Tentacles

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IMG_5164You may not be of the tentacle persuasion. These are the tentacles of squid, and we peeled back the skin, disgorged the innards, threw away the eyes, and sliced the slippery white meat into rings. The tentacles we left alone, simply dragged them through flour and threw them into a bath of hot oil where they instantly froze, like the statues in Pompei. The squid is from Monterey, considered ‘local’ here, though it is over 300 miles away, going north. This is strange to me, unfathomable really, given that we can drive to the sea in 45 minutes and swim in gorgeous, crystalline water. Malibu: a place where we have witnessed the sight of three stately California grey whales breaching the surface, their wondrous grey sheen, their size silencing, so that all we could do was point open-mouthed and watch as they shot up their water for us through their blow holes (not sure if that is the technical term). And then there are the pods of dolphins, the seals that pop up nearby as you’re swimming, darkly sleek and chubby. The pelicans fly slowly in a line, quite low, as if to be menacing. I don’t know where they are going. Today we watched a man pull a ray fish from the sea, a huge flapping thing that he slipped back into the water, pushing it in the direction of the outgoing wave until it complied and disappeared. The place is teeming with life. But the fish we buy comes from Santa Barbara or beyond.

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My memories of calamari – squid cut into rings, dipped in flour and fried – are always connected with Greece, in particular Paxos and Anti-Paxos, where we sat on the beach our skin salted and burnt and in our mouths we would pop fried whitebait, calamari, crisp sardines, everything wetted by lemon juice, our lips and fingers stinging. The fish was caught in front of us. It came from the sea that we’d bathed and washed our hair in (on the days when we couldn’t afford a hotel and had to sleep on the beach). We had the luxury of local, where local meant watching a man climb out of the water and carry our lunch to the grill. Where we’d walk to the next beach to have a change of scene and escape the two men who had latched on to us from Corfu (“A couple of beers, couple of beds, couple of tokes, couple of smokes”). I was a silly, naive and broke seventeen year old travelling round Greece with forty quid and a bedsheet. Yet we lived ridiculously: Greek salad, shoals of calamari and rice-stuffed peppers, glasses of inky wine. I remember the coolness of a stairwell in the scorching August afternoon and a throttlingly cold Coca Cola. And then the emergence into Gatwick, the drizzling English rain on our leather sandals. I went with my friend Brigid, and for some reason now lost to me, we fell out and boarded separate carriages going back to London. It was a shame because we had had fun and been quite dare-devil; we flew to Corfu with an Australian man my mother had met in the street and employed to ‘butcher’ (in retrospect) our kitchen. He deserted us almost immediately and we found ourselves straggling along a highway in the mad August heat with no idea where we were going to stay. A boy of around eight found us panicking at eleven, and took us home. We walked in and were led to a room where we stayed the night and then boarded a ferry to Paxos the following day. She walked faster than me, perhaps that was it. I used to watch her hightailing it over a hill and not even bother, and when we got back to London she just carried on walking.IMG_1223

I don’t know why this story came to me when this is Monterey squid from the Pacific, and not the Ionian sea and Malibu is not for a minute Greece. I suppose there’s something of the ruggedness and people are, on the whole, brown in both places. As in weathered and salty. And the squid – it was nice to buy the squid whole and dismember it, and to see its lovely purple sheen. And I had no idea squid had eyes. I don’t remember the eyes.IMG_5138

To clean the squid, pull the head away from the body and with your fingers empty out the body cavity (which includes the ink sac – wear an apron). The cuttlebone will be in there too, transparent and flimsy – remove it. Now gently pull the wings free from the sides and slip off the purple membrane (this is fun). Rinse under running water and drain. Cut into thickish rings (about 1cm diameter). Keep the tentacles together by slicing just above the join. Remove the eyes and mouth. I keep the tentacles intact and fry them whole. The five squid above made up 1lb which was just enough for the two of us. There are those who like to soak the calamari in milk to tenderize it, and having done this once I don’t think it makes a great deal of difference. So, when you’re ready to cook, mix together equal amounts of plain flour and cornflour (cornstarch) with a pinch of sea salt. Fill a large, heavy-based pan a third full with sunflower or vegetable oil and heat. Throw in a pinch of flour and if it sizzles furiously, you’re ready to go. Drain the squid pieces well and pat dry, then drag them through the flour and shake off any excess. Fry in batches and when golden brown remove them to some kitchen paper. Sprinkle with salt and serve quickly, while they’re hot, with wedges of lemon.IMG_5167

 

Looking up

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IMG_4844We went downtown for lunch. I keep thinking of the song from Little Shop of Horrors – “Downtown, where relationships are no go! Down on skid row!” It had been about a year since our last proper visit, and though I’ve been drawn to downtown since I first started coming here, I’ve always been a little bit afraid of it. When I first got here I’d take the subway down to the Walt Disney Concert Hall – I’d get off at Civic Center and walk up the steps into this blazing steel sunlight, and make sure I never looked up. Reverse vertigo, that is apparently the term. Anyway, that part of downtown is all sheer tower blocks, mirrored and panicky, like huge razor blades cutting into the sky. So I would look either down or straight ahead, breathing in until I got to a traffic light and then latching on to someone who was also crossing the road, as if we were friends. I once did this all the way to the Central Library, (looking straight ahead without breathing, latching on) to see Alain de Botton give a talk on why Los Angeles is so badly designed and hostile to walkers. On my way back, now late at night, I felt myself being followed. By the time I got out at Hollywood & Highland I practically rushed head long into the stream of traffic, and found myself face to face with Joe’s Jeep into which I clambered, frothing my relief.IMG_4745So it’s progress that now, some years on, I can walk around downtown and look up without my feet slipping around inside my shoes. There’s another downtown that’s quite different to those corporate mirrored facades that birds crash into, believing it’s sky. We were heading towards it – to Spring Street because we wanted to visit The Last Bookstore, now housed in an old bank, and all around us were old banks, dark and gutted it seemed, no lights on, the occasional towel flung out to dry as evidence of a transient life. The banks are in the Beaux Arts style, tall and flat-faced with lots of windows and there were lots of people here too, unlike the rest of LA which is glossily empty of pedestrians (as if we ruin it or something).IMG_4928The Last Bookstore is definitely worth a visit if you like cavernous rooms bulging with books, a bank vault full of horror (stories), a tunnel made of hardbacks, another tunnel made of knitting yarn and a floor made of pennies. And seriously danceable music and crunchy leather chairs. I went in search of a place to pee and found Creperie Sans Frontiere in a little precinct that connected Spring Street and Broadway, the only place that would let me use their bathroom for free. “It’s hard to say yes and it’s hard to say no,” was the lady’s parting shot, as she gave me the key attached to an egg whisk. I took this to mean that she has to decide who she gives the key to and who to deny, and that she probably has this quandary quite often. I went back to tell Joe about it (‘Spring Street and 5th, Spring Street and 5th’) and found him with his feet up on a cracked leather pouffe in the Lit Crit section.IMG_4943The crepes (‘galettes’ here) were huge triangles, rather like elephant’s ears. They were 100% buckwheat, which the owner said she edged towards gradually, until finally flinging herself entirely at the buckwheat’s mercy. The taste is rich and earthy, nutty, almost sour. It looks like burnt black earth. You imagine it will taste of an old hat, but actually it’s lovely with maple syrup and some goat’s cheese, maybe a few pecans or a fried egg. The owner had a tower of Nutella; I imagine it would be delicious with that too. We tried to decide where we were: Paris, New York or LA, or none of the above. Or all of the above, and ourselves in amongst it. Downtown is a trip.IMG_4779When I made the crepes at home (pictured above), I made them smaller, almost like blinis, and found they were much easier to handle. Buckwheat is not wheat or even a grain, but the seed of a plant related to rhubarb (and sorrel), and it absorbs liquid much more than other flours. However, once cooked, it can take on flavours and textures well. Syrup and honey, nuts, soft cheeses, nut butters, jam, ice cream and sorbet. It’s also gluten-free and if you don’t tolerate cow’s milk (like me) then you can add a vast array of ‘milks’ to the batter. Here I used coconut milk.

Buckwheat crepes

Adapted from Arrowhead Mills & David Lebovitz 

18-20 crepes

1 1/2 cups (350 ml) whole milk (or see above)
2-3 tablespoons of maple syrup or honey
A pinch of sea salt
1 1/2 cups (175g) of organic buckwheat flour
2 large eggs lightly beaten

Put the buckwheat flour in a mixing bowl with the salt, then make a well in the middle to which you add the milk and the eggs and the honey or maple syrup. Whisk continuously to create a thick batter. Buckwheat is more absorbent than other flours, so you may need to add more milk – aim for the consistency of heavy cream. Cover and set aside for at least 30 minutes – this batter does better if chilled overnight and brought back to room temperature before frying.

Heat a dab of butter or a small glug of vegetable oil in a non-stick skillet or frying pan over a medium heat, and brush some of it off with a paper towel (unless you like your crepes swimming, which I profess I do). Pour about a 1/4 cup of batter (about a ladleful) into the middle of the hot pan. The buckwheat batter (in my experience of now having eaten the crepes every day for the last seven days) will not move around much but stay where it is; don’t attempt to swirl it as it’ll resist. After a minute or two, flip it over and cook for about 30 seconds. Aim for dark, blistered and crispy. Pile them up on a plate and douse with maple syrup or rest some fried eggs on them. Fried eggs go very well, oddly, with buckwheat crepes – perhaps it’s the egg’s sweetness.IMG_4938

Pause

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Yesterday I put away most of my cookery books. The majority went into boxes, which were marked ‘cookery books (keep)’. I didn’t realize objects had the collective name of ‘chotskies’ and that anything from shells to bowls to framed photos could come under this new heading. Something about seeing all these books lined up, sentry-like, on the floor gave me pause. How many cookery books do I need? Or use? The sheer bulk of them was imposing, but sitting down to read them felt like displacement, a putting off of something. I returned from England to an entire bookcase full of recipes, gathering dust, slouching in the heat, cascading one on top of the other and tried to remember when I had developed this learned helplessness in the kitchen. For years and years I think I owned three cookery books. Which I barely used. They had pencil drawings of legumes and dainty fruits, or there were close-up photos of salad and cake where everything looked vaguely menacing and shapeless.

Mostly I was drawn to implements, because during my teens and twenties I lived ad hoc, often for months at a time in such and such a place, as an au pair, as a cook in Venice, in someone’s converted garage in Rome, in a deserted flat in Peckham. I made do with what had been left behind or what I could use when the owners weren’t looking. What I could eat, how much of something I could take before it was hidden from me or labelled ‘keep out!’. The borrowed cup and saucer, the endless pilfered spoons, the bag of buns that would be tea. All those cafe and deli jobs when I lived on ham scraps and Danish pastries. Looking back it was as though I was living rough, with food just out of reach. But I was working, earning money, just not enough of it, and most of it went on rent and bills and getting to and from. Food became fodder, fuel to power me through the walk from one postcode to another.IMG_4690

When I was in my late twenties, I worked as a live-in au pair for a French couple in the London borough of Fulham, which subsidized my drama school fees. They had a three-year-old boy called Antoine and it was my job to look after him in the evenings and weekends. They had the best kitchen that I’d ever seen and the best implements. It was never made clear whether I was allowed to cook, so mostly I didn’t. I’d eat bread and butter, toast, a banana, things I could pick up surreptitiously and leave the room with; four biscuits curled into my palm, a slab of cheddar. They had a food processor. This was new to me and very exciting. I had no idea how it worked, so when they were out I’d experiment; the best thing it did was shred carrots. Mounds and mounds of desiccated carrot, damp and juicy, which I’d salt and fleck with oil and lemon. They had no cookery books and I had none either, because I was living with the bare minimum, in a small lemon-yellow room next to Antoine at the top of the house.

I made the shredded carrot every day and ate it with an upended tin of tuna. I  think that was how I never got ill. I read fiction, not Nigel or Nigella who only existed then in the margins, if I walked through a bookshop, say, or flicked through the television channels. I was never invited to cross the threshold of the French couple’s sitting room. I’d stand in the doorway and we’d have conversations, but I was never invited in. Only if Antoine saw me would he take my hand and lead me to the sofa. Sometimes, in the night he’d wake me with his cries, and though I was given instructions never to go in, I often would, and he’d be standing on the other side clutching his trucks to his chest in a way I still think about. He also gave me food, invited me to sit with him at the kitchen table, and took me into the garden. Sometimes I ate my shredded carrot with him and he’d eat his mashed apple or his sausages (and then I’d eat what he left behind). I hope he is doing well. IMG_3849

I read this book by Alain Coumont at Le Pain Quotidien in Larchmont. I resisted the urge to buy it and instead I read it. I hope the simplicity of this recipe doesn’t offend, but really it’s not a recipe, more an idea; a thought about food that you might have and decide to execute. It’s permission more than anything. And it reminded me of what I did before books told me to. When I just fed myself.

Carrot and lemon salad

Serves 4 as a side dish or appetizer
4-6 carrots, peeled, julienned or finely grated
2 tbsp of extra virgin olive oil
Juice of half a lemon
3 pinches of sea salt
Black pepper

Put the shredded/grated carrot in a bowl and mix with the oil, lemon juice and salt. Mix gently with your hands if you like, and then add some freshly ground black pepper. Serve quickly.

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Cutting for stone

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IMG_4413One of the main differences between England and Los Angeles that I have found is that where I’m from there isn’t a van on the side of the road selling mangoes. And coconuts with a straw. On the way back from the beach, tailing our way back from Malibu, wending our way up through Topanga Canyon, past the waves of blossoming, listing fennel and tall grey-green hills, there is always at least one open-backed van with a Mexican lady selling her boxes for $10 a piece. It could be avocados or strawberries, you’re never entirely sure, but you’ll be alerted by the signs. And then inside there’ll always be more. We bought a box of nine mangoes, but by the time we got home there were only seven. Mangoes are very hard to resist particularly when they have that give to them; these were on their way to softness, heavy as artillery in the hand, but oddly human to the touch, like a thigh or a calf.

There is none of the banter here that you would get in England. A box of mangoes would yield at least a bit of to and fro about the weight – are you alright there, love? Oh, these ones are gorgeous, just cut it in two and have it with a bit of cream, lovely – a bit of rough and tumble, someone sighing that you were taking too long. There’d be something. Here the exchange is reduced to the price. There was no acknowledgement I was there from the man standing next to me, even though it was just him and me on the side of a dusty road. Him, me and the lady with the fruit. She had her hair in pigtails, which on her looked expedient rather than odd. The three of us did the deed knowing we would not be seeing one another again. It was on the tip of my tongue to say something, because as an English person it is hard to let a moment go by without some kind of dithering nicety.IMG_4412

Hot isn’t it? The sea is cold. This road is long, isn’t it? It’s very green here etc. There’s none of that in LA. Here strangers tend to the loud and polite school of conversation – as if you have fallen down a well or a manhole but have sustained no serious injuries and would be up for a chat. “HI, HOW ARE YOU?” “Good, how are you?” “GREAT. ENJOY YOUR WEEKEND”. Or they’re silent, as if you’re not there at all. I have swum close enough in the pool to be able to read the typeface on a novel (by John Green), without so much as a flicker from the reader, perched on the steps with her legs under water, her torso dry as a bone, her nails a perfect peach. I would love to have said “Who’s John Green?” but that would have been to break the seal of silence, opening up a conversation possibly without end, and anyway I could always look it up on the internet. I don’t really want to know who John Green is, I just want you to know I’m here.

I gave two more mangoes away so we were left with five. It was after a conversation with one of our B&B guests. She’d stayed for only two days and was on her way out, up the coast to Big Sur. But we got chatting and then an hour went by, and she left with a mango in each hand and the rest of the chocolate-cardamom cookies, because they spoke to her ‘Indian soul’. Originally from New Delhi,  she is a writer, a reader and a lover of food. We exchanged favourite books; I will now be reading Climbing the Mango Trees by Madhur Jaffrey and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid. I hope my book recommendations made the grade, but it really doesn’t matter, because I had a conversation. A proper one. I made a friend. I bought some mangoes and gave them away. ENJOY YOUR WEEKEND!IMG_4429

The trick to cutting into a mango, I have learnt, is to cut as close to the stone as possible. Cut on either side, vertically, so that you have two even slabs of orange flesh, and then a central panel with the stone embedded, which you can gnaw around. There is no point trying to be demure; you will be dripping in mango juice and picking the fibres out of your teeth, so you might as well enjoy yourself. Score the two halves of flesh (which will have the skin still attached) into cubes, which you can eat as you would an orange quarter or slice them off into a bowl to which you add lemon or lime juice. A meal would be a mango and avocado salsa, to which you have added some chile, cilantro, sea salt and lime. But to my mind, one of the finest uses for mangoes is in kulfi, the Indian ice cream. It is made traditionally with malai (milk boiled down to cream) but it can be reasonably faked with evaporated or condensed milk.

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Cutting for Stone is the name of a novel I have had languishing on my shelves for a while, unread, and now unreadable due to its being dropped in the bath (although the first chapter is fine and also very compelling so I will press on). I thought the title apt.

The little lunch

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Jasmin Bhanji

I seem to have an endless supply of browning and defeated bananas. We buy them principally for the B&B guests who never eat them. But they may do. They never say outright that they don’t like bananas; there may come a time when they will feel like one, and that moment will be hard to define, but when it comes we better have a bunch of bananas standing by.

I think in the last year we have probably had two straight-forward banana-eating guests. Still, we continue to buy them and then I make banana bread with the softening, spotting ones, which I give to the guests who don’t eat bananas and strangely they wolf it down. We have French guests now and they have what I think is the classic French attitude to breakfast – it should hurt. Their plates afterwards are beautifully smeared with arabesques of apricot jam and chocolate (from the chocolate banana bread, a variant*), the French press empty but for the coffee grounds, the French girls’ voices throaty from their first blissful draw of nicotine. Of course they are beautiful and slender. This is how it is.photo

If you are English and were at school during the 1980s you would have gone on a French exchange programme; you lived with a French family for a few weeks and the French student then came and lived with you. You learned their language and way of life and they learned yours, sort of thing. I also did this in Bilbao, northern Spain where I lived on chocolate biscuits for four weeks and learned to say “I know what you’re up to and I’m going to tell my mum what you did when I get home” in Spanish. Annie was nicer; she was from Normandy and liked smoking and camping. She drank bowls of black coffee just before she went to bed, and wore extremely tight jeans. We were both fourteen but I got the impression she was worldlier than me. Sometimes we went on long walks into the countryside, or at other times she would hitch up the family’s pony – what she called a ponette – to a wagon and we would ride to an old lady’s house nearby and buy Coke from her fridge.

Annie lived in a rural area and there was not much to do except this, and eat chocolate sandwiches. I met other kids in the area because they too would wade into the fields, pale wheaten and straggly, and we would all smoke. I had never smoked like this before; filtered Gitanes, in a beautiful, uniform white that made me think of freshly laundered shirts. I watched them gulp back big blue lungfuls. I think I knew then I wouldn’t be able to inhale and remain standing. It was on my return to England that I did it in the privacy of my bedroom – I inhaled a Gitanes and fell to my knees. Anyway, it’s all rolled into one in my mind; the smoking, the Coca Cola, the way Annie sat on a bench outside the boulangerie and handed me the long snout of bread to try, its crust sharp, almost splintery in the mouth followed by chunks of dark chocolate that she had fed into the crevices – our petit déjeuner, our ‘little lunch’ eaten vaguely in the morning. And lastly (and lastingly), the boys in the field one of whom in a lull in conversation languidly enquired “Do you make love?”

I think I pretended not to understand which wasn’t too far from the truth; something to do with the strangeness of the present simple. As if it was a hobby. It was the only time I remember being singled out for attention. I replayed the moment endlessly in my mind, trying to reframe my muteness as intrigue, but really I was just lost for words.chocolate142

I wanted to showcase these beautiful drawings of bananas and chocolate by Jasmin Bhanji, who currently lives in Kenya, though is formerly of north London, and it’s strange because since she’s gone to Africa, I’ve got to know her better and that is one of the wonders of the internet. I knew her in person in England (she’s my new cousin) and now I know her through her drawings and photos of her amazing pots and her blog, Jasmin Bhanji Studio.

*I lifted the recipe for double chocolate banana bread wholesale from Emma Gardner’s baking blog Poires au Chocolat (who in turn adapted it from Smitten Kitchen), so it would seem a bit silly to repeat it here when she has already done such a lovely job and I did nothing to improve it seeing as it was, in my view, perfect. If you like bananas and chocolate and a big fistful of cocoa powder and eating oblong cake, then this is for you. A bit naughty you might think for breakfast, but not if you imagine you’re a Parigot (slang for Parisian), in gold sandals and a lamé cardigan.IMG_1833

Saladings

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IMG_4951I’m partial to a leaf. I’m less enamoured of long, tubular greens like spring onions because they remind me of those pointless salads people made in the mid-eighties. Little discs of white fire adorning a plate full of iceberg lettuce, which tasted of literally nothing at all, but may if you were lucky at least be cold and therefore have bite.* For no reason I can fathom, I mainly ate this salad in Stoke Newington, which was a terrifying place back then and required long bus journeys and an unhealthy wait at King’s Cross. I digress. Perhaps the problem is the rawness; to build an adequate salad there needs to be something other than texture and briskness and a deluge of greenery. Roasted salad doesn’t sound quite right though.

We went to the Santa Monica farmers’ market on Saturday and it was nice to be in the vicinity of the sea again. I say vicinity, because it is more of a backdrop, its vastness not inviting; it’s simply resolutely there, this dark blue mass that lies further out than you would wish. People continue about their business as if it was all just streets, the pier crammed full of sight-seers, the market selling greens and other colours. Nobody bothers with it. No one swims; to even discuss swimming with people here is to enter into a conversation laced with foreboding. If I mention that I swam in the English Channel in the autumn months I am eccentric but harmless. To talk about swimming here, even in August, is to invite gusts of disapproval and worry. Because the sea is cold and possibly dirty and may be dangerous. As I say, it’s a bit out there here to swim.

Perhaps they reserve their outlandishness for their market stalls. Garlic scapes and leek scapes, purple artichokes lavishly heaped and spiky, bunches of Italian dandelion. We were drawn in out of curiosity, the need to know, rather than out of necessity. I recognize that I don’t need to eat the long curling tails of garlic, fresh with engorged pod, or mulberries that look like worms, too young to taste of anything. I don’t need heirloom garlic, with its brown and clawed cloves, or garlic chives looking like a posy of mown grass. Or baby leeks, or the long rods of spring onion with their fussy little beards.IMG_4093

But the lady was nice. She explained what things were and how they tasted (or at least admitted when she couldn’t) and then asked where I was from. “I have family friends who live in a suburb of London,” she said. “Actually, we have just had friends to stay from Kent, England,” said another lady who was waiting to be served. “They loved making fun of our accents.” She looked at me as if I not only knew these people but had egged them on. I’m used to this by now – the inference being I know everyone in Kent and am responsible for a lot of other places in England too. But it’s conversation – something I discover I need. It’s rather like the sea, chatting with strangers here; a bit far out, an attractive but faintly alarming proposition. A little bit choppy.IMG_4161

Perhaps God is in the dressing. I like the idea of a gremolata – a dry ensemble of lemon zest and herbs and garlic – immersed in a simple dressing of oil and vinegar. Here I used the spring onions I bought and couldn’t find an adequate use for, with some fennel flowers (Joe: “Are you trying to recreate the past?”), some garlic chives (top picture), and some shredded romaine lettuce. This was my dressing or vinaigrette for some baby leeks that I blanched. I ate the whole thing with a soft-boiled egg, because the baby leeks reminded me of asparagus and I did in fact do some dipping. It was a warm salad of sorts, with echoes of Simon Hopkinson’s lovely Leeks Vinaigrette. And yes, there were spring onions, but teased into oblivion, warmed through and roughed up. Sometimes you have to face your demons – though I hear Stoke Newington is now well and truly on the up and has a resident Wholefoods.IMG_4113

*I think this is the best description of the atrocious English salad of old I will ever read. Hope you do too.

“A few melancholy slices of cucumber, an approximately washed lettuce (iceberg, naturally), which appeared to have been shredded by wild dogs, two entire radish heads (served whole, presumably to avoid the risk of their proving edible in sliced form), a pale and watery quarter of tomato, the whole ensemble accompanied by a salad cream that at least had the virtue of tasting “like itself” – that’s to say, like the byproduct of an industrial accident. “

The Debt to Pleasure, John Lanchester

 

 

On the turn

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IMG_0497Food-wise, I’m waiting for peaches. That’s when I know I’m in Los Angeles. More than lemons and oranges, which have an all-year-round prolific, whoreish quality – if they’re not blossoming they’re bearing fruit, it’s a constant publicity machine – peaches can only mean early summer here. And they get riper and more aromatic and squishier as the weeks go by, the skin seemingly more paper-thin, the round globe of flesh beneath more sunset-orange, more dripping, before it goes over, starts to rot. We have a nectarine tree which is coming into blossom and that counts as my stone fruit barometer of how things will be. The blossoms are pink and furtive still, with only a few little dazzlers. There is no point waiting for the fruit, which will be eaten by squirrels. Every year I have been thwarted by them and so I don’t bother now – they know the perfect moment at which the fruit needs to be eaten better than I do and besides they’re more likely to be up and ready. They demolished my sunflowers, full of nascent seeds. They eat all the bird food.

And we have B&B to do. We’re ‘doing’ B&B though sometimes it feels as if we are being done to, depending on the caliber of guest. Some make it easy. Our first guests since our return were from Amsterdam and behaved as if these were their last days on earth. They breakfasted early and then played tennis, swam in the pool and generally ran themselves ragged in a pleasant and contained way. They loved the place and we loved them for loving it all. Then came a mother and daughter team – New Yorkers originally from Egypt – who alternated between days spent dragging around theme parks and long hours holed up in their room lobbing shrill and indecipherable insults at each other. They also filled our fridge with foodstuffs of no particular seasonal bias: Ranch dressing, a bumper box of strawberries, little dwarf tomatoes, chocolate milk, an enormous chocolate Bundt cake, boxed up. “Fresh,” the mother announced, “I need fresh.” As if this explained it. It may have explained their blocked toilet, which I had to investigate with a forced smile and a plunger.IMG_3990

It was the Bundt cake that bothered me. They were passing up my homemade lemon shortbread, which languished to staleness. Five ingredients (lemon zest, butter, sugar, flour, almonds) versus – actually I lost count. They had me at sorbitan monostearate. I’m not against junk food in its place (a burger at midnight, fries, sweet fries for dipping into an omelette, a tranche of milk chocolate and a hot mug of tea), but if I’m being offered something home-made, I devour it. And I say thank you a lot. And where’s the fricking Ranch anyway? What is Ranch dressing? I need to know this before I leave.

Some strangers become stranger still, the longer you make their acquaintance; in this case, we were all mutually baffled by one another but tried for the sake of sanity to get along. They were nice people and kind in this instance: Joe did his back in and they gave us Tiger Balm and it helped. But it always happens in the first moment of meeting, the mould is set and there’s no turning back; the apartment becomes a set of enclosures, returning to rooms only when the keys are returned.IMG_4027

Back to blossoms. I will let you know when the peaches are in. In the meantime, there are rosemary blossoms (however, on the turn) to add to peach and nectarine and they are all edible. You could festoon salads with them, or adorn this cake with them if you are in favour of icing/frosting (they would need something to stick to, I should think). I immediately wanted to make chocolate cake; I wanted to make the opposite of the towering brown behemoth chilling in our fridge for seven days. So this is an austere, silken and rather un-American square of dark chocolate brownie spiked with rosemary. The herb gives it a silvery, savoury edge and the chocolate is dense and rather grown up. I also added a handful of almonds and two small clouds of cocoa.

Rosemary and chocolate brownie

Adapted from Ben Tish, Salt Yard, read in The Guardian

Serves 6-8
100g good quality dark chocolate (70% cocoa) broken up into pieces
100g unsalted butter
2 large eggs (room temp)
250g unrefined caster sugar
100g (scant) self-raising flour, sifted
2 heaped tablespoons cocoa, sifted
25g roughly chopped almonds (optional)
½ tsp sea salt
25ml extra virgin olive oil
50g dates, chopped
2 sprigs of rosemary, one intact, the other with leaves chopped & stem removed

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4. Line a square brownie or cake tin with baking paper. Melt the chocolate and butter together above (but not in) a pan of simmering water. Whisk together the eggs and sugar in a mixer or with an electric whisk until light and fluffy. Now fold the eggs and sugar into the melted chocolate and butter, then add the flour, cocoa, almonds (if using), dates, chopped rosemary, salt and oil. Pour the mixture into the tin, embed the remaining rosemary sprig, and bake for about 25-30 minutes, or until the brownie is setting around the outside but still slightly gooey in the centre. Don’t be tempted to bake it to cake consistency, as it will be hard-bottomed and uninteresting. A skewer inserted into the centre of the brownie should come out with a little of the mixture still on it. Remove the tray from the oven and leave to rest for 20 minutes before cutting. Don’t necessarily embellish with cream, though you can if you like.

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Life is butter

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IMG_3947melon cauliflower. Get it? Life is but a melancholy flower. I used to sing this as a round in the days before iPhones and laptops. Before all the screens. We would sit in a circle in the garden and sing; we actually did that. That’s how we got our kicks. Singing songs and then cooking porridge if it all got too much. Most of the songs were Elizabethan, and almost all were sad; someone was dead, or they refused to marry you, or you were trying to persuade the ferryman to ferry you over to the place you’d rather be, or there was a rose you knew who would remain forever a spinster. We would often begin in the spirit of silliness and jocularity and steadily it would overcome us, the words sung in strange counterpoint, soaring and dying; ‘my poor bird wing thy flight, far above the sorrows of this sad night.’ And before we knew it, we were gone; transported to this other place of words sung and soaring.

I learnt the songs predominantly from a girl called Helen who I met in Rome, and who then moved to London around the same time I did. She had a French girlfriend called Valerie and at that time it was trickier being gay in Rome than in London, and better all round for work, so they moved. It was her garden in north London that we sang in and occasionally she would accompany the rounds with her recorder. I don’t know what it is about the recorder but Helen stamped on any snickering which only led to more snorting and rampant giggling and us having to begin again. It was better without. I have no idea where Helen is, because this was before social media, and I lost her phone number many address books ago. She is lost to me. I don’t even remember her surname. We had a real laugh in Rome where we helped at an international school and managed the outings for the children (three months of panini and prosciutto, always warm and wet from the heat of the bus, and an orange. I longed for change, and to this day I can’t eat prosciutto two days running). There was a lot of snorting and inappropriateness, looking back. We would never have been allowed if the time was now.

Those summer evenings in Helen’s garden got me through the London roughness after Italy, and I lazily lost touch because at that age I thought the world was full of Helens. But to this day I can’t look at a cauliflower and not think of her. And I don’t know many people whose idea of bliss is to sit in long grass and sing for hours on end and then make salty buttery porridge. I sometimes wonder what she’s up to, but I never worry. My grandmother would have said ‘she doesn’t make enough of herself’ because she wore no make up and scraped her wild blonde hair into a bun, but we were all tomboys and wore the same clothes day in day out, and nobody seemed to mind.IMG_3972

And actually, life is butter. Not sure about melons, though they’re perfectly nice. And cauliflower – well, let’s see. They are so much in abundance in the farmers’ markets here in LA (see how I did that? Got on a plane, crossed the Atlantic and before you know it…) and appear in a variety of colours and sizes: purple, popcorn-yellow, small as apples, big as bazookas. I chose one that looked as if it had been smoking Gauloises its whole life, roasted it with some anchovies and garlic and a few glugs of olive oil. The anchovies disintegrate into a salty tacky juice which works very well. It’s really brown salt. For Helen.

Roasted cauliflower with anchovies and garlic

Adapted from table366

Head of cauliflower, chopped
Parmesan cheese (optional)
Tin or jar of anchovies
Olive oil
4-5 cloves of garlic, unpeeled

Oven Proof Dish (8×8 or 9×11 is a good size) lined with parchment

Preheat the oven to 400F/200C. Spread the cauliflower out evenly in the dish in one layer (otherwise it won’t cook as well). Drop the anchovies round and about; remember they are very salty, so the more you use, the saltier the dish will be. Pour over a few glugs of olive oil; you want to wet the cauli but not completely drown it – say 4 tablespoons. Salt (very lightly if at all) and give everything a good toss with your hands. Roast for 20-25 minutes until the cauliflower is slightly caramelized and the anchovies have melted. Stir and then grate over some parmesan or whatever hard cheese you like as long as it’s the melting kind – you can leave it out entirely and it will still taste lovely. Roast for another 5-10 minutes so the cheese has a chance to thoroughly melt. Let it sit for a little bit so it doesn’t burn your mouth or serve at room temperature.IMG_3982

I’m so happy you’re alive

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018I met David Sedaris. It is hard for me to write this without italics or exclamation marks or at the very least a change of font; I’m thinking Garamond. I did wonder if I had dreamt it, but I have proof; I have the book, signed by him, and I have witnesses that we talked. Perhaps I should clarify; I haven’t just read David Sedaris, I have sucked him dry. I have read and reread him to the point where none of his stories hold any surprises. I know what’s coming, always. I read to reassure myself that the world has him in it, with his mass of menial jobs and his need to touch people’s heads at odd times. I feel a sense of possession about the books that borders on the kind of repetitive obsessive detail-orientated disorder of which David himself would be proud.

I waited in the book signing line after the show at Cadogan Hall in Chelsea – my first of his – like a child waiting for Santa Claus. The wait was horrible. He was taking an inordinate amount of time talking to people and also eating from little plastic boxes of feta and olives and greenery. He was actually stuffing his face; he must have been starving. He was drawing a caterpillar on the front page of a girl’s book, while talking animatedly to her about something I couldn’t catch, with bits of salad peeping out of the corners of his mouth. At the end of the show, during the Q&A, he had asked for two things: the hood of his stove had broken and he needed the name of a handyman who could come and fix it, and he needed a psychiatrist for a friend of his who was having a hard time. Could we please meet him afterwards with names and numbers?

It was finally our turn. I hadn’t planned to be here and now here I was, sweating with bright red cheeks and a borrowed coat. I’ve only ever had the books and now, thanks to a fabulous fairy godmother and a returned ticket, I had him. We approached and he immediately started talking about the weird coincidence of being given three recommendations for exactly the same psychiatrist. ‘There are times when I get kind of blue, but this friend really needs help’, he said. We talked about cycling in Sussex, where he now lives. He sometimes cycled as far as Angmering and I sometimes cycled as far as Newhaven. My name means ‘wisdom’ in Greek, did I know that? His face was both familiar and not, small ashen and with a bright and convincing smile. In fact it was his smile that was most in evidence, and gappy teeth. He smiled almost all the time, to himself, to people, while writing. He had a pencil case stuffed with coloured pens, and he doodled as he talked, writing in loopy black ink.

I forgot to say how much I’d loved the show; that’s what happens, you meet your hero and forget to say, that was great, thank you so much for lighting up my life for the past decade or so. That long dark night in Normandy when you tried to drown that mouse in a bucket got me through my own long dark night. The first book I ever read of yours, Me Talk Pretty One Day, was the only good thing that came out of a terrible relationship. I’m sorry your sister died. Do you still have to lick letter-boxes? Instead we talked about cycle paths. He gave me back my book, and I walked away, feeling a weird mix of wretchedness and elation. I had met him and hadn’t found the words. Then I looked at the inscription inside as we walked towards the exit, and it made me laugh so much none of the rest of it mattered. And it was what I’d wanted to say. Those were the words.004

On picky eaters

“Neither were we allowed to choose what we ate. I have a friend whose seven-year-old will only consider something if it’s white. Had I tried that, my parents would have said, “You’re on,” and served me a bowl of paste, followed by joint compound, and, maybe if I was good, some semen.”

David Sedaris, Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls

Paul’s cod

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004Cod is hard to describe. It’s so ubiquitous or so rare or endangered or somehow so obvious that I hadn’t really thought of it before now (except in batter). ‘Local cod’ said the sign outside Paul’s Plaice, the only fishmonger left in Seaford, and then you go through the little chain-mail curtain into a shop that smells of the sea.

Paul works alongside his brother and I’ve never worked out which one is actually Paul, although it’s been explained to me enough times. I just draw a blank. Perhaps my brain has discounted it because it needs to stay alert for ‘novelties’ such as an oncoming car or a mountain lion. Apparently this is what the brain does, it has this discounting mechanism which I read about in mad, brilliant novel Where’d you go Bernadette. I have also discounted the sea which roars all through the day and night outside my window. Every day it lies there, a different colour, doing something slightly different with itself; occasionally it catches me and I notice it – a thin pencil line on the horizon or a big mushroom cloud of rain the same gunmetal grey as the waves, gulls flapping over a fishing boat like washing on a line, something suddenly surfacing – a snout? – and then going under. Then I forget.

Back in Paul’s Plaice, I notice a box of tiny fish as small as matchsticks with the name Smelt written above, which I think sounds rather Dickensian. They’re baby whitebait, according to ‘Paul’. They look too small to taste of anything, too fragile, almost pre-fish. They also have local plaice and cod, and everything is from the nearby fishery. They’re caught trawler style, because netting taints the fish with all the seaweed that gets caught up with it. What about line-caught, I ask him. ‘That’s just a bloke standing there with a fishing rod’, he says. ‘I can get it for you but it’s really expensive.’ I know from past experience that my mother has got mackerel for free by walking past a full bucket at just the right time, but obviously this takes a certain louche opportunism that is beneath Paul, who I can only describe as ‘bubbly’ though I know that makes him sound like an Avon lady. They are all so friendly in there it’s quite disconcerting.008I cooked the cod and let me tell you it was so flipping good I went out and bought another three pieces, and ‘Paul’  thrust a whole handful of parsley into the bag for good measure. It was meaty yet tender, and chunks dissolved, not actually like butter, but with a gentle yielding buttery quality. I baked the cod in one of those parchment parcels, where it steams but also seals without drying out. You want the cod to somehow give itself to you, each layer opening, each cavity glistening, the smell of lemon and salt and heat and herbs, pale discs of pearly white, soft and supple. I think I’ll stop now.

Cod in a bag

With advice from Paul

Serves two

2 pieces of cod fillet, cut from the thick end (3 cm/1½ inches thick)

Olive oil & a small pat of butter

Lemon juice and the rind of 1 lemon

Sea salt

Fresh parsley (about four healthy sprigs)

Parchment paper

Butcher’s twine

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F. Arrange 2 sheets of parchment paper on a baking tray about double the size of each cod fillet. In the centre of the sheet put the cod and add what you like: here I added a pat of butter, some fennel fronds, a little glug of olive oil, a squeeze of lemon juice, the lemon rind cut thickly and some sea salt. But you can add anything; bay leaves, thyme, chillies, garlic, thinly sliced potatoes etc. Pull the corners of the parchment paper together and twist shut.  Secure with some butcher’s twine. Slide the tray into the oven and bake for about 15-20 minutes. Open the bag to check it’s done and sprinkle the insides with chopped parsley.014

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