08 December, 2009

a week of calm

At least, that's what I have in mind. Last week delivered the dramas of orthodonture from hell, "to voiceover or not to voiceover," capped off with a Friday afternoon at the skating rink closeted with (actually, if only I could have shut her up in a closet) the loudest, most obnoxious mother at the adjacent table... oooh, I could have smothered her with a roll of paper towel. Finally home in the cold rain for a truly lovely weekend appreciating the Christmas tree, a sleepover date from one of Avery's sweetest friends, and a Sunday nap, in a shaft of gentle late-afternoon sunlight on the sofa. Bliss.

So my hopes are that the drama has been exhausted and we can hope for peace. We've been playing tennis doggedly in quite too-cold sprinkling rain, shivering and feeling foolish, but I figure we've burned off at least a tablespoon of mayo. I finished the last of the Christmas cards and popped them in the post on my rainy way to school pickup, and we are now contemplating nothing more dramatic than a carol concert at school on Wednesday. Quite, quite peaceful.

But you know me, the most peaceful thing I can think of is cooking, followed by eating and as my favorite cookery writer Laurie Colwin says, the best possible thing which is "talking about cooking while eating with friends." That will be the story here at home after the carol concert, since my friend Annie and I have decided to bring the two families together for a smorgasbord supper. I must confess that as much as I dote on a nice meat, veg and starch dinner nearly every night, my favorite way of eating is choosing among lots of different flavors, a little of this, a little of that. Could it be my Scandinavian blood coming through? So we've divvied up the bits we'll each bring, and I'm quite excited, responsible as I shall be for "meats and fish."

Meats... I think a small gammon (ham) roasted with a mixture of minced garlic, Dijon mustard, honey and plum sauce, then sliced really thin. And a turkey breast: they are available here, wonderfully, as small as a large chicken breast in the States, so you're not making a commitment of holiday proportions. Fish... how about hot smoked roasted salmon, cut in thick slices to serve with a dip of creme fraiche and wasabi paste? The wasabi cuts into the cream and turns it a lovely pale green, a color that seduces you into forgetting how HOT the dip will be!

Then, I will indulge in my latest food obsession, which tends to crop up every night at about midnight when the tennis-playing side of my brain is hushed up by the indulgent side. "Go on, so what if a tablespoon of this spends your entire hour of tennis? Life is short!" This obsession is just about any product from the Findlater company out of Scotland, my favorites so far being a smoked salmon pate (light and rich at the same time, creamy and not too fishy), and a duck pate with just a hint of chopped apricot rimming the dish (a blessing for John who abhors any combination of fruit and meat, so he can avoid the fruit). These pates are sinfully indulgent, perfect either on a bit of toasted baguette or that most apposite of all crackers, the Bath Oliver. Order some, do! And have that midnight snack and think of me.

If you are out and about as we were on Sunday in Marylebone, our old stomping grounds when Avery used to be in school there, I can highly recommend the Natural Kitchen for brunch. Pass up all the overpriced (shockingly so, even for London!) raw ingredients on the ground floor, don't be tempted to sit right down in the chilly window. Head upstairs and be prepared to wait 15 minutes or so for a table in the bustling, warm, chic and delectably-smelling first-floor dining room.

We were not put off by the fact that everyone there besides us looked incredibly, how shall I put it, rich. Just like people who've been out Christmas shopping and to whom the word "recession" applies only to their gumlines. Such great people-watching, and -listening. Avery has a pet peeve: the new ad campaign by Patek Philippe for their watches, with the slogan, "You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation," and a photo of an actual father and son, smirking into the camera. At the Natural Kitchen, Avery looked around and said, "Everyone here looks like one of those ads." She looked down at her own clean but permanently horse-stained jodhpurs and boots and sighed.

But all that wealth around us didn't stop the Eggs Benedict from being truly sublime, perfectly runny yolks, French ham and a faultless Hollandaise. John's full English was equally remarkable with Lincolnshire sausages, spicy and tempting. Avery had a ham and Emmenthal croissant that was lovely too.

Sometimes, however, meat, veg and starch is the way to go, and when you're in that sort of mood, where you want a dinner that requires nothing more challenging than scooping up something simple on a fork, you cannot do any better than:

Chicken Pojarski with Caramelized Carrots and Rice
(serves 4)

splash of olive oil
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 shallot, minced
1 tbsp paprika (sounds a lot, but trust me)
4 chicken breast fillets, cubed in bite-size pieces
splash of Madeira
1 cup chicken stock
1 cup creme fraiche (half-fat is fine)

5 tbsps butter
1/2 cup dark brown soft sugar
4 carrots per person, sliced in rounds

1/2 cup basmati rice per person

For the chicken, saute the garlic and shallot gently in the oil, then add the chicken and cook on all sides briefly (not fully cooked). Set chicken aside and add the Madeira to the pan and raise the heat. Scrape all cooked bits into the liquid and add chicken stock. Lower heat and whisk in creme fraiche. Add chicken and its accumulated juices and poach very gently for 15 minutes. At this point you may turn off the heat and leave the dish until you are ready to eat, heating it gently just before serving.

About 40 minutes before you want to eat, melt the butter and sugar together and simmer, sizzling. Drop carrots in and cook, stirring occasionally, lowering the heat as necessary.

About 20 minutes before you want to eat, steam the rice. I've found that the rice sticks much less to the pan if you turn the heat off for five minutes or so before serving, keeping the lid tightly shut.

Pile the rice in the center of the plate and ladle the chicken and sauce on top, then make a nice mound of the carrots on the side. All you need is... a fork.


Eat this dinner unashamedly in front of the telly while you watch Delia Smith's Christmas programme, or if you're all alone, carry your laptop to the dining table and, for the next five days, you can listen to this wonderful programme on BBC Radio Four with Simon Parkes, all about "The Food Memoir." If, like me, you're trying to write a food memoir yourself, you can sit back and wail a bit at the genius of the writers Parkes talks to. Jealousy: it's ugly. But then I wipe away my tears and pick up my fork, and with an unwieldy bite of creamy comfort food, all's right with the world.


A Work in Progress said...

People "to whom the word 'recession' applies only to their gumlines": I love it!! I am with Avery: I actually conducted a one-person boycott of Ralph Lauren products in college for just that reason. It didn't last long because my mother bought me a beautiful RL formal dress senior year.

I made your mushroom soup last night with some leftover turkey stock from our Thanksgiving turkey (don't worry, it was frozen). I cooked the mushrooms just about to death first, before adding the stock (mushrooms cooked this way are a staple of Russian cooking), and also added 2 small cooked potatoes to thicken, before blending. It was DIVINE!

Kristen In London said...

Oh, Ralph Lauren, so much the same with me. Love to hate... hate to love.

I'm so glad the mushroom soup was a success, and I should have realized the Russian origins of such a treatment... then there's goulash, and I get a bit lost. So glad you had a good soup experience.