30 April, 2009

I'm OFF!

No, not with an empty pot: I'll tell you about that in a moment. I wanted to let you know that I'll be away until Monday evening, on an adventure! Remember my Devon retreat in October, closeted away in the fields of Sheepdip or Sheepshead, was it Sheepwash? Yes. Tucked away with 15 other aspiring food writers, writing and cooking our hearts out. And making lasting friends, as it turns out, because this weekend will see us all in sunny (we hope) Shropshire, at a reunion! All the best and brightest will gather, ingredients and chapters in hand, to cook, gossip, be lazy, read each other's pieces, maybe even write, should the inspiration take us. There will be young and brilliant Sam, effervescent Foxi Rosie, mysterious Roger, ambitious Adam, talented Louise, and many others, ready to recreate the magic of October. It seems a lifetime ago, so much has happened since.

In the run-up thereto, I have been enslaving myself at the stove, partly to fill the refrigerator for my beloved family left behind (chicken soup, macaroni and cheese, egg salad with watercress, all the comforting favorites), and concocting treats to take with me: Richard Corrigan's peerless crab and goat's cheese tart, my own warm cannellini bean salad with rosemary and parmesan. I will travel down to Bath with my cool-bag full of luscious bits and pieces, including Welsh Dragon sausages from the Giggly Pig at the farmer's market, and the latest copy of Waitrose Food Illustrated in my handbag. I'm ready for an adventure, and also for a break from my desk, my stove. All it will take is three days away and I will be more than ready to take it all up again, but a little change of scene does sound appealing. If the break is anything like October, there will be no cell phone coverage and no internet access, so I'll see you on Tuesday.

Now, to explain the soup pot. Last night we had dinner guests whose presence in our lives goes back nearly 20 years, to our first sojourn in London as newlyweds, believe it or not. Tom and Judith, the names just make me sink back into the past and those long-ago days at... their soup kitchen for homeless men on the Embankment. Every single morning, rain or shine (especially in rain, probably), there they were, outside the tube station, providing tea, coffee, rolls, Band-aids, socks, gloves and any other clothing they could lay their hands on, and, naturally, soup. John popped up out of the tube station on his way to work one day and saw the gathering of men, of all ages, sizes, states of health, being served in an atmosphere of calm and caring, and immediately offered us and our postage-stamp-sized kitchen to help. And that was the beginning of a long and happy friendship with Tom and Judith, and some very intriguing relationships with the men, who were referred to as our "customers," and treated with the utmost respect.

Talk about an adventure! Try making soup for 60, and I am not kidding that my kitchen was oppressively tiny. It reminds me of Laurie Colwin's observation about her own kitchen: "It was a good thing I was not friends with Wilt Chamberlain, because he could not have held his arms out in my kitchen." And the myriad problems were not just with space. What would the men like, what would sit well overnight (since the soup had to be delivered the day before to Judith's house where she heated it up at dawn to take down to the men), what would cool safely without contamination? Many was the night I lay awake trying to think up good and varied recipes. Once a week or so, John and I would turn up at the soup kitchen itself and help serve, and my goodness, the characters. Some were silent, some were nearly threatening, some were merely very ordinary men who found themselves on the street. And then there was Digger. Digger was a Welshman, a tiny, wizened old man who resembled nothing so much as a Christmas elf, without the pointy shoes. He had a booming voice six times the size of himself, a wealth of pretty much unbelievable but entertaining stories. And he was quite the food critic. Vichyssoise? "If you told me, lady, that I'd be eating cold potato soup out of a coffee cup at 7 in the morning, I'd have said you were crazy! But it works, lady!" He did not like meat, so I never brought chicken soup on my days. But his favorite, and the favorite of all the other men, was from a Hello! magazine recipe: tomato and fennel soup with cheesy croutons. I will test that recipe, tucked back in the recesses of my 1990s brain, and pass it along to you. It was always a winner.

Judith and I never lost touch, by letter (and recently she was dragged, kicking and screaming, into the world of email, by her grandchildren). But somehow it's been three years since we've been back and she and I just met up for lunch a month or so ago, and it took until last night to get her very busy husband (a solicitor who was meant to have retired LONG ago but won't give up the ghost) to dinner with us.

I had forgotten Tom's pin-striped suits and impeccable striped shirts, his habit of rising up on his toes with irrepressible energy when making a particularly strong point about the Labour government, or Nazi history, or even my chicken dish. "This is a most, most, how shall I put it, delightful and unusual way in which to eat chicken, my dear," he said, rocking back and forth. And Judith: to see her communing with Avery in their first conversation (which of them is the more intense, the more intelligent, the more serious, I would not want to have to say) made me very, very happy. Judith is full to the brim with grandsons, but I thought a nice proxy granddaughter might be nice. Avery was voluble on the subject of riding in Hyde Park, which got Tom going. "You don't mean to say, dear girl, that you are in charge of these beasts, who are quite capable of deciding they do not like you, in the park, in a position of some authority?" She loved that.

We ate and ate, and talked over each other, admiring the new-season British asparagus which I had taken the time to shave (what a fiddly and annoying job! but worth it), and Avery's contribution of Eton Mess, a lovely concoction of strawberries, broken meringues and whipped cream. Unfortunately, Avery and her friend Emily had made the pudding in a state of some anxiety over school affairs and had decided that pulverizing the meringues to a powdery dust would be "good therapy." Perhaps, but not good Eton Mess. The meringues simply dissolved in the strawberry juice! Completely disappeared.

We stayed up very, very late indeed. The first of many such evenings together, I hope. There is something irreplaceable about old, old friends, people who knew you as very young people and are happy to play the part of extra parents, admiring our exploits, our child, our house. When one's own parents are far away, one needs as many stand-ins as possible.

Well, I am afraid I must run. Because this is my life, I am expecting more dinner guests tonight, but not really. It's Emily's family, who are in reality our family, and Annie and I are indulging in a spot of that rare sport: Competitive Tart Baking. I made an extra crab tart, and Annie's bringing two: aubergine with feta, and smoked bacon with Gruyere. After which we will fall down in a pile of cholesterol, fat, and friendship. Not a bad state to be in.

24 April, 2009

of friends and family

Well, it's a sadly typical London day: gray, cold rain, windy and disconsolate. Everyone back to frowning after a week of solid sun. The British have an endless capacity to discuss the climactic conditions of the day, and the sharp contrast between yesterday's glorious blue skies and today's downpour gave the usual observations an extra layer of poignancy. "What a chill wind,' said the ladies in my haircut shop this morning. "And after all that SUN!" Then followed the stiff upper lip brigade, saying that actually this was proper weather for April, and they certainly did NOT want to use up whatever summer weather might be coming to us in June, in April. As if it works that way.

In point of actual fact, it's undeniably more cheerful to be sunned upon than to be made slightly wet over and over throughout the day. I spent the better part of the morning becoming A More Beautiful Me, with the longest session under hairdryer and fancy brush ministrations you can imagine. I didn't have the heart to tell my beauty lady that it was all so much pointless devotion. Within ten minutes of leaving the shop, I was all curly again, so annoying.

Much better to think about the weekend. Friday was the famed Lost Property luncheon at which I was to be officially put in charge for the first time. I got up bright and early in the morning to search through my closet for something that would cleverly combine a mild sort of authority with springlike good cheer, as if such a garment would have appeared there without my knowing it. Not to mention that I don't really DO springlike and cheery, as far as clothing goes. Much happier in a black turtleneck, 365 days of the year. But I was finally suitably if not inspiringly attired, and sitting at my computer to compose my remarks on taking the reins of London's coolest school volunteer group (not that there are official rankings for these things... actually probably there are). I typed the words, "Thank you, Mary, for your years of service to Lost Property and to the school," and as they stared at me from the screen I thought "Holy s**t, I don't have a gift for her!" I shrieked this to John, across the partner desk from me, and he said, understandingly, "You're screwed." Precisely.

So I did what I always do when faced with my incompetence and panic. I called Annie. "Right, I'm coming straight over and we're putting together a parcel of joke presents from Lost Property." I raced out to the local florist and found a gorgeous little plant in a gorgeous little bag, and when I got back Annie was there with a sheaf of abandoned homework (a staple item in Lost Property), a broken mobile phone and glory of glories, a pair (clean) of her son Fred's Y-fronts. I myself gathered up one lone sock (not hard to do in Avery's room of unparalleled mess), an empty sunglasses case, and my crowning contribution, Avery's plastic lacrosse mouthguard. We took pity on Mary and left the mouthguard in its case, although I may say that the grossest item ever appeared in LP last week: a mouthguard with a post-it attached to it saying laconically, "Found in W6." "Oh, my God," Annie said. "That's just the postcode. That means someone picked this thing up from a random pavement somewhere in this postcode, and gave it to US." Eeww.

So we wrapped everything in festive paper, threw a bottle of bubbly in the bag with the plant, and were on our way in Annie's tiny little vintage orange Mini. The luncheon went off without a hitch at Mary's gorgeous house, food all piled up in the incomparable conservatory, overhung with real, fruit-bearing grape vines. There was Annie's gorgeous chicken with watercress, orange segments and pumpkin seeds in soy, and my favorite buffet chicken dish, whose ingredients sound disgusting but it is actually a winner with any group, or even just a family dinner. For a large buffet, you can count on a breast fillet per two people. Trust me, it's delicious. And inexpensive, and simple, and you can travel with it uncooked and slip it into your friend's hot Aga, should she have one.

Lillian Hellman's Baked Chicken
(serves 12)

6 chicken breast fillets
1 cup Hellman's mayonnaise (now, you get the name of the dish, which we serve with Dashiell Hammett spinach)
1 cup grated pecorino or parmesan cheese
juice of 1 lemon
zest of 1 lemon
2 tsps garlic powder or granules (not garlic salt, the cheese is already salty enough)
plenty of fresh ground black pepper
2 cups fresh homemade breadcrumbs (the commercial crumbs are too fine)

Mix all the ingredients but the chicken in a shallow bowl. Place a plate filled with breadcrumbs next to the bowl, and have a large baking dish next to the plate of crumbs.

Smear the chicken breasts liberally with the mayonnaise mixture, then roll in breadcrumbs until thoroughly coated. Lay in the baking dish (they can be quite crowded, don't worry).

Bake in a very hot oven, around 220C, 450F, or the hottest part of your Aga, for 30 minutes or until nice and crisp and golden brown. Remove to a cutting board and cut each fillet into five slices. Arrange on a platter and garnish with some nice watercress that you've pinched from your friend's salad (thank you Annie!).


This went down a treat, every morsel eaten up. And I managed to make my remarks without embarrassing myself, and to present Mary with her gifts, which made everyone laugh. Trust Annie to have such an inspiration: even better than a proper gift of an engraved paperweight or special pen. It turns out that if you have a brilliant friend, being incompetent and forgetful is actually a good thing. Annie's last-minute panic gift will kill something I'd think of in advance, any time. My excellent partner in crime.

All the volunteer rotas were duly filled in, all the ladies gossiped and laughed in the amazing sunshine, and I got away in time to join John at the pub by school, where he was entertaining my dear, darling Aunt Mary Wayne and Uncle Kenny from Kentucky! They are beloved fixtures from my childhood: my aunt with a boisterous, joyful laugh that carries across a pub garden and, along with her tight hug, makes me feel about 12 again: loved and cherished and still a child, not the head of Lost Property with a 12-year-old of my own. And my uncle: looking so like my mother, beautiful youthful skin, a total zest for life, new experiences, always a twinkle in his eye, a bit like a young Santa Claus, in the off season.

We sat and laughed and laughed and laughed. Over what, I don't even remember, but it's what life is always like with those two. How lucky we were, when I was a little girl, to go to their house for Thanksgiving every year (my parents always got lost, always at the same junction getting off the highway, bickering over "is it this one or the next one?" every single year). My aunt can never have enough dogs and cats (although they are catless now, they reported: not for long, I bet), she's a doting and doted-upon grandmother to her five grandchildren, and my uncle is one of the world's authorities on all things Civil War (on the OTHER side, mind you), and also Abraham Lincoln. I don't think I'm making up that there was a musket hanging over their fireplace, when I was little.

It was wonderful, just for a day, to shake off the adult identity that's rightfully mine these days, and become again the petted little "Kristen Bear" I was in their presence for all those years. Sometimes I feel that a curtain went down in sort of 1987, when I moved away from Indiana, never really to return, and there is a melancholy dislocation between that person and the Real Me. I suppose it's the feeling we all have about the past receding ever farther into the distance, but the clarity of leaving, like cutting off a piece of string, seems more acute when I'm with someone from the old days.

Bless their hearts (something my aunt says all the time), they actually wanted to go to the ice rink to see Avery skate. My God, that's family love. So off we went in a taxi, to Avery's delight (her parents being normally too cheap to catch a cab), and they watched with every appearance of caring, which is remarkable. Then it was off in the Tube to our house. I looked at them standing up, straphanging, chatting together as the train swayed on its way to Hammersmith, and wished for a moment that I had never left home, that I could still see them, have them be part of Avery's life. "Aren't they delightful people?" Avery whispered to me, to my intense happiness. They are, truly.

Home for another batch of Lillian Hellman's chicken (easy peasy to make ahead of time and have my brilliant husband put in the oven for me when we were on our way home), plus potatoes dauphinoise and sauteed peppers. They brought out presents from Kentucky: a real Churchill Downs horseshoe, still dirty, and a photograph of the iconic mare and foal from the green, green fields near where they live, for Avery. A Kentucky Derby cookbook for me! And a box of Bourbon Balls for John (he and Uncle Kenny shared a very mature laugh over that). A tour of the house, a quick phone call to my dear cousin Amy, their daughter, and one of my best childhood companions. Then they were off again, to tour London the next day, Amsterdam the next, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, you name it. After ten days they'll go home via Paris, in, I'm sure, a state of complete exhaustion. Thank you for taking the time to spend the day with us, you two. We miss you already.

We had dinner in the garden! "I hope you know all your fellow travellers are having soggy fish and chips somewhere, and you're eating in a real English garden!" I pointed out, and it really is a pleasant place to be. The next night found us out there once again, with the pierrade stone keeping us warm, entertaining Avery's friend Jamie, who spent the time after dinner indulging her new hobby: photography! I think this is my favorite photograph EVER of Avery and me, and she took many more. It just looks the way we are, which is the great achievement of a sensitive photographer, I think. Of course it helps that Jamie loves us, and we her. This just IS Avery, when I look at it. Thanks, Jamie.

Yesterday I did something completely silly, but to my credit, I was not alone. My friend Jo came in from Oxford to go with me to haunt the red carpet at the Baftas! The British Academy of Film and Television Arts, to the uninitiated, sort of the British Emmys, with some film thrown in. Across the river at the Royal Festival Hall, under a flawless blue sky, with the London Marathon runners still straggling to the finish line on the other side. We met up and vied for a good spot (not having bought a ticket, we were the hoi polloi and being shoved all over the place). Finally Jo spotted a tiny little space right next to the photographers' pool (Jamie's future haunt, perhaps?) and we squeezed in. And then the stars appeared. We were there ostensibly to see Richard Armitage, and there he was, tall and handsome, in his tuxedoed glory, but in fact it was great fun to see all the "Spooks" cast, Gregg Wallace, the judge of "Masterchef," the dreaded Alan Sugar of "The Apprentice" and countless sort of daytime television bad-fashion-sense princesses. Great fun. We got great pictures, but honestly I think John will divorce me if I post one of them here. Enough is enough. He already thought Jo and I were out of our tiny little minds even to go. We did look at each other at one point during the long, long wait for the red carpet ceremony to begin, and I said, "We really have crossed some kind of line."

But it was an adventure! And something we don't ever really need to do again. And one of those things you'd feel a complete idiot doing alone, so thank you, Jo, for hanging out with me. Home together for dinner and to watch the awards on the telly, while John dragged Avery away to watch "Top Gear" on their own.

Well, the rain has stopped, too late in the day for the clear sky to be of any use to anyone. I must go produce my salmon dinner, no eating out in the garden tonight, I fear. After all, it IS April, and I should be storing up my weather points for June...

22 April, 2009

Lost Property redux

To begin with, I know this photograph does not adequately represent the sumptiousness (as long as you're not vegetarian) of the pierrade platter of meats ready to grill, but it's not too bad. John diagnoses something like "not enough depth of field." I'll try again someday, but in the meantime, the thin-sliced sirloin, duck breast marinated in sea salt and cracked pepper, and new season asparagus, baguette slices to dip into the raclette cheese... the elements are all there. It's the most entertaining dinner to eat, but don't count on any meaningful conversation while you do it, because everyone's concentrating on "Is that my duck bite?" and "When did you put on that salmon piece?" and trying to avoid the hot splatters. It was not the best way to cook asparagus, but it worked, so I've got to give some thought to how to make the vegetable aspect of the experience better. Maybe more fragile veg are better: tomatoes, red peppers, Swiss chard? I don't know. Marinate them all in seasoned olive oil? Trust me to make something that's inherently fat-free, fatty.

The next night we had some ratty, somewhat battered but charming old teak furniture, purchased by my clever husband on eBay, delivered and placed in the garden, so spatchcock chicken happened out there, in the summery twilight, to the accompaniment of (I'm not joking) an ice cream truck behind the garden, and... live bagpipes. I have no idea.

Spatchcocked Grilled Chicken with Herbs
(serves four easily with leftovers for lunch)

1 large organic chicken
2 tbsps olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
handful chives, chopped
handful flat-leaf parsley, chopped
1 large stem rosemary, leaves removed and chopped
1 stalk lemongrass, outer leaf discarded, the stalk minced
sprinkle hot chilliflakes

To spatchcock the chicken, lay it on a cutting board breast down and feel in the center for the backbone. Cut front to back along the backbone on each side of the bone, and remove. Turn the chicken over and spread it out, cutting the parson's nose off (the nob of fat where the head was!) and smashing the chicken flat, cutting through any fat you need to, in order to get it completely flat.

Mix all the other ingredients and smear mixture all over the chicken, front and back. Marinate till at room temperature (perhaps an hour).

Heat grill to 400F degrees. Grill chicken back side down for 20 minutes. When you check it at this point, if the back is getting too blackened, turn the grill down and let the heat stabilize before you cook on the breast side. Grill breast side down for a further 20 minutes, or until the dark meat registers 170F with a meat thermometer.


The meat simply fell off the bone and we fell upon it. What a lovely, quick, summery way to get a whole chicken cooked. At least an hour shorter cooking time than I would ever ROAST a chicken. Lovely with whole red peppers grilled alongside till their skins blackened (rub them with olive oil before putting them on the grill and grill for the last 20 minutes of the chicken cooking). Plus we had warm chickpea, feta and rocket salad, and a sliced avocado in lemon juice. Yum yum.

For our last day of freedom before school started up again, we found ourselves at Richmond's Ham House, sort of a yawn as far as stately homes go, but with a lovely, lovely garden and maze (and a dairy with very creepily believable cast iron cow feet, as you see) and a gorgeous cafe in the 17th century orangery, covered, COVERED with wistaria. Almost unbelievable as a vista. I think what makes the house a yawn is that it was only one of many properties owned by the family, and no one could be bothered to take it on, so the National Trust got it. It felt emotionally abandoned, and empty, yet cared for. Rather like a Victorian child with a mother in the attic and father dallying with the nanny. If you know what I mean. Which is nothing.

And we were able to check in, afterward, on the progress of the nearby Petersham Nurseries' fight against closure, against ridiculous accusations of the traffic brought to the village by the restaurant. In this economic climate! The idea of closing a successful restaurant because it's too successful and its success brings TOO many people calling? Simply outrageous. All luck to them. All they can do is wait for judgment.

Today was one of those days where I suffered agonies of nightmares in the wee hours, and thus woke to a feeling of reasonless anxiety. The subject of my bad dreams? A bizarre experience wherein I saw a word typed out, and yet could pronounce only a wrong, off version of it. The example I remember clearly is seeing the word "Flesh" and being able to utter only "Irish." See what I mean? In my dream I could conceive of the relationship between the real word and my mistaken pronunciation, but I could not control it. At times like that I should just get the hell out of bed, but such is my ingrained habit of appreciating a lie-in that I just couldn't. Like waiting months for a movie date with your husband, and then in the first ten minutes you can tell you HATE the film, but you don't want to leave because you LOVE movies. And you were really looking forward to it. But that dream threw me. What on earth can it mean?

So I got up in a fog, and for some completely irrational reason, had one of the most productive days I can remember in months. I edited three chapters, wrote out a long list of the chapters to come, made name labels for all the guests expected at Friday's Lost Property luncheon, wrote the copy for the school newsletter, emailed the secretary for a crime records check on a new volunteer. And that was just the morning and afternoon!

This evening I sauntered through the breezy, blue early evening to my first Parents' League meeting at Avery's school. This is a post I now hold because of my new, exalted position as Head of Lost Property, and I may tell you now, that is one hell of an intimidating table of women. And one man (poor fellow). Seventeen of London's best and brightest (and then there was me), gathered around under the watchful oil-on-canvas gazes of many former head mistresses, crowned over all with the most perfect, elaborate, silvery-white plaster ceilingwork, and surrounded on all four sides by floor to ceiling antique books, complete with teak and brass ladders to swing all round the room.

Goodness. I am well known to have a sort of problem with female authority figures, and there I was with seventeen of them! And one man. The agenda was dispensed with with alacrity and efficiency, I was duly elected and seconded (guess they never tracked down that GBH in 1979), my predecessor was praised and raised to her new post as Chairman of the League. It's a bit frightening: the past three Chairmen of the League have come from their most recent post as... Head of Lost Property.

Just lovely. I didn't embarrass myself, everyone was kind and friendly. Plans were made for coffees to plan further bits of brilliance to come. I came away feeling exalted, responsible, a bit in denial at the intense coolness that is Avery's school. The wit around that table was palpable, everyone listening to every comment with a view to contribute a clever response, an intelligent and funny suggestion. It's the perfect combination of qualities in a certain sort of woman (completely recognizable on either side of the Atlantic): having achieved something glorious on her own before becoming a mother, this type of woman brings all that energy, all that generosity and brilliance, to her child's life and the school she goes to. A formidable group of ladies. At least I didn't throw up or hiccup, but my stomach did growl a bit as dinnertime came and went. I got a ride home from the new Chair and simply fell upon a plate of leftover spatchcocked chicken with homemade pesto.

So the lesson is something like this: you can start out a day feeling nauseatingly sunny and positive, and accomplish exactly nothing. Or you can take your black and blue mood, sit down at your desk and try to justify your existence. I said that to my friend Gigi today and we both sighed simultaneously and agreed that there are some days when just emptying and refilling the dishwasher is about all that can be done. But when a day like today happens, it gives me a bit of hope.

And did I hear you say you needed something to read? I just finished The United States of Arugula: How We Became A Gourmet Nation by the brilliant writer David Kamp, and it's a hoot. I'll give you a hint: the chapter I finished writing this week is all about arugula/rocket, and this book was Way, Way Better than anything I could ever write. You'll see your eating and cooking life flash in front of you with Kamp's tales of The Galloping Gourmet, Julia Child, Alice Waters, Craig Claiborne, Gael Greene. A roller-coaster tale but one written with a lot of humility and just enough optimism. I feel quite optimistic when my child's best friend asked from me for Christmas a bottle of aged balsamic vinegar. Either that, or we're approaching Armageddon. You decide.

19 April, 2009

getting out

I don't know why I'm celebrating the blossoming of ANY growing things, given my sneezing activities lately, but something about this view in my living room was irresistible. Our landlords said that if we pulled some of the climbing jasmine plant indoors, it would bloom more quickly, and I can assure you that the scent of climbing jasmine is worth almost any number of sneezes. It's just magical, so I'm sacrificing. Around 3 in the afternoon, these days, the living room is suffused with a warm, celebratory light that shouts, "Spring is here. Enjoy." We've been spending a lot of time in there, and when it's not sunny, we can light the fire!

I've often observed here before that in my life, planning ahead to do anything but sitting and typing, or reading or cooking, is absolutely crucial, because if I wait to be inspired at the moment, I'll never leave the house. Never has this been truer than on Friday night, which had the temerity to follow Friday day. Let me explain. Friday, it rained in the way that it can rain only in London. All day, relentlessly, sometimes heavily so you raise your brolly, sometimes in spits and spots that make you lower the brolly and say pathetically, "I'm sure it's clearing up," only to find that you've become a poodle for the sixteenth time that day, hair curling in obnoxious ringlets and standing out all over your head. The brolly goes back up, you smack someone in the face coming opposite you on the pavement. Crashing bore.

And invariably, on such a day, I find that my main goal for the day is to get Avery to the ice skating rink, which is like asking Dante to go get a root canal on his way to the Seventh Circle of Hell. It's just awful under any circumstances to spend two hours there: screaming teenagers, school trips for troubled boys, loved-up adolescent couples who think nothing of aiming their skate blades at my child's gentle head. Above it all floats an indescribable smell of ostensible foodstuffs: horrible waffles with fake toppings, pizza, hot dogs, panini filled with fake cheese... and strobe lights, and loud music. I feel such an old fogey hating it so much, but truth must out.

So Friday I got Avery to the rink, suffered through the endless requests for fake fruit slushies to drink, ice cream to eat, pound coins for the arcade (no, no and let me think about it, NO). Watched her go out on the rink and then spend the entire hour lesson glued to the precise four-foot section of the rink that I couldn't see, the space between me and it being occupied by several screaming French children whose parents had apparently left them there as if at a foundling hospital.

By the time we got home on the bus, in the rain, through several construction blockages, it was all I could do to inject a quick cocktail into my veins and then head out again to drop Avery at her sleepover date and try to race to dinner and theatre. Wet, wet, wet!

But once we sat down with my friend Jo at Kulu-kulu Sushi, my current mecca, and fed ourselves from the conveyor belt with yellowtail sashimi, salmon sushi with plenty of wasabi, chilled steamed spinach with satay sauce and a soft shell crab roll, I didn't care about the rain anymore. It was good to be with her, sitting between me and John, appreciating her special brand of irreverence, energy, roaring laugh and potty mouth. A total infusion of humor, even better than a shot of vodka. The three of us have such fun together: she described John later as "as good as a girlfriend, only masculine! You are a very lucky woman." Couldn't have put it better myself, my dear.

From there we headed to the Duke of York Theatre and A View from the Bridge, an Arthur Miller classic I'm ashamed to say I've never read, or seen before. My God, Ken Stott is talented. Dessicated, depraved, yet somehow heroic and ultimately true to himself, this character walks the postwar Brooklyn streets like a living cadaver, filled with forbidden love for his niece, raised as his daughter, overcome with wordless hatred and jealousy for the boy she's fallen in love with, and then revengeful antagonism for the illegal immigrant system he's inadvertently become part of. He was brilliant: hateful and yet pathetic. Go see it.

On a completely different note: congratulations to Prince Philip on his slightly creepy milestone: the longest serving Royal Consort! Imagine kneeling to one's wife and swearing allegiance. Actually perhaps that would be a nice addition to the current rather too lightly observed marriage ceremony. I'll write up a little speech and see if I can get John to recite it. You know you're living in an old, old country when someone breaks a 191-year-old royal marriage record.

Well, we're facing the last day of this very long, very uneventful Easter holiday. Avery has become quite addicted to her days of inactivity: learning all the lyrics to "Grease," finger-knitting, crocheting, drawing fairies, skating and the like. She dreads returning to school on Tuesday. I myself think it will be good to get back to a rather more regular writing schedule: I've accomplished only one chapter over the whole three-week holiday. But I did produce tonight Avery's absolute favorite pasta dish and it's worth reproducing, since it's been a very long time since I told you about it. I invented it many, many years ago as a detox dinner: try it on your vegetarian friends or just after too many evenings of flesh. It's lovely.

Orrechiette With Two Broccolis, Tomato and Pinenuts
(serves four)

1/2 pound dried orrechiette (or farfalle or another sort of stubby pasta)
1 tsp butter
1 tbsp olive oil
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 white onion, minced
1 tbsp Italian seasoning
1/2 cup pinenuts
1 soup-size can plum tomatoes
8 florets broccoli
8 stems tenderstem broccoli
1/2 cup grated Pecorino or Parmesan

Put water on to boil for the pasta. It will need to cook for about 12 minutes.

Heat butter and olive oil in a shallow skillet and cook garlic and onion till soft, then add Italian seasoning and mix well. Set aside while in a food processor or blender you mix the pinenuts and tomatoes till completely blended and a pleasing sort of reddish pink. Pour the mixture into the skillet with the garlic and onion and heat until bubbling, then turn off heat.

Steam the two broccolis until they smell good, and like broccoli. I can't explain it better than that: you'll know they're cooked (five minutes or so?) when they smell like you want to eat them. Plunge them in cold iced water and drain.

When the pasta is cooked through, drain it nearly all the way and dump it into the skillet with the sauce, then throw in the two broccolis and toss all together. Serve with the cheese, and ENJOY.


Avery ate so much of this tonight, and so quickly, that she then retreated to the sofa and lay like a beached whale, recovering. John said, "Can you move, please?" and I had to point out that he was speaking, essentially, to a snake who had swallowed a rat, and that we had to give her time to digest the beast. Maybe it will rain tomorrow and we'll be stuck doing... nothing, for one more day. How I will miss her when she's back in her element. I told her this and she said sweetly, "Oh, I will miss you too," and I said, "No, you'll be too busy at school to mind," and she put her arm around me and said, "Even when I'm busy during the day I often think about you and want a hug." That makes everything, even rainy days, worthwhile.

16 April, 2009

at least one Washington success story

It's amazing: something good has come at last out of our nation's capital and it's a remarkable tale: it costs almost nothing, requires no compromise, and openly contains pork: the ham hock kind!

United States Senate Bean Soup is a relic of my husband's childhood, a dish I have heard glowing reports of all the 26 years I have known him, to the point that I was certain no mere foodstuff could achieve all he claimed for it. And since until very recently, beans and I have not been on speaking terms, there was no way I was producing something in my kitchen that not only contained beans, but had the temerity to include them in the TITLE of the dish. At least chilli sounded innocuous to me, although I knew most recipes contained the hated ingredient.

Well, in the last year I have flip-flopped so thoroughly on the whole bean issue that I'm virtually a spokesperson for the United States Dry Bean Council (yes, there is one, and in case you were wondering, there are 13 members and five staff: a bit top heavy, you may say, but who knows what the workload is). I actually think I deserve a seat on an international organization, not one devoted merely to jingoistic bean concerns. After all, my musings are mid-Atlantic. But I digress.

United States Senate Bean Soup has, it turns out, been on the menu in the Senate dining room continuously, every single blessed day, for over a hundred years. Rumor has it (yes, in Washington even beans are victims of the rumor mill) that two different Senators proposed recipes for this delicacy, but my mother in law, when questioned, plumped immediately for the version attributed to Senator Fred Dubois of Idaho, because it contains, guess what: POTATOES. Now for those of you who are my international readers, I must give you a very short history of the state of Idaho. It produces a LOT of potatoes.

My experience with this soup is a little unfair, trading as it does on a superbly braised ham hock from my Easter dinner, the ham itself a king among pork products coming from Mr Stenton's personal store, down the road at my neighborhood butcher here in Hammersmith. The solutions to this are two. One, you too can acquire a superb gammon joint from your English butcher, braise it for Easter, and use the ham hock in your soup. Or you can follow the recipe below, and see how it goes. I have to confess as well (since I'm not really much of a DC insider, I like to confess things) that where the recipe calls for water to cover (about six cups of water), I had at my disposal two cups of golden brown elixir in the form of the liquid that gathered in my braising dish: mostly ham juice, but mixed in was the original honey-mustard marinade. Unfair, I know! But this all means that you must simply follow my Easter recipe and THEN make your soup. It's not that hard to think ahead, after all.

This recipe makes me proud, as do so many things coming out of Washington these days, to be an American. So hand on the bible, flag waving in the background, I give you:

United States Senate Bean Soup
(serves 8)

4 cups Navy beans (if you're in America; here in the UK I used haricots, or flageolets would be fine)
1 ham hock with meat still clinging to it
4 medium (Idaho) potatoes
4 stalks celery, chopped
2 white onions
4 cloves garlic, minced
large handful parsley, chopped

Bring the ham hock and beans to a boil in a large stockpot covered with water (and the ham cooking liquid if you're lucky). Meanwhile, boil the potatoes until soft, then drain and mash. Add to the ham liquid and mix thoroughly. Bring to the boil again, then add the chopped vegetables, including the parsley. Bring to the boil one more time, then simmer for at least an hour (but indefinitely will do). When nearly ready to serve, take the ham hock out and when cool enough to handle, take the usable meat from it and add in bite-sized pieces to the broth. Serve with crusty bread to soak up juices.


Be sure not to salt this soup and the ham itself will be salty enough. This soup will warm not only your insides, but your heart and that of your family, when they enter the house to smell the aroma. Pure luxury, on an affordable scale.

Let's see, tomorrow is sushi in Piccadilly with my friend Jo from Oxford, then off to "The View From the Bridge" with Ken Stott. Avery will have a sleepover with a friend because something tells me the play is NOT family friendly. But it's one of those London privileges that we must take advantage of. Until I'm summoned to the Bean Council, that is. Next up: Crispy Lame Duck.

15 April, 2009

of Lords and royal joints

My goodness, there is something in the air that is causing massive sneeze dramas here in my household. Our garden is coated with some little evil-looking yellow florets and all the pink and white blossoms (again, my gardening expertise is showing now) that made the neighborhood trees so lovely to look at are now airborne and as such... unpleasant. I know my relations in Iowa who called recently to report a post-Easter blizzard will growl when they read of my discomfort with ostentatious spring. But there you have it.

We continue with our credit-crunch holiday, and I can heartily recommend Stonor Park, just a few minutes from Henley-on-Thames and quite the most romantic country setting you can imagine. The same family have lived in it continuously for 800 years. I am not making this up. John and I paid assiduous attention to the guide's reportage on current available males to marry off to Avery, but alas there's only a toddler son (Avery put her foot down), and a baby expected this summer (which could be a girl anyway, so what's the point, she won't inherit anything). A fallow deer park, and just look at this house. The contents gave a fascinating glimpse of the life of a very active Catholic family in England (the photos of the current Lord Camoy with various popes was my first clue). While I found the endless sort of 18th century portraits a yawn, the gallery full of glass cases housing ephemera were touching and lovely: letters commanding the Camoys to attend a Thanksgiving service to observe the Prince of Wales's recovery from typhoid, a seating plan for a dinner party including Rothschilds and Princesses from various European countries, a hand lettered thank-you note from Beatrix Potter.

And ducklings! The rest of the tour - architecture, art, history - was entirely eclipsed for Avery by the presence in the formal garden of a family of ten ducklings accompanied by a MOST attentive mother duck. She all but chased them through the plantings of hydrangeas, magnolias, fruit trees, topiary and holly bushes, in utter happiness. At one point she discovered a baby duck had been left behind in an ornamental pond, and she and two little French boys dashed around trying to coax it out of the water but succeeding only in scaring the little thing out of its feathers. Finally it escaped and was reunited with its irresponsible duck mother, and the drama was over.

At home in the evening Avery was performing her usual version of every child's favorite occupation - looking in the refrigerator to see if anything more interesting has materialized since the last time she looked - and there on a shelf at eye level was... a duck. A butchered one, mind you, not looking at all duck-like, awaiting its transformation into pierrade tonight. Silence. Later, at bedtime, she asked me what sort of duck it is that we eat. I was ready for her. "NOT, definitely NOT, a duck that has ever been a mother to ten little chicks. We eat two types of ducks, Gressingham and Aylesbury, and I'm pretty sure both of them have white feathers, not the beautiful brown and gold feathers of the duck we saw today." A sigh of relief. "Oh, thank goodness," she breathed. "I don't really like ducks who have white feathers, anyway." So dinner is safe. These negotiations are intermittent and fraught with tension, and some are unsuccessful, but it appears that pierrade is on for this evening, at least.

John is off to a screening of a film produced by some intriguing people who are interested in intellectual property rights and, incidentally, interested in HIM. Could a job be in his future? I must say I would never have predicted that my techy, moneyish, wheelin' and dealin' husband would ever have been offered a job by some touchy-feely arty types, but hey: we live in interesting times. The film is called "Team Qatar" and follows the adventures of a group of Middle Eastern high school debaters. Who knew? I mused to Avery, "I wonder what these people are like, these producers," and she said loyally, "Very good people, if they are interested in Daddy." Watch this space. John actually mentioned my favorite novelist, Laurie Colwin, to them to ask what the procedure would be in securing the intellectual property rights to her novels, and they KNEW about her, unheard of! I like them already.

Avery and I, meanwhile, shall mosey on over to the V&A for our sort of semi-annual pilgrimage to the permanent fashion exhibition. I always get a charge out of South Kensington, and particularly the V&A in whose mammoth and old-fashioned library I spent so many years studying, writing my PhD all those years ago. Perhaps John's new friends would like to make a film about my dissertation? Hmmm...

Our Easter was like all Easters: filled with chocolate, an egg hunt, and a baked ham. Actually, this last is the understatement of a cooking lifetime, I'm not exaggerating to say. On Thursday we acquired a positive jewel of a gammon joint, the best end of a joint that Mr Stenton, my local butcher, assured me was his own Easter dinner. "No, no, that's all right, you go on and take it, I'll have fish and chips, no matter at all..." We carried the joint home like we carried newborn Avery home from her first pediatrician's appointment in the West Village of New York City. Thereupon:

Baked Easter Gloucester Old Spot Gammon
(serves EVERYONE!)

1 3 kg (6-pound) smoked gammon joint
1/2 cup honey
1/2 cup Dijon mustard

Place the gammoin joint in a stove- and oven-proof casserole and add water to cover. Boil for 20 minutes, skimming the bubbling scum from the water. Drain, rinse and dry the joint with paper towels. Place a VERY large piece of heavy-duty aluminum foil in the casserole and place the joint on it, cut side up. Mix honey and mustard and pour over the entire joint. Wrap the joint in the foil as tightly as possible.

Bake at 160C, 325F for three hours. Then unwrap the joint, place cut side down in the considerable cooking juices and bake at 200C, 400F for a further half hour. Remove from oven and cover with foil for 15 minutes, then carve and serve.


You have, we have NEVER tasted any cut of meat so smoky, so succulent, so evocative of the holiday, and believe you me, I have been cooking baked ham for Easter since you first wrote longhand.

We ate at about 3, and I can assure you that by 9 p.m. we were all quite peckish, and a sandwich on multigrain artisanal bread with a good smear of more Dijon and a thick slice of red onion hit the spot. Then the following evening it was onto the following classic pasta dish, lightened up by my dear sister and changed just a bit by me:

Spaghetti Carbonara
(serves 4)

8 oz dry spaghetti
1 1/2 cupes diced cooked ham (you know the one I mean!)
4 coves garlic, minced
1/2 cup grated Pecorino or Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup creme fraiche
3 tbsps light cream
1/2 tsp salt
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
fresh ground pepper

About 15 minutes before you want to eat, boil pasta according to directions, about 10 minutes. Drain over a bowl so you can reserve 1/2 cup of the cooking water. Set aside. In a large heavy skillet, warm the ham and add the garlic, stirring over the flame until the garlic is JUST cooked but not burned. Add the pasta, toss well and take off the heat.

In a large bowl, mix the cheese, creme fraiche, creme, salt and eggs. Then add the reserved past water and whisk well. Pour over the ham and spaghetti in the skillet and turn the heat up high for just long enough to toss the whole mixture together with tongs. Serve immediately.


Quite the most homemade, creamy and yet lightly smoky carbonara ever. You will thank me, and with a huge rocket salad on the side, or new-season asparagus, you have a meal. My sister swears by adding peas to her carbonara. I hate peas, but there you go. Up to you.

Now, it's onto the home stretch as far as this heroic gammon joint goes. As soon as I make it, I will share with you my mother in law's beloved recipe for "United States Senate Bean Soup," a childhood favorite of my husband's and with my newfound love of all things beans, doubtless to be one of my favorites too. At this point, your solid-gold, heirloom, Slow Food, posh ham has become quite the most economical raw ingredient you could ever have imagined. Even lords have to watch their pennies, after all.

09 April, 2009

springtime frolics

Spring has, well, sprung in Hammersmith. Has anyone any idea what this flower is? It struck both John and me as definitely Victorian: something in the combination of intensely sexy color and dropping shyness. So lovely. And just last week, this plaque to Henry Moore was dedicated, in a studio where he worked from 1924 to 1928. Right here in our neighborhood, very proud-making. The years I taught his work in my sculpture classes in New York, and here he had worked just steps from our house, all those years ago. I felt a bit silly walking around in the misty rain yesterday, my hair getting poodlier by the minute, looking for the plaque. But there it is.

So we've been to "Grease," sadly only the musical and not the lovely white beaches surrounded by puddles of ouzo and mounds of moussaka... and the musical was a huge pleasure! Firstly: a live band, suspended high above the stage: is there anything more thrilling than live music? I don't think so, and it was completely unexpected. The drama, the living people behind the instruments, the thumping excitement. Glorious! And why is the libretto so unconventional ("we take the pressures and we throw away conventionality... belongs to yesterday") and the script so intensely 1950s conventional? Avery adores the film AND now the musical but even she in her innocence had to ask, "Why does Sandy have to completely change her personality to get the boy?" But it was nearly a rhetorical question: she understood before I did, Sandy changes only her outward appearance but stays resolutely herself on the inside... We had a wonderful time. Not a single American in the cast but you won't know it.

But all this pales in comparison to the true adventure of our little lives lately: sous vide cooking. By which I mean: "under vacuum," which in these post-modernist, post deconstructionist cooking times means "bathing forever in a barely steaming pot of water, in a vacuum pack." I am not making this up. Let me explain.

John has longed for a vacuum packer for as long as I've longed for a laminator. Clearly the longings are related, but I hesitate to query any further the common denominators therein. Well, I still have no laminator and never plan to, but we are about to receive our vacuum packer, via Amazon, and God help any meat product after that. In the meantime, we acquired a vacuum-packed leg of Welsh lamb, and that was THAT. John resurrected from the cellar a stockpot that once had perhaps held a newborn baby, I don't really remember ever seeing it before, but it is LARGE. It was but the work of a moment for him to locate a thermometer, hook it up to a slotted spoon suspended over the pot, and we spent an entire day getting the allotted amount of water up to 55-62 degrees Celsius. And KEEPING it there. "Let's put it on before we go to 'Grease,'" John said blithely. "Get it up to speed while we're away. "Are you crazy?" I bleated. "With the cats in the house?" An insidious pause. "Don't answer that," I said hastily.

So it was. The water came up to and maintained its temperature, and when we arrived back after our musical and sushi, we plopped the leg of lamb into it and went blamelessly to bed. The next morning we checked the temperature, completely steady and predictable, so I went off to take Avery and her sleepover date to the skating rink... in short we did NOTHING in service of this piece of meat.

That evening at 6 or so, 20 hours since its immersion, the lamb came out of its vacuum pack COMPLETELY cooked, falling off the bone. So I smothered it on a marinade of garlic, rosemary, lemon juice and olive oil and left it for an hour, whereupon John grilled it for 10 minutes a side and...


Quite simply the most sublime, silky, gently tender, flavorsome piece of lamb we have ever tasted.

You must try it.

While this was all happening, we were visited by Roy the Piano Tuner, who (since it is my life) is a man about to celebrate his 50th birthday at Moro where he's well-known (as keyboard specialist to Radiohead he might well be). Roy, in between taking apart my piano before my very eyes and speaking quite slightingly of the piece of wood at the back that apparently is the very heart and mind of a piano, asked me if I'd heard of arrope. Have you? I haven't. It's a dark, syrupy grape liqueur from, variously, Spain, Argentina and the Canary Islands and he's convinced it's the next big thing in food. In fact, he said, "I've been alive long enough to see the advent of balsamic vinegar, and now I've lived to see this, the NEW balsamic vinegar. How scary is that." With which truism he trotted out some lovely homespun music, a few bars of Chopin, a bit of Bach, and then packed up his tools and went away. Avery was completely happy to find the results of his labors. I myself went back to "Chopin Made Easy" which I'm reduced to in this state of many years sans piano lessons. But the joy I get from the easy versions! As they say, priceless. When arrope makes the bigtime, thank Roy, my Piano Tuner. He's publishing his diaries soon ("the number of big stars who hire you under a pseudonym and then turn out to be Annie Lennox...").

As he packed up, he said musingly, "Everything about this piano should be wrong. It should be shoddy, soulless, empty. But I began to play it, and this piano spoke to me. It has a soul. It is alive. I hate to think what you'd get out of a really sublime piano in this space." The room really is magical: all skylight and kitchen and glass windows out to garden beyond. Mostly it's happy.

Today I braved the constant drizzle and my family's utter lack of interest - not even lack, distinct NEGATIVE interest would characterize it better, clearly I need different family members - and went across town and across the river to the Southbank Slow Food Festival, a once-a-month farmer's market-ish event in the spot in town most singularly uncomfortable to reach from Hammersmith even IF the entire transport system were not clogged with protestors from Sri Lanka desperate to reach the Embankment. Lest I seem unsupportive of their cause, I must aver that I know nothing whatever about it, BUT there were a lot of them at Embankment. An unrelated English guy brushed past me at the station stop, holding his girlfriend's hand. I heard him say plaintively, "I mean, let's be honest, no one LIKES genocide, fair enough."

The Slow Food market was LOVELY. Gear yourself up for VERY spicy smoke from the chilli pepper stand, and go hungry. The basic idea of Slow Food (although essentially quite political in its original Italian incarnation decades ago) is this: support local, support heirloom varieties, happy animal life, artisan production of lost skills, and SLOW DOWN to produce, sell, cook and eat. Appreciate and know where your food comes from, how it's raised, enjoy knowing those bits, cook it with respect and eat it slowly. This last is a dead failure with my family who seems intent on bridging the gap between food production time (at my house, an hour and a half or so every evening to produce dinner) and food consumption time (average 13 minutes).

I patronized Richard Haward, seventh-generation oysterman, providing both native and wild rock (much preferred tiny native) Colchester oysters, and The Arabica Food and Spice Company with their subtle spinach hummous. Then I brought home sauerkraut from Sarah Moore Artisan Caterers to serve with our Easter gammon joint (purchased in lieu of Avery's university education at Mr Stenton's butcher shop in our neighborhood this afternoon).

Then there is the luscious beef brisket from Woodwards Farm in Huntingdon, which I'm quite sure will end up getting the vacuum treatment later in the week... and scrumptious smoked mackerel pate from The Patchwork Traditional Food Company, started by a lady in Llangollen, northeast Wales, with 9 pounds extra in her housekeeping money one week in 1982!

I happily bought butter from Moorhayes Farm, sold by Neal's Yard, the first butter I've seen labelled with milk fat percentages (85%, as if I wanted to know! and salt, 1.5%). This butter and cheese is now being sold by Waitrose and Sainsbury's, as well as Neal's Yard: a very encouraging sign for the future!

Finally I succumbed to brie truffee, or "truffled brie," quite the most aromatic and luxurious cheese you can imagine, sold by the Fromagerie in Marylebone. I cannot tell you how this aroma meets the nostrils and even taste buds. Suddenly I was visited by an intense longing for my father-in-law, who not only loved to eat, but loved to graze, to sample, to get away with something, to investigate. How I longed for him to be with me, suddenly.

Tonight we were happily fed by friends nearby and all I brought was this cheese, plus a baguette whose end had been callously plundered by Avery in her usual fit of 4 p.m. starvation. Can I tell you what these dear friends fed us? Sixteen-year-old Lily produced two sublime roast chickens with tarragon, a salad bowl of pea shoots in a mustardy vinaigrette, and a DEADLY delicious dauphinoise of sweet potatoes with fresh sage, garlic and whipping cream. As soon as I make it myself I'll give you the recipe.

This teenage triumph was followed by pistachio shortbread and a flourless chocolate cake. The child is SIXTEEN! How we ate. If my friends get any better at feeding me, I'll end up looking like the Easter bunny myself. Is it too obvious? The beauty of a miserably wet day spent with a load of self-conscious food producers, followed by an evening cooked by a child, raised by the right parents, but not with a shovel over the head. Just fed the right food all her life, to lots of nice people, which makes it easier to swallow, one hopes. One would have to ask my daughter.

Now, Easter Eve, I must collapse. Happy Egg Hunting, everyone... and get thee to the Festival! It closes Monday so... buy a wedge of truffle brie and think of me.

passing over Passover

Isn't this the most evocative painting? A sort of un-ironic Andy Warhol, without the drugs. You can buy it here, as it turns out... I'm missing my Jewish friends across the ponds last night, tonight... Alyssa always not only invited me for Passover, Hannukah, Purim and everything else they celebrated, she also answered all of the stupid goyim questions I asked about food (usually), religion, the whole thing. I feel so homesick for our evenings of matzoh, brisket, all the happy favorites. Our daughters acting like cousins, her son like our nephew... feeling sentimental.

Added to missing Alyssa (about whom I am currently writing a chapter for my cookbook, so many tear-making memories of shared holidays), I received a hilarious report from my old friend Renee from Hollywood about her Passover experiences... I cannot improve upon her narrative, so I have reproduced it here with her permission. I miss you, Renee. And Alyssa.


So here I am. In sunny LA. It really is sunny. We got here last Thursday and we're staying until Monday. Tonight I'm cooking a quasi-Passover meal at Ben's. We're in West Hollywood and I don't know where people get their food here. I found a Whole Foods, but there is not a supermarket anywhere in sight. Or even a grocery store. There are no butchers, no delis, no green markets, no nothing. Whole Foods - that's it. With no matzoh. And, believe it or not, sad vegetables. 2 kinds of potatoes and one type of onion. I find that strange since there's nowhere else to shop, you'd think they would have everything you could ever want. But no. There's plenty of vitamins, wheat grass, and prepared foods, all of which I can live without happily, especially the wheat grass. After spending a zillion dollars there, I'm making chicken with forty cloves of garlic, asparagus, roasted carrots and potatoes, fruit salad with lime and chili pepper (had it somewhere here and it was surprisingly good), and no matzoh. Isn't Hollywood supposed to be run by Jews? Maybe so, but they obviously don't celebrate Passover. And they go out to eat all the time. I've had Chinese, Italian, Japanese, Mexican, and Korean food so far. Oy! Thank goodness there's a little French cafe right near our hotel that I can have baguettes, croissants, French ham, cappucinos, and yummy salads. I eat lunch there every day. And, oh yeah, no matzoh there either. There goes Passover.

I'm heading to Ben's now. I'm sure there's no matzoh there either.

06 April, 2009

A slice of life

Right, it's a first. Walking Avery's friend Emily home last night, we encountered a lady with something on a lead, actually harnessed, and it was a giant white bunny. I asked the lady, "Is this...?" and she said proudly, "Yes, it's the Easter bunny. I bring her out at night so she isn't overwhelmed by attention. But pet her, she's very friendly." I thought the girls would jump out of their skin. And Emily happened to be carrying a wicker basket (why? no idea) so she put it down on the pavement and right on cue, the bunny jumped into it and settled right down, nosing around, no doubt looking for the Cadbury Creme Eggs that were the only props missing from the scene. Long, white ears of impossible softness, actual hopping, and then sitting on its heels and stroking its face with its little hands. Both girls (and I, to be honest) suffer now from serious bunny envy. They immediately went into a campaign to convince John that we need a bunny. "The lady says she has two cats and they ALL GET ALONG!" Apparently bunnies are easily trained to a kittylitta tray, so the objections are dwindling. John's taking a simple line. "No." Watch this space.

I have a new favorite book. It's out of print, but relatively easy to find, as I stumbled upon it out in Lincolnshire last week. "A Slice of Life," a title of which I am massively envious (why didn't I think of that for my book?), it's a compilation by Italian-American writer Bonnie Marranca of a huge number of essays on food. Some are written by foodie people, but some by fiction writers, anthropologists, historians. There's the irreplaceable Michael Pollan on food ethics and what constitutes "natural", and Adam Gopnik (he of "Through the Children's Gate", a book about New York post-September 11 that never fails to make me cry) on the crisis of French cuisine in the world of expanding fast food. There's Frederick Kaufman, amazingly the dad of one of Avery's old school chums, writing about culture of dieting (enough to send you straight to the grocery store to avoid these traps). And a searingly painful essay about a concentration camp book of "imagined recipes" by Cara de Silva, recipient of her ancestor's writings. I cannot imagine. Then Rachel Laudan writes about how silly it is to complain about "fast food," when the mechanisms of producing food fast feed the ENTIRE world.

I could go on and on. I won't. But there are dozens of varied, passionate, articulate, move-you-to-tears essays about... food. It's what I always say: ask people about politics and they will stay silent as the grave. Ask about their families, and they say smiling, "We all love each other." But ask them about food and... you get politics, family, history, tragedy, tradition. You get everything. Trust me.

I'm working on an essay about rocket. Do you call it arugula, or roquette? No matter, I have something for everyone. And no doubt, for someone, a tearful memory of Grandma will result, or a recipe from one's favorite restaurant where one celebrated one's 19th wedding anniversary. And had a wicked fight. And... You see what I mean.

As far as simple recipes go, and in the interest of slightly narrowing our girths, this month, I offer:

Grilled Salmon with Pancetta and Peppers
(serves 4)

4 fillets (about half a side) salmon
1 tsp Fox Point seasoning
1 tbsp olive oil
1 cup diced pancetta
4 red, orange or yellow peppers, sliced lengthways
4 handfuls rocket leaves or mixed leaf salad

3 tbsps olive oil
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
juice of half lemon
1 tsp prepared horseradish
1/2 tsp mustard
salt and pepper

Rinse and pat dry the salmon and lay it on a large platter. Mix the Fox Point with the olive oil and smear it over the fish. Leave to take the refrigerator chill off.

Fry the pancetta in a heavy skillet until crisp and brown and then lift out of the remaining fat onto a paper towel to drain. Fry the pepper strips in the pancetta fat and then lift them out and set aside. Place a handful of salad leaves on each person's plate.

Grill the salmon skin side down for four minutes, then turn and grill for a further four minutes, then peel off skin and discard. Divide evenly among the four plates and scatter the pancetta and peppers around the fish. Drizzle with dressing. Voila.


This is perfect diet food in my opinion, because it has the satisfying salty fat of the pancetta, only you leave the fat behind, and the peppers take on that lovely flavor as well. The fish is robust and beautiful, the salad wilts nicely, and the dressing is light. You will love it.

Of course I ruined the diet by having cheesy spinach on the side, but in the Kristen volume of dieting, the cheese is cancelled out by the loveliness of feeding people entire bags of spinach at one sitting.

Here's something that will make you laugh. I told John yesterday, "I got tickets for us to 'Grease,' and Avery goes for free!" He stopped dead in his tracks. "We're going to Greece? Hmmm." As if I would make international travel plans without consulting him, not to mention that the Nasty Immigration Dudes still have our passports so we're stuck here. Then our local little cafe owner asked if we had plans for the break, and I stupidly said again, "We're going to see 'Grease' tomorrow night," and sure enough, "Oh, lucky you, for how long?" So yesterday evening we rented "Grease" and Avery and Emily watched and my God, I felt old. To have been her age when it first came out! Just awful. Stockard Channing has not changed appreciably, but it was shocking to look her up afterward and find that she was a marginally believable 18-year-old at age 34. I can't even get away with being 44 when I AM 44. Sigh. More salmon, please, hold the cheesy spinach.

Today I'm dragging Avery to the optician (better than the orthodontist, but that's coming too), and then she's spending the night with Emily, so I'm casting about for something to cook that she doesn't like. I'd like to say it's awareness of credit crunch that keeps us from going OUT to dinner when she's away, but truth be told, I never want to go out to dinner. Lunch yes, but dinner belongs at home. What to make? I'm leaning toward shell-on king prawns marinated in lime zest and garlic, then grilled on a skewer, with their heads turned into a nice rich stock with a little white wine, reduced into a glaze to pour over the prawns. Couscous or cannellini beans on the side, some tenderstem broccolini. If the prawn dish turns out well, I'll give you the recipe tomorrow.

In the meantime, chew on this: we're actually reduced, or elevated depending on your point of view, to investigating possible Italian citizenship to ensure we can stay here. You would be astonished, at least we have been, at how hard the British government is making it for us to be legal immigrants. With John's job in dicey territory due to this awful economy, our visas are hanging in the balance and we are turning over every stone in our vicinity to stay. I hate to whinge, but it would seem logical to let people stay who are buying things, paying rent and taxes, not using the NHS or the state school system. But no, they'd really rather we left.

So John's deep into birth, immigration, marriage, military, every record you can imagine on his mother's side to make us Italian. Wouldn't it be odd to become Italian in order to become British? Avery immediately averred that she would much rather learn Italian than French, so there's something to celebrate. John's having so much fun finding his grandparents' census records from the 1920s (I know my father has greatly relished finding similar evidence from his side of the family, all online!). Get this: John's grandfather actually emigrated to America in order to fight in the First World War, on the American side. Without even having citizenship. That's patriotism for you.

It's a mark of how important Avery's education has become to all of us. I imagine that without her in her magical school, so happy and blossoming, it would be much easier to jump ship (one hopes not literally) and swim home. After all, there's Red Gate Farm there for the enjoying, and family and friends. But we do adore it here and we hate to be defeated. So probably I should be scrapping my prawn menu and whipping up some cannelloni with a ragu sauce and a frittata. We'll see.

05 April, 2009

lovely Lincolnshire

We're back from four days in the wilds of Lincolnshire (at the historic House of Correction, hence the handcuffs lest you think we travel with them), living a quiet, sheepy, horsey life. We were fed by long walks, creamy mushroom soup, roast chicken, bell ringing (well, we didn't, but we heard it done, and saw the bell tower of the church illuminated from the grounds of our historic house: the girls and John were perhaps less overwhelmed by this than I), touring the glories of the 11th century Lincoln Cathedral, the girls spending all their pocket money on chocolates made by the local chocolatier in our little village, I spending all my money on the few vegetables the local shop had to offer... endless games of a game Emily taught us called "Cheat," involving subterfuge and lies (her favorite pasttimes), John's log fires (tended by his own breath without the aid of a bellows, poor man, but luckily his lungs could take it). Walks across fields filled with new lambs and their mothers who were NOT keen on our interest in their offspring! "The field of hostile sheep," Emily and Avery christened one particular green space. How they loved the drama.

I left home under the slight cloud of a bizarre blogging phenomenon: there was a brief gap in the renewal of my domain name, specifically "Kristen in London," and for about 12 hours on Sunday some random travel/escort service (seriously!) took up residence on my site. Did any of you see it? Blogging squatters, John said, and kicked them off in no uncertain terms, although not easily. What a weird feeling, typing in my address and finding some grinning blonde in a backpack offering all SORTS of services for your visit to London! Sorry, mine's only dull recipes.

Life since our return has been a hilarious, delicious and much appreciated round of dinner parties resulting in a flurry of thank you notes pushed through letterboxes all around the neighborhood. Friday saw us at Emily's house post-holiday being fed pierrade, the most delectable grilling experience of a lifetime. Sadly it appears I cannot get myself a pierrade implement unless I go to France (nice inducement there)... it's a plug-in grill affair involving a VERY HOT stone, central to the table, on which one grills endless bites of Annie's platters of sirloin and duck breast slices, all dipped in mustard brought home from Paris by Keith, accompanied by the simplest potato salad with spring onion and olive oil, roasted asparagus, a broad bean and feta salad... DIVINE. If I get my own machine, I will let you know. There are little drawers beneath for raclette, that luscious cheesey fondue-ish thing I experienced in France. But just the grilled meats were lovely.

Staggering home VERY late at night, then, dragging Avery with us, only to arise the next day and begin preparing our own party for an entirely different set of neighbors (this is the partyingest neighborhood I ever lived in, anywhere, even when all my friends lived in one building in New York). I hit upon the perfect dinner party menu, because almost everything not only can, but MUST, be done ahead of time. Creamy veloute of sweetcorn and rocket, with sauteed scallops, followed by that decadent tart of crab, goats cheese, spring onion and double cream that I am now sadly addicted to. A huge green salad, a killingly rich cheese board and for dessert? An enormous mound of strawberries. Again the latest night, the best conversation, but my God, I'm getting too old for this and all day today I felt about an hour and a half behind in my life. We all sat around like tired cats, doing nothing but rehashing the last week or so, and as a result we feel wasted and over-luxuried.

So... a rare period of austerity will reign in my household. Such as: no bread, no cheese, no mashed potatoes. Instead of a sandwich at lunch, sushi and bean salad. Rice, not macaroni and cheese! Two veg and no starch at dinner. Just until we feel less like slugs and more like springtime.

But what a way to be fat and lazy, surrounded by friends and loving every artery-clogging minute. An ascetic recipe will follow. But right now, I'll go to sleep thinking of... crabmeat and double cream.