29 March, 2009

a really superb chickpea dish (and no, I'm not addicted)











I swear, I am totally capable of leaving my blog for four days. I am NOT addicted to this blog. I am merely... devoted. To you, my readers! And before I head off in the morning for a lovely holiday sans computer, I thought I'd underline what turned out to be John's favorite side dish ever. He was insatiable, and since I'd taken a fairly good photograph of it, I can post it to inspire you. And then... I'm really leaving. I swear. And I'll be fine. Goodbye. I think...

Warm Chickpea Salad with Feta and Rocket
(serves 4 as a small side dish or 2 as a lunch salad)

4 tbsps olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium red onion, minced
2 tsps mild curry powder
2 soup-size cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed (about 500 grams drained weight)
juice of 1 lemon (this suits my lemon crazed family, but cut down if you like)
8 oz feta cheese, crumbled into bite-size pieces
2 cups rocket, loosely packed
salt and pepper to taste

Heat the olive oil in a heavy skillet or saucepan and fry the garlic and onion gently till soft. Add the curry powder and cook for another minute, taking care not to burn the garlic. It is essential to cook the curry to avoid the bitterness that can come from merely adding it raw, as it were, to the dish.

Add the chickpeas and the lemon juice and more olive oil if the mixture seems too dry, and cook very gently for about 20 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the feta cheese and toss well till the cheese is warmed. Tip the whole lot into a large bowl and toss with the rocket, then season and serve.

27 March, 2009

we're off











I cannot tell you how I have been LONGING for a break with my beloved. We have not been away together (Christmas at home in Connecticut does not count) since October, and we're desperate. We'll have with us, of course, our child and her best friend, leaving on Monday to Lincolnshire, a place none of us has ever been, to spend a blissful (we hope) four days exploring, reading, enjoying each other's uninterrupted company not accompanied by iCal, iPhone, iPhoto, iTunes, or any other i-insurgent. Just the four of us (and, I'm hoping quite often just the two of us while two little girls find other things to do) on our own in the English countryside. I think it will be lambing season, or close to it. We're hoping for a close exposure to some new sheeply mothers.

As for food? I am packing away homemade pesto, a bag full of candles and matches to light our dinners, a side of salmon, an armful of sausages from the Giggly Pig from my beloved local market ("3 for a tenner, love, even in this rain!" the lovely girl shouted yesterday, I succumbed), a dish of macaroni and cheese as is our tradition on arriving at Landmark Trust houses. We'll arrive, I'll leave my nearest and dearest to unload the car while I take in the macaroni and cheese and sausages, light the oven and the candles, make the kitchen our home for the duration. They will settle in (maximum laughter now that we'll have two girls instead of one), my husband will light the open fire promised in the sitting room... within 45 minutes the bubbling, browning aroma of mac and cheese will permeate the house and we'll be... HOME. I'll see you next week, unless something earth-shattering happens in between. Of course, tomorrow night's airing of "Robin Hood" nearly counts... Have a lovely week.

25 March, 2009

of campanology and chocolate fish


































But before I get to that (and a fabulous new side dish), thanks for the unprecedented number of comments on the post a week or so ago, about the recipe file that I inherited from my grandmother. How did that particular topic come to be such a magnet for interaction from so many of you? I was very pleased.

And just think, the blog wasn't even OPEN when I posted it, so who knows how many more interested cooks and granddaughters could have found it appealing, had the b**dy thing been open. I'm passing through several stages in my reaction to opening up the blog: first I was grateful. Why? To whom? Then I felt like a big fat idiot that I had reacted the way I did originally, but honestly, when someone threatens your child, un-dreamed-of facets to your personality come to the surface. Namely, "I'll do anything, perjure myself, sell my soul, close my blog? No problem!" Then I decided that feeling like an idiot was pointless because it was all over. And then anger kicked in. Anger that I had been forced into hiding, all because of one person's irrationality. Do you know what? I have four actual friends in real life, not just on a computer screen but people I have coffee with and write stories with and complain about my child with, that I met through my blog, before I closed it. And those of you who know me well know that friendship is paramount, even central, in my life. How many more friends could I have made during all those months I was underground?

Anyway, enough of that because it's a Brave New World. One task I have is going on my hands and knees to Google, Yahoo! and all the other search engines that my long-suffering husband spent many hours erasing me from, last year. I must say, "Mea culpa, mea culpa, I was a frightened filly, but now will you relist my blog?" Don't know what that entails yet. I'm loath to sit and wait for readers to come to me, and seriously annoyed at all the readers and momentum I lost during my year as a nun.

So, my original point was that something about old recipes, and my evil grandmother, struck a nerve with you. Nostalgia, childhood memories, a yearning for the old days when we were defined by being someone's granddaughter, when those ladies were still alive to torment the generation in between... Well, I am hard at work on a chapter for my book on scalloped potatoes, which for better or worse will push all the same buttons: inedible food, dire childhood memories, my mother's head on the chopping block once again for hating to cook. She assures me that she is not at all bothered by my describing her thus to you. "But if you question my interior design, I might take umbrage." Fair enough. When my scalloped potatoes chapter has taken its final shape, I'll post it.

In the meantime, life has taken on a frenetic pace lately that I don't quite understand. Normally I spend a little time scratching my head over what to write about here, but since the weekend there has been so much going on that I am only now, on Wednesday, sitting down to sort through photos and form some sentences. First up: change ringing.

Campanology, I know, is not a popular pasttime anymore. Most churches have automatic ringing, I think, and surely the art of change ringing is dying out. But I love the sound of bells, and the thought that actual people's arms are involved in ringing them in some faraway bell chamber is quite magical to me. And I love Dorothy L Sayers who loved bells. She was to my mind the greatest mystery novelist of all time, and life in the 20th century was greatly enhanced by her invention of great Golden Age detective Lord Peter Wimsey, whose finest hour may well have been in "The Nine Tailors," a murder mystery all about change ringing. Are you still with me?

So when I learned that the Dorothy L Sayers Society, of which I am a member, was awarding a prize to the Best Young Change Ringer to a 13-year-old girl in St Mary's Church, Bluntisham, Cambridgeshire, where Sayers's father had been vicar before the First World War, I knew my chance had come.

Now I know you're all thinking, "What could be more pathetically nerdy than an American in London putting a copy of 'The Nine Tailors' in her handbag and buying a ticket to Bluntisham to spend two hours in a church listening to change ringing and watching a teenager get an award from Dame Norma Major," and you're right. It is nerdy. But I mentioned my odyssey to my friend Jo, who really understands what life is about, and she said, "Anything you do because you love it and it's something you've never done before is a GOOD thing." Well put.

It was but the work of a moment to google Bluntisham and find that... it would take me forever and a day to get there. John could not drive me there because Avery had fifteen different things to do on Saturday that required transportation and hand-holding (tis the season of music exams). I blubbered about this state of affairs to my friend Annie who promptly suggested that I look up Bluntisham on a map and see what was the nearest biggish town, take a fast train to there, and then get a taxi to the church. Done. Up early Saturday, dressed in sober, church-going clothes (my vision of country tweeds), and... deep breath. Tube to Kings Cross, train to Hatfield, BUS to Huntingdon, taxi to Bluntisham. In all, three hours. Insane. But I had my copy of "The Nine Tailors" to amuse me, and the lovely Fen Country speeding by outside my windows. It is FLAT.

The taxi driver was lovely, answering all my questions about flooding (big plotline in the book), sounding exactly like the characters in the book, written some 70 years ago. "Government long ago sorted out the flooding, got us some new sluice gates..." He said flatly that I was nuts to have come so far for some bells, but gave me his business card and said, "Now when you're done, like, and you've had a cup of tea, give me a ring. HA HA." I arrived at the church with 45 minutes to spare, so I spent them in the garden of the nearby pub with a bitter lemon, looking up at the church spires and imagining myself in the novel. Then off to the ceremony.

There were perhaps 50 people in all in the church (complete with cherubim in the South Aisle, just like in the book! I was thrilled to see them). Most of them were members of the Ladies Guild of Change Ringing, whose help had been sought by the Society to find a suitable recipient for the award. And they were all dressed in track suits or jeans, as befitted ladies who were about to pull hard on massively heavy, long bell ropes. I felt slightly silly in my churchly clothes. And my camera was about seventeen times the size of their little digital jobs, but it was a once in a lifetime experience, and I wanted proper pictures. The Chairman of the Dorothy L Sayers Society spoke. The President of the Ladies Guild spoke. The Reverend of the Church spoke. Then little Chloe came forward to receive her award from yes, the wife of the former Prime Minister, Dame Norma Major (I wonder what she did to get her Dame-ness: surely just surviving being married to John Major was not enough). And what was Chloe wearing? A black cocktail dress and three-inch red heels. I am not making this up.

Then we had bells! The local ladies rang, with Chloe throwing off her shoes in order to join them. "She's a good girl, Chloe is," her mother said when I congratulated her. "She's a one for the rugger, and she will flirt with the boys, but she's a good girl, and the ringing's been great for her." The idea of a teenager with an eye for the boys, a closet full of Jimmy Choos and her heart in the belfry struck me as almost unbearably touching. I asked Chloe to sign my book, and you'd have thought she was asked for her autograph every day of the week. "Sure, no problem!" she chirped, and dotted her "i" with a smart little circle. More ringing, from anyone in the audience who was experienced. Then the churchwarden opened the steps to the bell chamber and we could climb up, gaze down at the bells, which were lovingly restored during Sayers's father's tenure as vicar. And re-dedicated a few years ago with money from our Society. One bell now bears the legend of the Dorothy L Sayers Society, which I think is lovely.

To the Church Hall for tea, which I drank alone as befits the oddity from town who came all by herself, but gradually two Society members edged over to me. "Come from far away, did you?" "London," I said. "Fan, are you?" "Oh, massive, I even named my cat Lord Peter Wimsey," I said warmly, and that did it. I was accepted. The two ladies told some stories about "gormless things Americans say" on the Yahoo! Lord Peter email group, and as I did not jump up to defend my countrymen, they dropped their guard. Out we went then into the cemetery where I was led to the gravestone of a woman called Thoday, one of the village names in the novel. Such fun to see it, as if a fictional person had come to life (well, strictly speaking, death). And I wandered around with these two English ladies and we played cemetery games: finding every association we could between the names on the gravestones and characters in mystery fiction. It was definitely a specialist sort of day. How I missed my mother! She would have dived into the game with both feet.

Then it was time to retrace my steps back to London, my head positively filled with the past, fictional and real, with a sense of wonder that a person's lifetime achievements - a row of mystery novels on a shelf - could engender such devotion and long-lasting wish to commemorate her. A link between literature before the war, and a red-haired rugby-mad bell ringer just out of childhood. Lovely.

I spent Sunday recovering from this extravaganza. And cooking the most gorgeous side dish, copied as best as I could from our local Italian delicatessen, Sundrica, near the Hammersmith Tube Station. Guess what? There's rocket in it.

Warm Chickpea Salad with Feta and Rocket
(serves 4 as a small side dish or 2 as a lunch salad)


4 tbsps olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium red onion, minced
2 tsps mild curry powder
2 soup-size cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed (about 500 grams drained weight)
juice of 1 lemon (this suits my lemon crazed family, but cut down if you like)
8 oz feta cheese, crumbled into bite-size pieces
2 cups rocket, loosely packed
salt and pepper to taste

Heat the olive oil in a heavy skillet or saucepan and fry the garlic and onion gently till soft. Add the curry powder and cook for another minute, taking care not to burn the garlic. It is essential to cook the curry to avoid the bitterness that can come from merely adding it raw, as it were, to the dish.

Add the chickpeas and the lemon juice and more olive oil if the mixture seems too dry, and cook very gently for about 20 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the feta cheese and toss well till the cheese is warmed. Tip the whole lot into a large bowl and toss with the rocket, then season and serve.

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

This is a lovely dish, warm and comforting, but with a sophistication that comes from the curry and rocket, a zing from the lemon and plenty of salt from the feta. Perfect with a grilled pork fillet, roast chicken, shoulder of lamb.

Monday found me at school (look, I can just SAY that and I won't get arrested! and I'm not hiding!) to volunteer for the Lost Property Sale. This is an event of mammoth proportions, requiring the efforts of at least a dozen volunteers, the muscle of both school handymen to bring tables, rolling racks. The whole Lost Property room with its smelly PE kit, mismatched trainers, countless lost cardigans, forgotten down jackets, swimming towels and lacrosse sticks had to be turned out, organized and laid out to sell. A mounting fury took over all of us at one point: "What is the matter with our children that there is an entire room full of their belongings and they don't even appear to MISS them?" I haven't even mentioned the locked cabinet full of watches, cameras, cell phones, iPods, jewelry, HOUSE KEYS and Oyster cards for the Tube. How do these children function? Do they have spares of EVERYTHING?

So Monday was the last opportunity for the girls to come by and claim their belongings without having to buy them. All the ladies I work with there are fodder for a novel someday. Peggy plucked a hair from a jacket and started to drop it in the bin when she suddenly stared at it and said, "DNA! We could find out EXACTLY who this jacket belongs to! Let's start getting samples..." And Marianne turned to me, as I was struggling to move a huge rack of sweaters to one side of the hall, put her head on one side like an inquisitive bird, and said, "Surely you are not under the impression that the rewards for Lost Property are earthly ones? No, one must wait until the next life to be thanked for these sacrifices..."

The girls ambled up, mostly on their way to or from lunch, pawed through things, made ineffective claims to items that were clearly not theirs but just looked appealing. And through it all, there was crowning glory of the sale, the mysterious five chocolate fish which appeared suddenly some weeks ago between the hymnbooks and the discarded French texts. Chocolate fish the size of, say, a screwdriver. Not Easter basket chocolate fish, but BIG ones. Where did they come from, and why on earth did someone donate them to Lost Property and not simply scoff the lot?

It was really funny to take these super-cool girls, all slung about with Abercrombie and fringey scarves, ask them, "Is there anything in particular you're looking for?" and when they shrug and giggle and say, "Not really," you say, "Are you sure you haven't lost a... chocolate fish?" Never failed to get a reaction, and some actual conversation. "They rattle when you shake them!" it was discovered. We priced them at a pound each, and I determined to get one for Avery. What is the point of being the incoming head of LP if you don't take advantage of the opportunities attached thereto?

Tuesday dawned bright and fair and the sale started at promptly noon. Pandemonium! One particular mother has a booming voice and absolutely no hesitation about making a total fool of herself in a good cause, so she ran about waving t-shirts at girls and saying plaintively, "Take me home, says the little t-shirt. I don't want to live in Lost Property anymore, I want to live with YOU, and I'm only a quid!" The hour-long sale seemed to last for about three minutes, three very loud minutes. Avery drifted in and picked up some Converse high-tops, a Gap jacket, a plaid cashmere scarf, and... a chocolate fish. Thank goodness. I stayed behind after, to learn the ropes for my eventually taking over after Easter. Another meeting at school tomorrow WITH my laptop, to receive instruction, wisdom and a dose of humility.

Today I ambled into Marylebone to have coffee with my friend Angela (she of the thinly disguised school scandal memoir in my writing class, bless her), who kindly introduced me to her neighbor, the excellent cookery writer Sybil Kapoor. Her latest book, Citrus and Spice, is a very inventive approach to structure: she chooses twelve "flavours," like citrus, ozone, verdant, smoke, and cream, to embody each month of the year. I'm not sure I like the structure, actually, which tries very hard to explain what I think is essentially an intuitive sense - what flavors go with what other flavors - in a scientific way. Yet she seems to realize this is a conundrum, because there are many instances in which she says, "For whatever reason," which I think underscores that we don't really have a definite sense of why crab goes with citrus. It just does.

So whether you agree with her approach or not, the recipes sound memorable and tempting, a good sign in a cookbook, and she is a delight. Shy, thoughtful, absolutely willing to share her expertise in publishing food writing. Quite an intimidating morning, however, leaving me to wonder if I should just sit back and let the big girls run the show. The thought of trying to penetrate all these markets where there are already quite enough talented writers is daunting to say the least.

Right, I'd better put aside my own petty life and see how Avery's coming with her English project, the life and career of Agatha Christie. I have never converted her to Dorothy L Sayers, but it's still early days. Let the bells chime.

24 March, 2009

you're all free now

No photo, no recipe, just a heartfelt THANK YOU to my loyal subscribed readers who suffered through 1) isolation, 2) password annoyance, and 3) my sad mood upon closing down the blog except to registered readers.

Well... drum roll please... we're OPEN! It was so simple. I approached Avery's school through the most official of channels and no problem: they are completely happy for me to have my blog. It underscored the complete and utter insanity of the school official tangentially related to dear Avery's last educational institution just about a year ago. This lady, who was a complete stranger to all of us, flipped her lid to the extent that thanks to her threats to Avery's happiness and security (I wish I were making this up) I closed the blog to all but password-holders.

It sounds so simple now, but the hideous and cruel threats of those old days held sway over me for months, right up until now. My ever-sensible husband said, "Why not just ask how the school feels?" and so, heart in my throat, I did. And they were LOVELY. Understanding, almost uninterested, just calm and modern.

So here we are. You can send the link to your friends! You can recommend my blog to your mother. You can do anything you like because we're... open and ready for business. I thank you from the bottom of my heart for sticking with me through the rough patches. You know who you are.

21 March, 2009

Three Days of Rain (and Cats in Chimneys Part Two)






































I think the crush is revived. Rejunvenated, brought back to life like when you soak dried le Puy lentils overnight and suddenly they're all plump and inviting! Actually, it's probably exactly that sort of metaphor that kills a crush. No sexy actor in his twenties wants to be compared to a lentil, not even the expensive ones from le Puy, France that keep their shape in a stew. But more on James McAvoy later. Oh, to see him in person! It was thrilling.

Life has been slightly frenetic lately, owing on the one hand to a heavy but exciting load of writing, worked into my normal life schedule. Betty Crocker, anyone? Bundt cakes? My grandmother's life as a haberdasher in postwar Wisconsin? These things occupy my mind, or what's left of it after Avery and Emily finish their hysterical rendition of "Had a Bad Day" in the style of Alvin and the Chipmunks (Emily's new cellphone ringtone, if you have to ask), and the builders frighten Keechie into the chimney with their ladders and drills. She emerged hours later, as you see, none the worse for wear.

All these things make for a lovely daily life, punctuated by the most divine six-hour-braised shoulder of lamb with (see, you knew I'd come to it) le Puy lentils and garlic. I'm not joking here. Garlic. It's amazing how much one 12-year-old child can put away. The lamb was a mere accompaniment.

Six-Hour-Braised Shoulder of Lamb with le Puy Lentils, Rosemary Pesto and Garlic
(serves four with leftovers)


1 2-kg shoulder of Welsh lamb
4 heads garlic, one minced, the others whole with tops cut off
3 tbsps pesto
leaves of 2 stalks rosemary
1 cup le Puy lentils, dried

Line a roasting dish with aluminum foil (trust me, you will thank me later) and place the shoulder of lamb in it. Run the pesto through the food processor with the rosemary leaves and the minced garlic. Smear the lamb with the pesto and place the three whole garlic cloves upright in the cooking dish. Scatter the lentils all around. Don't worry that they are dried; the lamb juices will cook them.

Cook at 140C, 280F for about six hours, covered with foil. After about three hours, begin basting every half hour or so (only if you're home to do so; obviously you can leave it to cook on its own if need be).

About half an hour before you want to eat, drain all the cooking liquid (leaving the lentils and garlic behind in the dish) from the dish into a fat separator (a very clever implement that looks like a measuring cup, talks like a measuring cup, but actually separates the fat from the good stuff in potential gravy). Pour the good stuff into a little saucepan and discard the fat.

Scoop up all the nicely cooked lentils and hide them under the lamb. Turn up the heat to 220C, 450F and place the lamb, uncovered, back in the oven. Meanwhile, heat the gravy in the saucepan and add just a little flour (depending on the amount of liquid you have, probably you will not want more than a tablespoon) and whisk carefully till flour is dissolved. Remove lamb from oven 15 minutes from serving time, cover with foil and let rest. Let the gravy cook for the time the lamb rests. Serve the lamb sliced thick, with lentils on the side. Scoop the cooked garlic from the cloves and spread on toasted bread.

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

Now it's hard to know whether to call this "roasting" or "braising." Truth be told, it begins by roasting and then lets out so much juice and fat that somewhere the alchemical magic turns the process into braising. You choose the terminology.

Well, that was Sunday and then all hell broke loose. Meetings all day Monday, party here Monday night. Tuesday more meetings, phone calls, writing, then Avery's "Singing Tea" at school, so beautiful and touching. I want to sit and listen to her sing a capella all night some day. Maybe for Mother's Day. Then a rush to get her to her overnight date and us to... "Madame de Sade" at the Donmar, the third in their series of four (we've now seen the three, don't think I can stomach Jude Law as Hamlet in May).

In point of fact, the only reason we ended up at Sade was because our dear friend Annie turned up the night before with tickets they could not use. And through a complex web of computer-equipment swapping, it was an even deal. But it was an odd, odd performance. Rosamond Pike, as gorgeous as they come, shouted a great deal, in a very wide dress, about Sadism (not surprising). What was surprising was how un-Sadistic it felt, not naughty or wicked at all, not even painful. Judi Dench herself seemed very off. Frances Barber was wonderful, but all too infrequently onstage. In general, sorry to say, while it was beautifully staged, I found it tormenting to listen to. Add to that, about fifteen minutes before the end of the play, the woman in front of me... vomited. Into her pashmina scarf. More than ONCE. I could not believe any of my senses. And believe me when I say ALL my senses were involved in the repulsive experience: I could hear it, see it happening, then sad to say... smell and nearly, well, you know, enough said.

The next few minutes were the longest since, possibly, I was in labor for 18 hours. Why didn't the sick woman bloody leave? But she didn't. She carefully made up her pashmina into a scary little parcel which she inserted into a plastic bag in her handbag, and... simply stayed in her seat. Stinking to high heaven.

Listen to this hilarious story my friend Patricia told me: she was sitting in the interval at "Les Miserables" here in London some years ago and overheard an American lady next to her say to her American companion, "Well, I'm glad we didn't MAKE plans to go to Paris, if the conditions are going to be like THAT!"

Well, after the vomiting incident, I practically had to be dragged out of the house the following evening to see "Three Days of Rain." As so often happens, I was grateful to have the ticket in hand, so I could not change my mind and stay home. I left John and Avery in the kitchen with two pots of boiling fabric dye and several hundred finger-knitted string bracelets (can you say 'school fair'?), and escaped to my first conveyor-belt sushi experience, at Kulu-Kulu in Brewer Street. It is sad that I have got to my advanced age, and dare I say it with a more than passing familiarity with the menu at Nobu (both New York and London), but have never sat myself down at a single seat in a sushi bar and watched the dishes go by. You just help yourself and then when you're finished, you pile up your dishes and the cashier adds up your total from the different patterns of the dishes! Free tea! At first I grabbed a seat between two Japanese people and then thought, "No, I'll never survive," so I moved my stuff to a seat next to two nice English girls and they ran me through the ropes.

My god, I ate. Two plates of yellowtail, two hand rolls of soft-shell crabs (perfectly fresh fish, probably not sustainable, but fantastic, and crunchy tempura to die for). A communal pot of wasabi, a jug of soy sauce, and a host of dishes flying by that I could not identify. I nearly grabbed a plate of what I hoped was tuna in a spicy sauce, but found out just in time it was roe of some kind. No thank you. If it's not caviar I don't want roe, and I don't even like caviar. Shrimp sushi, tuna sashimi, finally a cut roll of something vaguely cucumber and avocado with probably crab stick, and I couldn't eat another bite. There were weird plates of mashed potatoes with spring onions, gorgeous looking shrimp tempura which I will try next time, and salmon sashimi that I just didn't have the appetite for. I said goodbye to my lovely companions, picked up my dishes and paid... 14 quid. A miracle. I cannot wait to go back. Perfect pre-theatre.

And then it was... James. I have never seen him, until last night, live. He was a revelation. Every time his head turned even slightly toward the audience, the blue, blue beacon of his vulnerable, tragic gaze was beamed outward... he did not have to speak. But he did. And those iconic movements, very spare, very balletic, that I've seen on screen, were all there in person. No wasted movements, no accidental gestures. A gorgeous play of family tragedy in what seemed to me a clear copy of the Donald Judd studio/home at Spring and Greene Street, our old stomping grounds in SoHo. The entire cast was creditable with believable-ish American accents, but James... his character haunted by the silence, neglect, genius, torment of his father, the accidental love of the woman he's taken from his partner, the sense of betrayal. If you go, suspend judgment for the first half which, it is true, runs slow. The second half more than makes up for it, and you'll find yourself during the tube ride home asking, "So why...?"

Just lovely. I looked up during MY tube ride home and there was my friend Charlotte, coming home from a dinner in the city. We kicked someone out of the seat next to me and chatted all the way home, feeling grateful, ridiculously, for a fellow walker home through Hammersmith in the dark.

Tonight out AGAIN to Marylebone for a lovely sort of pan-London drinks party for a mixed group of Obama people, banker people, feminist people, arts people. All in all a group I could probably have happily spent several hours with but, alas, I had chosen this evening to teach my child, via mobile phone on the way home in the car, to turn on the oven AND the stove, hence making possible a baked salmon and mashed potato dinner. She was not markedly any more self-confident when we got home than when we left, but I have high hopes. Needed an evening home eating my own food anyway... and we're out AGAIN tomorrow night for a dinner party. This is definitely not a normal week.

The weather has been unbelievably gorgeous for the past week or so: blue skies every day, lovely breezes at night. But being England we know it cannot last and of course the weatherman aids and abets us in this fear. Just listen to this forecast... "It's lovely and blue up there now, but soon, we might have a few spit-spots of rain, look at this rain band, but then it will tend to fizzle out, really almost completely, as we approach lunchtime... to give way to just a sort of patchy cloud." That's the English spirit for you, lovable as always.

I'll end with a sad goodbye to the lovely Natasha Richardson, just my age, leaving behind two little boys and a family who loved her. An extra kiss and hug for everyone you love tonight.

14 March, 2009

the recipe file



























Well, it's about the most fun you can have with a stack of 3 1/2 x 5 index cards. Last week I opened, really for the first time as a serious cook, my grandmother's recipe collection which I inherited when she died. It's an enormous stack of yellowed, torn, spilt-upon treasures, but treasures in not exactly the way you might think. There is almost no chance that a modern person will want to cook anything described in these cards, but that is really beside the point.

What emerges from these cards is a picture of a life gone by, on many different levels. Only a portion of the cards comes from my own grandmother's kitchen; the vast proportion of them are gifts to her, from ladies (and I mean exclusively ladies, which is a topic all its own) in her intimate circle. One Irene Traw passes along her notion of an "Angel Pie," a frothy concoction of separated eggs and graham cracker crust, on a dear little card bearing her name and the legend, "A truer friend there cannot be than one who shared her recipe." My mother remembers Irene vaguely as a bridge-playing crony of my grandmother's, in the posh retirement community of Sun City, Arizona, where she and my besotted grandfather moved when I was a little girl. Irene, Ruth Pentecost, Evelyn Adamy, Betty Joy, the nameless lady who took the time to cut out magazine pictures of sunflowers and glue them to her recipe card containing instructions for "Fudge Cup Cakes Supreme," all these ladies emerge from the dusty cards, wiping their hands on their aprons and smiling at me.

These ladies inhabited a world in which brides-to-be were given personalized recipe cards on which to note down their creative efforts (woe to my poor mother who must have looked at her cards with a sense of impending doom, as her creative efforts were more likely to find an outlet in embroidering samplers than in separating eggs). I suppose then they ate at each other's houses, admired Ruth's "Molded Fish Mousse" (a name that had my modern daughter rolling on the floor laughing) and asked for the recipe. And of course they were all ladies, not a Sam or Cyrus among them, and this fact brings out in me the little bit of feminism that says men may be (and are) great chefs, but the really important stirring and mixing, boiling and chopping in this life is done by ladies.

Were these the early Ladies Who Lunch? Only instead of paying for Gordon Ramsay to wow them with foie gras parcels and confit of duck leg in a Jerusalem artichoke veloute, they fed each other at home, maybe potluck style? Each lady would surely arrive armed with a dish designed to impress. During the endless hot, dry afternoons in the desert, they would light their inevitable cigarettes and begin with Ruby's "Crab on Holland Rusk" (what is a rusk?), followed by Miriam's "Pistachio Pie" (containing no pistachios, and also presentable as a salad, the recipe assures us). It must all have been washed down with "Invitations to Love," a potent-sounding concoction of lime juice, orange juice, vodka, apricot brandy and grenadine. A few more cigarettes, a couple of hands of bridge and then home, to concoct "Shrimp Dish," from the kitchen of Sally Johnson, for their husbands, fresh from the golf courses and their own three-martini lunches.

Sally Johnson's Shrimp Dish

1 pkg. Uncle Ben's long grain and wild rice mixture
1 can mushroom soup
10 oz. pkg frozen cooked shrimp
1/2 cup cubed American cheese
2 tbsps green pepper, chopped
1 tbsp lemon juice
1/2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1/2 tsp dried mustard
1/4 tsp black pepper (no Salt though)

Prepare rice as directed on package, combine all ingredients and bake in covered greased dish at 375F for 30-35 minutes. Serves 6.

Try this by your swimming pool.

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

This last instruction stopped me in my tracks. Maybe with an exclamation mark it would have read in a different way, "Try this by your swimming pool!" That would have conveyed a nice, celebratory atmosphere with plenty of cocktails and dark glasses. As it is, it sounds slightly threatening. This impression was underscored by my mother's assurance that my grandparents did not have a swimming pool; they swam at the community pool. Was the author of this recipe throwing her obvious possession of a pool in my grandmother's face?

My great-aunts Andrine, Rae and Hannah (who I grew up thinking was not Aunt Hannah, but "Antenna") are present and accounted for in many recipes in my grandmother's file, as is my father's cousin's mother Miriam, with recipes for Eagle Brand Pie, Oatmeal Refrigerator Cookies, Hot Ham Strata, and something called Flintstone Dip. All the recipes share one thing in common: an unspoken but intense frugality of ingredients. No savory recipe seemed complete without a can of Campbell's Cream of Mushroom Soup; it seemed to be a sort of universal lubricator of such diverse items as bacon, spinach, hard-boiled eggs and canned lima beans. Almost nothing in these recipes started out life fresh: spinach was frozen, milk evaporated and canned, tomatoes juiced, red peppers suspended in vinegar and called pimentos. Even the main dishes were manipulated. What was not casseroled was molded, stewed or formed into a loaf. Not for my grandmother and her friends a simple fillet steak, roasted chicken or pork tenderloin. As my mother explained, these ladies had a mission, first in their post-war poverty and later in a state of habitual frugality, to eke out the expensive proteins in their diet with cheap and filling starch, and to change its original appearance as much as possible to achieve something special from something very ordinary indeed.

To this end, vegetables (never fresh to begin with, even celery was canned) were mixed with gelatin, covered with a white sauce, braised in chicken stock from bullion cubes, mixed with frozen fruit and flavored with an endless array of mysterious seasonings. Dips were made to accompany bread chunks or cocktail sausages at parties, their mayonnaise (or even cheaper, Miracle Whip Salad Dressing) flavored with Lowry's Seasoned Salt, Lipton French Onion Soup Mix, Accent Seasoning (its only ingredient being monosodium glutamate) or Beau Monde seasoning which combined a motley array of both sweet and savory spices. There was even a condiment called Liquid Smoke, which imparted a charcoaly (and no doubt carcinogenic) flavor to meat dishes. And you know what I just realized? In all these hundreds of recipes, there is no mention of garlic. Do you suppose it was too "foreign"?"

One recipe stood out for me among the many cookie recipes, "Jewish cookies." In the margin of my grandmother's recipe card was the notation, "A favorite of Bert Weiss." Surely they could not be called "Jewish Cookies" just because someone named Weiss liked them? Even for my very Protestant grandmother this could not be true. I read the list of ingredients, looking for pastrami or matzoh meal or brisket (in this pile of recipes, anything was possible), but there were only the most ordinary items like flour, butter, eggs, shredded coconut, orange marmalade. When I read this recipe out to Avery, however, she promptly said, "Oh, those are hamantaschen, a traditional cookie for Purim. It's the marmalade that tells you that." I thought back to Purims in New York with my friend Alyssa, who made them with apricot jam, I think, and blessed my daughter's ecumenical wisdom. But did my grandmother know the rather obscure food traditions for one of Judaism's less famous holidays? I wish, as I have wished so many times holding her recipes on my lap, that she was here to ask.

When I think of the way I cook now, buying several fresh ingredients for every supper and always cooking more than the three of us need (and inordinately proud of myself for using leftovers even most of the time, certainly not all), I am ashamed of my profligacy. Tonight's supper will be fresh sea scallops sauteed with garlic and tons of flat-leaf parsley in a sea of extra virgin olive oil, to be served with spaghetti and breadcrumbs made from my own homemade focaccia. It's shameful! I have probably spent my grandmother's entire food budget for the week, even the month, on one supper.

My grandmother was a very difficult person. She was a rather mean mother, a demanding wife, a critical and unloving mother-in-law, a self-centered and for the most part uninterested grandmother. Her infrequent visits to us were fraught with tension that my rather gentler grandfather tried to defuse. Nothing was ever good enough for her and in fact was very much not to her liking, and she told us so. But she brought us raisins from grapes she and my grandfather had picked in the Arizona fields and dried on white bedsheets in their backyard, and she let me watch as she made a yeasty, cinnamony tea ring studded with their chewy goodness. In their front garden, she picked kumquats for me and laughed as I tasted the bitterness, and was grimly proud when I liked them. She taught me, both at her knee on our very occasional cooking afternoons, and also I now think through the mysterious gift of genetics, to love food and cooking. And if Irene, Ruth, Betty, Evelyn and the dozens of other Ladies Who Lunched are any indication, she loved her friends, and they her.

I must find a box for these cards, every one of them bearing the handwriting, and behind that the personality, of a lady. It's what I've always believed about food, and what my own motley collection of recipes will prove about me. To cook for those you love, and to share your recipes with them, gives you just that little piece of immortality on someone's desk in faraway, foreign London.

11 March, 2009

what to cook, and a new crush!











How do you get three people to eat a pound of spinach? Mix it with a ton of cheese, throw in a generous sprinkling of garlic and you're pretty much there. The only rule is that the cheese must be a melting kind, not a crumbling kind, although in a pinch I have to say I think most cheeses will melt. Last night's version used up the tail end of a Gruyere from our dinner with Vincent, and a large wedge of a Dutch Gouda from a wonderful cheese importer called UnieKaas, lovely and tart. And keep the name of the recipe simple.

Cheesy Spinach
(serves 4)


1 pound baby spinach, washed and spun dry (many bags of spinach are already thus)
2 tbsps butter
2 tsps flour
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup light cream or evaporated milk, perhaps a little more
1 cup grated cheese (Edam, Monterey Jack, Gouda, Gruyere, etc.)
celery salt to taste

Run the spinach in batches through the food processor until chopped fine, but not mushy. Set aside.

Melt the butter in a large skillet and gently fry the flour until bubbly. Add garlic and gently fry until softened. Don't worry if the floury butter sticks to the skillet because you can scrape it off when you add the cream. Do so and stir until mixed. The cream will be absorbed right away, but do not fret. The texture of this dish all amalgamates gradually when the liquid from the spinach is released.

Add the cheese and the spinach to the skillet and begin gently stirring over low heat. Season with celery salt to your taste and stir gently until the mixture turns bright creamy green and the spinach is softly cooked.

***********

Here is my dilemma: my daughter and I have incredibly high salt tolerance, but my husband does not. We all love the celery flavor imparted by celery salt. How to get enough celery flavor without getting too much salt? It is tricky. I may try celery leaves next time.

This dish will make anyone, even children, sit up and beg. It's an invention of mine that skips the typical baking step advised by many cheesy spinach recipes, and as a result I think more of the iron must be retained. With a huge pile of simply grilled baby lamb chops, or a slightly pink grilled pork tenderloin, or a roast chicken, you're good for dinner. If, however, you feel the need for a truly decadent potato dish, here's the one for you.

Aligot Gratin
(serves 6)


1 3/4 pounds baking potatoes
3 tbsps unsalted butter, room temperature
4 garlic cloves, minced
3/4 cup milk
1 pounds fresh mozzarella, chopped fine
1/4 cup grated Pecorino cheese

(optional topping)
2/3 cup chilled heavy cream
2 tbsps drained bottled horseradish

Peel and boil potatoes until cooked through and soft, about 40 minutes. Drain and mash with butter, garlic, milk and mozzarella over a low heat until the mozzarella melts into long elastic strands.

Either divide the aligot into six buttered 1-cup gratin dishes, or one large 6-cup gratin dish. Top with grated Pecorino. Bake at 350F (180 C) for 20 minutes, or add optional topping by whipping the heavy cream, mixing it with horseradish and spreading over the aligot. Put under a broiler until golden, about 4 minutes.

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

Because I was feeding a child who I guessed would not like horseradish, I left the topping out, but I can imagine that with the topping the dish would be even more interesting, and the perfect foil for beef.

Well, let's see, there was an adventure at Lost Property last week, involving an unusual bit of inventory. I let myself into the chilly room piled high with the usual unnamed gym kit, unnamed lacrosse sticks, swimming costumes, school diaries, geology textbooks and the like, only to find, lined up demurely on a shelf... not one, not two, not three or four, but FIVE good-sized foil-wrapped chocolate fish. Hmmm. As each girl came in looking for the stuff she had left randomly all throughout the school, I asked, "Did you happen to lose a chocolate fish?" The question was guaranteed to raise a smile! Would you turn in five chocolate fish to Lost Property if you found them? That takes real honesty. The week after next will feature the sale of unnamed Lost Property, which promises to be the social event of the term. Whether or not the fish are on offer remains to be seen.

Over the weekend I met up with my dear friend Jo for a spot of shopping in Islington. I know the powers that be are trying to squeeze out the small merchants of the back streets, in favor of more reliable (but much more boring) chains, but there are still intriguing bits and pieces to be had. I found a porcelain dish with a herring on the lid, nearly an exact replica to one given me by my friend Cynthia many, many years ago who suffered a fatal blow during one of our moves. So happy to have a Mr Herring back on the desk, holding paper clips! And a lovely silver brooch with a pony on it, for Avery. We had a credit crunch lunch at a crazy serves-everything vaguely European bistro and talked our heads off, then walked her to the Almeida in time for her to catch the matinee of Duet for One with Juliet Stevenson (she later reported that it's a tremendous production), and I made my way home, in my usual glow of post-Jo optimism. She is a lady to whom life has not always been kind or easy, and yet there is an irrepressible joy in her eyes and lilt in her voice that makes her a most inspiring and jolly companion. How I wish she lived in London and our get-togethers could be commonplace...

Oh, oh! I have a ticket, just for me, to see James McAvoy in Three Days of Rain! A week from today. Although my crush on dear James has abated somewhat, I have never seen him live and feel this could be very exciting. It's an American play so we'll see what sort of accent he manages. John flatly refused to go, even though it's about architecture; he's feeling credit crunchy and as such not in the mood to accompany me to a crushfest. It's a good thing I'm very secure and won't feel a fool all by myself. I will remember to report, so that you may go by yourself if it's worthwhile.

Last night found us at school to support one of Avery's classmates in quite a spectacular dance show, not something I would normally attend being the compleat Philistine when it comes to dance, but Avery really wanted to be there for her chum, so off we went. Why does even a dance performance that my child is not IN make me want to cry? It's in part the innocence of these girls, their energy and shiny hair and sweet smiles, and also a nostalgia for what John and I termed the Lost Commodity: youth! Avery's maths teacher came out for a much-anticipated turn as a tap dancer! Just priceless.

Today I've been wrestling all day with my recipe file, especially the ancient and hilarious recipes that I inherited from my dad's mother. I think I'll get a chapter of my cookbook out of these file cards, detailing recipes like Veal Scaloppini cooked in, I'm not making this up, Sprite. And a shrimp dish whose last instruction is "Try this by your swimming pool." I haven't the slightest idea what that even means. How about "Tuna Glop"? I know it's entirely possible that "glop" means something delicious in the original Swedish, but I'm afraid it's got hot tuna written all over it. Then there's a recipe from my Aunt Andrine termed succinctly "Rocks," which looks to be a type of very heavy cookie. The last instruction on that card is "Drop on a tin." And dump in the garbage, presumably. It is a lot of fun. But even a lot of fun makes for an exhausting day, and my head is spinning. Writing class beckons on Friday, so I've sent my piece off to my long-suffering classmates and now must decide what to cook for them when they come. I have about a thousand recipes on my desk for things involving a can of mushroom soup, so I know what's on my grocery list. Yum yum.

And, finally, it's official, I have a new crush! Are you all familiar with the Irish musician Damien Rice? He is divine. Broken-hearted, sexily unshaven, and even respectably aged, born in 1973. I discussed this last bit with Avery who agreed with me that there is something wrong with people having been born in the 1980s. "They're too old to be children, but too young to be truly adult," she opined, and I had to probe. "What makes someone truly adult?" I wondered. "Is it Daddy traveling all over the world and making decisions that cost or made people gatrillions of dollars when he was 22?" "No," she said, "that's not grownup." "Is it me writing a 400-page paper when I was 26?" Apparently not. A thorny problem to mull over, nibbling on an after-school snack for some days to come.

But I digress. My point is, you must listen to Damien Rice and join me in crush world. It's not that he's handsome, exactly, but his face is appropriately mournful and there is just nothing as wonderful as that Irish accent. I have high hopes that we'll get Avery off to Trinity College, Dublin, in about 6 years and when we visit, the accents will be all around.

03 March, 2009

burning down the house






































Gee, that phrase takes me back to college, when it must have been the title of some Top Forty claptrap song that we danced to... an innocuous little association, considering the havoc that such a situation really entails. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

So I was on my way to the dentist the other day, toiling up the endless hill that is the Wellington Road, walking the couple of miles or so that Transport for London assured me was the most efficient way to get to St John's Wood (this cannot be so, but I needed the exercise). As I ran into Panzer's Deli (quite the most expensive place to buy anything, in this most expensive of cities, but the fresh dill was crying out to me), something was nagging at me, something unnamed, indeterminate, but nagging. Had I forgotten an appointment, forgotten to send Avery's swimming costume to school with her, forgotten to call someone back? I could not get at exactly what it was. So I moseyed on over to the incomparable Kent Butchers in the High Street for some new season lamb (wasted a bit, mixed with garlic and spices for Moroccan meatballs, but... it was there). And still that annoying sensation of having left something... undone.

"AAGGH!" I nearly screamed as I left the butchers. "I left the stove on, underneath my pot of simmering black beans!"

Now, as I learned from everyone I spoke to in the following fifteen frantic minutes or so, this is a moment we have all experienced. I rang John, not at home, not picking up. I rang my next-door neighbor Sara in the hope that her nanny was home and would be able to find the spare key they have for us. No answer. I skipped up the steps to my dentist's office and asked Paula the Irish Receptionist for a phone book. "I've left the stove on under my black beans," I said in a rush. "A phone book, now? You're asking for a PHONE book? That's a blast from the past. I think it might here somewhere [drags a chair over to cupboard, stands on tiptoe, feels around on a high shelf]... ah yes, here it 'tis. Wrapped in its plastic, still, it is! I always think I've left the iron plugged in..." Just give me the phone book, I think. I found the number for our estate agents and rang them in desperation. "Paul, do you have a key for our house? I left the stove on under my black beans." Why did I feel compelled to specify what I had been cooking, to everyone I met? I do not know.

Finally Paul the estate agent advised that I call our landlady Joyce, so I hung up summarily on his tale of once thinking he'd left the coffee maker on when he was at an airport. I rang Joyce. As I apologized and apologized, she said, "Not to worry, Kristen, for me it's always the hair straightener I think I've left on. I'm out and about and I'll run over right now." This seemed so incredibly nice of her, until John pointed out to me later that while I think of it as my house, in point of fact it's HER house. Of course she ran over to check. This logic did not stop me from taking a nice flat of daffodils over to her later, however.

Then I was bundled into the dentist's chair whilst he chortled over once having thought he left oven turned on, and the hygienist remembered driving all the way back from Cambridge to unplug a curling iron that was already unplugged. My mother in law, however, wins the prize for retracing her steps once over the four-hour drive to Minneapolis for the coffee maker that... was already turned off. My phone rang. It was Joyce. "Of course you turned it off, there was no problem. I hope everything's all right at the dentist..." Then John rang, and I told him an abbreviated tale of the adventure, to which he replied, "Well, that's all right then," and hung up. My dentist was amazed. "I'd think he'd be within his rights to give you a right wind-up over that one, Kristen," and I explained that when you have been married as long as we have, you have LONG since learned to restrain yourself from the tempting scold. Why? Because tomorrow, or the day after that, it will be YOUR screwup for which you want a long backlog of having been tolerant of his screwup. Any married person will know whereof I speak.

Whew. Crisis averted. Then the place where I bit my cheek two weeks ago that hurts like hell turned out to be not oral cancer at all, but, guess what, a place where I bit my cheek. "This is a good day, then," said the dentist with British understatement. "Two bad things that didn't happen after all, and it's only noon." I assured him that I was Scandinavian and there was plenty of time left in the day for something bad to happen. My next-door neighbor rang to say she was sorry she missed my call, and how awful to think I'd burned down the house when I ALSO had to go to the dentist. It tells you something about British dentistry, that everyone I spoke to was at least as sorry I was having my teeth x-rayed as that I had torched my kitchen.

Long sigh.

Other than that, life has been quiet. I've been plowing, as we all must do now and then, through the mounds of paper on my desk. School permission slips, untried recipes, reviews of plays I think I want tickets to, bits of writing that might turn into a chapter or a blog post, thank-you notes I haven't written but at least I bought the cards for them. The detritus of a very quiet, predictable life full of predictable details. But punctuated by glorious times with friends! This week found me, when not running around after a mythical fire brigade, at the towering Saatchi Gallery in Chelsea with my friend Gigi. She and I feel compelled every now and then to bring out our PhDs, dust them off, say some intelligent things about something cultural, and then retreat to the real purpose of the meeting: lunch and gossip. Gigi is one of those people whose thoughts spring full-formed, in real sentences with punctuation and flair, so that conversation with her is very entertaining. We wandered through the gallery filled with the current exhibition of Middle Eastern art, talking about veiling, trying not to look at one particularly disagreeable installation of puppets representing Iranian prostitutes, admiring some blurry and evocative photographs covered in silk.

But the triumph of the whole show for me was this room, filled with life-size aluminum figures of women in full veiling, hollow and haunting. The installation had a very Rachel Whiteread feel about it, which of course made me happy. I can be made happy with almost any artwork that involves abstracted objects made out of unexpected materials in multiples (it was just that aesthetic that, as you can imagine, that made my gallery such a rousing financial success). But trust me, the room is beautiful. Each figure is bent in a slightly different way, as if listening to a different prayer, yet there is an anonymity to them all as a group that I'm sure says something about the artist's attitude toward women in Islam. Worth the whole price of admission (which is actually free). Go, do. Take an intelligent friend (I'm not sure Gigi's available, though) and open your mind. It was funny, our coming at this show from different cultural perspectives: me the unconnected Agnostic, and she a multi-cultural Muslim. And the next day she sent me our shared horoscope, which ran something like this. "Try not to spend all your time with people who think like you do." It was as if someone had been following us around the show!

Oh, and such a funny taxi experience yesterday; I keep thinking I have already written this down, but I don't think I have. I flagged one down in Chelsea, and asked the driver, "Would you take me to Whole Foods please?" and he said, "Don't see any reason why not!" so I jumped in and to be friendly said, "What a beautiful day!" and he replied, "Can't buy weather like this. In fact, the only weather that's worth worrying about is whether you can get up in the morning or not!" That's a proper London taxi driver for you.

Last night Vincent and Pete came round to supper, after a long absence. It was heavenly to hear their knock at the garden window, open the door, be crushed in big bearlike cashmere arms, kiss cold cheeks. And we ATE. Dinner was, if I do say so myself, sublime. I really want you all to go straight to the shops and load up on sweetcorn and rocket, and make my soup, the only thing I think I've ever invented all on my own. I'll give you the recipe again to save your having to hunt for it, plus for extra festivity last night (I always have to put on a bit of the dog for Vincent) I added sauteed scallops. I was completely happy with it, and even Vincent who (whatever he said last night!) really does not like soups very much, enjoyed it. We could not have seconds because... we ate it all the first time around.

Creamy Sweetcorn and Rocket Soup with Scallops
(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
2 additional tbsps butter
1 dozen large scallops, sliced in half across the width

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 soup 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.

Just before serving, place shallow bowls in a warm oven to take the chill off. Melt the additional butter in a large skillet and when it's really hot, add the scallops in a single layer. Fry until there is a bit of color on the hot side, perhaps 2 minutes, then carefully flip over to the other side, roughly in the order in which they went in the skillet. Fry on the second side until JUST cooked, less than a minute. Take off the heat. Quickly ladle soup into each bowl and divide the scallops among the bowls. Serve immediately.

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

We simply wolfed it down. I had forgotten how satisfying it is to feed Vincent and Pete, how enthusiastic they are, how appreciative. We talked our heads off: the Saatchi show, Heston Blumenthal and the Fat Duck (they will never convince me to go! I swear!), Vincent's girls' amazing command of the Italian language after just months living there, my cookbook. And we tried a new method of keeping Avery happy after a series of adult evenings: she repaired upstairs with a pizza and a movie! It was nice, just once in awhile, to be able to cook two courses that she doesn't like and not worry about her. For the main I served Richard Corrigan's crab tart, and although I'll never be a pastry chef and baking always still fills me with a bit of fear, it turned out gorgeous. I added a bit of fresh thyme and cayenne to the pastry which gave it an extra sort of flair, and may I say as well: buy the fanciest crabmeat you can find, with the biggest chunks, and do NOT flake them as you sprinkle them into the tart. Coming upon a big juicy chunk of claw meat cradled in cream and goats cheese was a delight.

Crab Tart with Scallions and Goats Cheese
(serves 12)


175 grams plain flour
75 grams cornflour (cornstarch)
1 tsp salt
120 grams cold butter
1 tbsp fresh thyme leaves
dash cayenne
2 eggs, beaten
sprinkles cold water

250 grams white crabmeat
250 grams goats cheese
1 bunch scallion, minced
600 ml double cream
6 eggs, beaten
salt and pepper
1 egg, beaten

Make the pastry by mixing, in a food processor, the flour, cornflour, salt, butter (in little pieces, gradually), and thyme. Then add eggs and water to make a nice stiff dough and form into a ball. Wrap in clingfilm and refrigerate for at least 20 minutes.

Roll out pastry to be at least 2 inches larger all round than the tart tin (21 cm diameter and 3 cm deep). Line the tin gently with the pastry, draping the extra over the sides (do not trim yet). Line with foil and weight with beans and bake at 160C for 40 minutes, then take out the foil and beans and check to see if the pastry is dry. If not, bake again for 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, beat the eggs with the cream and season well. Beat the leftover egg and brush the baked pastry crust with it, all over. Scatter the scallions and crabmeat over the bottom, then pour over the cream and eggs. Bake at 180C for 20 minutes, then lower the heat to 160C for another 40 minutes. Leave tart to cool to room temperature before serving.

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

I laugh as I read this, "serves 12." Not if three of your guests are big, hungry men who like their crabmeat. We barely had two servings left over with only FOUR of us! These men are Lucullan in their appetites and tastes. Make a big nice salad of yet more rocket, lamb's lettuce and chicory, with a good spicy dressing, to serve alongside.

We could barely bring ourselves to attack the cheese board, strawberries and grapes, but we managed. A feast, and a welcome return of old friends.