Thursday, September 27, 2007

Norfolk Mussels and Salads

Wednesday, September 26

An event we'd long anticipated: Helen, Laurie and Elizabeth's friend, was coming in to stay at the house. We didn't know if she'd feel like company, so Holt cleverly chose to buy three pounds of mussels, a dinner that could be divided into any number of portions, from our friend the Angel fishmonger.

Luckily, Helen did feel like joining in the feast, so she sliced tomatoes (to be served with fresh basil, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar) while Barbara washed a bed of rocket, scattered it with chunks of avocado, and dressed it with lemon juice and oil. Holt had the hardest job: he debearded the mussels and washed off their scum and dirt. Only one was heavy, probably full of sand, so he discarded it. Then he sautéed five cloves of chopped garlic in butter and olive oil in a deep pot, threw in the mussels plus a healthy glug of wine, and clapped the lid on so that the whole thing steamed merrily. When the mussel shells opened wide and released their juices, he stirred in some chopped parsley, and it was done.

Everybody got a big bowl of mussels, with the garlic spooned on top and the broth poured through a sieve over it, accompanied by brown bread, butter, white wine, and a communal bowl for tossing shells in the center. After the mussels came the salads, which cleansed the palate nicely. Quick to gather and prepare, adaptable in size, and (this is the part we like) very tasty.

Penne with Tomatoes and Basil

Tuesday September 25

After such a nice weekend, it was a hard slog back from Oxford - only an hour on the train, true, but we had not been able to resist buying a few books at Blackwell's, and they seem heavier when you schlep them along with other baggage. Not to mention delays on the Circle Line, a long walk to the Hammersmith Line, and general tiredness resulting from too much tourism and a late arrival.

So it was nice to get back to Islington and know that we could prepare a simple meal from ingredients we had in the house, to wit: we boiled up some penne, sautéed a half an onion in a pan, added a can of chopped tomatoes, let it simmer down, and at the last minute threw in some torn-up fresh basil leaves from the plant on the kitchen windowsill. Stirred in the penne, and served. Nothing more (but some red wine) was needed.

The Bayleaf, Eynsham

Monday September 24

Almost as traditional as the Great English Pub is the Great Indian Takeaway, especially now that some poll has found Chicken Tikka Masala to be Britain's favorite dish. So after a weekend of non-stop pubbing, it was a nice change to take Priscilla's fold-up-rolly-cart and roll over to the local Bangladeshi restaurant, the Bayleaf, which filled it with delectable things in tinfoil dishes in under twenty minutes.

There were some things that were familiar - tandoori, vindaloo, korma, biryani - and others less so. We went for the unfamiliar: prawn pathia, with coconut flour in a sweet-sour red sauce; lamb dhansak, with lentils (which disappeared into a creamy gravy), garlic, and fenugreek; and chicken sag, with spinach, onion, and garlic. We rounded it out with several vegetable dishes: aloo gobi (potato and cauliflower), mattar panir (peas with cheese), and of course, raita, naan, and rice pilau.

We had planned to watch the horrible Alexander the Great movie, but ended up playing with Google Earth and helping Sofia with her homework. A nice family evening, on the whole.

Talland Open Day, and Carluccio's, Oxford

Sunday September 23

Both John and Sofia take riding lessons at the Talland School in the Cotswolds, so on Sunday they (and we) couldn't miss the school's Open Day. Thus a pair of nearsighted American academics mixed with a set sometimes known as the Doggy, Doggy, Few, and observed more mane-plaited horses, dogs, landrovers, pearls worn with quilted jackets and wellington boots, and "end the hunting ban" stickers than we have ever seen before.

Somewhere between the "grand prix ride to music" and the "staff pony gymkhana" we trooped out to our own (more archaeological) landrover for an appropriately tony lunch provided by John, with the help of the local hypermarket: champagne; smoked salmon on baguette slices with boursin; roast beef and chicken with chorizo sandwiches; and all the crisps, dips, and snacks that one could want. Okay, so we missed the falconry display, but who cares?

Once again, we weren't terrifically hungry that evening, but we enjoyed going out with John's mother Daisy to a restaurant in the Oxford Castle, an eighteenth-century prison that has now been converted into a hotel - no really, I'm not kidding. The restaurant, Carluccio's, was part of a chain and nothing to write home about - the steak was tough and badly trimmed, the lasagne just okay - and such small portions! But we managed to wrestle down an orange panna cotta for dessert.

Pub Food Galore

Saturday 22 September

Today John, Priscilla, and Sofia took us on a folly-hunting excursion in the countryside around Henley on Thames. When you drive through village after village, each quainter, more cottaged, thatched, and rose-covered than the other, you find yourself in need of solid sustenance, preferably featuring refreshing malt beverages. Which is why the British pub is such a stalwart institution, and we supported it utterly today.

So after being astounded at the Maharajah's Well at Stoke Row - which looks just like you'd imagine it would look - we could only drive a short distance before stopping at the Cherry Tree to renew our equilibrium. Luckily (and thanks to extensive pre-visit research by John, who has surveyed most of this terrain both for its archaeology and its native beverages) the Cherry Tree has excellent food and drink. A pint of Hobgoblin Ale went very well with a cassoulet of white beans with confit duck leg, streaky bacon and ham, and pork and leek sausage. And their plate of wild boar sausage, served on a bed of red cabbage with smoky bacon, was wild and savory and bore (get it?) no relation to the flavorless English banger.

So refreshed, we proceeded on to Henley itself, which managed to combine the picturesque with the baronial yet still remain quaint - how do the English do that? Priscilla took us on a cruise up the river, where we collected yet another folly, the Temple on the appropriately-named Temple Island.

After this exhausting two-folly day, we could only stagger out to another pub for dinner. This time it was the White Hart in Wytham (as distinct from the White Hart in Fyfield, the White Hart in Dorchester, and a million other White Harts, not to mention Arthur C. Clarke's; apparently this was the badge of Richard II, who was popular among pub-keepers, if among no one else). Despite the continuity of confit from lunch to dinner, we couldn't turn down the confit of leg of hare, with rare slices of roast hare loin on a bed of herbed mashed potatoes. Though sea bass was again on offer, we chose the chunk of monkfish instead, which came with flavorful potatoes and green olives. Not bad at all, though the Cherry Tree was a hard act to follow.

The Star, Eynsham

Friday 21 September

Our friends Priscilla, John, and Sofia live in the village of Eynsham outside Oxford. It has several claims to being "quaint," including a thatched-roof house, a winding high street, and Morris dancing at Christmastime. It also has several pubs, and one, the Star, has upgraded recently to claims of gastro-pubdom. It's always good to encourage local businesses, equally good to walk to a place where you're going to have a drink - and far better to walk back from where you've had one. So Star was our destination of choice on the night of arrival.

We had had a late lunch at the Oxford Retreat that afternoon, so we proceeded directly to main courses (accompanied, of course, by local ales and bitters). One was three pretty good lambchops on a bed of roasted courgettes and aubergines. The other was a nice crispy-skinned sea bass (the fish of choice, as we saw it in many of the better pubs in these parts) served on a bed of kale, and napped in a (rather bland) sweet red pepper sauce. It was all perfectly fine, and Star should have a good career in front of it.

Salmon Steaks with Mushrooms and Tomatoes

Thursday 20 September

It was Andi's last dinner in London, and we wanted to have something special. Holt went out to our friend at Angel Fisheries and got three beautiful Scottish salmon steaks, along with fresh white mushrooms and vine tomatoes from the Chapel Market.

Once Andi and Barbara got back from Tate Britain (via Topshop), we toasted our visit with a nice prosecco, while the salmon was simply sautéed in one pan and the mushrooms with the tomatoes in the other. The pairing was excellent, and the evening memorable.


Wednesday 19 September

Andi was taking us out to Spamalot, and also to one of our favorite London restaurants, Fino. As we've said before, London is addicted to tapas, and this is one of its best and purest examples of the genre - so much so that its proprietors, Sam and Eddie Hart, have put out a cookbook for it entitled Modern Spanish Cooking, and we have actually bought it.

Fino is a very elegant and quiet restaurant, just off Charlotte Street. The service is attentive but not snotty, and it's very fashionable without being too tense about it. We started with a bottle of white Rioja wine, and some olives, pimentos de padron, and pan con tomate, while we waited for Andi (who had unfortunately missed her way while heading out of the National Gallery). When she arrived and got to relax with a glass of wine, we broadened our range with plates of crisp fried squid and pulpo a la gallega - we adore Fino's way of making tender octopus with a sprinkling of Spanish smoked paprika, pimenton de la Vera. We then went on to have clams with sherry and ham (which was a touch too salty), milk-fed lamb cutlets (perfectly simple, not messing with great ingredients), and a dish of chickpeas, chorizo, and spinach - peasant food, really, and just great because of it.

Finally, another dish of pulpo for dessert, because we cannot say "enough" to Fino's octopus. If you want to know their secret, they buy frozen octopus from Galicia, choosing the ones with parallel rows of suckers along their tentacles, which are supposed to be tenderer. They cook the whole thawed octopus in salt water with a bay leaf and a clove-studded onion for 45 minutes until tender but firm enough to resist when prodded with a skewer (what octopus wouldn't?). Then they slice up the tentacles into quarter-inch thick rounds and cook them slowly in good heated olive oil for about five minutes. They're served in some of their oil, with some paprika and parsley over them, and believe me, they couldn't be better. We'll be trying this at home.

And yes, Spamalot was great - though spam isn't.

Rasa Samudra

Tuesday September 18

Another day of discovery, this time in the basements of the British Museum, and we emerged dusty but enthusiastic. We picked up Andi at the Trade Union Congress and walked to an Indian restaurant we had discovered on a visit a couple of years ago, Rasa Samudra on Charlotte Street. It serves the cuisine of Kerala, which is on the coast and famous for its fish. So along with three enormous Cobra beers, we shared:

Starters (the only false touch was that they were all served with the same chopped-iceberg salad on the side):

Meen Porichathu: kingfish seasoned with ginger, chile, and coriander and pan-fried; a bit dry.

Crab thoran: a light, fluffy cake of ginger and mustard seed-seasoned crab with coconut on top.

Mysore Bonda: potato balls with ginger, curry leaves, coriander and cashews, rolled in chickpea flour and fried, served with a coconut chutney.

Main courses:

Konju Manga Curry: "king" prawns (well, actually, just normal-size shrimp) and green mangos with onions, green chiles, and turmeric. Very light and lemony sauce, so served with white rice.

Kappayum Meenumi: Kingfish (why is everything "king"-something?) with onions, chiles, ginger and turmeric on top of potato-y cassava steamed in turmeric water. Spicier than the other.

Beet Cheera Pachadi: beets and spinach with yogurt, roasted coconut, mustard seeds, and curry leaves, usually served at wedding feasts, probably because it's sweet and has an auspicious dark pink color. In fact, this restaurant is all painted in various shades of pink, a color so omnipresent that it's been called the navy blue of India.

And one dessert with three spoons:
Another auspicious sweet dish, hot rice cream with cashews and cardamum.

Cheshire Cheese Frittata and Salad

Monday September 17

After all the heavy meals, something light: a frittata made with chopped courgettes, onions, topped with grated parmesan and crumbled (and still labeled) Cheshire cheese. There was also a salad of our previously-roasted beets, tomatoes, more sliced courgettes, red onion, a package of rocket, and a head of round lettuce.

British Chicken Stew

Sunday September 16

A slightly less exhausting day, except for our eyes, which got dazzled while touring Spencer House. Joel had had to leave that morning, so only the three of us left to dine on the leftover British chicken.

To prepare it, we sautéed 5 slender chopped leeks with a few rashers of bacon from last week's greenmarket. We then put in chopped-up fingerling potatoes and carrots, and a bit of water to steam them; when they got more tender, we also threw in the chopped-up parsnips and carrots that hadn't been tender enough in the initial roasting of the chicken. Finally, we added all the chopped-up chicken, its juices, and a container of double cream, and let it thicken.

This ended up like a sophisticated but homey version of chicken-à-la-King, which was one of Barbara's favorite childhood foods.

Spiga in Soho

Saturday September 15

We had a perfect, sunny Saturday to take a cruise down the Thames to Greenwich and see the Observatory and the National Maritime Museum.

Got back to Westminster by 6 PM, but the crowds were out for the Thames River Festival, and everything was mobbed. We ended up wandering around Soho looking for a decent restaurant; this one was recommended by our Eyewitness guidebook, and also had the key features of both smelling and looking pretty good (also, there were people in it who looked like they were not trapped).

For starters, we had nicely pan-fried sea scallops (complete with roe) on a bed of chopped asparagus and pears in a mustard sauce; and thin-sliced salmon made into a kind of Italian seviche with balsamic vinegar, in mixed greens. Our main courses were tortelloni (with a bit of pan-fry on them, as if they were pot-stickers) stuffed with buffalo ricotta, napped with a sort of pesto of asparagus seasoned with parmesan and marjoram, and topped with a basil leaf; and amazing giant prawns wrapped in shrouds of fried shoestring potatoes (though as their heads and shells were still on, you had to take the potatoes off to shell the prawns) served with absolutely delicious turnips - I think they were poached in chicken bouillion with a touch of honey and pepper.

We had started out haplessly, but ended up fully satisfied.

The Great British Chicken

Friday September 14

An even more active day: Tate Modern in the morning, lunch at the Globe Theater Restaurant (now much more daringly composed and cooked than before), then Love's Labour's Lost, and finally the grand finale: listening to Alvin Curran's "Maritime Rites" blasted from a barge on the Thames, cacaphonied back by a gaggle of miscellaneous musicians on the Millennium Bridge, and ended with a polite peal of bells from St. Paul's Cathedral - all helped along with a bottle of red wine in the Globe bar.

We returned home to a homely meal: a big British chicken (cheapest that Sainsbury's offers, because they come in irregular sizes) roasted in our usual manner, with rosemary sprigs under its skin and a lemon up its butt; and roasted carrots, parsnips, and beets, which came out a bit underdone despite over an hour and a half in the oven, who knows why.

Salad and Cheeses

Thursday September 13

After a long day spent trotting between the Queen's Gallery (she owns more Italian paintings than the Italians) and a fascinating tour of the Household Cavalry Museum by our friend John, the director, not to mention a heavy pub lunch at the Albert somewhere in between, we only wanted something light for dinner. That turned out to be a salad of butter lettuce, rocket, courgettes, and tomatoes. We were also experimenting with local cheeses, so we laid out brown bread with Wensleydale, Cheshire, Double Gloucester, Cheddar, and of course (via Chunnel) Roquefort and Brie. Most of us preferred Double Gloucester, and found the Cheshire indistinguishable from the Wensleydale. Barbara had to inscribe their names on the side of each cheese in order to tell them apart from one another, and then we had to be extra careful not to slice off their names as we snacked.

Boeuf en Daube Provençal

Wednesday September 12

We wanted a nice warm stew because Andi and Joel were coming in from New York, and after their flight and resultant jet lag, we didn't know when they'd be ready for dinner.

In fact, we started dinner the day before, by cutting the icky fat off a Sainsbury's "Sunday roast," cubing the beef and browning it with onions and carrots in a Dutch oven. We added a lot of Oddbins' cheapest red wine, garlic, thyme sprigs, and some orange (all right, satsuma, that is, tangerine) peel, and let it simmer for a couple of hours while we dined and watched TV.

The next day, we threw in some fingerling potatoes and pitted black niçoise/Moroccan olives, and let it go until the potatoes were tender. Once Andi and Joel were conscious and hungry, we toasted their arrival with some Tasmanian sparkling wine, snacking on sliced carrots and courgettes with the usual trio of hummus/tzatziki/taramasalata, while the stew simmered in the oven. We then ate it with red wine, and finished off the pear/chocolate chip tarts afterwards.

Pork in Braised Fennel

Tuesday September 11

Another theater day, this time a matinee of Holding Fire! (sic) at the Globe. Tom and Maria called us from the airport to say goodbye, as we drank their health and warmed the last of the pork leg in some braised fennel with salt, pepper, and parmesan cheese.

Cold Pork and Salad

Monday September 10

An early and simple dinner, as we were all heading out to the Barbican to see the Theatre Complicite's intriguing production of A Disappearing Number (love, India, and number theory). We find the best solution to an eight o' clock curtain time to be a light dinner before, and a good dessert after.

Also, today was Maria and Tom's 41st anniversary. So we started out with some French champagne, then cold roast pork with the remains of Elizabeth's apple and damson compote, and a rocket salad with cucumber and tomato.

When we got back from the theater, there was of course more champagne (New Zealand this time) and two nice tarts (no really) that Maria and Tom brought in earlier from Carluccio's: pear and chocolate-chip. Great dinner, great theater (or theatre), great ending.

Farmer's Market Feast: Partridges and Wild Rocket Salad

Sunday September 9

On a sunny Sunday morning, the four of us wheeled Elizabeth's rolly-basket up Upper street to the Islington farmer's market. It is located in the yard of a local school, and features wonderful organic and locally grown produce, meats, baked goods, juices, and snacks, very professionally presented. Each of us headed off in a different direction to round up some contribution to the night's dinner, and we ended up with four partridges, the streaky bacon to bard them with, a heap of wild rocket, aranca tomatoes, a head of butter lettuce (not to mention leeks, fennel, raspberries, strawberries, Spartan apples, courgettes, beets with greens, home-churned unsalted butter, olive bread, and pound cake).

Said partridges got a pat of butter and some sprigs of thyme put into their little insides, were barded with rashers of streaky bacon from happy pigs, and were cooked according to Jane Grigson's (and the seller's) directions: gas marks 7 for 10 minutes, then 5 for an additional 20 minutes. The seller had warned us that one bird took 20 minutes but more took more. The birds came out perfectly: moist, juicy, and as tender as game birds could be expected to be, a bit more gamy and livery around their insides.

They were accompanied by a salad of lettuce, rocket, sliced courgettes, and tomatoes, with basil and balsamic vinaigrette.

And finally, another elegant dessert courtesy of Maria and Tom: Godiva chocolates, orange/almond cake, and Maria's own hand-whipped cream, with fresh-from-the-greenmarket raspberries and strawberries.

Leg of Pork with Apple, Sage, and Onion Stuffing

Saturday 8 September

Generally we try to eat lightly at midday, not just in order to concentrate on dinner, but also because we don't want to end up as overweight, groaning (and impoverished) walruses. But today we went to see the Wallace Collection, and their restaurant in the central courtyard looked so good, with nice plump red cushions on the chairs, that we couldn't pass it up. And we were right: the crisped fillet of seabass with asparagus reposed happily on a bed of spicy persillade, and that on top of "beefheart" tomatoes; and there was a savory stew of goat with coco beans (no, not chocolate - big meaty beige beans, as in "Giant white coco beans" at, also featuring lots of fresh thyme and tiny scallions.

Dinner was merely prepared by humble us, but we aimed at something similarly artistic. We had obtained a huge deboned Dutch pork leg at Sainsbury's, but were suspicious of the "crackling" on it, which looked like epidermis and was uncuttable with any knife in the house. So we cut it off, and there was plenty of fat underneath to keep the roast moist. Since it was now unrolled, we sautéed a chopped apple, half an onion, and sage leaves, spread it inside the boned leg, and re-rolled and tied it up. A brief spell under gas mark 7 brown it, then we put it down to 5 to roast for an hour and a half. The rolled, stuffed pork leg was accompanied by another sauté of sliced apples and onions with more sage, and though it hadn't taken as much preparation as lunch at the Wallace collection, it tasted equally good.

Afterwards, all four of us watched the last night of the Proms and ate some beautiful strawberry tarts that Maria and Tom had got at Selfridge's - amazed at how they layered first chocolate custard, then vanilla custard, in the tart shells.

Lemon Sole and Bobby Beans

Friday 7 September

Elizabeth's friends Maria and Tom from Perth, Australia came here as the last European stop on their seven-week tour. As we knew they hadn't had a home-cooked meal during the whole trip, we decided that we would remedy the situation.

We started with appetizers of carrot and courgette sticks, oatcakes, and tzaziki, taramasalata, and hummus dips.

Luckily, the Chapel Market fishmonger ("Angel Fisheries") had returned from Spain today, and had lemon soles at half the price of anything in Sainsbury's - so about the same price you could get them for in America, if you could get them, which you can't. We grilled two soles whole, while making a beurre noisette with capers. The soles were very large, so they overlapped. That meant that after the first filleting (smartly done by Maria), we had to return the lower parts of the soles for a second quick grilling.

As a side dish, we steamed "bobby" (green) beans (also from Chapel Market) and served them topped with a good knob of butter (hence the expression, "Yours with knobs on").

Maria and Tom brought wine and lovely cheese, so we finished the meal with a nice bit of Brie.

Penne with Poussin Pieces, Courgettes, and Cream

Thursday 6 September

We had an amazing day of research at the British Museum, and got home rather late, so we didn't spend much time or thought on dinner. That means pasta. We simply got the meat off the leftover poussin legs; cut up a couple of courgettes (zucchini) into batons and sautéed them a bit in olive oil; added some whipping cream (which was a bit thin; next time we'll get double cream) and a heap of grated parmesan; and tossed some hot penne into the pan of sauce. Even with salt and pepper, it was rather bland, so next time, we'll put chopped garlic in along with the courgettes.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Poussins with Mushrooms

Wednesday 5 September

After our arduous travels, we decided to be home-birds today, so we went out to acquire a couple of home birds. We are still trying to get acclimated to London prices, and a wander through Sainsbury's poultry department ("Chickens cost WHAT?!") convinced us that, rather than pay through the beak for an ordinary bird, we should buy a couple of tiny fresh poussins on sale - after all, you can't get that kind of thing in the States, even for the $3.50 a pound they were going to cost. A further stroll through the Chapel Street Market brought us beautiful white mushrooms, so our meal was set.

Holt looked up poussin tips on the web, but before he could make notes on cooking times and levels, Elizabeth's wi-fi went on the blink (are the geeks perhaps on strike?). So since poussin is basically small chicken, we decided to put rosemary butter under its skin and a (small, halved) lemon up its butt, as we usually would. Then we had to guess what the gas-cooker was going to do, and as it was only regulated in Gas Marks, not in temperatures (there'll always be an England), Holt had to cross his fingers, start the oven at Gas Mark 7, then drop it to 5 after the little chickens browned. In the meantime, Barbara sliced mushrooms and gathered thyme from the garden. Once the chicken was out (about 45 minutes, with one interval to cut down between the legs and the breast and let the legs cook faster), we let it rest while we sautéed the mushrooms in oil and butter, with a final sprinkle of thyme and droozle of juices from the chicken pan.

So it turned out all right. The tiny chickens looked superb surrounded by mushrooms on the plate, and tasted even better, especially when their interior-baked lemon was removed and squeezed over their herby, crispy skin.

Sainsbury's Pasta with Roasted Tomatoes

Tuesday 4 September

Ominous news as we packed for the train from Newcastle back to London: only three lines of the Underground were working, the rest were on strike. This blast from the past of Old Labour (where they gave you a blink 15 minutes before they turned the electricity off, so you could put on a last kettle for tea) was going to complicate our journey, and perhaps delay our dinner. So just before leaving we had a biggish pub lunch at Fitzgerald's on Grey Street - the food nothing to write about, but the Newcastle cask ales (Landlord's Ale in particular) were fine.

As it happened, we stepped out of King's Cross Station and caught a 30 bus immediately; though traffic was snarled, we got home in excellent time, all things considered. Still, we stuck to simplicity in preparing dinner, and raided Elizabeth's freezer for some Sainsbury's frozen tortellini stuffed with ham and parmesan cheese. Just tossed them with a few of those ever-popular roasted tomatoes in oil, sautéd some garlic, poured some white wine, and that was that.

El Coto, Newcastle

Monday September 3

How often do you have a chance to go out to dinner with forty scholars of ancient medicine? And why would you want to? No, they are perfectly nice people, and as the crowning social event of the New Approaches to Ancient Medicine Conference, they all went out to dinner at El Coto, a Spanish restaurant in Newcastle.

As mentioned below, the Brits are currently infatuated with tapas, and when you have to feed two big tables of people of all types, sensibilities, and nationalities, it's not a bad idea to put down a lot of small plates and let them graze on what they like. So we started with cheese, olives, and jamon serrano, went on to salads with tuna and plates of fresh anchovies with tomato, then chicken in sauce, little sausages, lamb meatballs, and excellent fried calamari, fried potatoes, and several things that neither of us can remember. There was red and white wine on the table, of course, though a couple of the Brits went for beer. And at the end, some even went for desserts - I remember a forkful of cheesecake myself. It was all good honest stuff, so we honestly stuffed.

Marco Polo, Newcastle

Sunday 2 September

Holt was attending an Ancient Medicine conference in Newcastle, a place that neither of us has ever visited or thought of visiting. But once there, we were charmed. The people were friendly and helpful (true Geordie hospitality), there were bits and bobs of Hadrian's wall everywhere (including Segedunum, now "Wallsend"), and of course, there's the local brown ale. The "new" in Newcastle means the late twelfth century, but there's also a Y2K pedestrian bridge, like an enormous cheese slicer, that tips over to be out of the way of traffic on the Tyne twice a day. The center of town, around the columnar Monument to Earl Grey ("the tea guy") was neo-classicized in the nineteenth century, with broad streets and facades that reminded us of Milan. It was Grey Street we wandered down to find a restaurant for dinner.

We chose Marco Polo, an Italian place, because the menu had some little quirks that showed someone was actually in the kitchen cooking and tasting. We started with fresh mussels in a tomato broth, but with chorizo instead of the usual marinara. After that spicy starter, we went on to red wine and cool-weather dishes: a "saltimbocca" of monkfish in a red wine reduction, with capers, baked lemon, oven-dried tomatoes and the eternal rocket salad; and "stinco di agnello," a roasted (not, as usual, braised, but still very flavorful) lamb shank with potatoes and green beans. We didn't try the brownie with rhubarb ripple ice cream, but we still came away happy to have been there.

Trout and Tomato-Rocket Salad

Saturday 1 September

Today we went out to the Chapel Street market, which among its bustling stalls full of cheap luggage, gimcrack jewelry, plastic shoes, and other vital items, has a French cheese-seller (yes, both he and the cheeses are French), some vedge-stalls, and (usually) a fishmonger. But this week he either had no fish to mong, or more likely was on holiday. Since Holt's palate was set on fish, we ambled along to Sainsbury's fresh-fish counter and got a pair of nice little whole trout for only the price of a whole Chilean-sea bass at home.

We did the pink-fleshed trout very simply, slipping a sprig of fresh rosemary and thyme in each and pan-frying them; after they were browned on both sides, we threw in some chopped garlic and roasted tomatoes and covered the pan until they were done. On the side, a rocket salad (arugula, remember?) with tomatoes, sprinkled with crumbled gorgonzola cheese. Then we sat with the last of our New Zealand white wine and watched some piffle on BBC2. That's the best of home life in England.


Friday 31 August

We took Elizabeth out for her last night before leaving, as we knew too well what she'd be facing in terms of airline food. We chose a good little restaurant in Islington (one of Elizabeth's favourites) named Ottolenghi, where the seating is family-style and the (mainly Mediterranean) food is served like tapas. The Brits are currently in love with tapas, and lots of non-Spanish restaurants serve even the entrées as small plates. It reminds us of Sydney, Australia, which was similarly in love with yum-cha (what we would call dim-sum) where our friends Tom and Lea once took us out for "Greek yum-cha" (what Greeks would call mezes).

For our first course we chose cold stuff "from the counter," so we could eat that while our hot "from the kitchen" courses were prepared. There were three cold dishes: roast aubergine (eggplant) with saffron yogurt and a dusting of pistachio; fresh peaches with buffalo mozzarella, parma ham, rocket (arugula) and endive in a balsamic dressing; and an escabeche of cod with brunoise vegetables and pea shoots (soapy lees).

Light things looked most tempting that night, so we chose a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc (Morton Estate 2003) to go with them, and then with our next four hot dishes: panfried lemon sole with broccoli shoots and skordalia; seared tuna on a salade niçoise with black olive beurre blanc and a cute little quail egg; salt-and-pepper soft-shell crab with pickled vegetables, miso cucumber, and wasabi mayonnaise; and grilled scallops in a scallop shell with saffron potatoes, samphire (a type of seaweed), and aioli.

And finally, because with small plates you can get away with it, we went on to desserts: fresh figs in vin santo with mascarpone, and a lemon curd tartlet. Elegant, seasonal, and tasty. Everybody had some of everything (nicely, with no ugly fights) so we all shared a delightful evening.

Cheese Soufflé

Thursday 30 September

As well as giving us the run of her beautiful house, Elizabeth made us dinner tonight. We started with little snacks of olives, tzatziki, and crackers, along with champagne - Fortnum and Mason's, pronounced overtones of apples - as we watched her whip up a cheese soufflé, using a rotary hand eggbeater, which is no mean feat of stamina (she's done it in the middle of the Australian Outback, so Islington's a snap). The cooker - remember, we're using English terminology these days - hadn't been preheated, but she put the soufflé in with hope, and it justified her trust by coming out tall and fluffy. Accompaniments were red wine, steamed fingerling potatoes, and a tomato salad with fresh basil. Desserts were Elizabeth's own fruit compotes, in raspberry and apple. A wonderful home-cooked meal.

Brown's on the Green, Islington

Thursday 29 August

We were delighted to arrive in London and be greeted by our friend Elizabeth, for whom we would be housesitting in the coming weeks. Of course, as soon as the world economy had heard we were coming, the dollar tanked even deeper, and London prices skyrocketed to record levels of unreasonableness. But we didn't care - because when we stepped onto the plane the temperature and humidity were both in the upper 90s, but when we stepped off both were in the upper 50s. We had flown into autumn, and best of all, autumn ELSEWHERE.

Elizabeth pampered us with tea and biscuits, and we had a short post-travel snooze. So when we got up, we wanted something comforting that was nearby and wouldn't demand much effort or attention. She recommended Brown's on the Green not just for those sterling qualities, but for its deep soft chairs. Sold.

In fact, the food was pretty good. Holt ordered the day's special, "gigot," not a roast leg of lamb but a grilled slice of it, served with honeyed gravy, mashed potatoes, and green beans. Barbara had a strip steak with beurre maitre d'hotel, plus excellent chips (okay, French fries, but we're trying to be English here) and watercress. The meats were medium-rare as we wanted them, and with a bottle of Tempranillo and people-watching (some serious snogging) from a soft banquette, we had nothing more to ask.

Somewhere over the Atlantic

Wednesday 28 August

We used to prepare an appetizing carry-on whenever we had to eat on a plane, but since they outlawed liquids, pastes, dull knives, suspicious flasks, and anything else that might strike their obsessive minds, we gave up. Also, on trans-Atlantic flights, it's better to swallow what they give you (including as much alcohol as possible) and try to get some sleep. We flew Delta, so we knew the food would be abysmal. When asked "chicken or pasta?" Barbara said chicken and Holt said pasta, in hope that one of the two would be edible. Two mini-slices of chicken breast gave comfort in the fact that they were at least recognizable as parts of a former chicken. Two ravioli had more flavor, but imparted less confidence in the premise that they were actually food. The normal accompaniments - iceberg lettuce shreds like styrofoam, a roll ditto, pre-packaged dressing, crackers, cheese, and brownies - did not disappoint in their disappointingness.
The best we can say is that we arrived on time, and they only broke one piece of our luggage.

Sicilian Tuna with Spices

Tuesday 27 August
It was the day before we had to leave, so we were trying to use fresh things up while not leaving anything perishable open. The solution was to make this recipe with previously-frozen tuna steaks. The recipe is a mixture of the classic Florentine way of cooking pork roast (arista, barding it with garlic and herbs) and the classic Sicilian way of doing fish (agrodolce). The problem is tuna aint pig. We remain doubtful that sticking slivers of garlic and spices would work even for a large whole fillet (tuna overcooks so easily), but steaks were definitely too small and cooked too quickly, so the slivers remained raw and tasted too strong. The sauce was quite tasty, though, so next time we'll chop the garlic, grind up a few coriander seeds and cloves, and sauté them along with the sauce.