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 effectively, 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 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…

To Judy Rodgers, Too Little Too Late

ImageIt was a disaster. Six free-range, organic chickens, reared by an ethically sound producer in the California sunshine had been overcooked. It felt disrespectful. These small birds had given up their relatively contented lives to feed us and we, I, had roasted them to a state that was so parched, the breast meat was difficult to swallow. They had been intended to feed twenty people for a family reunion, in a menu lovingly considered and prepared by my favourite aunt. A well-worn copy of the Zuni Café Cookbook by Judy Rodgers had been bookmarked and it was my responsibility to roast them.

Rodgers died in December of cancer. I’d like to say that my historical food knowledge is so that I had actually heard of her that sunny weekend in October. But I hadn’t. Aside from the Zuni Café often being mentioned in the same sentence as Chez Panisse when my aunt and I spoke about Bay Area cuisine, I had no idea that she was of the same calibre as Alice Waters when it came to the California Food Revolution in the 1980s. But when the news hit, and her importance to the culinary tradition clicked into place, I realised I had had no clue, as I watched my aunt, mother and sister-in-law brine these birds two months prior, that I was going to be in charge of delivering on Rodgers’ most famous recipe.

She outlines three main points to consider when roasting a chicken. First, the size: 1.2-1.5kgs (2 3/4 to 3 1/2lbs) is key. The birds are small and are completely perfect for quick roasting at high heat. The second is the bird is a fryer, as opposed to a roaster, which tends to be much larger. The littler birds are often used for their parts and are usually overlooked for roasting because of their size. Finally, salting the chicken 24-hours in advance. I’ve always considered brining to be something overly complicated for some reason, and was perhaps a bit intimidated by the idea. But when Rodgers described the process, all of a sudden I understood. The point is to get your food to be “tasty all the way through”.

She explains, “…salt helps dissolve some of the proteins within and around the muscle fibres that would otherwise resist chewing…Initially, salt does draw moisture from cells – whence the widely accepted belief that it dries food out. However, the quiet trauma of osmosis is temporary. With time, the cells reabsorb moisture in reverse osmosis. When they do, that moisture is seasoned with salt.” Ah-hah.

In the end, I was too generous with our roasting timings, calculated around multiple chickens instead of the one mentioned in the recipe. A different aunt, with a deep-rooted and irrational fear of salmonella, convinced me to allow more time than my instincts told me, and when we took the little golden bodies out of the oven, I knew we’d gone too far. Needless to say, when the party of twenty sat down to eat there was a quiet disappointment in the air. We are a family who likes food. We like to eat it, talk about it, think about it, worry about it, but that evening no one said a word for the first five minutes. The only person to comment was my cousin, my dear aunt’s son. In his quiet and aloof manner, he confirmed the unfortunate truth; the meat was dry and juiceless. It was tragic. She and I both lost sleep over it.

Once back in the UK and armed with a photocopy of my aunt’s cookbook, I penitently set about to roast another chicken. I found a beautiful small one from Dugard & Daughters, the lovely butchers in Herne Hill, SW London, and set about salting the little thing 24-hours in advance, studiously reading and rereading Rodgers’ instructions for roasting. My oven is notoriously over ambitious. I have lost battles to it several times over my Thanksgiving and Christmas turkeys, so this time I was going to err on the side of caution. The chicken was seared in a hot cast iron dish on the stovetop, then flipped over and roasted at 250C (475F) for 30 minutes, then back on its bottom at 210C (450F) for another 15. The result was a thing of glory. The brined chicken was juicy, flavourful and succulent. The skin is crispy, salty but not overly so; the meat tasted more of itself, all the way through. Simple, effective, this method is foolproof if you know your bird and you know your oven.

With such a late introduction into Judy Rodgers’ style, I can’t help but feel like I’ve arrived at a party an hour after everyone’s left. To become so well known for something as simple as a roast chicken shows a love of technique and an attention to detail that is entirely refreshing. As Alice Waters says, “it is a fundamental fact that no cook, however creative and capable, can produce a dish of quality any higher than that of the ingredients.” Indeed. But respect those ingredients as well. Knowing the best method of preparation is crucial, and yet, that isn’t everything. The learning curve continues, but one thing is for sure: I will never roast another chicken longer than an hour, and I must always listen to my instincts.

Post-Partum Impressions

2013-11-29 11.34.01A friend suggested that I give some retrospective thoughts about my life since having our daughter as a way to tie up the last two pieces for this blog. I, for one, am looking forward to getting back to writing about food, but there is something to be said about giving birth and experiencing these first five months of my daughter’s life, so kindly indulge me for one last time. 

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I ended up avoiding induction. I went into labour the day I was scheduled to be induced, as if the little one made the decision to help me out and spare me an unnatural birth experience. Labour and Child Birth are completely indescribable. The associated fear that accompanies the excitement of the last weeks of pregnancy is not unfounded, but retrospectively, I feel it isn’t as awful as everyone says, and that isn’t just hormones talking. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve never screamed so much in my life. It was the most painful thing I’ve ever experienced. So much so that I swore to the doctors, midwives, and anyone else who’d listen that I am never doing “that” again (a knowing smile was normally all I got in response). And whilst each woman’s experience is unique, my overarching impression is that it is all entirely doable, and there is no need to fear it.

Some key points to remember about childbirth: mainly, your body knows what it’s doing, as does the baby, so it really is just best to go with it and avoid being precious or scared about anything. You won’t give a shit about being naked in public, legs akimbo, arse in the air. You won’t care what you say, the sounds you make, the way you move your body. All dignity goes out the window and you couldn’t care less. Your mind is intact for the most part, but your body calls the shots. Often problems arise when the mind tries to take over so best leave them to separate, as they ultimately do. For me, the way childbirth is portrayed in the media is that the woman becomes totally irrational was false. I never swore at anyone. I never shouted at my Other Half blaming him for my condition, but I did scream. A lot. Screams that were almost otherworldly and in retrospect, quite bovine.

How do I feel about it all now? Of course, the pain has lessened in my mind (only a bit…) and said with knowing bias, our little girl is the most amazing creature I have ever set eyes on. But truthfully, motherhood is intense, emotionally and physically. Bouts with anaemia and extreme physical fatigue, unparalleled lack of sleep and an exhausting, insatiable hunger due to breastfeeding meant it has been a long haul to get to the point where I even have the energy to write, let alone think properly. I struggled a bit for the first few weeks to really bond with this little stranger, and to be honest, that feeling is more common than we’re lead to believe. The warm fuzzies you’re expected to feel straight away are not always there in the beginning. But it does come, and now she is the greatest thing I have ever done.

I won’t bore you with discussions of epic poos or whether breastfeeding really is best, but know this, the old adage is true: nothing will ever prepare you for having a child. Once the hormonally-charged fog clears and you’re left with the reality that this little person relies on you wholly, the terror of the unknown magnifies itself tenfold every day. But, choosing to step back, and see that in the scheme of life these moments are fleeting, does make it easier. She will only be this small for a handful of months, and the lack of sleep, being covered in sick and drool (my god, the drool…) will be a flicker in her story. It is intense, it is scary, it is emotionally draining, it is exhausting, but it is worth it.

With that, I desperately need a nap, so goodbye until January. Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas.

An Update…

Roughly a month ago I was certain that by this point I would not be pregnant anymore. But, as many things in life tend to be, the final days of this pregnancy have been entirely unpredictable and I am now ten days overdue, with an induction date set for two days’ time. It will be almost five weeks since I last wrote anything and went on maternity leave, assuming that I’d have a nice chubby, pink baby by now.

I thought I had done everything right. I was sure I’d been clever enough in my actions and would smugly be able to avoid induction. I truly believed I could outsmart Nature; a laughable presumption I now know. I’ve drank raspberry leaf tea since 34 weeks, I’ve done tonnes of yoga, I’ve eaten (fairly) well, despite my insane love of pork pies and chocolate milk. I’ve swam, I’ve gone for epic walks, I’ve eaten spicy food, I’ve done acupuncture, I’ve had three rather invasive manipulation procedures (I’ll leave the details out. This is still technically a food blog after all…) and yet, this baby has it’s own agenda for it’s arrival. Up until yesterday, I have been frustrated with these final days; I felt like the prescience I had to prepare myself physically meant that I didn’t deserve to be this late. I’ve been genuinely irritated with this little person-to-be for their seeming lack of compliance. I’ve have resented it because I’m enormous and uncomfortable, and my body hurts; I can’t even see my ankle bones anymore due to the swelling of my feet. The subsequent guilt I then felt for unfairly blaming someone with no knowledge of their own existence for actions outside of their control is obvious. I cringe at my response. I miss my body and it being mine alone, but that isn’t this baby’s fault. After all, it didn’t ask to be born.

I almost wonder if because I’ve put pressure on myself to have this baby sooner, it is Nature’s rather backhanded way of reminding me that things like this cannot be rushed. These events have their own timescales which stay unknown. Hundreds of years of scientific advancement and knowledge of the human body, and they still cannot work out what causes a woman to go into labour. It is completely unpredictable. At first, this irked me, but now…

Unknowns, whilst scary, are also exciting.

I am hopeful and resigned.

And now we have an end date anyway: two days to go. Now we know, the pressure is off. Of course, I’m concerned that the birth will now be this long and drawn out process from which we’ll both end up traumatised, but in the end, all of it is a total unknown and it does nothing beneficial to worry. The next two days are an opportunity to get into the correct headspace for Wednesday. I’m going to visit the LS Lowry exhibition at Tate Britain. I’m going to make a huge batch of chocolate chip cookies. I’m going to meditate and do some yoga, and take advantage of the calm before this inevitable yet still unpredictable storm.

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.