31 October, 2009

Halloween has come and gone




















Avery is in a stupor of post sugar-high, but not as high as her hair. Yes, her first visit to a hair salon, to emerge a mind-numbing hour and a half later as... Holly Golightly. A dress from Tesco, a tiara from Shepherds Bush Market, a cigarette holder and gloves from some skeevy online costumier, all combined for quite the best Halloween costume ever. There were fully five salon employees hovering around her and her entirely silent hairdo creator Leno, providing bobby pins and hair spray at the drop of a hat. Passersby on the pavement stopped to look in the windows. One of the stylists said hesitantly to me, "Do you know that man out there? Because he's waving like crazy," and there was John, driving by in the Cinquecento to pick us up, late as we were in the service of Avery's hair.

On to a fabulous Halloween party at the home of one of Avery's school friends, a plateful of the BEST lasagne from Ottolenghi (I am not making lasagne again until I figure out exactly how to replicate it: carrots, for one thing), washed down with Moet et Chandon. And then chaperoning the trick or treating in Kensington, quite the poshest neighborhood I personally have ever canvassed in search of mindless amounts of high fructose corn syrup.

There was a four-story house covered from top to bottom by a 40-foot square black spider! There was a pathway covered over by arbors of trailing ivy in blazing autumnal colors, flanked on either side by gorgeously carved pumpkins (never mind my usual childish efforts, I enjoy it!). Carvings of galleons in full sail, cats with arched backs, flying ghosts, some in that impossibly sophisticated method that my sister can produce, where your knife does not fully penetrate the pumpkin but skims across the surface so the candles glow from inside. Screaming crowds of tweeners, little crowds of goggle-eyed toddlers clutching at their parents' hands, tiny handbag dogs dressed up as unconvincing devils.

Back to the party for a homely and lovingly created old-fashioned party: Pin the Mould on the Pumpkin, bobbing for apples, throwing apple peels to read the first initial of the name of the man you will marry! Prizes and fairy cakes decorated with butterflies, a sort of Lucky Dip in Jello, a classmate as Puss in Boots, a witch in knee-high Fendi boots, and our own little Truman Capote heroine.

Avery's now closeted in the bathroom, removing her bobby pins. The entire world smells like hair spray. I'm waiting outside in case her head falls off once the pins are all out. All's right with the world. Happy Halloween!

28 October, 2009

of Devonshire flora, food and fauna
































































Well, believe me when I say it is very tricky to limit myself to just these photographs for my first Devon holiday post. Every moment seemed worthy of an image. Can you imagine seeing this little otter fellow, and all his merry mates, in person? And the view from our cottage door, onto the eponymous Pond of Pond Cottage... a tiny view into our evening sitting room, the Dairy perched high... but I'm getting ahead of myself.

My mother in law asks me to clarify from my last post that our cottage did indeed have electricity! It was only my overdramatic sense of occasion that made me insist on one dinner at the picnic table, and you would have laughed to see us holding candles over our plates and trying to identify bites of our suppers. "Hang on one minute, is this pork, or rice? This is DEFINITELY a green bean..." My family was admirably tolerant of me! But there was also a quarter moon to light our way, with proper nearly-Halloween clouds skidding across it, and enormous rustling red-leafed trees to block its light.

Pork Medallions with Sage, Mushrooms and Creme Fraiche
(serves 4)


1 1/2 lbs pork fillet, trimmed of all membranes and fat, sliced into 12 medallions
2 tbsps butter
16 sage leaves
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 shallot or 1/2 white onion, minced
12 medium mushrooms of your choosing, sliced thick
2 tbsps Marsala wine, or Calvados or brandy
1 cup creme fraiche (half-fat works fine)
sea salt and black pepper to taste

Melt butter in large skillet until brown and drop in sage leaves in a single layer. Cook until crisp and set aside. Bring up heat to high and place pork in skillet, again in a single layer. Brown on first side, then turn and brown on second side. The meat should still be quite raw on the inside. Remove to a platter and keep warm.

Add garlic, shallot or onion and mushrooms to skillet and saute until mushrooms give off juice. Pour in wine or Calvados or brandy and simmer high for a minute or so. Whisk in creme fraiche and lower heat to a very low light. Stir until beautifully creamy, then lower pork medallions into sauce in a single layer. Cook for about five minutes, spooning sauce over pork quite continuously. When the pork feels firm to the touch, it's done. Season and you're ready.

Serve over steamed rice and crush the sage leaves over top. Simply LUSCIOUS.

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

I cannot convey in writing the intensely celebratory aroma of this dish. It's quite definitively autumnal, with the faintly alcoholic suggestions and woodsy sage and luxurious cream. You will make this often, I'm quite sure, and I've had great success substituting veal escalopes and chicken breasts for the pork.

Pork is one of the subjects on which I am uncharacteristically evangelical. It is emphatically NOT meant to be "the other white meat" as our American leaders of industry would have you believe. A pig should not give white meat, any more than a baby cow should. Pork and veal should be rosy pink, reflecting the animals' happy, lively life in the out of doors, not a sad, crowded existence in a sterile pen. So when you see pork in America that's pale and devoid of any character, don't buy it. Buy chicken fillets if you want something white and fat-free, but save your pork calories for the real thing, pink and juicy.

With this I served my new favorite side dish, about which I'm thrilled because now I like green beans, and it is totally simple! It is a sad fact of my taste buds that I can be fed almost anything as long as it's tossed in butter and garlic.

Garlicky Green Beans
(serves 4)


1/2 pound fine green beans, ends trimmed
2 tbsps butter
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tbsp olive oil
sea salt and black pepper to taste

Bring water in a saucepan to the boil and plunge green beans into it. Boil high for about five minutes or until a bean is cooked to your liking. I like them still with a bite, but not hard. A good guideline for that level of cookedness is that the water smells like green beans! Drain the beans and set aside in a bowl, covered with another bowl, to keep the beans warmish.

Melt the butter in the same saucepan to save washing up, and add the garlic. Cook very low until garlic is soft and then add the olive oil and salt and pepper to taste. Keep the butter mixture warm until you're ready to serve, then drizzle over the beans and toss well. When serving, be sure to bring up the lovely melted garlicky butter with a spoon.

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

So this is what fed us one gorgeous evening at our house, which had the ambience of a dolls house, everything just barely large enough for John to fit (although he had to duck in the doorways). The front step seemed to be crying out for our Wellies to rest upon its stones, although Avery was completely grossed out by a little pal who had made his way into her boot, lying on its side overnight: a giant slug!

The pond held a family of mallard ducks who appeared each morning and evening but flew off squawking furiously if we tried to feed them bread crusts. High above the property perched a simple perfect, tiny cylindrical building called The Dairy, which came with a key so we could explore. Under its precise thatched roof we ducked inside, to find a room furnished with local Devon marble in huge vats and trays lining the walls, complete with a system of drainage into lead pans below. In the center was a massive sort of font of more marble, and we tried hard to imagine what the purpose was, exactly, of all these implements. The windows above the work surfaces were stained-glass and the walls made of tiles decorate with tiny green ivy leaves. I can't describe the timeless serenity of this room, which in fact held sway over the entire property.

Above the dairy (very high into the landscape by now, as you can imagine!) was a series of planned walks, through a verdant countryside made up of an enchanting combination of uncontrolled foliage and meticulous pruning. We had read in the history of the property that since its inception in 1810 (as a country retreat for the Duchess of Bedford!) it had fallen into the hands of a fishing syndicate (brown trout), and even later than that, been abandoned entirely to be discovered by the Landmark Trust in 1985. Completely under foliage! The LT crew discovered, if you can imagine, entire BUILDINGS under ivy and other climbing plants. Beyond the massive actual structures, they uncovered miles of precise stone paths, benches and bridges, and even two caves, complete with stalactites. Magical.

Just off the garden path is the magnificent Hotel Endsleigh, originally the manor house that presided over our little cottage for the Duchess. Tea there is not to be missed: sandwiches of local ham and grainy mustard, rich egg mayonnaise, a Victoria Sponge cake that Avery rolled her eyes over in delight, dense brownies, fresh scones and clotted cream. The hotel was packed, as far as we could see, with the car park full of fancy cars (our little Minnow was quite eclipsed in size and stature!). But it was separated from our property quite completely, adding only a cozy atmosphere of luxury, smoking chimneys and elegant burning tapers in the evening, when we passed by from our walks on the way home, along the rushing River Tamar, which separates Devon from Cornwall. So funny: on one of our drives, we came to a sign, "Welcome to Cornwall." "Oh, goody, now I can start reading 'Rebecca,'" Avery rejoiced, picking it up from the car seat. "We're back in Devon," we said a few minutes later. "Goodbye, 'Rebecca,'" she said.

Evenings of aromatic log fires, chats with my two favorite people, card games, hilarious attempts at a Sherlock Holmes game acquired at a local flea market! All with a background of soup simmering (not a bone or scrap escapes my industry, and we wallowed in creamy red pepper soup, mushroom soup with fresh thyme, and the clearest, simplest chicken broth with plenty of carrots and celery). And hours of time to read. Avery plowed through all her books, all my books, all the books that came with the house, reaching a grand total of over thirty by midweek. "There has to be a bookshop nearby!" she wailed, and this we found in darling nearby Tavistock (don't tell Avery, but there's a statue of... Sir Francis Drake there).

The Bookstop has something for everyone including a massive children's section and a cafe. Tavistock is graced as well by a perfect Dickensian delicatessen and all-round goodies shop called N.H Creber, Quality Grocer. I loved it anyway, but someone with a sweet tooth would go quite mad among the biscuits, cakes, chocolates and jams. And Scotches, don't even get me started! Many I had never heard of and certainly could not afford. But I could afford some of their duck liver pate, and Avery succumbed to chocolate-studded shortbread. A glorious place, as you see! I also made a foray into Palmer's butcher shop where I acquired simply the most flavorsome smoked streaky bacon I have EVER eaten. One slice will satisfy anyone, with a fried egg on the side. On a sandwich with Frederickson tomatoes, I can only imagine. And here I procured a lovely cheese called Cornish Yarg, now Avery's hands-down favorite. "Describe it for me, what you like about it," I inquired, and after some thought, she said, "It's an unassuming little cheese, it's just there to be enjoyed." Creamy and simple.

And to give you a brief idea of the wildlife to be enjoyed, let me point you to the Tamar Otter and Wildlife Centre (in Cornwall!). I have rarely seen Avery so happy. "I want Anna, I want Anna!" she kept crying, missing her best friend who is obsessed with all things animal. These endangered little creatures were everywhere at the Sanctuary, and we arrived at feeding time, to see them leap for bits of fish thrown to them by the impassioned and delightful owner. "I know they look cute, and furry," he warned, "but these little guys will take off a thumb from you before you can turn around. I've seen them take down a heron in 15 minutes." Lovely thought. He assured us we could see this fascinating spectacle of the food chain in a Youtube video, but so far I have resisted the call.

I must love you and leave you with this massive post, a paean to Devon and Cornwall. Soon I shall tell you about the wild ponies we encountered in Dartmoor and regale you with some stories of castles and stately homes nearby. Probably the people you travel with will not be as full-up with Sir Francis Drake as our child is (the musical is only three weeks away), and so your visit to his home will be more peaceful than ours, which included a running commentary on everything the displays got wrong. Till then, if you simply can't live without more photographs, try this. And make that pork dish: you won't be sorry!

26 October, 2009

goodbye Devon












Hello, London, and goodbye misty, foggy, sweetest Devon. A week of total isolation in a cottage of stone, surrounded by the wildest and most cultivated of ancient plants, permeated with dusky smoke from a cozy fireplace, fed with roast chicken, mozzarella-stuffed meatballs, pork medallions in a creamy sage and mushroom sauce (even if we couldn't see a bite of THAT dinner because the moon did not rise quite high enough!). Avery read twenty-five books, John took naps, I... did the dishes! A sustaining, chatty, sleepy week was had by all, punctuated by otters and wild ponies, a high tea worth remembering, castle tours and more than we ever wanted to know about a certain Admiral Drake! "He's stalking me..." Avery moaned.

More on all this very soon, but tonight celebrating a reunion with my darling friend Sam, who upon retiring has discovered what it means to share his bathroom with the washing machine. Mountains, my dears, mountains of dirty laundry. I've collapsed with an Armagnac and a good book and shall be back in the saddle tomorrow. I'll be ready to tell you all you need to know about a certain little pocket of Devon, Dartmoor, and a family holiday. Nighty-night.

18 October, 2009

we're away




















Ah, the last dinner party before half-term holiday begins tomorrow... the green beans steamed and then bathed in a garlicky, lemony butter, the potatoes, quartered, steamed and tossed in a very large saucepan containing melted butter and hot olive oil, and loads of paprika. Yes, it's more "Lick the Bowl Potatoes" for Avery. All this accompanied by the Main Chance: chicken breasts with a pocket cut in, stuffed with mozzarella wrapped in prosciutto and spinach, grilled expertly by John. Then, as you can see, a silly cheeseboard to round out the night. A rocket salad with a fabulous dressing of the oil from a jar of artichoke hearts (renew, reuse, recycle!), mixed with mustard, balsamic vinegar, Fox Point Seasoning and fromage frais... and some storebought cookies.

How we all laughed: Keith and Annie, Emily and Georgia and Jonathan... discussing holidays upcoming and past shared, Keith advising John in the grilling of the chicken, all the children trooping out into the dark, barely illuminated garden to "help" the timing, as Annie and I tossed beans, stirred potatoes, dressed the salad, watched the cats meandering in and about looking for fallen scraps. "There aren't enough beans!" I wailed. "Just because I don't like green beans, doesn't mean I shouldn't provide enough for other people..." "Why did you make them, then?" John asks in all fair reason. "Because everyone else likes them."

Annie and Keith jumped in. "I'd say 'FHB,' but we're all family here so that won't work," said Annie. "FHB?" I asked. "Family Hold Back," Keith elaborates. Such is our "family" that then NO ONE took enough beans and there were enough for seconds!

We sat on in the candlelight, drinking wine and listening to discussions of exams, Avery's wild dreams of piglets in school wearing brown and blue woollen coats (don't ask), and finally, "Gross Things My Children Have Eaten." The winner? Jonathan's foray as a toddler into what he gleefully described to his mother as "moving raisins." WOODLICE. There's childhood in a Connecticut farmhouse for you! Moving raisins.

We've had the last of our early autumn school rituals: the last drop of the girls at "Drake", watching them run hell bent with their satchels flying, kicking aside the fallen leaves, pausing at the zebra crossing to watch the oncoming boys, then disappearing out of sight into the grounds of the boys' school. I'm sure I looked like a stalker, suspended on the pavement, gazing after them, watching little girlhood run away from me and around a corner. Hard not to see it as a metaphor.

Then I've seen Avery and Jamie to their last regular Friday skating outing till after the "Drake" festivities... "please take my glasses, Mommy, and here's my skate bag, and could I have ice cream?", plus the screaming banter of countless teenage couples, and birthday parties filled with shouting children descending on the adjacent bowling alley... but looking through the muddy glass at Avery making spectacles shapes around her eyes: "watch us!" So I did watch, a new jump, a new spin.

And yesterday dropping her at acting class, watching her do the "flick," as her high mistress has named the gesture of hair over shoulder. How many more days will we be welcome, dropping her off anywhere? That prospect should shut up my whingeing about the skating rink, but of course I enjoy the whingeing as much as I do the dropping off.

At least I enjoy SOMETHING. How many hours of the past two days have I devoted to the follow-up novel to Julie/Julia? Too many. And as far as I can tell, the author enjoyed precisely NOTHING of what she describes. The book tells the tale of the dissolution of her marriage due to her infidelity, and concurrently her training as a butcher. Actually she did possibly enjoy her fellow butchers, but in describing her work, she cured me of any desire whatsoever to become a butcher, and I had had a bit of a desire, I admit. Right now I'm suffering from two burns on my hands from touching the oven elements in a careless moment, but I can tell you that that's NOTHING compared to the cuts, blood- and fat-filled scrapes that attend butcherdom. And the COLD.

In any case, I did get all the way through Cleaving, and I can report, as a very old person, that it reads much like a revisited novel by... Erica Jong! Isn't that a name from the past! Do you suppose Julie Powell has ever even heard of Erica Jong, much less read "Fear of Flying," pretty much the invention of borderline over-personal pornography? And Erica accomplished this in 1973, when women's liberation in every way, especially sexual, was a brand-new topic, and as such sort of a high to read about, at the time.

I think there's room in perhaps every three generations or so for a novel full of self-indulgent forays into a given person's sexual adventures, merely for the sake of telling the reader about them. And between D.H Lawrence and Erica Jong, we're covered for the time being. I wanted to care about Julie Powell's exploits, but I didn't. I felt that both in how she lived and how she wrote about living, she was giving me self-indulgence for its own sake, and something in my Midwestern good-girl upbringing led me to say to myself, "If she spent just one minute thinking about anyone but herself, she'd be in a better place."

If I thought she'd enjoyed anything very much: her marriage, her blog, her affair, her COOKING, if she'd revelled in the excess and the outlawness, I'd have enjoyed the book. But I don't think she did. Don't misunderstand me: I can get my mind around tales of unhappiness, infidelity, soul-searching, torment. But I want to think the teller cared even more than I did about growing from her experiences, and I don't think she did. I wish I did understand her motivation in telling the story. And I feel sorry for both her husband and her lover.

And I STILL can't understand how to bone a duck.

Off we go, then, tomorrow afternoon, for our autumn break in the English countryside. We'll have our tiny car packed to the gills with the usual: Wellington boots, books on tape, soup blender, tealight candles, books galore, Scotch, hot water bottles. I'll see you next Monday!

Spinach, Mozzarella and Prosciutto-Stuffed Chicken Fillets
(serves 8)


8 boneless chicken fillets, well-trimmed
about 10 spinach leaves per fillet
3 prosciutto slices per fillet
1 thick slice buffalo mozzarella per fillet (3 whole balls of cheese)
24 toothpicks (called "cocktail sticks" in England if you're shopping)

With the fillet lying on its side on a cutting board, carefully cut a pocket lengthwise along, taking care not to cut all the way through to the back (but it's not a disaster if you do).

Lay two prosciutto slices on the cutting board and pile on spinach leaves, then lay on the mozzarella slice and roll it up tightly. Wrap the third slice of prosciutto around the little package to cover the ends. Tuck the whole package inside the chicken fillet and close up the gap as tightly as you can, with the toothpicks.

Grill over a medium heat for about 8 minutes per side, or until the chicken is cooked through.

14 October, 2009

the Turner Prize turns my head














Everyone who knows me right now knows me as a wife, mother, cook and writer. Which is fine (our favorite catch-all phrase of derision this summer!). And normally I feel entirely encompassed, described and encapsulated by these terms.

And then every once in awhile I go to an art event that knocks me upside the head and says, "You, there with the PhD! Remember us, the art world? We used to occupy most of what's known as your mind. Wake up."

Sunday was one of those days. To participate in the London Restaurant Festival (and yet not spend £50 per person, for example for the Roast Lunch that sounded incredibly tempting), I ordered tickets for the three of us to see the "Turner and the Masters" show at the Tate Britain (the "real Tate" as I think of it, as opposed to the Modern), and we'd have lunch included, at the Rex Whistler Restaurant as part of the afternoon. Fair enough.

Do you ever have the feeling, when you've planned an outing that no one else feels particularly enthused about, that the success or failure of the ENTIRE EVENT is on your shoulders? Forget the chefs at the restaurant, or even dead and buried Turner and his cohorts. The food and the paintings were on MY shoulders! It strikes me as emininently ridiculous that after 20 years of marriage and nearly 13 years of motherhood, I should be shaking in my boots hoping John and Avery had a good time. But that's me.

So the lunch was... adequate. Parsnip soup (too much of it and it needed a garnish), John had mixed steamed mussels and clams, perfectly... adequate. Then I had a tasty piece of salmon atop a giant quenelle of so-so mash, and a nice langoustine sauce. John had a truly vile-looking steamed mutton pudding - what was he thinking? On a bed of lentils. So wet brown stuff on a pile of wet brown stuff. But he ate it all and reported it to be perfectly edible. Avery had a dish of pasta with a mascarpone and sage sauce, and about four pieces of butternut squash, which was FINE because she doesn't like squash. But if she did, she'd be a tad disappointed.

The room itself is such a throwback: murals of ancient people hunting for, the caption in the menu informed me, "rare meats." Meats like gazelle, leopard and mountain lion. And we chatted, in that way people do who spend a lot of time together, but always at home. Out of captivity, as it were, we broached unfamiliar topics like architecture, fashion and GCSEs, and I breathed a sigh of relief for at least the first part of the afternoon. Lunch had been nice. Adequate.

The Turner show itself was the ultimate in academic curatorial splendor: quite literally one painting next to another, one a Turner and one by someone Turner either idolized or resented or some Freudian combination of both. We stood solemnly in front of these endless pairs (Poussin, Canaletto, Constable, etc., etc.) and looked from one to the other like fans at a tennis match. Then we each said, "I like the Turner better." The late Turners were, of course, quite inspiring, edging as they were away from Romantic sort of sickliness and toward a hint of Impressionism's gloriously misty palette and suggestive atmosphere. We felt educated. And tired.

Then we thought, "We're here: why not visit the rooms containing the finalists for the Turner Prize?" The actual winner will be announced in December, but the finalists for this prize (thoughtfully named for Turner himself, who must have felt quite full of himself by this point in the afternoon) were displayed in a series of enormous galleries off the Sackler rooms. And, dear readers... I fell into quite a deep hole of what I can call only "gallery envy."

Some of my longtime readers may remember my visit nearly three years ago to a most inspiring gallery in Notting Hill. Friends who have known me even longer will definitely remember my past identity as Gallerista Extraordinaire, or at least Gallerista Enthusiastista. I did. I owned an art gallery in Tribeca. How I adored it. The total autonomy, the ultimate responsibility for everything that appeared on the walls and in the catalogue essays, the sense that the buck stopped with me, no doubt.

In fact, only too literally. The buck, I mean. Because the flip side of all that autonomy and responsibility was just that. It was all on me. And although I was one hell of a curator, and educator, and sales person, I was a Rotten Businesswoman. And I lost money. Or rather, I made a great deal of money, but I spent even more to do it.

Most of the time I bury these memories under a thick, delicious layer of garlic and olive oil, sprinkled with a little Lost Property and a side of happy marriage. But then, I go to the Tate and see the Turner Prize finalists, and all I can think is, "I want to buy everything I see, or else I want to show it in a gallery and get other people to buy it." The pieces were all (or nearly all) so very ME. By which I mean, crazy materials (pulverized jet engine? dessicated bovine brain matter mixed with plastic? coal dust, resin and whale skeleton? sure!), insanely complex and labor-intensive process, repetitive, obsessive-compulsive installations. All laid over with a serenity and beauty that lives quite happily with the mind-boggling truth behind the objects. Bovine brains, truly.

I will not spoil the surprise of the show for you. I will say that there was one artist among the four that I felt did not belong AT ALL. Avery, John and I chose different objects in our eternal "what would you buy?" dialogue. If we still called an enormous Tribeca loft home, I know what I would have bought: 26 upright sort of skittles (one for every letter of the alphabet) with five mysteriously taken out of the arrangement and laid to one side. Why, what might they spell? Sublime mytery.

So I floated home in a miasma of memories of my own beloved gallery, filled month after month with shows that fulfilled my aesthetics, my desire to write about silent objects, the fun of finding homes for lovely works of art with lovely people. How I loved it all.

And then this morning, John said, "Did you notice that the florist who went out of business has a "To Let" sign in the window?" OH DEAR.

Someone stop me. John isn't even saying no. I've peered in the darkened windows, imagined the shelves and cubbyholes taken away and the wallpaper painted over in stark, perfect white. I've mentally rung up all my old art-world acquaintances: the critics, the curators, clients, writers and installers, and set up shop.

Someone b***dy stop me.

For the moment, I'm merely dreaming. And anyway, if I did open a new gallery, when would I have time to cook? And if I didn't have time to cook, when would I make:

Lick the Bowl Potatoes
(serves 4)


6 medium potatoes, any kind at all, peeled
4 tbsps olive oil
1 tbsp butter
Maldon salt and fresh-ground pepper
heaping teaspoon sweet Paprika

Cut peeled potatoes into bite-size wedges and place in a saucepan with cold water to cover. Add enough salt to fit in your cupped palm. Bring to boil and simmer high for about 15 minutes or until potatoes are easily pierced by a fork. Drain into a colander. Place colander on hot burner (heat turned off) and leave for a half hour or so, while you do other things. The idea is to dry them out completely.

When you're about 8 minutes away from wanting to eat, heat olive oil and butter in a very large skillet. Add salt and pepper. Heat until the oil and butter "stop talking to you," as Julia Child would say. That is, the bubbling settles down to silence. Add potatoes. Stir continually, turning the potatoes over and they brown. Sprinkle on most of the paprika (retaining a dusting for the end).

Amazingly, the potatoes will not retain the oil and butter. At the end of cooking, when the potatoes are lightly browned and lightly crisped, simply tilt the skillet and pull the potatoes out with a slotted spoon, leaving the oil behind. Magic.

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

Avery exercised miraculous, most unteenager-like restraint when these were brought to the table (all right, I'll confess, brought to the floor: we were eating in front of the television, sue me). "You guys help yourselves, because if I go first, I'll be too piggy." We took sort of average portions. She ate her beets, she ate her sublime cheeseburger with Devon cheddar. She eyed the potatoes. She took a helping. Another few snaked their way onto her plate. They were gone.

"May I lick the bowl, Mommy?" What mother, what cook, would say no?

Time will tell if anything comes of my ambitions, frothing up right now like yeast in a bowl waiting for flour. It was all such fun, wasn't it? Every day there were magnificent, heart-stopping dramas, every person who came in the doors was a potential gold mine of sales, reviews, new artwork to see. I'm certainly in a glass-half-full mood, because in reality, every person who came through the door was very likely a complete nutcase, as happens when one deals with the General Public. But it was ALIVE.

Someone stop me.

08 October, 2009

here comes the sun, finally















Finally it has stopped raining! It was three solid days (no top down on a certain Cinquecento convertible, no tennis games, umbrellas lost all over the city, hair smelling like wet dog, soaking ankles) and everyone was getting cranky. Then suddenly today was the quintessential gorgeous autumn day, airplane trails through the sky, changing leaves falling onto the tennis court. It is very much the same landscape as pervaded those magical days our writing crew spent a year ago in Devon: the same quarter moon, glowing yellow-white, is suspended in the sky tonight and it brings back marvellous, intense memories of creativity, friendship, and terrible food!

The sun is more than due. Two days ago, a third of the way to taking Avery to her "Drake" rehearsal, the traffic simply stopped moving. "Might as well walk, you two," John said, and he was right. So out into the slight sprinkle we climbed, walking across the glorious Hammersmith Bridge to the tune of Avery's enthusiastic description of "Fashions I Have Worn Since Birth," which was entertaining enough to get us through the journey. Sure, she's had some doozies, like spats in kindergarten? Odd, true. But yesterday's black double-breasted jacket and purple hat were memorable in a good way.

Today, we picked her up at school with her friend Nellie to take them both to Drake, got them safely delivered, were running errands happily when Nellie's mother rang me in what I can describe only as Grim Panic. "Did you get the girls to Drake? All of them? How about the German exchange student?" Holy Moses, no. There's maternal panic for you. "It was merely a case of miscommunication," Avery assured us at dinner several hours later. "The girl knew she was meant to stay at school, and so did Nellie, but her mother didn't, so it was a bit of a worry." A bit? You think?

"Drake" with all its attendant dramas, disappointments and access to the gorgeous grounds of Avery's brother school has been a lot of fun, even from the outside looking in. I find that's more and more of life in this particular stage: looking in on the Avery Show, ferrying her to events and practices, listening to her accounts of what is happening behind the scenes. Meanwhile, I'm busy at least in my mind, planning what's next.

For one thing, I think I am putting aside my "book" for the time being. I enjoy writing this blog so much, and I live each day for whatever cooking odyssey awaits at dinner time (or even lunch!). But I've been dissatisfied with my efforts on the "book" since last spring, and I've had advice from several sources either to 1) go at it non-stop with all my energy, or to 2) put it aside, if not permanently, at least for the foreseeable future. It's too soul-destroying to look at its dormant pages on my desk (the desk in my head) every day and not to do anything positive with it.

So... there are options. Magazines, newspapers. A cookery course to teach here, out of my kitchen? That's looming especially attractively, I have to admit. My mind swirls at night with course ideas: five things to do with chicken? How to turn any vegetable into the perfect soup? Pizzas? Side dishes, food for different moods (light, comforting, exotic, vegetarian). My work is cut out: come up with workable ideas and budgets, find clients, advertise, make up schedules. I'm not 100% sure I am ready to do this, or qualified, but I'm ready to think about it. It would certainly give me something to blog about, and maybe an idea behind a column? I've got to dig in.

And for the course on side dishes, I offer:

Homemade Chana Masala (chickpeas with tomato)
(serves at least 6 as a generous side dish)


4 tbsps olive oil
1 medium red onion, finely diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 heaping tsp each: Baharat, ground cumin, turmeric, madras curry powder
scant 1/2 tsp cayenne
2 cans chickpeas, drained
1 soup-can chopped tomatoes
juice 1 lime/lemon
fresh ground pepper
salt to taste
2 cups spinach, chopped roughly
1 tbsp butter
1/3 cup fromage frais, or plain fat-free yoghurt
handful coriander leaves, chopped

Saute the onions, garlic and spices in the oil till onions are soft. Turn off heat and add chickpeas, stir thoroughly till mixed, then cook over medium heat for a couple of minutes, then add tomatoes, lime juice and seasoning. Cook over very low heat, stirring occasionally, for at least half an hour. Shortly before serving, fold in chopped spinach and stir thoroughly, then add butter and fromage frais and stir well, bubbling the mixture for a bit. Sprinkle with chopped coriander leaves at serving.

**********

This dish fills the house with exotic, warm, garlicky aromas that will bring your family into the kitchen asking, "Can we have dinner early?" It's the perfect accompaniment to fish (we ate piles of it with grilled salmon the other night) and also, believe it or not, burgers. Last night was an experiment with a mixture of minced organic buffalo (bison, it goes by in America, not the same thing but close enough when you're eating it) and organic venison. I promise you, you will never buy beef again once you've had this mixture.

Gourmet Magazine is dead! Was my blog post the death knell? My October issue arrived today, the November issue to be the LAST PRINT ISSUE EVER. This magazine has been going strong since 1941, but it took more than the Nazis, or the Cold War, fake butter or Al-Qaeda to kill it. It took the internet.

I am very sad. Coming so close on the heels of the last episode of "Guiding Light", one of my Christmas and summertime American treats (even older than Gourmet, going on radio for 75 years!), it seems the landscape of popular culture is changing. I hate to think it's all what I see out in the real world today: people with mobile phones in one hand, while they adjust their iPods with the other! You could honestly run these people down, even with a tiny Cinquecento, and they'd be crushed without even noticing, I hate to say. Unless you interrupted their playlist or cut off their voicemail while they were in the middle of someone telling them what they should be Tweeting about. Honestly, I get more curmudgeonly by the day. Only blogging should be salvaged from the modern technological world. Oh, well, and email.

This weekend, however, will bring the London Restaurant Festival, and I think we'll take advantage of the Sunday combination of the Tate exhibition of Turner, and a two-course lunch in the museum's fancy restaurant. To think that until this week, a budding cookery writer could look forward to submitting a story about the Festival to Gourmet. We've got to think of a substitute: a wonderful source of inspiration, encouragement, research, life-enhancing stories, all about food. If I find one, I'll let you know.

04 October, 2009

autumnal issues











Brrr! There's a definite chill in the London air this morning. Tis the season of spiders, at least where I live, and last week John had to be brought to the rescue when I discovered a web the size of Birmingham directly in my path from the garden door to the dinner table outside. My shrieks brought Emily and Avery in from their desultory attempts at homework. "OMG," Emily cowered, "It's the biggest spider I've ever seen." "Maybe it's dead, it's not moving," Avery whimpered, and so John got a big stick and touched the web. Immediately the ginormous thing began frantically to work its way upward and away from him, so he carried the web over to a nearby potted plant amid more hysterical wails from the girls. "Look, she's carrying up all the extra silk to make a new web," John pointed out, trying to achieve some zoological education from what was so far a scream-fest.

The only thing worse than seeing a HUGE spider web complete with Charlotte in the centre, however, is seeing... HALF a huge spider web with no spider to be seen, and then I begin shaking my head in panic, inspecting my sweater sleeves for unwelcome guests.

I have my work cut out today. Do you, my faithful American readers, subscribe to Saveur Magazine? You must. It was begun, I think, in 1992, just as I was returning to New York from our first stint in London. At that time the food magazine world was very, very sparsely populated, with Gourmet and Food and Wine and... I want to say that's it. I'm exaggerating, or whatever the opposite is, but my point is, the food world was small, quiet and rather simply expressive.

Unrecognizable from today! Now Saveur is one of dozens of food magazines (some of them awful things dominated by television chefs, I won't name names) but it is still, with Gourmet, one of my favorites. Thank you, Mom and Dad, and Jill and Joel, for getting these magazines to me all the way across the ocean every month! They are the grandes dames of the cooking/publishing industry, bravely taking their old-fashioned, ingredient- and process- faithful approach into the modern world of amazingly trans-global shopping, eating and cooking. The recipes in these magazines work! And Saveur in particular is devoted to the STORIES around food: the family histories of great cooks, the memories of dishes cooked for Halloween in the Midwest, for birthday celebrations in tiny villages in Italy, for religious meals in the streets of Lebanon. Stories abound.

Because I get Saveur a bit late, I'm late to the announcement of a... food-writing contest. What are the 100 Best Food Things of the year? Saveur wants to know what we think. So I am playing with several ideas as I type here at my dining room table (looking resolutely into that dratted rebuilt spider web in the garden! and upward through the skylight at a neighbor kitty walking from one side of the roof to the other!). The idea of the contest is to describe your suggested Best Food Thing, then write no more than 1000 words on why you've chosen this Thing. It's as if someone stuck a pencil through her hair at Saveur and asked her editor, "What sort of a contest could we run so Kristen could get her idea published in a major magazine?"

Well, I'm getting ahead of myself. But I'm hard at work.

I'm also thinking (STILL!) about "Julie and Julia." There has been a fascinating discussion in many places about various aspects of the story, and I'm fascinating by all the layers of controversy spinning around. What is the nature of a blog, and what is available to bloggers to talk about? Was Julia Child's book morally Julie Powell's to "appropriate", and is there any difference between Julie's cooking her way through it and talking to her friends about it, and blogging it? Was Julie's cooking in order to save herself from a depressing post-September 11th New York life any less interesting than Julia's cooking to give herself something to do in post-WWII Paris while her husband took photographs and was a minor diplomat?

It seems slightly cruel, to me, for people to go to the film and come away saying how wonderful Julia Child was, and how forgettable Julie Powell was. No one until now has made a film of Julia Child's life. It took Julie Powell's project (however much I find her writing to be depressingly negative) to call enough attention to what Julia Child had achieved to warrant Nora Ephron to write a screenplay! Julia was and is wonderful, but the public's awareness of her had waned, perhaps, in the wake of all the hype and shrill nonsense of the modern food world. If Julie Powell's determination to cook her way through the book, to save her own sanity, resulted in a whole new generation's (or two! or three!) desire to GO HOME AND COOK, and go on Amazon and buy Julia's book, all to the good!

It's been said that Julia was upset at having her work taken over as a stunt, by Julie. Interesting question, that: once one publishes a book, isn't it out there to be treated (as long as it's legal) however the public wishes to treat it? I published a book myself once, about art history, and every once in awhile I see that someone has read it (amazing!) and used bits of it in an article, not always in a way I like, but legally credited, which means... I have to put up with it.

Here's a larger question, and one that is as relevant for an old-fashioned real BOOK like Julia Child's posthumous memoir My Life in France, as it is for my blog. How much of one's life experiences, conversations, love affairs, belong to one? The whole thing? Did Julia have the right to recount conversations with real people that took place 50 years ago, in her memoir? Do I have the right to recount conversations with real people that took place yesterday, on my blog? Did Julie have the right to go step by step through Julia's recipes, on her blog and in her book? How much of one's daily experiences belong to one, and how much to the other half of the relationship that makes it all possible?

I got in massive trouble awhile ago for recounting things that happened to me, here on the blog, because one person reckoned that they weren't my property to recount. If I had a lovely conversation with a little girl at Avery's school, and lovingly recounted it, I had stolen something from that little girl, my nemesis believed. But is that true? Was Julie's experience in her kitchen not entirely hers to tell about, because she was dependent on Julia's cookbook in order to tell it?

I had one very testy conversation with... let's call her a "frenemy"... about the blog. "If you'd told us all you were a writer to begin with..." Pause. "Yes?" I said. "What then?" "Well, then we'd have KNOWN..." "Known what?"

Now that I've had permission from Avery's school to have my blog (did I need permission? no idea), I tend to tell people I write one, just to put them on notice, I suppose. "Oooh, are you going to write about ME, then?" some people gush self-consciously, laughing a bit. Maybe! And I tend to change names. But Julia Child didn't. The Ambassador to France is the real Ambassador to France, the head of the Cordon Bleu cooking school is the real person. Was that her property to use, because she interacted with them?

Thorny questions these. I would certainly welcome anyone's views on the minefield that is one's ownership over all the laughable, touching, embarrassing, feisty or delicious things that happen in this life.

Goodness, this subject has certainly brought out all my latent professorial instincts! Back to real life. Last night saw us at the Trafalgar Studios for a raucous, uneven but enjoyable performance of "Othello," starring Lenny Henry, who I may say as a matter of public record, once lived in my house! With his wife, the comedian Dawn French.

How to describe this production? Well, not being superbly well versed in Shakespeare (nearly every time I see a play onstage it's for the first time, in my 40s, which is a bit embarrassing, but at least I'm going!), I had to read up on the play. It's the story of a rather mismatched marriage between a black Moor with a sad past, and his high-born white wife Desdemona, who are surrounded by a lot of conniving, interfering colleagues and "friends." Othello's trusted colleague Iago convinces him that his beloved wife is cheating on him with a military colleague, and Iago gets his own wife Emilia to participate unknowingly in "proving" Desdemona's infidelity, so, spoiler alert, Othello kills her. Then he finds he was wrong and he kills himself. End of story.

What this play needs, for one kind of success, is absolute passion, quiet conviction of devoted love, a slow burn toward from disbelief to belief in betrayal, an epic struggle within one person to do a dreaded deed, and then mind-blowing remorse. This version... did not have these things. I was not convinced that there was enough chemistry between Othello and Desdemona to warrant belief in their overwhelming love. They seemed cheerfully fond of one another, but there was no chemistry. Henry towered over Jessica Harris, his tiny Desdemona, which is FINE, but there was only a brotherly-sisterly happiness in being together, not a soul-destroying, obsessive love between two people for whom the path to happiness is strewn with other people's hatred.

Conrad Nelson was amazingly evil as Iago (and he composed the music for the production, how impressive). He conveyed hatred well enough, but I never could figure out WHY he hated Othello enough to engineer the massive deception that brought about his downfall. There is racism in the language of the play, but I couldn't hear or see it clearly enough to feel I understood Iago's position.

All this being said, it was a very stimulating evening! Why? In an odd way because one could never quite suspend disbelief that Lenny Henry was onstage playing Othello. He's a giant comic talent! Our neighbors report that when Dawn French and he lived in our house, the walls simply shook with laughter. He is a larger-than-life GOOD man, who brought to Othello a sort of simple sweetness, and then about face: a rather unbelievable belief in having been betrayed. But we cared. More about him and his unhappiness than poor Desdemona's fate.

The second half is much stronger than the first. He stops rushing his lines, Desdemona's bewilderment is believable, Iago gets meaner and nastier, and by the end, however wavery the motivation seemed for Othello's murder of his wife, we believe his utter misery and self-loathing.

Go, do! It's playing through December. John said just what I was thinking at the end, "I like the bows as much as the entire play!" Lenny Henry was positively bouncing with the thrill of the play, since he had avowed his discomfort with Shakespeare until he took on this project. The bows were full of pride, joy and accomplishment, and he shook hands with audience members and slapped his fellow actors on the back, clowning and laughing. It was really a very enjoyable night. But not, strictly speaking, "Othello," if that makes sense. I'd like to see a truly tragic production someday. And now I know what the play is about, I can have a better attention span!

Before the play we ate an early dinner here (I know, I know, normal people take the opportunity to go OUT to dinner, but you know me). We had had simply superb meatballs stuffed with mozzarella earlier in the week, and I'd reserved a good portion of the meatball mix for what purpose, I do not know. But my brilliant husband, ever attuned to grilling opportunities, said, "Let's make burgers of it." And may I say? The best burgers EVER.

Meatball Burgers
(serves 4 easily)

about 1 1/2 pounds mixed ground meats: pork, beef and lamb
2 eggs
1/2 cup homemade breadcrumbs
salt and pepper (to taste if you don't mind raw meat and eggs, as I don't!)

4 hard rolls
sliced red onion
sliced tomato
sliced avocado
mayonnaise with some wasabi mixed in (if you like a kick)
ketchup
rocket leaves

The secret to this mixture is in the KNEADING. You have to knead it like dough. So take off your rings and get in there. Make sure the bowl is bigger than the dough by a lot, so you can really move around. At the beginning the mixture will be three separate meats and some slippery egg, with the breadcrumbs floating around. But the more you mix, kneading and turning the bowl around, it mysteriously marries together. The slipperiness merges with the breadcrumbs and the meats all make friends. After just five or six minutes of kneading, the mixture will be completely smooth and relatively airless and lumpless.

Form into burgers, tall or flat as you like. I like tall, although they're ultimately a complete mess to eat. On a very hot grill, grill the burgers three or four minutes per side, depending on your attitude toward rareness.

To assemble, slice the rolls in half and tear out the insides of each, putting them aside to make breadcrumbs. Everyone adds condiments and veg, and bob's your uncle.

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

A couple of caveats: give everyone at least two napkins! And if you're cooking for a first date, you'll learn a lot about him or her from the way that burger gets eaten!

Well, I must get to my contest. Deadline is Wednesday! Wish me luck.

01 October, 2009

conkers and cookers















What, you ask, are these little creatures? These are those familiar harbingers of an English autumn, the seeds of the horse chestnut tree, also known as "conkers" because of the quaint games that can be played with them. When I was a little girl, and my husband a little boy, both of our native Midwestern United States called these nuts "buckeyes," which explains Ohio being named the "Buckeye State" (a fact probably entirely unknown to ALL my European readers, but now you know). They are both, the English and American varieties, known simply as the aesculus glabra. You can hang them from strings and clunk them together, till one breaks (guess who loses in THAT game), or toss them over a level playing field like bowls.

On our recent walk across the GORGEOUS Barnes Green, collecting these little guys brought back many intense childhood memories of Halloween-ish times, finding these lovely, smooth, collectable items on the ground, hiding underneath the fallen leaves. John and I found ourselves in Barnes as a sort of time-spending exercise, it being handily near to the boys' school where we had dropped Avery and her friend Emilie off at their rehearsal for the upcoming musical. What? Have I not told you about the musical? I'm sure I've mentioned it, if only in passing. Here's the scoop: Avery's school hosted auditions for her year to take part in a play put on jointly with their brother school, and of course she turned up to do so. Chorus, it turned out to be, and her intense disappointment at not being awarded a more illustrious part has faded in a general air of communal excitement at being in the musical at all. Well, I say excitement...

Barnes, however oddly we came to it, is lovely. It was a Wednesday afternoon, and as many small-ish towns still do, observed the Wednesday early closing, so we just barely reached several establishments and missed many others. Two Peas in a Pod, a gorgeous fruit and veg shop in the Church Road, afforded unparalleled sugar snap (you guessed it) peas, uncommonly fresh, lovely onions, fresh thyme, a whole host of red peppers for soup, and I saw shelves full of organic flour, rice, stocks, you name it. The lovely men who run it are friendly, knowledgeable, helpful and, if this suits, very cute to look at. Altogether a very nice way to stock up for supper!

From there we were onto the Barnes Bookshop also in the Church Road, a tiny, crowded, but clean and well-lit shop manned by two cheerful bibliophiles. I searched for a present for my niece Molly's birthday, and for the drycleaner's baby, and for my niece Jane for Christmas... never even got near the adults' books, but it looked tempting indeed. "You should have a bookshop," John hissed, under cover of "The Very Hungry Caterpillar." "Oh, so I could lose even more money than I did with the gallery?" I hissed back. "Oh, right."

It's always my dream thought: to have a bookshop that sold small works of art and had a little cafe with sandwiches and soups and salads I could make myself. How could it go wrong? Let me count the ways.

Well, in terms of dreams... I've come to terms with "Julie and Julia," I think. Or at least, I've decided to concentrate on what I loved about it. And it's pretty much encapsulated by the first-ish important line of the film. I paraphrase: after a long awful day at work, Julie arrives home and begins to cook. I think it's veal chops, in a mushroom cream sauce. "Do you know why I love to cook?" she asks her long-suffering husband. "Because when I have a terrible day, where nothing goes right, I get to come home and put together dinner, and I always know that if I add eggs to cream..." Essentially what she's saying is what I have ALWAYS said about cooking, and why I do it every single day even if I have a bad day (which unlike Julie, isn't every day).

It's because cooking is a priceless combination of creativity, freedom, sensuality, experiment and satisfaction. The whole process is satisfying to me: I adore any grocery store of any kind: the big supermarkets where everything's wrapped in off-putting plastic? I love them because you always find what you need. The tiny exotic delis and boutiques? I love them because while you never know exactly what you'll find (fresh red pepper pate? a new stinky French cheese? sardines in olive oil?), you know you'll find SOMETHING. Chatting all the while with the beautiful and energetic proprietress, you get samples. And that unexpected something will lead your cooking ideas in a new direction. And markets? Who knew there were three different varieties of bresaola (dried cured beef) being produced in one county of England? You do, because there they are, and you buy one of each to compare.

Then you get home with your wares. It may be impossible to handle various questions related to your daughter's physics homework, your husband may be growling about market conditions about which you know less than nothing. The cats are hissing through the window at the neighbor cat, you've accidentally put your favorite black sweater through the hot cycle on the washing machine: FELT.

But there is still garlic to be chopped, lamb and beef mince to mix with eggs and homemade breadcrumbs, olive oil and tomatoes to be simmered, basil to be chiffonaded, Parmesan to be grated. And at the end of an hour or so: VOILA. Meatballs stuffed with buffalo mozzarella, poached in a rich tomato sauce. The daughter solves her physics problems and comes to play piano for her lesson the next day, her friend from "Drake" rehearsals at her side, making her laugh. The husband shrugs his shoulders over the dreadful stock market and comes to steal cucumber slices from your salad with rocket, and a dressing of fromage frais with mustard. Cooking is... COMFORT.

And if you're not in the mood for Italian? Just imagine what was for dinner here last night. It's a total winner in the comfort department.

Chicken Fillets with Mushrooms and Creme Fraiche
(serves 4)


4 tbps butter
2 tbsps olive oil
4 chicken breast fillets, well trimmed
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 tsp dried thyme leaves
salt and pepper to taste
1/2 white onion, minced, or 2 shallots, minced
generous splash Marsala
6 large white mushrooms, sliced roughly
1/2 cup chicken stock
1/2 cup half-fat creme fraiche

Melt butter with olive oil in a large skillet until (as Julia Child says) the butter stops talking to you. Really: wait until the bubbling subsides, then slip in the chicken breasts. Saute on one side for two minutes, and flip over for two more minutes. Remove to a platter. Drop garlic and thyme leaves, salt, pepper and onion (or shallots) in the remaining butter and oil and saute gently till garlic is soft. Turn up heat and add Marsala, bubble strongly for a few minutes. When it's reduced, throw in mushrooms and stir vigorously until they begin to let off juice. Cover with the chicken stock and simmer for about 15 minutes. Add creme fraiche and whisk till mixed.

Place chicken breasts in sauce and simmer until the chicken is thoroughly, but not over-cooked. This may take about 15 minutes. Serve with steamed rice and a nice green vegetable: thin beans, sugar snap peas, asparagus, steamed broccoli. GORGEOUS.

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

My feeling is that no one should be blamed for not wanting to cook dinner every night. I have more free time than most people. But give it a try. See if you don't find that predictable source of giving, and then eating, a happy comfort for you and the hungry people you live with.