Thursday, 17 July 2008

Postcard from Saratoga Springs

I always think about food, but never more than when I'm on vacation.  

When I'm traveling, life is all about my next meal -- and sometimes the activity between just seems like the needs-must required to work up an appetite.   I have three more days in Saratoga Springs -- famous spa and horse racing town -- and this morning I realized that my dearest friend Laurita and I were planning the next few days of eating with all of the seriousness and precision of a military campaign!  Saratoga is such a great food town, and part of the problem is that I want to re-eat at all of the places we've already eaten at . . . not to mention the hot spots we haven't yet managed to visit!  There just aren't enough meals in a day.

Yesterday we managed to fit in most of Laurita's  sentimental favorites:  cider doughnuts at Sutton's, ice cream at Martha's, and ribs at PJ's.   (Laura is a harpist, and she has been visiting Saratoga for the last twenty years to "gig" at the Lake George Opera Festival.)  We also managed to visit The Sagamore -- a beautiful old hotel on Lake George that makes you feel like you are one of the privileged few from the gilded age.  We wanted to have lobster rolls on the deck, or tea on the terrace, or cocktails on the lawn . . . but we were too stuffed to take in anything but the breathtaking view of boats bobbing in the blue, blue water.

Everything in this Adirondack region feels slightly retro -- and even the tacky tourist bits are cute kitsch.  It is like the best of Americana, preserved in the aspic of fresh air and pristine piney woods.   

Last night I wanted to swoon with happiness.  We were sitting outside, and the air was balmy.  The moon was nearly full, and I swear it was the color of a tangerine.  We were eating yummy, messy ribs, corn on the cob, and fried green beans.  PJ was spinning old 50s tunes from the Everly Brothers and Elvis Presley.   (Apparently you can find him on 880 AM radio, but Laurita swears that you lose WBBQ as soon as you leave the parking lot.)  I felt as bubbly as Gidget -- minus the surfboard and Moondoggie.  I could have stayed there forever, or at least a lot longer, but the junebugs started divebombing us and the kiddiewinkles started complaining.  

I want to go again tonight, but we are supposed to be eating fried chicken at The Rock.  Like I said, too much great food . . . not enough time.

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Cognitive Popcorn

Earlier this week I was getting my biannual pre-holiday pedicure, and I happened to notice an article on sleep in a magazine I was flicking through. (I can't remember the name of the magazine, but it had something to do with "wellness" issues. It was definitely American :)

Of course, the article emphasized the importance of sleep . . . and how many of us are just not getting enough of the Z's. That, I already knew. Sigmund and I are permanently sleep-deprived, and I know we are not the only ones. Just recently, both Barrie and Alyson have blogged about the dreaded insomnia -- and how it is sapping their energy at the moment. I can name three close friends who have spoken to me about the subject, just this week alone. My mother is a more or less permanent insomniac.

What I didn't know is that there is a new term for the anxious brain that never sleeps. Apparently, if your brain is keeping you awake with its restless activity it's not just maddening, it's a syndrome with a cute name: cognitive popcorn.

Last night was a late one -- as we were celebrating the 50th birthday of one of our dearest friends. As I made the morning coffee, an overnight houseguest and I commiserated about how many times we wake during the typical night. He is suffering from stress and a full-blown midlife crisis. I'm not sure what my problem is.


Tomorrow I will be waking up at 6 am to drive to Gatwick Airport to fly to New Hampshire. Even though I am exhausted, I know that I will lie awake tonight, fretting about all of the things done and undone. I know that I will check the clock numerous times, so worried about oversleeping that I will never properly sleep. Because I am excited and anxious both, I know that my brain will be playing the cognitive popcorn game. I love popcorn, but not in my head!

Belated Best of the Bookers

Well, I had the best intentions. But then I always do . . .

Sorry to tell you this, fellow readers, but the Best of the Bookers has been voted on and announced . . . and we missed the boat. Salman Rushdie, a two-time winner with Midnight's Children has swept the boards again. (According to the official vote count, less than 8000 people bothered to vote. Well, the website doesn't exactly trumpet the "less than" bit, but personally I think that's a low voter turn-out.) Since I've never gotten around to reading Midnight's Children, or for that matter, four of the other books on the short list, I don't suppose my vote would have counted for much. It certainly wouldn't have been an educated or well-considered vote -- but since when has that stopped anyone? Still, it's a bit of a let-down that my reading intentions fizzled out this way.

When I read about The Best of the Bookers awards, it seemed like the perfect spur to motivate me to read some of the great books on my to-read shelf. I also really liked the idea of an on-blog reading group. We started out so well, too. I read Disgrace; Brave Sir Robin read Cloud Atlas; Nimble Pundit/Jenine read Fingersmith; Bitty, Anne, Jenine and I read Blind Assassin; Debski Beat started the The Enchantress of Florence, but then realized that it was the wrong Rushdie book . . . but never mind. Unfortunately, sometime soon after the "Short List" was announced I started to lose interest. Maybe it was due to the dullness of the short list, (I've read other snarky comments -- and not just from my friend, Heartsease), but I just couldn't be bothered with prescribed reading anymore.

I guess that I have to read Midnight's Children now, though.

Maybe in August . . .

Thursday, 10 July 2008

Rainy Day Sickie

Yesterday was one of those bleary mornings where I felt like I had just fallen asleep only to wake up again. I'm not sure what it feels like to be near death, but I sure didn't feel very lively. Instead, I felt sore-throaty and head-achey. I felt tired; bone-tired. As I drove my eldest daughter to school, I took stock of the vile weather -- cold and wet -- and I concluded that what I really felt like doing was going straight back to bed. So I did.

Is there anything more delicious than playing hooky for the day? (Yes, I did think that I was really, really ill . . . but it doesn't change the fact that I had a hundred things to accomplish that day, and instead, I just buried my head in a pillow.)

I knocked myself out with some super-strength paracetemol, and slipped in between the cool, silky sheets. I then proceeded to sleep until noon. What bliss.

Then there was the kind of transitional stage, between sleeping and upright wakefulness, which I would like to be allowed to experience every day. My idea of a nice transitional stage is to have a cup of tea (or two) and read for a little while in bed. Maybe a few cat stretches. Maybe a little more dozing.

By one pm, I was starting to feel a tad hungry . . . and so was my youngest daughter, who had presumably played computer games all morning. We agreed that some cinnamon toast would be a marvellous way to ease our fragile tummies into the day. For those of you who weren't lucky enough to be made cinnamon toast when you were tiny tots, here is the recipe:

Cinnamon Toast
  • Spread some butter comprehensively over as many slices of bread as you feel you can manage to eat. Any bread will do, but it is nicest with white bread.
  • Mix a generous measure of ground cinnamon into a bowlful of granulated or caster sugar. The resulting mixture should be light brown -- or to taste.
  • Spread the cinnamon sugar generously over the buttered bread.
  • Toast (on a cookie sheet) in a moderate oven (375F/180C) until the cinnamon sugar and butter have melted together, but before the bread starts to burn.
  • Cut in triangles and eat, decadently, in bed or in front of the TV.

Although it is in no way health food, cinnamon toast is just the thing to immediately stabilize a depressed blood sugar. Also, it is a very comforting food to eat. Particularly if it is dripping rain outside when it is supposed to bright and sunny.

If stodgier fare is required, (as it will eventually be, particularly if you are more tired than sick), I recommend a baked potato. No rich accompaniments, though -- you need plain food if you are sick -- so just a dab of butter and some salt and pepper will dress it nicely. Like the cinnamon toast, the baked potato will taste better if you are eating it on a tray -- preferably while watching an Audrey Hepburn movie.

By mid-afternoon, and what with the medication, the sleep, and the carbs, I was started to feel a bit better. I was feeling better enough to contemplate some activity, and also better enough to start fretting about a day that was a total loss. I decided that some ironing was in order -- not only because I had a great pile of it to do, but also because it was the only chore that I could think of which would allow me to go on watching the Audrey Hepburn movie.

In addition to various other pieces of clothing, I managed to iron twelve of Sigmund's shirts. (This led me to wonder at Sigmund's profligate shirt-wearing behavior. I iron every week! How had Sigmund managed to dirty twelve shirts!!) I also managed to watch all of Sabrina, Paris When It Sizzles, and part of Roman Holiday. (By the time we got around to Roman Holiday, my grave illness was being studiously ignored by Sigmund and I was being called upon to deliver forth some dinner.

(A few comments on our Hepburn trilogy: I realized that, in a strange way, all of these movies have the same romantic arc/plot. Basically, a worldly, older man tries to manipulate or take advantage of the adorable ingenue. Although it looks touch and go for awhile, in each case the ingenue's winning ways triumph over middle-aged cynicism and Love conquers all. I would also add that we should have started with Roman Holiday -- as Gregory Peck is vastly preferable to either William Holden or Humphrey Bogart as a romantic hero. By the way, the word lugubrious could have been invented to describe Bogart's face.)

Although it is much nicer for someone to make dinner for you (especially if you are a sick person), here are some dinner suggestions which are suitable for a sick person who is required to cook.

First, a salad: rocket (from the garden), tomatoes, mozzarella and an avocado. With a bit of olive oil and some balsamic vinegar drizzled over the top. Freshly ground salt and pepper, of course. These are all gentle, soft foods -- perfect for an invalid in recovery.

Then, a glass of medicinal white wine -- to be taken with, and mixed into, the ersatz spaghetti carbonara.

(Not quite) spaghetti carbonara

  • Chop a small yellow onion as finely as you can manage, and then saute in a glug of olive oil until soft.
  • Fry some bacon or pancetta (the exact quantity of which should be a personal matter) until crisp. Drain the oil, and then throw it in with the onion.
  • Then, add some white wine (a couple of ounces?) and let it bubble away over a medium-low heat for about 5 minutes or so.
  • Cook some spaghetti until al dente.
  • Saving a bit of the cooking water, toss the spaghetti with that plus a large knob of butter.
  • Add the onion/bacon mixture and some grated parmesan cheese.
  • Serve to hungry, grateful, pasta-loving people.

Of course a "real" spaghetti carbonara has lots of cream and butter in it. I like to think of this as a lighter, healthier version. Because it manages to be both "plain" and yet flavorful, comforting and yet digestible, it is the perfect food for sick people who are contemplating a re-entry to the real world.

But that's just me. So what do you like to eat when you are sick?

Monday, 7 July 2008

Independence Day in England: Oxymoronical?

The dictionary tells me that an oxymoron is "a rhetorical figure in which incongruous or contradictory terms are combined" (American Heritage Dictionary, 2nd Ed.). Even better is the original Greek "oxumoron" -- which translates as "pointedly foolish."

Am I just being pointedly foolish to even attempt to celebrate July 4th in England? For what am I celebrating exactly? As a current dependent of the UK, is it not just a little bizarre to keep this wholly American tradition going? Never mind the "oxy" bit, am I just a moron?

Without the parades, the fireworks, and the patriotism, what does July 4th really offer for an expatriate American? I've pondered this question long and hard, (well, at least short and superficially), and I have a very satisfactory answer: July 4th is a good excuse to get together with American friends and eat fried chicken.

I've never had a stock way of celebrating the 4th, but there are definitely key ingredients. Here is my ideal (and like most ideals, never actually experienced): the fried chicken (of course), potato salad, corn on the cob, fresh tomatoes, cold watermelon, biscuits and peach cobbler. A warm summer night. A dip in the lake. Sparklers. Homemade ice cream -- made the old-fashioned way, with rock ice and a churn and a grandfather. Good people.

If you have good food, and equally good people to share it with, isn't that all the sense of "occasion" that you will ever need?

I don't know when or why fried chicken came to epitomize July 4th for me -- to be its very essence -- but there it is. No matter where I am in the world, I want to eat fried chicken on Independence Day -- even if I have to fry it myself. The funny thing is that I don't recall my family ever frying chicken. Indeed, we were probably more likely to have hamburgers or grilled pork tenderloin. In the mythical days of my childhood, when we used to have July 4th at my grandmother's lake house, I remember having barbequed chicken -- but definitely not the fried stuff I insist on now. If my obsession with fried chicken as the symbol of July 4th is rooted in any reality at all, I think that it has to be traced back to the annual church picnic. Whenever church people gather for potluck, you can always count on someone bringing a bucket of fried chicken. Because I grew up during a culinary era dominated by mystery casseroles and jello salads, I think that I learned early on to make a beeline for the fried chicken -- the always reliably delicious choice.

The truth is that I would never bother to make fried chicken in Texas. I'm not that crazy; I'm not that in need of a 4-6 hour project in which I am likely to burn myself. When you've got Church's, Popeye's and KFC on your corner, there really is no point in trifling with home cooking. However, in the English countryside, if you want to eat fried chicken you are going to have to do for yourself. This year, although I lingered over Homesick Texan's recipe, I decided to go with something tried and true: Nigella Lawson's recipe from Nigella Bites. Her recipe is a bit unusual, but it really takes the anxiety out of frying chicken. Her secret? You cook the chicken before you fry it. To be more specific, you brine the chicken in salty milk overnight -- and then you gently poach the chicken in its milk bath. You actually just fry it for a couple of minutes -- so when the crust looks golden enough, the chicken is done. (No burnt chicken! Even better, no fear of raw chicken!) I had a piece for lunch today -- and even though the crust was not at its best, the meat was still tender and juicy.

I realize that it is a bit ironical to consult an English cook for a quintessentially American recipe, but hey, that's the nature of my life. That's why we drank Pimm's and ate peach cobbler: I like to cherrypick the best from both cultures.

Last week Barrie Summy issued a call-out for favorite summer recipes. I knew that I had to post my beloved recipe for Hill Country Peach Cobbler -- because it is easy, delicious, summery and it tastes like home to me. Unfortunately, I've been running late all week . . . and I've missed the publishing deadline. But just because Just a Plane Ride Away said that she liked it, I present my notion of a perfect summer dessert.

Hill Country Peach Cobbler
(courtesy of Martha Smith, of San Antonio)

3/4 cup flour
dash of salt
2 tsp baking powder
1 1/2 cup sugar (plus an extra 1/4 cup to sprinkle on top)
3/4 cup milk
4 0z butter
3 cup sliced peaches

Sift flour, salt, and baking powder together. Mix in 1 1/2 cup sugar. Stir in milk. Melt butter in 8x8x2 inch (or similar) pan. Pour batter over the melted butter; do not stir. Lay peaches on batter. Sprinkle with remaining 1/4 cup sugar. Bake for 1 hour at 350F/180C oven.

I don't make peach cobbler very often -- mostly because I am the only person in my family who truly likes it. Sigmund never misses a chance to tell me that it is like a crumble -- but not as nice. While I would never disparage a good crumble, I think that there is something magical about this cobbler. I love its silky, buttery texture. I love the way it makes its own doughy crust. I love the voluptousness of the peaches. I also especially love this recipe because of its storied history. Years ago, or back when I was 23 years old and newly launched into the adult world, I had a "grown-up" dinner at the home of a newly married friend. We went to the Farmer's Market on the old Austin Highway in San Antonio, and we bought plump ears of corn, juicy tomatoes, and beautifully ripe Fredricksburg peaches. As we chatted away, my friend Martha put together a simple, but unbelievably delicious, summer dinner: Barbeque chicken, corn, fresh green salad, glistening cut tomatoes . . . and peach cobbler, with Homemade Vanilla Blue Bell ice cream, for dessert. I begged Martha to copy the recipe down for me, and I still have that recipe card -- almost 20 years later. No cobbler that I make will ever be able to duplicate the perfection of Martha's cobbler, but I keep trying!

As for my ideal July 4th, well, it was a bit less than perfect. It was too cold and windy to sit outside, so we had to huddle around my kitchen table. I forgot to serve the potato salad. I put too much butter in the peach cobbler. We didn't have homemade ice cream. Almost everyone had to leave before it was dark, and we didn't really get around to doing the fireworks.

However . . . there was fried chicken. There was peach cobbler. There was champagne, brought by Audrey, and the most delectable brownies, made by Just a Plane Ride Away. And most of all, best of all, there were good people. Old friends and new -- with a foot on each side of the pond.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Too Much of a Good Thing

I've neither time nor wit for heavy-duty rumination at the moment. I'm too busy gathering rosebuds -- both literally and figuratively.

Perhaps it's because of the flowering season; perhaps it's down to the rare and glorious sunshine; but May and June in England are cram-ful of buzzing activity.

Even though I do have a Garboesque side, at the moment I'm just a girl who can't say no.

In the last nine days: I've been to a 40th birthday party, a 50th birthday party, three children's birthday parties, a BBQ and a summer fete. I've had 15 fourteen year-olds dancing, laughing, screeching, and eating Mexican food in my house. I've had 15 rather more restrained old friends eating hamburgers in my garden. I've been to London with one set of Houston visitors, and Hampton Court with another set. I'm gearing up for another weekend of much the same -- with friends for July 4, two more birthday parties and the Race for Life.

Why am I living my life like it's a race?

On Saturday, I spent a chunk of the day at my youngest daughter's summer fete. In a moment of true madness, I volunteered to make 100 roll-out sugar cookies (in the shape of ice cream cones; very cute, actually) for a decorate-your-own-cookie booth. Although I have burbled on about my enthusiasm for cookies, quite recently in fact, I do think there is a limit -- and I may have reached it.

Mae West once suggested that "too much of a good thing can be wonderful . . . " but I'm fairly certain that she wasn't talking about cookies.

I might wear myself out for friends, but I draw the line at baked goods.

I know that one day it will be November, when the days fade by late afternoon, and everyone hunkers down. I will remember, wistfully perhaps, these long, frantic days. But at the moment, I feel like I could do with a quiet afternoon in a darkened room.

But never mind that! Tomorrow I'm off to Wimbledon.