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.