Travel, like so many other pleasant things (marriage, for example) is all about compromise. Unless you go abroad with people who share your interests, unlike family who just share your life, you end up doing a lot of things because other people want to do them. So because John and his mom were very hot to do it, Avery and I climbed up with them to the top of the Duomo even though once we got up there, we were too terrified to move, much less take a photograph or pose for one! Avery bolted straight back down the 523 steps, I lingered for just long enough to realize I really felt ill, and followed her down. Here we are, very tiny and low.
Our hearts were pounding, from a combination of exertion and sheer fear, for about the next hour! During which, because Avery wanted to, we all trooped into Sephora, where if there is a limit to her attention span, we’ve never reached it. She can spend a mind-bendingly long time in there, perusing — no, actually touching — every single…
This trip to Florence was a milestone for me: in a moment of epiphany, I realized that the word “Bronzino” conjures up fishy recipes, these days, rather than an Italian Renaissance painter. I think the art historian in me has finally, fully given way to the cook.
In a way I felt a bit sad to realize this! To know that it has been a long time since my dusty old PhD in art history meant much to me. The years when Michelangelo — his poetry, his sculpture, his birth and death dates — were as familiar to me as a nursery rhyme, are now a long time ago. I had to look things up in the guidebooks just as often as did my family, who used to rely on me for all the information they could want, wandering through a museum. Now, Avery and I raced as quickly as we could through the Pitti Palace and the Uffizi, me intent only on getting to the Central Market and she longing for a go at the crowded shelves in the soap and cosmetics shops! Times do change, and you can’t waste too much time pretending they don’t.
And so I approached Florence and the art world there as just another tourist, much as I did the Peggy Guggenheim Museum in Venice... a little nostalgic for the old intellectual me, but awfully happy all the same to pack my suitcase with salamis, porcini mushrooms and truffle oil, leaving the postcards of art to other people. And being a tourist, with my lovely teenager seeing everything for the first time, was very nice indeed.
We arrived on Monday afternoon to the Casa Guidi, an elaborate apartment above Piazza di Felice, one of the Landmark Trust’s truly unforgettable places to stay. It was lived in by Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning.
The house remains a museum to them even now, open two afternoons a week to whatever poetry-obsessed tourists there might be, wanting to see their photographs and silver pieces under glass. High ceilings, ornately painted with putti and harps and carved with plaster roses, gorgeous 19th century furniture, row upon row of leather-bound books.
Completely luxurious and stylish, such a treat to settle our belongings, and then go out to explore. We walked around the neighborhood, which is on the “other side” of the Arno (the one without the Duomo!), and discovered, in a street called “Borgo San Jacopo” a gorgeous trattoria called La Dispensa, purveyors of the most gorgeous salamis, cheeses and breads you can imagine.
I sampled something called “finocchiona,” a soft, garlicky, fennel-seed-flavored meaty concoction. HEAVEN. And because my spoken Italian is deceptively good — a good accent, but unreliable listening skills! — the proprietress immediately went into very detailed ecstasies with me, only some of which I caught.
“What you are eating there, is the traditional finocchiona which is produced only in Chianti, Florence and Siena. It is the finocciona sbriciolata, which means…”
“Not the hard sort,” I venture, “but…”
She made a gesture with her hands, a sort of “falling apart” gesture.
“Sbriciolata… to crumble,” she finishes triumphantly.
And it did. A softly crumbling slice of HEAVEN. Sheer heaven.
The finocchiona, along with some salame Toscano (a dense, soft, lean salame that Avery adores), mozzarella di bufala, fresh rocket and tiny red peppers stuffed with anchovies and capers: quite the perfect lunch!
Well, that could have been the whole holiday for me! Just trip after trip to the deli, every time sampling more and more things. For example, there was a limoncello SPRAY! In a spray can! I really wanted to try that, but wasn’t sure what customs would think. And my dears, the CHEESES! Have you ever heard of, much less eaten, FRESH pecorino? Neither had I! Not strictly speaking fresh, because it had been aged 21 days, but perfectly white, soft, melt-in-the-mouth divinity.
But because I was not in Florence alone, I had to go along with my family and do — sigh– other things. But first, we had to have dinner, and we had decided to go out the first night in case we hadn’t come upon anything to eat (as if!) on that first evening. And fate, plus our lovely housekeeper Elena, sent us to quite the most charming restaurant I’ve ever been to. Across the street from the darling delicatessen, at 43 Borgo San Jacopo, it’s called Il Cinghiale Bianco, or “The White Wild Boar,” that particular meat being a traditional Florentine delicacy. From the moment we walked in everything was perfect. Warm, inviting, high-ceilinged, smelling of a combination of all good things on earth: garlic, butter, roasted meats, fresh breads.
The maitre d’, or whatever the equivalent is in Italy, could not have been sweeter. Because I really wanted to understand the answers to my questions, I asked permission to speak English, and of course he was fluent.
“I’d really like to cook some wild boar while I am in Florence,” I explained. “Can you tell me about a traditional way to cook it?”
“My dear, you could make it as we make it here at the restaurant. Let me tell you… Soak it in red wine overnight, with the necessary vegetables. Then cook very slowly the next day, with some tomato puree added at the end. Allora!”
With these scant instructions I had to be content. And content I was, with a plateful of eggs fried and topped with shaved truffle, followed by roasted baby pig, the succulent, salty meat falling off the bones, slathered with crispy fat. John’s mom went for mozzarella di bufala with shaved truffle, and a pumpkin ravioli, and since we all relentlessly demanded to share bites, I can report that everything was sublime, beyond delicious. However, the unquestioned triumph of the night was Avery’s strozzapreti con spinaci, a sort of rarefied, lighter-than-air bright green dumpling, swimming in a delicate buttery sauce, sprinkled with Pecorino. In short, the sort of unearthly essence of spinach, a quite, quite perfect food.
The more I cook, and the harder I try, the fewer things there are that I cannot make myself if I really want to (although sometimes it’s nice to be cooked for). The foie gras creme brulee at Angelus, the deep-fried softshell crabs at Mandarin Kitchen. And now, the strozzapreti at Cinghiale Bianco joins the list. I won’t even bother to try. They were just that ridiculously good.
I told the lovely host that we might well be back again the following night! “Just remember we are closed on Wednesdays,” he cautioned, taking me quite seriously, as well he should. Because we did go back!
Our first evening in the apartment was an experience of staggering grace, surrounded by all the Brownings’ possessions, listening to the street noise from below, overlaid with the beauty of Avery’s playing the grand piano! I’m afraid she’s spoilt forever now, that our humble upright in the kitchen here in London will never quite suffice again. The sound soared into the painted ceiling and came back at us, elegant and touching. She was wonderful. And that was Day One in Florence…
How quiet the house suddenly seems. John’s mom went home yesterday, departing in a dull, sprinkling rain completely different from the brilliant blue skies of Florence. Quite symbolic of our time together. She hugged, waved goodbye, we said, “Until Christmas!” and she was gone, taking so much of the celebration and fun with ther. She radiates such an interest in everything we do that during her visit, we seem terribly interesting! And then she goes, and we are back to our everyday selves.
Since we returned from Florence it’s been a rush: a hasty “everything on a pancake” supper Friday evening, trying valiantly to adhere to our no-carbs vow, John and I replacing pancakes with lettuce leaves. But Saturday John had to succumb to the little bug that has been tickling around, and so I resurrected some chicken broth from the freezer, settled him with a mug and a hot water bottle, and we girls retreated to the mall for a lovely lunch at Kitchen Italia: giant king prawns in a salad of romaine and rocket, and then MADNESS as everyone in the world seemed to decide to go shopping. Surely if there were any sanity in the world, even Westfield could not allow so many people in its doors, and my dears, the RACKET.
Finally we three turned hunted eyes on one another: get us out of here! And home to brilliant fried haddock and roasted cauliflower, and Avery’s favorite haricots verts with loads of garlic and lemon zest.
Sunday of course meant Avery spent the day in Hyde Park on Archie, having lovely canters amid the tourists and the falling autumn leaves.
And so we adults repaired to the Star of India, possibly the best Indian restaurant in London, and now the proud purveyor of a cookbook to help us all produce chicken with cashews and mushrooms, and spinach with paneer cheese. I haven’t yet dared to try the lentil dumplings in a sauce of yoghurt and asofaetida, but I will!
From there we drove to Shoreditch on one of John’s many, many quests to find an empty lot on which to build his dream house. So far the chase has been a cruel disappointment. He finds such a lot, or a seemingly abandoned building, and writes to the owner, whereupon the owner reveals he’s just sold the lot the previous afternoon, or that John’s enquiry has moved him to build his own dream house, starting tomorrow. So far no luck. But the lovely neighborhood of Arnold Circus with the perfect cafe Albion for cheeses, organic lettuces, seasonal pears and a croissant for Avery, made the afternoon a nice adventure anyway.
Monday we braved the Tate to see the Turner Prize candidates, and I will say no more, except that I have never seen such silly art in all my years as an art historian. Go, and tell me why I should change my mind. But the visit was made worthwhile by one simple piece: Michael Craig-Martin’s An Oak Tree. How have I missed this artist and this piece all my life? A glass of water, high upon a shelf, and a textual “conversation” with the artist on a sheet of paper beside it, explaining that the artist has changed this glass of water into an oak tree. Absurd, calling up Marcel Duchamp, the whole history of conceptual art…
The interviewer asks, “Isn’t this a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes?” but Craig-Martin replies, “No, in that case the audience actually claimed to see the clothes. I would be very surprised indeed if anyone claimed to see an oak tree here. But it is one, nonetheless.”
Avery and I found it completely hysterical, and then were somewhat chastened upon doing some research, to find that the artist intended the piece to be a reflection on Catholic transsubstantiation! Well, it was still funny, and the more we are allowed to think so, since the artist’s entire point is that art transfigures the object simply by making it “art.”
It’s the kind of thing you like, if you like that kind of thing. And I do.
Off to a nostalgic lunch at Bibendum’s Oyster Bar, in our old neighborhood from 20 years ago, and a happy walk in the sunshine around far too much expensive real estate and clothing! All we could do that evening was to consume an enormous pile of lamb chops from my beloved butcher at Green Valley, and reminisce about all we had done during our holiday, over the past two packed-full weeks..
No! Florence must wait! As tempting as it is to tell you all our adventures there, I must remember the joys of our time in London. The dinner party with Annie’s family and my new friend Nell and her baby… Oh! The calamari. I have it down to a science: half homemade breadcrumbs, half Japanese Panko breadcrumbs, then a quantity of cornstarch (cornflour to my British friends), and a good sprinkle of Fox Point Seasoning… the squid perfectly cleaned, but into rings, dipped into eggy creamy milk, then the breadcrumb mixture. Then quickly fried in very hot rapeseed oil.
Perfection. A slight deviation from no carbs, I admit! But it was a wonderful party. The chocolate mousse? Annie says I can no longer claim not to cook puddings, because it was a triumph. I have to agree. Thank you, Delia Smith.
Delia’s Chocolate Mousse
(quantities for 1 person, simply multiply for your party)
1 egg, 2 ounces high-quality chocolate
Separate eggs. Melt chocolate in a double-boiler and beat egg yolks into it. Whip egg whites until they hold peaks, then fold into chocolate mixture. Chill for at least two hours. Serve with whipped cream and fruit.
And the Sebastian Faulks lecture at Avery’s school. Have you read “Birdsong”? A young friend of mine years ago told me that it was his favorite book, and it had somehow slipped past me. I picked it up and was entranced: forbidden passion, tragic war, the essence of love, abandonment, friendship. A beautiful novel, and how on earth was it going to be made into a play this autumn? Faulks’ lecture at school was fascinating. “The stupidest piece of advice anyone can give a person trying to write a novel is, ‘Write what you know.’ NO! Write precisely what you DON’T know. Put yourself in the shoes of a young girl, in France during World War One, in love with a young Englishman. What would she say, do, feel? Write about that.”
John’s mom and I listened, looking around at all the rapt 17-year-old faces, sitting in that magnificent Hall, planning what they would do with the rest of their lives, being inspired by this man who described his daily life as “quite mad, really. I go all day without talking to anyone, unless I am promoting a book and then I talk all day long.”
And the play itself: some casting problems, we all agreed. When the central focus of a drama is a passionate love affair, the two actors simply MUST have massive chemistry, and these two did not, we felt. We spent a great deal of time afterward trying to recast the two main characters… Ben Barnes played the war scenes with the other men beautifully, expressing disillusionment, cold calculation, a sort of senseless bravery. But in the scenes with Genevieve O’Reilly, his obsessive love interest, we didn’t believe it. Who could have played those parts more convincingly? But the play is worth seeing. The scenes with Jack Fairbrace, the conscience and soul of the war narrative, are very moving, and Lee Ross does a fine job as Jack. See it, do. But read it, even more so.
And “Social Network”! What a film. I know Facebook is one of those black-white things: you either love it or you don’t. I love it. How else could I find out what all friends around the world are cooking for dinner? And see pictures of their kids’ Halloween costumes, and see their vacation pictures? Sure, it can be sinister, and gossipy and cruel, but not in my world. The film is clever, clever, and I believe Andrew Garfield is the next huge star. Charismatic, dark, brooding, vulnerable. More Andrew, please.
And those were our London adventures, an absolute whirlwind. On Monday, we were off to Florence. And I’ll tell you all about it soon… but to whet your appetite, two words: Wild Boar.
It’s been too long! Life has been magical lately, with a whirlwind visit to Florence at the center of all the excitement. I’ll be back in a jiffy with lots of luscious photos and a fabulous recipe or two, but in the meantime, I wanted to show you a little friend we made in Italy… this little fellow followed Avery into one of the many cosmetics shops she discovered, and after we successfully shooed him out into the street, he ended up on my hand. That’s what our whole adventure was like: felicity, luck, and gentle beauty. I’ll be back!
It turns out to be simpler than you think, not to eat white food. But why?
I don’t ever want to become a person who counts calories or carbs or anything else, when deciding what to eat. But on the other hand, there can be no denying that one’s metabolism (all right, MINE) slows down after a certain age. At that point, even playing tennis four times a week cannot cancel out all the effect of the lovely food that comes from my kitchen. A decision must be made. Do I want to get ever stouter, like a cartoon French chef, my white apron stretched across my enormous girth? Once I phrased it like that to myself, I realized the time for compromise had come.
Coincidental with this thought came the visit, over the weekend, of our beloved friend the brilliant architect Joel, who designed our New York apartment, quite the most perfect place we had ever lived, and probably ever will live. And while it was wonderful to see him, it was also clear that there was a lot less of him to see than the last time we were together! He looks simply gorgeous, all slim and bearded and sexy. A devastating man.
Under gentle questioning, the mystery was solved. “I stopped eating bread and potatoes and pasta,” he said simply, scooping up scrambled eggs and roasted tomatoes at my table, leaving the toasted ciabatta quite untouched. And there our plan was born.
Number one, John stopped shaving! Avery points out that right now he looks like he forgot to shave, but I’m sure that another week or two will take care of that. Number two, I made a little trip to my friend Annie’s house with a bag of unopened flour, boxes of crackers and biscuits, bags of rice. And we haven’t looked back.
Now I know this is a very unscientific way to Not-Diet. Looking into the notion of carbohydrates online, I found all sorts of interesting things, like that people who are serious about this stuff won’t eat things like beets, or carrots, and won’t drink alcohol. Now, to me, a life without beets or Absolut Citron is not worth living, or at least not enough for me to consider it. I also feel that a world philosophy that tells you ANY vegetable is bad for you is rubbish. Beets are good for you, PERIOD.
So we have decided we can eat all foods that are not white. My exceptions to this rule are two of the basic food groups in our household: garlic, and haddock.
The scary thing about the way we’ve been eating is that we were ALREADY eating all the foods everyone has suggested to replace white food. Plus we’ve been eating white food! No wonder we were expanding horizontally. If you were raised in the Midwest of America, as both my beloved and I were, you will recognize the Triad of the Dinner Plate: meat, vegetable and… starch. Of course in my childhood, this method was put in place in part to save money, because potatoes filled us up and we required fewer pork chops, minute steaks and baked chicken, the staples of my mother’s unenthusiastic kitchen. Minute Rice? Check. Bread and margarine? Check. Potatoes out of a Betty Crocker box? Definitely. And once a month or so, spaghetti, with cheese from a green can.
So it’s a bit of a strain to teach myself to approach the dinner plate with a different attitude. Two vegetables, how about that? Lentils, chickpeas for that potatoey feeling in the mouth. Pappadum, made from lentils, when you want the feeling of a bread thing. It’s working.
Dal (lentil stew)
1 1/2 cups dried lentils
enough chicken stock to cover the lentils, plus 1/2 cup extra
2 tbsps olive oil
4 cloves garlic
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp powdered cumin
2 tsps turmeric
1 tsp crushed chillis, or one small chilli minced
1 tsp sea salt
large handful coriander (cilantro), chopped roughly
1 tsp garam masala
Soak the lentils in cold water for 30 minutes. Rinse thoroughly and place in a saucepan, and cover with chicken stock. Simmer for 30–40 minutes until lentils are fully soft. With a stick blender or food processor, puree the lentils and chicken stock.
Heat the olive oil in a large frying pan. When oil is hot, add cumin seeds and turmeric and sizzle for 30 seconds, then add garlic and cook until soft, but not browned. Add the pureed lentils, chillis, and salt to taste. Cook gently for a few minutes, then stir in the coriander and garam masala. Taste again for salt, and serve warm, in a little bowl, with pappadum to scoop it up and perhaps a dollop of yogurt on the side.
I’ve roasted a lot of vegetables, and made a lot of soups: creamy red pepper, mushroom with Marsala, celeriac with Champagne. At some point I will have to break down and make pasta for Avery, but we’ll think of something.
Lunch one day was this glorious salad: so simple, such a wonderful combination of flavors.
Avocado and Beetroot Salad with Lemongrass
2 ripe avocados
6 small beets
1 stalk lemongrass, outer leaves discarded, minced
drizzle olive oil
juice of 1/2 lemon
fresh black pepper
Roast the beets in aluminum foil for 1 hour at 400F/200C. Peel and slice thinly. Arrange on a plate with the avocados, sliced as you like. Sprinkle over the lemongrass, olive oil, lemon juice and pepper. Voila.
The day we had roast chicken in Chinese pancakes, John and I wrapped ours in lettuce instead. It’s working!
I am not, however, noticeably slenderer. It’s Day Six.
While we’ve been adjusting to our new life, we’ve had lots to distract us. The wonderful 501st Birthday Party for Avery’s peerless school in a cathedral which shall remain nameless because it gives away the name of her school. The soaring nave, the magnificent dome, the sound of many little boys singing, a very intelligent, inspirational sermon. “Use these days of safety in your wonderful school,” the bishop said, “to ask yourself what you want to do in this life, perhaps something no one else can do. What would you like to contribute?”
The girls, instead of listening, giggled behind their hands at the real focus of their day: the Boys, from the boys’ school attached to their girls’ school. These foreign creatures felt the power of the feminine gazes and tossed their hair accordingly. Everyone simpered, then sang the final hymn and filed out under the watchful gaze of the High Mistress and Head Master. We all felt chastened.
And my friend JoAnn came to dinner, which event always makes Avery shake her head in disbelief. “The way you guys LAUGH when you are together! It’s incredible.” And it’s true. Jo has a true, unquenchable love of life that just makes you want to be with her. But even Jo, even with her adventurous spirit, could not be moved to try the very odd food that we added to our traditional pierrade of grilled meats. Ostrich! And antelope! We’ve been to the South African supermarket, of course.
This amazing place, St Marcus in Putney, is difficult to find, so persevere. We were moved to go because my gorgeous friend Sue and her South African husband had given us dinner the night before, and the little starter with drinks was a bowl of extremely superior beef jerky, called “biltong.” Slightly spicy, complexly flavored, salty and delicious, it propelled us to the shop for more. And while there, of course, we could not resist the strange exotic meats on display. “It’s a kind of antelope, with HUGE antlers,” the butcher said of the “kudu” fillet we bought. He produced his iPhone and brought up a photo of the creature. Goodness.
As well, we bought delicious chicken kebabs, already strung on skewers, marinated in peri-peri sauce and a creamy garlic mixture. John grilled these last night and they were gorgeous. No photo: we were too hungry to wait!
And I’ve been cooking for four these days, because my beloved mother in law has arrived for her autumnal visit. What joy to have her under my roof where I can do things for her, have her invaluable help while I cook, wear the new lovely short skirt she brought for me (someone tell me when I’m too old, please). Her visits always are bittersweet because we get a chance to see what life would be like if we were always together, and it’s a bit awful knowing this will probably never happen. We must enjoy the visits. She is a person who is defined to an enormous degree by her gentle curiosity about the world around her. She asks questions! She listens. She wants to know what you’re reading and why, what you’re cooking and why, who’s coming over tonight and what they’re like. It’s interesting to see oneself through her eyes: so much more fascinating than I know I really am!
And, drum roll please… Avery has had her theatrical triumph of the year: as Cecily in “The Importance of Being Earnest” at school. She was nothing short of magnificent! Dressed as to the manor born in a floor length dress of pink roses, twinklingly clever and saucy and bright-eyed, all her lines down pat. Simply wonderful, we were bursting with pride.
She and two of her castmates’ families came back home for a celebration dinner, and much post-theatre manic laughter, quotations from Doctor Who, imitations of teachers, devouring meatballs and green beans and fruit salad between hiccups of hysteria. How wonderful they all are: so self-possessed, so funny, so hardworking to put on their play. A wonderful evening.
Right. I must dash to finish the last-minute jobs that occur when eight people are expected at your house for supper. Calamari to start — oh, another white food! — followed by slow-braised shoulder of beef, more green beans with lemon zest and garlic, and a chocolate mousse. If it’s good, I’ll post the recipe. Oh, another white food — whipped double cream! Never mind, I never was a stickler for details…
Life is greatly enhanced when you have a decent fishmonger.
Of course, you can just trot into your local supermarket and look along the shelves containing fish products, and pick out a salmon fillet or two. But when you have a beautiful, clean blue-painted storefront to walk by several times a day, with smartly-aproned, smiling fishy guys waving to you over their gleaming steel countertops filled with manna from the sea… well. You get motivated.
Our “Fishmonger’s Kitchen” in Shepherds Bush Road is just such a mecca for me. Tony, a hard-working career fish man from Australia, greets me with enthusiasm. “Kristen! I’ve got a lovely fresh haddock for you,” and out comes a bright-eyed specimen caught that morning in Cornwall, to be filleted, skinned and wrapped up for me. Whereupon I dip it in cream and eggs, dredge it in my special blend of homemade breadcrumbs, panko breadcrumbs and Fox Point Seasoning. And fry it up deliciously.
Or if you fancy something new for your lunch, get a little sushi spirit going on. Take your courage in your hands and pick up a nice piece of yellowtail tuna, to make the best salad in the world.
Fresh Yellowtail Tuna Salad
2 tuna steaks, about 1 inch thick
2 tsps olive oil
1 stalk lemon grass, minced
1 soup-size can chickpeas, drained
2 stalks celery, chopped
zest and juice of 1 lemon
handful rocket leaves
sea salt and fresh black pepper to taste
3 tbsps mayonnaise
Heat the oil in a nonstick frying pan until very hot. Carefully place the tuna steaks in the oil and cook for 30 seconds on one side, then turn and cook for another 30 seconds on the other side. Remove to a cutting board. Cool slightly so that you can handle the fish, then cut into bite-size pieces. The tuna should be opaque and rather grayish on the outside, but still red and cool to the touch on the inside.
Place tuna in a large bowl and add all the other ingredients, then mix gently. Serve immediately.
Simply divine. I love any tuna, even the sort of catfood tuna I was raised eating, the one with the dancing fish in sunglasses on the label. I have graduated to pretentious jars of yellowtail in olive oil, which is wonderfully robust and flavorful. But this tuna is a completely different experience: soft, delicate, completely unfishy. I could even skip all the other ingredients and just eat it straight from the frying pan, dusted with some mixed pepper, perhaps with a tiny bit of wasabi-laced mayo on the side.
I walked, innocently enough, into Tony’s lovely shop with John, our bag of virtuous tennis rackets slung over his shoulder, feeling like we deserved a treat. “I have some lovely tiger prawns for you today,” Tony assured me, and we succumbed. I wish I had a lovely photo of what became of them, but I’ll have to make it again because the photo turned out wretched. But here is the recipe, a splendidly complex and spicy array of Thai flavors.
2 tbsps sunflower or other mild oil
5 cloves garlic
1 small hot red chili
1 large (1–2 inch?) knob ginger, peeled
2 tsps turmeric
1 tsp cumin
juices of 1/2 lemon, 1/2 lime
large handful coriander leaves
large handful parsley leaves
1 red onion, quartered
fresh ground black pepper
1 kg king tiger prawns, heads removed, shells slit up the back for easy peeling
1 soup-size can coconut milk
red pepper flakes to taste
basmati rice for four (put to steam)
tenderstem broccolini to saute in olive oil
4 kaffir lime leaves
12 basil leaves, chiffonade
Probably your prawns will arrive to you frozen. Mine did. If so, place them in a bowl and let them thaw. Save the thawing liquid. If they come with heads, remove them and rinse.
So. Put all the ingredients up to and including the black pepper in a Cuisinart and whizz till a nice paste. You will have to take the lid off and scrape down the sides several times. Next, heat the oil in a heavy skillet or wok and throw all the paste in. Stir round till sizzling, then throw in the prawns. Stir and toss and turn until the prawns are pink all over instead of their original grey, then smack each prawn against the side of the wok and remove to the eventual serving bowl.
Now pour into the wok the prawn thawing liquid, and the coconut milk. Stir over medium heat until bubbling and taste. Add the lime leaves and as many pepper flakes as you need. Leave off the heat while you steam some basmati rice and saute some tenderstem broccolini.
When the rice and broccolini are ready, remove the lime leaves from the sauce and add the prawns. Chiffonade the basil and add to the sauce. Heat over high heat until bubbling, then pour everything over the rice. Serve with an empty bowl for the prawn shells, and lots of napkins.
This dish will make you sit up and beg like a dog. So creamy, so beautifully golden with turmeric (your fingers will be golden too, from peeling the shells!), so exotic and compellingly velvety.
I must digress and tell you that before I had even investigated the bags I brought home from the fishmonger’s, the phone rang and it was Tony. “Um, Kristen, you know those prawns you bought? Don’t open them. I accidentally gave you someone else’s herrings. I’m bringing more prawns to you now.”
I tried, dear readers, to give back the herrings. He was having none of it, just smilingly shoved a package at me, pointed to the waiting illegally parked van, and left, waving over his shoulder.
I opened the herrings. Ugh. Very fishy smelling, bones everywhere (“You’re meant just to eat the bones,” well-meaning English friends have said since. Indeed.) I went next door. “Sara, do you and Selva want six butterflied herrings?” I explained my situation. Sara repudiated them in no uncertain terms. “Give them to the cats!” I rang up Annie. “Annie, do you and Keith want six butterflied herrings?” “Ugh, no! Bin them!”
So, an hour and several attempts to bone them later, I gave up. In the dark of night, feeling hideously wasteful but singularly uninspired, I binned them. Heaven save me.
But I didn’t stop there. Some demon took hold of me, some completely not-Indiana part of my cooking self, and I brought home… a squid. Have you ever cleaned a squid? It is not for the faint of heart, although I know to some people it’s child’s play, the same people who always clean their own scallops. I cleaned scallops once, and while I completely agree that the freshness simply can’t compare to ready-prepared scallops, I found it off-puttingly grubby. It’s very hard to reconcile the pristine white babies you buy at the supermarket with the contents of a real scallop shell brought home from Tony’s. They’re bottom-dweller bivalves, after all, their homes reflect their diet.
But a squid! My goodness, I couldn’t believe all that was contained within that one creature. Some brave twists of the head-ish-seeming bit, with long trailing tentacles, to separate it from the thick body complete with fins… and voila. It comes apart. A long piece of cartilage so perfect as to seem like a piece of synthetic plastic. And two little silverfish-like sacs of ink. Ink that was profuse, blacker than midnight, and most impressively staining of the bowl, my fingers, the sink. Amazing! Lots of time spent peeling the skin away, cleaning the inside OCD heaven.
And friends, that brings me to the end of my current Fishy Tales. And since, beginning tomorrow, John and I are going to try a spell of eschewing carbs, there will be a spell of no fried fish for us. You may look forward to a new spate of side dishes containing no potatoes, rice, couscous, pasta or bread… we’ll see how long that lasts. I’m not big on self-deprivation. Unless it involves… herrings.