I was walking on my own through the wilds of a field thick with mud and trees and tall grass this morning and my only care was staying up right, when all of a sudden, the grass was short enough to have been shaved. I was standing in the middle of a golf course. You would have thought I would have felt all right on a golf course; you can see for miles all around and you know there are rules that everybody is following, but rules can be tricky if you aren’t sure what they are or if you want to follow them. The golfers were all very definite about where they were going and they were wearing solid shoes. In Luton, they aren’t a very talkative bunch to outsiders who show up in the middle without equipment. I wasn’t sure if I were fair game for target practice and if I should just start running or pretend that I was scoping the place out for my next shot. As soon as I decided to walk and scope and not worry if I was the right thing or the wrong thing in the eyes of the rest of the players, I was fine, and started to enjoy the landscape. It was a challenge to try and guess which way a group might be swinging, especially if there were a quite a few in the same area, but you get good at something like that really quickly when your survival depends on it.
I recommend cooking with abandon and against the rules occasionally. My brother in law says he goes crazy sometimes with plain old tomato soup. You could just make tomato soup (garlic and a bit of onion cooked for fifteen minutes with fresh thyme, then a can of whole tomatoes smashed through your hands and set to simmer for a while, and finally half as much cream.) Or you could try putting a few cloves of garlic and an onion and fresh ginger in a separate pan until it is completely cooked through with whole spices that get crushed in a mortar and pestle and added. (Try cinnamon, nutmeg, a little clove, black pepper, some torn bay leaves, coriander and cumin or whatever moves you) When the spices are toasted, he adds cut up chicken breast, cooks the chicken gently and then adds the soup. Go with your gut and do what you like.
It’s lovely to have your food served on china and stir your tea with a silver spoon, but you sit up straighter when you do that, don’t you. And you worry if you might have something stuck in your teeth and if you should show your teeth at all when you smile or keep your lips stuck together and just tip your head back a bit for emphasis instead of letting out a big guffaw.
Not all English tea shops require the ladies to wear a proper hat and sensible shoes and the gentlemen to mind the manners, and they’re the ones I like to go to. You find them when you get lost walking in the English country side, walking across fields that have just been plowed for winter, or even off the road driving up to Scotland, and there is something really nice about the connection with the people in the shop, especially the further north you go. It can be a fine line between “Hello, how are you” when they pour the tea, and “who are you then?” but underneath they’re always glad to see you and sad to see you go. The pot of tea isn’t china or fragile at all, but a great big aluminum thing with a knitted or towel cozy over it to keep it hot and it comes out steaming into the mug and you might get asked if you want the sugar and milk or they might just decide for you if they think you could use it. To eat there are very serious scones, you couldn’t call them delicate, but you could call them sustenance. They’re served with jam that knows what fruit it came from and cream so thick it might not be legal in the States. Or you can get mince pies, shortbread, a sponge with jam spread on top or if there’s hot food, a meat pie, a cheese toasty (grilled cheese with cheddar) or a toasted bap with butter or really, butter with a bap.
If you’re really lucky there might be a selection of sandwiches which I think make a great dinner especially with any of the desserts. And if you don’t find them there, there is a never fail great selection of fresh sandwiches in triangle packs at the pharmacy. They don’t pack loads between the bread as we tend to do–it’s not dagwood country–but the combinations are fantastic. Curried chicken with an apricot chutney and arugula or prawn mayonnaise or tandori chicken with cucumber and yogurt dressing or farm fresh egg salad with watercress and some crazy cheese grated on the top or even a tiny slab of tuna salad to mix you up. They have strong cheddar with Branston pickle (a strong sort of brown chutney with fruits, nuts, onions and gerkin), or even cheese salad, which is chopped up bits of cheese stirred around with a bit of mayo and sliced almonds and sometimes a bit of chopped green olive or tiny bits of onion. They have the ploughmans breakfast of a three sandwhich combo, irish bacon, scrambled egg with cheese and turkey or a middle eastern spot of hummus, red onion, roasted red pepper and cucumber. It’s a tradition I never knew about; it’s unexpected excitement between two slices of soft bread. Always served cut in two, always cut point to point and never anything fancy about it.
The unfamiliar isn’t always easy. It’s a struggle coming up with things to do with food you have never really thought about. I know what a parsnip is and I know what it tastes like but if I saw one at the grocery store I can’t say my heart would start beating any faster. I remember I had an acting class once where there was a killer love scene that everyone had to do and not everyone was entirely enthusiastic about their scene partner and the teacher said, “now listen, it’s your job to find the love, you need to find something that is going to move you about this person. It might be how they smell or the shape of their hands or how much money they have, but whatever it is, you have to find it and love it.”
You can’t cook something that you have no feelings about. I started to think parsnip. It does have a lovely sweet aroma. The texture is nearly a potato and I hunger for potatoes. I started to think of a great big roaring fire and bowls of parsnip soup with thick slices of country bacon on the side and a wedge of sharp cheddar and fried eggs served on bitter greens with a balsamic dressing. My love for parsnip started to come to life.
Make the soup by bringing a pot of salted water to the boil and adding a few pounds of peeled and chopped parnsips with a tablespoon of butter, a bay leaf and three or four peppercorns. In another pan, cook off four to five shallots in olive oil and butter, season with salt, and let them go over a medium flame until completely softened. This is going to take a good fifteen minutes. When the shallot is done, add one small granny smith, and cook til tender. Add the soft parsnip and enough cooking liquid to cover the parsnip. Simmer for a few more minutes and then puree in the food processor. Add a homemade chicken or vegetable stock with half as much cream until you have the consistency you like. Taste for salt and pepper. Serve with a crouton made from a slice of french bread and brushed with olive oil once it’s toaste.
There was a bit of a tense moment at the Christmas table for the American when an elderly English lady whom I had never met before leaned across the table and said to me “I don’t know how you people feel about Halloween, but I wish it had stayed with you.” I wasn’t expecting that; I quite like Halloween and I have no idea how we got onto that subject except maybe she has been storing up bad feelings about my people and I was the first one to come along in person. In the Christmas spirit I smiled and brought it back to mince pies and did she really make her suet for mince from stringy beef bits, or did she like to buy it? It’s important to keep smiling at Christmas even if you crack for a minute. Even if somebody starts yelling. Now is not the time to sort it out. Christmas is not reality and will only leave you bruised and confused if you try to make things right with any long term goals.
I have one thing to say to you people today: NOW IS NOT THE TIME TO COOK. Now is the time to let whomever is in the house find their own food, and wash their own dishes, or it might go right over the top and you’ll find yourself picking up even old ladies by their tiny bootstraps and sending them into the cold night to find their way to home or pub on a bus.
People like to find their own food. It’s hard not to be needed but it can be lovely to be a lump.
The thing about an English Christmas is, the meal doesn’t end until you sleep. At first you think, Oh my God, I can’t do it. All the nuts and chips and chocolates for starters and then parsnip and apple soup with cream and into the dining room covered with garlands and fairy lights for roast turkey with stuffing, thick gravy and two kinds of potatoes and brussel sprouts and carrots. (The most I was allowed to introduce from the new world was string beans). Before the plates are cleared the pudding is set on fire and we’re pouring on the custard. Then for something light, chocolate mousse made with double cream and smeared with more double cream spiked with courvoiser. Tea. Just a drop of sherry to help digest and then at the telee a massive plate of cheeses with five types of crackers. Wee bit of bubbly, then Christmas cake stuffed with raisins and covered with apricot jam, marzipan and royal icing.
Ferdinand had a piece of toast with chocolates for breakfast, two pieces of potato with chocolates for lunch and then just chocolate for dinner.
It’s good to have more than you could ever believe you could have every once in a while.
It is 11:17 in the morning here and the house is completely quiet. I think my mother in law is out food shopping and that I may be no longer in control of the Christmas feast. Fair enough. You can’t complain about always being the one in control and then complain when you no longer have it. It was mid pleading not to serve canned sausage links wrapped in bacon with a vegetarian that I gave up. Tradition is more important than what makes sense at Christmas.
I think the best thing to have in the interim is grilled cheese with tomato soup.
Jonathan’s mother has decorated every inch of her house with garland and sugared apples and foot high glass music balls that turn and play Silent Night when you move the ring of grass and wise men around. The tree goes right to the ceiling in the conservatory and you can just reach your hand down to the table next to the couch for chocolates or port or tiny cheese biscuits. Ferdinand won’t eat anything but toast with nutella on it and his pockets are stuffed with loot that he has been lifting from his grandmother. He loves anything that sparkles and I have noticed a definite difference in the number of ornaments on the tree.
I think I might go Greek for dinner tonight and make spinach pies with feta and wrapped up in phyllo and have big bowls of greek salad with cucumber, red pepper, red onion, black olives and garlic croutons. Bowls of greek yogurt with garlic and lemon and hummus for dipping toasted pita into and honey pastries for dessert with flan, not because it’s Greek but because it wins me points with the family.
It’s not hard to make the spinach pies, just be sure to saute your fresh spinach in garlic and olive and a little salt before putting them in the mix, and squeeze every bit of liquid out. Add about the same amount of feta (I like French feta) and if you like it creamy, half as much ricotta. Smash some roasted garlic cloves, and add those along with a little fresh lemon zest and either fresh oregano or thyme or dill. I don’t like dill, so Greek or not, I don’t use it. When the mix tastes delicious to you (check for salt and black pepper) set aside. Melt a few sticks of butter and brush them onto phyllo pastry sheets, layering them two at a time, and four to six sheets for every set of pastries. Cut the sheets into four strips once they have been buttered and stacked up into piles of six, put a little spoonful of filling at the bottom of each strip, and roll up flag style. Bake at 400 degrees until lightly brown.
I have just arrived with Ferdinand and Jonathan and can I just say that American Airlines should be ashamed of their food. Shame. I brought snacks for Ferdinand who hardly had a chance to eat them because I ate most of what was in the bag. I am at my mother in law’s now though, and I have had a mountain of toast with butter and mugs of hot and milky tea. I am sure I’ll be up all night watching late TV and then tomorrow I start planning our feast.
We had potato leek soup before we left because you can eat what you want and then freeze the rest and it will be waiting for you when you come home two weeks later.
There are only five days left until Christmas and I have counter tops full of cookies and homemade granola and bags of gifts. I don’t know where my boxes are for the cookies or which gift on the counter was meant for whom, and I have people coming over for lunch and a party to go to tonight and I’m meeting my girlfriend close to midnight just to say hello for a minute when she gets off the plane from CA because I have to leave for England first thing in the morning before the sun comes up.
I have no advice for this kind of situation. Except divide everything in the house into squares and give one square away to any one that comes in the door.
And make turkey pot pie. Smooth and warm and wonderful turkey pot pie. I may even put on some lipstick, wrap a short silk scarf around my neck and curl my hair in a flip for that. You may as well go whole hog when you’re walking down Betty Crocker lane. Iceberg lettuce with homemade blue cheese dressing for the salad. I have a Jonny Cash album and I’ll make a chocolate cake spread out in a sheet pan to roll up jelly roll style around fresh whipped cream.
I could be nicer and smile more as well. Or maybe when turkey pot pie was popular women really started to enjoy smoking and came up with saying things like “here’s your hat, what’s your hurry?”
Any way you serve it, it’s delicious.
Bring 6 cups of homemade chicken or turkey stock to a simmer. Season with salt. In the pot, simmer 4 diced potates and 4 diced carrots (cut in smaller dice than than the potatoes so that they cook at the same time, or add potatoes a little after the carrots have started to soften). Remove when they are soft and reserve. Pour the cooking liquid into a large bowl. Add 4 Tablespoons of butter to the pan and one diced onion. If you like herb, add a few sprigs of fresh sage or thyme or both. Cook until completely softened. Season with salt and pepper. Add enough flour to make a thick roux. Add salt to taste and cook until it no longer tastes like raw flour, and good enough to eat. Add the hot cooking liquid, a bit at a time, off the heat, until it is about the consistency of a thin mayonnaise, then turn the heat back on to medium and add the rest of the cooking liquid. When it is slightly thickened (whisk constantly) add shredded turkey meat, the potatoes, carrots and peas to taste. Have a casserole dish ready.
Make the biscuit dough: 2 cups of flour, 2 1/2 teaspoons of baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 2 teaspoons of sugar (mix together). Mix in with your fingertips: 6 Tablespoons of cold diced butter until the dough is nearly uniform sized lumps, and there is no more flour dust. Mix in about 2/3 cup of cold whole milk, just until it is like thick mud.
Be sure the turkey mixture is hot and pour it into the casserole dish. Drop bits of biscuit dough over the top to cover, and put immediately into a preheated 400 degree oven. When the biscuits are cooked through and slightly brown, the pot pie is done.
The thing is, you have to care about the potatoes. If you think, well, it’s just a potato, no one will know they were a bit soft and a bit looking like maybe they should be buried again once they come out of the oven, then they aren’t going to taste good.Â If you think, I’ll just roast them with this nasty smelling peanut oil that’s been sitting next to the stove for a few years that I might as well get rid of, then they still aren’t going to taste good.
Get out there and find a potato that looks like it was born yesterday. Cut a bunch of them up, and without any kind of waiting around, spread them on a sheet pan, season them with kosher salt, drizzle them with the best olive oil you have until each one is glistening, but not too much. You don’t want a pool of oil on the sheet underneath the potatoes. Put them into a 375 degree oven, even 400 degrees if your oven is a bit slow because you want them to be a bit caramelized on the bottom and around the edges by the time they are soft. Potatoes don’t like going in the fridge once they are cooked, so try to time them to come out either right before or up to a few hours before you are having dinner. As soon as they come out of the oven, taste for salt. When they are hot is when you have the opportunity to have the salt make a difference. You could throw a few sprigs of rosemary and a few whole cloves of garlic in with them before they get cooked, but you don’t have to. If the oil is good and the spuds are salted and you had some honest to goodness respect, even love for the potato before you got involved with it, then it’s going to give back to you.