28 May, 2010

a star is boiled

Guess what? It's the 600th post for "Kristen in London," and very possibly the last before my new look is unveiled, so Happy Birthday to us!

My house right now is filled top to bottom with a band of men installing my new security system. Because we have been burgled twice in less than a year, our insurance company is understandably a bit peeved with us. How did such undemanding customers of 25 years, dwellers in countless apartments in New York and London suddenly become so very... expensive? So they are insisting on an alarm system, before they agree to cover any more of our home invasions.

An atavistic instinct in me is enormously satisfied by the notion that some evil neighbor, having preyed on us twice before, is now looking with consternation from across the street, watching us become alarmed.

And it IS alarming.

Because these fellows are full of grisly tales from their native land, one from South Africa and the other the East End of London, where one apparently does not leave expanses of glass uncovered by metal bars, or doors with fewer than two solid locks at all times.

"This, madam, is your Panic Button. Simply press this red button if you hear broken glass or other signs of an intruder, and a loud screaming, piercing sound will..."

"OK, OK, I get it!" I say.

Actually I think having an alarm set while I'm in the house would make me even more jumpy than just THINKING I hear somebody. We've all done that: lain awake absolutely sure we've heard somebody coming in, but knowing it's not true. The idea of having scientific, Panic-Button-deserving proof of it is rather too close to the food chain for me.

So, the best thing for me to do in the face of such drama was to cook a live crab, and learn to take him apart.

This is because, dear readers, my aspirations for breaking into the British food world are coming true! I have won a place on a TELLY contest which shall remain nameless until it airs... The dish I'm putting forward? "Creamy Sweetcorn and Rocket Soup with Fresh White Crabmeat," so naturally I had to learn to cook and prepare a real, live crab. As I'll do on television, for real, on June 11.

Here's what happened. My dear friend Susan received an email invitation to join the contest, and while she had no interest in doing so, she forwarded the invitation to me, and on a sort of whim, I entered my darling soup recipe. Because, I'm loath to boast, but I will, I think it's a superb soup AND I invented it. As far as I can see, from assiduous googling and cookbook trawling, no one else has thought to cook sweetcorn and rocket in chicken broth and add cream and crab.

So the first thing that happened was someone emailed me back and asked that I submit the whole recipe with complete instructions, amounts, procedure, etc., along with some biographical information about me. The next thing I knew, my phone rang. Now, I am well-known to my nearest and dearest for hating speaking on a mobile phone. I don't like the feel of it, the tinny sound, or the tendency it has to ring when I've just sat down in a dentist's chair or ordered my main course. But I answered.

"This is so-and-so, is that Kristen?"

Gulp. "Yes."

"We here at the studio are holding our London and Southeast Regional Auditions next Saturday and wonder if you could bring in a bit of your lovely-sounding sweetcorn soup for our producers?"

Gulp. "Yes."

And from this scintillating exchange, my career in television was born. That grey and cold, spitty Saturday, John and Avery drove me to the Studios, whereupon Avery checked my makeup, applied a little extra of her favorite Benefit "Get Even" for my complexion, and a touch of lip gloss. "There, now you're ready." I marched into the building, got my name tag (complete with hideous photo in which I look like a disembodied head) and waited. And waited. Then the little group of us waiting there, eyeing each other and our carrying bags curiously, were escorted up to another waiting room filled with food smells!

A very large man was unpacking a complex-looking terrine with a layer of quail's eggs inside it and a lattice pastry top, a nervous-looking lady with red cheeks was ladling out a soup studded with what looked like sliced hot dogs, and a very skinny young man tending two little children sliced up a chocolate dessert of some kind, with glace cherries on top. Other hapless people who must already have submitted their dishes leafed in a desultory way through tabloid newspapers all screaming about the election.

When my turn came, I ladled my beautiful bright-green soup into a white bowl provided by the studio, and went to face my producers. And they were adorable! Lovely young men in their 30s, very competently asking me about my chicken stock, my opinion of British produce (better than American, I had to say, especially chickens, and rocket), what I was doing living here, how often I cook... it was great fun! I had expected to feel nervous, but honestly, when I'm talking about something completely natural and dear to my heart, what was there to be nervous about?

And they liked the soup!

"Now, your recipe suggests scallops or crab as an optional addition," one man said, licking his spoon. "Tell me about that."

"Well, for a party I have served it with sauteed scallops, but I didn't think they'd travel well, so I didn't bring them today," I said, "and crab meat always sounded like a natural, with sweetcorn, sort of a chowdery touch."

"Exactly," said the second young man, "I wonder if you'd be willing to consider that, should you get to the next round?"

"Sure!" I chirped, and they had another sip, shook my hand and said they'd be in touch.

Well, that little encounter completely disappeared from my life in the face of my trip to Indianapolis down memory lane, and other than mentioning it to my mother on the way in from the airport when I arrived, I never gave it another thought.

Until I got home, to a message on my mobile phone, left behind in favor of an American one. "Kristen, this is so-and-so again, and I wonder if you'd call me so we could speak about your recipe." That seemed like good news! It seemed hard to believe he'd want me to call him so he could tell me my stock was too salty. It had to be good news.

And it was! I'm part of the London/Southeast Regional heats. I'll compete against another person cooking a starter, and the judges will decide between us. Then after all the regional contestants have cooked and their shows have aired, the judges will choose a number of us for the next round. So it could be awhile, after filming on June 11, before I know any more, but watch this space! I'll tell you when to flick on your telly to watch me prepare:

Fresh-Cooked Devon Brown Crab
(serves 1 as a starter salad, or 2 garnishes for soup)

1 large LIVE Devon brown crab
1 carrot
2 stalks celery
large handful flat-leaf parsley
2 tbsps sea salt
cold water to cover
dash white wine

Leaving Mr Crab to the side for a moment, thrashing about on your countertop, place all the other ingredients for his cooking water in a large stockpot and bring to the boil. When the water is vigorously boiling, lower the crab in carefully and place a lid on the stockpot. This lid may need to be moved a bit to one side if the water begins to boil over. Watch the pot carefully to make sure Mr Crab does not flick the lid off. Boil for 15 minutes, then remove the crab to a plate to cool.

When the crab is cooled so that you can handle it, pull off the tail flap at the back, then remove all the legs and claws by twisting away from the body. Place the claws under a clean towel and tap with a hammer until the claws are broken enough to remove the large chunk of meat inside each.

Each large chunk of claw meat will have a central piece of cartilage running through, so feeling carefully along this cartilage, remove the crabmeat in as large pieces as possible and set aside. Check carefully for bits of shell and discard.

The chunks of white meat should be placed in the center of your bowl of soup in as pretty a pile as possible. Or you can mix a bit of mayonnaise with them and sprinkle with chives for a perfect crab salad.


For the purposes of this recipe, and because I do not like brown crabmeat, discard the rest of the crab or find a lovely friend who does like brown meat and give it to her. Or, my fishmonger says the brown crabmeat makes a lovely stock if you boil it and the crab shells in a little water. I tried boiling just the shells and the resulting liquid was awful: watery, dull, unpalatable.

So there you go, completely fresh crab. It is head and shoulders above anything you'll buy already prepared.

I must learn to do this perfectly, at least two more times, before the television day. When I did it the first time, I did not cover the crab before I hit it with the hammer, and the shells disintegrated like porcelain, shooting all over the kitchen. This to the truncated delight of my tabby, who thought each shard might contain food for her. Just shell. I'd rather not have shell shooting all over the studio, however!

Well, other than my burgeoning TV stardom, life has been fairly quiet. Avery is gearing up for a week of unmitigated study revision (well, probably not unmitigated) beginning tomorrow. They all have the week off to look over their work from the year, and the week after is nothing but exams. I remember this from last June: every day they are tuckered out, and irritable, and they just get more so as the week goes on. Many yummy little snacks are required to bring them from their gloom. It IS hard, six or so hours of exams all day long, for five days in a row. I actually think next week will be delightful, just having her at home sitting quietly with all her books and papers. I'm sure we'll find something adventurous to do to break up the monotony.

Last night was swimming pool duty, which I always enjoy. Our school owns a share in a gorgeous, old-fashioned, glass-ceilinged swimming pool just adjacent to the school grounds, and it's a beautifully evocative place to spend a couple of hours. I arrive with Avery and all her swimming gear, punch in the security code, pull back the gates, run with my set of jingling keys to find the box containing the sign-in book, the money to pay the pretty young lifeguards (school seniors), and a bunch of purchasable swim caps for those hapless souls who have forgotten theirs. Then I sit in the slightly humid air with my mystery and a bottle of water, perusing the membership cards as people come in to swim, petting somebody's little fuzzy terrier left behind in the lobby while her owner swims, chatting with the girls as they come out wringing their wet hair and comparing homework assignments. Cozy.

And home for one of my favorite dinners, in fact one we all love because it's messy and silly, and I'm happy because it uses all sorts of bits and pieces from the fridge! Keep all your parts of peppers, mushrooms, onion, and such through the week, roast a duck or a pork tenderloin, or a chicken, ANYTHING really! And roll them up.

Everything on a Pancake
(serves 4)

enough roast meat (chicken, pork, duck, lamb) for 4: leftovers are good too!
4-6 Chinese pancakes per person
vegetables sliced long and thin: peppers, cucumbers, spring onions, mushrooms, carrots, etc.
green leaves to tuck in: spinach, cilantro, parsley
chopped nuts: pinenuts, cashews, peanuts, macadamia, hazelnuts, etc.
sauces: plum sauce, mustard, chilli sauce, satay, etc.

Now just start rolling up, with whatever you like inside, and make sure you have plenty of napkins!


Well, it's Friday, so it must be ice skating tonight, and then we have to whisk her away to see "The Fantasticks," that gloriously romantic musical that ran forever and a day in Greenwich Village (we saw it as newlyweds!), and is now in revival here with my super-crush Edward Petherbridge... I'll let you know.


Julian said...

WELL DONE! 600 Posts, amazing! Webbystuff almost done! All the best. Julian

Bonnie said...

Congratulation Kristen on your 600 posts - I've enjoyed reading all 600 of them. I'm looking forward to the new version of your blog. Bonnie

Everyday Reader said...

Congratulations on your 600 posts and on becoming a star tv chef.
Good luck to you!
I, too, admire Edward Petherbridge. I recognize him from old videos we have of Lord Peter Wimsey in which he starred.

Bee said...

I can't believe you have written 600 posts . . . WOW.

And congratulations on your crab soup entry; it sounds like it is already a winner. (Last summer, I ate a fresh crab sandwich in Dorset -- and I don't like brown crab meat either.)

My daughter is already well into GCSE exams. The routine is: take a two hour exam, then come home and watch TV for several hours, then start studying again for tomorrow's exam. So far the favorite snacks have been popcorn (always big in our house), rice krispie treats (like the Fantasticks, enjoying a revival) and brownies.

Kristen In London said...

Thank you, everyone! It's so worth it to improve the blog when I have such loyal readers, indeed...

Lord Peter, Lord Peter... so magical, and indeed Edward last night was amazing, AND he kindly replied to an email I sent very late telling him much we had enjoyed the show!

Bee, I'm definitely of your camp, in the subject of exams for our children: treats, treats, treats! I have some noxious Cadbury hot chocolate pudding in my fridge for tonight, and yes, popcorn is a MUST.

Caz said...

600 posts - has it really been that many?! Congratulations xxxx

Oh I do feel for you both with the prospect of Exams. Thomas is on what they call enhanced programmes for Maths & Science - I'm raising a geek/nerd ;) - and therefore has exams after half term, although thankfully only those two though.

Id be a nervous wreck if he had any more at this stage .... but he seems quite sanguine about it all.

Btw, does it work if the Mum has the treats ?!!

Shelley said...

Oh Kristen!!!!!

Firstly, 600 posts!! Stellar!!


There is NO stopping you now.

Sign me a proud friend who will be able to say, "I knew her when..."

Kristen In London said...

Oh, Caz, I know! Avery is revising this week for 11 subjects! Several of them at post-GCSE levels (I have a nerd too!), so the pressure is on. A hot chocolate pudding from Waitrose was in order last night.

Thank you, dear Shelley, you are always such a comfort and encouragement to me!

Nick said...

Oh we are in the midst of finals studying here too. It seems like so much more than when I was in 9th grade. I keep worrying that maybe my son is not worried enough as to what he has ahead of him next week (this is his first year in a quite rigorous and exacting school, but then on the other hand I am glad he is keeping a cool ahead and he did get quite a bit of studying done this weekend We have been keeping him plied with strawberry ice cream and swedish fish.
How exciting about your soup!. I have a good feeling about this. I am glad you picked that recipe--although I never tried making it, whenever I read you do, I could just imagine how delicious it was.

Kristen In London said...

Ah, Min, Swedish Fish! A must.

And DO try the soup. I've cooked it about three hundred times but shall do another run this week for a guest, with the crab. The production company rang up tonight with TIMING issues down to the minute. "For the camera," they specified. The CAMERA! Yikes!