Lodestar

Photo Credit: The Bees Knees Daily

I am recently in possession of a kitchen so large it needs an island. I am in awe of this fact, and every morning I come downstairs and get rather doe-eyed looking at it because this kitchen is my new office. Oh, the things I can cook in this space, the gadgets I can amass in such obscene amounts of storage, the natural light abundantly available for food photography…

Since we moved house, I have found myself thinking generally about kitchens and what they represent in one’s life. I realised that every single kitchen of every single place that I have lived is indelibly linked with me, and each of these has had a life and personality of its own. There is a marvellous article MFK Fisher wrote for The New Yorker in 1966 about two kitchens she lived in during the 1950s in Provence, and in a preface to this article (in one of the many compilations of her writings), she says that kitchens are a person’s “lodestar”. Fisher felt that more often than not, upon first interaction, we are unable to recognise the importance of the lodestar on our lives, but over time its purpose becomes more obvious and for her, as it has been for me, her kitchens were vital in the shaping of her life as a writer and as a person.

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Photo Credit: Roadside Pictures

One of the first things my family commented on when they came to visit me here in London 12 years ago was the size of the kitchen in the first flat I rented. No bigger than 1.5m wide walk-in closet, it was clearly designed as an afterthought in a flat where I paid the princely sum of £400 a month for a single bedroom in a shared Ground Floor Flat with two other flatmates. At the time, cooking and food were a love but not a passion, and really how could such passion evolve in a kitchen like that – dark, cramped and with virtually no counter space. And yet it was a flatmate who was obsessed with food that ignited a spark in me. There were often times I would come home and she and her boyfriend would be making Thai green curry from scratch, the house smelling like feet from all the fermented pastes and sauces. Other days she would cook some obscure recipe with odd-looking vegetables from Brixton Market, and in doing so opened my eyes to the diverse foods available in London. Because of her, for the first time I began to actively seek out new flavours.

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Photo Credit: The Bees Knees Daily

A year on, I lived in a shared 4-bedroom house in West Dulwich where the kitchen was enormous but lacked any sense of homeliness – my flatmates and I ate communal meals there, but the familial warmth was not always there. I next lived in a flat with an open-plan kitchen. It had loads of counter space and a decent sized refrigerator and freezer. Cooking began to inspire me and some wonderful meals were created there: mustard and thyme encrusted rack of lamb, a perfected version of my grandmother’s spaghetti Bolognese, peach crème brulée. And yet what was lost there was my marriage, and that kitchen saw the demise of a relationship in a raw and brutal fashion; there is nowhere to hide from each other in open-plan living.

The house I lived in with friends post-separation had a large kitchen and I swooned at its five burner hob and double oven. The best Thanksgiving turkey I ever made was done in that kitchen – so juicy it was like it had been rotisseried, the legs willingly falling away from the carcass. We had so many parties and dinners there, and it is the kitchen where I fell in love with my now husband, and I celebrated turning 30. It was there I convinced a picky friend to try salsa verde with brisket for the first time and where I made Beef Wellington for my visiting parents. I loved that kitchen for what it represented to me at the time: newfound freedom and starting over.

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Photo Credit: Mike Licht

My last kitchen, however, will have my heart forever. My husband and mine’s first place together, the kitchen was smaller than the first dank little one in Brixton, though perfectly laid out. It had almost too many electrical outlets and the cupboards were installed in considerate heights and locations. It was one step to the sink and one step back to the oven. Though storage was at a premium, I managed to find a place for everything. It is in that kitchen that I took the plunge into the world of food writing and cookery. There I achieved perfect pâte brisée and made copious quiches and tarts. I taught myself how to make choux pastry and crème anglaise, in a moderately decent stab at chocolate éclairs. I fought yearly battles over my Thanksgiving and Christmas turkeys with my overly ambitious oven, finally winning in the last attempt much to my joy. It is the kitchen that I cooked and ate my way through my pregnancy and where in recent months, I cooked fruit and vegetables for my daughter to mush into the kitchen table and throw on the floor. Really, I feel like my life kick-started itself in that kitchen and I will always be attached to it.

And so now I sit in my new kitchen, looking at its expansive surfaces and empty shelves and think of the possibilities in front of me. Already I have made Judith Rodgers’ roast chicken here. I’ve baked banana muffins and cooked potato rösti for my daughter. This latest of muses seems to be hinting that great things are afoot and whether that means I will finally master puff pastry or something else, either way this kitchen has already began to create memories and in its own way, as have all the others, weave itself into my story. But for now, back to work…

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Some Final Thoughts on Pregnancy

Scan_20 weeks_croppedI am writing this from bed. Propped up on pillows is the most comfortable of positions for me these days as I’m larger and more awkward than I’ve felt in my entire life. I wrote many months ago about the first stages of pregnancy and how from a food perspective my life was thrown into disarray. I spent subsequent months with a voracious appetite and few cravings, which was a pity as I thought my love of food would incite some hilarious combinations. I did develop a heartfelt adoration of mini-Melton Mowbray pork pies and chocolate milk, but sadly craved little else of anything more bizarre. Now I am almost 3 weeks til my due date and as space has become as issue internally, I’m still eating normally, although now it is smaller portions with greater regularity.

As pregnancies go, I know it has been a good one. Despite a bit of morning sickness in weeks 10-14, I have had little by way of the dreaded “minor pregnancy ailments”, which in fact are not all that minor. I have been lucky that my side effects have been short-lived and comparatively mild, but labelling the burning felt in your ribcage as it expands, the continuous dull ache in your back and hips, and random painful bouts of acid reflux and heartburn as “minor ailments” seems to trivialise the serious discomfort I was mostly spared but from which many others suffer acutely. Conflate this with putting on more weight than you would expect to do in your lifetime, insomnia, bizarre cravings, losing not only your waistline but your view of your feet and it is any wonder women continue to do this pregnancy malarkey. I’m equally suspicious of the women who come across all kumbaya and Earth Mother-y about pregnancy. They are deluding themselves; pregnancy sucks a bit…and I’m one of the ones who has had it pretty good.

I have been looking forward to not being pregnant since I was about 6 months gone. Not that it hasn’t been fun having a bump and showing it off, but the reality is that it is been one-sided affair so far; all investment on my part and little return so far (although am sure that will change). Of course, I will admit I want to eat Stilton and get squiffy again, but in truth I really just want my body back. I have essentially been living with another person stuck to me for almost a year and it isn’t unreasonable to say that I think we are both looking forward to having our individual space (I can only assume the baby feels the same way. It’s quite easy to interpret sharp kicks to my ribs as a way of expressing his or her desire for a bit more room as well).

And yet, despite everything, it would be an understatement to say we’re just excited to meet this person now. In fact we are bordering on twitchy with impatience. We have spent almost 9 months speculating as to who this little person, boy or girl, is going to be, how we are going to be as parents, and what it all means to our life together. The nursery is ready, the flat is ready, we are ready, and I waddle slowly towards D-Day. This will be my last post for a few months whilst we get to grips with the upheaval of parenting. Wish us luck and goodbye for now…

Maltby Street

With the weekend comes a certain magic. Waking up on Saturday morning without any plans, it stretches out before us like a blank canvas. “The world is our oyster, what shall we do?” Perhaps it’s too cold to go to sit in the park, but too sunny to stay indoors, what then? Wander. Be it London or New York, your downtown district or your village high street. Go catch the sunlight, enjoy the city and another’s company. The key is where you go. Here in our fair city, any Londoner will tell you to avoid the destinations overrun with tourists – obvious instructions in my opinion. That isn’t the only thing. It is essential to know and to seek the best your city has to offer. Life is too short for mediocrity.

7667509358_fcfe9a4570That said, it is reassuring to know that at weekends, tucked away quietly behind Tower Bridge, is the remarkable Maltby Street Market. Londoners have slowly fled there in recent years now that Borough Market has become a bazaar of overpriced vegetables, organic meat and amplified North American accents. Maltby Street is now a place to see, smell, taste, enjoy and listen. A year and a half ago, I first visited on a cold, quiet day in November. There were fewer market stalls on that particular Saturday, and only a handful of people were negotiating their way through the street. We stopped for a glass of wine to warm ourselves, then moved on to buy some marvellous smelly French cheeses and some purple and golden beetroot. The cheese we ate that night with some hearty red wine and crackers. The beetroot I roasted with fresh thyme and garlic; a rainbow of colours served alongside a whole roasted chicken for Sunday lunch. At the time, the place seemed as it if it was on the cusp of becoming great. 40 Maltby Street was already selling incredible food and spectacular wine and the market itself was garnering interest, slowly and confidently. More and more shops, stalls and traders moved in and the place began to come into its own.

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Photo via teacupscupcakes.blogspot.co.uk

A recent pilgrimage there for me was simply because I was on a quest for a doughnut. St John, a restaurant famous for its nose to tail eating, also runs a bakery under the rail arches that run between Druid and Maltby Streets. Self-confessed baking evangelicals – their love of bread is equal to that of offal – these doughnuts are sold from 9am until they disappear. Midday is too late. That particular day’s special chocolate custard doughnuts happened to all be sold by 11am and our mission to taste the famous doughnuts was put on hold for another weekend. Their brownies, slabs of intense, rich and nutty chocolate decadence, would have to act as a temporary salve, and they did, but only just.

Around the corner from St John sees the lunchtime crowd out in full force. The rail arches are filled with sounds and smells of sizzling meat and the buzzing patter of the market traders and customers. We watched as Tozino tapas bar produced plate after plate of appropriately unctuous tomato bread and thick strips of jamón. Small tables filled any available space and wine flowed, it would be a sin if it hadn’t. A stall selling preserves offers samples to a man and his daughter. After a small taste of apricot jam, the little girl smiles and does a little dance, surely the finest praise available. We walk along slowly, enamoured with the sights, lustily eyeing up the patisserie. Another stall sells a brunch-style hash, with eggs and bacon. The cook cracks an egg slowly, carefully sliding it out onto the griddle so the white doesn’t spread too far. The smell of bacon is enough to make a vegetarian blush. Across the way, with a merited love affair with pastrami, Monty’s Jewish deli is serving up matzo ball soup and Reubens with sizeable gherkins and coleslaw. All this we tasted with our eyes.

Too often we put our emphasis on just the action of eating, and, at times, it is completely justified. But the beauty of markets like this existing is that eating becomes more than putting food into our mouths. The mixture of sunlight, the sounds around us, the flavours of the wine and the food, all these things come together to ignite our senses, and we truly taste. Maltby Street is not a place for gastronomic tourism, it is a place to experience the greatness that one facet of being alive offers. Seek and you will find. Wander and you will live.

Clarity

 tumblr_mclom7j5Zz1qjcl1qA previous post discussed a strange loss of my cooking mojo. For about two months I have been completely distracted with a new job, and the quality of my cooking and writing has suffered a great deal. The job itself has had a rather steep learning curve and it turns out that marketing is not my forte. I suppose I knew that really. I’m not much for sales and really, I hate being marketed to myself, so it really isn’t a shock. 

What became completely clear is that a fair portion of my headspace was taken up with the stress and frustration over the fact that I can’t seem to produce text or ideas that fit what is required of me. This headspace normally belonged to thinking about what to cook, developing culinary techniques, finding inspiration, and general curiosity about what it means to live simply. For two months, this anxiety has weighed on me. It paralysed me.

But something snapped on Friday. The fog cleared. I had my inadequacies confirmed and for some reason, it took the pressure off. I woke up Saturday morning happier than I have been for months. I felt peaceful. I have been reading Elizabeth David’s An Omelette and a Glass of Wine, which is a marvel in itself, but suddenly it was being read with fresh eyes. Ideas and curiosity began to pour forth. I took a whole sea bass out of the freezer and began to think what to do with it with excitement. With total clarity, I adapted a Skye Gyngell recipe for seabass fillets to suit a whole fish, and served it with her braised fennel and beurre blanc. For the first time in months, I made a meal which I was proud of.

Perhaps now that the pressure has lifted, I can turn my attention back to my writing and my cooking. I can still try as best as I can to learn and produce decent marketing material, and I will. As a writer, however, the pressure I placed on it is cannot be as important as producing valuable work of my own. It is this I need to nurture and save from undue stress. And with that, I return to Mrs David, with a hot cup of tea on this cold Sunday morning, to regroup and refresh and remind myself how to simply live.

El Distracción

tumblr_m9oiem8zgE1qjcl1qI’m in a new job now (yes, my third in a year, thankyouverymuch) but this time it’s in the area I love (food), with a great bunch of people who also love food, and I basically get to think, write and talk about an amazing restaurant and its food all day every day. Joys of joys.I had a semi “Come to Jesus” moment last night after work because I realised the buzz of a restaurant is non-comparable to working in an office, and really, what the hell have I been doing for the last 7 years!? This is, in fact, where it’s at. For me, at least. The common thread that runs throughout this exceptional restaurant where I now work is that all of us have a true love affair with good food. Even the waiters. And it’s totally brilliant to be around people just as obsessive about good eating as I am.

But interestingly, I think the two things that I’ve sacrificed now are finding enough time to write, firstly; and second, I’m struggling to find the time to do my own practice.  Those following this thing I loosely call a blog (and which is really more of a receptacle for my musings on food, and well, nothing much else) will see that I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the last few months really thinking about food and putting the questions that have come up into practice. That has been the whole point of Blonde vs Bland. But now, less time means I have to rework it into my schedule and that has been tough. My poor other half has had some completely bizarre meals in the last few weeks. Last week I came up with something like a sausage soup that lacked any cojones, and any sort of, well, anything to be honest, and which, whilst it didn’t taste wholly bad, was just a bit confused as a dish, and not of the calibre of what I normally feed him. Poor man.

This isn’t the only instance. I totally botched a chocolate cake that I made for my friend’s birthday (see image above). It looked and tasted okay, but it was too dry, and frankly, I was livid. Of course, I’m being far too hard on myself as per usual. But I think it’s kind of warranted. Chocolate cake is one of those things everyone who bakes and cooks regularly should be able to whip out on command. It’s a failsafe treat and guaranteed to please. Usually. But not this time. I seem to have had some sort of brain aneurism in the foodie portion of my brain resulting in a blind spot of sorts, and frankly, it’s starting to piss me off. My instinct tells me that my food-obsessed brain is currently on diversion due to distractions with this new job and hopefully normal service will return in due course. But, considering the fact that last Wednesday I couldn’t be arsed to cook, if my food brain doesn’t shift back I’m seriously considering going to see a head specialist!

Distracted from food by food. The irony.  So how to remedy? Well, firstly, I need make time for writing. Like, proper time. Like now, for instance. Early mornings and weekends. Whilst it may be far more fun to ponce about in Town, I need to make the time. How much time I put in shows how much I want it. And I do want it. Badly. Secondly, I need to find brain space to really consider food, I’m not exactly sure how to do this one. It seems, really, that ultimately the key is to let the heart overrule the head and like all creative actions, clarity will follow.  My foodie mojo had better return, otherwise my other half has a future ahead of him full of weird soups and chocolate cakes with texture like sandpaper….oh god, it really had better…

A Question for the Imagination

tumblr_m7ohjcw94B1qjcl1qWhy do we cook what we cook? Some cook for love, comfort or to impress, others don’t cook at all. Ultimately we all need to feed ourselves, so why is what we cook so important?

These last two weeks have been rather surreal for me. My dad, 5000 miles away, was in and out of hospital with various worrying ailments. He and my mother were, as opposed to hanging out in a hospital having copious scans and tests, supposed to be on holiday, with a visit to London tacked on at the end. I had been thinking about what to cook for their visit for months prior; a favourite pastime for a planner like me. It is also my mother’s 64th birthday on what would be their first evening with us, so I have been thinking a great deal about what to make. I wanted to do something that was special to mark the occasion, but it is also a family tradition that the meal is chosen by the birthday boy or girl in question.  When my brother and I were little, we could have anything we wanted. My health-obsessed mother allowed us a once-a-year free pass to eat the things we were never allowed to have. When I asked her what she wanted for this birthday meal, she said “surprise me”. Indeed.

My mother is a good cook and we were well fed when we were growing up. Now that I’m an adult I appreciate even more how much she tried to feed a family of four, healthily, on a supremely tight budget. She grew her own vegetables, teaching my brother and I along the way the art of the vegetable patch. She mastered cooking with inexpensive ingredients like tinned tuna and her tuna casserole and tuna muffins are still family classics, which, even though my parents are far more solvent than they were when we were children, are still requested on the rare occurrence that the four of us are in the same place at the same time.  She would also shop at local farms for seasonal produce, take us berry picking, make preserves and can the vegetables we grew at home; she was more progressive than I realised. This now seems an idyllic way of living.

All that went out the window, however, when it was our birthdays. I can never remember the meals my brother or father would choose, but to my adult shame, I very often asked for KFC for my special dinner. We’re not just talking a cheeky Zinger burger here, oh no, we’re talking the family bargain bucket with “mash potatoes” and “gravy”, if that is what you could call rehydrated powder. And it was heaven.  All the salt and fat my little high-hipped 10-year old body could take. After that, it’d be my mother’s unbelievable homemade chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream, and I would collapse into a hypoglycaemic coma. Brilliant.  Of course now I would never choose KFC for a birthday meal; KFC is clearly now reserved for nights when I’ve over-imbibed. The last birthday elicited dinner at St John; times have definitely changed.

And so what to cook for my mother for her birthday? Of course, it is a moot point now, but I still love to plan, even if it isn’t going to happen. Planning menus is a wonderful way to pass the time, especially when much of my time at the moment is spent at a job that requires little or no action or thought on my part.

First, as it is July and we can get local-ish tomatoes that actually taste like tomatoes, I thought I’d do a simple bruschetta, a nod to my mother’s Italian heritage. I’d chop and leave them to stew in their own juices with some of extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper, crushed garlic and lots of fresh basil. I’d serve it on some fabulous sourdough from Wild Caper in Brixton, which I’d slice, brush with olive oil, grill, and subject to a good rubbing of fresh garlic.

Next, I’d have gone to William Rose in East Dulwich and picked up a wonderful piece of flank steak. I associate this cut with my mother so much. She would make it often during the summer for the barbecue, marinated in a blend of soy sauce, honey, garlic and other ingredients, which I’ve still never managed to recreate.  My own favourite marinade is made up of honey, garlic, olive oil, freshly cracked pepper, a good dousing of wasabi teriyaki from the Japanese supermarket, cut with soy sauce, and chilli flakes. After letting the meat soak up these umami flavours for a good 3-6 hours, you can cook the leftover marinade down to create an unbelievable drizzle for the meat.

On the side, I would serve grilled artichokes hearts with melted butter, as she was the first person to teach me how to peel back the petals, dip them in butter, and scrape them with your teeth. Once we’d reached the centre, she showed me how to scrape off the little furry insides and my first taste of this creamy vegetal flower, shrouded in warm salty butter, was burned into my brain.  And of course there would be a salad too. No family meal, in my mother’s opinion, is complete without a green salad.

Finally, it would be homemade chocolate cake, with chocolate frosting, with healthy scoops of vanilla ice cream on the side. What else could it be, really? There would be lots of wine and of course, my mom would say “don’t let me drink too much because it affects my sleep”, but she would have a couple glasses and hopefully get a bit giggly and maybe a little hiccup-y.

That is what I would have cooked and why.