Friday, October 24, 2008
While I am travelling around in China I won't be doing any cooking, and its hard to rant in Mandarin, so for the next blog or two The 3rs will be covering Reading, Relaxing & Restaurants. Normal service will resume when I get back to Blighty.
If anyone had told me that I would be absolutely absorbed by a book about playing cricket in America I would never have believed it as I am not very interested in sports of any kind. However Netherland by Joseph O'Neill hooked me from the first page. Netherland was on the Booker long list this year and I think it should have been short listed. The book is narrated by Hans van den Broek, a Dutchman who is an analyst with the Wall Street office of a British bank. His English wife Rachel is a solicitor and they live in trendy TriBeCa in downtown Manhattan with their baby son Jake. After the horrors of 9/11 the couple have to leave their appartment and move temporarily to the bohemian environment of the Chelsea Hotel. Rachel is very traumatised by the attacks on the World Trade Centre, and eventually return to what she perceives as the safety of London, taking Jake with her. Hans is left on his own. Being at a loose end at weekends, he starts playing cricket - a childhood passion of his; cricket in NY is played in the public parks of unfashionable suburban areas, and the players are the immigrants who have drifted to America from Britain's ex-colonies. West Indians, Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans all come together to play, eat and socialize. Hans is one of the very few white players. Through playing cricket he meets Chuck Ramkissoon, a street-wise Trinidadian with the gift of the gab, who fancies himself as an entrepreneur - one of his most successful ventures being a Kosher Sushi bar - who runs an old fashioned (and illegal) gambling game called 'weh weh' on the side. Chuck has big plans, he dreams of building a state-of-the-art cricket ground in NY, he tells Hans that cricket was played in the USA long before baseball,
"I'm saying that people, all people, Americans, whoever, are at their most civilised when they're playing cricket. What's the first thing that happens when Pakistan and India make peace? They play a cricket match. Cricket is instructive, Hans. It has a moral angle. I really believe this. Everybody who plays the game benefits from it . So I say, why not Americans?"
Hans is very much a bystander, observing the city in which he is living, but not really engaged with it. His marriage is breaking down and he seems to be accepting it with detatched passivity. On the pretext of giving him driving practice so that he can get a US license, Chuck gets Hans to drive him all over the suburbs, stopping frequently for Chuck to conduct mysterious transactions. Eventually it dawns on Hans that he is being used in some way, and that Chuck's business is shady to say the least. Finally Hans decides to return to London and try to resurrect his marriage, and it is there, some years later that he gets a call to say that Chuck's body has been found rotting in a canal where it had been for a year or so. This triggers memories of their short friendship, Hans's time in NY, and also of his childhood in Holland. Joseph O'Neill is a wonderful writer, and the descriptions are so precise, so evocative that the city of New York comes alive to the reader, and in Chuck Ramkissoon he has created a character in the mould of Gatsby, or even of Babbitt. This book is destined to be a classic I am sure.
Do read Netherland, even if, like me, you don't have any interest in cricket!
One of the most fabulous, sociable and inexpensive things you can do when in China is have a foot massage.
It is SO relaxing and afterwards you feel as though you are walking on air. Before dinner last night the DH, BJBF and I went off to one of the best places for this (Lianzgzi has 400 salons all over China, employing over 20,000 trained staff) and after being shown into one of their many, very luxurious, foot massage rooms we were ensconced side by side in huge electrically adjustable arm chairs. Drinks orders were taken, the enormous plasma screen TV/DVD player was switched on, and a bevy of uniformed assistants arrived with special wooden buckets of hot water full of herbs into which our tired feet were plunged. There they soaked for five minutes whilst our three masseurs rubbed every part of them. Then they were removed, spritzed with more herbal liquids and gently pummelled before going back into the warm water. Stage three was when they were removed from the water dried and oiled before the massage proper began. Whilst one foot was being done, the other was wrapped in a warm damp towel.
By now the DH had sunk into a torpor, and eventually a gentle snore or two could be heard coming from the depths of his chair, which he had adjusted to practically horizontal! BJBF and I were chatting away 19 to the dozen, catching up on all the news since we last met up...we discussed the Chinese milk scandal, our children, the Beijing Olympics and what Londoners really felt about the British 8 minute handover section of the closing ceremony, Madonna's divorce, the new vehicle restrictions in Beijing - how were they working?
Every so often a waiter would come in with refills of green tea, and in this way nearly two hours passed in a flash.
My only moment of disquiet was when the young man , who was massaging my right foot at the time, said sternly (BFBJ translated for me) that my "points" were blocked, the Chi was not moving properly - he felt I wasn't getting enough sleep or drinking enough water, my body was too "hot", I must be sure to eat "cooling" foods.
By the time we were all done, my calves had been beaten into submission, every toe was tingling with new life and vigour and I practically skipped out of the salon like a spring lamb.
I'm thinking of writing to the big boss of Liangzi to suggest he opens a branch in London - I'd be their first customer.
In the five days we have been in Beijing we have had the most amazing dining experiences, all different, but I thought I'd kick off with the only time the DH and I have snatched a meal together on our own. On our first full day here we rushed off to the Yashou Clothing Market in Sanlitun to order a new suit for the DH. An excellent tailors shop he has used in the past is based there. After being measured up we had 40 minutes to grab a quick lunch before the next round of meetings. Right behind the market there is a great little place which serves Shanghai dumplings, xiaolongbao - I know, it seems crazy to eat Shanghai dumplings in Beijing, but we both love them so what the hell. Xiaolongbao are quite different from Beijing jiaozi; they are round, always steamed, and contain a stuffing of minced pork plus another ingredient, usually some form of seafood. We ordered a round of pork+ shrimp, and a round of pork + crab. The kitchen is open so you can watch your dumplings being made, unless you prefer to watch the huge TV screen on the wall, which seems to be permenantly tuned to some kind of crazy physical game show rather like a Chinese version of 'It's A Knockout'. All the locals were engrossed, loudly egging on the contestants and sighing with sympathy when they were eliminated. When our dumplings arrived at the table, stacked in the ubiquitous bamboo steamers, they required careful chopstick technique, as in addition to the stuffing, each dumpling contains some meaty broth which is extremely hot. The correct method is to pick one up, bite away a small amount of the outer dumpling, suck out the broth with a loud slurp, and then dip the rest into the dish of vinegar and slivered ginger before eating it. For those who like a bit of spice there is a pot of chilli sauce which can be mixed with the vinegar. Each steamer contained 8 dumplings, and together with three beers the meal cost the grand sum of 39RMB which is about £3.25p.
Cheap, filling and delicious, this is what fast food should be about.
Monday, October 13, 2008
neglected, apologies all round.
In a couple of days time I'm off to China for a fortnight, but hope to blog from there as I am taking my latest toy, a small but perfectly formed notebook made by Dell.
Ruth Rendell is one of Britain’s most prolific and popular authors, in the four decades since I read her first book she has published a further 57 titles, 45 under her own name (21 of which feature her detective creation Wexford and the fictious town of Kingsmarkham), and 13 under her pseudonym Barbara Vine. (to learn more about Ruth Rendell, click here.)
I hadn’t read anything by her for a year or two and decided it was more than time to pick up one of her recent books. In 2006 she published The Water’s Lovely as Ruth Rendell, When she writes as Vine the novels are often multilayered, darker and explore the impact that chance or coincidence has on her characters.
Ismay and Heather are sisters who share a flat in what was once the family house; their elderly mother Beatrice, who has dementia, lives in the flat above them cared for by her sister Patricia. Thirteen years previously, when Ismay and Heather were in their early teens, their stepfather Guy was found drowned in his bath.
Ismay has always thought that Heather drowned him in order to protect her from Guy’s sexual attentions, and has worried whether she should have been complict with her mother in covering her sister’s crime.
Now both young women are working and in serious relationships, but the past continues to cast a long shadow, and threatens their lives.
As always Ruth Rendell has created some memorable characters, and in this book are three of the most compellingly selfish people you could imagine. Andrew, Ismay’s boyfriend, is a truly nasty piece of work. He treats Ismay with contempt and reduces her to abject misery. Heather’s fiancée Edmund has a mother, Irene, who is the most hysterical hypochondriac, using her imagined illnesses to try and control Edmund. Marion Melville, one of Irene’s friends, is a character worthy of Dickens. A manipulator par excellence, she visits several elderly people for entirely selfish reasons and it is through her unwittingly amoral behaviour that Guy’s death comes back to haunt the sisters.
Rendell excels at the psychological crime novel and this is no exception, though I did think it was much more in the style of Barbara Vine, and I am surprised she published it under that name.
There are times when I begin to wonder what country I am living in, and now is one of those times….am I living in Britain, or East Germany before the collapse of the Berlin Wall ? We are being turned slowly but surely in to a nation that spies on one another, reports one another (sometimes anonymously) to the “authorities” for perceived minor infractions of civil or criminal law.
You may wonder why I am getting all hot under the collar about this today, read on and you may become hot under the collar too.
Lincoln City Council has decided that all council employed plumbers and electricians are to be given training in spotting child abuse, so that when they are in someone’s home to fix a wonky pipe or re-wire an electrical circuit they can spy on the family and report back to Social Services if they think that children may have been abused.
Child abuse is a horrible thing, it harms children and their families. The term is wide ranging, and includes neglect, emotional, physical and sexual abuse. It is by its very nature hidden, and difficult to spot even for experts. Just having an accusation of child abuse made, rightly or wrongly, can tear a family apart and do lasting damage which may echo down the generations.
I say this as one who, after 20+ years in the Family Courts, dealt with more cases of child abuse than I care to remember.
To expect handymen (or women) to be able to diagnose children as abused or in danger of abuse after a week or two’s training, when they are busy working on the job of plumbing or wiring is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard of.
No it’s worse than that, it is very dangerous and just plain wrong. What on earth do Lincoln Council think they are doing?
The chance of false allegations will be very high; and if a plumber unblocks a sink in Family A’s kitchen and doesn’t report anything, does that mean that all is ticketty-boo and the kids are fine? Does it hell, it means absolutely nothing.
There used to be a good old English phrase “Mind your own business” and the business of plumbers is plumbing, not spying for social services.
I hope that the people of
Adjusting to a new kitchen takes time - in the first place you have to remember where you have put everything as you unpacked box after box, and then the regular way you move between sink, stove/oven, fridge etc seems awkward and unfamiliar.
Waiting for the plumber to come and sort out the boiler a few days ago, meant a working lunch had to be re-scheduled from a restaurant to being here in the new house, and the menu was dependent on what I had available. -Some frozen Canadian scallops (which are a really useful thing to have in the freezer, they should not be defrosted before cooking and taste delicious), a packet of Puy lentils, and a small Savoy cabbage provided the basis for a really tasty main course which I will be making again.
Puy lentils are the only lentils which have an A.O.C. (Appellation d'Origine Controlée ), they are small, grey-brown in colour and do not require pre-soaking.
SCALLOPS WITH LENTILS & CABBAGEServes 4
400g frozen Canadian scallops
250g Puy lentils
1 onion, finely chopped
200g bacon lardons
2 teaspoons lemon juice
Salt and pepper
1 heaped tablespoon finely chopped flat leaf parsley
2 teaspoons soy sauce
Place the lentils in a saucepan and cover with about ½ litre of boiling water, cook for about 20 minutes until the lentils are soft. Drain and set aside.
In a frying pan sauté the lardons until beginning to brown slightly then add the chopped onion and continue cooking, stirring regularly, until the onion is translucent, add the drained lentils and mix together; add the lemon juice and season to taste. Set aside.
The lentils can be prepared to this stage well in advance, even the day before, and then re-heated in a pan or microwave prior to serving.
Heat a splash of olive oil in a shallow pan, and when very hot add the shredded cabbage, stir-fry for a few moments before adding enough water to moisten it, keep cooking for a minute or two until the cabbage is softened but still has a little bite to it. Stir in the soy sauce and the chopped parsley. Set aside but keep warm.
Heat a frying pan until very hot, add a splash of olive oil and then the frozen scallops. Cook for 6-7 minutes each side until soft, cooked through and golden brown.
Place a ring of the cooked cabbage on each plate, and heap some of the lentils in the centre. Carefully place about 5-6 scallops on top of the lentils and serve immediately with crusty bread.