28 February, 2009

of good neighbors and great dinners










Oh, Saturday was a day. Or rather, Saturday night was a night. There I was, innocently concocting focaccia in my cozy afternoon kitchen, Avery and Emily bickering in their sibling-ish way in the study, when the doorbell rang. It was my friend Charlotte, having sloped over from her house down the road and across the street, bearing a recipe I had asked for and looking for a cup of tea. "Have I interrupted something?" she asked, and I thrust the focaccia recipe in her hand and said, "I'm at 'place in a warm spot covered with a tea towel until it doubles in bulk...'" and after that we sipped tea and chatted and peeked in the oven to see if the dough was doing anything. Then she supervised my additions of olive oil, pesto, cheese. The doorbell rang again.

"Selva!" we said together, greeting my gorgeous next-door neighbor. He inclined his head from his considerable height, joined the tips of his fingers together in barrister-fashion (I'd love to see him in his robes and wig, honestly), and said, "I know, I know, I should have invited you first, and now I've learned my lesson... I have a gorgeous pork roast, marinated in Marsala, in the oven and my dinner guests have cancelled with a sick child. Can you all come to dinner?"

So I finished my focaccia in a rush, had a lovely cocktail with John, left Avery getting dressed, and headed next door with a plate of freshly baked bread and a bowl of:

Roasted Artichoke Dip
(serves lots, maybe 10, as an appetizer with, say, focaccia)


1 cup marinated artichoke hearts, drained well
1/2 cup creme fraiche
1 tbsp tahini
juice 1 lemon
1 clove garlic, roughly chopped
small handful flat parsley leaves
2 tbsps cream
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Put all ingredients in food processor and process until very smooth indeed. This will take longer than you expect: at the end the dip will be a bit airy and truly velvety.

***************

Well, the evening began at 8:30 or so, dinner past 9. The pork was stunning, crackling to end crackling, a gorgeously rich le Puy lentil stew cooked with with red wine, and a horseradish-apple sauce. Then a sort of trifle of apricots simmered in cardamom water, Italian biscuits broken up, and whipped cream. Then the cheese board made the rounds around midnight, and still Avery sat at the table with us: all adults and my child. She was a trooper: graciously trying all the food, making all the right contributions to the conversation, cat-whispering their black kitten toward the end of the evening... next time we'll make sure her bedroom light is left on at the top of the house and she can just creep next door and sit cozily in bed while we adults spin down the hours. A lovely evening; how lucky are we to have these neighbors at doorbell-ringing distance, on any given weekend, to feed us and be fed? This is the neighborhood I always dreamed of having, in New York or in London. I will never take it for granted!

Today, Monday, found me at the Chelsea Saatchi gallery with my excellent culture friend (quite the most talented writer I know, I think) Gigi... but more on that tomorrow. Just for now, think of a neighbor you can invite to dinner. They'll be so glad you did.

27 February, 2009

Happy Birthday John!












Many of you will be familiar with the annual tussle between my beloved and me. As February 27 approaches, my daily query, "What are you in the mood for, for dinner?" gets the response more and more frequently, "Tuna casserole." I know what you're thinking. Something unprintable, probably. I myself am devoted to tuna. It's as likely as not to find me eating tuna salad - with pine nuts, lemon zest, sunflower seeds, chick peas, loads of celery - three times a week for lunch. But HOT tuna? No. Tuna steaks, perhaps. But to open a can of tuna and make it HOT? It's tantamount to cooking cat food. But every February, the topic comes up.

It's a cherished childhood classic for John (thanks, Rosemary!). And every once in awhile over the past 20 years or so I have caved. My sister patiently provided the recipe one year, and it was completely successful, in that it was completely repulsive. Hot tuna! Then there was the year that I agreed silently to make it as a surprise... to greet him when he returned from a long business trip on his birthday... and the surprise was supplanted by an even more important one: I found out I was expecting Avery. On his birthday! On that occasion we were so overcome that I never thought to cook the noodles ahead of baking the casserole, and every SNICK of liquid from the tuna and the canned mushroom soup (I know, I know) was absorbed by them and the consistency of the whole dish somewhere between wet woolen socks and drying clay. You can imagine. Only also SMELLY.

Well, today I gave in once more. Would you believe there's a video on how to make tuna casserole? I really think you should watch it, if only for the sound effects: wait till the end when the cook tips the noxious mixture into the baking dish. The sucking sound is like some primeval mud letting go a treasured fossil, while it was still wet and alive.

So be it.

He is my treasured husband, albeit with highly questionable taste buds. He ate fully half the finished dish for lunch, which, as one of my best friends pointed out, "solves half of THAT problem." He can eat the other half for lunch tomorrow. And the debate is over for another year. Happy Birthday, my dear.

26 February, 2009

the poshest restaurant ever















I've been working so hard on my book! Really. Increasingly more of every day is spent doing things to try to produce really good writing to pack, someday, between two covers and have as a real book. Some of these tasks are a bit tedious, like making a huge batch of pesto when I didn't really want any, in order to be able to say with all conviction how much my alleged recipe would produce! I can't really say it will feed four as a pasta sauce for a starter if I haven't a clue how many it will feed since I use it only as a salad garnish. But as you can see, even just assembling the ingredients on the kitchen counter is pretty much creating a still life, and it was actually fun to measure and taste for consistency, and come up with a real-live recipe for pesto that does what it says on the tin: feeds four as a starter. So here you go.

Pesto
(serves four as sauce for starter with pasta)


4 cups loosely packed whole fresh basil leaves
¾ cup extra virgin olive oil
juice ½ lemon
3 tbsps pine nuts
3 tbsps grated pecorino or Parmesan cheese
2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
pinch sea salt to taste

Place all ingredients in food processor and blend till smooth, taking care to scrape the pesto away from the sides of the processor to incorporate all bits.

This pesto is equally good as a dressing for tomato salad with mozzarella, or drizzled over a white fish like cod, sea bream, sea bass or lemon sole. Try adding a spoonful to any vinaigrette. It is lovely treated like a salsa verde and served alongside grilled pork, beef or lamb. Stir some into mashed potatoes for the side dish of your life.

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I certainly don't want to give the impression that my other recipes are faked by any means, but every once in awhile I say airily that a dish will serve four, when all I can really say is that three of us hungry family members downed it all with seconds, so I imagine it will serve four! I should really be a bit more accurate. I want you to trust me after all!

The idea of thinking about how many a given dish will feed is so beyond the ken of the chef at whose restaurant I ate on Monday that it makes me laugh to think we both "cook." I was taken, by a friend from my Devon food writing course, to Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley Hotel in Knightsbridge.

There are two kinds of people in the world, I think (I know I often say this). There are people who absolutely swoon at food that has been taken apart, rearranged, pressed, triangulated, stacked and foamed. And then there are people who, when presented with food like this, want to stab the sommelier with a steak knife and run for the nearest fryup. I am, unusually for me, somewhere in between. As a person who truly loves to cook, and who recognizes herself for what she is: a pretty dependable, sometimes innovative cook who can be counted on to feed family and friends, I truly admire finesse and delicacy of touch. I myself can never make a plate of food look beautiful. My plates look at best... approachable. So I do like to eat restaurant food that's beautifully presented, that represents techniques I could never pull off myself.

Before I describe the food, I must say also that while I know it is my own insecurity, constantly hovering waitstaff that outnumber the people at my table (two) make me nervous. Granted, I was with a food critic and perhaps the waitstaff were that much more attentive. But. There was a champagne waiter, a water waiter, a bread waiter, a take-your-order waiter, a cheese waiter and a dessert waiter. Different people! My companion Roger asked sotto voce, "Do you have ANY idea what accent that was?" when one of them sidled away bearing aloft whatever his offering had been. A sort of Intimidating Waiter Esperanto, hushed and polite to the point that I couldn't understand any of what he said and resorted to looking at what he held to imagine what was being asked of me. And, another first for me: I have never had my napkin replaced halfway through a meal. I don't mean, replaced newly-folded on my chair if I went to the ladies' room. I mean replaced with a fresh napkin, just before the cheese course. Why? I haven't a clue. I really wasn't that messy. AND the napkins were handled with silver tongs. I am not making this up.

I should make the point right now that I had a lovely time. For one thing, my companion is a man of enormous sophistication, a world-traveller beyond any I have ever known (he's writing a travel guide to Finland while planning his year in Nepal but first would have to spend the day after we were together in Morocco, just for example). Roger is soft-spoken, diffident, hesitant to put himself forward; his conversation is punctuated by long pauses while he gazes somewhere just beyond me, seeing Lord only knows what, in his mind's eye. He needs a lot of time to react to everything: to seeing each other after months of not, to digest a story I tell about Avery's school, to decide what he thinks about the main course, to react to my questions about his PhD. He is one of the least hurried people I have ever met, and every word is considered. I guess, when I think about it, he is truly genuine, and unconcocted.

And we both laughed at the same things over lunch. Tiny, tiny triangles of some crunchy things surrounding a layer of foie gras made us laugh a bit because... what on earth were they? They lay on an exclamation point of quince jelly, that was discernable in the waiter's hushed monologue. "What else did he say this was?" I hiss, and Roger smiles patiently. "No idea." And since they were little amuse-bouches, a little heady offering by the chef, there was no menu to fall back on. At this point it came back to me that Marcus Wareing was trained by and inspired by Gordon Ramsay, another chef in whose establishment I must have the menu beside me at all times. Anything could be anything! A tiny glass dish of hummous with absolutely NO texture of chickpea: it must have been passed through the finest of sieves to achieve such a velvety feel. And underneath the tiny spoonful of hummous was a layer of perfectly seasoned roasted puree of garlic. Sublime.

Then another thing we did not order and so had to ask again exactly what it was: a tall, narrow glass of hot sweetcorn veloute, topped with a blob of tarragon foam. Now, it is well documented here that I am no fan of foam. The phenomenon appeared at about the same time as boys' trousers hanging below the waistband of their underwear, and while I can see they arise out of different motivations, the two trends are equally unpalatable to me and can both disappear any time they like. This tarragon foam was, though, more of a mousse than a foam and as such, and so lovely in anise-ish flavor, was acceptable. "Drink it like you would a cappuccino," our unnamed-starter waiter purred, and thus instructed, we did. Delightful and mysterious. As far from my own sweetcorn soup as could be, and yet containing the same ingredient.

For the starter we each had a dish of nearly (only nearly) laughable character: an enormous white shallow bowl appeared at each of our places studded with several small spoonsful of tomato-lobster compote, and three tiny gnocchi made of ricotta and truffle. We looked down at this most Lilliputian of offerings and nearly began to snicker, when two waiters appeared with little silver tureens and poured ambrosial langoustine bisque over all. And that, my friends, is heaven in a soup bowl.

For my main I had sea bass (the most delicately cooked imaginable; I even ate the skin and I never do that), on a bed of surprisingly forgettable broccoli florets, but accompanied by a perfect potato puree, served in a tiny copper saucepan at my place. Roger indulged in pork belly and was underwhelmed. "The pork belly we made on our cooking day in Devon was better," he said, and I was obliged to feel his forehead. He seemed fever-free, so I tasted a bit and I could not agree: this dish was buttery soft, with a perfect piece of crackling on top. Simply superb. I decided he was investing the Devon pork with memories of friendship, not a bad quality in a companion.

Then the cheese board! Honestly, there was a fromagier, or whatever the cheese equivalent of a wine expert might be called. A darling man whose sole job at Marcus Wareing is to wheel out a ginormous trolley bearing perhaps 40 cheeses, and to describe them each lovingly, as one would boast about a baby's first checkup. There were goats, triple cremes, blues, cheddars. We chose one of each and they were served in perfectly proportioned, delicately arranged slices, as the spokes of a wheel, on a shared plate. A silver dish of every cracker known to man was placed before us, with a darling little sliding lid that swung away to reveal its treasures. Really my most favorite piece of kit from the lunch, that cracker dish.

Heavenly. I could not stop for dessert because I had to leave this shangri-la (escaping a different scary waiter at every step) to pick up Avery at school. A truffle waiter (I forgot about that one until now!) came by with an enormous tiered utensil containing at least six different varieties of filled chocolates. Peanut butter and jelly! "Madame will have peanut butter and jelly," Roger said sweetly, then ate it himself, thank goodness. And may I say: there is something jolly about having finished a meal and simply standing up and leaving. "Our society has really got somewhere when it pays people to go eat fancy food and tell other people what it's like," Roger said, but I was only glad that society also pays for someone to go along and chat.

We parted at the luxurious corner of Wilton Place and Knightsbridge, so posh that you (well, I) immediately feel underdressed (of course I wore all black, hoping to disappear). It was a lovely afternoon on many levels: wonderful company (he kissed me into a taxi and was immediately claimed by his Blackberry and whatever romantic assignation came next: Cairo? the Suez Canal?), a chance to be in an atmosphere of ostentatious luxury that almost never comes my way, and to eat food that is so beyond my level of capability that it's like taking a first-year sculpture student to the Uffizi and saying, "So, how does that make you feel?"

I try to analyze exactly how the afternoon made me feel. Silly privileged, to eat such food (two Michelin stars!) and not even know how much it cost (no prices on my menu). A little silly to care, to be honest, about such poncy food. But also quite in awe of refined achievement on that scale no matter the subject matter. Enjoying the fruits of labor from someone at the top of THE game is a treat. But... I must tell you I was longing for a piece of poached salmon and a pile of mash by dinnertime.

24 February, 2009

a blow-away play, a lazy Sunday












What HAVE I been doing with myself since Friday? Well, the first report is that War Horse, at the Olivier Theatre at the National through March (and thence to the New London theatre in the West End) is superb. Incomparable, and I don't use that word lightly.

Of course going to this play with a daughter who is not only horse-crazy but extremely horse-savvy could have backfired badly. One wrong step with the enormous and intimidating horse "puppets" might have been tolerated, but not more than one. And Avery assured us from the very first movements of the gawky, awkward but touching foal at the beginning, right through to the tearful end with the war-ravaged animal surrounded by his human co-stars, we were all quite convinced that there were living horses inside those creatures. A sweet plot, designed to teach children (and well, me too) the lessons of World War I and in fact about the futility of any war, well-presented and just frightening enough to be effective. Adult language and attitudes were handled with subtlety and humor, and the slightly off, stubbornly loyal teenage lead... simply a massive talent. It is his first professional engagement! What a phenomenon.

Avery was solidly inspired to work even harder at her acting classes. In fact, she has an audition tomorrow for something relating to an emu ("a story with a man and his really big bird," the agent said blithely on the telephone to me today).

Saturday was the last lazy day of Avery's half-term (which seemed to fall about a day and a sneeze after Christmas, to be honest). John shot his wad at brunch, wolfing eggs Benedict at the local cafe, when our gorgeous neighbor Selva stopped by our table to say he was on his way to the butcher. "Wild boar tonight, for guests: I'll let you know if it's all right." "Want to stop by the butcher ourselves?" I asked John when he'd strolled away. "Wild boar? I'm game," he said. Badaboom.

By mid-afternoon Avery and I were frustrated by John's enforced immobility with his ankle (he finally went to the doctor yesterday, inconclusive) and so we ended up at Westfield, shopping for his birthday which will be Friday. She is such fun to hang around with: puns and silly jokes, stories about her friends and school, musings about what I ought to write my next chapter about. Her use of language is a joy: I nearly forgot to write down the latest hilarious example, when we were at the Gothic Temple in October. We all jumped down from a stone wall to cross the sort of ditch so common in the grounds of English country houses, called a "ha-ha." Avery looked up and down the length of it and said, deadpan, "Let's ditch this ha-ha."

Sunday she spent at the stable and we adults repaired to Annie and Keith's house up the street, bearing my "Everything Bean Salad," and my new sweetcorn and rocket soup, to be eaten right along with their son Fred's array of homemade pizzas. Fred took a much-needed break from his French essays to take orders for toppings. "Chorizo? Mozzarella? Olives?" We were all very dull and said "Yes, please" to everything. Keith demonstrated his recipe for the delightful crisp salty cayenne-y pastry slivers he'd brought to our house a couple of weeks ago: I watched and learned, and envied him his pastry thingy on the mixer machine. My pastry thingy is my hands, sadly.

Annie ran around calling doctors for John's ankle, stopping then to discuss films we all have to see... I recommended "La Double Vie de Veronique," and Annie waxed lyrical about "The Talented Mr Ripley." Then we moved on to "Desert Island Discs." I can never think of ANY music I would prefer over any other, on a desert island or anywhere else: my brain simply freezes up. When it came to the "what's your luxury item"?" question, John dodged all the rest of it neatly by saying, "My iPod." Next time I want to play their other favorite game: "Desert Island Dishes." Mashed potatoes, anyone?

We ate and ate and ate. And talked, about parenthood, our childhoods, the girls' future educations, swapping stories of the funny things they do and say as they tread this space between little girlhood and teenagedom. If they go on as they have begun, we'll be all right.

Finally Keith took the pastry for his crispy thingys out of the fridge, and as you can see, went right through the assembly of them for my education. I would always rather learn pastry-making for the first time by watching someone who knows how. That way I can ask all my gormless questions and see it done by the master. He is the least bossy but most competent of teachers and, most important, not mean to me when I don't understand. Therefore I came away with a supremely readable, followable recipe, which I offer to you. I have retained his measurements, and his style, because... I like him, and I LOVE his reference to my sexy new ceramic rolling pin, a birthday gift from my beloved.

Keith's Crispy Salty Pastry Treats
(Makes about 25)


250g plain flour + extra for dusting
1 tsp baking powder
115 ml cold water
25 ml olive oil
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp paprika
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1/4 tsp black pepper
coarse sea salt for sprinkling.

1) In a large bowl (or in the mixer using the dough hook) mix together all the ingredients except the sea salt to form a soft dough. You might need to add a little more water. work it until it becomes firmer, wrap in cling film and put to rest in the fridge for an hour.
2) Heat the oven to 220c/gas mk 7.
3) Turn dough out onto clean surface & have bowl of flour ready for dusting ( You'll use quite a bit!) Cut off walnut size pieces of the dough. Roll out each piece with your NEW rolling pin until they are paper thin and like long wide cat's tongues, bout 20 cm long
4) place crackers on a baking tray lined with baking parchment or one of those super non stick liners. Brush with plenty of olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt. Bake for about 6 mins until crisp and golden.

I did them [Keith says] in batches: ie, I would roll out 3 and bake them, and whilst they were baking roll out the next 3, and when the first batch were ready I would remove them from the oven onto a wire rack and place the next 3 on the baking sheet, brush with oil & salt etc etc.

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I must warn you that these little creatures are ADDICTIVE. If you are lucky enough to have any left when your guests leave, they are the most sublime carriers for hummous, a creamy goats cheese, a thin slice of pate. I imagined that one could sprinkle on garlic granules, or grated pecorino cheese, or more cayenne to make them really spicy. But Keith sprinkled on black mustard seeds and they were lovely, as were the plain salty ones. Gorgeous. Thank you, my friend.

There is, I must digress, something heroic and divine about a man who spends his working week in the city, in this environment a quite backbreaking and worrisome task, and then comes home to spend his Sunday teaching a friend to make pastry treats. Equally his wife, reaching into her imagination for films for me, her Rolodex for a doctor for my husband, her love for her kids in her advice to Fred (between pizza bites) on his essay on Richard III... how lucky we are to have them up the street, to be fed by their gorgeous son, have Avery spend the afternoon with their delightful horsey first daughter, and thence to school with sweet Emily, all week long. That family is a miracle. And yet quite down to earth! I'll tell you, Annie's planning to give up "fighting with Emily" for Lent.

Let's see, somehow this Sunday lunch feast was not too much for us to be quite, quite hungry by dinner time, and then it was but the work of a moment to concoct, in that spontaneous and inspired way that ALMOST NEVER visits me, the best potato salad ever.

Potato Salad with Fried Pancetta, Lemon Grass and Goat's Cheese Dressing
(serves four as a side dish)


1 lb small waxy potatoes, skin on (I like Baby Charlotte)
3 stalks celery, diced
1 large red onion, diced
4 oz pancetta, cut in cubes
1 stalk lemon grass, outer leaves removed, minced

dressing:
1/4 cup goat's cheese
2 tbsps single cream
dash red chili flakes
juice of 1 lemon
1 tbsp mayonnaise

Steam the potatoes till just tender, perhaps 15 minutes. Meanwhile, fry the pancetta cubes in a little skillet until crisp and brown. Drain on paper towel. Remove potatoes from steamer, drain and quarter, place in a large bowl. Add the other salad ingredients and toss. Shake up dressing ingredients in a jar with a lid, then pour over and serve immediately.

I needed to prepare this ahead of time and come home to it, so I kept the pancetta in a little uncovered bowl (on a high shelf away from cats!) so it would stay crisp. Do not refrigerate the pancetta if you need to do this, as it will become quite soggy and with a texture like the clammy paper towel you drained it on.

When ready to serve, mix everything well. Lovely, fresh, unusual.

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Monday I was taken to a blowout lunch at a two-Michelin-starred restaurant (a first for me!) by a an MI5 agent masquerading as a food writer... but more on that later. Just for now, make yourself a bowl of potato salad and order your tickets for "War Horse." You'll thank me.

20 February, 2009

no vampires in MY house












How much garlic can one family of three eat on a Thursday evening shortly before the spring solstice? I'm sure there is a formula for working this sort of thing out, but I'll make it easy for you. A LOT. Suffice to say, the contents of this lovely dish you see before you? Gone, along with almost an entire baguette and a whole baked chicken. I'll explain.

Sometimes my meat-veg-starch plate arrangement at dinner gets me down. How many different ways can you present a potato, especially when a baked one has been banned from your dinner table because your poor child was forced to eat one every day of her life at school for a year? And rice isn't very popular in my house either, while couscous gets eaten but with a marked lack of enthusiasm. Then yesterday, while idly leafing through Simon Hopkinson's Roast Chicken and Other Stories (another book I would marry if I were single), I came across this gem (I've adapted it slightly for quantities):

Baked Garlic With Creamed Goat's Cheese
(how many it serves is entirely down to you and your fellow diners: I counted on one head of garlic per person and it was about right)


4 heads garlic
4 tbsps olive oil
4 thyme sprigs
1 rosemary sprig
4 bay leaves
1 lemon cut into 6 wedges
salt and pepper

For the creamed goat's cheese

6 oz goat's cheese (a nice simple one without rind or ash)
3 oz double cream
1/2 tsp dried chili flakes
salt

Preheat oven to 400F, 200C. Slice the tops off the garlic heads about a quarter of the way down. Pack into an ovenproof dish in one layer. Drizzle over the olive oil and tuck the herbs and lemon around the heads, giving a squeeze of each of the lemon wedges as you do so. Season with salt and pepper. Place in oven and leave there for 10 minutes, then turn heat down to 250F, 170C for another 50 minutes. When the garlic comes out of the oven, tip the dish so you can spoon the now lusciously flavored oil over the heads. Set aside to cool slightly.

Meanwhile, cream the goat's cheese with the cream, add the chili flakes and salt and stir well till mixed thoroughly.

To eat, serve with nice chunks of baguette. Dig into the heads of garlic with a little fork or spoon and spread the garlic onto the baguette, topping with the goat's cheese mixture.

******************

Now, two things stand out as being imperative truths about this dish: you and your guests have to be potty about garlic, and you ALL have to eat it. I couldn't tell if we stunk to high heaven, just because of this last precaution. The texture of the garlic is soft and silky, the flavor is gentle and permeated with the heady thyme and rosemary, and the lemon adds a bit of bite. Somehow the combination, along with the seriously self-indulgent creamy cheese, is heaven.

With this we had one of my favorite chicken dishes, invented by my dear mother in a rare display of culinary interest:

Mama Nel's Chicken
(serves 4)


1 whole chicken, cut into legs, breasts and wings
4 tbsps flour
1 tsp each: thyme, basil, garlic powder, paprika, lemon pepper
1/3 cup vegetable oil

I've become quite adept at what is called here "jointing" a chicken, simply taking a whole bird and cutting it up, partly because it is unbelievably inexpensive to do this, and partly because unless you have a real butcher, you will not find chicken breasts on the bone with skin left on in this country. Nor are your typical supermarkets keen on whole legs, preferring in general to separate the thighs from the drumsticks. I myself hate the look of a chicken drumstick, feeling it has a Flintstones look about it, a caveman sort of desperation.

Now, in a recycled supermarket plastic bag (I used to use Ziplock until I saw the ungreen error of my ways), mix the flour with the herbs, then shake the chicken pieces in this until nicely coated. I suppose you could get all Martha Stewart and dip the pieces in egg or milk first, but my mother did not bother and so nor do I.

Line a 9x13 ovenproof dish with aluminum foil (a great aid to cleanup) and pour in the vegetable oil. Lay the chicken pieces skin side down and bake at 400F, 200C for half an hour, then turn the pieces over and bake for another half hour. Simplicity itself.

****************

If you're being terribly credit crunchy, you may toss the back and rib bones from your clever jointing into a stockpot, throw in some carrots, celery and onion, season it all well and cover with water, then simmer for a couple of hours and voila: chicken soup.

I must dash: we are off to see War Horse, a play that has received almost unprecedented fabulous reviews, both before Christmas and in its current revival. Have some garlic, brush your teeth, and I'll be back with a review...

18 February, 2009

a riot of rocket









Actually I'm taking contributions under advisement: you have your murder of crows, your pomposity of professors, your cloud of bats and leap of leopards. But what do you call a very large gathering of rocket leaves?

These are, of course, known to Americans as arugula, in which case I'm quite sure there's an entirely different collective noun. An amalgamation of arugula? Not romantic enough.

In any case, imagine my circumstances. I invited 11 people for dinner, fair enough, to conclude with an enormous salad of rocket leaves, my absolute favorite green leaf and unprocurable in America, therefore of great cachet during the 10 months of the year I live in England. It turned out only nine of my invited guests could come so already I had too much rocket, and THEN we turned out to be far too full after the dense and perfect 72% dark chocolate tart brought by my guests... so no salad. Still the rocket lived in my fridge.

In these days of simultaneous credit crunch budgetary considerations AND environmental guilt over the tiny little drawings of airplanes on every package of veg these days ("air freight!" the bags proclaim), I simply could not let the rocket languish as I might have done in more careless days. What was a girl to do?

Well, first I took a look in the other corners of the fridge and found beetroot, goats cheese, and some little cubes of pancetta I bought in a mood of laziness and hunger, and a little dish of homemade pesto. In the freezer were some luxurious whole tiger prawns. It was simplicity itself to buy some supplementary scallops and produce:

Warm Scallop and Prawn Salad with Beetroot and Rocket
(serves 4)


1 dozen frozen raw whole tiger prawns
1 bag rocket (about 2 cups loosely packed or about 70 grams)
1/2 cup pancetta, cubed
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp butter
2 dozen small scallops
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 medium beetroot, roasted and cubed
1 small log (about half a cup) goats cheese
1 tbsp pesto
1 tsp balsamic vinegar
juice of half a lemon

It's an assembly job. Thaw the prawns in cold water and pat dry. Gird your loins and take the heads off the prawns, making sure to get the antennae as well. Scatter the rocket on a nice platter. In a heavy skillet, fry the pancetta till crisp, then set aside. Add the olive oil and butter to the skillet and cook the prawns until thoroughly pink, but not so long as to let them get tough. Remove from the skillet and set aside. Turn up the heat under the skillet and cook the scallops for about a minute on each side, till nicely browned, but again, not tough. Remove from skillet and set aside. Now fry the garlic gently, gently, just till soft but not browned.

Throw the beetroot cubes onto the rocket, then crumble the goats cheese over. It's all very pretty now, like the Italian flag. Scatter over the scallops and prawns and pancetta, then whisk together the pesto, vinegar and lemon juice and drizzle it over all. Spoon up the garlic in its olive oil and butter bath and scatter it over top of all.

****************

This salad was very satisfying and stimulating to eat. "There are too many ingredients, I can see that," I said, wolfing down another mouthful, and John agreed. "But what would you leave out?" We couldn't think of anything.

Well, that took care of one package of the long-suffering green guys, but I had three more packages to go. They spent another day in the fridge while I racked my brains for something to do with them. Clearly I have too much time on my hands. "Don't invent anything, Mummy!" Avery wailed. "Not just for the sake of inventing something. Wait till you have a really GOOD idea." And then it came to me.

Creamy Sweetcorn and Rocket Soup
(serves 4)


2 tbsps butter
4 cloves garlic, sliced
2 shallots, sliced
4 ears sweetcorn, kernels cut off
3 cups chicken stock
3 bags (about 6 cups loosely packed, or 200 grams total weight)
1/2 cup cream

Melt butter in heavy stockpot and saute garlic and shallot just until soft, then add sweetcorn and cover with stock. Simmer high for about 10 minutes, then add rocket and stir just to soften. You will be astonished at how it simply disappears. Blend with hand blender, stir in cream, and pass through a sieve to catch the corn kernelly bits (or not, if you like more of a potage than a smooth liquid). I find that the best way to get soup through a sieve is to put the stockpot that is your destination pot into the sink, pour the into it through the sieve, and then SHAKE the sieve gently till the solids are left behind. It's a bit messier than just stirring (hence the sink), but it's much faster.

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How to describe this soup? I am well known, I realize, for being inordinately fond of any veg simmered with chicken stock and pureed with a hand blender. I could be made to eat almost any quantity of any vegetable in this manner. But this soup... it boasts a very appealing golden yellow color flecked with the bright green rocket, and tastes much creamier than the scant amount of cream actually in the soup would lead you to believe, and it's unexpectedly SWEET. A surprisingly complex flavor, given the small number of very ordinary ingredients. But there is something in the strong bite of the rocket combined with the, dare I say it, unctuous smoothness of the sweetcorn that is extremely happy-making. And I've googled it and I think... I invented it. I know there's no new recipe under the sun, but I haven't seen this combination and I think you should all try it, right now. Of course I am extremely lucky to live here in England where rocket can be found around any corner and the Normandy cream is mine for the taking, but look at it this way: if you live in Iowa or Indiana, your corn will be better than mine. I bet canned corn would be just fine, too, and would make the soup even less expensive than it already is.

I am very proud of myself for this invention, in no small part because it encourages me to try new things. Of course for every successful invention (or even small departure from the norm) there will inevitably be several culinary howlers, but how else do we rise above the relentlessly quotidien in the kitchen?

Let's see, in between these rocketish discoveries, I went shopping. I know, I know, credit crunch. But two things happened: a Boden catalogue landed on my desk, and my parents sent me a check for my birthday! Found money! Like what you find in your jacket pocket from last winter. Pure manna from heaven. So when my friend Annie saw me perusing said catalogue on a recent trip to the charmless Westfield Shopping Centre in my fair borough, she said, "Save the postage: I'll take you there." Now that's why one has friends who are real Londoners. They know where the bodies are buried. So off we went.

It was a sort of milestone: my first real grownup clothes shopping trip with my on-the-verge-of-teendom daughter! Of course I've taken HER shopping countless times: for rewards for an exam well-passed, or desperate for shoes that don't pinch. But to go to a shop where we could both find things? And with friends? It was a great afternoon. Spitty grey skies, we were perched high in Annie's SUV-ish vehicle (as opposed to either of the orange Minis owned by our families), not noticing traffic because we had so many stories to tell. Our girls are at an age where they are fascinated by any motherly reminiscence about things familial that happened before they appeared on the scene. "How did Keith propose to you, anyway?" I asked, and that was good for several miles. We seem to do nothing but laugh when we are together, and before we knew it we were at Boden, I with my metaphorical money burning a hole in my pocket. Annie and the three girls were on a mission to help me spend it. Shopping is actually fun with the right staff, I found!

"No brown! And no grey," Emily instructed me, and insisted on bringing over many selections in fuchsia and teal, all of which I vetoed. "And no orange!" Avery opined, which cramped my style. An entire shop, mind you, with no black garments; it's amazing I found anything to buy. "Am I too old for a cropped cardigan?" I asked meekly and at least four ladies turned around and said in tandem, "No!" We have to help each other through these little shaky moments.

So today I am proudly wearing a new jumper with blue stripes. I feel I've disappeared and been replaced by an exact replica. Thank you, Hoosier family.

It's an unusual half-term holiday in that we have NO plans. None. A day with a skating lesson to remember feels quite crowded. John of course is still limping around with his bum ankle, Avery nursed one of her mysterious one-day febrile adventures, and I have been feeling monumentally unmotivated to do anything more lasting or significant than cook. This afternoon is a positive ode to greyness: the ground, the skies, the very air. So I have a pot of carrot and coriander soup on the stove (I know, veg in chicken stock again) and a new novel on my desk. Have you all discovered Sophie Hannah? My friend Katherine will be glad to see that I'm recommending some fiction instead of the endless lists of cookery books I've trotted out for your perusal. Sophie Hannah is CREEPY. All her stories involve double lives, lying, dead people who aren't dead, faked identities. They are all plots that you can imagine someone (Sophie Hannah apparently) coming up with by watching or experiencing one odd thing and thinking evilly, "What if the bizarre thing I imagined happening really did? What if the person involved went just that bit further down the road of bad behavior than I would ever dare? What's the worst that could happen?" I just finished "The Point of Rescue" and am now embarked on "Hurting Distance." When did you last stay up till 2 a.m. to finish a book? They're just that good. I'll be lucky if I remember to take my carrot soup off the stove...

11 February, 2009

p.s. on salmon recipe, plus a question

I must aver that the salmon was FABULOUS and has contributed in no small way to my feeling on the road to recovery tonight. But I should add that I include about 1/2 cup chicken stock in the sauce, added at the same time you want to whisk in the creme fraiche and cream.

Here's a question: you may find that in baking, the sauce splits ever so slightly, at the edges of the serving dish. By split, I should clarify that I mean a slight granulation of the texture, not so severe that one would call it curdling, but a slight not-perfect texture (does not affect the sublime flavor). I think we could bake the salmon on its own and pour the sauce over it from the skillet, when serving, but would that lessen the delightful moist-ness of the salmon itself? It would surely lessen the infusion of brandy and cream into the fish, which produces a delicate but pervasive flavor. Try it, do, and let me know.

friends reunited










I have risen from my metaphorical bed of misery to post this darling photo of Avery reunited with her beloved Anna and Ellie. It has been an absolute and utter joy to see Becky's family again: the lazy fun of shared memories and experiences, "remember when...", "You'll know what I mean when I say...", "Of course you were there when..." The dark Scandinavian side of me bows its depressive head and says woefully, "But they go home on Sunday," but the slightly sunnier John-influenced side shakes itself and says, "Enjoy the week." I got in a short but satisfying lunch with Becky today, albeit coughing all the while, but the whole illness thing is gradually getting better. Then we have another lunch with all her girls (alas, Avery is in school) at Becky's old favorite steak place in Marylebone, and ice skating and dinner together on Friday, shopping and hanging out on Saturday. We are monopolizing them as much as we dare.

Friendship is, I believe, the fifth basic food group. Although Avery assures me there are no more food groups, anymore. It's a pyramid, or some such nonsense. What happened to meat, dairy, fruit and veg and starch? Weren't those the categories? I still think of food in those groups, and my old-fashioned dinner plates reflect it: a chop, a pile of beloved mashed potatoes, and stack of something green. Nine nights out of ten, I am ashamed to say. Now for lunch I can branch out into your legumes and pulses, your grains and oils, seeds and such. John will eat anything that doesn't move. But Avery is quite the rabid little food conservative.

Anyway, we are rejoicing in our reunion. I have been undeservedly lucky in my friendships: Alyssa to share all my loves and hates in Tribeca, Becky to step up and gossip and commiserate on raising daughters here in London, and then when she departs, my dear Annie appears in the next street to talk cooking and Lost Property. Peppered in and out are Dalia, Gigi, JoAnn, all the girls who make the process of living a little less isolated and mysterious, a little funnier, more hopeful. And what would I do without the friends who pop up in emails throughout the day? The spice of life.

It has been heartwarming to see Ellie fall right back into her brother-sisterish relationship with John: he throws her upside down, tickles her relentless, inspects what teeth are loose, pokes her in the side and chases her around the room. Avery and Anna are just the same: endlessly supportive of each other, sharing obsessions with animals and fashion (although their version of fashion is to find innumerable ways to arrange one t-shirt: there are no labels in our lives, YET). Mark is his usual imperturbable, generous self, a sort of living embodiment of intelligence and kindness. Only Becky could deserve him, although she never lacks a certain twinkle in her eye to let me know that some gossip would not go amiss. Ashley, the supreme teenager, has been completely inaccessible. "In eight days here," Becky moaned to me today, "I will have seen her for two hours and forty-five minutes!"

We all natter on about how much we love living in London: the theatre, the food, the architecture, the schools, the history. But you know what is NOT nice about living here? There is an unspoken awareness that however much you grow to love people, this is essentially a temporary town, filled with peripatetic, restless people. We all live in the total understanding that any of us could pack up and leave at any moment, and most of us will, at some point. Coming here from New York, from Hong Kong, from Toyko, from Paris, from Moscow. About to go back to one of those places, or to Chicago or Greenwich or Houston. On the one hand it makes you very flexible, but on the other hand, your heart breaks. I suppose if I were wise, I'd decline to get so very involved with everyone, but that never seems to be an option with me. So I pine.

Let's see, what else it happening? John fell down the stairs, creaming his ankle in the process but of course saving his beloved computer from damage. Somehow I'd rather he'd thrown the computer aside and saved his own body, but no, he had his priorities firmly in place. So he's been limping around with an ice pack and Ace bandage wrapped around the offending limb, by and large taking his infirmity fairly well, but feeling bad that he can't run errands for me while I'm puny, so he lashes out. "Lie down! Stop moving around! We won't die on a Tuesday at twelve if you don't cook three things for dinner!" We have ordered pizza. Twice. I waited for the sky to fall, but nothing happened, so I am learning I'm not as indispensable as I thought. But tonight is an old favorite, because I just can't help myself.

Avery's Favorite Baked Salmon with Brandy and Creme Fraiche
(serves four)


1 pound salmon fillet
3 tbsps butter
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 shallots, minced
1/3 cup brandy
1/2 cup creme fraiche
1/3 cup chicken stock
1/2 cup light cream
squeeze of lemon juice
dried thyme (enough to fit in the hollow of your palm if you cup your hand, is a good measuring tool for a little girl)
sweet paprika, same amount
salt and pepper to taste

In a heavy skillet, melt the butter and saute garlic and shallots till soft. Now pour in the brandy, taking time to explain "deglazing" to your child. Cook down until reduced by half, then whisk in a little more butter till it's glossy. Then whisk in the creme fraiche, cream, lemon juice and herbs. Taste and season.

Place your salmon in a glass nonstick-sprayed dish and pour the sauce over the fish. Bake at 425 for 25 minutes. Glorious.

*****************

And guess what will be on the plate with the salmon? A nice mound of mashed potatoes and a stack of sauteed sugar snap peas.

Avery's coming home late tonight after a rehearsal for the school play, which airs tomorrow evening. One hopes by then I will not be a chattering, coughing pile of bones. I think the salmon will help.

And my latest food find? Yogurt from Stapleton Farm: I picked some up at Waitrose just on a whim, passion fruit and peaches, was it, or apricots? and was delighted to find that although very low in fat, it was beyond creamy, very fruity, and flavorful enough to penetrate my congestion-fogged tastebuds. I love to find little tiny purveyors, and am even happier when I find they're being supported by the big bad supermarkets. Get yourself a pot or two. Maybe the live bacteria will save you from The Virus That Ate London. Then I can give you a hug and all bets will be off.

05 February, 2009

the wages of snow












Are coughing, sneezing, wheezing. Ugh, it's hit me again. This endless respiratory nonsense is back, having left me for perhaps six hours, but I was apparently busy doing something else and didn't notice. I should just be grateful that I don't have the awful fever and utter misery that has plagued my poor mother across the pond. Would you believe we were reduced to arranging for chicken soup to be collected from a Jewish deli in Indianapolis, for her? How awful not to be there to minister to her myself. Rest assured, there was a roast chicken on our table for dinner this week and therefore, as night follows the day, chicken soup tonight. I have a cup of hot Lemsip on my bedside table.

Yes, I played and played in the snow even though my chest was already full of whatever. It was worth it. The gathering of Wellies in my hallway did make me laugh. Actually this photograph is cheating, because some of them have been outgrown by one of us (guess who) and we're busy finding homes for them.

School finally reopened on Wednesday after two long, full days of holiday mayhem. Avery and Emily set up a stand outside the estate agent's in our nearby tiny high street and sold their homemade Valentines, to a rousing success. They returned, red-cheeked and mirthful, but unfortunately they sold everything so nothing was left for me to buy. I will have to succumb to asking for one, made just for me.

Yesterday I self-medicated to every extent I could think of and dragged myself to South Kensington to hang out with my friend Dalia. She can always be counted on to cheer me. I hate to be shallow, but it's partly... her extreme beauty. It's very difficult to stay disturbed about anything in one's life, or indulge in a lack of energy, when across the table is a gorgeous vision, snapping black eyes, crowned with a welter of black curls, always testing me to stay as curmudgeonly as I can be. "You are NOT boring! If you were, I wouldn't be here. You will not get boring," she says, and I almost believe her. We trade crushes, gossip, celebrity info, divinely wise advice on one's emotional life. I had an entire plate of vegetables, labelled the restaurant's "New Crunchy Salad." Relentlessly healthy: beetroot, carrot, kidney beans, broccoli, haricots verts, all bathed in a blameless mustardy dressing. Believe me when I tell you that I was starving an hour later. And an hour later I was in Whole Foods buying all the specials: lamb chops for half price! White crab for 30% off! Heaven. Shopping when hungry can be so much fun, so not credit-crunchy.

Today, however, I paid the price of rushing around when not feeling well. I made my way to Putney for, can I just tell you... my debriefing meeting as the new... drumroll please... Head of "Lost Property" at Avery's school! Yes, only the coolest volunteer opportunity ever, and I get to run it, beginning in April. This, even after my crab tart refused to set properly (perhaps the current chair understood about the occasional mistake one can make with the chemical uncertainty of eggs). I must say I am THRILLED. It will be such an opportunity to hang about school, find out what's what, get a behind-the-scenes view of life on the Parents' Group of such a cool school. Lucky, lucky me.

Home in a rush to medicate myself yet again, rush rush to pick up Avery in the fizzing rain to get her to skating, shiver through two hours in the freezing atmosphere of the rink, then shiver toward home on the bus in the rain. Believe you me, the lamb chops, mashed potatoes and sauteed asparagus John had ready for us when we arrived home made me ready to renew my marriage vows.

Well, I'm beat. The snow is gone, I have written a new chapter of my book, there is chicken soup on the stove. We're cooking with gas... Tomorrow will be better.

02 February, 2009

Snow Day!















London came to a standstill today to welcome the snowstorm. School closed, which meant my writing class was cancelled. My mind upon awakening immediately turned to what foodstuffs I might have in my larder and fridge to keep us from starving. Silly, really, because in this thriving metropolis, the shops were all open! Something in my Midwestern snowy day mentality must have come to the forefront, though, and I was taken back to all those childhood days when snow fell and we got to celebrate and play. We headed off to Emily's house up the street to make our Snow Day plans, and ended up borrowing cashmere socks, waterproof gloves, hats and such from that ski-loving family and walking to the nearby park. But you know what? Our own pristine gardens and streets were nicer to play in than the park that had attracted every family in the neighborhood to make snowmen and let loose their frantic dogs. Children rolling giant balls of snow, John beating Fred mercilessly with snowballs, Annie and me following him around, determined to protect the son and heir and punish the dad. Swans flapped, ducks quacked and stood on first one leg, then the other. John threatened to make Fred test the pond ice for sturdiness!

Finally it was just too cold and we headed home through the still-thickly falling snow. Avery stopped at Emily's house for hot chocolate and marshmallows, and I made for home and a pot of the MOST delicious:

Snow Day Tomato Soup
(serves 4)


2 tbsps butter
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 white onion, chopped
1 stem rosemary, leaves removed and chopped
3 soup-size cans plum tomatoes
1/2 cup single cream
sea salt and fresh ground pepper to taste

Nothing could be more simple than this soup, it costs next to nothing and cooks very quickly. You will never buy a can of soup again. Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan, then saute the garlic and onion until softened. Add rosemary and tomatoes, and simmer high for 15 minutes. Whizz with a hand-held blender, then add cream and seasonings to taste. Perfection.

***********************

With this, we had sandwiches made of last night's:

Pork Loin Cooked in Milk
(serves 4 for dinner, and again for lunch)


1 pork loin (approximately 1.25 kilos, or 2 pounds and some)
12 cloves garlic, 6 whole, 6 chopped coarsely
2 stems rosemary
2 white onions, quartered
12 baby new potatoes
1 liter whole milk

Cut 6 slits deep into the pork loin, three on each side. Insert whole garlic cloves. Place the rosemary on the bottom of a 9x13 glass baking dish, then place the pork on top of the rosemary. Throw onions, chopped garlic and potatoes in around the pork and pour milk over all. Season well. Roast in a hot oven (200C, 400F) for about an hour and a half or until the pork is cooked through. Expect the milk to resemble the surface of potatoes dauphinoise: slightly crusted and brown, but still deep and creamy underneath. Rest for 15 minutes, then slice thin and serve with onions and potatoes, drizzling some milk onto the pork slices.

***************

Today's sandwiches made on whole wheat bread with slices of pork, slices of Wensleydale cheese, red onion, hot English mustard and rocket leaves, were LOVELY.

What a peerless London day: Avery and Emily sloped back home to watch movies and make Valentines, I made a banana-free version of my favorite banana-apple cake, with pears instead of bananas, extra spices, and it was, if anything, even better.

Pear-Apple Cake
(serves 8)


1 1/2 cups plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp each: ground cinnamon, ground cloves, ground nutmeg
pinch salt
1/2 cup butter
1 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 eggs
2 apples, chopped
2 large pears, chopped
dusting confectioner's sugar

Combine all dry ingredients. Beat butter, sugar, vanilla and eggs. Mix the dry and wet ingredients, then add chopped fruit. Bake for about 40 minutes at 160C, 350F, or until firm in the middle. Sprinkle confectioner's sugar over cooled cake. Serve warm.

***************

This cake appears to be fool (me) proof. You simply must give it a try.

Tomorrow will, in all probability, bring a day of school and work. The respite is over. One of the most distasteful jobs ever beckons: cleaning out the awful cellar from all the clobber we threw down there when we moved here in May, plus all the junk we've assembled down there since. Pots too big to store in the kitchen, the cardboard box the portable AC unit arrived in during the hottest days of summer, out-of-season coats (probably motheaten, some of them), picnic baskets, outgrown horse riding equipment. Plus the requisite number of spiders, and the litterboxes. Not my favorite place on earth! But it's that or try to get up to date on photographs in the photo albums: endless sticks of glue, piles of pictures from clear back to spring of last year. I just have not had my heart in it, and yet have kept up to date ordering prints, so... the day will come.

We are in a tizzy of excitement because the weekend will bring a visit from my dear Becky and her family, all the way from Connecticut! Avery will be in absolute heaven to have her darling Anna around, and we plan to monopolize the family shamelessly during their visit. So much to catch up on: I'm thinking a spaghetti bolognese dinner to please everyone. In the meantime, watch out for those snowballs!

01 February, 2009

a rare London snowfall











I'm sitting in the hushed, whitewashed, serene, fairytale world of a snowstorm here in London. Tomorrow I shall post photographs, if they turn out well, of the street turned pristine by the storm, the trees with their bare branches topped by inches of snow, our exotic tropical garden in back completely puzzled by what's happening, the cala lily and other innocent flora looking for all the world as if they had been photoshopped... It is the last word in peaceful, to sit in bed looking past a sleeping husband to the preternaturally bright world without, snowflakes swirling. I will count this as an early birthday present! More tomorrow...