01 October, 2009
conkers and cookers
What, you ask, are these little creatures? These are those familiar harbingers of an English autumn, the seeds of the horse chestnut tree, also known as "conkers" because of the quaint games that can be played with them. When I was a little girl, and my husband a little boy, both of our native Midwestern United States called these nuts "buckeyes," which explains Ohio being named the "Buckeye State" (a fact probably entirely unknown to ALL my European readers, but now you know). They are both, the English and American varieties, known simply as the aesculus glabra. You can hang them from strings and clunk them together, till one breaks (guess who loses in THAT game), or toss them over a level playing field like bowls.
On our recent walk across the GORGEOUS Barnes Green, collecting these little guys brought back many intense childhood memories of Halloween-ish times, finding these lovely, smooth, collectable items on the ground, hiding underneath the fallen leaves. John and I found ourselves in Barnes as a sort of time-spending exercise, it being handily near to the boys' school where we had dropped Avery and her friend Emilie off at their rehearsal for the upcoming musical. What? Have I not told you about the musical? I'm sure I've mentioned it, if only in passing. Here's the scoop: Avery's school hosted auditions for her year to take part in a play put on jointly with their brother school, and of course she turned up to do so. Chorus, it turned out to be, and her intense disappointment at not being awarded a more illustrious part has faded in a general air of communal excitement at being in the musical at all. Well, I say excitement...
Barnes, however oddly we came to it, is lovely. It was a Wednesday afternoon, and as many small-ish towns still do, observed the Wednesday early closing, so we just barely reached several establishments and missed many others. Two Peas in a Pod, a gorgeous fruit and veg shop in the Church Road, afforded unparalleled sugar snap (you guessed it) peas, uncommonly fresh, lovely onions, fresh thyme, a whole host of red peppers for soup, and I saw shelves full of organic flour, rice, stocks, you name it. The lovely men who run it are friendly, knowledgeable, helpful and, if this suits, very cute to look at. Altogether a very nice way to stock up for supper!
From there we were onto the Barnes Bookshop also in the Church Road, a tiny, crowded, but clean and well-lit shop manned by two cheerful bibliophiles. I searched for a present for my niece Molly's birthday, and for the drycleaner's baby, and for my niece Jane for Christmas... never even got near the adults' books, but it looked tempting indeed. "You should have a bookshop," John hissed, under cover of "The Very Hungry Caterpillar." "Oh, so I could lose even more money than I did with the gallery?" I hissed back. "Oh, right."
It's always my dream thought: to have a bookshop that sold small works of art and had a little cafe with sandwiches and soups and salads I could make myself. How could it go wrong? Let me count the ways.
Well, in terms of dreams... I've come to terms with "Julie and Julia," I think. Or at least, I've decided to concentrate on what I loved about it. And it's pretty much encapsulated by the first-ish important line of the film. I paraphrase: after a long awful day at work, Julie arrives home and begins to cook. I think it's veal chops, in a mushroom cream sauce. "Do you know why I love to cook?" she asks her long-suffering husband. "Because when I have a terrible day, where nothing goes right, I get to come home and put together dinner, and I always know that if I add eggs to cream..." Essentially what she's saying is what I have ALWAYS said about cooking, and why I do it every single day even if I have a bad day (which unlike Julie, isn't every day).
It's because cooking is a priceless combination of creativity, freedom, sensuality, experiment and satisfaction. The whole process is satisfying to me: I adore any grocery store of any kind: the big supermarkets where everything's wrapped in off-putting plastic? I love them because you always find what you need. The tiny exotic delis and boutiques? I love them because while you never know exactly what you'll find (fresh red pepper pate? a new stinky French cheese? sardines in olive oil?), you know you'll find SOMETHING. Chatting all the while with the beautiful and energetic proprietress, you get samples. And that unexpected something will lead your cooking ideas in a new direction. And markets? Who knew there were three different varieties of bresaola (dried cured beef) being produced in one county of England? You do, because there they are, and you buy one of each to compare.
Then you get home with your wares. It may be impossible to handle various questions related to your daughter's physics homework, your husband may be growling about market conditions about which you know less than nothing. The cats are hissing through the window at the neighbor cat, you've accidentally put your favorite black sweater through the hot cycle on the washing machine: FELT.
But there is still garlic to be chopped, lamb and beef mince to mix with eggs and homemade breadcrumbs, olive oil and tomatoes to be simmered, basil to be chiffonaded, Parmesan to be grated. And at the end of an hour or so: VOILA. Meatballs stuffed with buffalo mozzarella, poached in a rich tomato sauce. The daughter solves her physics problems and comes to play piano for her lesson the next day, her friend from "Drake" rehearsals at her side, making her laugh. The husband shrugs his shoulders over the dreadful stock market and comes to steal cucumber slices from your salad with rocket, and a dressing of fromage frais with mustard. Cooking is... COMFORT.
And if you're not in the mood for Italian? Just imagine what was for dinner here last night. It's a total winner in the comfort department.
Chicken Fillets with Mushrooms and Creme Fraiche
4 tbps butter
2 tbsps olive oil
4 chicken breast fillets, well trimmed
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 tsp dried thyme leaves
salt and pepper to taste
1/2 white onion, minced, or 2 shallots, minced
generous splash Marsala
6 large white mushrooms, sliced roughly
1/2 cup chicken stock
1/2 cup half-fat creme fraiche
Melt butter with olive oil in a large skillet until (as Julia Child says) the butter stops talking to you. Really: wait until the bubbling subsides, then slip in the chicken breasts. Saute on one side for two minutes, and flip over for two more minutes. Remove to a platter. Drop garlic and thyme leaves, salt, pepper and onion (or shallots) in the remaining butter and oil and saute gently till garlic is soft. Turn up heat and add Marsala, bubble strongly for a few minutes. When it's reduced, throw in mushrooms and stir vigorously until they begin to let off juice. Cover with the chicken stock and simmer for about 15 minutes. Add creme fraiche and whisk till mixed.
Place chicken breasts in sauce and simmer until the chicken is thoroughly, but not over-cooked. This may take about 15 minutes. Serve with steamed rice and a nice green vegetable: thin beans, sugar snap peas, asparagus, steamed broccoli. GORGEOUS.
My feeling is that no one should be blamed for not wanting to cook dinner every night. I have more free time than most people. But give it a try. See if you don't find that predictable source of giving, and then eating, a happy comfort for you and the hungry people you live with.