so I shall run and work off the calories from all that lasagna!

03 June, 2009

girlfriends, girlfriends

Dinner tonight: a masterpiece of necessity and duty. Sigh. Cleaned out freezer and thawed some salmon: check. Used up the lemon sole in the fridge: check. Resurrected some slightly iffy beetroots and roasted them till they were caramelly and ready for a balsamic vinegar glaze: check. Applesauce for Avery to accompany the potato pancakes, using up two elderly apples: check.

Edible, yes. Credit crunchy, yes. Inspiring? Sorry, no. I'm ashamed to say it, but it's true. I suppose there are cooks out there, mothers and fathers out there, who never serve an uninspired meal that gets eaten without noticeable enthusiasm in about 11 minutes. But I cannot reach such heights.

Ah well, last night was more than inspired (maybe I used up my quota). My darling friend Foxi Rosie fulfilled her promise to visit us from Dorset and appeared last night like a fairy godmother, bearing stuffed Medjool dates, fabulous wine, and a veritable treasure trove of cheeses from Harrods: oh my! We fed her creamy red pepper soup with a pesto-creme fraiche drizzle, pierrade of sirloin and duck, a crunchy homemade pizza crust with olive oil and garlic, fresh Wye Valley asparagus roasted with rapeseed oil, and a summer fruits salad. We ate outside in the fresh summery air with candles and loads of laughter, jokes from our writing seminar in Devon and the resulting reunion in Hereford! Silliness from Avery with a demented IQ test, John's stories about Goldman interviews and crazy business trip adventures. The more time I spend with Rosie the more I recognize one fundamental fact: the laughter follows her. From room to room, from weekend to weekend, from email to email. She is one of life's givers, one of the truly generous. How lucky we are to have her in our lives!

We sat under a nearly full moon, reminding me of the time when I first met her, in Devon in October, in that weather that we all love so much: whether early autumn or early summer. Fresh evening air, encouraging us to stay out of doors as long as we can, lingering over candles and conversation.

Here is Rosie in a nutshell. She looked at the platters of sirloin and duck that I had prepared, admittedly a bit of an obsessive-compulsive activity, requiring as it does complete trimming of all meat to absolute perfection, since the bites have nothing to hide behind: they are just on their own, grilled alone. "Who on earth prepared all this, Kristen, did you ask your butcher to do it?" "No, of course, I did it myself," I said, smiling, and how did she respond? Not with "oh, what a pain," or "how on earth long did it take you to do?" No, Rosie said gently, "It's about the giving, isn't it?" One cannot invent an attitude like that; it flows from her heart. I think often about what a wonderful quality this would be in a parent: no resentment, no calculating how much has been done and for whom. Just generosity. Her lucky daughter!

It was lucky I had something to aspire to, because our dinner with Rosie came on the heels of my miserable visit to the vet with poor, neurotic, itchy Wimsey. I had hoped his need for monthly injections of cortisone (and their attendant enormous bills!) had been outgrown, but no, he's got crazier and crazier in the last weeks or so. So off I went, stuffing him in his carrier and throwing its strap over my long-suffering shoulder. As enormous as he is, his cries are particularly heart-rending: high-pitched and repetitive, so every person who passed me on the pavement gave me a dirty look. We arrived, he had his injection, I paid up. In the waiting room was a lady with a little girl by the hand, ready to take their young dog home. "I feel so guilty," the mother said. "Castration; it's so invasive, isn't it?" The vet's assistant said imperturbably, "It's much less invasive than female castration, that's certain." The mother asked, "When can we expect him to feel less... desire?" "It really depends on the animal," said the assistant, refusing to be drawn, and the mother caved. "I'll be in with my husband, soon."

Let's see: a bit of a food update: the tuna I told you about, with the complex marinade? EVEN BETTER COLD. Such a surprise. I myself do not go crazy over leftover cold salmon. I eat it under duress, a sort of "don't want to waste it, don't want to overcook it by reheating" pressure. But the tuna? I would gladly make it next time only to CHILL it for serving. Something to think about.

I'm hugely proud of my main accomplishment this week, other than merely the business of living: I finally got caught up on putting all the last year's photos into albums. I just know, or can only hope, that a visit from John's mother is in the offing, and one of the dear lady's favorite early-morning games is to sit on the floor with a cup of coffee and go through photo albums. Let no one, NO ONE, take a photo between now and her next visit! I am CAUGHT UP. Here's a moral conundrum: why do I feel so much more guilty over NOT doing it than I feel satisfied with HAVING done it? That's a character flaw, I'm sure.

What would I, indeed, do without my girlfriends? I would have thought that with John home fulltime I didn't need them so much, but that's far from the truth. As he's closeted with the mysterious business of our finances for staying here, our taxes in both countries, our investments and other issues of which I know sorely little, I do find that my sweet friends make for enormous fun, great sounding boards for recipe and chapter ideas, huge comfort in those moments when one's handling of one's child is a matter of concern and confusion.

Tomorrow I shall take a tube to Victoria station, there to meet up with my friend Jo from Oxford, thence to board a train for Dulwich, to spend some time with dear Walter Sickert at the art gallery there. I know we will have a marvellous time, but even more to the point, I'll have time with Jo, a person of boundless good energy, a laugh that is always ready to erupt, and endless time to listen to whatever ails me. It's a nice reciprocity, Jo and me: never judgmental, always intrigued by the choices, the messiness, the myriad confusion of adult life, no matter how much time we spend at being adults. And she tries my recipes! Bless her.

Yesterday I went to pick up Avery at school and there was her friend Emily, ready to walk home with us. The whole pickup routine, on which I dote so pathetically, is a bit of a charade these days. Something tells me that two girls who can walk TO school on their own are probably perfectly capable of walking FROM school on their own, but that crowning moment of 3:20, 3:30, 4 p.m., whatever it is at a particular school, is so ingrained in me by now that I can't quite let it go. yet. So it was that I turned up yesterday, heard a bit of perfectly justifiable moaning about whatever evil exams had taken place on that day, and then we saw Emily's mother Annie, gesturing from across the road. "Want a ride?"

We jumped in (an orange Mini just like ours, only coolly, authentically vintage) and crawled away through traffic. Through it all, I told her about John's experience at the Bursary dinner the night before. Bursaries, in England, are as scholarships in America: money for economically disadvantaged school children. We had hoped to contribute. "Guess how much they wanted us to give?" I asked rhetorically, and Annie put her hand over her mouth, at the red light. "I knew it..." "A girl's entire tuition for the whole SEVEN YEARS of her education!" I squealed. "And did John say, 'We're already doing that, for our own daughter'?" she asked, laughing. "Pretty much."

How on earth could anyone donate so much? But it's certainly food for thought, how to contribute what we can, to give another girl the opportunity Avery has at this marvellous school. Having a laugh with Annie, and the girls, in the tiny confines of that beloved car, made me smile.

Then today with Sara, Avery's friend Mellie's mum, who was taking her turn at the school swimming pool to sit at reception. It's such a cozy task: you get to greet all the girls as they come in, and more often than girls, the Old Girls from the school and all their relations, each of whom, believe it or not, has a life pass to the pool as long as the child actually graduates from the school. I couldn't resist sitting for far too long with Sara, when I meant just to drop Avery and Emily off. Sara has four girls under 12, and as such is surprised by, flummoxed by, nothing. And everything. She's a hilarious combination, or contradiction, of complete competence and a joyful acceptance of how much she cannot, simply cannot, get done. "I was just in the middle of remembering that I had forgotten the Fifth Year mothers' tea for Izzy, when I got a call asking me how Reception Duty had gone at Henny's school, which I'd also forgotten!" And yet her daughter in Avery's year, Mellie, is a paragon of delightfulness, responsibility, maturity. As you'd have to be, the eldest of four. I'll never forget their tiniest sleeping on a pile of coats, at the Christmas Fair, under my feet.

Sara and I gossiped about the class, the school, and she was full of career advice for me. "Why not hire yourself out planning family menus, a month at a time? With lists of ingredients, and suggestions for vegetarian options? Why not hire yourself out cooking brunches for eight?" I suppose the energy that gets you four daughters also translates into all sorts of other energy! She makes me laugh. I had to drag myself away to prepare my boring dinner, I can tell you.

And how about the joys of family? My dear parents, and musical brother, have conspired to bring my childhood back to me. An enormously heavy box of my piano sheet music has arrived, bringing back countless dear memories to me. How my mother played: Chopin, Schumann, Rachmaninoff. How my father played, every song with the cadence of a church hymn. My brother's effortless, genetic genius. I was nothing but a dedicated practicer, but I did practice. And now looking through the music: "Show Tunes From Today's Favorites" ("today" being 1973), I'm visited with an enormous nostalgia. How I adored being able to play the theme from "Brian's Song" (sob), or "Auntie Mame" (wasn't that Barbra Streisand?). I can picture the books, in their original home under the velvet-covered piano stool. Now they are here in my London kitchen and I am having the time of my life, taking a moment while pasta is boiling or Avery's at a break studying French verbs with me, to play a piece or two. Thanks, you guys at home. What a treat.

Tomorrow will bring a new adventure: dear friends have given us ballet tickets to the Royal Opera House, and we're sending Avery alone with her friend Lille, who has actually danced there, to attend, just the two of them. Lille's mother has arranged a plate of sandwiches at the bar, for them to munch on during the interval. We must figure out where to meet, when. Perhaps give them a mobile phone to check in? I'm a bit nervous, but these sorts of milestones need to happen. I'll let you know how it goes...