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!


Casey said...

Interested to read of your visit to Ste, Mere Eglise. My uncle landed there in a glider--he survived that and the battle of Bastogne. In fact, he was one of the two US soldiers who carried the "Nuts" message to the Nazi general demanding surrender. His loss of friends was huge and heartbreaking; he refused to speak much about those days.

Kristen In London said...

I would LOVE to talk with you more about this, Casey. I am completely fascinated by these stories. Was your Uncle part of the 82nd or 101st? Let me know either here, or by email, if I can talk to you more. Thanks so much for your comment.