30 May, 2009

Much Ado about wings and tuna












Right, you all know I am a sucker for a picnic: fitting foods into little containers and packing them up in the wicker picnic basket, complete with tiny plates and salt and pepper shakers in its lid, is my delight.

However, faced with an outdoor play that begins at 8, a half hour's drive away, I was stymied. How on earth would we be hungry at 7 after a late lunch, where would we sit, the whole situation mixed me up. But now I know, and so shall you.

Here's what you do: eat a very late brunch, say bagels and smoked salmon at 11:30, if it's a Saturday, or a tiny sandwich at your office desk at noon if it's a Friday. Then pack up these in a cool box and put a rug over your arm.

Simplest Grilled Picnic Chicken Wings
(serves about 1 person per 6 wings, so 4 for 24 wings)

24 chicken wings (whole, the drumstick not separated from the wing and SKIN ON!)
sprinkle garlic powder
sprinkle paprika
sprinkle sea salt and fresh ground pepper
olive oil to coat all wings
2 tbsps balsamic vinegar
large handful curly parsley, chopped fine


As disgusting as it may seem, you must get your hands in there and roll the chicken wings around in a bowl full of olive oil and all the various herbs. Then line two large cooking trays with foil (aids in cleanup) and lay the wings in a single layer.

Bake at 325 for two hours. Take the wings out and put them back in a large bowl, sprinkle them with the balsamic vinegar.

Heat your outdoor grill to medium high and place the wings on the grill. Watch closely so as not to incinerate, and grill on each side for perhaps 2 minutes. This is just for color and flavor as the wings are already cooked through. Place in bowl again and sprinkle with parsley, then toss well. Serve with some yogurt and more chopped parsley, or fromage frais.

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So pack these guys up along with plenty of paper napkins, leave an hour's free time before the play, and head off. Spread your picnic rug out, eat to your heart's content (a baguette and some cheese would not go amiss, nor would a big bowl of cherry tomatoes and some extra sea salt).

Of course, the play has to be as good as the one we saw, "Much Ado About Nothing", at the open air theatre in Regent's Park, on Wednesday night. Simply the best. The sun stays up terribly late here in the early summer, so the play began in quite full daylight, but quickly slid into a sort of warm, blowy twilight, and by the interval, the leaves above blew about mysteriously, causing Avery to tweak me by the elbow and say, "Look up, just look up..."

The performers were on fire! John says he enjoyed the performance almost more than anything else he's been to that he can remember. What stood out for me was the IMMEDIACY and modernity of the play: old Renaissance costumes and swings dangling from orange trees notwithstanding, the play felt fresh. I thought, "Here in England, Shakespeare just... lives. Right alongside us all, his words still being breathed and laughed at and delighted in." It's one of the joys of living here. Shakespeare: just one of us.

The sheerest delight of all the evening was the performance of the constable: at first completely subtle so that no one noticed him, and then he emerged as the most magnificent Mr Malapropism of all time. I am far too ignorant to know if his lines were original to the play, but he was hilarious. When he brings forth the culprits of the great deception, he says gravely, "We have comprehended some most auspicious characters..."

And later, in indignation, "You have not... suspected... my rank! You have not suspected my... age!" And here he held up an old-age-pensioner's Oyster card, the card we use to get around the Tube! Just priceless.

Well, we can't go to the theatre every night, but we've tried our best, and good educational bits for Avery, whose exams at school began today. Perhaps for her relaxation we could get her interested in our latest fad: bowls in our local Ravenscourt Park. You would just shake your head at the cast of characters: John and I agreed that any French game of boules, of Italian of bocce, will boast the very same people, just speaking another language. Two supremely skinny fellows smoking madly, with very few teeth, presided over by a very short but very LARGE lady, motherly and caring. "Just you come with me, dearies, and we'll set up all, right enough." We were given hand-size tests with the utmost sincerity (I am completely average, "for a lady, that is," but John won out as "the largest ball we can give you." Of course he did).

Down to the manicured lawn, with our "woods," the balls themselves, and the "jacks," the little marker balls, all in white. And mats to stand upon, mind you. We had some rare beginner's luck where the balls, with their slightly asymmetrical formation, spun the way we told them to. Then all hell broke loose and our balls ventured onto other people's areas. Sorry, sorry, sorry! But the sun shone, the sky was blue, Avery was happily ensconced in the playground nearby (thereby postponing the answer to my question the day before, "How long before she is too old to enjoy a playground?"). We shall return, which we reported to the Two Skinnies and The Large Lady. "We'll see you around then, any time," they chorused.

Tonight was a new foray into fish for us: I can't think of the last time we cooked tuna, but I went to the supermarket hungry and with the express intention of being inspired by what looked good. And the tuna did. So against the background of the comforting sounds of Avery and Emily's vociferous "revising" for their exams (I bet not) and John arguing with the Tax Man on the phone, and the cats growling at visitor Charlie from next door, I produced:

Spicy Grilled Tuna
(serves about 6)


8 tuna steaks, about 1 inch thick
1 large bunch fresh cilantro
2 large red chillies, deseeded and finely sliced
4 shallots, finely sliced
Grated zest and juice of 3 limes
4 cloves garlic, crushed
1 stalk lemon grass, finely minced
4 tbsp soy dsauce
2 tbsp olive oil

Mix all the marinade ingredients and smear them onto the tuna steaks with your hands. Set aside for 20 minutes.

Heat your grill to medium-hot and grill on each side for 3 minutes.

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

With these we had couscous with sauteed garlic, shallots, mushrooms, peppers and sausage. Very credit crunchy and also... delicious.

Right. I've promised myself an early night. Tomorrow I'm babysitting as John goes to a fundraiser for the bursary at Avery's school. I can't think of the last evening Avery and I had without him, more's the joy. What to cook...?

27 May, 2009

All's Well... (well you know)

























I think that magical phrase can be uttered: Summer Has Arrived! Of course our standards in England are slightly different from those in America, some better, some worse. We can't count on the bright blue skies of Connecticut, but there are the English wildflowers that make the heart sing. To see a little girl roam through the countryside on a white pony through fields of tiny yellow buttercups is a lovely experience.

But probably the best of English summer, early summer, are the soft fruits, and the rhubarb. Avery had a lovely crumble last night before the theatre (more on that in a moment), and so I came home and created:

Summer Fruit Crumble
(serves 8 as a fine dessert or breakfast)


1 cup plain flour
1/2 cup light brown or Demarara sugar
1 tsp cinnamon (less if you're sensitive)
1/2 tsp nutmeg
dash ground cloves
1/2 cup cold butter, cut in small cubes

1 cup each:
chopped apple
sliced peeled rhubarb
raspberries
strawberries, quartered
1/4 cup light brown of Demarara sugar

Put the flour, sugar and spices in a food processor and turn it on. Through the hole in the top, drop the butter cubes one at a time, letting them process for several seconds after each drop.

Mix all the fruits and the sugar in a large bowl and stir well. Toss into a buttered 9-inch square glass dish and top with the flour mixture, covering all the fruit. Bake in a 350F, 280C oven for about half an hour or until fruit is bubbling up along the sides and the crumble topping is nicely browned.

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

This was magical, even for me, a person who does not like sweet things. The rhubarb is intensely summery, and the better strawberries and raspberries you can get, the better, because the simple flavors really sing. A buttery, slightly crunchy crumble topping, plus you know ALL the ingredients and so have a clear conscience. A perfect breakfast for a schoolgirl, trust me.

Yes, the theatre last evening was "All's Well That Ends Well" at the National Theatre, a destination we seem to head to more than any other. I adore the little intimate Olivier Theatre within, with its seats around three-quarters of the stage. And what a magical, whimsical production it was. Still in previews, so there was a feeling of "what now?" about many of the moments: two particular bits of totally unexpected slow-motion at times of supreme drama: the action all slowed down almost imperceptibly while filigreed leaves filtered down from the ceiling... some brilliant touches of playing around with the original lines: during a particularly long list-sort of speech by a character, she turned to the audience in the middle and said wearily, "Etcetera..." Brilliant!

Look out for the single scene-stealing instant of the entire play: the third, or even fourth girl is offered up for the Count as wife, and as she looks at him through comic-book spectacles, clutching her knitting, she simply squeaks, "Minna minna minna!..." And as Avery pointed out, "for that moment, she had the whole theatre." Oliver Ford Davies and Clare Higgins were proper mainstays for the play, but the younger set (including the Count who, when he bared his chest to change his shirt, an audible gasp rippled through the audience!) were more than enough to hold up the energy. It is such fun to see a play early on in its run: the grins of sheer unabashed delight from the players at the bow was a joy!

We were home so very, very late. It's half-term break for Avery, but only in a way, because she and her other first-year compatriots in senior school are given fairly serious amounts of what's called "revision" to do, what I suppose we Americans call "studying." Piles of papers of geography, English, maths, Latin, science, art, French, everything, to dig through and try to remember everything the teachers have said since September. So I felt somewhat guilty throwing her into bed quite close to midnight, but thought self-righteously, "It's bl**dy Shakespeare!" She slept late, and stuck close to the kitchen today as I concocted my fruit crumble, pesto, watercress and sweetcorn soup for lunch, and for dinner, a quite magical new ingredient, not for the faint of heart: black garlic. It's not as evil as it sounds; rather, it's sweet, sticky, coal black and nearly weightless in its papery outer skin. Simply peel away the skin to reveal the shrivelly cloves, then squish the cloves into submission for the marinade of your life.

Pork Fillet in a Black Garlic Marinade, Served in Lettuce
(serves 4 easily)


2 medium pork tenderloins, completely trimmed of membranes and fat
1 whole head black garlic
2 tbsps soy sauce
juice of 1 lime
1 tbsp sesame oil

1 red pepper, diced
1 large Portobello mushroom, diced
1 tbsp olive oil

2 tbsps pinenuts, chopped
handful cilantro/coriander leaves
1/4 cup plum sauce

1 head Boston or iceberg lettuce, pulled into large leaves

Place the trimmed tenderloins in a Ziplock bag. In a small bowl, combine the garlic, soy sauce, lime juice and sesame oil and mash them together, then leave for 5 minutes or so to let the acid in the lime juice break down the garlic. Mash some more until nice and smooth, then pour all the marinade into the bag with the pork and seal well. Squish around until the tenderloins are completely coated with the marinade. Leave in the fridge for as long as you can, within reason: an hour to a day.

Jut before you're ready to eat, assemble the rest of the ingredients, and saute the peppers and mushrooms in the olive oil. Set aside. Cut the tenderloins into 1-inch slices and place in a food processor, then blitz until chopped but not pureed. Heat a heavy frying pan to very hot, then add the pork and saute, breaking up with a wooden spoon as you go. When cooked, remove to a bowl.

Serve all ingredients with lettuce leaves, and pile on as you like! Have plenty of napkins, as it's a messy dish.

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

Light, diety, but satisfying. If your children don't like lettuce leaves, provide Chinese pancakes for them. It's all lovely and you can assemble each one as you like it.

Goodness, it's been a whirlwind since Monday. In fact, it all began Sunday evening when we picked up Avery's friend Lille and brought her home for pierrade and Eton Mess, then packing up for their lovely weekend away. It was that heartwarming combination of the familiar and the utterly luxurious. For many years our family, including John's mother and much-missed father, have travelled from London to the cradling beauty of the Cotswolds, for that occasional break from crazy daily life. Given our druthers, our destination has to be Lords of the Manor, simply my favorite little hotel in the world, tucked away in Upper Slaughter, a place where you can actually borrow Wellingtons if you need them, or order the finest single-malt Scotch in the world, and watch a helicopter land on the back garden, and sample the finest fried bread in an English breakfast you ever tasted.

When we first began to retreat there, and I truly can't remember why we ever first did, it was the ultimate in country shabby 17th century chic: worn Oriental rugs, family portraits in fire-stained oils, half-empty bottles of Calvados on the well-worn bar, leather fenders before the fireplaces. How we loved it. How many precious evenings we got dressed up, in our rooms above the dining rooms, dawdling in old-fashioned ceramic baths with feet, listening to "Wogan" drifting in from the telly in the bedroom, to meet up in the sitting room where a smiling waitress brought heavy menus of what was to me, then, very remarkable and unattainable food. We chose, over much laughter and Scotches, and then repaired to the dining room.

Well, all things must change, for better or worse, or probably in this case from wonderful to worse to better, but always changing. Two years ago we took a little friend of Avery's there to stay for a weekend while her mother had a baby, and it was lovely, but the food? I'm ashamed to say I'd outgrown it. It was nice hotel food. But I could do more than I could do in the old days, and I was loath to spend precious food money on something sort of tepid.

So this year I thought, "Right, we'll have a fabulous time in the country, but have dinner in a nice pub somewhere, save some money." In the end, after the girls had been put through their paces at Jill Carenza's, riding school (more on that in a moment!), all they and we wanted for the evening was to collapse and order room service. I noticed with a mixture of delight and alarm and nostalgia that the shabby chic had all gone, in favor of a muted elegance: all colors like mushroom, sage, brick red, stripes instead of flowers, lovely damask in the place of the old chintz and velvet. No more flocked wallpapers, no more shabby old mismatched books in the shelves, and the oil paintings had gone in favor of lovely Cotswolds landscapes in pastels. Gorgeous, but not quite the old days. John's father, I felt, would have felt it too posh. And yet...

Girls ensconced in their room of our suite, clutching the exciting gratuitous shampoos and lotions from a fancy French maker instead of the lovely Molton Brown the hotel used to stock, we all collapsed. "Room service!" the girls crowed, and scrubbed the horses from their hands. Tagliatelle all round, with ham and mushrooms, we decided. I opted for an additional "mixed salad."

WELL.

When the food arrived, John and I looked at each other. This was no sort of forgettable pasta with a dull sauce of button mushrooms and ham. Homemade noodles, mixed wild mushrooms in a subtle, slightly but lightly creamy sauce, with smoky chunks of some artisanal ham. What was going on here? Then I pulled toward me the salad. And my dear readers, you have never tasted such a salad. So lightly and yet skilfully dressed that it appeared naked at first, but the mustardy, olivey, slightly garlicky flavor clung to every leaf. And the leaves! Baby everything: minuscule leaves of baby cilantro, baby radicchio, baby endive, baby dandelion, baby beetroot. GORGEOUS. "What has happened here?" we asked silently. And then, the girls' desserts arrived. A single perfect hollow ball of spun sugar sitting on a bed of poached rhubarb and ice cream, a coffee praline souffle for Lille... and the most gorgeous petits fours you can imagine: a passionfruit jelly, a creamy caramely square the size of a postage stamp, a Turkish delight of the most perfect pistachios. Perfection.

I hightailed it straight to the front desk, and you know what? Since we there last, there is a new chef, a certain Matt Weedon, poached (as it were) from a Scottish castle restaurant who must have been devastated to lose him. With his arrival and hard work, the hotel restaurant has gained its first coveted Michelin star! How I wish we had sucked it up for the money and had the whole nine yards in the dining room! I had no idea. Next time. Perfection. Go!

In the morning we ended up repeating the girls' incredible experience at riding the day before: cross-country eventing! Quite simply, all the scary things that mothers the world round dread that their girls will want to do, when they begin riding. But I was fine! Jumping, in the countryside, farther than I could see, across unmovable jumps in the grass, on ponies they'd never ridden before. The skies were ultimately changeable: blue, grey, scudding white clouds, grey threatening drops, all smiling down on fields full of buttercups. I felt John's father all around us, he who had smiled his Irish eyes so many times on Avery jumping in just this place. How his pride in her shone from his smile: leaning against the fence, revelling in the jumps getting higher, never fearing for her safety, always confident that his granddaughter would be equal to the challenge. He was there, with us. And always will be. How he would have loved to see her red cheeks and grinning eyes, shouting, "That's the most fun I've EVER had!" as she brought her pony in from the faraway fields, where metaphorically and really, she had left me far behind.

And yet even there, things change: Avery and Lille were taught not by the famous Jill, who presides over the barn, but her up and coming daughter Emily. At first we harumphed silently a bit, "What about Jill!" but quickly saw that the new generation had taken over, and she gave as good as she got, shout for ear-piercing shout the image of her mother. And the girls were in heaven, hot, sweaty, scared to the point of exhilaration but never for a MOMENT wanting to say no, to do anything less than what they were offered. "More ring, you lot, or the field?" Emily asked at one point, and Lille shouted, "Field field field!" "Tell us what you REALLY think," John teased. What a complete joy to give this experience to them.

Back to the hotel, putting the top up in the poor tiny little convertible at one point for a brief rainstorm! Then to get food for the ducks in Lower Slaughter, another beloved tradition, ending once in a giant white duck taking a giant bite out of John's ancient Barbour coat! We always get duck food at the same place, where Avery always gets her favorite ice cream, and looks in the mirrored front of the "AVERY" scale set out in front of the shop. And we were off with duck food. But again: changes. Where were the ducks? There were just two, or three, and they weren't hungry, not surprisingly, since probably every tourist all morning had insisted on feeding them! "No ducks," Avery said mournfully, and just as I was planning to go buy some so she could continue her tradition, up popped a mother and at least seven tiny ducklings! "What we lack in quantity, we make up for in quality," John said, and all was well.

High tea at the hotel, the traditional searching through "Horse and Pony" Magazine for the ONE pony in the classifieds that they could agree on... and home. It's actually fun to go on a long drive with two highly academic near-teenagers: they spend the time singing their Latin noun declensions! And imitating their Latin teacher in her high-pitched cheery tones, and singing "The Grand Old Duke of York" while skipping various words... very entertaining.

As for me, the highlight was our visit to Stow, on the way home. Lambournes Butchers in Digbeth Street provided not only the divine pork fillet for our black garlic dinner tonight, but also the most flavorful and opportunistic tomatoes on the vine: why don't more butchers offer fresh vegetables? It's my favorite way to shop: "Hey, this would be good with that..." Then next door to the butcher was Hamptons Fine Foods, specializing in the sorts of luxury hampers we can only DREAM about (my birthday, anyone?) where I picked up local rapeseed oil and the BEST CHEESE EVER: Stow Soft, a sort of mildly smelly, intensely buttery and flavorful creamy cheese, the kind you slice the top off and then spoon out, like an Epoisse or a Vacherin, not to be too foodie all over you. But I wish so much I had bought more than two (I gave one to Lille's mother when we dropped her daughter off, dirty and nearly as smelly as the cheese, oh, ponies!).

Home in a stupor of fatigue, appreciation, extreme closeness from 48 hours in each others' company, dirty laundry, the smallest car ever, and so many memories. It's all we can do, in the end. Pull our children and our husbands through the toughest moments, give them a kick when they need it (and take our kicks when they come!) and then sit back and LOVE the blinky afternoons when you're watching a not-so-little girl on a white pony, in a flowery field, having the time of her life.

Then come home to a fruit crumble...

24 May, 2009

the LOVELIEST day






















Nothing special to report: just that the Food Festival at Hampton Court was very nice, with a couple of reservations: one, it was called the "Foodies Festival," which does bug me, horrible word, and two, it was jolly, jolly hot. Not even! By any Midwestern American standards it was cool to say the least, but for London, coming about all of a sudden, the 26C heat was a surprise, and Avery for one was unprepared: woollen Burberry skirt, fuschia tights, high leather boots, long-sleeved sweater: there was only so much she could shed and not break any laws of decency.

We had a great time, though: sampling cheeses here, olives there, actually paid for two dishes at Busaba Thai from Soho, which I remembered from Taste of London last year. Deep-fried prawns, super crisp and crunchy, with a mango chilli dipping sauce, and grilled duck slices with Chinese broccoli... simply luscious. The best of the day? Yummy Lollies, quite simply the BEST, FRESHEST, coldest and most refreshing frozen treats you've ever had, and 100% fruit. "Lick your way to five a day," is their motto, and the two very yummy mummies who run the concern are just addictive on their own. So enthusiastic, heartfelt, young and lovely, and the flavors of the lollies are irresistible too: I had apple and mango, John had blackcurrant, and Avery orange. Pure, pure frozen fun. They alone made the day worthwhile.

No, I lie. What made the day worthwhile was being with my two lovelies, as you see, having the time of their lives teasing each other as they do.

Home to fetch Avery's friend Lille, for pierrade for dinner, Eton Mess for pudding, and tomorrow: the Cotswolds for a riding lesson, an afternoon and evening of non-credit-crunchy luxury, then another day of walking and feeding ducks, then the best high tea in Great Britain at our hotel... a complete treat for these girls in advance of their first senior school exams at the beginning of June. But I'm totally disingenuous: it's a treat for ME, to see everyone so happy. Long may it last. Life can be (has been, will be) difficult, but for now, all the little pieces are in place for everyone to be happy, to feel lucky, and to say thank you.

23 May, 2009

yet another thing to make for yourself











We're headed off tomorrow to the Hampton Court Palace Food Festival which promises to be HUGE fun: we get to see the winner of last year's Masterchef telly competition cook live! Since all three of us followed Masterchef really obsessively, we'll have a great adventure seeing him there. The tastings, the special produce, maybe a celebrity glimpse or two, the possibility of an inspirational dish to set me on a new course... and good weather, we think!

Of course, inspiration can be a beautiful thing and it can be a burden. Why on earth would I try to make something that I can buy in hundreds of places around the city, beautifully cooked by people to whom the recipe comes native? Because I could, that's why, and now I'm stuck knowing how to make them. Falafel, I mean. Are you a fan of these crunchy, savoury little balls of spiced chickpeas? Well, I'm a massive fan, and now I've produced them in my very own kitchen. Not deep-fried, as they are in falafel huts around the world, but baked in just a little oil. So you can even have a clear conscience.

This recipe comes almost whole-cloth from Hello! magazine, except that the whole focus of the article was watercress and I didn't have any! So I substituted rocket, which was lovely and a total success. Needs must.

Falafel
(serves 4)


1 soup-size can chickpeas, drained
2 tbsp tahini (sesame paste)
1 tsp salt
2 tsps baking powder
2 tsps cumin seeds
2 tsps ground coriander
1 tsp cayenne pepper
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 cups loosely packed rocket leaves
juice of 1 lemon
3 tbsps vegetable oil for cooking

This could not be any easier. Put all ingredients except oil in a food processor and whizz until fully processed, but not pureed. Preheat oven to 200C, 400F and place a large roasting pan in the oven to heat.

Roll the chickpea mixture into balls, about 16, then flatten them into patties. Add the oil to the roasting tin, then roll the patties about a bit to coat them. Bake for 20 minutes, turning once, till crisp and golden.

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These are LOVELY. They have that mysterious, smoky, exotic, celebratory sort of flavor that you associate with foreign markets. It's hard to believe they can really come out of a homely little oven in my kitchen.

Nice accompaniments might be hot sauce, yoghurt, chopped coriander, and:

Cucumber, Onion and Tomato Salad
(serves 4)


1 long hydroponic cucumber, sliced thin
1 sweet white onion, cut in half and sliced thin
1 cup cherry tomatoes, quartered
sprinkle fresh dill or dried dill

dressing:
2 tbsps fromage frais
2 tbsps sour cream
juice of 1/2 lemon
1 clove garlic, minced tiny
fresh ground pepper
pinch sea salt

Toss all vegetables and dill in a bowl, then place all dressing ingredients in a jar with a tight fitting lid and shake well. Toss with vegetables.

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

This salad is perfect with the falafel, and for the best lunch you ever had, add a couple of well-griddled Giggly Pig sausages. Perfect.

So now you know how to make one more thing it used to be heavenly simple just to BUY out at a market. But I had an inspiration: the couple of leftover falafels were a completely different texture the next day, very crumbly, almost powdery. I thought how nice they would be crumbled up and... what? John suggested substituting them for breadcrumbs in some dish. How about macaroni and cheese flavored with Moroccan spices instead of nutmeg, and sprinkled with falafel crumbs? If I ever make it, I'll let you know.

I'm feeling very full of myself this week because I've submitted a chapter, an introductory letter, a letter to an agent and a list of ALL my proposed chapters, to a literary consultancy here in London! Late in June I'm scheduled for an all-day seminar on preparing my manuscript for submission to an agent, and then to a publisher, so the requirement was getting all these bits and pieces together. It was surprisingly difficult, tiring, and even painful to whittle down my so-far 25,000 word manuscript into a 250-word introduction! And to try to explain ME, as in the requirements was "explain WHY YOU," was very difficult indeed. "Maybe you've had an extraordinary life," the consultant said over the phone, and I had to admit to myself, "No, that isn't why I want to write down all these memories and recipes." So I tried to describe, and thereby sell, I suppose, the passion I feel about the very ordinary cooking life I have had, and how strongly I feel about writing it down. Very tiring.

We've been mad tennis-obsessed lately and I'm not making it up, I can feel the difference after three weeks, in my arms and legs. I'm not taking approaching 45 lying down! I refuse to give up and turn into mush. And now John's ankle is feeling fairly well, he's more than anxious to get us in shape as well. Our moderate diet has been really successful: no bread, no potatoes, fromage frais instead of mayonnaise, tuna in water instead of olive oil, no cheese except for buffalo mozzarella which I feel is one of the basic food groups, with tomatoes and basil... I mean, the diet's successful except for when we don't do these things, like tonight's truffle brie with lovely little wheat biscuits. Hey, it's no fun to have things on a not-this list unless you sometimes bust it wide open. And with truffles!

So Avery's on the last half-term of her first year of her new school, and we're doing the food festival tomorrow, then the Cotswolds on Monday evening with one of her school friends, just for an evening of fun in the country. The poor things are facing their first exams when they return to school, so the watchword for the holiday week is "revision," which is some awful British word for rehashing everything they've been told all year, in preparation for spitting it back out. I suppose the exact same thing would have faced Avery in America if we've stayed there. But the pressure's on. So a little fun will be welcome this week.

I'll report back from Hampton Court and if I've found a way to make my own water, I'll definitely post the recipe...

20 May, 2009

a bit of fizz...













Well, such is my life, surrounded by the best possible friends, that the gorgeous meatballs shown here were shoved unceremoniously into the back of the fridge this evening, never eaten. Let me explain.

Drumroll, please... we are legal! Our visas finally came through today, after over three months' limbo while the British powers-that-be deliberated over whether or not we were worthy to stay in the country. So demobilising, so demoralising, so depressing, so discouraging! To feel as if our adopted land did not want us here.

But after so much waiting, the notification came, and with almost undecorous haste, a motorcycle messenger showed up on our doorstep with our passports, full of exciting visas, photographs, much stamping and officialdom. It's official! We're staying.

Naturally I turned immediately to my phone and rang up Annie to tell her the good news, although equally naturally I had to tell it like it is. "I hope you can get the deposit from the caterer back, because... the double wedding's off." A sigh of relief: Annie's lovely son Fred and daughter Georgia can live in peace, not having to marry me and John to give us legal means to stay. Honestly, the legal relationships would have been too, too nauseating. Avery's best friend also her step-aunt? Let's not go there.

Annie immediately said, "Can you come for a bit of fizz?" But they declined dinner together as the older children had to revise for exams. I should have known, knowing Annie, but no, I slaved through the afternoon concocting meatballs with ricotta and parsley, and a tomato sauce with fresh basil and red wine, and left it on the stove, ready for us to return for dinner, after the "bit of fizz." HA!

We were greeted with many kisses, exhortations to learn all the verses of "God Save the Queen," champagne (and for me, Zubrowka, my absolute favorite bison grass vodka, dear Keith never forgets), and... deep breath... smoked salmon and creme fraiche on blinis, little skewers of buffalo mozzarella, fresh cherry tomatoes and pesto, chilled prawns with a remoulade, a platter of salami, parma ham and chorizo, roasted asparagus spears, red pepper hummous, a gorgeous chunky puree of edamame, a platter of crudites! And just when we thought it was safe to take a breath, plates of little hot bites arrived: tiny falafels, puff pastry filled with chorizo paste, another with feta cheese...

Oh, Annie! Thank you, my friend.

We simply lingered FOREVER. Their garden is surrounded by roses, just flowering, and presided over by their two cats, Gracie and Caesar, and children wandered in and out, telling stories, swiping goodies (I won't confess how many little skewers Emily had from the mozzarella platter, nor how many blinis Avery wolfed down). Birdsong, bubbly, talking over each other as usual, rejoicing that there are so many such occasions yet to come: we're here to stay!

So the meatballs are shelved. Tomorrow night, perhaps. We're all in a sort of stupor of relief, a sort of light-heartedness that's the lifting of a guillotine. Avery can stay at her beloved school, we can stay in our beloved house. Just this afternoon my phone rang and it was my next-door neighbor, the ever-elegant solicitor Sara. "You know, there is a little furry face pressing itself against my study window just now, and her tag proclaims her to be 'Tacey.' She is a lovely cat, and I don't mind a bit..." We traded stories about the apparent random wanderings of the cats up and down our street, within our houses. Yesterday afternoon we came up the steps to the reception room to find Charlie, next door tabby but one, calmly ensconced on the landing! And regularly Midnight and Smoky from next door roam through our kitchen, looking for food or trouble or both. Clearly they've taken on the neighborliness of their humans.

Sigh. A bit of fizz. Relief. And if you don't have Annie...

Meatballs with Ricotta and Parsley and Tomato Sauce
(serves four, twice)


meatballs:
2 tbsps sunflower or other vegetable oil
1 kilo (about two pounds) pork mince
125 grams (about half a cup) ricotta cheese
generous tbsp Italian seasoning
large handful flatleaf parsley, finely chopped
large pinch sea salt

sauce:
generous splash red wine
5 clove garlic, minced
1 white onion, minced
3 soup-size cans tomatoes
large handful basil leaves, rolled and chopped into ribbons

Pour oil in a large, wide, heavy-bottomed frying pan. Mix all meatball ingredients and form into balls of about an inch in diameter. You'll end up with about 24 meatballs. Set aside and heat oil till nearly smoking. Turn on extractor fan and open garden doors! Fry meatballs in a single layer, in more than one batch, if necessary, for a couple of minutes on each side, just to brown. Don't worry about cooking them through; they'll poach in the sauce. You just want a crust.

Set meatballs on a plate covered with paper towel, and pour wine into pan. Scrape up all lovely bits from bottom, and then add garlic and onion, cook just till soft, then add tomatoes and basil and cook down on a medium heat till slightly thickened, about 10 minutes. Add meatballs carefully and turn heat down to just a simmer. Let cook for about 20 minutes. Done.

19 May, 2009

Chiswick, a new Cobb Salad, and royalty


























And I will tell all, about my encounter with Her Majesty, but first I will keep you in Ghastly Suspense while I extol the virtues of... Chiswick.

First of all, for my compatriots across the Pond, it's pronounced "Chizzick." So you don't arrive and embarrass yourselves by pronouncing it as it looks, any more than you would look at "Southwark" Cathedral and say anything but "Suthuck." But I can top both those by telling you about a girl I know whose last name is "Featherstonehaugh" pronounced... "Fanshaw." I am not making this up.

My point upon salient point is, I have been hearing from my friend Annie for donkey's years, or however long it is I've known her, about the untold joys of... Chizzick. We had one adventure there during a late evening when I had a white crabmeat emergency (don't ask) and I was charmed, the little I could see of it in the January darkness. "Someday you and I will go and mooch around there and shop..." Annie would say, and I put it aside as you do comments like that, like "Someday we've got to go through the entire medieval section of the V&A," not thinking it will ever actually happen. BUt it did.

On Friday I was scooped up, in her own words, by Annie after my stint at Lost Property (an actual Links of London silver charm bracelet with TWO claimants, high drama) and swiftly transported to the loveliness that is Chiswick, or Turnham Green, depending on your post code or sense of neighborhood, or tax code, I know not. Trust me, it's the foodie's paradise in West London. We erupted from Annie's car to be enveloped in a completely unexpected rainstorm. "What the hell?" we both snapped. "This wasn't in the brief! Lunch then, first, and shopping after?" Whereupon the rain stopped with the sensation of an old lady pursing her mouth, and we decided to shop anyway, and have lunch after.

We started out at Whisk, which was a dangerous thing to do because there is absolutely nothing I really, really need from a kitchen shop. But it's like a candy store is to Avery: I simply cannot walk in and walk without buying something, and actually it wasn't even for me, strictly speaking, but for John and Avery: a big heavy nonstick frying pan for her breakfast eggs. And, I admit it, a tiny little orange candle-lighter, because it was orange and I love candles. But I'll have you know I did NOT buy the little terra-cotta egg-box shaped container to hold eggs on my counter. I'll ask for it for my birthday. Whisk was fun.

Then we were onto Mortimer and Bennett, the famous delicatessen-cheese shop (and general Aladdin's Cave of unnecessary things to eat), and again I met with temptation. Annie was planning a cheese board for dinner, and I succumbed to a tiny little St Marcellin in a cunning pottery dish, plus an enormous number of garlicky olives, and a box of organic strawberry biscuits in the shapes of mice and lions, for Avery and Jamie's pre-ice skating snack. I could have bought everything in the shop! Untold types of smoked fish and meat, biscuits and crackers, yogurts and creams and butters. "You know, I read about this shop when searching for a sort of obscure juice called... oh, shoot, now I can't remember, but it started with a 'v'..." I burbled, and the proprietor said calmly, "Yes, 'Verjus,' only our purveyor moved back to New Zealand, taking all of it with her."

Then we popped into the sublime Covent Garden Fishmonger Turnham Green and I picked up a kilo of massive frozen scallops without roe, which made me very happy because I simply hate paying for the weight of something I'll come home and detach and throw away. I do not like roe. But these scallops were sublime, and led me to create a perfect, simple salad for dinner, which I'll tell you about in a moment.

Finally we were tempted into Zecca, a gorgeous shop filled with pottery, napkins, placemats, candle holders, so many things crying out to be brought home by me. I ended up with a modest little fluted blue dish to put steamed asparagus on, as we're now eating the lovely green things as many times per week as we can stand, to enjoy the season!

From there to the secret (shh) of Chiswick, the The Roebuck, the best pub lunch you will ever have for a fiver. Grilled salmon fillet on a bed of chickpeas doused with lovely fresh pesto and tossed with rocket. For a fiver! Annie had cheese and chutney sandwich with handcut chips... for a fiver. Go, do, and make the powers that be at the Roebuck know they have an audience.

Since then, I thawed my brilliant Chiswick scallops and made a new, modern and quite British version of the old American 1937 classic, Cobb Salad.

Scallop Cobb Salad
(serves 2 as main dish, 4 as light starter)


1 tbsp sunflower oil (or other rather tasteless oil)
1 kilo scallops, cleaned of muscle and dried
8 ounces pancetta cubes
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 lb new potatoes, steamed in their skins and quartered
handful flat-leaf parsley, chopped
handful chives, chopped
3 beetroot, roasted, peeled and diced
1/2 cup goat cheese, crumbled
2 cups rocket
sea salt and fresh ground pepper
olive oil to drizzle
1 lemon, quartered

So just like the old Cobb Salad, only not with any of the same ingredients. Heat the oil in a heavy frying pan and sear the scallops for two minutes on the first side, getting a good color, then turn over and do the same to the other side for perhaps a minute. Do NOT overcook. Turn out onto paper towel to drain.

In same frying pan, where there will still be oil, fry the pancetta gently till well browned. Set aside. Fry garlic gently in the pancetta fat, then add steamed potatoes and parsley and chives. Toss well for a moment, then take off heat.

Now: assembly job. On a long, wide platter, place the scallops, the pancetta, the potatoes, the beetroot, the goat cheese and the rocket in rows.

Let your guests assemble their own arrangements of all the ingredients and provide the salt, pepper and oil to dress, along with the lemon wedges. Enjoy!

***********

This is a divine, and gorgeous, dish. A nice development from the chicken, hard-boiled egg, bacon, blue cheese version of years past. Go for it. Scallops are the new chicken, just like 44 is the new 37. I hope not.

Well, Sunday then we ended up at the Royal Windsor Horse Show, where the favorite activity was the Pony Club Mounted Games. Just hilarious! All the bits of Great Britain competing against each other, and sadly, Wales as usual was at the bottom. But their red jumpers were so charming! And there was the Queen to award the plate for "Best Turned-out" soldier, or whatever: the shiniest coats, the best-combed manes, the plushiest feathered caps... We had a marvellous time, albeit suffering as usual from a horrible burger lunch. How to solve the food problem? Awful institutional fare, or we bring our own picnic and drag it around. None of the scenarios has so far worked for me. Next year, perhaps, I'll figure it out.

This week has been full of drama. Today was my writing class, hosted by my dear friend Valeria, and our special guest was Jane Mulvagh, she of the recent publication fame of Madresfield: The Real Brideshead. Her brief was to help us strategize finding agents and publishers, but honestly what she accomplished, for me at least, was just a massive intimidation of how cool and effortless her rise to fame has been, versus our fledgling and frightened efforts. I'm struggling this month with writer's block, I must confess. None of my ideas feels worth writing down. I need a boost of some kind, an intervention. Should I write next about childhood memories with my dad, or Irish country houses with cookery on an Aga? Or lemons? Or artichoke dip? I'm stymied. But all the writers I know assure me that such periods are normal. All I can do is go swimming, let John drag me out for a tennis game, and cook a lovely dinner of grilled salmon, warm chickpea salad with feta, curry and rocket, and steamed broccolini. That's all I can do right now. Not being royal, that is...

12 May, 2009

food, food EVERYWHERE




















My God, I've been home from Hereford for a week and somehow the days have gone by without properly describing the brilliance of our days. I promise to do it all justice. But what on earth has been happening here that has distracted me?

Let's see, there was a long-awaited tennis game with John, oh joy! His ankle is truly on the mend, but I'm not pushing it, so we played it safe, so to speak, and just enjoyed the gorgeous but slightly shabby environs of Ravenscourt Park. And then after school one day last week came the adventure of the exploding Avery school backpack on Thursday: truly the thing exploded, sending showers of her belongings all over school, so we piled into the car with Emily and headed to Cath Kidston, an English institution if you have a young girl and any incidental interest in roses, polka dots, charming summer prints, you name it for perfect girly gifts, and, as it turns out, schoolbags. Riding there in the Mini with the top down, we all tried to pretend the air was not simply swirling with pollen: itching eyes, scratchy throat, crazed sneezing. But you can't NOT put the top down! Successful purchases including several birthday party needs, a lovely errand to Chiswick.

From there we all repaired to the school swimming pool to work off the spring's lethargy (and maybe a couple of pounds along the way) enforced by the weather and by John's puny ankle. But my goodness, the chlorine. I raced John in the crawl, Emily ("I need two seconds head start!" she screams, whereupon she wins by... two seconds), then we adults callously leave the girls on their own (twelve years old, the magic number!) and head home to get ready for pierrade, our diner de choix these days, especially when one's in need of a protein fix. What a joy to sit out in the garden (albeit joined by Avery bundled in a down jacket, pashmina wound round her hair, leg warmers: she only later confessed that she ate dinner in her wet bathing suit, under all these layers, yuck). I just adore our new (well, not really) garden furniture, the funky little plant that decorates the table, the wild birdsong, the candles and clinking of silver on china.

Next morning I succumbed to a long-overdue coffee with Emily's mother. Will there ever be a coffee where we don't talk over each other, saying, "I had one more thing I absolutely HAD to say, so don't interrupt!", never getting through everything no matter how long we spend catching up. There is a never-ending list of issues to get through: our daughters, my weekend away, her plans for attending a bittersweet christening on the weekend, Fred's GCSE preparations, cooking, eating, reading... and of course, Lost Property. I had to beg a ride from her, in fact, to get to my duties at said LP on time. That chilled basement room, the languid and careless gorgeous schoolgirls having lost everything under the SUN, getting to meet the dining room genius, Mr. V., who was most pleased to hear that Avery enjoys the food. "I conducted a survey," he said, "and the little ones just ask for more pizza and more pasta. The older they get, the more their palates enjoy, say, the fish, the pesto, the risotto..." I left school after giving the secretary one HUGE bag, left in LP, full of the entire academic career of one particular girl. The secretary said, "I think she's out sick today," and all I could think was, "I bet she is, having left all this SOMEWHERE."

Friday we worked, worked, worked, trying to reduce the pile of paperwork on our desks: horrid taxes, play tickets, school forms, birthday cards to send, that chicken-in-lettuce recipe I thought I'd make that I now realize Avery would NEVER eat... and then a dinner out, for heaven's sake. When was the last time? We succumbed to that crazy London phenomenon, Yo! Sushi, in the Westfield massive shopping centre, and do you know what (lowers voice to a whisper)? It was fabulous. Go for the most expensive thing, a five-pound plate of six slices of sashimi: two salmon in dill, two salmon in black mustard seed and poppy, and two yellowtail tuna in coriander. Superb! We had to be rolled home, we ate so much sushi. A delight, especially in a world whose out-of-home dinner offerings seem to get less and less 1) desirable and 2) affordable. I just don't want, anymore, to pay anyone to feed me something I could conceivably make at home. But sushi? Bring it on.

On Saturday Avery returned from her sleepover with Emily and simply collapsed in exhaustion until it was time for her friend's Lillie's birthday party, a trip to see "The 39 Steps," which sounded by all accounts to be brilliant. We adults spent the afternoon at "State of Play," a film version of the incomparable BBC miniseries of several years ago. I know, I know, a two-hour film can never approach the complexity of the series, but it's a cracking story, well-acted and just scary enough for me: loads of issues to think about afterward like the death of print media, the conflict between the old-fashioned reporter and the whippersnapper blog world, the corruption of the good old Military-Industrial Complex (always good for a laugh). Go see it, it's worth the effort.

Then, we come to the FOOD. Sunday I had tickets to the overwhelming Real Food Festival at Earl's Court. So many times I have gone all on my own to food shows and festivals, and sure, it's fun enough: how could it not be? A chance to stroll from stand to stand, purveyor and specialist makers everywhere you look, endless variety. But how much more fun to go with someone? John was kind and succumbed, and I do think he had a good time. How many sausage samples can any one man eat? Then you step up to a cheese maker and think you'll get one little sliver, but NO, the man wants you to taste the entire range, from young and creamy to aged and smelly. Bring it on!

And then there's the healthy hibiscus beverage, guaranteed to prevent all bad things and enhance all good, and the vegan apple crumble, and the all-fruit sugar substitute Sweet Freedom (an apple and banana cake tomorrow will be the proof or death of THAT impulse purchase). There was the stall with many fishy rillettes, La Paimpolaise (we succumbed to sea bass, razor clam and red mullet, gloriously fishy and exotic), the chorizo at Suffolk Salami , the plump and succulent Dorset oysters at Rossmore Oysters, the piri-piri oil at Chilli Pepper Pete that forms the backbone of ALL my salad dressings... Lastly, I may tell you, we sampled EVERY sausage that popped up in front of us (a tough job, but someone's got to... well, you know). And hands-down, best in show, Simply Sausages, offering a juicy but not fatty pork sausage studded with fresh rosemary and fennel seed. Quite perfect for:

Sausage, Rocket, Porcini Pizza with Piri-Piri Oil and Mozzarella
(serves at least four generously, with three large pizzas)


800 grams strong bread flour
1/2 tbsp each dried thyme, dried basil
pinch salt
2 packets dried yeast
500 ml tepid water
1 tbsp milk
1 tbsp olive oil
1 extra tbsp olive oil

tomato sauce:
2 tbsps olive oil
1 large can whole Italian plum peeled tomatoes
5 cloves garlic, minced
2 tsps Italian seasoning
handful whole basil leaves

toppings:
1 packet Simply Sausages
1 70-gram bag rocket leaves
1 red onion, sliced thin
500 grams pizza mozzarella (less liquid than ordinary), shredded
1 cup dried porcini mushrooms
fresh cherry tomatoes, halved
Piri-piri oil to drizzle
1/2 cup fresh grated parmesan to scatter over top

This is something to make when you have a fair amount of time, to allow for the dough to rise, and a fair amount of energy, to make the sauce and prepare the toppings. The results will make you throw away your order-out-pizza menus and will leave you wanting to make it all over again, the next night.

For the dough, mix all the dry ingredients well with a fork, in a large bowl. Mix all the wet ingredients in a measuring cup and pour slowly over the flour mixture, stirring with a fork just to absorb, then get your (clean) hands in there and knead the dough until nice and soft, slightly sticky. Add more flour if the dough is too sticky. When it's nice and soft and not sticking to the bowl, take the dough out, oil the inside of the bowl with olive oil, roll the dough around to coat it too, and leave in a warm place till doubled in bulk, about 2 hours. Punch down, knead a bit, then leave to rise one more time. This is a very flexible process: the dough can rise to any amount over almost any period of time and still be punched down.

Separate the dough into three chunks and roll out with a rolling pin and plenty of flour shaken about to keep it from sticking to the rolling surfaces. Roll each chunk out to the size of your pizza stone, tin or cookie sheet, stretch it out to cover the surface and cover with clingfilm until ready to bake.

Place the porcini mushrooms in a dish and cover with boiling water, stirring a bit and letting them sit for at least 20 minutes, to rehydrate. Save the water when you're finished because it makes a cracking addition to couscous, risotto, stock, pasta sauce, you name it.

To make the sauce, heat the olive oil and saute the garlic gently, but don't brown. Whizz the tomatoes in a food processor till smooth, then add to the garlic. Sprinkle with the Italian seasoning and simmer for about 1/2 hour or until nicely reduced and slightly thickened. Add basil leaves and simmer until wilted.

For the toppings, use your imagination! You can either saute the sausages till cooked through and slice, or liberate them from their skins and saute as sausagemeat. Spoon sauce over the crust, scatter with toppings as you like, and bake in a VERY hot oven (450 F, 225 C) for perhaps 10 minutes or until the crust is nicely browned and crisp.

DELICIOUS!

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

You know what else is amazing, that I made last night to go with a huge and cheesy dish of lasagna: just the dough itself brushed with olive oil, sprinkled with garlic powder and dried parsley, and baked. I sliced it like pizza, and the platter never even made it to the table: we and our friends at it ALL standing up around the stove, as I pulled the lasagna from the oven. Quite perfect, and practically free. Very credit- and otherwise-crunchy!

Well, let's see, this week began with parent-teacher conferences last night (the occasion calling for Avery's best friend and her family to come over afterward for the aforementioned lasagna feast). May I kvell? Avery is just blossoming. Every teacher described her as imaginative and a pleasure to teach, and "a left-field thinker," which sounds strangely sporty for a girl who is as ball-challenged as our daughter is. No worries at all. We are simply bursting with pride for her. And she's HAPPY. Doesn't get any better than that.

We all sat around slightly punchy with relief at the conferences being over, devouring lasagna (a leftover portion of cheesy spinach casserole makes a very nice addition, between the pasta layers), everyone talking over everyone as we always do. Poor Fred's exams are coming up this week, Georgia and Avery discussed their Sunday ride at the stable (alone in the park on two canters, very cool), we adults wrangled over films we have seen, liked, not liked, want to see. All too soon it was bedtime for children...

Well, in light of all these real-life adventures, it's hard even to remember the wild, gluttonous, hilarious, brilliant weekend in Hereford with my foodie friends. But it happened. I must tell you that there is nothing more fun, for me, than being surrounded by people who just want to talk food, shop for food, cook together, talk about cooking. As the late, great food writer Laurie Colwin said, "There is nothing nicer than eating, unless it's talking about eating. The best possible thing is talking about eating, while eating with friends." And that is precisely what we did.

Saturday we trundled off in two cars to nearby Ludlow, truly the food capital of whatever part of England we were in (not driving, I paid NO attention whatever to directions, a blessing really). No fewer than six independent butchers in the tiny little place! We dispatched Susan to AH Griffiths to haggle for lamb mince and a beef roast, and then Katie and I fell in love (I know, scary) with a pork roast of unbelievable succulence... how much meat could any 10 food writers consume? Plenty, it turned out.

Not being a sweet eater, I didn't pay attention to the many bakers, but Caro patronized De Grey's for an incomparably tasty apple cinnamon cake), Deli on the Square for several delicacies: Adam's Patchwork Pate, Welsh Dragon-style with venison and chilli, I bought some superb Moroccan black oil-cured olives. I picked up a quantity of new season asparagus at The Fruit Basket (not knowing at the time how much our own asparagus patch would yield), then we repaired to the Charlton Arms for a spot of lunch overlooking the river and ancient buildings. We ate and ate! Whole trout, pollock with a chilli sauce went down best. I knew we had crossed some crazy-foodie line when Adam let, nay encouraged, all of us at the table to dip a finger into the salad dressing on his plate to try to identify one last ingredient! We are a breed apart.

Finally home to begin the evening meal: Katie and I picked purple sage for our dear pork roast and he went into the slow oven with a good sprinkling of Maldon salt and a good twist of black pepper. The crackling was quite finely scored and it proved INSANELY good. Jenny picked wild garlic by the road outside the house and that started out mashed potatoes down a road that was never intended for them but was quite brilliant, and so inventive:

Colcannon with Fresh Spring Onions, Spring Greens and Wild Garlic
(serves 10)


5 lbs potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
hot cream and butter to the consistency you like: around 2 cups
2 large handfuls spring greens, wilted in boiling water
handful wild garlic, both leaves and flowers chopped

Boil the potatoes till soft but not mushy. Drain potatoes, and mash with milk and butter mixture, then add greens and wild garlic and stir till well mixed.

Heavenly.

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

That's what the weekend was all about: spontaneity, all-hands-on-deck, inventiveness. No ego! Just good fun. And even a spot of work: I had a great time over cocktails sitting with Jenny outside the kitchen, having her go over my chapter, giving me her wise and generous suggestions. Radio? Tape my reading in MP3 format and send it out? How did Garrison Keillor get started anyway?

Dinner was uproarious, very LATE, sinfully rich and delicious. And at the end of it, we presented Rosie, our beautiful and tireless leader, with a turquoise necklace, and one of Pauline's side-splitting gems:

Badger Stew, by Pauline Beaumont

She had always hated waste
So made a verdant, pungent paste
from tons of foraged wild garlic
(which sadly made the family sick)

She moved to dead things squashed quite flat
rabbit, stoat or grouse
The collection expanded with rats and a cat
(There started a terrible smell in the house)

Alas, she progressed from road kill
not satisfied with hedgehogs now.
She started to pick off lambs from the hill
and last night she came home with a cow.

Driving along a country lane
her shovel always ready
some thought she looked a touch insane
kalashnikov held steady

She gave her visitors badger stew
with lamb kidneys a la Hungarian
the lot of them spent the whole night in the loo
and have now all turned full vegetarian

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

Sunday we all weighed in again with various concoctions: Sam's and my lamb burgers with spring onions he harvested from the garden (Rosie: "You're going on about that spring onion as if you gave BIRTH to it!"), mint from the garden and the ras el hanout seasoning I brought from London. Divine, on the barbecue, alongside an aubergine marinated in olive oil. Sam made caramelized red onions with balsamic vinegar and sugar, I roasted whole heads of garlic with olive oil and rosemary from the garden, and Pauline casually whipped up the most delicious and simple tatziki: cucumber, mint and yogurt, perfect with the lamb burgers.

We carried all this out to the picnic table behind the little house and feasted in the blinking, windy blue sunshine, ending finally with Sam's:

The Ultimate Chocolate Cake

This recipe is made from a combination of two chocolate cake recipes. The sponge is adapted from Angela Nilsen’s ‘Ultimate Chocolate Cake’ recipe and the ganache from Orlando Murrin’s ‘Celebration Chocolate Cake’ recipe.

For The Sponge
200g good quality dark chocolate, about 70% cocoa solids
200g unsalted butter, cut in pieces
1 tbsp instant coffee granules
85g self-raising flour
85g plain flour
1⁄4 tsp bicarbonate of soda
200g light muscovado sugar
200g golden caster sugar (I used 180g Golden Caster Sugar and 20g White Caster Sugar)
25g cocoa powder
3 medium eggs
5 tbsp/75ml buttermilk

N.B. If you wish to make a lighter sponge only use 100g of the chocolate. However, it is sweeter.

For The Ganache
220g dark chocolate, about 70% solids, chopped
240 ml double cream
2 tbsp golden syrup
2 tbsp unsalted butter, at room temp

To Decorate
3 tbsp crystallised violet petals

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

I can assure you that this is indeed the Ultimate Chocolate Cake. I don't even LIKE chocolate. But it is dense, yet not heavy, intense yet not cloying. The idea that a young man like Sam could turn this out, while teaching young boys to cook by day and being a strong blond ladykiller by... well, late afternoon, as I don't know how he spends his nights... gives one hope for the younger generation. But even better than the cake was his forging of a relationship between me and the freezer, whose door simply would NOT open for me, but would for him. "Now, freezer," he would say, bending his tall frame down to the handle, "I know Kristen doesn't understand that she needs to ask nicely, but she's really a good person underneath..." but no, it took his magic touch to open the door.

Thank you, everyone in the "Gathering of Nuts in May," for an unforgettable time, lifelong friendships strengthened, the laughter there to shore us up, if life gets heavy. Here's to the NEXT reunion!

07 May, 2009

it's not easy, being pork
































Poor things, pigs are getting it from everywhere these days. Of course swine flu is nothing to joke about, except that one must. Avery brought home this gem from school this week: "What's the best treatment for swine flu? Oinkment." And my personal favorite, sweeping my little circle of friends, goes like this: "I called up the NHS Help Line for information about Swine Flu, but all I got was crackling." Which is a particularly British jokelet because you have to understand both "NHS" and "crackling," a phenomenon peculiar to the cooking of pork in my adopted land. In America, of course, we insist on calling pork "The Other White Meat," which means it's competing in every way with chicken: bland, cheap and skinless. No average American is going to taint such a compelling list of qualities with anything resembling what makes pork in Britain so popular: the thick layer of gorgeous fat and skin running the length of our roasts. Cooks here score the skin and fat in any number of attractive patterns (I favor the crisscross), sprinkle it generously with sea salt and fresh black pepper, and if you're me, cover it all with fresh purple sage leaves from your handy kitchen garden (as you see above), and roast it till the meat is soft and tender and the fat is, well, crackling. Lovely.

But even if it weren't for the rather hysterical world reaction to swine flu (several London schools have closed for the week with just one or two cases), pork has other worries on its mind. In my continuing quest to support my beloved Giggly Pig sausage and bacon producers, I took a goodly number of a flavor called "Welsh Dragon" with me on my cookery weekend away, and they went down a treat. I don't really know for certain what the term "Welsh Dragon" denotes, since several sausage makers use the title and the recipes all seem slightly different, but I would guess the common denominator is hot chillies. I say, I would guess that, but you'd be surprised at the number of food policy administrators who seemed fearful that the General Public thought the main ingredient was... dragon meat.

I am not making this up.

Seriously, some governmental body actually has stipulated that any sausage called "Welsh Dragon" must specify that the main ingredient is PORK. When challenged, said governmental officials had to backtrack and say that they did not actually rate the General Public as so massively stupid (or wishful) as to believe they were buying ground dragon... just to "clarify" for vegetarians! So I guess dragon meat, being mythical, would be acceptable to vegetarians, but pork... WHOA!

All I can say in support of these concerns is that Rosie says the best dish of our whole Hereford weekend was this:

New Asparagus with Quail's Eggs and Lemon Mayonnaise
(serves 4)


about 20 fresh asparagus spears, broken off where they are tender at the stem
1 dozen quail's eggs, hard-cooked (put in boiling water for 3 minutes, then plunged in cold), peeled and cut in half lengthways

dressing:
2 tbsps mayonnaise
1 tsp Dijon mustard
zest and juice of 1 lemon
sea salt and pepper to taste

Steam the asparagus JUST until it begins to smell like asparagus - perhaps 2 minutes, no longer. Simply lift the lid of the saucepan/steamer and smell. The asparagus will continue to cook for a moment when you take it out, so be conservative and DO NOT overcook.

Lay the asparagus on a platter and scatter over with quail's eggs, then drizzle with dressing and serve right away.

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

Light, fresh, green, yellow and white. The absolute personification of spring. I don't want to gloat, but asparagus one's picked on one's own, minutes before cooking, is pretty much the apogee of satisfaction on a plate.

Then, too, for lunch today I made a completely simple and fresh salad and I'd serve it to anybody, perhaps alongside the asparagus dish, for a truly elegant spring luncheon.

Crayfish Tails Salad With Avocado, Rocket and Lemon
(serves 4)


360 grams crayfish tails
1 avocado, diced
two handfuls rocket
2 tbsps mayonnaise
zest and juice of 1 lemon
handful chives, chopped
pinch sea salt and pepper

Drain the crayfish tails and dry with paper towels (so dressing doesn't get runny). Place in a large shallow bowl. Toss in avocado and rocket.

Mix mayonnaise with lemon zest and juice and shake very well till mixed. Pour dressing over crayfish, then sprinkle over chives and salt and pepper.

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

Again, this dish is welcoming of spring in its bright colors and lively flavors. Tangy, creamy, sharp from the rocket and firmly fleshly from the fish. You'll love it.

More tomorrow on our adventures in Hereford, which included a massive barbecue of lamb burgers, aubergine (eggplant), tomatoes with harvested rosemary, you name it. When I give you these recipes, you will not frankly believe that we cooked (and ATE!) it all in three days... but my swimming costume on our trip to the pool this evening will assure you that we DID!

05 May, 2009

special celebration: 500th Post!

































Goodness.

Really, the milestone leaves me slightly breathless. Five hundred posts! The average about 2000 words per post? You do the math. Pretty staggering. I reckon about 1/2% of my deathless prose is actually deathless, but even on those odds there are a fair number of words here that I care an awful lot about, and I want to thank each and every one of you for the appreciative and so often responsive reading you've given them all.

Memorable among them are my early recordings of bewildered times in our adopted homeland, glorious memories of long-ago trips to foreign lands, deep delvings into my culinary past, lovely moments from Avery's childhood here. There have been moments of unbearable sadness, although you learn to bear them, moments of great passion that lurk under the surface but do not, anymore than the great tragedy, make it to the blogging page. There have been great reunions and small country adventures, summer adventures with friends and family back in America.

Most of all, the blog has provided me with a way to appreciate life three times: once in the living, once in the telling (all right, all right, I sometimes embellish!) and once more in the reading of the telling. This last is, I admit, a totally guilty pleasure: what did my life look like in the telling? Not always the way it looked like in the living. Happier, funnier, more intense. But always entertaining.

Another guilty confession. I just downed a tiny slice of Avery's breakfast lemon drizzle cake and... it did not suck. The child is lucky. At least some days.

Just look at the architectural and horticultural glory of our adventure, the last few days. The house itself, hidden in deepest Hereford, has a name, but unlike our maiden food writing voyage at the Devon house called Totleigh, the name this time never planted a seed with me. I don't know what I will end up calling it in my secret heart, but I think it's something dull like "the reunion house." Which will work, as far as nomenclature, until we have our next reunion, which we hope will be very, very soon. The magic of the setting was in part due to the house's artless, unselfconscious charm, set as it was in a garden of truly artistic achievement. We all feared that with the reincarnation of the house as a holiday destination, the garden would return to its old wildness, and fair enough. Not being a gardener myself, I always feel a conciliatory pull towards the wilderness: let her have her plants and her acres back to herself. But frankly, let me harvest the asparagus FIRST.

Friday afternoon found me racing toward Paddington with John because I told him we were leaving from King's Cross. MAJOR panic. Halfway there, I resurrect the train sheet from my bag. "Oh, never mind, it's Paddington," I said airily, taking a full ten minutes off his life, poor man. He was not sorry to let me down, and I found my train and my book and promptly spent the next hour and some reliving our old October adventures and fully planning to top them, full stop, in the next four days. This was easily achieved by the first glorious encounter of the weekend: Rosie at the Bath train station to collect me for the journey. Her impossibly snapping blue eyes, root of all fun and mischief, her boundless hug, and most important, her huge Land Rover, although, dear readers, I may tell you that I am glad I did not bring a kitten with me because there was NO ROOM. Exotic lemons, chilli peppers, bison grass vodka, living basil plants and gardens of lettuce, cheeses and breads, whisky and wine, I cannot list it all.

To this I added my beloved Richard Corrigan Crab Tart (although disappointingly, I was not able to convert one single of my company all weekend to Richard's charms, other than as a cook: my crush went unshared), my cool bag of Giggly Pig bacons and sausages, my cannellini bean salad, my Smirnoff and Armagnac. We set off and found, after some impossibly complex traffic negotiations and much frantic conversation, Sam. Dear, dear Sam, such a unique combination of youth and wisdom. I say unique, and yet he shared his moment of glory over the weekend with a very different and yet equally charming young man, Adam. How are very young men these days so WISE? Positively dispensing wisdom, which we older ladies were only too glad to absorb. Of course it could be their undoubted physical glories as well! But I digress.

Our journey was punctuated by ridiculous laughter, memories of our original adventures in October, Sam's stories of his teaching jobs, Rosie's of her film forays, mine of, sadly, Lost Property, and such mundane occupations. Then we arrived in a gathering misty twilight to find our compatriots, wine glasses in hand, grinning absurdly, we piling out of the car in abandon, many kisses and hugs. These friends who I remember with varying degrees of familiarity and affection, made so much more real over the intervening months by the magic of email, set before me again like people in a dollhouse, yet undeniably fleshly and real.

That first night was a combination of stimulation, coziness, the promise of excitement to come and the relaxation of friends. Rosie's carrot, pinenut (why does that word make me laugh so now, I cannot say) tart with turmeric and ground almonds, alongside my crab and goats cheese offering, glorious salads and cheeses, fine wines and loads of laughter... We stayed up far too late, which was the watchword for the holiday. And Saturday offered more delights...

04 May, 2009

coming back down to earth












Generosity, overwhelming laughter, an obsessive devotion to every aspect of food that met and even possibly (possibly!) surpasses my own... what an unforgettable weekend. Three days and nights of endless chat, endless stints in the kitchen wrapped in aprons, exchanging tasting spoons with precisely NO attention to swine or any other flu. Seven women and two boys who did not want for fawning attention, a formal garden full of plunderable delights like a gargantuan flowering rosemary bush, a patch of mint to rival Kew Gardens' patch of mint, thyme, marjoram, the firmest spring onions any of us had ever seen, much less eaten, and most magically, a vast bed of asparagus just coming on. I can only tell you that you have not properly eaten English asparagus until you've steamed it minutes after cutting it, and raced it to a dish of mustardy, buttery, lemony sauce.

Foxi Rosie, Sam, Adam, Katie, Pauline, Susan, Jenny and Caro: thank you from the bottom of my heart for the sheer joy of shared FUN: much more on this tomorrow when the recovery process has begun in earnest. For now, a simple thank you with lingering memories of a laden, candlelit table, bursts of giggling over badgers and "come and smell my cork," the best pork crackling known to man or woman, listening ears for a new chapter read aloud, a sun-dappled Sunday walk with stomachs full of minty lamb burgers and homemade tatziki, a walk through the damply touching tiny village church, my first Yorkshire pudding, and conversations with a roommate kept on even though there was plenty of room for us to move to a single. Starry skies, chill breezes, raids on local butchers and delis.

Raised glasses to Rosie, our beloved leader who, if there was an ingredient or luxury she did not bring along, it's only because it was illegal.

Three loud cheers to the "Gathering of Nuts in May", the first of many reunions!