Just look what a May and June full of rain will do for you! The beautiful sumac tree in our garden simply fell over from the weight of its wet branches and the soggy home of its roots. The tree surgeon has come to visit, clucking sadly over the situation. “Sumacs are notoriously shallow-rooted,” he said accusingly, although as far as “notorious” goes, shallow-rooted is pretty innocent. But with a touching faith in the future, the new buds of the sumac flower have adjusted to situation, and have grown to point again toward the sky, whatever the direction of their branches.
London life has assumed its usual June quality of watching the days fly off the calendar, packed full with plays and musicals to go to, houseguests to welcome, dinner parties to host, school volunteering to organize, social work, and of course bellringing. I gave a big, festive luncheon party for all my ringing friends, to celebrate my first anniversary ringing! A roasted side of salmon, stuffed chicken thighs in Moroccan-spiced yogurt, tomato-mozzarella salad with pine nuts and basil, a huge bowl of couscous with peppers, olives and grilled halloumi. Laura brought a huge chocolate…
Whenever I think I have a busy schedule, I have to think of what the Queen — age 86! — has been through in the past week! The Diamond Jubilee, focus of everyone’s attention in this country, celebration of her 60 years on the throne, has come and gone. We bellringers at St Mary’s played our part, ringing on the Sunday. Some of my favorite people in all the world.
Thank goodness Lucy is a whizz at puddings. Rice Krispie treats as you see, ice cream cake, raspberries. Beautiful.
The poor Queen had to stand in the driving, cold rain that is English summer, all up and down the Thames, trying to look enthusiastic about a thousand boats going past her. I kept thinking of the word “frittata,” which I later realized was a crazy combination of the words “flotilla” and “regatta.” One of the boats contained eight newly-cast bells, ringing away on the river in honor of the Jubilee.
The next day saw her “celebrating” at a huge concert at Buckingham Palace (the poor Prince Philip having succumbed to a bladder infection and gone in some relief to hospital). The Tuesday was another “celebration” at St Paul’s Cathedral and who knows what else, and finally the long Bank Holiday weekend of parties was over and she could put her feet up with a gin and tonic. Hold the tonic, one imagines.
My quiet life has been enlivened with a new challenge: cooking without my beloved Aga! In the week before the Jubilee, the weather turned oppressively hot, the sun beating down through our glass kitchen ceiling. This in combination with the south-facing back windows and the constant intense heat from the Aga made it absolutely unbearable to be anywhere near the kitchen. Avery and John insisted. We turned it off. And I have had to learn to cook without it, on a small two-burner induction hob, and a microwave that turns into a regular oven.
2 red bell peppers, chopped small
2 handfuls sugar snap peas, sliced small
1/2 red onion, diced
1 tin black beans, rinsed thoroughly
6 ears sweetcorn, kernels cut off
2 cloves garlic, minced with a sprinkling of lemon juice and sea salt
fresh black pepper
dressing: 1 part lemon juice, 1 part horseradish to 3 parts olive oil, 1 tbsp mayonnaise
This salad is simply beautiful. Mix all the vegetables together. The reasoning behind mincing the garlic WITH lemon juice and salt is that the acidity and sodium simply pulverize the garlic to a much finer mush than can be achieved plain, perfect for a raw salad. Toss with the dressing.
And we’ve been on an outdoorsy adventure: asparagus picking! At Garsons Farm in Surrey, a short half-hour drive from our house and a very surprising experience. At first you think there is nothing to pick.
We picked four pounds before we knew it! And came home to a four-day asparagus feast so that I could write my latest piece for HandPicked Nation. Simply sauteed, tossed into a stirfry, pureed into a creamy soup, drizzled with hollandaise.
Finally, thoroughly sick of asparagus, we turned to my new favorite friend, the deep fryer. What could be more fun on a summer evening than gathering together a big hunk of lard — yes! lard!- and a vat of rapeseed oil, and any foodstuff that doesn’t move, and frying it all? What an adventure. Mushrooms? Check
And finally, the piece de resistance… French fries. Super-thin, salty, triple-cooked according to the great Heston Blumenthal’s recipe (simplified here by me).
Perfect French Fries
1 pound potatoes — King Edward, Desiree, any floury potato will do — cut into French-fry shapes
1 cup/227g lard
enough vegetable oil to reach the required level in your fryer
sea salt to taste
Run the cut potatoes under running water for 5 minutes to remove starch, then place in enough water to cover and simmer for 20 minutes. Place on a rack and put in the freezer for an hour.
Remove from freezer and fry at 130C/260F for 7 minutes. Put back in the freezer for another hour.
Remove from freezer and just before you want to eat, fry at 190C/375F for about six minutes (depending on the thickness of the potato pieces) until golden brown. Drain on kitchen paper and salt liberally!
Now, of course if one were English, one would douse all this with malt vinegar, or brown sauce. If one were truly American, one would douse all this with ketchup. If Belgian, mayonnaise. But being me, I like a nice side dish of homemade tartare sauce to complement all the crunchy delights.
1 cup mayonnaise
1/4 mediu, red onion, minced
1 tbsp chopped capers
1 tbsp chopped cornichons
1 tsp fresh, chopped tarragon
1 tsp fresh, chopped chives
juice of 1 lemon or lime
plenty of fresh black pepper
Mix all and chill. Perfect with all fish, on a burger, with fries of course.
I asked Avery to take the photo before I stirred it all up because it was so pretty.
Now of course one would not want to ingest lard every day (much less the very tempting brick of something called “beef dripping” I also brought home for future frying adventures!). But if you’re going to eat roasted beets and sauteed courgettes and bean salad and rocket every other day, once in awhile you must get down and dirty and FRY. My, how we enjoyed ourselves, everyone pitching in with special talents — me cooking, John tasting! And Avery’s photography? She is SO talented.
Today I worked off all the fries with a mammoth spell of bellringing. The trouble with acquiring a new skill is that it comes in many layers, on many levels. First you crawl, then you walk, then you run, and the next thing you know, everyone around you expects a Marathon! A year ago I had never even made a sound, practicing as we do with the clappers muted until we are good enough not to annoy the neighbors. Then I made a sound and took my place in the band, and promptly was expected to be up and at ‘em every Sunday morning at services (nerve-wracking at the best of times).
But that seems like a dream now! Then came “call changes” where I had to be able to listen to instructions and change the order in which I rang. Then came the first method, memorized changes in the patterns, called “Plain Hunt.” How I struggled, for months and months of the year. Finally, it was mastered on five bells, whereupon instantly I had to learn it on seven bells. Now this weekend, a new method, “Grandsire Doubles” on six bells. Yesterday I burned both hands with an out-of-control rope. Will it never stop?
No, there will always be new things to learn. A week from today I will make my first attempt at what is called a “Quarter Peal,” in which six of us gather at an appointed time and try to ring a method through all its permutations, which will take about 45 minutes. STRAIGHT, no stopping, no mistakes! The reason I say “attempt” is that it often goes wrong and the “Quarter Peal” is not achieved. I couldn’t bear it if this happened! So I have been practicing like crazy, but this does not stop me from feeling that I will spend the next seven days feeling that a guillotine is hanging over my head. We shall see.
And how last week was enlivened by the arrival of our great friends from America, the Leiths… Avery’s first friends, my first friends, when we moved here six years ago. Three lovely girls, wonderful parents.
Dinners together, a shopping spree in Regent’s Street, lunch at our old favorite spot. Lots and lots of laughter. One of the troubles of living in London — even more so than New York — is how likely it is that your beloved people will move away. To Hong Kong, Chicago, New York, Singapore. So often, London is merely one of many stops a family will make, following its dad around on business. We have to enjoy everyone as much as we can.
In the four weeks before we head “home” for the summer, we are facing a lecture, four plays, a dinner party, a food festival and… I’m sure I’m forgetting something. Watch this space.