It’s hard to believe: 12 hours from the moment we walk out our door in London, we walk in the door of Red Gate Farm. Twelve hours from one world to the next, from taxi to airport, air then airport, another taxi, and here we are.
And we didn’t just arrive: we were welcomed! John’s mom was here, having put up the Christmas tree and the lights with the help of David across the street, and lit the candles on the dining table, and produced a pot of oyster stew, our traditional Christmas Eve dinner! And our reunion with last summer’s fluffy kitten, Jessamy.
It WAS Christmas Eve, just as Avery insisted it would be. The date really didn’t matter a bit; it was fine that all day the flight attendants and ticket takers said, “Merry Christmas.” When we arrived at home, it was Christmas Eve, with all the magic of carols playing in the background, everyone running around bringing up boxes from the basement, shouting, “Has anybody…
The best-laid plans…
I’m not meant to be blogging. I’m meant to be just a few hours away from my Connecticut farmhouse, ready to pull the Christmas trees from the waiting barn, hang all the silver balls and ornaments, race to the shop for wrapping paper, jump over to the grocery for all the ingredients for our mammoth Saturday dinner, get John’s mom’s room ready, put the traditional Christmas Eve oyster stew on the stove, the decorations just so…
Instead, I’m sitting in my London living room waiting for John and Avery to get home from “Harry Potter,” her consolation prize for being here. Two words: flight cancelled.
As you all know, I am extremely fond of my adopted home and even find many things about it — sausages and the accent, for example — superior to America. But there’s a can’t-do approach to snow removal here in England that boggles the Midwestern American mind. Here it is Wednesday, and Heathrow is still reeling from the four inches that fell, let’s see, on Sunday. It’s simply infuriating.
How on earth am I going to arrive on Christmas Night, with all my traditions turned upside down, and produce a proper Christmas, all the shops being shut? I can tell you that yesterday was challenging for me, who thrives on everything turning out just as I want. What was I to do?
I spent the afternoon on the phone breaking the news to my brother in law that I won’t be there to make the gravy, to the girl who was to housesit for us, arranging for her whole family to spend the holiday here enjoying our tree and decorations. A perverse consolation there: I’m not spoiling her holiday, Heathrow is: her family’s flights were cancelled too. John called his mom, who is bravely going to go ahead of us and open up the house the day before Christmas. And our dear, dear neighbors across the road have kindly filled our refrigerator to welcome her.
But still. A disappointment. What is Christmas without all the preparations, the candles on the mantel lit, the fire flickering over the silver balls on the tree, all the right dishes cooking at the right time, the stockings ready for their burdens of chocolate?
We pushed it all aside to run off to the wretched, incompetent airport to pick Avery up from her trip to St Petersburg. The various parents gathered in the International Arrivals area, trading stories of the texts we had received from our girls extolling the virtues of the Hermitage and the shopping, the icicles and the snowdrifts.
And suddenly there she was, red-cheeked with excitement, topped by an enormous fox fur hat, giving and receiving hugs from all her new best friends, shouting, “Merry Christmas!”
“It’s BOILING in this country!” she said, her down jacket falling off her shoulders. “And you call this snow?! As we were landing and we saw all the snow that had brought the country to a screeching halt, we just had to laugh!”
We postponed telling her to what a screeching halt her own plans had come to, and listened to the stories of room after room of lapis lazuli, malachite, carved plaster and gilded ceilings. And presents! Icons, scarves, a tiny matrushka doll set, the tiniest inside being the size of a popcorn kernel!
Her merriment was contagious! The fur hat perched on her head, she leant forward in the car and talked a blue streak, story after story of the recurring jokes among her friends, the terrible bed she had to sleep on, the awful food (“uncooked fish, but not fish that was meant to be eaten raw, just not COOKED!”), the endless cups of tea with more and more sugar to make them palatable, the fun of trying out her Russian! “I keep saying ‘pazhulste” and ‘spasiba’ to everyone now!”
We got home and sat immediately down at the dining room table to upload all the wonderful photos of her trip: “This is the chandelier tour of St Petersburg!” and to hear all the exciting stories. How thrilling to have her tell stories of an exotic place we’ve never been. “I want to take you there sometime and show you everything!”
We ate her favorite dinner of broccoli and tomatoey, cheesy pasta, and listened endlessly. Then with the confession that she had changed clothes not at ALL during the trip, merely adding layers as the days went by, she went off for a long, hot, bubbly bath and I started the washing machine humming in the background.
John and I sighed simultaneously and admitted that we were worn out! The drama and disappointment of the cancelled flight had been completely overwhelmed by the joy of having Avery safely home. I hadn’t admitted to myself how far away she felt, how insecure I felt being separated from her over such a distance, both physical and emotional. I hadn’t admitted it until she returned, and I looked at her glowing, beautiful, familiar face and felt suddenly, “This is all I need for Christmas.”
And it’s so true. Who cares what day of the month it is when we finally walk in the door of Red Gate Farm and fold John’s mom in a hug? What difference will it make whether or not the decorations are up when my nieces Jane and Molly are running around screeching and Avery is looking down at them from her great teenage height? Once my stalwart husband carries in the Christmas tree and lights the first of the holiday fires, it won’t matter a bit that I didn’t get to the grocery! Thanks to my friends across the road, the house will be warm to receive us, and when my sister and brother in law arrive for whatever dinner we’re able to manage, we’ll all be together.
Maybe I needed a little snow, a little delay, a little disruption, to shake me out of my silly wish to control all the details. Our Christmas will be right on time, whenever it happens.
If you’d asked me yesterday, I’d have said that our weekend break to West Sussex was just what the doctor ordered: all my energy back after the last chaotic weeks in London, ready to fly off to America to host our Christmas celebration.
That was yesterday. In the snowy, gorgeous, peaceful countryside.
Today, we awoke to news that at least two of Heathrow’s five runways are closed. Snow. And so our precarious calm has been shattered.
As a Midwestern American whose winters meant snow that fell in November and remained on the ground until March, I am completely flummoxed by the paralysis that takes over London and particularly Heathrow when two inches of snow fall on the ground. It’s as if every single winter, the occurrence of snow takes everyone entirely by surprise. “Wait, everyone, here it comes again, that white stuff! Forget Keep Calm and Carry On, it’s time to Panic and Freak Out!”
So I am taking a deep breath and trying to feel that it’s perfectly all right for my teenage daughter to be stranded in St Petersburg — her flight was to be tomorrow — and our whole family was to travel to America on Wednesday. Will any of this happen? Or will my poor mother in law arrive at my empty Connecticut home to fend for herself?
Somehow this is all eerily reminiscent of the last school trip, in April, to Pompeii… stranded by the volcano! It’s enough to make you just stay home.
Home, for the last several weeks, has been madness. There was the much-anticipated skating show at Queensway, for which Avery and her skating pal have been practicing for nearly a year. It’s one of those responsibilities of parents: turn up at your child’s event no matter what, even if it will take place on ICE with no heat and last three hours, only 92 seconds of which will feature your child.
So off we went, I leaving a cast-iron dish of slow-braising shoulder of beef and sausages and mushrooms, reposing in a very low oven. How nice it would be to return to a lovely, hot dinner after all that ICE. And of course there was drama. Just after Avery’s piece was finished — and she was lovely! — there was a bumping sound behind us and in the dark and confusion, it took some time for us to realize that an elderly lady had collapsed. First with a fainting spell, then falling into the mirrored wall at the edges of the rink.
Only John’s phone would work, so of course he was at the frontline of the rescue attempts. “Look at Daddy, how good he is to help out,” Avery whispered, shivering with cold. It was a bit disconcerting to experience just how long it took for an ambulance to come: shouldn’t the rink have at least a paramedic on hand at all times? I began to feel, as well, concern for my dinner, and on a larger scale, for my house should my dinner burn dry and catch the entire place on fire.
No worries, all was well when we arrived home (plus the lady was revived and fine, I’m ashamed to say concern for her lagged a bit behind concern for my dinner). Do look up the recipe on the index and cook that dish. It’s a total winner with everyone, and so flexible, as it turns out!
The following day Avery and I went with her friend Lille to a stunningly beautiful Christmas Carol concert last weekend at Holy Trinity Brompton, a church adjacent to the Brompton Oratory in South Kensington. What a church! The most varied group of parishioners I’ve ever seen in any church: young and old, black and white, from the obviously very posh to the lowliest student. And the music… a professional chamber orchestra, the church’s own choir. How I love to sing, and hardly ever get the chance.
What a holiday joy!
No report of our lives lately can be complete without a litany of the many, many vegetables it turns out can be successfully roasted, and eaten by my husband. He is a positive proselytizer on the subject. All of them simply cut in half or thirds, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with chili flakes, then roasted in a hot oven for 35 minutes. Roasted fennel and parsnips? Check.
And since woman cannot live by veg along, there have been so many heartwarming holidayish moments in life lately… there was the day I bought my usual weekly “The Big Issue” magazine from my local guy, outside the Tesco’s. What a lovely project that magazine is: employing homeless people right off the streets, giving them some support, some pride in providing a really nice read, and some respect from the neighbors walking by. “I almost bought one yesterday, outside Boots,” I assured him, “but I am loyal to you.” He looked a bit shy of me, but then reached into his bag and brought out a large square envelope. “Merry Christmas to you, love,” he said, “and thank you for your support.” The card is signed “Dave,” so now I know.
And the snowy day when I walked to pick up Avery at school, forgetting my umbrella. I stood outside the gates getting wetter and wetter, when I felt a hand on my shoulder. “My dear,” said a very Greek voice, “you must not stand here. You must come wait for your daughter in my car, while I wait for mine. Come.” I followed him cautiously, a big bear of a man. We sat in the steamy interior and he said suddenly,
“Is she your only child?”
“Yes, she is.”
“Mine too, and I have put everything I am, and everything I hope for, into my wishes for her future.”
“So have I,” I said, “and sometimes I worry that it’s too much for her.”
“I also, worry this,” he said.
“But I don’t think any child ever died from too much love,” I said, and he patted my hand and said, “I have concluded this as well.”
We introduced ourselves and exchanged stories about school, then I saw Avery in the dark and jumped out, thanking him. I looked back to wave at him and he pointed to a girl walking toward the car. “That’s my daughter,” I could lipread. I put my hand on Avery’s shoulder and smiled, and he smiled back at me.
And the next time I was chatting with Dave over “The Big Issue,” I was clasped in an enormous down-coated hug. “Kristen, my friend!” and it was Angelus, the dad from that wet day. “This is a nice lady,” Dave said and Angelus said, “I have reason to know it.” That is Christmas, to me.
And on these cold Christmassy days, what we all need is a warm, sustaining dinner to keep us going. Do you fancy these? My friend Karen can report that they are delicious, as she cooked them over the weekend!
1.5 pounds mixed beef, pork and lamb (or veal, or just one meat)
1/4 cup breadcrumbs
1/4 cup milk
large tbsp Italian seasoning
large tsp garlic salt
8 leaves basil, chopped
1 large ball mozzarella
3 tbsps olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 white onion, minced
1 large plus 1 small can whole tomatoes, squeezed
salt and pepper to taste
grated parmesan to garnish
Get the meat to not-freezing-cold temp. Mix the egg, milk, breadcrumbs, seasonings and basil in a large bowl. Add meat and mix thoroughly. Form into hollows in the palm of your hand, adding a dollop of mozzarella to each and forming meat around it. Tuck it in where necessary, rolling as best you can to keep mozzarella inside, forming about 10 balls.
Heat olive oil in heavy skillet. Fry meatballs gently on one side till brown, then using a combination of spatula and tongs, turn them each over to cook on the other side till brown. Transfer to a plate and cover to keep warm.
Fry garlic and onion in remaining oil, scraping up bits. Pour in tomatoes, squeezing as you go. Season to taste, and cook for about half an hour, stirring. Then gently add meatballs to the sauce. Turn heat down LOW LOW LOW and simmer for an hour or so, longer if you can, stirring a few times.
Garnish with cheese and serve with spaghetti.
These were my reward for a long couple of days preparing for the Preview and the Sale of Lost Property at Avery’s beloved school… frantic purchasing of all abandoned clothing, jewelry, trainers, and the occasional bizarre item — a sleeping bag? a pair of bouncing bumblebee antenna on a headband? one year there were six large chocolate fish wrapped in foil — what fun. Lots of girls wearing Christmas hats and bursting into spontaneous carols as they stand in the lunch queue.
And an innovation for your next roast chicken: try stuffing a big flat mushroom under the breast skin, then pushing in after the mushroom some butter into which you’ve mixed some chopped rosemary… delicious!
Delia Smith’s pancakes, with fillings by me
8 slices streaky bacon or ham, cut in small pieces
6 oz/165g plain flour
3 medium eggs
10 oz/300 ml milk, plus 5 oz/100 ml water
3 tbsps melted butter
a little extra butter for cooking pancakes
handful chives, minced
4 oz parmesan cheese, coarsely grated
Saute the ham/bacon until crisp, and take out of the frying pan. Sift flour and salt into a medium bowl, then crack eggs into the flour and begin whisking, scraping the sides as you go. Add the milk-water mixture gradually, whisking constantly. Scrape sides wtih a spatula and whisk one more time. Just before you’re ready to cook, add the melted butter and whisk again.
Melt butter in the frying pan you used for the bacon or ham, then when hot, add the batter and ham and chives, and cook on one side until bubbles appear, then turn over and sprinkle the cheese. Cook until done, then roll up and divide into 4 servings. So simple, so savory.
I think I can avoid it no longer. I’d better go on the British Airways website and try to find if Avery’s flight will in fact leave Russia tomorrow. That hurdle crossed, I can turn my mind to whether we’ll get away the following day, and then to packing up the Christmas presents, with all the faith in the holiday that I can muster. Wish me luck.
It’s to the point now, in my life, where I don’t feel I can say anything to anyone! I am carrying around many, many secrets. I’ll tell you why.
This Christmas I decided not to do random presents. I really put my chin in my hands and thought about what made everybody tick and tried to think of a thing each person would REALLY like, would smile when opening. A lot of my presents this year have no intrinsic value at all, only value to the people who are about to receive them. So if any packages get misaddressed, I’m in trouble!
It’s been a lot of fun. There have been secret emails with people I’ve never met, meetings with people I’d never met before and probably will never meet again, who can do things, make things, transform things into just the right presents for the people I love. As always with Christmas, it’s fun to have a couple of presents that aren’t even THINGS at all, but experiences, or sensations. One present might not come off, because I am counting on the kindness of one stranger, so my fingers are crossed that the holiday spirit will move that person, just enough.
So between organizing all my crazy gifts, and looking through last year’s Christmas cards to make sure I don’t leave anyone out this year, and cleaning up after the dratted cat who seems to think the tree skirt is another litterbox — grrrrr — I’m busy. Not too busy, however, to have two magnificent lunches out with girlfriends, which as you all know is just about my favorite thing. Gossip, commiseration, advice, laughing a little too loud for the comfort of the waitstaff… that’s glorious.
Tuesday saw me with my beautiful friend Dalia at Essenza, in Kensington Park Road in Notting Hill. I always love a little trip to Notting Hill, imagining its chic and expensive real estate in the depths of neglect, only 30–40 years ago. Essenza is an unassuming little spot, you’d pass by it if you weren’t looking for it, tucked away on a quiet little street next door to a darling nursery school, so I got to see lots of cute little English ankle-biters as I strolled by. Overheard:
small boy, tugging at his mother’s hand: “Mummy, you know Daddy loves you, don’t you? You know he does!”
Mummy: “Darling, Mummy’s very, very cross with Daddy right now, we’re having a massive row, so let’s just get you to school.”
Ouch! I wanted to stay and hear the rest. Somehow, spoken in such a beautiful accent, the words lost their menace. How bad could a “massive row” be, when she sounded like Princess Diana? Like my plumber today, Irish Pete. He sat back on his heels and told me how angry he was about the increase in university fees, but all I could think was, “Did that rhyme? I think that rhymed.” All Irish sentences rhyme, I think. I could have listened to him read the phone book.
But back to Essenza. Dalia had told me the food was to die for, completely authentic, and since this observation came on the heels of her week in Venice and mine in Florence, we were ready to be impressed. We decided to skip the main courses and share three starters, a very good idea. And oh my, the creaminess of the mozzarella di bufala, the sort of texture where you tear it gently with your fork, creamy milk mixing with the olive oil on the plate. With a real live tomato! Not a hard, tasteless thing, but a juicy, red fruit. “Where on earth did you find this tomato in December?” I wailed to the waiter who smiled and said, “That I cannot tell you, it is my secret.” Scattered with rocket, a salad to kill for, as my darling father-in-law used to say. Never to die for, oh no. To kill for.
And then calamari and gamberi fritti, fried squid and prawns, in a gorgeous batter, with a sweet chilli sauce. And king scallops with shaved courgette and roasted red pepper, perfectly cooked… heavenly!
Halfway through lunch Dalia said with clenched jaw, “Don’t look around, don’t pay any attention, but Sienna Miller just walked in.” With a dog, mind you. And they let her. And dear readers, she is stunning. Dalia claims the dog was prettier, but I don’t believe her, we’re both cat people. So it was fun to have a celebrity sighting!
And the very next day I was lucky enough to be with my friend Susan at Petersham Nurseries Cafe, in Richmond. Ah, Petersham Nurseries, I’ve been once before, to the fancy room where everything is too expensive but you don’t care because it’s so exquisite. This time, we repaired to what I can only call “the soup room,” because that’s what there was. Actually it was funny, and good that I am a good sport about odd service, because the chalkboard menu said, “potato and leek soup, or polenta with meatballs, or ham and mozzarella.” So I said to Susan, “I don’t really like polenta, do you mind sharing the ham and mozzarella instead?” She didn’t mind, so we ordered, and when it came it was… polenta. With ham.
“Excuse me, but we didn’t order the polenta, just the ham and mozzarella.”
Lovely wait lady: “Yes, the polenta with the ham.”
“No, we didn’t want the polenta, and anyway, doesn’t it come with meatballs?” pointing at the menu board.
“Ah… [long pause], I can see that that might be misleading [definitely!]. Try the polenta anyway and if you do not like it, we will replace it.”
And it turns out that I just don’t like BAD polenta! I definitely don’t like the runny kind, pretending to be mashed potatoes. But this was the stiff kind, and quite buttery and delicious. I don’t think I’d order it again in my low-carb mode, but I was glad I tried it. And so was the wait lady! So pleased that I was pleased.
As usual, Susan and I talked over and over each other, about child-raising (“always take credit for the good stuff they do, and none of the blame for the bad stuff,” we agree was our motto), child psychology (did you know that aggression and depression stem often from the same set of feelings, in children? I didn’t, but it makes sense), our girls’ lovely school and how much we love Lost Property. In short, the company of a girlfriend. I don’t know what I would do without mine.
Tonight we are off to be cooked for by friends, an occasion that doesn’t come along terribly often. I am sorry to say that my obsession with cooking makes people afraid to cook for me. I tell them all, but they don’t believe me: I like other people’s cooking at least as well as my own, and it’s such a delight to sit down and be given something to eat that I didn’t slave over myself! And tomorrow is the luncheon for school volunteers, which is always lovely because it’s a great group of people. Don’t you find that people who are willing to do thankless tasks for nothing are nice to be around?
As for my own cooking, my only experiment this week was a chicken casserole. Now, I offer you this recipe with the proviso that you must cook it only if you like the concept of a casserole. I myself was raised on the concept: a meat, a starch, and some sort of lubricating liquid (usually out of a Campbell’s soup can), mixed in a dish and baked for half an hour. Dinner done. For my mother, this basic concept kept us all alive for many years. Campbell’s used to make a soup called, believe it or not, “Noodles and Ground Beef.” They really called it a “soup,” even though it came rushing in a solid lump from the can just like cranberry jelly. I can’t imagine they make it anymore. But my mother bought it by the gross, and I mean GROSS. She then mixed it with more ground beef and noodles, I guess, and bob’s your uncle, dinner was on the table.
Since I am married to a fellow Midwestern child of the 1970s, we understand casseroles. There’s something beautiful about everything being mushed up together. My daughter, raised in the 21st century on all homemade, all the time? Not so much on the casseroles, I can tell you. She favors discrete items of food, easily distinguished from each other. Fair enough.
But if you fancy a casserole, I can tell you this one ticks all the boxes: creamy, savoury, inexpensive AND I added a vegetable to it, so you don’t even need a side dish. Go on, you know you want to.
Chicken Casserole with Butternut Squash and Fried Sage
four chicken breast fillets
Fox Point Seasoning
1 tbsp olive oil
2 cups basmati rice
1 butternut squash
smear of butter
3 cups homemade cream of mushroom soup (Campbell’s if you must!)
1 tbsp butter
8 sage leaves
It’s an assembly job. Sprinkle the chicken fillets with the Fox Point Seasoning (or just salt and pepper if you can’t get it) and the oil. Set aside.
Steam the basmati rice, and meanwhile, cut the butternut squash in half lengthwise, scoop out the seeds and smear each half with butter. Bake at 425F/220C while the rice steams, and a bit longer, about 35 minutes total.
Turn off the heat under the rice and let it steam on its own for five minutes or so: this will lessen the amount that sticks to the pan. Meanwhile, heat a frying pan and place the chicken breasts in it, oil side down. Cook until browned, then turn and brown on the other side. The chicken will still be uncooked inside, and that’s fine. Set aside.
Place the steamed rice into — you guessed it — a casserole dish! Lay the chicken breasts on top, pour the soup over. Cut the butternut squash into bite-size pieces and drop them into the casserole.
Bake in the same hot oven, 425F/220C, for about 35 minutes, turning the chicken over once and stirring the rice-soup mixture. Just before you take it out of the oven, melt the remaining butter in the frying pan from the chicken and fry the sage leaves gently, just till crisp. Crumble them on top of the casserole and serve.
This is a lovely, comforting, old-fashioned dish. Anyone can afford it, no one will be intimidated by the process, everyone will like it. Even Avery ate it perfectly happily, allowing that she could see, “it’s the kind of thing you’ll like if you like that kind of thing.”
I cannot offer you a photo of this dish because there is no way to make a casserole look pretty. It’s why all those old-fashioned cookbooks from the 1970s make food look so awful. Because they were ALL casseroles.
Time for me to make sure no one’s been looking at my email or opening packages addressed to me, or nosing around in parcels in my shoe closet. Don’t anyone try to rattle me: I can keep all these secrets, at least for another couple of weeks…
It’s one of the most perplexing questions to characterize my holiday season so far. When is a goose not a goose? Why, when it’s a calf, of course.
I was confused too, believe me.
Cooks — at least those who cook every day — can get in ruts. At least I can. Well, John would say they’re not so much ruts as they are flights of obsession, which means I cook the same thing over and over, trying to get it just right, or trying variations on the same theme. Many dishes have followed this same route: slow-braised chicken with root vegetables, homemade pizza, things deep-fried, bean salad. When I look through my beloved recipe index here, I see with embarrassment that there are MANY versions of ideas, as I experiment. Cheesy spinach, the perfect red pepper soup, the perfect brandy and sour cream sauce for chicken or salmon. All of these ideas have set up camp in my kitchen, for my long-suffering family to eat their way through, night after night.
So when last week I came upon an ingredient I’d never heard of, I knew it was time to try something new. “Goose skirt!” I said to the butcher boy behind the meat counter in Waitrose. I turned to John, who said, “I’ve never heard of it either,” and since it wasn’t expensive, I said I’d take two of the vacuum-packed meat and roast it at home, so much simpler than a whole goose.
“I don’t think I’ve ever cooked goose of any kind,” I made conversation with the butcher boy as he wrapped and weighed. And very casually he said, “This isn’t goose, you know. It’s veal.” VEAL? “You’re telling me that something called “goose skirt” is cow meat.” “That’s right.”
Well, you’ll find if you google it that there are very few mentions of goose skirt, and those there are only tell you to grill it, to treat it in fact like what in America is called “skirt steak” or a very similar cut, “flank steak.” All the recipes I could find to use this cheap and tough cut indicated marinating and grilling. Not very blogworthy, and not affording many chances to get obsessed with possible variations. So I decided to take a risk.
Slow-braising is the perfect wintry way to treat meat. We’re all feeling a bit poor, so it’s nice to honor the cheap cuts of meat that can be tough if treated the wrong way.
Slow-braising cooks itself, fills the house with savory and welcoming aromas, and the leftover sauce is perfect with pasta the next day. I’ve been slow-braising shoulder of beef - a bit obsessively perhaps — and thought, let’s try it with a goose skirt. And the result was spectacular. Unfortunately it wasn’t pretty, so there is no photo. But rich, deeply flavored and satisfying.
Slow-Braised Goose Skirt With Stout and Mushrooms
(serves four with leftovers)
1 kilo (about 2.2 pounds) goose skirt
juice of 1 lemon
2 tbsps olive oil
sea salt and pepper
1 pound chestnut mushrooms, sliced thick
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp fresh thyme leaves
1 white onion, cut in eighths
1 cup stout
enough beef stock just to cover the meat
2 tbsps flour
1 cup sour cream
chives to garnish
At least 12 hours before you want to eat, put the meat in a shallow dish and rub all over with lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper. Cover with cling film and refrigerate, up to three days.
About 4 hours before you want to eat, take the meat from the refrigerator and cut into large pieces, about 2 inches across. Pour the marinating juices and oil into a heavy-bottomed saucepan and heat till very hot, then throw in the mushrooms, garlic, thyme and onion. Add more oil if necessary and brown the vegetables. Remove from pan and replace with the meat. Brown the meat all over, then throw the vegetables back in, and cover with stout and stock. Cover tightly and turn heat down VERY low, then cook for about 4 hours, stirring occasionally.
Just before you want to eat, pour a little of the cooking sauce into a bowl and add the flour, whisking it till smooth. Add this mixture to the cooking pan and whisk nicely. Then add the sour cream, stir well, and heat up again. Serve with the chives as garnish.
This dish was GORGEOUS! Very much like my slow-braised shoulder, and just as inexpensive.
What I have not been able to discover is why on earth VEAL should be called GOOSE. No one seems to know! And I love things like that: small food mysteries lurking from the mists of time.
Fortified by this protein-laden, darkly delicious dish, I was able to throw myself into festive preparations.
Avery has been longing, for several years, to have a proper Christmas party. With Christmas crackers, and festive foods, and the decorations up around the house, and her guests all dressed to the nines. And this year was the year. She invited just the right group, we went shopping for table decorations, and I asked if she’d like to order pizzas as she had for her “mocktails” party last spring. “No, I have a menu in mind,” she said. “If it’s not too expensive, let’s have steaks, and Orlando potatoes, and green beans. And then for dessert, hot chocolate.”
And so it was. I enjoyed myself so much, puttering around for her, while she struggled with Russian, maths, Religious Studies and Latin, threw herself into practice for her Singing Tea. I decorated the table with things that cost almost nothing: pinecones, red candles at £1 apiece, napkins with reindeer on them, and a packet of little glittery glass pieces to scatter across the table. How lucky our daily dinner plates are green Fireking, perfect with all the red.
The girls arrived, dressed to the nines in every outlandish garment you can imagine and heels? Tottering, my dears! Fur hats, trailing scarves, lots of beautiful makeup, all examined by each girl in the minutest detail. There were shrieks of excitement, bursts of song, and the most gratifying hugs from her friends. And pulling of Christmas crackers!
We went into action, John grilling the steaks and me frying the matchstick potato pancakes in goose fat, simply heavenly. Thank you, Orlando, for this best of all potato recipes.
Orlando Potatoes in Goose Fat
(serves 6 hungry teenagers)
1 medium-ish potato per girl
3 small shallots
sea salt and fresh pepper
3 tbsps goose fat
Slice each potato very thin lengthwise, then turn the other way and slice very thin across, to make tiny matchsticks. Lay the potatoes on a thick tea towel and squeeze and roll in the towel until you’ve wrung as much water from the potatoes as possible. Place in a large bowl.
Mince the shallots very small and mix with the potatoes. Salt and pepper the mixture. Form into six cakes.
Heat the goose fat in a very large frying pan. When a tiny bit of potato dropped in the fat sizzles right away, it’s ready. Put the cakes in as quickly as you can and fry on one side for 2–3 minutes, then turn. If they fall apart slightly when turning, just push the ragged bits back toward each cake and press a bit. Cook for another 2–3 minutes on the other side, until golden brown. Turn again if you’re not satisfied. Serve HOT.
I wish I had a photo of these potatoes but honestly, the girls were practically chewing each other’s arms off, so we put a steak and a potato cake on each plate and everyone sat down to choose whether they wanted Bearnaise Sauce or Sauce Diane, and helped themselves to gorgeous green beans, simply steamed and tossed in melted butter and Fox Point Seasoning.
It was so satisfying! They ate like little wolves, not a scrap remaining on the plates, and gossiping, singing and lighting the tiny sparklers. They were… happy. And, so were we. In this world where we can control so little of our children’s happiness, to give an evening like that to them, safe and fun, was an enormous gift.
As soon as they were settled down, John and I produced our own dinner! Have to take the opportunity to eat something Avery doesn’t like. Roasted fennel, hot peppers and beets, tossed in chilli oil. And our all-time favorite scallop dish. You can’t have too much garlic, after all.
Scallops with Garlic, Parsley and Linguini
linguini for 2
16 large scallops
2/3 cup olive oil
6 cloves garlic
1 whole bunch flat-leaf parsley, chopped fine
2/3 cup breadcrumbs, toasted
sea salt and pepper to taste
Put the linguini on to cook. Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a wok until really hot, then throw in the scallops, garlic and parsley. Cook for about 2 minutes until scallops are done, but not tough. Turn the heat off.
Drain the pasta and throw it in the olive oil and scallops and turn the heat up high till bubbling. QUICKLY add the breadcrumbs and take off heat, tossing thoroughly. Salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle over hot dried chilli flakes if you like.
After cups of hot chocolate with every topping known to man — marshmallows, crushed candy canes, crushed biscuits and chocolate sauce — the girls repaired to the living room where the Christmas tree glittered, and watched a movie. John had blown up air mattresses for them and they settled right down. A happy evening.
We spent Saturday chauffeuring Avery and her friend to Samba, then Avery to acting, then we rushed home and got ready for a truly side-splitting play, “A Flea in Her Ear” at the Old Vic. I’ve never seen a French farce before! It had everything: maids in white ruffled aprons, mistaken identity, a character with a speech impediment, a love affair gone wrong, a misunderstood letter! You MUST see it.
Avery was agog with amazement at the sheer over-the-top nuttiness! Some gems of lines: “You’re as bad as Othello with that old handkerchief!” delighted her because they’re studying Othello in English! The character with the speech impediment loses his silver palate expander behind, and it’s returned to him.
“How did you know where to find me?” he asks in astonishment.
“Your name and address are engraved inside. Why bother with calling cards when you can just leave the roof of your mouth behind?”
We haven’t laughed so hard in an age. A stellar cast of people we’ve seen on Spooks, onstage in several productions, in films. Go, do! It was the perfect play to see on a night when, post-party, we were all too tired to pay attention to anything serious.
Well, dinner prep beckons. I can’t cook something new every night, it wouldn’t be very comforting. So it’s fried haddock and stuffed red peppers, two old standbys. We can use a little standby and a little experiment, with a great party tossed in, now and then.
It’s that time of year, as I note every year, when the pages start to fly off the calendar and the hours on a clock spin around, just like in a cartoon. In the three weeks before we head “home” for Christmas in Connecticut, we have two plays to see, a carol concert to attend, two dinner parties to go to and at least as many to host, a visit to the orthodontist, a trip for us grownups to a landmark house in West Sussex and a school trip to St Petersburg for Avery. It makes me tired just to write it all down, but the way I get around that is by reminding myself that all these things will be great fun individually; it’s just looking at the calendar that’s daunting.
Thanksgiving has come and gone. I think every single flat surface in my kitchen, that evening, was covered with something to eat. And eat we did, with lots of blazing candles and little fairy lights I’ve obsessively ordered from a really cheap lighting company, Lights4Fun. Our garden is full of them, our kitchen is draped all over. Of course, John reminds me that all the money I save buying them discounted, I will more than make up for in batteries. But it’s worth it, look and see.
The best part of the whole Thanksgiving dinner was, everyone agreed — even little children who took second and third helpings! — the cheesy spinach. After many years of offering you seemingly endless varieties of recipes for this dish, I have hit upon the perfect version. It’s simply to die for: creamy, salty, bright green, garlicky, cheesy. You will be shocked at how much everyone can eat.
The Ultimate Cheesy Spinach
(serves 4 easily)
500 grams (about 8 loosely packed cups, or 2 large packages in the UK) fresh baby spinach
3 tbsps butter
2 tsps flour
5 cloves garlic, minced
1/3 cup light cream
1 1/2 cups sharp Cheddar cheese, grated
celery salt to taste, perhaps 2–3 tsps
sprinkle grated Parmesan cheese
Simply chop the spinach in your food processor, a large handful at a time, pulsing so the leaves are incorporated from the top and the bottom leaves don’t turn to mush. You want the consistency of chopped onions. As you go through the handfuls, place the chopped spinach in a large bowl.
Now melt the butter in a large, heavy-bottomed frying pan or saucepan. Stir in the flour and cook, bubbling, for about a minute, not letting the mixture brown. Add the garlic and stir for a moment.
Add all the other ingredients but the Parmesan, and stir patiently over a low heat. At first it may seem that the ingredients will never come together, but they do, after 4–5 minutes. Taste for celery salt: don’t add too much at first because it is quite salty. When the cheese is melted and the spinach creamy, pour the whole lot into a baking dish, about 9x9 inches, and sprinkle the grated Parmesan on top. Bake at 350F/180C for about 25 minutes or until nicely golden and bubbly.
Let’s hope that all the goodness of this dish: the iron, the calcium, and let’s face it, the GARLIC, will give us all the strength to get through our Christmas prep, and maybe even enjoy it at the same time.
It’s the calm before the storm. I’m sitting here peacefully in my study watching my ever-patient husband tinker with one of the thousands of little fairy lights I bought to decorate the dining room (which is also the kitchen, and the library, of course), sending my parents flowers for tomorrow, making timetables about when things need to get done tomorrow, when 19 people will be seated around my table.
Of course, here in England the vast majority of the populace are not excited, they’re at school and work, planning nothing more sustaining to eat than a nice packet of fish and chips or a plate of shepherd’s pie, so it’s not the all-hands-on-deck Cookathon that it is in America. I really do miss that Thanksgiving feeling: of a gray day (always, it seemed!), the last leaves wafting down, everyone home and underfoot, an old movie or football game on in the background, and all sorts of unaccustomed people in the kitchen. In my childhood, this unlikely cast of characters included my poor mother, who was never happy in the kitchen, and my father, who appeared on special occasions like Christmas morning to make the pancakes and Lil’ Smokies sausages. And of course, being a man, he carved any turkey that made its way into our kitchen, in that unspoken division of labor that holds sway in every American household I know.
On Thanksgiving Day, however, everyone put a hand in. In the olden, olden days, my mother’s mother taught me to make perfect turkey gravy in her kitchen in Southern Indiana, her matronly curves girdled and a lace-trimmed half apron around her waist. Then in later years, we gathered at my aunt and uncle’s house in Kentucky (getting lost at the same highway junction every year, listening to our parents amicably bickering over whose fault it was) and my grandfather commandeered the enormous turkey to get every morsel of meat from its bones. As the elder male statesman of the family, he accepted this as his right and responsibility. Leave no wing intact!
The stuffings: one plain for normal people and one studded with oysters for my mother’s family who claimed to like such fishy surprises. The canned green beans, smothered in canned cream of mushroom soup with crunchy fried Durkee onions. The hot rolls and butter (no margarine on Thanksgiving!), the mashed sweet potatoes with marshmallows on top! Jello with fruit cocktail swimming in it and cranberry sauce, fragrant with orange zest, freshly made — which was a surprise in a family otherwise addicted to things in cans. The pumpkin pies and a peculiar Indiana concoction called “sugar cream pie,” and pecan pie, golden with Karo syrup. All served with my aunt’s gleaming silver, sparkling crystal and lace tablecloth which was brought out, I would bet, on Christmas Day also and that was it, for the year.
It was a lovely little dozen years or so, those Thanksgivings, between being just old enough to remember, and moving away to set up housekeeping on my own. What nice years, all the family intact and healthy, plenty of grandparents to go around, the feeling of tradition and being looked after, good smells emanating from a kitchen that was somebody else’s, and all the more delicious for not having produced them myself.
Thanksgiving holds a special place in my heart because it was on just such a gray, savoury-smelling Kentucky afternoon 27 years ago that I realized I was in love! For the first time, and the last time, as it turned out. My boyfriend had swanned off to some exotic place like Florida or St Barths with his family, and I had decamped home with my family, only to discover that I… missed him! What an unexpected sensation, paradixically pleasant because it meant something wonderful had happened to me. Thanksgiving… just the right word.
A friend of mine said today that the holidays depressed her, and she wondered why. While I don’t myself get depressed at this time of year, quite the opposite, I could understand why she felt as she did. I think there is a little childhood left in each of us, a yearning for days when someone else was in charge, all the decisions had been made by grownups, who would stand or fall on their wisdom. No responsibility! Even if I eventually took over the gravy-making from my grandmother, as she no longer could stand comfortably at the stove, it was still someone else’s kitchen, stove, oven, whisk. A good feeling, and one I think we have to achieve a certain age to remember, and to value.
So I will say this year that there is one thing I am newly thankful for, and that is the deep memory of little-girl Thanksgivings, and young-woman Thanksgivings, happy and surrounded by family. Thankful that I now have my own little family, my own child to cook for. And as always, thankful that my long-ago boyfriend has spent the last 20 Thanksgivings in my grownup kitchen, carving the turkey as a good man should. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.
(serves 8, if there are other pies around as well)
1 soup-size can pumpkin puree (not pie filling)
1 soup-size can evaporated milk
1 cup light brown sugar
2 large eggs
splash vanilla extract
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1 large deep pie crust (9-inches)
Simply mix everything but the crust (!) together in a large bowl with a hand mixer till thoroughly mixed, then pour into pie crust. Bake at 425F/210C for 15 minutes, then turn heat down to 325F/160C and bake a further 40 minutes or until pie is set in the middle. Cool and serve with whipped cream or ice cream.
The calamari come into my tale in just a bit… I couldn’t resist the photo as it makes me hungry every time I see it!
This weekend saw quite the perfect launch of the weeks of festivity to come: the school Christmas Fair! This gargantuan festival happens only once every two years, as we would all die from the strain of its happening more frequently! The tombola in the Hall where unaccountably Avery won a bottle of wine — “is Pinot Grigio good?” she asks, a question that doesn’t come up for 14-year-olds at American school fairs! — the buskers playing “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen” on uncertain but enthusiastic violins, the smell of greenery and poinsettias, mulled wine and mincemeat pies.
I was far too busy to take any photographs, but Avery snapped this one of a handmade wreath, along the “recycling” theme of all the decorations.
There came a frantic email the night before, “Can you all please eat something for supper that comes in a 400-gram tin, then bring them in? We need them for flower vases!” Haricot beans in homemade chicken stock it was, and two tins from our household to contribute.
Because I was deemed a volunteer with no particular skills but a great deal of good will, I was given the frantic task of managing the entrance desk, saying over the course of four hours “Three pounds for adults!” at least 700 times. The parents who tried to sneak by, “I’m just picking up my daughter!” as if it weren’t all for charity! But equally my lovely volunteer team (I selfishly chose all my favorite mothers to stand with me all afternoon, so there was some good banter and gossip in slow moments). The apple-cheeked tiny siblings of blase teenagers, the excitement of the “Vintage Cool” stall of second-hand clothes, where Avery snapped up a floor-length black velvet coat with a crimson lining, now quite her favorite possession.
John pitched in and we spent the whole day taking money, running out of this or that sort of change, racing into the school office to drop off £40 in notes to exchange for pound coins, frantically racing back to drop money into impatient hands, impatient to buy raffle tickets for impossibly posh prizes: weekends at houses in the South of France, iPads, a basket full of a dozen new cookbooks, and my own contribution: a pizza cookery lesson for two! I heard at the end of the day that a schoolgirl won it, so we’ll see if she takes me up on it: I thought it would be a lot of fun to make dough, and while it rises, teach them to make pesto, a homemade tomato sauce, basic chopping skills, how to prepare an artichoke, what mozzarella to choose… we’ll see!
The chilly November air swirled around our ankles, ruffling the white linen tablecloth I had brought from home to save the rental fee! Normally it lives on top of the fridge, awaiting the termly Lost Property luncheons, so it was happy to get an airing.
There were a couple of hilarious moments, as always happen when I’m with my friend Elisabeth. Once, a wife staggered past laden with raffle prizes, her coat over one arm, children tugging at her hands, and by her side, her husband stood, empty-handed but for her handbag which he stolidly held out to her, waiting till she shifted everything to have one finger free. Elisabeth and I burst into simultaneous giggles. “He couldn’t be seen, carrying his wife’s handbag, even for a minute!” At one point, I related to her the Saturday Night Live sketch called “The Change Bank”, where earnest tellers explain, “It’s simple. You give us a dollar bill, we’ll give you four quarters. Or, if you prefer, ten dimes, or even five dimes and ten nickels. And how do we make our money? VOLUME.”
Later, when the punters were being particularly difficult — six £20 notes in a row, for example! — Elisabeth hissed to me, “I’m sure that if we told them, ‘Give us three pound coins exactly, and you get in free,’ they’d go for it.”
Simply a glorious, hectic, crowded, loud, festive day, surrounded by smiling parents, frantic volunteers, healthy, happy children… a day when I felt a surge of gratitude for that wonderful school, where the normally serene headmistress played The Empress in the panto, and somehow ended up throwing a pair of underwear at my unsuspecting husband! Americans never fully understand panto!
Flogging decorations at the bitter end, folding up a very dirty tablecloth, turning in all the money, walking very slowly home with ears ringing and feet sore, back tired and hands filthy, feeling rather exhausted and keyed up at the same time. I stopped at my glorious fishmonger’s for advice on how to deep-fry scallops, and received the simple answer, “Don’t.” Too watery. Mikey and Tony agreed that the best thing to do with any scallop is to saute it, and certainly, there was nothing but glory piled up on our dinner.
good splash toasted sesame oil
knob of butter
1/2 inch knob ginger, grated
2 cloves garlic, minced
2-inch stalk lemon grass, minced
juice of 1/2 lemon
Heat the oil and butter in a heavy frying pan till very hot. Stir in the ginger, garlic and lemon grass and sizzle just a tiny bit, then place scallops in the pan and cook for about 1 1/2 minutes on each side, till golden, but still completely tender inside.
Remove to a warm plate, then squeeze lime juice into the pan and sizzle up the buttery spicy juices. Pour over the scallops and eat straightaway.
This dish! So simple, so perfect. And along with that we had our gorgeous calamari, for which recipe there can be no finer advice than “Get perfect squid.” Perfect squid are nearly white under their reddish-gray skins, completely odorless, firm and shiny. You can either have your fishmonger clean them for you, or you can bring them home and have a little dissecting job of your own. My best advice is to watch your fishmonger do it first, or watch a video on YouTube, try it for yourself afterward, and if you’re grossed out by it, have the professionals take care of it. But at least once, it’s very interesting to pull out the cartilege, to squeeze the ink sacs, to get that squid completely pristine.
Then cut it into rings and cut the fins into slivers, and clean the tentacles perfectly. Now you’re ready to cook.
(one large squid will feed four people as a starter)
1/ cup homemade breadcrumbs
1/2 cup panko breadcrumbs
1/2 cup cornflour/cornstarch
1 tbsp Fox Point seasoning
enough rapeseed oil to come up 1 inch in your cooking pan
2 tbsps single cream
Pat the squid dry with a paper towel. Then on one large plate, combine the crumbs and cornflour and Fox Point thoroughly. On another large plate, combine the egg and cream.
Assembly-line fashion, line up the egg plate and crumb plate next to each other with an empty large plate at the end. Heat the oil till a breadcrumb dropped in sizzles instantly. Now, dip your squid into the egg mixture and mix with your fingers till all pieces are wet. Next, dip the squid in handfuls into the crumbs and toss them until completely coated. Place on empty plate.
Depending on the size of your frying pan, fry the squid very briefly in batches, lifting them out with a slotted or wire spoon onto a heavy pile of paper towels. The squid will cook in a VERY short time, perhaps 45 seconds depending on the heat of the oil. As soon as they are browned, take them out. Eat IMMEDIATELY with a tartare sauce, a chill-tomato-horseradish sauce, or a light, clean sauce of fish sauce, rice wine vinegar, lime juice and sugar. Or all three! It’s the holidays.
There is nothing like homemade calamari! Serve them on a kitchen island, with everyone standing around watching you lift them frantically out of the oil, grabbing at the hot, crunchy squid, anxious to get the crispiest morsels.
It was a lovely end to a lovely day. Avery was safely in the hands of a friend, watching the new “Harry Potter” movie, so we were free to cook things she doesn’t like. There are small compensations to her occasional absences.
I feel utterly unready for Thanksgiving, and yet, that is sort of the point. It’s meant to be a cook-all-day, run out for forgotten ingredients, never take the apron off experience, after all. We shall be 17 around the table, actually two tables as John and I struggled downstairs with the little table in Avery’s room at the top of the house. The two turkeys are thawing in their salty, herby water, I having long ago decided that in matters of holiday poultry, I want a cheap, frozen, big-breasted bird, not a purple heirloom beauty with feathers still stuck in at strategic points. So frozen it is.
I’m tempted to make an addition to the usual Thanksgiving treats and add my new Favorite Soup of All Time. Have I been boring you with our tales of butternut squash? In our new very-low-carb lifestyle, it’s been a very good substitute for potatoes: steamed, mashed and baked, there are no complaints. John will eat ANY amount of the stuff roasted with sage. So today, on yet another gray November morning just about to see sunset even though I’d only been awake a couple of hours, I decided that soup was the way to go. And boy, did I get that one right.
(serves at least 4)
1 large butternut squash, cut in half lengthwise
butter to smear on each half
6 sage leaves
sea salt and pepper
1 shallot, roughly chopped
4 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
chicken stock to cover all vegetables, at least 6 cups
good splash Calvados
single cream to drizzle
Lay the butternut squash halves, buttered and with sage leaves on them, in a roasting tin and roast at 200C/400F for 45 minutes. Drip the melted butter from them into a frying pan and fry the shallots and garlic till soft. Scrape the cooked squash and sage leaves into a large stockpot and add the shallots and garlic and melted butter. Pour in chicken stock to cover, then the Calvados. Simmer for 10 minutes then whizz with a hand blender till perfectly smooth. Drizzle cream and serve hot.
This soup! Gorgeous. Rich, multi-layered, homey, comforting, warm and delicious. Just like the holidays, in fact. Let the games begin!
One of the most satisfying things in the world, to me, is to eat something truly inspiring out there in the world, think on it for a day or two ( or between lunch and dinner), and then recreate it in the cozy warmth of my kitchen, these November days. The fact is, if the sun is going to set at 4 p.m., I think the only recourse we have is to pretend that it’s dinnertime, and cook something elaborate to keep us going.
It always helps in these moods to have a friend to inspire me, and on Friday, it was my pal Charlie. We met two years ago on a five-day intensive (as in no phone, no newspapers, no cars, no escape) food writing course in deepest, darkest Devon. We became instant friends, engaging in what Charlie calls “banter,” in which we seem to do nothing but laugh at each other’s wit. Don’t you find that witty people make you wittier? I have to try that much harder, when I’m with Charlie, to think on my feet and find things to laugh about. It’s an addiction.
We always meet up and do foodie things together, so we can experience that most delicious of triumvirate pleasures: laughing, and eating, while talking about food. So Friday was “Masterchef Live” at the annual food fair in Olympia, the giant exhibition space near us. We met up in the spitting rain, folded our umbrellas and plunged into the melee. First up: the live Masterchef cook-off between Celebrity Masterchef winner Lisa Faulkner, she of the famed deep-fryer “Spooks” episode — I’m sure there were plenty of deep-frying jokes when she first began the competition! — and last year’s winner, Dhruv Baker, a truly inspirational Indian-English fusion cook. Crispy-skinned sea bream versus puff pastry fish pie… such fun to see them cook LIVE! A couple of terrible jokes led Charlie to quip, “Bring in the Luftwaffe, there’s been a bomb!”
And later in the morning we saw Dhruv cooking chicken ballotine, which sent me straight home to replicate it, as you see above. After Avery’s and my afternoon yesterday shopping for the first of the year’s Christmas ornaments, it was very pleasant to come home and mess up a clean, tidy kitchen with a complicated-ish recipe. The word “ballotine” is French for “bundle” and that’s your goal, to make a lovely chickeny bundle.
Chicken Ballotine With Marsala and Goat Cheese Sauce
4 chicken breasts, tenderloin removed and set aside
12 mushrooms, chopped
3 stems fresh thyme, leaves only
1/2 shallot, minced
2 tbsps olive oil
1 tbsp butter
1 tbsp butter
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 shallot, minced
1/4 cup Marsala wine
1 cup chicken or beef stock
3 oz goat cheese
2 tbsps double cream
Lay each chicken breast on a cutting board and pound with a mallet until flattened. Put the chicken tenderloins in a food processor and whizz until grainy. Remove and set aside in a bowl with the fresh thyme leaves, then give the same food processor treatment to the mushrooms and shallots. Mix all together with the chicken.
Lay each chicken breast flat, and place 1/4 of the mushroom mixture on the breast. Roll up and then roll up in a long piece of plastic wrap, like a sausage, or log. Do this for all four breasts. Twist each end of each log and tie in a knot. Place in boiling water for 15 minutes.
While the chicken poaches, melt the butter for the sauce in a small frying pan and fry the garlic and shallots till a bit browned. Pour in the Marsala and cook until reduced to about 3 tbsps, just a little bit of liquid with the garlic and shallots sort of shivering in the simmering bit of liquid. Add the stock and boil till reduced just slightly, then whisk in the goat cheese and cream. Simmer low while the chicken finishes cooking.
When the poaching 15 minutes are over, heat the olive oil and butter for the chicken in a large frying pan. Cut open the plastic-wrapped chicken over the sink and drain well. Place the unwrapped ballotines in the frying pan and fry on each side, on medium heat, until brown all over, perhaps 3 minutes total cooking. Don’t overcook or the chicken will become dry.
When ready to serve, slice the ballotines into four slices per “bundle”, then drizzle the sauce over.
This dish is warm, savory, complex in flavor, rewarding and quite professional-looking! If you’re not cutting down on carbs, by all means serve with a large bowl of buttery mashed potatoes, but if you’re cutting down, try my new favorite side dish…
The new It Vegetable. Have you ever roasted butternut squash? Or made it into a sleek, velvety creamy soup? Or simply steamed it, mashed it up with a tablespoon of butter, poured it into a dish and baked it? Heaven!
We have been eating it every way I can think of. John would happily eat it every night, although we both agreed that lasagne with mashed butternut squash was a little… odd. Good, and of course we ate it all, mind you, but… odd. I think it was the unexpected sweetness, mixed in with savory flavors. Part of my attempt to cut down on carbs, but not cut OUT. So I substituted squash, for one layer of noodles. Ah well, you won’t know until you try.
My week last week, crowned by fun with Charlie, was full of friends.
There was my lunch with Elisabeth, an extremely busy mother of two who nevertheless made time to sit with me, over roasted salmon and rocket at a local cafe, and talk… personalities. To what extent can we change ours? Jung, she explained to me, felt that we could shift along our spectrum of natural inclinations, and become, for example, more outgoing than we were naturally. How true I believe that is! How John, who is rather shy naturally, has expanded his interest in being social, to accommodate me, and my love of having people around. How Avery, who is naturally a bit scattered with her belongings, has adjusted to the demands of a very asky school, and become organized.
Elisabeth’s just brought me a book called “Nurture Shock,” an American parenting book that asks a lot of questions about raising teenagers — to let them lie or not? to praise them for their achievements, or only for their efforts? to make them SLEEP or let them suffer the consequences of fatigue? — I was left exhausted. What was I doing wrong? Then I looked at this face, and realized that the task of teaching me NOT to tell her how wonderful I think she is was beyond any book I had ever read. She is, and that’s that.
But tremendously thought-provoking! It seems that there is an acknowledged parental wish to praise, to comfort, to make up for the pressures we know WE have put our child through. Sort of an antidote to the situations we sign them up for. But also, there is a serious theory that we don’t do our children any favors by unquestioned praise. Can there be unquestioned support, but with a bit of criticism? I’m sure there can be. I have to learn that.
How wise of Elisabeth to know I wanted to think about these things, how lucky I am in my friends. I only hope I make as much of a success with being a parent as I made with a chicken ballotine… something tells me it’s a bit more of a daunting task.
When normal people get home from Florence, it’s with beautiful memories of shopping for lovely soaps, marbled papers, tiny replicas of the David in plaster… and their suitcases smell of all those pairs of new leather gloves. My suitcase, on the other hand, smelled of two salamis, a vacuum-packed half-kilo of bresaola and a giant chunk of prosciutto.
Cured meats, in short.
And now I’m making my own. Cured meat, that is. Let me explain.
Have you ever eaten at a restaurant here in London called St John? When I call it the “brainchild” of Fergus Henderson, I’m actually being very clever, because the restaurant is famous for its credo of “Nose To Tail Eating,” meaning that if we’re to kill animals and eat them, we should eat ALL of the creature, leaving no bit unappreciated: nose, ears, brains, everything. I’ve never been to St John, but John has and he simply raved. Luckily, I have a wonderful cooking friend who gave me the cookbook written by the lovely Fergus, as a gift for coming to dinner.
And the man can write! He talks about dishes “eating happily,” and the importance of having bread around for “supping up the juices.” Any cookbook that includes the phrase “saute your brains in butter” is a winner for me.
So, as I leafed through the cookbook with memories of Florentine cured meats dancing in my head, I alighted on a recipe for “Cured Beef and Celeriac Salad,” and I was off to the butcher, my dear neighborhood butcher Stenton’s, and chose a gorgeous fillet of beef, about a pound and a half. I must digress and tell you a very peculiar story of my adopted homeland. The conversation at the butcher went like this.
Butcher: “What can I get for you, love?”
Me: “I’d love that very nice looking fillet of beef, please,” pointing in the window at the piece I want.
Posh British Lady Standing Next to Me: “Did you hear about that beautiful stag, the one who was shot on Exmoor over the weekend?”
Me: “Yes, I did, what an awful story.”
PBLSNTM: “No doubt it will turn out to have been a fat, stupid American who shot him. As they do. And now they’ll hush it all up. The Americans do that, you know.”
Me: Stunned Silence.
Butcher: “This beef is about two third of a kilo, is that all right?”
PBLSNTM: “Oh, you’ll want that whole lot, will you? I was going to ask for a little taste, but I know Americans and their appetites. You have it, the whole lot.”
It was a bit chilling, to tell you the truth. I often go about my daily life here, nearly six years into our British adventure, and forget that I am a stranger, an incomer, a foreigner — and specifically, an American. Of course this is more the subject for a psychologist than for a food blogger, but I do think about it, how we are seen. Avery’s had these encounters too, occasionally, and always finds them quite jarring and shocking, really. I remember once a prospective headmistress at a school we were visiting asked her, “Do you think that some of the negative things people think about Americans are true?” What a thing to ask an 11 –year-old child. I walked away from the butcher shop feeling just that little bit less welcome here than I normally do. It’s probably healthy, a quick dose of self-doubt. Makes me a bit more aware of what I might be saying to people, maybe not that potty, but still insensitive.
Anyway, onto the recipe. Here’s what the meat will look like when you bring it home.
Very pinky-red, juicy, heavy and sort of floppy, if you know what I mean. And then here’s what you do. Keep in mind that you need three days for the beef to cure, so don’t get started right now, hoping to have it for dinner.
Cured Fillet of Beef
(serves 6–8, with other ingredients, as a salad)
good chunk — maybe 700 grams/ 1 1/2 lb - fillet of beef, PERFECTLY trimmed of all fat and sinew and membrane
60% salt to 40% sugar, enough to cover and surround the fillet — perhaps 2 cups total mixture
8 sprigs rosemary
plenty of fresh ground pepper
Place 4 of the rosemary sprigs on the bottom of a plastic container that will easily hold your fillet. Generously cover the bottom of the container with the salt/sugar mixture, then place the fillet on top and pour in the rest of the salt/sugar mixture to cover and surround the fillet. Place the last 4 leaves of rosemary into the top of the salt/sugar mixture, and cover the container.
Leave in the fridge for 3 days. You will be amazed! The salt/sugar has MELTED, the fillet has shrunk dramatically and darkened, and stiffened. Have a look.
Now for the salad ingredients.
Cured Beef and Celeriac Salad
(serves 6–8 easily, as a starter)
fillet of cured beef
1/2 head celeriac (celery root), peeled
juice of 1 lemon
1 1/2 tbsp Dijon mustard
4 tbsps creme fraiche or sour cream
sea salt and pepper
good handful rocket leaves (my addition, you know me and rocket)
Simply slice the celeriac VERY thinly, into pieces like matchsticks. Fergus reminds us to drizzle lemon juice over the celeriac all the time you are chopping it, so it doesn’t go dark. Fold the mustard and creme fraiche together and season to taste.
Slice the beef very thinly across. Lay it on a pretty platter on a large circle, then scatter the celeriac matchsticks over, and the rocket leaves. Drizzle with the mustard-creme fraiche dressing and serve.
I know, the photo’s at the top of the post, but I thought it was so pretty, it bore posting again. Are you inspired? Thank you, Fergus Henderson. We’ll be making this one again. I also thought that a mustardy vinaigrette with rosemary in it might be nice, instead of the creme fraiche.
I’ve now been thinking of other things to do with cured beef. Always, always thinly sliced, but how about with steamed new potatoes and a pesto dressing? Or on a really good baguette with some sharp cheddar cheese and horseradish?
What a simple, yet impressive thing to produce for your family and friends. Because John and I ate this salad ALL by ourselves, there was enough leftover for Avery to have for her breakfast, and what a success! She adored it, as it plays into the meaty-salty phenomenon she loves to kickstart the day.
But of course it’s always nice to fall back, later in the day, on some cured meat that someone else has produced. And I can promise you, this is one of the best pizzas you will ever taste: totally light and such complex flavors. It’s one of those recipes I came up with by looking in the fridge and seeing a number of things that needed to be used up, and guess what? That’s often the best recipe.
(serves 2 for lunch)
good homemade pizza crust
12 slices finocchiona (fennel salami, brought back from Florence)
1/2 cup goats cheese
1/2 head radicchio, leaves shredded
drizzle fennel oil
On a very, very hot pizza stone, place your pizza crust, then put it in a VERY very hot oven for about 5 minutes, just till puffed up and slightly cooked. Bring it out, lay the slices of salami on the crust, crumble the goats cheese over it, sprinkle with the radicchio and drizzle the truffle oil over all. Bake in your VERY hot oven for perhaps 8 minutes, just till the crust is baked and slightly golden.
Insanely good. So when you’re next feeling inspired to cook, think of… the cure.