19 September 2008

In the Land of Nigella...

I was never a "Domestic Diva" but always wanted, secretly or not so secretly, to be one. This was an impossible feat to pull off in my shoe-box Manhattan apartment. My kitchen in New York was so small that two people could not stand together in it comfortably, nor was it possible to open the stove door and the refrigerator door at the same time. While my new English kitchen does present its own unique challenges, I have been granted to the gift of space: room in which to actually cook, move and navigate; and surfaces, surfaces, surfaces, at last. So now, with the time and space within which to channel my "inner Martha," I could not wait, as the locals say, to get "stuck in."

British food. A comedian once made the joke that a "British cookbook" should be merely "a pamphlet, that says 'See other countries'." Funny. But true? I don't think so. I have always enjoyed British food -- beyond my favorite Fish'n'chips. British food is the ultimate comfort food. In every British kitchen, something is undoubtedly being roasted to perfection in the "cooker," and thankfully for me there is sure to be a potato involved in one way or another.

What I noticed from watching and reading a small cross-section of Nigella Lawson, Gordon Ramsay, Jamie Oliver and the like, is that key factors in British cooking are: freshness and flavo(u)r. Gordon stresses simplicity, which works for me. Keep it simple. Quality, fresh food, cooked simply. What a way to seduce the senses.

Speaking of culinary seductions ... I recall one of my many, recent, transatlantic jaunts in the past year to visit my Darling English Boy, wherein I was treated to an exquisite culinary evening at Stratford-upon-Avon College. The Darling English Boy has a dear friend who is an exceptional chef who heads the culinary program at Stratford College, and every year they provide the students with the ultimate challenge of presenting a seven course meal to invited guests and local glitterati. Staff members from the Ritz Hotel in London are brought in and added to the mix. The evening was so divine that I wrote a short sketch about it three months later for an in-class Creative Writing assignment:

Dinner at Stratford College. Final Exam dinner for culinary students. Late May 2008. Wore my favorite "19th C-esque, travel suit". Champagne and canapes to start. Seven course meal, a different wine with each course. Favorite course: Lobster tail with a green pea puree, dressed in caviar. Delicate, cold, white and pinkish meat lounging in a pool of green, wearing tiny, glistening, black pearls. Green pea puree base. Soooo lovely. Fresh, spring peas pureed. They actually taste like Spring. Earthy. Fresh. New. I want to learn to make pea soup just to capture this taste forever.
I recently discovered the BBC's wonderful Foodie website: www.bbcgoodfood.com 
In addition to recipes and cooking tips, the site also has an excellent features section dedicated to "Seasonal and Local Food". Who knew that tomatoes, blackberries, lobster, plums, cauliflowers, aubergines, goose, garlic are all considered at their peak in Britain in September? The website also provides information, based on postcode, of nearby suppliers of fresh, organic food. It seems that the "Slow Food" movement has truly taken root quite firmly in England. I noticed an example of this when my friend Karen had me round for lunch last week. Karen -- who I have known for ages, from when I was living here before as a student -- is an excellent and fastidious cook. She prepared the most gorgeous lunch, which she said she had started cooking at 9 AM. We sat down for lunch at nearly 2 PM...Since moving here, I am learning the importance of slow downing, generally, not just food-wise. But food is a good place to start. 

So far I have tried my hand at such traditional English favorites as Fish Pie and Rhubarb Crumble, and think I've done pretty well. Last night, after what I thought was a failed, and over-cooked attempt at "Glazed Baked Gammon," D.E.B. gave me his mum's favo(u)rite cookbook. I wanted to cry. The book is Marguerite Patten's 
Perfect Cooking (1972), and throughout its well-worn and much-loved pages, D.E.B.'s mother, Elsie, has made copious notes, and added her own comments, critiques and thoughts to the pages. As I read and touched the pages Elsie had, I felt a connection with her. A tangible link to the beautiful woman I sincerely regret I will never know. 

Food. So much more than just the stuff that keeps our bodies going.
Facing my biggest cooking challenge this weekend: Sunday Lunch. The quintessential British meal: Roast Beef, Yorkshire puddings, roasted potatoes & veg and gravy.
Thankfully, I've got Nigella and Elsie in my corner.

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