27 September, 2009

gnocchi, my would-be Waterloo

Well, I cannot profess to have a recipe for gnocchi, although I successfully made gnocchi this evening. How to explain this conundrum? It's a very flexible dish. Let me explain.

My dear friend Charlie, our houseguest this weekend, gave me a lovingly and extravagantly inscribed copy of Antonio Carluccio's Simple Cooking. In his over 50 years of cooking, it's no surprise he can come up with a rather slim and gorgeously photographed book of simple tips, easy recipes, pantry advice, you name it. It's a book you may have bought by many other people, many other times. Marcella Hazan? Guiliano Hazan? Jamie Oliver, even, or in America, Mario Batali or Giada di Laurentiis. Basic instructions, things you would think I could follow.

Except that I simply cannot follow a recipe. Unless I'm REALLY scared. And for some reason, because gnocchi was Italian, I wasn't scared. Enough.

So I thought, triple the spinach, why not? I love spinach. I'll tell you why not. Because spinach adds, more even than flavor, LIQUID to a recipe. And if you're making pasta, liquid matters. Sigh.

I found myself having religiously followed the proportions of the other ingredients: flour, egg and mashed potato. So religiously that I dragged John out of the house to the hardware store to buy batteries for my scale. And then, what did I do? I simply flung spinach at the recipe as though it were being rationed. And the dough, my dears? Too, too sticky for words. Too sticky to live! What was a girl to do?

I had already cleverly taken the leftover mashed potato (after its religious weighing) and turned it into proper mashed potatoes, as with butter and cream. Well, I felt I should fling it in, to make up for the incredible amount of extra flour I knew was coming. And it WAS. A couple of abortive technology-failed transatlantic phone calls to my Italian mother in law (with the brief intervention of my annoyed husband: "why can't you just follow a recipe, and no I will NOT be the translator on this phone call because you're covered in flour!") elicited the brief and wise advice, "Sift in some flour, very gently and work it in." Leaving aside the fact that I do not own a sifter, I drifted in some flour. And some more and some MORE. Finally I rolled the little devils out and placed them upon platters where... they STUCK. Like grim death.

Dinner time arrived. "The tomato sauce smells terrific," John said, and I thought, people have existed on less. I wrested the little blobs of green gnocchi from their platters and simply threw them in the boiling water. Sure enough, they blobbed to the top just as Antonio told me they would. I scooped them out, added a bit of the pasta water to thin the tomato sauce, topped them with mozzarella cubes, a scattering of chiffonade of basil, and some parmesan, and...


What on earth happened?

Light, fluffy (reminding me of Charlie's nickname for Avery, "part-time fluffy"), coated in perfectly garlicky tomato sauce. A revelation. What happened?

A very, very forgiving recipe, is all I can say. The next time I try it, I promise - hand on heart - to follow the instructions STRICTLY and report a real recipe. But my immediate advice would be: find a congenial recipe, change whatever you like, and... fly by the seat of your pants.

So tonight we ate, hearts on our lips, and enjoyed a gorgeous salad to follow of an Italian air-and spice-cured beef, with rocket, chilli oil, lemon juice and pepper. Just brilliant. And here I'd pictured family-wide scrambled eggs at 9 p.m.

The lesson? None at all, except be grateful you have a family who will sit down to Lord knows what, and that there is a cuisine like Italian which professes to have recipes, but can accommodate any number of stupid errors. And for fresh-grated parmesan, which makes EVERYTHING all right.

Also, my dinner was proof that if you have a little rocket, a little preserved meat, and a good oil, you have a salad. In this country, it's surprisingly easy to accomplish. People may moan about packaging (so much plastic, and yes it's true), or so many air miles (Italian meat, I know). But that aside, my conscience aside, it's sinfully simple here in England to buy gorgeous Italian cured meats, fabulous buffalo mozzarella, bitingly sharp rocket, aged Parmesan, and with a little spicy olive or truffle oil, you have a salad. Such was our experience at dinner at my friend Sally's last week.

The lady has no fewer than four children, and a working lad for a husband, tired out from the city. You'd never know it at their house: candles glowing, art with a very definite sensibility on the walls, two of their girls concocting Sally's salad as we arrived. Figs! Prosciutto! Rocket, spinach, mozzarella, balsamic vinegar. Quite perfect.

And this weekend, reuniting Avery's friend Sylvie with her family, and introducing Charlie to them all, at La Fromagerie. Quite simply the most CHARMING of all communal tables, in the heart of Marylebone, attached to the cheese-mongery but rising far above such limitations to offer a charcuterie plate to Sylvie's brother of astonishing proportions: chorizo, salami, saucisson sec, you name it, all surrounded by cornichons and centered with an amazing celeriac slaw. Avery had a tomato tart, John and Charlie a mushroom tart, I a fish platter with smoked mackerel AND smoked trout pates, smoked salmon, and fresh taramasalata. Simon ordered the cheese platter for us all to share. A friendly din, a happy sharing mentality, and adjoining us, a Swedish fellow about to go back there, and determined to pay his entire bill in English COINS! Laboriously piled in stacks per denomination! Somehow the lovely French waitress found this charming, and did not bring out a pistol to shoot him in his Scandinavian knees.

Finally, off we went, parting from Charlie (sob) and Sylvie's family, to collect our... NEW CAR! Minnow, she's been christened, pearly gray as she is. TINY, simply tiny. We tooled off in the afternoon sun, filled with sad memories of Emmy, the beloved Mini, but ready to start a new era with the Cinquecento. And in that Italian frame of mind... gnocchi, as well. Sante!

that film

How on earth has a week gone by without my checking in? Because, as so many bloggers wish, I've been actually LIVING, as opposed to trying desperately to find something to blog about because nothing's been happening in my actual life.

The main thing, today, that's been happening to me is massive envy. I knew it would happen.

Today finally we saw "Julie and Julia", after everyone I know said not only that I would love it, but that it IS me. Naturally, hearing this, I wanted nothing LESS than to see the film. Imagine my position: nobody food blogger sits alone in her home, cooking her heart out, caring for her husband and cat, typing away about her exploits in the kitchen, wishing for self-fulfillment. And... along comes self-fulfillment, a book deal and a major motion picture starring Meryl Streep.

And then there's my life.

It's like telling a minimally talented runner to get, say, "Chariots of Fire" on Netflix. Or a minor criminal to shake up some microwave popcorn and rent "The Godfather."

The film is a complete charmer. We're supposed to buy "Julie" as a b**ch because the character tells us so, but I'm sorry, they should have cast someone other than Amy Adams. Not for nothing did my child ask to see "Enchanted" four times... IN THE CINEMA. She's adorable. Not believable as a nasty person. At ALL. She cooks like a fiend, facing disasters and disappointments, while her husband tries to be supportive. Fair enough, I recognize that scenario. But hundreds of people read her blog without her making any effort whatsoever, and they COMMENT. I have my stalwart commenters, but hundreds? I could cry.

And then she's cooking for the food critic for the New York Times and the next morning, on the subway and at Starbucks, everyone's reading the article about her blog and that's THAT.

In the hours after leaving the cinema today, John and I tried to analyze reasons for the gap between "Julie" and me. One is, I was not unhappy to start with, when I began my blog, so I wasn't searching for massive meaning. But I WAS trying to document a process: the process just didn't have a particular goal. Living in London, raising my daughter, taking care of my family, cooking. Not very Hollywood. Two is, about a thousand years ago, when my parents noticed that I was a very good gymnast, they asked me a very important question. "Would you, little Kristen," [they said] like to be the BEST at one thing, or pretty good at lots of things?" A very good way to phrase it. Did I want to give up voice lessons, or piano lessons, or my scout troop, or baking chocolate chip cookies every Thursday night while we watched "Hill Street Blues"? Not really. Not even to be a truly great gymnast. I'd rather do a lot of things fairly well.

This has translated into adult life, I think. I take measure: I'm a really good mother, I think. A dedicated school volunteer. A pretty good wife, a very good friend. A fair and steady cook, a decent writer, an enthusiastic hostess. I can still play the piano and do a cartwheel. But I'm not a star at any of them.

Would I trade having written the most influential food blog ever, for having spent countless hours walking Avery home from school and listening to her fiction ideas while getting an admittedly pretty ordinary dinner together? Of course not.

But I'd like to have BOTH.

Rant over. The film was lovely. It came on the heels of something far more important: my friend Charlie's visit to us. We are in mourning at his departure (he who in typical fashion began his visit as "my" friend and inexorably conquered anyone who crossed his path, so now he's "ours", a sort of National Treasure, like Stephen Fry). His sister apparently needed him in Hertfordshire, which I consider the height of selfishness. He arrived on Thursday evening to great fanfare - my traditional waiting on the brick wall with a book and the housekey, plus a magnificent welcome dinner. My reading material? Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott. One of my favorite bits upon a very short reading? "Writing a novel is like driving in the dark, with only your headlights to light a very short distance ahead. It's scary, but you can do the whole thing that way."

Charlie arrived and we brought roughly half his earthly belongings into the house, introduced him to Avery (beside herself with welcome) and John (closeted in a very unpleasant tax phone call), then dragged his things up to the (I think) totally charming guest room. A gently sloping ceiling as befits our very crooked old house, a nice fake walnut wardrobe from eBay with its little shelves labelled "hats", "collars" and such, a white four-poster bed that used to be Avery's but wouldn't fit up the final two flights of stairs! Two windows, one a tiny square one like in a prison cell, the other large and free-opening, over the green row of back gardens, overlooking everyone's picnic tables and cats.

For that first dinner? A starter of scallops sauteed in olive oil with garlic, red chillis and tons of parsley, tossed in toasted homemade breadcrumbs. Fantastic. Then grilled lamb chops marinated in rosemary, garlic, olive oil and lemon juice. And for Avery's delight, oven-roasted mushrooms filled with sauteed chopped mushrooms, bacon, garlic and goats cheese. Plus John's favorite slaw, and then, a truly superb pudding. Served up by Avery.

Poached William Pears
(serves 4)

4 William pears, peeled and the bottoms sliced off so they stand up
1 cup hard cider, or Perry
2 cinnamon sticks
1/2 cup dark brown sugar

clotted cream
shortbread cookies

Place the pears into the saucepan and pour in the cider, drop in the cinnamon sticks and scatter over the sugar. Put the lid on and bring to a boil, then simmer for 15 minutes, turning the pears over twice, on their sides in the liquid. Then remove them to a dish, turn up the heat and boil the liquid until it's reduced to a syrup, perhaps 10 minutes. You'll have to remove the pan from the heat and let the bubbles settle down to see what you have. If it's darkish and thick, you're good. Set aside until you're ready to serve. At serving time, drizzle the syrup over the pears, and serve with a spoonful of clotted cream to each person, and a couple of shortbread biscuits.


How we ate. And laughed. Charlie is an old-fashioned gentleman whose entire personality is geared to laughter. Except when you tell him something important and then his countenance turns to a sort of innocent listening, and you can FEEL him listening. He would do anything in his power to help me if I needed it, and give over his whole consciousness to listen while he was thinking how he could help. But his great inclination is... laughter. Avery adores him.

She described to him her latest maths homework. Do you remember pi? I hardly do. Unless it's an apple one. This version is that vaguely familiar 3.14 chappy, the whole radius-of-a-circle-squared doodah. So it turns out, the cutting-off at 3.14 is totally silly. The digits go on INFINITELY. As in, millions of digits. Scary people have devoted their lives, and more importantly, websites, in the exploration of this phenomenon.

So Avery's maths teacher, the dear Mr Smith who tapdances in his spare time, assigned a poetry homework. Poetry in maths? Yes. The girls were to extend the digits of Pi and write poetry using words of the number of letters indicated by the digits. Seriously. As in, "Fun I have," for 3.14. When Avery gives me permission, I'll publish her efforts. She's up to 82 digits.

Friday found me hosting the coffee morning for Avery's class mothers. So beautifully dressed, such fluting voices, such rich offerings of marmalade, croissants, fruit-stuffed muffins. Charlie drifted in as we chattered (like birds on a wire) and I introduced him. "He wanted to be either my husband, for you all, or the butler. Take your pick."

We accomplished a surprising amount of business in the way of projected class events, fundraisers and bridge (?) lessons to be shared among Avery's class and the boys' class of one of her friend's twin brother! We shall see about that.

Off to shop in Piccadilly (Fortnum and Mason, anyone?) and lunch with one of Charlie's army officer friends. More uncontrolled laughter, ending in a celebrity sighting: Janeane Garafolo, of SNL fame and more. Totally tatooed, very cool. I peeled off to take Avery and her friend Sylvie skating ("That's such an F. Scott Fitzgerald phrase, Kristen: 'I simply must cut out by 3'", Charlie claimed). The usual misery at the skating rink, only this time underscored by the presence of a new mother, one hunched in a self-congratulatory way over a dog-eared copy of "The Optimum Nutrition Bible," which she paused in reading to look askance at Avery's pizza and Sylvie's ice cream. Rats.

Sleep beckons. More on Charlie's visit, more food, and a truly great fish recipe to to follow, the fish from, you guessed it... Julia Child. I can but try.

20 September, 2009

a kaleidescope of a weekend

Like French women who can tell if a bottle of cognac has been opened in the next room (so my favorite novelist Laurie Colwin tells us), I can tell if a cucumber has been sliced three stories down in my own house. And not, obviously, because I sliced it, but don't you notice that food preparation aromas travel in unpredictable and pleasing ways throughout your house? They do in mine. Slow-cooked lamb with lentils and rosemary halfway to the laundry room, cinnamon from the three-berry crumble lingering on the landing outside my bedroom, crunchy cucumbers at the door to the guest room!

The guest room! Which my dear friend Charlie will occupy this Thursday and Friday, to my intense joy. He was part of my group of best chums in Devon last October, and while we've enjoyed our email and phone relationship, and the fantastic day out at Taste of London last summer, what I think really MAKES a friendship is having a person to stay over, with you, at home. You get to know the person: tea or coffee? Dressing gown or pajamas first thing in the morning? Does he like cats? What cocktail is his preferred tipple? These mysteries and more will be revealed. I am planning a feast for Thursday evening, but as with all my plans, they are subject to change in the middle of each night between now and then, and each tennis game, and each other moment when what passes for my mind is not otherwise occupied. Scallops baked with a duxelles (a sauteed mushroom and madeira concoction) and gooey cheese topping? Or the deceptively simple mushroom soup, also with madeira, and creme fraiche with fresh thyme?

And to follow? I am favoring a super-tender pork tenderloin, grilled expertly by John, having been marinated (the tenderloin, not John, just to clarify) in some herbs sympathetic to those in the starter course... and John's favorite slaw of celeriac, red and Savoy cabbages, with a dressing of sharp Dijon mustard, fromage frais, poppy seeds and lemon juice... At this point Avery wails, "And what can I eat, anyway?" Fair enough. Not scallops or slaw, for sure. But chopped spinach sauteed with garlic and Gruyere? Now you're talking.

But first I have to digest the last 24 hours of stupendous food that's passed my palate. I should space our eating-out adventures a little farther apart, really, than great-dinner-great-lunch. It's a bit of a waste, really. Nevertheless, so it was. John and I had tickets to see John Simms (I'm sorry, but that's how I saw it) onstage and all I can say is, the reviews were split. It must be pointed out that the play in question, "Speaking in Tongues," was on the second night of PREVIEWS, so whatever kinks there were may be worked out. But when the main objections to the play are as pervasive as John's were (let's see, casting, staging, dialogue, plot were among the elements he didn't like), no amount of tinkering is going to help.

John Simms, can we just specify, was wonderful. We agreed on that. But John has laid down the law that he no longer wants to be taken to plays where we've gone merely to watch the actor. He wants to see the play, as well. Fair enough. There were problems to be sure. Simultaneous speaking of dialogue by all four actors, though not EXACTLY together, is bad. A bad idea, cannot be enacted well. It's just massively irritating. All you can hear are the dissonances, and the "him" rather than "her". I argued in my best PhD style that the dissonance was deliberate, to show how all the four characters were unique and yet interchangeable. I was met with resistance.

The plot unfolded in a way that I thought was very clever, not chronological, but out of sequence and illuminating as such. "Oh, THAT'S what happened to her!" John found it precious, and since he didn't care about the characters, he didn't care what happened to them. Ah me.

So I was not flavor of the month last night, based on the play. I was, however, popular as ever for suggesting Kulu-Kulu for sushi before. I had rushed there by bus down Piccadilly, after leaving Avery with friends in Kensington for the evening ("we're walking Bonnie to a Dog Party," my friend assured me, "while we wait for Lille to return from ballet," so I left them to it, dragged by the tiny pug). The traffic! Simply LAGGED but I didn't mind, partly because I could feast my eyes on the gorgeous scenery of Hatchard's, Fortnum and Mason, the Meridien Hotel, the Park Lane Hotel (home of Lord Peter Wimsey, after all). Anyone who's begun to take living in London for granted must simply jump on the Number 9 bus and ride along to Piccadilly Circus. I just adore it, and I had my Julia Child memoir to entertain me as well.

Can I just interrupt myself and say (as I watch the BBC) that I love living in a country where the President of another country is featured PROMINENTLY on the nightly news just because he appeared on five talk shows that morning? My own beloved United States nightly news cannot be bothered, much of the time, to pay attention to the President of any other country at all, unless it's to scare people to death occasionally with vague threats about Iran or North Korea. But here, the news coverage actually delves in depth, on a daily basis, into what is happening around the world. I do admire that.

But more about eating. We dived into salmon with cucumber and daikon, tuna with spicy spring onions, cut rolls of all these combinations, and finally my favorite vegetable dish of all time, freezing cold packed-tight slices of steamed spinach covered with a spicy peanut sauce, sprinkled with sesame seeds. I'm SURE I could figure out how to make this, don't you think? I'll look into it.

From there was the play. Enough said. Then we awoke this morning to go slightly separate ways: John to collect Avery from Kensington, me to the kitchen to make her lunch for the riding day, and to concoct tonight's dinner, which had to cook all day by itself, as we were away from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The result was a delicious but unpresentable dish which met with modified rapture. I will tinker with the recipe, but the basics were a leg of lamb, perched on a bed of red lentils and fresh rosemary, surrounded by sliced carrots and my friend Jo's parsnips (thanks, Jo!), onion quarters, and the whole splashed with white wine and chicken stock. The verdict was that the lamb was perfect, cooked tightly covered at 110C all that time. But the vegetables were a mushy, slightly baby-food-ish consistency. Nursery food, invalid food (if one were a very lucky baby or invalid). I'll tinker with it, as I say.

Into the oven it all went, and off we went to meet Avery at her fourth annual Horseman's Sunday. Now, when we first moved here we were completely bemused by the ritual of people - children and adults alike - being willing to organize riding their horses up to the forecourt of a CHURCH to have them blessed by the local priest. Sounds odd, does it? Sadly, it sounds normal to us now. They all gathered and were stepped on, slobbered on, Avery struggled with her stirrups, Mr Nye of the stable (all his 84 years) ordered the girls to have their hair plaited, dogs were constantly underfoot being trodden on. Off we all went to the church, hymns were sung, sermons read, champagne drunk, cakes from local schools sold to support the church. Truly an English phenomenon!

We callously abandoned the ritual for lunch with our friends Ed and Twiggy at Angelus, one of my most favorite restaurants in the world (infrequently as we go out, we go there more often than you'd think). And Ed and Twiggy never fail to delight. I hope I never know them long enough that they lose their newlywed splendor, although it's been years now. They simply bask in each other's presence, and bring their love of life, adventure and friendship to every time we're lucky enough to meet. They are dedicated vegetarians, however, and as such had to avert their eyes from the piece de resistance of our lunch: creme brulee de foie gras. Creamy, unctuously smooth, topped with an impossible-sounding crunch of demerara sugar and black sesame seeds. It is the PERFECT DISH OF ALL TIME. As John's dad would have said, "It's a dish to kill for." Unless one happens to eschew all animal products, that is.

Twiggy had a gorgeous salad of sliced figs with hazelnuts and a generous flourish of mixed baby greens, Ed bravely ordered Eggs Florentine even though they weren't on the menu and... lo, there they were. For my main course I had the most meltingly tender lemon sole meuniere, filleted perfectly and then put together, the two halves, as a real fish. Quite, quite stunning. With capers and tiny brown potted shrimps. MY! John had beef cheeks with mousseline of potato... how we dined. Through it all, as we ate outside, Avery and her friends dashed to and fro, jumping off horses in the mews to bring earrings to be taken care of, lunch detritus to take home, and just to offer a wave and a grin. "Stop growing!" Twiggy ordered sternly. "Right now."

Finally, however, we had to depart for the Gymkhana and take our leave of our pals. We made our way to the ring in Hyde Park and watched as the children jumped, cantered, obeyed the shouted orders of the various semi-adults in charge. As always in these situations, I simply suspend judgment and throw my confidence, undeservedly placed as it may be (but it never is undeserved) behind the powers that be of the Horse World. I alternately sneezed and coughed, having forgotten my antihistamine. "Who's ten years old here?" bellowed Mr Nye in his Barbour and tweeds. "Here is your rosette. Do not let me see it in the dust, young lady. And say "thank you, MR NYE, if you please."

Home finally with filthy, exhausted, dying-of-thirst Avery to throw her into a bathtub and escape to the tennis court. An hour of getting-better-every-day tennis. Not good yet, mind you, on my side, but getting more deserving of John every time we play, which is nearly every day! Have to do something to work off all that foie gras, after all.

Tomorrow will bring Avery's dreaded orthodontist appointment. We have mutually agreed among the three of us that if action is advised this time, a second opinion will be sought. I opt for non-intervention in all medical situations, so clearly I need help in deciding. Poor dear. She'll be consoled by missing BOTH netball and lacrosse, and the dubious joys of seeing me at... Lost Property upon her return to school. It's the sale tomorrow, and the soul quakes.

14 September, 2009

Cinque Chunky

Now I'm just being annoyingly clever: I wanted to give you a heads-up that I will desire, here, to tell you about BOTH our new car (!!) and my new soup. And so I shall.

As you will remember, we were callously burgled last summer, the most shattering part of which experience was the burglar's evil discovery of my car key, in my plundered handbag, which they promptly walked outside with and pressed the "where is my car key," and sadly our Mini Cooper was only too quick to respond, so... off they went, in our darling little car. How sad we have been. With it, of course, went my treasured Purdey woollen car rug that countless little girls wrapped around themselves on chilly school runs and trips to the country. And two, TWO mind you, of TWELVE of my cassette tapes of Agatha Christie's "The 4:50 From Paddington." So I can listen to the beginning and the end of this classic story, but the middle? Lost in the mists of thievery. And Avery's horse riding helmet and gloves (complete with name tapes laboriously sewn on by yours truly), and... and...

Not included in this debacle, however, was John's stalwart Swaine and Adeney umbrella, given him by his darling father nearly 20 years ago. Now, drumroll... prepare yourselves for a story. Several days ago, John turned to me with a stricken face and asked, "Where's my special umbrella?" "Don't know, when did you have it last?" And we both had the same thought: it was in the car, when it was stolen. No, no, no! Say it wasn't so. We swallowed our sadness, John said determinedly, "You know, to keep an umbrella for so many years was pretty amazing..." Sadness.

Then a day or so later, I woke up at my usual slothful hour to find John in his study, having walked Avery to school. And more than that... "You wouldn't believe what happened to me this morning," he said gleefully. "I had a dream, a sort of fast-forward zipping through Shepherd's Bush Market, where we went to that greengrocers' where we got such good sweetcorn, and those tiny shallots..." "Yes, yes, what then?" I asked breathlessly. "Well, in my dream, I suddenly remembered putting my special umbrella down, hooking it over the sweetcorn shelf while I picked out some ears. So after I dropped Avery off at school, I went by, and started to ask, 'Did you happen to find...' and the guy brings out... my UMBRELLA."

How weird is that?

So we did not lose everything in the car robbery that we thought we lost. And now, or at least in 10 days' time, we will have a new car! A Fiat Cinquecento, a convertible of course! In a sort of silvery grey, with a lighter top. Avery took one look, before we even test-drove it, and said, "We'll call him Minnow." So Minnow has been bought and paid for with our insurance money, and will be delivered to the dealer next weekend. John has been slaving away since our purchase, registering it, ordering insurance (hugely lower than a Mini!), and rejoicing over the extremely environmentally friendly nature of its emissions: the same as a Prius! And... it's even smaller than a Mini. This for my 6'2" husband makes us all laugh.

The rest of the week has been spent at Avery's school, if I'm honest. Or at least, doing things related to her school. I had no idea what I was taking on with being head of Lost Property. The paperwork, the phone calls, the emails, the actually being AT school tending to the room, and then, there's the seat I now occupy on the Parents' group at school, which requires attendance at meetings, and hand-holding at school events where a parental presence is deemed desirable. Heavens. And today was the Preview for Monday's sale of Lost Property items, plus my indoctrination of all my innocent new recruits into their responsibilities.

The micro denim shorts! The Abercrombie faux-fur trimmed gilets! The endless piles of PE kit ("this smells slightly," a girl offered shyly when she tried on a shirt, which made me laugh since we volunteer in that little room surrounded by such smelly items every day!), the wet towels and swimming costumes, the pencil cases and calculators and today? An asthma inhaler. I ask you!

We had so much fun getting everything ready today. I was slightly aghast at being in charge of it all. To be truthful, my Achilles heel in any situation is my discomfort at telling anyone what to do. I came to recognize, as a professor, that this was my weakness. And as an employer, and truly, as a mother: I'm fine when people regulate themselves and behave perfectly, but hand me a problem case, someone who needs correcting, and I'm a fish out of water. Luckily, I got a child who needs very little correcting, and thank goodness, the same held true for Lost Property. Everyone was far more capable of attacking the work at hand than I was, and as such, I simply answered questions, moved around racks of clothing, addressed girls' claims to certain items I was sure did not belong to them...

At any rate, we had a very busy week at school. And through it all, I cooked many a delightful dinner: grilled lambchops, chicken stir-fried with red chillis, red peppers and peanuts, grilled salmon, creamy red pepper soup, lasagna with five cheeses (mascarpone, ricotta, mozzarella, cheddar and parmesan). But the triumph of the week? A soup inspired by the glorious sandwich concern Pret a Manger, and my version turned out at least as delicious.

Sag Aloo Soup
(serves more than four)

4 medium potatoes of any variety, peeled and cut in cubes of 1/2 inch)
3 cups chicken stock
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp butter
1 medium white onion, minced
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 stalks celery, minced
1 tbsp ground cumin
2 tsps ground turmeric
chilli powder to taste
sea salt and pepper to taste
1 soup-size tin tomatoes, chopped
2 cups loosely packed spinach, then sliced into ribbons
1/2 cup fat-free yogurt

Put potato cubes into a saucepan with chicken stock and bring to a high simmer. Cook until soft and nearly falling apart, perhaps 30 minutes. Meanwhile, saute the onion, garlic, celery, cumin, turmeric and chilli powder in the oil and butter until the celery is very soft. Season to taste, keeping in mind that the chicken stock will contain salt as well. Throw the vegetable mixture into the potatoes and chicken stock and add tomatoes and turn the heat to VERY low. Go take a shower or check your email. Cook the soup until it is very thick and the potatoes are REALLY falling apart. Stir thoroughly and add the spinach and yogurt just before serving.


You will sit up and beg like a dog for more of this "soup." I say this in inverted commas because it is so very thick. It is a stew, really. The name derives from the Indian for "spinach and potato," but it is also the spice combination that gives the soup its charm. And any leftovers, the following day, on steamed basmati rice... ooh... it makes me hungry just to think of it. And I'm full of grilled salmon.

And my first food-writing piece has appeared in print! At least, rumor has it, although it's not available yet in the UK. It's called "The Recipe File," in the newly-launched Vintage Magazine, and I couldn't be more thrilled. The editor-in-chief is ringing me up next week to talk about my contribution to Issue 2, so I am really on a cloud. I can't wait to see a copy, which she's sending me in the old-fashioned post. I'll report when I get it!

Tomorrow will find us taking Avery to her first acting lesson of the fall, then onto a friend's to spend the night while we go out for sushi and to see a play in Soho. I, who am almost entirely actor-driven in my theatre excursions, am extremely excited to see John Simms in "Speaking in Tongues." While he is not exactly crush material (and I'm waiting for a new crush to come along), he's deeply interesting, intense and moody. I think that live on stage, he could be quite compelling. Get yourself a bowl of Sag Aloo Soup, a DVD of his tour de force "State of Play," and settle in for the weekend.

autumn takes off

First, I must say, it's simultaneously heartwarming and demoralizing to realize one has completely passed on the reins of cooldom to one's child. Of course we want Avery to be cool. We make sure she has all the right opportunities to do cool things, and she takes full advantage. But when there is such clear photographic evidence of her having surpassed us COMPLETELY... we waver ever so slightly. How did we get to be so old, and she so cool? Somehow it happened. Surfing in Cornwall with her friend Emily's family, sitting for a photo session in our garden for her acting agency... ah well, importantly she's still an enormous slob, leaving her wet towels and dirty horseback riding clothes scattered through the house, and she also couldn't be any sweeter to her tiny cat sibling, recovering from her vet ordeal. So in short, the real Avery, warts and beauty and all, is intact. But she's also... very cool.

Autumn has appeared in full spate. Tonight as I type, the plane trees of Hammersmith are brushing mightily against our bedroom windows, the wind is high, the leaves blow into the room, occasionally the sheets flutter and cats rush to chase. In town, the trees are turning ever so gradually, falling down upon the tennis courts near our house, near Avery's school, reminding us all of the gorgeous season to come. There is something heartwarmingly beautiful and social about the courts near school, bounded on one side by a Green covered with people stretched out during their work lunch hours, faces to the sun, bags of lunch nearby, and also, chillingly, people letting their dogs wee on the same grass: guess why I don't picnic in the Green? Never mind, no one seems to mind. The caretaker of Avery's school, my partner in crime at Lost Property, strolls by walking his dog. "Don't watch my serve!" I cry. "You'll lose any respect you ever had for me."

On the other side of the courts is a playground whose sign admonishes, "Under 11s only", so Avery is firmly barred, not that she has time for playgrounds these days. Homework rules, for hours after school each day. Such is autumn. The cooling air rings with people calling the score, girls shouting in uniformed girls' school energy... as far as one can see, there are lovers kissing on the Green, people riding Shetland ponies, if you can imagine! Across the road is the Queen's Head pub, under constant refurbishment it would seem, with men painting all the time, and the most tempting scents of frying fish emanating from the premises with wicked accuracy the moment our tennis game is finished. Dinner? Let's skip it and head straight for fish and chips!

Then there's the perfect autumn recipe: something rugged, robust, flavorful and yet easy as pie, and best of all? In the end, it cooks itself, so you can do something else: even leave the house for the Parents' Guild meeting where you represent Lost Property.

Mozzarella-Stuffed Meatballs
(serves 4)

750 grams (1 1/2 lbs) mixed mince: pork, lamb and beef (or any one alone)
3 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup homemade breadcrumbs
handful chopped basil
1/2 tsp Italian seasoning
1 large, perhaps 1 1/2 buffalo mozzarella balls (you must judge by the size of yours)
2 tbsps olive oil
5 cloves garlic, minced
3 soup-size cans peeled plum tomatoes, whizzed in a food processor till smooth
salt and pepper to taste

Mix mince, eggs, breadcrumbs, basil and Italian seasoning together VERY well. Knead it like a dough, and you will be able to see when it's truly mixed, as it forms a lovely dough-like consistency, completely amalgamated and coherent. Form into small handfuls about 1 1/2 inch across, then pinch off an inch or so of mozzarella and push it into the small handful of meat. Then form the meatball around the cheese, sealing it as best you can. Some cheese may ooze out during cooking, but don't worry. It's delicious anyway.

Make all your meatballs and set aside. Then cook the garlic in a large, shallow, heavy saucepan, slightly in the olive oil, add the tomatoes and cook on a low heat for a bit, perhaps five minutes. Then lower the meatballs in a single layer into the sauce and cover the pot. The meatballs will poach in about 20 minutes, but you can turn it off after that and let sit while you do other things, just warming it all slightly before you want to eat. Lovely with or without spaghetti, and cheese on top.


This meal is lovely on so many levels: it smells MAGICAL cooking, it's fun to make the little meatball parcels, it can sit perfectly cooked for ages while you go to meetings, or help with homework, or take a nap, you name it. Then just warm it, and bob's your uncle. Saute a little asparagus on the side, or oven-roast some beets... done.

I must think of another such recipe for tomorrow night because: drumroll... we are going out. Out! And no, it's not to a play, which is normal for us, and no, we're not taking Avery, as would be normal. We're going for drinks and to a gallery opening with friends, NOT with Avery. Very abnormal! So I have convinced Avery she will not be kidnapped while we're away for two hours. We're looking forward to it (lovely friends, and weird but interesting looking artwork in formed concrete), but we've drawn the line at eating outside the home, naturally. So I must find something to cook tomorrow afternoon that Avery can easily place in a cold oven (she's not ready for a hot oven all alone), then turn the oven on and cook it. It all smacks of a casserole, doesn't it? Or lasagna, or... this is the sort of question that keeps me awake at night. How about chicken stuffed with mozzarella and prosciutto, baked under tomato sauce with some of the zucchini my friend Jo brought from her allotment? There's an idea. More on her visit, and other pursuits, on the morrow. I'm going to be completely selfish now and return to my book of the moment, My Life in France, by Julia Child. No gimmicks, no fast talk, no queasy subtitles. Speaking of cool? Julia invented it, and Avery can only wish.

10 September, 2009

anniversary eve

It is a bit of a milestone this year, maybe a natural one. Every year since the terrible events on our doorstep, eight years ago, we have observed the day in some way. Of course, early on it was an unavoidable, all-too present anniversary, marked by massive city-wide events, at first (I remember that first anniversary was spent at my baby art gallery, with neighbors dropping by to light candles, what a community that was). There were several years of the "Towers of Light" that we in the neighborhood loved so much: blue visions shooting into the sky even higher than those top doomed floors had reached...

Then we moved away, from the experiences, from the memories. And the fifth anniversary happened here, and how hard I found it. John was away on business, and how guilty he felt, not to be with me on the day. I went to the Grosvenor Square memorial and could not stop crying. As well, the following year. Then last year, we observed the day so far as to have a dinner with the friends we'd spent a dinner with right after the day... and we remarked the next day that we had not even talked about the events. And this year? Tomorrow will be the Lost Property Luncheon, 30 ladies here at my house to feed, food to prepare, napkins and plates and forks and champagne glasses to gather, business to report. And then tennis, and a drinks party celebrating the start of the school year, at my friend Annie's house. Something has passed, the need reflexively to observe a day. Is that a good thing?

I have read that there's a movement afoot in the States to make the day a permanent... not to say "holiday," as a day to mark. Stores and schools and post office to remain closed. I don't know how I feel about that. We always knew that we were at the closest circle to the events that you could be, without losing someone. So we cannot really say we understand those who want to remember it forever. Yesterday I told Avery that I was thinking of it less and less as the years go by, and she said, shockingly, "I think of it more and more as I get older." "Why on earth?" I asked, and she said, "I was so little when it happened that I didn't understand, and you never let the news be on, for years afterward, when I was little... now I hear people talking about it, and we discussed the relationship between religion and terrorism in RS [religious studies], and I thought a lot about what had happened." Of course she would: she was embroiled, at age nearly 5, in one of the most significant moments in our country's history, and we did, I admit, try our hardest to keep her sheltered from it. It was just instinct.

At any rate, today found me out and about with my friend Gigi, always a tonic (two completely unused PhDs in one room can be only a good thing, I feel), at the Saatchi Galleries looking at truly dreadful art. More on that soon, since I must quote from the catalogue, nothing less than a literal translation will do. But suffice to say at this moment that the beetroot-infused salmon salad at the gallery's Mess is not to be despised, was in fact LOVELY. And to be with a truly intelligent friend (who has, it must be admitted, worked as a copy writer for JCrew and as such can come up with any number of clever words for ANY color she sees) was the best medicine for the anniversary eve, when one hardly knows how to feel. Thank you, Gigi.

08 September, 2009

have you lost a rubber orca?

That's actually not a rhetorical question. That is the sort of question one can expect to ask when one devotes most of one's waking hours to Lost Property at one's daughter's school. One small rubber orca, residing in a sealed glass jar on whose bottom is stuck a note that says "My mother's quiche." Could it be a prop from a school play? Then there was the lost half an apple from last term, a thermos of what I was VASTLY relieved to find was water, but it could have been fish chowder from 1996. How about a cookie sheet? One of those turned up today. And then there's a copy of the Sun newspaper from six and a half years ago, have you lost that?

As this photograph of Avery attests, the girls at her school can be extremely charming, creatively attired, doubtless very sweet. They can also be monumentally careless with their belongings.

Of course there are more serious items to be lost as well, like one girl's entire revision (study, for us Americans) notebook for her entire year. Her name, Phoebe, was drawn in many different styles with many different colored pencils throughout its contents, but however entertaining and decorative this might have been, note to girls: a last name is even more helpful. The only further clue to her identity was the repeated message also throughout: "PHOEBE LOVES HARRY," or its alternate spelling, "PHOEBE HEARTS HARRY." Forever, mind you. We volunteers thought of asking the school secretary to post a message on the schoolwide message whiteboard. "If Phoebe-Who-Loves-Harry-Forever could please come to Lost Property to collect her revision notebook, we would be grateful."

And get this: a British passport, cancelled to be sure, was found in the pocket of a leather bomber jacket. "This is how identity theft happens," Avery said sagely, when she stopped by on her way to lunch (chicken and leek tart with puff pastry and sage sauce). Countless lacrosse sticks, mateless trainers, games skirts with and without name tapes. Fair enough. But a rubber orca and a cookie sheet? I ask you.

All this is an implacable reminder that summer is OVER. I feel that the last day is so far away now, the afternoon we waited for Avery to come home from Cornwall. I puttered around in the kitchen cooking all her favorite foods (or some of them, she has so many!): slow-braised chicken, potato pancakes with sour cream and homemade applesauce, cheesy spinach. Do you know how easy it is to make applesauce? I'll tell you. It's the only way I know of to get a child to eat four apples at one sitting.

(serves 1 child)

four tart apples (Granny Smith, Bramley are ideal)
1/2 cup apple juice or cider
1 tsp ground cinnamon
dash nutmeg
dash ground cloves

Simply peel and core the apples, then cut into small chunks. Place in a shallow, heavy saucepan and add everything else. Simmer low for perhaps 20 minutes, mashing occasionally with a potato masher. That's IT.


The beauties of this dish are many: it's good for you, it uses up skanky apples that you wouldn't offer to your near and dear raw, it's cheap, it can serve as a side dish, a pudding or a DIVINE breakfast for your child. And it makes the house smell like the best childhood memories you ever had. Even my cookery-hating mother made applesauce!

While all this cooked, I whiled away some time playing "The Rainbow Connection" on the piano and drying dishes, then I ended up in total pathetic anticipation, sitting on the brick wall outside our front garden, with one of the summer back issues of Gourmet Magazine to pretend to read while I waited, a most appreciated present from my sister! It began to sprinkle with rain, but I didn't want to go in, so on I sat under the heavy protection of the London plane trees, talking to neighbors as they walked by on serious life errands, not spending their afternoons waiting for a practically grown-up child to return home after five long days.

And so she did, return home, I mean! How happy we were to hug her, taller even than when we last saw her! Our dear friends dropped her off, dislodging seemingly much more than one family's belongings from the boot of the car to find her bulging suitcase, while she clutched her precious bag of Cornish fudge. She dragged everything in and we sat down at the kitchen table to hear all the tales of bodyboarding, surfing (really!), fighting for shower space with 8 children, going out to the best restaurant in Cornwall for the best steak-frites of her life. The secret? "These chips were TRIPLE FRIED!" I think anything that was fried three times in salty oil would be tasty, even a rubber orca. Wonderful to have her back, sharing her excitement. It always shocks me a bit when she returns home from having done something far away from us, full of stories of things we did not do with her. Running all through our evening was the realization of how she is central to our happiness. Just wonderful!

Then, one more weekend without the usual activities, so no breathless commute to the skating rink or the acting school or the riding stable. Just long hours of hanging about, reading books that had new appeal because they were HERE all summer while we were away. And we spent a nice afternoon in our old haunts in Marylebone: the world's best (possibly only?) shop devoted entirely to buttons! As I've told you before, there is nothing like the Button Queen, even in their new premises, saved from Marylebone's dominant de Walden estate's plan to tear down several Victorian buildings and build who knows what monstrosity in their place. The Estate seemed happy to evict all their other tenants, but not the Button Queen. It always seems a shame to spent a half an hour there, looking at all the ceremonial buttons, the priceless cameo and glass buttons, and then... buy a replacement for a jacket sleeve button. And that's ALL. They never seem to mind! I suppose you'd have a unique attitude toward life and human nature if you devoted your life to buttons.

Home to have early drinks with Annie's family in their cozy, ivy- and passionfruit-draped garden, gossiping, trading stories of last summer adventures, and I gave them my two current favorite books as a completely inadequate thank-you for having Avery in Cornwall. If you haven't got A Table in the Tarn yet, get it. It's the story and the recipes from my writing tutor Orlando Murrin's country house hotel in the south of France. You'll just want his life. And his food. I have cooked many recipes from this book, and you know what? They WORK. Then I gave them Risotto With Nettles, the new memoir by Anna del Conte, simply the best English writer on Italian food since Elizabeth David, and if I'm honest, I like her even better. Self-effacing and yet somehow also completely authoritative. Her reminiscences of her Italian childhood will make you very, very hungry.

Home from their lovely atmosphere to cook a quick Sunday dinner of grilled salmon and Annie's recommendation:

Olive-Oil Mashed Potatoes
(serves 4)

4 large waxy potatoes, like Maris Piper or Yukon Gold
1/2 cup olive oil
2 tbsps butter
milk for thinning

Peel the potatoes and quarter them, then boil in salted water for about 30 minutes until completely soft, but not dissolved. Mash thoroughly with oil, butter and enough milk (or cream, if you want to lose the battle with cholesterol) to get them to the consistency you want. I myself like rather loose mashed potatoes, but some people like them quite stiff. Salt and pepper them liberally.


What I would say about this method of mashing potatoes is that it is closer to a puree than a mash, more like the French would give you in a restaurant, and they are very, very rich. A little goes a long way and this recipe may make more than you need for four.

Tonight we are recovering from an extremely hot and sunny (and therefore stinky) tennis game and awaiting grilled lamb chops for dinner. I can't be bothered to produce anything very exciting, after my trials at Lost Property. I hate to think what tomorrow will bring: I keep expecting a severed head. I'll keep you posted.

02 September, 2009

real life

Well, life in all its complexity and ordinary strife has reappeared! First in line for attention and drama was little Hermione, our smallest and normally most independent, nay fiercest cat. We returned home from America to find her limping and ungroomed, but still wagging her tail when she heard her name, and eating everything in sight. In short, a mixed bag, and as such, we were inclined to leave her to her independence and to see if she returned to normal on her own. I was able to run my fingers along all her limbs and find them intact, so I was not spurred on to begin the unpleasant and confrontational process of getting her to the vet.

However, we returned from Cornwall to find her in much the same state, which boded ill. Another two days watching her limp, and finally I made an appointment with the vet, and promptly spent the duration of hours between then and the booking fretting about getting her into her carrier. Normally she cannot be held, only stroked occasionally on major holidays, and when she is sedated. So the prospect of fetching her into the prison was not appealing. My state of mind on this subject carried over to our tennis game on Monday night, which meant I missed ALL my shots and sent such terrible ones over the net to John that he had to run furiously, scrambling like Andy Roddick, and in doing so... strained his calf muscle. No more tennis for a few days, drat.

Ah well, it was just as well to come home and hunt down the furry patient, which was easier than I thought. She was all the way at the top of the house, which argued for her mobility, but looked terrible, so I was not sorry that I needed to get her to the doctor. She actually let me pick her up, a few scratches along the way to be sure, and was in the carrier. There she began to express herself in no uncertain terms as to her feelings about her condition, the sprinkling rain, her journey in an embarrassing cat carrier, you name it.

The long and short of it is, 170 pounds and two days later, she had an abscessed wound, possibly an animal bite, on her little shoulder. Poor dear. This was dealt with in various ways which I will not describe on the off-chance that you're reading this to accompany a meal. Suffice to say, John brought her home today while I was at Lost Property at Avery's school, and she's shaved and thoroughly humiliated and smelling of vet. Poor thing.

Add to this feline medical drama, and John's tiny immobility, Avery's first day of school today. How my mind went back to this time last year, the fantastic visit of my dear friends Bob and Ann, and the excitement of Avery's first FIRST day at her new school. The anticlimax of the SECOND first day was not sufficient to stop her asking both of us to walk with her, which was lovely: a typical September London day. Grey, shifting clouds, the threat of a sprinkle, and to be greeted at school by an entirely new entrance! And new driveway, and new landscaping! How on earth was all this accomplished in the eight short weeks we were away? We left her there, rushing in with all the other girls, all dressed fabulously casually and uniquely, yet all looking somehow alike. How do they manage that?

By the end of the day, all the fresh newness of the school year had given way to massive annoyance and disappointment. It won't last. But the school play... The school play is being produced jointly with an extremely posh and cool nearby boys' school across the river. Avery was chosen along with just a few other girls to participate and as such, should have felt great. But today was the allocation of parts within this production, and she got stuck in the chorus. This we found out after walking in a stunning autumn evening across the gorgeous Hammersmith Bridge (with its subtle placque commemorating an RAF officer in 1919 who dived into the Thames to save a drowning lady, succeeded in doing so, but died as a result of the injuries he sustained in the effort, poor lad). The sun was shining, the blue sky beckoned in that way it can do only in September, more's the pity, as I always suffer flashbacks. But I rose above it, and the walk was simply superb.

At dinner, we sat down to creamy red pepper soup and her favorite pasta dish, with the BEST little shallots I have ever, ever cooked with, from Ghana of all places, procurable at my local and adored Shepherd's Bush Market (in all its zany, dirty loveliness), at Strawberry Hill Fruiterers. Go get some, aren't they lovely?

Broccoli Pasta
(serves 4)

2 tbsps olive oil
5 cloves garlic, minced
6 tiny Ghana shallots, or 2 normal, minced
1 large can, or 2 small, plum tomatoes
1/2 cup pinenuts
1 tbsp Italian seasoning
1 head broccoli, broken into florets
3/4 lb curly or bowtie pasta
grated pecorino to sprinkle

Saute the garlic and shallots in the oil and set aside. In a food processor, whiz up tomatoes, pinenuts and Italian seasoning till pink and relatively smooth. Add to garlic mixture and heat gently: it will blurb up at you!

Steam broccoli florets till they smell like broccoli, perhaps 4 minutes, then put in cold water with ice to stop cooking. Cook pasta and then mix together with sauce and drained broccoli, top with cheese.


Avery has eaten so much of this dish, in the past, that I called her the "snake who ate a rat," and then could only flop flat and try to digest it. It's guilt-free and completely wonderful, especially with these lovely shallots! I know I should feel guilty about their being flown in from Ghana, but I confess: I thought it was cool.

Well, cat emergencies and drama dramas aside, plus the odd tennis injury, the year has begun (I persist in observing September rather than January as the beginning of that "real" year, the academic one) normally enough. Today I headed off to Lost Property, just to accompany the volunteer who would turn up on this first day, to be greeted with... CHAOS! Dirty, smelly, room-filling CHAOS! I simply stood and stared for one disbelieving moment, at dozens and dozens of black garbage bags (they aren't any less smelly if you call them "bin liners" as they do here) filled to the dusty brim with, I kid you not, apple cores, empty Diet Coke bottles, muffin liners, THONGS, mouthguards for lacrosse, not to mention hundreds of discarded post-GCSE books, and then what you'd rightfully expect: lacrosse sticks and tennis rackets, PE skirts and the odd incredibly valuable cashmere jumper or Juicy Couture jacket.

Beyond the pale! What on earth had happened? Well, the answer was not long in coming. It's the case of the New Broom. Our gorgeous young caretaker appeared, indignant at our distress, and explained all. "There's a new administrator, and he made it his business to clear out every corner of this school [this news thereby spoiling ALL my pleasure at how clean everything looked!], and to banish all bins. So everything came... here."

Rats. My fellow volunteer and I were simply dumbstruck, not to mention grossed out. We dug in. Girls appeared, from time to time, looking as if they might want something, and we growled at them, "Take whatever belongs to you, and whatever you recognize of your friends', too!" Tomorrow I shall be back there, suffering anew. But with the new list of girls, and the names of their teachers, so I can begin to make new labels for all the boxes. What a job!

It's at moments like these that I must take refuge in one of my nameless "Why I love England" games, and today, it was the "Town Names on Motorway Signs You'd Never See in America." Take a look.

Barton Clovelly
Cheriton Bishop
Tedburn St Mary

Crooked Soley
Goldfinch Bolton
Upper (and of course Lower) Basildon

I simply dote on these names. No one boring or pointless could possibly live in them. Maybe, in fact, they're inhabited only by badgers. Who drive vintage cars.

Clearly I need more sleep.

Ah, well, tomorrow will bring another set of challenges. I am craving the clam linguini dish Keith made for us, but I have sausages I must cook, so I'm thinking: a clam and sausage dish? If, that is, there's room in my house for that much drama.