28 November, 2009

lovely leftovers




















Isn't the best part of Thanksgiving the leftovers? All the stress of getting the dinner itself ready at the same time is over, the tiny little voice in the back of your mind warning you how long washing up will take has been stilled. The guests have been fed, the candles have burned down and all that remains is to open the fridge, lift the foil lid, and... uncover pure gold.

The best sandwich! Roast turkey (thank goodness John had left a plate of the best dark meat hiding behind a poinsettia, because all the turkey we offered our guests was eaten!), a good sharp Cheddar cheese, sourdough bread lightly toasted, a mild red onion, mustard and mayo... it doesn't get any better than that, with a little bowl of turkey soup on the side.

What I did not get leftovers of were:

Becky’s Cheesy Thanksgiving Potatoes
(serves at least 8, but more with other side dishes on offer)


3 lbs/1 ½ kilos potatoes (Maris Piper here in England is a good choice, or a Yukon Gold in the US)
3 round shallots or 1 banana shallot, minced
2 cups/ 474 ml grated or shredded Cheddar or Double Gloucester cheese
1 tsp garlic powder
sea salt and pepper
3 cups/1 pint/474 ml single cream or Half and Half

Boil potatoes until easily pierced with a fork, then peel when cool. Grate them on a coarse grater and set aside.

Lighly oil or nonstick spray a deep glass or pottery casserole dish, perhaps 9 inches in diameter and 5 inches or so high (mine is round, which is an appealing shape). Scatter a layer of grated potatoes on the bottom, then cover with a layer of cheese, a sprinkling of shallot, a sprinkle of garlic powder, and season well. Repeat layering until you have run out of ingredients, ending with cheese. Then pour the cream over the casserole.

Bake at 180C, 350F until bubbly and the cheese begins to brown, about 45 minutes, depending on the depth of the casserole.

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

Becky, much-missed Thanksgiving companion during our first years here in London, has always claimed that these potatoes are even better as leftovers, but as we never had any left over, I cannot verify this! Just the same this year.

These potatoes were so good that they even featured as one of my guest's "Three Things I Am Thankful For"! Unbelievably soft and creamy, with a crisp, golden crust, they disappeared immediately. Well, with 15 guests, 8 children among them, that's not surprising.

What was a welcome surprise was my painter friend Matthew's unexpected contribution to the feast!

Matthew's Apple Nut Tart
(serves 12 easily)


2 sheets puff pastry pressed together, about 18 x 12 inches, brushed with beaten egg
apple slices to cover pastry (about four apples)
handful each: pine nuts, cashews, pecans (all toasted)
dribble of honey to cover all (1/3 cup?)
dusting of cinnamon sugar

Bake at 180C, 350 F for 20 minutes.

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

This tart has everything, John reports, each of the perfectly simple ingredients playing its appointed role: delicate warm pastry, soft apple, crunchy nuts, slight sweetness of honey and sugar. A really nice dessert for those of your guests who don't like pumpkin pie.

Classic Pumpkin Pie
(serves 8)


1 unbaked pie crust (or here in London, sweet pastry shell) in pie plate
3/4 cup/150 grams granulated sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground cloves
2 large eggs
1 can (15 ounces/425 grams pumpkin puree (in England it will be part squash, no matter)
1 can (12 ounces/340 grams) evaporated milk
whipped cream to top

Mix sugar, cinnamon, salt, ginger and cloves in a small bowl. Beat eggs in a large bowl. Add pumpkin and sugar-spice mixture, mix well. Gradually add evaporated milk.

Pour into unbaked pastry shell and baked at 210C/425F for 15 minutes. Reduce temperature to 180C/350F and bake for another 40-5- minutes, until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool for 2 hours, then serve with whipped cream.

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

I'll admit it: I don't even like pumpkin pie. But it's completely necessary to Thanksgiving dinner, and Avery will eat all the leftovers for breakfast, as long as they last.

We had a lovely time. Every big dinner party should include a family of six, I think: just with one invitation, you get a huge group! "Thank you," said the dad, "No one every invites us all!" The girls all made turkey placecards with their handprints on orange paper, and the littlest girl Molly plucked kernels of "Indian corn" from the cob that's decorated our front door, so each person would have them for the "Three Things I'm Thankful For."

Somehow I managed to get eight side dishes to come out at the right time, and I should have made more of everything, because there were almost no leftovers, sadly! Cheesy spinach, caramelized carrots, two kinds of potatoes, two kinds of beans, and stuffing, all were wolfed down with children taking second helpings of all the vegetables, to their parents' delight. I've said it before: if you add enough garlic and cheese to almost anything, children will eat it.

Well, all this means only one thing: Christmas is upon us. Every day the pile in the corner of my bedroom gets a little higher: presents to pack up and take with us to Connecticut. In just three weeks we'll be there! "Why are all the gifts we're taking along so HEAVY?" John complains, and it's true. Everyone in my family wants far too many books, but as I'm the worst offender, I shall say nothing. This week I must write to Farmer Rollie and his wife Judy to specify our Christmas tree needs, from their tree farm. That's one of the best feelings of Christmas, arriving at Red Gate Farm to open up the big red barn and find trees and wreaths, breathing out their lovely resiny aroma.

Speaking of resin, or anything sticky, no such thing may enter our house as of Monday morning when Avery... gets her braces put on. I know it's something that happens to more children than not, a rite of passage of sorts. I always told her I'd never insist on braces so that her teeth were perfect, just so that they were functional, and so it is. Her incisors are hiding rebelliously up inside her gums and so must be called to account. Wish her luck! And may tomorrow be filled with caramels for every meal.

24 November, 2009

Thanksgiving approaches











"Drake: the Musical" has receded into the mists of time, carrying along with it the memories of such ditties as "It's Raining Again in Greenwich" and the campaign song for Sir Francis running for Mayor of Plymouth against Lord Killigrew, whose famous refrain, "Thank you, Mother," will live on in the minds of all of us who saw two, three or even four performances. It was such fun! Such a happy reminder of my own high-school days in musicals, that feeling of group effort, fellow support, admiration.

The play ended in triumph on Saturday night but I wasn't even there, for two reasons: one, you couldn't get a ticket for love or money, and two, I was sick as a dog. I hardly ever get sick, and so when I do, it's with a vengeance. I spent Saturday, Sunday and yesterday in a lump of misery, sluggishness and tissues. Today I am beginning to feel better, which is a good thing considering... Thanksgiving is in less than 48 hours.

In any case, we're all mourning the passing of "Drake," and there is much Facebook activity in Avery's life as a result. But never mind: next week she has her very first paying acting job! She's providing a voiceover for "Bob the Builder," a terrifically popular television series here. At least, she is if she gets permission from school. In one of those flurries of notes to school, that particular request is in a pile along with "Yes, we'll be at the parent-teacher conferences" tomorrow night. I always get excited about these conferences, even when I know from long experience that what will happen is this: each teacher will gaze at us calmly and say something like, "Everything's fine."

Tonight was the Soiree Musicale at school, a lovely evening of musical feats (too much flute, not enough swing band). Avery and her "Junior Madrigal Choir" performed a hair-raisingly touching "Ave Maria," and can I just say? I will be so pleased when, someday, I can listen to my child sing in a concert without my breaking down into hidden tears. I always have to pretend I have something in my eye, or that I must blow my nose (at least tonight I had a cold). There is something about the utter innocence, the knowledge of the effort put into the performance, the touching investment of all these girls into their achievements that makes me unbearably sentimental. I find myself thinking, "You'll learn to sing these lovely solos and play the saxophone and write your own arrangements of ancient songs, and then what? You'll wake up one day and YOU'RE the mother, sitting in the audience, wondering where it all went." I am really in a mood!

Such was my funkiness last evening when, in the throes of an annoying hacking cough, I felt very blue. I think I can identify part of my sadness: I've been working for several weeks on a chapter for my "book" on Thanksgiving. And it turns out, Thanksgiving in England makes me sad. It's an American holiday! No matter how lovely our guests, and they will be, they are English and as such, visitors to our holiday. The childhood feelings of family, bickering and familiar and beloved as they are, will not be present. I'll wake up on Thanksgiving morning with that odd feeling of being in charge that never fails to amaze me, no matter how many (20 at least!) years I have been in charge. It's meant to be my Aunt Mary Wayne and Uncle Kenny who host us and take care of it all. My dad should be driving and my mother bickering about directions to Kentucky, and my sister and brother and I squabbling about having enough room in the backseat. I haven't spent so much time thinking about Thanksgiving in years and years, and I miss everyone quite desperately. But I imagine that I'll come out on the other side, still feeling nostalgic for the old days, but with my mind firmly aware that it's my house, my holiday now.

I'm making lists. Yesterday John and I picked up the huge turkey and placed him in his briney bath of sea salt, peppercorns, fresh rosemary, sage, celery and onions. So he will repose until Thanksgiving afternoon, when for the first time, I'm going to roast him upside down. So much for the Norman Rockwell photo opportunity: this year his legs will be sticking down the wrong direction, but let me tell you, that breast will be TENDER, not dried out. Then there will be the mashed potatoes, the cheesy potatoes my friend Becky has told me how to make (how we will miss her and her family on the day), green beans. John's arguing with me over the beans. Should they be canned, with mushroom soup and fried onions on top? Yuck, but traditional. I'm not getting much support for my view that they should be steamed, with a buttery, garlicky, lemony dressing. It's tradition versus a food someone might actually want to eat.

Then there's stuffing made of the torn-out insides of Italian bread, sauteed sausage, celery, onions, garlic, mushrooms, fresh sage and a glug of heavy cream... and spinach with Gruyere cheese and celery salt, and pumpkin pie!

I'll do a post-mortem after the holiday itself and give you some perfect recipes. In the meantime, let me tell you what will make any schoolgirl sit up and take notice at breakfast, when "Drake" has finished and the holidays are just beginning to beckon. It's warm, it's fragrant, colorful, sweet and welcoming. Just right for those dark mornings with the rain pelting down the windows.

Perfect Fruit Crumble
(serves about 4-6 breakfasts?)


6 nectarines or small peaches
2 dozen strawberries, hulled and halved
1 cup wholemeal flour
1 cup Demerera sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp each: ground cloves, ground nutmeg
125g/1/2 cup cold butter

Cut up all the fruit and lay it in a glass dish about 9 x 5 inches. Then place flour, sugar and spices in a Cuisinart, turn it on, and gradually add, in small cubes, the cold butter. Let the mixture whizz until it has the consistency of a rough, crumbly dough.

Scatter the crumbly dough over the fruit and bake at 180C/350F for 40 minutes or until the fruit bubbles and the top is brown.

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

Onward and upward then, past nostalgia for musicals, past doses of Day Nurse and Night Nurse for colds, past grocery lists and table-setting strategies. It's time to assume the mantle of adulthood and be thankful.

17 November, 2009

take THAT, Spanish Armada















It's happened at last: "Drake: the Musical" has been staged not once, but twice in the small lives we all inhabit here in our little corner of London. And contrary to our rather churlish expectation, fed by our children's vile attitudes (which have changed remarkably since performing), the musical was FABULOUS.

Granted, I will go to my grave wondering why on earth anyone thought that Sir Francis Drake ("Frankie" to his many admirers onstage) was a compelling figure for a musical lead. He was a laddish rake of the first order, nothing more than a pirate! ("A privateer," his 11-year-old portrayer insists). Added to that skepticism may be put the questionable wisdom of 13-year-olds putting on a musical that deals with, let's see, rampant anti-Spanish propaganda (I'm not English, so I can frown at the laughter in the audience at all the slurs!), randy seafaring pirates, and much ado about members of the drunken aristocracy. Lines like, "If I'm Knight of the Garter, can I say whose garter it should be?" and "I'll show you to the ladies in waiting," followed by, "They don't have to wait no longer!" You get my drift.

Still and all, the production managed to be completely charming. The kids have worked unexpectedly hard, it's clear. I guess I fell into the old trap of believing a child's description of any ongoing experience, especially when you gather a whole bunch of them together and THEN try to get a grain of truth from their tales of woe. How terrible the songs/dance/speeches were going to be (they were marvelous and almost faultless), how horrendous the makeup (pretty much standard), how perilous the sets (nothing collapsed). In general, they warned us about how embarrassing the whole experience would be, and yet, all the performers seemed happy to have us turn up, fill the house, and clap wildly. They were WONDERFUL.

"Tarry a tick, old chap!" was typical of the banter, as was, "Her Majesty's a bit tetchy today, and who can blame her?" "Love a duck!" exclaimed one girl upon seeing a beautiful necklace, whereupon an eavesdropping Lord said, "Duck? Duck? Ah, Drake... a highly unsuitable expression, given the circumstances..." I chuckled even more at these Wodehouse-esque, outdated expressions. I do love living here.

The atmosphere of a boys' school itself strikes amazing feelings of inadequacy in me, the average son-less American who did not grow up surrounded by children in knee britches, matching jackets, neckties and beanies. With kneesocks and little briefcase-y satchels. And loads of matching stair-step brothers. These boys are called things like Horatio and Simon, and the huge blowups of them in the passages, playing rugger and the like with concentrated expressions of aristocratic competitiveness only underscore the huge cultural gap between people like us and people who take this sort of thing for granted. Large groups of boys who go to a boys' school are a breed apart: they really do say things like, "Jolly good!" and "I say..." They wrestle and push and shove and mock-bite like any boys in America, but they do it with perfect haircuts and gorgeous accents like David Cameron's, and I for one am besotted. Will Avery end up with someone like that, and I'll feel inferior for every family holiday for the rest of my life? She seems perfectly at home in the setting.

Tomorrow is an evening off. A break from the makeup removal at nearly 10 p.m., the rehashing of "Did you hear when Elizabeth's microphone stopped working during her duet with Drake?" and whose fluffing of lines caused tears (never let them see you sweat, I advise). Then another performance on Friday night, and another on Saturday, then never to be seen again.

I've learned several things from the whole process of "Drake: the Musical." One, boys at this age are nice. They're presentable and talented and cute, and I wish Avery had more of a chance to know them. Two, I should not pay too much attention to moaning and complaining and predictions of disaster, because these children work too hard at everything for any one thing not to be done well, and this was truly a thing for them to be proud of.

Most important, I've learned that I will greatly miss the late-afternoon strolls across the ornamental bridge to the boys' school as the sun sets, with one, two or three girls at my side, not quite ready to walk themselves across the Thames to rehearsal. There are so many landmark "last times" I never thought to notice: the last time I was asked to chaperone a school trip? Didn't make a note of it. The last time Avery reached out naturally to hold my hand crossing a street? The last time I read out loud to her before she went to sleep? What WAS I paying attention to that these things passed by without a whimper?

But I will miss these walks to rehearsal, because the next time she has to go across the river for something with her friends, she'll undoubtedly go on her own, and the delightful conversation about fashion, makeup, who likes who, even the dreaded moaning about homework, will all happen like that tree in the forest. Will any of it happen if I'm not there to listen?

The short answer is, yes. The cliche that children only get more wonderful as they get older is true, which is meant to make up for the fact that you spend more and more time without them, and the times you hold their hands are fewer and farther between. The fact is, the little versions of Avery from the past that she's left behind in my memory are just as powerful as her present self: they're sepia, fuzzy, little-girl versions of the bright blue, velvet Drake-costumed girl I see today. I treasure them all.

So onward and upward to final performances of "Drake." I hope I live to see "Joe Biden: the Musical." In the meantime, Avery has a call-back audition tomorrow afternoon for, get this, an anti-alcohol public advertisement. Talk about growing up quickly! It's odd when your child acts for a commercial discouraging her against doing something it had not, so far, occurred to her to do. The perfect antidote to all those mugs of ale aboard the Golden Hinde with Frankie! Now I can rest easy. And we can all come home to:

Homemade Tomato Soup
(serves 8)


2 tbsps olive oil
1 tbsp butter
6 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1 white onion, roughly chopped
2 pounds fresh plum tomatoes, quartered
3 cups chicken stock
handful fresh rosemary stalks, leaves removed and roughly chopped
1/2 cup single (light) cream

zest of 1 lemon
1/2 cup sour cream
fresh ground black pepper

Prep is simplicity itself. Heat olive oil and butter in a large saucepan and add garlic and onion to wilt slightly. Add tomatoes and stock and rosemary, simmer for 1/2 hour or until tomatoes soft. Puree with a hand blender and put through a sieve into another saucepan. Add light cream. When serving, sprinkle each bowl with a bit of lemon zest, a dollop of sour cream and a grind of pepper. Done, dusted, PERFECT.

*******

There is nothing more perfect than this soup. Inexpensive beyond belief, almost effortless, elegant and comforting. With a grilled-cheese sandwich, this is the perfect after-Drake supper. With a mug of ale, of course. Hip, hip, hooray!

15 November, 2009

sheer gluttony












I must kvell! This is my first food article (well, the first two pages of it) published in the glorious Vintage Magazine, out of New York. The editor, Ivy Sherman, is truly a visionary, and has made each writer's work stand out with production values from a bygone era. My grandmother's actual recipe cards are reproduced in card form, spots and stains intact, and my work has been edited to perfection. I'd forgotten how it felt when a piece I'd written a long time ago appears in print; I find myself thinking what a clever girl this writer is, and perhaps I could meet her! Write a fan letter. Then I remember it's me.

I'm truly thrilled. Ivy has commissioned a second piece, so I'm hard at work researching the history of women and campanology in mid-20th century England. Don't ask: it will be brilliant when it appears, I'm sure, if Ivy has anything to say about it, and she does.

Well, food has certainly been my life in the last week. I've been to "Masterchef Live: the BBC Good Food Show" at Olympia on Friday, produced (though I do say it myself) a completely fabulous grilled lamb chop dinner on Friday night and a lasagne-fest Saturday night for some of my absolute favorite guests, and last night was stir-fried sirloin with thick slices of ginger, broccoli florets, red peppers and roasted peanuts in a soy-sesame sauce. I feel I should announce some sort of fasting program. Every day I'm astonished I can still fit into my clothes. Honestly. It's been a food frenzy.

Blame it all, in the first instance, on the pure appetite-adrenalin caused by the arrival of my Edinburgh friend Charlie. How I adore him! Do you have friends who just lift the lid on your personality, who make you rejoice in the spice of life? I am more than lucky in this regard. My thoughts alight on my friend Jo, who no matter my stalled ambitions, less than stellar confidence in myself, never fails to change my mood completely. She is effervescent, squeezing my arm to underscore some important point in our nonstop conversation, doubling up laughing. She and I spent an afternoon together on Tuesday feasting on sushi at the South Kensington Kulu-kulu, and there is nothing better. Salmon fifty thousand ways, plus cold steamed spinach in sesame sauce, soft-shell crab, the best tempura shrimp. And laughter. The V&A after for some cultchuh, more hysterical laughing over a painted miniature of one Sir Crapper, who was in charge of... London's sanitary engineering. I couldn't make this stuff up.

And then there's Charlie.

Perhaps if we spent more than a few hours, or a few days together, we'd stop laughing constantly and competing for clever banter, but our friendship began over a five-day isolation course together, and we never ran out of things to laugh about then, so my hopes for a sort of forever-friendship are high. The fun of the Good Food Show is well-known to my readers, as is my addiction to the Taste of London in June. But somehow I am never quite prepared for just how much I can EAT in one afternoon. And although I'm telling you about the show too late for you to go this year, you'll be prepared for the next show on offer in London, once you've read my tales of gluttony.

Charlie and I met up in the rain outside Olympia, hugged and kissed, and immediately began the completely ridiculous endless silliness that we do enjoy so much. Added to the general euphoria is his newfound love for a certain someone the details of whose charms took up much of our conversation. New love, it is a joy to hear about, especially with the vantage I and my beloved occupy from 27 years down the road! Let me tell you that all delicious foods taste better when they're washed down with the drunken happiness of someone you hold dear. Good for him!

But about the food. My God, the variety! We began with very posh fish fingers and homemade tartare sauce from Roast, home of the fabulous chef Lawrence Keogh in Borough Market. Light, crisp, nostalgic: the perfect introduction to an increasingly challenging food experience. Because next was Launceston Place, with my secret-crush chef Tristan Welch. If he's broken into the big 3-0 I'd be surprised, so young and so energetic! He was there meeting and greeting, but I was too shy to approach him. Instead I tucked into his lobster soup with brandy and saffron cream. Now, I consider myself quite a good soup maker. Red pepper, mushroom, potato and leek, comforting chicken soups all appear regularly from my hob. Today will be jerusalem artichoke with champagne and fresh thyme. But lobster? I wouldn't know where to start. With lobster stock from the shells and head of a previous lobster feast, probably, which scares me. I've never boiled a fish head.

Charlie enjoyed the venison burger with Keens cheddar and the housemade LP sauce. We lingered for a moment over my copy of Vintage magazine which he kindly praised, and we stood there imagining our glittering food-writer careers, just on the cusp, pushing aside dreamed-of members of the intrusive press who just wanted a word or a photo, invading our lunch...

Then we were onto Min Jiang, a gorgeous Chinese restaurant offering "legendary wood-fire Beijing Duck," and delicious it was, wrapped in a pancake and offering the perfect spicy sauce to drip onto Charlie's jacket. From there, we joined the queues at the Masterchef kitchen set, produced our tickets to the cookoff between Nadia Sawalha and Thomasina Miers. I admit it was very cool to see John Torode and Gregg Wallace in person, after following the Masterchef programmes on the telly, but I did not feel tempted, as did the ladies in front of me in the audience, to scream, "There they are, oh my God!" when they appeared before the crowd. Goodness, food celebrities!

Nadia and Thomasina were given bags of mystery ingredients, three minutes in which to decide what to cook and 20 minutes to produce a dish for judging. Nadia cooked a tomatoey Moroccan stew with eggs poached in it at the last minute (too last-minute, as it turned out, because they did not finish poaching in time! the same problem I had last week with my Moroccan meatballs for Gigi and Saad). Thomasina produced puff pastry biscuits with flambeed raspberries, custard and melted white chocolate. Charlie and I felt afterward that we were aching for just such a chance to cook under pressure!

Far more wonderful than puff pastry was Thomasina's offering in the Masterchef Restaurant, our final treat. Ravioli with duck liver and hazelnuts, in a sage butter sauce: simply sublime! She is the owner of Wahaca restaurant (one located in nearby Westfield shopping center) and I'm tempted to go, even though the Mexican bent offered there will not probably include a duck liver pasta. But anyone who can cook that dish can COOK. Do you suppose it was foie gras plain and simple, or prepared duck liver pate? Just sublime, so rich and simple.

Well, we simply staggered away. Sipped a glass of champagne, then meandered around to visit the many, many food stalls with sausages (I came away with "welfare-friendly Bocaddon Farm Veal" sausages from South-East Cornwall which look amazing) my favorite chilli oil from Apulia, the pepperiest and most flavorful without simply blowing your head off. Charlie ran into a friend running the Cornish Cheese Company stall, and we sampled and bought a creamy, subtle blue that isn't merely stinky, it's really complex and tasty.

Upstairs, we tracked down my inspiring cookery teacher of last winter, the gorgeous Hannah Goodyear of The Kitchen Queen! Things have just gone from strength to strength for Hannah, who's quit her day job since I worked with her last year and is teaching and catering like crazy. I have to admit, I showed her my magazine as well and we jumped up and down together in childish glee! I've said it before: I recommend a day cooking with Hannah as just about the most fun you can have in a kitchen. There are some "teachers" in this world who go into the business, I fear, in order to stamp down their students' confidence and ambition, while shoring up their own egos. That is dreadful. Hannah is the polar opposite: she stands back to let you shine, picks up your mistakes and sets them right, and it's all backed up with a pure love of food, both cooking and eating it. I love her. A few hours with her would be an awfully nice Christmas gift for your favorite cook, I can tell you, because there is always something we can all still learn.

That was our day out at the Good Food Show. How we hated to part, in the drizzly rain, sharing ambitions and memories of all the dishes we had enjoyed. Oh, so delicious. Thanks, Charlie.

It's amazing how a day like that can inspire a person to go shopping and cook. That, plus the memories of the Ottolenghi lasagna I was fed on Halloween, spurred me on to invite my friend Annie and her lovely family to dinner on Saturday night. I must say, the experiment was pretty successful. What I was after was a rather pale, creamy lasagna, as contrasted with the very meaty, cheesey, tomatoey version I usually produce. And amazingly, because the creaminess comes from a light bechamel sauce rather than pounds of cheese, it's a very light dish. I'd like it still creamier next time, so guess what? You should come and join us.

Creamy Lasagna
(serves 8)


12 sheets lasagna noodles
6 large carrots, sliced in rounds and the slices cut in half
2 tbsps olive oil
1 lb beef mince
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 shallots, minced
1 large can peeled plum tomatoes
1 tbsp Italian seasoning
4 tbsps butter
2 tbsps flour
1 pint whole milk
1 cup part-skim ricotta cheese
sprinkle nutmeg
pinch sea salt
fresh-ground black pepper to taste
1/2 cup grated pecorino or parmesan cheese
1 large ball buffalo mozzarella
handful basil leaves, shredded

Begin by boiling the lasagna noodles till cooked, then draining them and brushing them with olive oil to keep them from sticking together.

Steam the carrots until easily pierced with a fork and set aside.

For the meat sauce, heat the olive oil in a large skillet and begin frying the mince. When it is nearly cooked through, throw in the garlic and shallots and fry until they are softened and meat completely cooked. Add the tomatoes and Italian seasoning and simmer for about 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a large saucepan, to make the white sauce, melt the butter and add the flour: cook together until bubbling but before it begins to brown. Whisk in the milk slowly, making sure there are no lumps. Cook until the roux begins to thicken, then add the ricotta, nutmeg, salt and pepper and stir until thoroughly mixed.

To assemble, ladle enough meat sauce into a 9x13 inch glass dish to cover the bottom. Place 4 lasagna sheets on top of the sauce. Pour over half the white sauce. Sprinkle on the steamed carrots. Lay down another layer of noodles and another layer of meat sauce. Sprinkle with the grated cheese. Finish with the last 4 lasagna sheets, the last of the meat sauce and pour over the rest of the white sauce. Sprinkle on the mozzarella and top with the basil leaves.

Bake in a slow oven (150C, 300F) for about 45 minutes-1 hour until the lasagna is bubbling and top beginning to brown.

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

We ate it all! Normally when I say "Serves 8" I am really generous, because no one eats as much as my family and normal people will have leftovers. But not on Saturday night. I was thrilled to see the dish completely empty, as well as the bowl of garlicky, lemony steamed green beans and the pile of toasted baguette slices. My friend Annie brought a divine dark chocolate tart, perfect for me since I don't like sweet things. If you wanted it sweeter, you could use milk chocolate.

Annie's Chocolate Tart
(serves 8)


12-inch shortcrust or sweet pastry tart shell
11 ounces double cream
2 tbsps caster sugar (plain granulated sugar in the US)
pinch salt
4 ounces softened butter
1 lb best cooking chocolate

Spread greaseproof paper over the tart shell, cover it with beans or pastry beads and bake at 180C/350F for about 20 minutes or until thoroughly baked. Remove the beans and paper and cool completely.

Bring to a boil the cream, sugar and salt, then add the butter and chocolate and stir until they are melted. Annie says if the mixture separates at all, you can add a tiny bit of cold milk and whisk thoroughly.

Once the mixture has cooled slightly, pour into tart shell and cool at room temperature for at least 2 hours. Dust with icing sugar or cocoa or both, if you want it to look posh. Serve with double cream and strawberries.

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

This was very, very good. Creamy, simple and perfect.

Well, I think that is enough about food to keep anyone busy and chewing for some time. I'll be back later in the week with reports of... "Drake: the Musical," which reveals itself to the world on Tuesday night! And thereafter Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. By that time Avery will have disappeared completely under a layer of pancake makeup and we will all be singing the chorus about the defeat of the Spanish Armada. Watch this space.

10 November, 2009

adventures of a solo nature
























We're sitting back, hands folded over stomachs more than satisfied with John's first proper dinner since his return from Ireland. Cream of mushroom soup with homemade chicken stock, grilled salmon with steamed rice, roasted carrots and coriander, and steamed artichokes with the best vinaigrette: mustard, a tiny hint of mayo, chilli oil and lemon juice. We are surfeited.

John's back! I warned Avery that his flight would get in too late for her to stay up to welcome him, so she had just gone to bed when we heard that most unusual of sounds in darkest Hammersmith: an idling taxi! I simply knew it was him. Threw up the window (one of my mother's favorite expressions) and stuck my head out and there he was, shades of his many hundreds of returns from business trips, hauling suitcase and briefcase from the dark innards of the cab, looking up joyously to see me. "I'm HOME!"

Well, just look at these two photographs. The Honorable Desmond Guinness, host of one of the Georgian Society's evenings during John's Irish adventure, at his country pile. First in 1963, the year of John's birth, and the second, this past year, these photos were taken. How the brilliance of genetics shines through, over 45 years! The blue glow of his aristocratic eyes undimmed, the intellectual generosity as intense as ever. What a family, forming the Georgian Society to save all these buildings John loves so dearly. He had a marvellous, unusual, noteworthy time with all his fellow devotees of Georgian architecture. The first of many such adventures, we hope!

We are so glad to be reunited. How were we ever so accustomed to his many absences, more frequent than his times at home? But of course we could get used to it all over again, if he found the right job and was happy doing it. Avery and I survived quite well, if missing the smoothly oiled machine that is two parents on duty! Heaven forbid, we had to take public transport all over the place, as I absolutely refuse to drive our lovely Cinquecento until I have a proper driving license. As many of you know, I have an unfortunate history of a massive and nearly fatal traffic accident almost 20 years ago, and it was but a miracle that I wasn't thrown in jail THAT time. I really can't revisit it. So without John, Avery and I jumped on more buses and tubes than we normally do, and walked in many rainstorms to achieve our goals. Fair enough, we got where we needed to go.

The only true adventure in our time alone was Monday evening, when I had double-booked Avery's skating lesson and my own volunteer time at a school event, at precisely the same time. I racked my brains for a likely mother to whom I could say, "Wouldn't your daughter love to accompany Avery to her skating lesson, on the theory that two little girls alone are safer than one?" My imagination failed.

So I posed it to the girl herself. "Would you rather skip your skating lesson, or get to it yourself, and back home, in a taxi?" She considered this and then decided she was more than equal to the task. "Don't worry, Mommy! I'll be fine. Who would dare to kidnap me? It'd be like Clue." She assumed a dramatic stance with her skate bag. "Mr Cabman, in a black taxi... with a SKATE BLADE."

So I put her, my heart in my mouth, into a taxi, in a driving rainstorm, pitch dark. I stuck my head in the window as the driver let it down. I made severe eye contact with him, gave him the address. "No worries, love," he said cheerfully, so I smiled grimly, handed Avery in, repeated all the instructions about payment, tip, her skating ticket, paying her instructor, where to get the return cab, the address of the school... I was utterly exhausted as I slammed the door to, and walked to school, making an emergency phone call to my friend Annie as I went. "I think I'm having a panic attack..." Annie was, as one expects from such an experienced mother, calm. "It had to happen, she'll be home safe and sound, she can call me if she needs me." Right. All true.

I staggered into the school, wet and upset. There is a great British statement from WWII, "Keep Calm and Carry On." Of course. There is also, now in the 21st century, a follow-on slogan appearing on coffee mugs and computer mouse pads. "Now Panic and Freak Out." I decided on a sort of midway ground, and hung up my coat, greeted the catering manager, the High Mistress, the administration liaison, and promptly confided in everyone. "She's on her first taxi ride alone..." Loads of hand-holding and confidences in turn. Everyone understands.

Well, needless to say, two hours later, having pushed wine and snacks and wisdom on the new parents who were there for their parent-teacher conferences, I looked up to see Avery walking in, safe and sound. No Panic and Freak Out needed! She dropped her skate bag, her homework bag. "She's here!" several mothers shouted in muted tones. "As you see," Avery inclined her head, quietly confident, as befits the one in our relationship who has no clear memories of childbirth and so can be quite cavalier.

Well done. Well done on your independence, Avery! And do you know what the child said? "Well done, you, Mommy, I think it was harder for you." Sigh.

The only thing a mother can do on such an occasion is fill her oven at 5 p.m with the following, and know she'll walk into a fragrant home three hours later, with dinner on the table in a thrice.

Upside-Down Slow-Roast Chicken
(serves 4 with soup leftovers)


1 large chicken, spatchcocked
3 tbsps butter
1 large white onion, quartered
5 cloves garlic, peeled
3 tbsps olive oil
sea salt and pepper

In a large baking dish lined with foil, place the chicken, rubbed all over with the butter, breast DOWN. Trust me, the breast will not dry out, even if the finished product is less than elegant-looking. Spatchcocking means, of course, simply removing the backbone and flattening the chicken.

Scatter the onion and garlic all round, then sprinkle everything with olive oil and salt and pepper.

Place in a slow oven, 120C, 240F. You should also place in the same oven a foil-wrapped package of small whole beets, or parsnips, or butternut squash. Anything of a root vegetable nature will take to this method of cooking.

Come home three hours later to... dinner. I promise.

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

You will enter the house, your heart (my heart) still beating slightly too fast from whatever trauma has kept you from home during those lovely hours of 5-8. Your head will lift, your nose sniff like a cat's, your child will say something like, "Aren't you clever to have dinner cooking while we were out!" You will cut some French bread and put out some butter. The chicken will fall apart when you try to turn it over, but be sure to snag some of the crispy, salty skin from the carcass before you begin to take the chicken apart. Eat that skin WITHOUT APOLOGY, as my best writer friend Laurie Colwin would say. You did all the work: you deserve it.

Well, strictly speaking, no one did much work this time. But just for general principles, you eat that skin.

Once you've plucked enough chicken from the bones to serve you as dinner, drizzle it all with the cooking juices and tuck in. On the side you'll have whatever lovely roasted vegetables you stuck in the oven. And when you're finished, throw everything leftover into a large stockpot, cover it all with water, and simmer it for soup.

Well, dear readers, the rain pounds comfortingly outside my London bedroom window. I am not wet. This afternoon I was wet, taking Avery and her friend over the Hammersmith Bridge to their "Drake" rehearsals. Then I was wet again, food shopping in the High Street, and wet again as I walked home from the bus stop. But now? I am dry and cozy, my family is home safely from parts distant and parts just new and scary. I can relax.

08 November, 2009

Remembrance Sunday












Just a word to say, for many disparate reasons both personal and public, our minds are on the armed forces tonight, under so much pressure in so many places, for so many reasons, with so many families missing them and mourning them. We appreciate that it's not a choice for so many of you to be where you are, and that in many ways our safety in cozy, lovely London (and the rest of the world) is due to the scary lives you are living. Thank you, on Remembrance Sunday. We will wear our poppies.

07 November, 2009

Dartmoor, redux














































I realized that I left you all with the impression that our Devon sojourn was occupied merely with sitting around reading Daphne Du Maurier books (check), eating (check) and otters (check). But even more overwhelming, perhaps, was Avery's first experience with wild ponies.

Wild, you ask? What does this mean?

Wild means, you're on the quiet road between Sir Francis Drake's beloved home Buckland Abbey (gorgeous, as you see above, Avery posing reluctantly, "Drake the Musical" already occupying far too much of her time) and the horrid postwar town of Plymouth. You're asking idly, "Where do you think we ought to pull off in order to find these wild..." "PONIES!" Avery says with awe, pointing. "PONIES?" we all ask, in disbelief. There was no hunting and finding to be done. There were simply ponies, shaggy, fat, friendly and lovely, approaching us from all directions. Dear readers, we were naughty and brought them countless carrots in the pockets of our Barbour coats. Our law-abiding daughter was shivering in her Wellingtons not with cold, but with fear that some park attendant would find us and arrest us. "Maybe we're not supposed to feed them..." she moaned in indecision. More and more of the creatures followed us about. "You can't tell me we're the first people who've fed them," I argued. "They're very assertive!"

Sure enough, a park attendant did approach us to ask what we were doing. "Petting the ponies and giving them a carrot or two," John said blithely, his pockets weighted down with treats. "Oh, well, that's all right, then, as long as you're experienced around horses. They can be quite pushy!"

Impossibly magical to find these gorgeous animals quietly eating grass, just behind a shrub, or walking along a path in twos and threes, running to us as we approached. My favorite, I admit, was this white lovely, a bit shy at first, but very happy to accept carrot pieces after a moment or two. Avery was speechless with delight at the creatures' simply appearing to us. How on earth do they survive in winter, we wondered?

These days, in the wild with ponies and carrots, seem a million years ago now, having settled into two weeks of the long winter term of school. Keeping Avery's nose to the homework/musical/riding/skating grindstone seems one long utterance of "Are you ready to..." But life is in the contrasts, is it not?

Speaking of which, our household of three has been reduced, for the next four days, to just two (and any number of cats, of course). John flew off this afternoon for his Dublin adventure, and so it's just Avery and me. We feel quite bereft, happy as we are together, as if a limb were missing. John brings such a feeling of security, joy, confidence and energy, sadly appreciated only too little until he's gone. We shall not take him for granted anymore, once he's home! To offer you all a bit of security, I shall post an old favorite recipe, one I would back against anything more expensive, more sophisticated, more intricate. Roast yourself a chicken, enjoy it for dinner, then plunge all the carcass into a huge pot of water, simmer it for two hours with some carrots and onions. Strain it, leave it in the fridge overnight and next morning, scrape off the fat layer. Then...

Creamy Red Pepper Soup
(serves 4)


3 tbsps butter
6 red peppers, cut up roughly
1 white onion, quartered
4 cloves garlic, cut up roughly
a good dollop Marsala or brandy
chicken stock to cover vegetables
2 tsps dried thyme, or 1 tbsp fresh thyme leaves
1/2 cup single cream or creme fraiche

Melt butter in a heavy saucepan and saute peppers, onion and garlic until slightly softened. Add Marsala and simmer high till alcohol is reduced by half. Add chicken stock to cover vegetables, and sprinkle in thyme. Simmer high until red peppers are soft, perhaps 20 minutes. Blend with a hand blender, then push through a sieve into a clean pan. When ready to serve, heat again and whisk in cream.

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

This is the best soup I have ever made, and possibly the best THING I have ever made. I have served it to dozens and dozens of people, and everyone: children, babies, old people, vegetarians (if you make it with vegetable stock), EVERYONE simply sighs with delight.

So tonight we had this soup, for comfort with no John (who rang to tell us he was at a performance of Vivaldi's Four Seasons!). With a nice fillet of beef in a mushroom sauce, some mashed potatoes, and a pile of green beans, you can convince yourself that all is right with the world. If only you had a wild pony in your garden, says Avery. Fair enough.

05 November, 2009

John goes to Dublin alone












It's true: after a married life of Extreme Separation for many years, I have got so used to having my beloved right at home that his upcoming absence is worthy of a blog post. He is taking himself off to Dublin, as in Ireland, on Saturday for four whole days.

Alone.

Well, he will be joining a group, of like-minded devotees of Irish Georgian Architecture, for a series of learned lectures (is there any other kind), tours of houses normally closed to the public, plates of indigestible Irish food and who knows what sort o' mayhem.

We've had many lively discussions among our friends as to the probable nature of his fellow symposiasts. I vote for Little Old Ladies who thought gardens were included in the tour. Annie says, wet-blanket-like but undoubtedly right, Old Men Who Always Wanted To Be Architects But Inherited Father's Accountant Firm. John's holding out for A-level students (as in, age 17, and GIRLS) who just cannot be torn away from a Robert Adam ceiling and think 46 is actually the new 28. I say, in for a penny in for a pound, and he should be prepared for any eventuality. When I think of the social consequences of my own sweet little Devon sojourn with food writers a year or so ago... lifelong dinner companions and houseguests whenever I'm lucky enough for them to arrive in London! Birthday wishes for my small daughter! Could the same be possible with John's adventure?

No.

He filled out the "extra supplement for single room" with far too much glee, I fear. New friendships will have to leap out at him (and they will, since he is quite irresistible) in order for anything much to transpire. But I thought, "Hey, there might be someone on the tour who is in desperate need for a financial genius to run his estate." As in possibly the man hosting the first night's dinner at his... castle?

A murder is a definite possibility. The catering company hired to feed the symposiasts has, on its staff, the hidden, never-acknowledged heir to the entire estate of The Castle, and he/she (the disguise is really complete) has lived his/her entire life waiting for revenge, in the form of an inheritance. One person's portion of wild funghi risotto is not what it seems...

We shall miss him. Four days of my being responsible for the entire household (consisting of one quite independent child and four cats, admittedly). I shall have to get her to riding, skating, acting, musical rehearsals, school on Monday AND Tuesday... not to mention laundry, meal preparation, sympathetic listening to all issues... oh wait. I shall be doing precisely what all my friends without at-home husbands are doing EVERY day.

I know I can do it. And think how entertaining he'll be on Tuesday when he gets back. Unless he can't make bail for that murder...

03 November, 2009

Happy Birthday, Avery





























It's happened: Avery is a teenager. Yesterday was the big day, and I must say I scrutinized her closely this afternoon when she returned from school, and dare I say it? She's just the same. Lovely and loyal, friendly and steadfast, entertaining and intelligent, altogether someone we are thoroughly proud to call our own.

We spent the afternoon at Fortnum and Mason for ice cream, then a friend came home with her to do homework (outrageously, the school staff did not honor her birthday by withholding any assignments), then the requested birthday dinner: creamy red pepper soup, and rigatoni with a sauce of tomatoes, ricotta and pine nuts. Presents galore, mostly books! And charms for her bracelet, and a gorgeous velvet skirt from my parents... today a lovely outfit arrived from my sister and her family, so she's thoroughly kitted out now, in appropriately festive, 13-year-old-friendly wear.

I spent all day yesterday in my usual Avery-birthday fog. I remembered all day where I was 13 years ago, desperately walking the island of Manhattan, trying to get used to labor pains and avoiding the hospital like it was the seventh circle of hell (it came pretty close, eventually). Finally picking up that suitcase with one tiny outfit and my toothbrush and toothpaste in it, and bringing her home the very next day with guests for dinner! How lucky we feel to have her. Thank you, dear girl, and here's to another warm and wonderful year together.