I have a confession to make: I am finding it harder and harder to blog! The reason for this turns out to be the reason for the downfall of most worthy endeavors: distraction.
Facebook is pernicious. I adore it — hearing what my kindergarten friends in Indiana and my college friend in South Africa and my mother-in-law in Iowa are doing all at the same time, not to mention seeing everyone’s kids’ prom pictures. I love popping up Avery’s inspiring photos of what I’m cooking for dinner and getting lots of questions about recipe method. It’s great to get everyone’s support for a bellringing milestone.
What Facebook has going for it, and indeed everything on the internet, is immediacy. You put something out there, and someone replies. Lots of people reply.
Embedded in the web of the internet is my beloved new food-writing gig, “HandPicked Nation.” It’s such fun to muse over a piece as I’m riding my bike or emptying the dishwasher, then do a bit of research and write it up, send it off and sometimes in a matter of day or so, it appears online. Total strangers from all over the world say “like” and leave their comments about the deliciousness of Miso Eggplant. How to resist?
So I won’t. But the blog does something different. Leaving aside the fact that my beloved mother doesn’t “do” Facebook, and so I must continue writing the blog so she can have a lasting glimpse into our lives, it’s also fun for me to contextualize the whole of what’s happening to us, to see the continuity among volunteer work, plays, recipes, funny things Avery says, and of course, bellringing.
I really don’t approve of modern society’s throwaway attitude toward anything and everything. Our local dry cleaner actually laughed when I brought in a duvet to be washed. “Why not just throw it out and get a new one at Primark? It would be cheaper.” Throwing away a chicken carcass without making soup from it would give me nightmares. And no matter how much I love Facebook, it’s a bit of a throwaway. Where do Facebook posts go, eventually, anyway? And how much scrolling can any one person be expected to do?
No, the blog must stay. There are stories to be told.
For example, what fun was the Gathering of Nuts in May — as we call the annual reunion of nutty people who went on a food writing course nearly five years ago.
Each year we find a house to accommodate all of us (somewhere between 8 and 10 people), with a decent kitchen to cook in. This year found us in the outskirts of the charming Northumberland market town of Alnwick, a long, dull trainride away from London Kings Cross. Did I mention it was on the sea?
With many hugs and instant repetitions of the jokes from all other years, we three who had arrived on the London train trooped into the kitchen to unpack all the groceries, cocktail contributions and, in my case, a large plastic container of poached and smoked salmon terrine I had made that morning. Rosie, the laughing diva who holds us all together, had already packed the kitchen with various goodies, and I found it extremely funny that nearly everyone who came brought a personal stash of Maldon Sea Salt, which has practically come to replace the simple word “salt” in English food-loving circles. That’s cooking friends for you. Have salt, will travel. Sam even travels with his own knives, but then, he drove. “We’re practically in Scotland!” he moaned. “I’ve been driving FOREVER.”
Certainly we weren’t in smoggy, trafficky London anymore. We went immediately for a walk “to the sea,” which was aborted when it was clear that we’d never get there before dark. But it was gorgeous.
Dinner that night was my salmon terrine, followed by Rosie’s Moroccan-inspired feast of vegetable couscous, an eggplant-tomato-courgette dish, long-simmered with garlic and cumin, and fabulous chicken thighs marinated in a tomato-spice-yogurt mixture and then baked. I made my own version when I got home, to Avery’s and John’s delight. Stuffed with red peppers and couscous, they were heavenly.
Moroccan-Spiced Boneless Baked Chicken Thighs
8 boneless chicken thighs, skin on
1 1/2 cups cooked couscous
handful diced sweet red pepper
2 cups full-fat Greek yogurt
1 tsp Baharat seasoning
two pinches ras-el-hanout seasoning mixture
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp ground turmeric
pinch garam masala seasoning mixture
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 shallot, minced
zest of 1 lemon
2 tbsps tomato paste
pinch Maldon sea salt
fresh ground pepper to taste
Line a 9x13 baking dish with foil (makes for much easier cleaning up). Mix the couscous with the red peppers. Lay the thighs in bottom side up, and open up. Place a good spoonful of the couscous onto the opened thigh, then fold shut. Line up skin-side up in baking dish.
In a mixing bowl, mix all the other ingredients. Pour over the thighs and marinate in fridge for at least 2 hours, or overnight.
Bake at 180C/350F for about 45 minutes or until thoroughly cooked.
The fun of the GNIM reunion is that it’s the only time in my whole life when I’m able to shop for food, talk about shopping for food, come home and cook whilst talking about cooking, then EAT whilst talking about shopping, cooking and eating. We are tireless. Dear Katie, my roomie, arrived late and there was more delicious catching up to do.
The next day we motored over to Alnwick itself for a spot of… food shopping. Rosie had brought along a gift from her mother which she referred to constantly as “the big dead pig in the fridge,” which was in fact a gorgeous pork belly. To supplement this, I bought celeriac to puree and beets to roast — on request — and Pauline, arm in arm with her daughter who lives locally, bought a quantity of cauliflower to roast, too. Ingredients were purchased for an enormous pavlova to be concocted by Caro. We dropped our bags off at the cars and then meandered over to Heaven on Earth, otherwise known as “Barter Books,” possibly the largest secondhand bookshop in all of Great Britain. OMG.
I found several treasures, among them a volume of Avery’s treasured Dorothy Parker’s poetry, and a lovely canvas bag for her to use for her school books. We had a crowded and hot lunch, and then departed for another round of the food shops and finally, laden, home again to cook.
A long walk to the beach, and a happy wander in the setting sun.
Dearest Susan introduced us to beautiful new trends in sushi… which I love… and then the best pork belly EVER, EVER. And my celeriac puree went down well. Up in the morning to discover that my train left earlier than I had thought, so off we went for an emergency trip to the seaside — “We MUST show Kristen a sandy English beach!” — at Bamburgh Castle.
But home has been busy. My social work with Home-Start is going very well, with weekly visits to my lovely family who must go undescribed for security purposes. Suffice to say, it’s wonderful to have children to play with, and to feel that perhaps my being there is a bit of a help. It’s a subtle way to volunteer, not as dirty as Lost Property, but with its own quiet satisfaction. And on my way out of my supervision last week, I came upon cheering crowds and waving British flags, and in just a moment, the Queen and Prince Philip rode past us in their SUV on their way to a party in Richmond Park! Trust me, they’re in here!
The Jubilee — the Queen’s 60th anniversary on the throne — celebrations are all around us these days. Decorated tins of biscuits, ashtrays adorned with the familiar crowned face, tea towels, bunting, commemorative candles, calendars and tea mugs, are everywhere.
Speaking of English institutions, if you have a chance to get to the Isabella Plantation in Richmond Park, DO. Apparently it’s planted to have something spectacular flowering at every season.
And of course being me, I’m cooking back here at home, too. However, I was felled by a 24-bug last week and spent all of Wednesday huddled on the sofa, being brought fizzy water by John, a cup of tea, a throw, a hot water bottle. Tacy was loyal and followed me from sofa to bed. I simply had to be better by Thursday night, because we had reservations to the newly reopened “Sonny’s Kitchen” in our beloved Barnes Village, and I could not bear to miss it. We’d been watching the new chef, Phil Howard, compete all week on “Great British Menu” on the BBC, and the thought of actually eating his food was a great inducement to get better ASAP.
And I did. Thursday night we traipsed over to the restaurant where I have had many happy “ladies who lunch” with friends, to the opening night of the new venture. And he was there! So exciting to see him, and how lucky I felt to be well enough, and to have so much fun out with John all these years we’ve been eating dinner together. Foie gras terrine with elderflower jelly, gazpacho with sour cream ice cream, lamb rump with an eggplant stew, pizza bianca with smoked mozzarella and Waygu beef… what a treat! What a relief to have him continue to cook REAL food, in the face of all the super-modern insistence on something crazy called “molecular gastronomy.” Liquid nitrogen! Turning vegetables into piped caviar-shaped dots! Everything turned into a wobbly, reduced jelly! No thank you.
Finally, last night saw us out for sushi at Itsu (ah, salmon, tuna, spinach and more salmon!) with Avery and her friend Sam, the four of us resolutely at two separate tables! And thence to Notting Hill Gate’s Gate Theatre, a hole-in-the-wall, walk-up, grungy theatre with a sense of humor.
We were there for a completely thrilling, stimulating, intellectually fascinating play called “Tenet,” a confection of two actors (“and Catherine!” they chorused, referring to the lighting/sound girl behind a curtain) playing Wikileaks’ Julian Assange and a rogue 19th century French mathematician, investigating the “tenet” that “radicals simplify.” I could feel my forehead screwing up in the effort of understanding what was going on, picturing how much better I could have done in maths if I had ever been taught like THAT.
What a thrill to go to such a play with two teenage girls who can fully explain higher maths, physics, philosophy, political history. We talked fast and furious all the way home, and they are now inspired to try to put on the play themselves at school. “But why,” I ask, “do we need to wonder about the 5th dimension if we already have four dimensions to worry about?” “Because,” Avery answered, “the point of the play was, why should we bother asking questions to which we already know the answers?” It takes being young, I think!
Don’t you think she could be the perfect librarian? She’s wearing my old clothes!
She is deep into revisions for her summer exams right now, so all I can do is to cook for her, listen to her frequent moans about how on earth to juggle Russian, Latin AND French, not to mention chemistry, physics AND biology. We’ll have two weeks of this and then back to normal.
One of the treats I’ll be able to offer is a deceptively simple, completely effortless, sinfully rich and delicious…
(serves 4 with leftovers for soup)
1 duck, Gressingham if you can get it
6 sage leaves
Maldon sea salt and fresh black pepper
Simply line a baking dish with foil and place the duck on it. Put the lemon half inside, then prick the duck all over with a very sharp little fork or knife, taking care to pierce the skin but not the flesh. Roast at 120F/200C for two hours, then at 160C/300C for three further hours. If the skin needs crisping after that, roast a further 20 minutes at 220C/425F. Remove the duck from the dish which will be filled with fat, and place on a cutting board. Shred all the meat with two forks and serve with gravy, or wrapped in pancakes or lettuce with plum sauce and cucumbers.
I’ll leave you with a book recommendation, so you know I don’t think only of cooking. Oh, wait. It’s about cooking. Ah well, one can’t get away from who one is, right? Happy Spring.
Print This Post