Coming Home.

This is what I remember.

My mother making paella — from where I stand on a stool at the sink I can see the wooden spoon she’s using is stained yellow from the saffron. I’m tearing the legs and shells off of the frozen shrimp she will cook and stir into the pot. My hands burn from their cold flesh but it is oddly pleasing work, and their multiple slender legs make a strange and faint zipping noise as I separate them from their frosty, firm abdomens. I reward myself for each tail I coerce intact from its flimsy gray armor, and don’t realize I’ve been given this task to keep me busy, and quiet.

Tomatoes from the garden gathered in a wooden basket and placed before me. I grasp at them clumsily before they are washed, diced and tossed with feta cheese, herbs and olive oil, and then scooped up with pita bread.

Pan de sal, palm-sized rounds of bread dusted with grainy cornmeal and spread with rapidly-melting butter, brought to me on a hand-painted plate by one of my grandmother’s maids, along with a cardboard box of mango juice. Fried baby cuttlefish the length of my index finger, but much thinner and consumed whole — bones, head, tail. After eating them with my cousins in Manila, I clamor for it, but my mother only cooks the little fish for me once, when my father is out of the house; he hates smell.

Leaves of lox and slabs of cream cheese bookended by bagels from H&H, so salty and thick behind the teeth that talking is impossible. Ful, chick peas and fava beans warmed on the stove and spooned into a bowl before getting mixed with mashed garlic, lemon juice, parsley and olive oil. Honey Nut Cheerios and Rice Crispies, crunched with as little milk as possible so the round O’s and puffed rice still snap with each bite. Eggs scrambled with the sujuk my father hangs inside a wooden frame lined with mesh; it looks like a rabbit hutch, but nothing has ever lived in it but sausages drying.

Dolma, stuffed with rice and ground beef, the leftover orange oily broth of which my mother ladles into a mug for me to drink after dinner. Hummos whirled in the food processor with more and more lemon, garlic and tahini added until my father is satisfied. It’s that or mutabbal, which I dislike. Boureg, sheets of phyllo layered with shredded cheese, parsley and red pepper, flaky on the first day and reinflated in the toaster oven on the next. Tray after tray of baklava and Lebanese pastries, and separating each crumbly tier with my tongue. I suck at its rose-scented sweetness with as much strength as I can before finally chewing.

Spaghetti with meat sauce, my Armenian grandmother’s recipe, full of glistening sautéed onions. I plaster it with so much Kraft Parmesan that it resembles the surface of the moon more than a plate of pasta and I don’t care that it feels grainy. More strands of spaghetti, Filipino-style, sweetened with sugar and ketchup and cooked with sliced hot dogs and Spam.

Baloney sandwiches on white bread or lunch rolls, carried to our table in the dining hall on brown plastic trays. I am scared of the meatloaf, which I have neither seen nor eaten before. Breyer’s Cookies and Cream, chunks chiseled off with spoons while sitting on commercial-grade dormitory carpet next to my roommate, who is eating maraschino cherries direct from the jar. Rum and Cokes, obscenely syrupy, sipped nervously from red Solo cups from the corners of parties.

Wilted triangles of pizza oozing neon drizzles of oil onto flimsy napkins. Pasta salad drenched in bottled Italian dressing and tossed with cubed cheese, tomatoes and olives. We pretend we made it all from scratch and finish the leftovers in front of the open fridge. Wonder Bread toast, blanketed with butter and Smucker’s while still warm, so that together they melt into the crunchy top. Corn fritters we fry on the battered stove and dip into a puddle of maple syrup, leaving sticky trails across the counter.

California rolls, the first sushi my best friend tries, and I convince her to place the entire circle in her mouth even though she’ll struggle to chew it. Char siu baau buns, startlingly tangy inside puffy dough, shared with my mother’s father in countless Chinese restaurants and Chinatowns around the world; I carry this memory with me like a creased photograph kept in my wallet, and pull it out often in the days after his death. Chicken B’stilla, simultaneously savory and sweet, drenched in a yogurt and mint sauce I greedily lap up even though mint makes me think of being a child and ill, and of the strong teas my father brewed for me from the plants he tended in old wine barrels in the backyard. Aloo mutter in a room with tangerine-colored walls on Mass Ave, and the man I will marry in six years winks at me across the table.

Rib-eye steaks cooked medium-rare and eaten off of plates balanced on our knees. We don’t have a dining room, let alone a dining room table. Onions sweated for hours until they caramelize; I stir their gilded ropes into majedera, a mixture of lentils and bulgur, or cluster them across the crust of a goat cheese and sun-dried tomato pizza I will later adorn with an herb chiffonade. Whole split chicken breasts, garlic and lemon slices slipped beneath the fatty ivory skin that will turn crisp and blush gold within the heat of the oven. Butter cookies flavored with mahleb, powder ground from the pits of sour cherries, baked in my new kitchen following the recipe my father’s mother dictated to mine decades before she quietly dies at age eighty-eight in a Los Angeles nursing home that smells of copper and Lysol.

Sausages, sauerkraut and beer underneath the green and white striped awning of a tent on the Rhine. Lechón, the suckling pig I can’t eat without thinking about the sound the animal makes when a knife is plunged into its throat, something I heard for the first and only time when I was ten. Croque-monsieurs on the Pont Neuf, the wind threatening to loosen the scarf from my neck. Fruit-flavored margaritas on D’Aguilar Street; I’m panting in the Hong Kong heat and the tequila goes straight to my head. Cornish pasties and licking crumbs from my fingers in the shadow of Bath Abbey at Christmastime. Squat foil-capped bottles of Yakult, sweetened fermented milk purchased from a 7-Eleven in Seoul. Durian stinking up the car in a Bangkok traffic jam, though later as I eat its sweet and tender flesh, I’ll forget I breathed through my mouth for an hour and nursed a stench-induced headache.

A candied shell enclosing a dollop of sugared olive oil alongside a kumquat skin holding its flesh turned into sorbet. Breaded cubes of liquefied foie gras placed on the tongue whole, then made to explode by the pressure of my mouth closing. Wintermint and vanilla ice cream coerced by science into a pliable rope, knotted and twisted into a cool, icy coil that I cut into with a fork. A Stonehenge of roasted bones upright on a white plate, its marrow shiny and bright under overhead lights before I smooth it across craggy planes of toast, decorate it with verdant parsley leaves and dot it with coarse gray sea salt. And chocolate chip cookies, either straight from the oven or out of a bright blue package that noisily crinkles at my touch, served with a glass of milk to bring me home again.

Coming Home” by Leon Bridges.

Everything Has Changed.

Yesterday Keith and I drove to New York, where we are now and where we picked up our new puppy.  He’s a whippet, born April eighth. We’ve named him Fergus Henderson, after the chef at St. John in London, but we’re just calling him Fergus. (Whippets are English, the name Fergus is English…) Fergus Henderson is just too much of a mouthful, especially if you want to be smart and stick both Keith and my last names in there too.  That’s a lot to fit on an ID tag.

My dad won’t admit it, but he’s pretty enamored with Fergus. I don’t blame him, because this dog is pretty damn cute.  I’ll be posting a photo of him every day on a separate site called Fergus, At Your Service, though I’m sure I’ll be mentioning him on a fairly regular basis — we’ve now got a four-legged reason to stay in.  So get used to more writing about home-cooked meals rather than restaurant food.

You’ve been warned.

Everything Has Changed” by Lucinda Williams.

Judy’s Kitchen in Bristol.

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Where do you live?
St. Andrews, Bristol, UK.

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How often do you cook or bake?
I cook/bake roughly three times a week, on average.

judy-3-5What is your favorite kitchen utensil?
It’s very hard to decide on the answer to this one! Recently we purchased a salad spinner. Not very exciting you may think — but we’d wanted one for ages as we eat loads of salad and most of it comes from our organic veg box and tends to be pretty muddy. We were ending up wasting loads of kitchen roll just trying to pat it dry as we thought we did not have space for a salad spinner but then we found a really perfect small one in a fab shop in Bath called Kitchens. I am extra chuffed as it is a fetching plum colour which perfectly co-ordinates with our kitchen and it fits in our existing cupboard space.  Result.  But on the same day we bought a “proper,” good quality Parmesan grater, and that’s pretty funky too. But cheapest of all, and perhaps the most useful, was a small, simple plastic tool which prises a small gap between the lid of a jar and its side, negating the vacuum and thus rendering the jar open-able! (I was finally able to open my Dad’s pickled eggs, made over three years ago — they were, predictably, a little over-pickled.)

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Which part of your kitchen do you like best and why?
My favourite part of the kitchen is the left hand side wall which is lined with half-width cabinets — a fantastic use of an extremely small amount of space, it provides storage space as well as invaluable surface area upon which we keep the microwave, the food processor and various kilner jars of dried foodstuffs, the fruit bowl, the toaster, the sharp knives, the recipe book stand, the radio and various other kitchen essentials, none of which we would have room for with only our regular units.
judy-2

What was your biggest kitchen accomplishment?
This is an easy question to answer for me. I did A Level Home Economics which was equally concerned in those days with food chemistry, nutrition and cookery skills (now there is no practical or kitchen aspect to it at all).  We had a written exam at the end of the two years, same as all my other subjects, but in addition we had a cookery exam around the Easter time of our final A Level year. It was in two parts and incredibly stressful!

The first part was held in a regular classroom under exam conditions. We had to come up with a menu for a three course meal which incorporated at least six cookery skills considered to be A Level standard. These included, amongst other things, the ability to make choux pastry, hot water pastry (for pork pies and such), savoury or sweet roulade (flourless), roux sauce I think, possibly homemade mayonnaise.  Can’t really remember the others. There were also various other nutritional standards, and other considerations to be met in the menu (now lost to me) As well as the menu we had to come up with a schedule, listing what to do for every stage of each dish and most importantly dovetailing the preparation of all the dishes together to make a seamless, two hour plan.

The second part of the exam was held a few weeks later. We had to follow, to the letter (if not we lost marks) the plan we had come up with and actually produce this three course meal in two hours. After half an hour the cookery teacher’s daughter ran out in tears, unable to cope with the pressure. Twenty minutes later, another girl followed.  There were only six of us in the group, those of us who remained wondered if we could make it. Faces were strained and sweaty.  We moved without speaking (it was all held under exam conditions), frantically trying to keep to our schedules… I did okay I think, the food looked and tasted all right but the mayo was a little green (my recipe had called for olive oil, but I had used one that was a little too virgin!). Still, it was an experience I shall never forget!

from-judy-dorians(Note from Nayiri:  I took the above photo during my visit to England.  It’s the view from Judy’s kitchen window, which overlooks Bristol.)

Graffiti in Bristol.

I’m always hyper-aware of graffiti — I don’t know if it’s because I remember the time when New York subway cars were absolutely covered in spray paint and marker, or if it’s because I’m just plain attracted to bold graphics and color.  The fact of the matter is that if it’s there, chances are I’ve not only noticed it but also stored away a mental snapshot.  In the case of the graffiti in Bristol, I did more than remember an image — I stopped right there on the street with my camera.

Street art is huge in Bristol; Google it and pages of info comes up.  According to my friends Judy and Dorian a great deal of it is commissioned, though there are a few graffiti that would be considered flat-out vandalism.  There also were a few that are undeniably famous, like the Banksy pieces that are still scattered about the city; some have been painted over.  Speaking of painting over, this photo here — which will redirect you to a short slideshow of Bristol graffiti, if clicked on — is of an artist covering someone else’s graffiti with his own.  When we walked past on our way to the city center the next day, the storefront looked completely different.  Even the dig at Gordon Ramsay was gone.  Oh well…  it’s temporary art, after all.

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Visiting St Werburghs City Farm.

Near where Judy and Dorian live in Bristol is a neighborhood called St Werburghs; from our friends’ flat, it’s a pleasant walk through through the city allotments (community gardens) to St Werburghs City Farm, a free, independently-run farm focused on education.  Before I go into more detail on the farm, may I just mention how extraordinary the St Werburghs allotments are?  It was an overcast morning the day the four of us treked down a narrow and muddy path to the farm; the light was the sort that makes everything look so very lush, and in every direction over sloping hills all I could see was green from the efforts of the allotment lessees.  It was inspiring.

Back to the farm…

If you thought I was a dawdler in the markets of the world, you should see me on a farm.  Oh, how I get sidetracked by things such as a goat’s rectangular pupils or the posture of a chicken.  I could easily spend several hours with the bunnies alone, not to mention a mama pig whose piglets share a birthday with me.  Luckily, we didn’t have plans until around ten-thirty that evening…

Click on the picture below to see a slideshow of St Werburghs.

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St Werburghs City Farm
Watercress Road
Bristol BS2 9YJ
England
+ 020 0117 942 8241

Breakfast at St Werburghs City Farm Café.

One of the options Judy suggested for Sunday breakfast was the café at the city farm down the street from her flat.

“It’s lovely,” she said.  “Everything is delicious and fresh, and you get massive piles of food.  And there’s a pig.”

Even if I hadn’t already been sold on breakfast — Judy had me at lovely — the mention of the pig is what did it for me, honestly.  They’re incredibly intelligent, and even if they weren’t, it wouldn’t matter.  What I like about them is their hairy little tails.

city-farm-cafe-3A brief walk later, the four of us stood in front what just might be the strangest-looking building I’ve ever seen.  It looked like something out of Tolkien; if Bilbo or Frodo Baggins had poked his head out of the front door, I wouldn’t have been even the least been surprised.  In fact, I was kind of expecting it and was a little disappointed when neither showed up, especially as the architecture of the café appears as though it was inspired by Bag End.

city-farm-cafe-2Truthfully though, St Werburghs City Farm Café is thoroughly charming, and by that I mean there are no right angles in the entire place and each window and beam within appears to be handcarved out of England’s knottiest wood.  Inside, the ceiling slopes so dramatically that I don’t think either Keith  or Dorian were able to stand up straight, except for in the exact center of the round room.  If I were a kid visiting the café, I would have really loved it — which isn’t, of course, to say that I didn’t.  It’s simply that the place has a fantastical quality to it that any child with an inquisitive mind and an active imagination would love — which is probably why the café was full of children.

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In spite of the magical décor, what the four of us had come for was the food.  The menu is posted on a blackboard above the counter, and the moment I saw black pudding listed I knew I would be ordering a dish that came with a serving of it.  And so, I settled on the Big Farmer:  bacon, breakfast sausage,a fried egg, beans, mushroom, spinach, toast and, finally, the black pudding (£6.95).

Judy wasn’t kidding when she said piles of food; once it arrived I had half a mind to weigh my plate.  Still, I came close to shoveling it all down — it was incredibly tasty.  I was the most surprised by the spinach, actually, which was probably the freshest I have had in a while, and the ketchupy beans were fantastic.  Also noteworthy was the supersalty butter that brought a grin to my face, and the perfectly-cooked mushrooms which had the perfect amount of bite left to them.  The sausage was pleasantly light, leaving me with plenty of room for the bacon — utterly unlike American bacon, I should say, as British bacon tends to come from the animal’s back.  I saved the black pudding for last, and you know what?  I think I kind of loved it.  The exterior was nice and crunchy, while the inside had a fabulous meaty flavor that could only be described as intoxicating.

I don’t think anyone else was more pleased with breakfast than me, except for maybe Judy, who practically clapped her hands to see my clean plate and the minuscule remnants of pudding dotting its surface.  If I had thought of it, I would have taken an after photo for you all to see.  You’ll just have to take my word for it.  Better yet: if you find yourself in the Bristol area, you’ll drop in to the café at St Werburghs for some breakfast.

St Werburghs City Farm Café
Watercress Road
Bristol BS2 9YJ
England
+44 0117 942 8241

Snacks at Kingsdown Vaults.

I adore cheese and Keith loves wine, so when Judy suggested dropping by her favorite wine and cheese pub before we all sneaked into a private party to see Dorian’s band, we pretty much all simultaneously started looking around for a taxi to take us to Kingsdown Vaults.

While I might not be much of a drinker, it’s neighborhood pubs like this that I wish we had more of here in Massachusetts.  The closest that I can think of that captures the same sort of laid-back mellowness is the bar at Union Square’s Independent, but even that’s a bit of a stretch.  After all, even the Independent has a TV, something the Kingsdown Vaults does not.  Instead of television, the Vaults’s got battered tables, a wicked assortment of mismatched chairs and the requisite fire roaring in the fireplace.  The Vaults also has board games and books stacked on its slightly saggy shelves and arbitrary guns hanging on the walls which may or may not be real.  Add groupings of tall, fat and drippy candles trailing tails of wax down their sides and you’ve got an altogether cozy atmosphere that can’t be replicated.

wine-cheeseFoodwise, the Vaults offers small bites like smalec (a Polish spread made of pork fat, bacon and bits of onion) and miscellaneous cheeses.  The three of us shared a fondue (£4.50) and feta-stuffed peppers (£2.90) which were described on the menu as bell but were in fact way too hot and too small to be bells.  I’ve got the feeling that they were Fresnos, simply from their size and heat.  The thing is, it doesn’t matter — Kingsdown Vaults is a place to go for a drink (or series of), a long chat and maybe a board game or two.  It’s not necessarily the best spot, culinarily-speaking, but does that even matter when there’s wine and bites of cheese to be had?  Sometimes, that’s all a girl like me needs.

Kingsdown Vaults
29-31 Kingsdown Parade
Bristol BS6
England
+44 117 924 9134
kingsdownvaults.com

Late Lunch at River Station.

Keith and I got off to a shamefully late start our first morning in Bristol.  Suffice to say that my use of the word morning is a total stretch, as neither of us even stumbled out of our friends Judy and Dorian’s spare room for a shower until one in the afternoon.  In our defense, we were both at varying degrees of sick — the next day I would lose my voice entirely, after an evening of feeling like my throat was coated in shards of glass, and Keith was already coughing into a series of tissues.  Still, we managed to eventually make our way down to Bristol Harbor, then walked about ten more minutes to River Station, a restaurant housed in a former police station.

River Station is divided into two sections, the restaurant upstairs and the bar/kitchen on the ground level;  both have excellent views overlooking the River Avon.  (Here’s something confusing about the UK — there are eight Rivers Avon: four in England, three in Scotland and one in Wales.  This River Avon is also called the Lower Avon or Bristol Avon, and is not Shakespeare’s Avon, which flows through Warwickshire in the West Midlands.)  While the restaurant was serving food, we decided to stay downstairs in the bar, where we sat on a curved leather banquette and watched a trio of swans lazily paddle in concentric circles.

river-station-11Sick or not, I was starving; at this point it was probably something like eighteen hours since my previous meal, a vegetarian moussaka and a half-pint at The Watershed’s Café/Bar.  Not only was I craving something filling, but I also wanted something that could scratch at my sore throat on the way down.  (See number four.)  For that reason I chose the goat cheese bruschetta and beet coleslaw (£5.00) as my starter.  I was a little surprised when my plate arrived, as River Station’s interpretation of bruschetta seemed to be simply a toasted slice of crusty bread topped with cheese; I’m not quite sure what I had been expecting, but I do know that I did anticipate something garlicky.  In the end I didn’t mind though — goat cheese is a weakness of mine, and River Station was extremely generous with theirs.  The beet slaw was both sweet and tangy, and the addition of watercress added a nice peppery bite.  In retrospect, I wish I had thought to pile the vegetables on top of the melty cheese, but they were just as good alongside.

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I knew I would hanker for something to soothe my unhappy throat after the crusty bread did its job; squid ink spaghetti and smoked salmon tossed in a vodka cream sauce (£8.00) sounded like the perfect solution.  And perfect it was.  Not only is pasta made with squid ink fun to look at, with its jet-black color, but it’s also fun to eat, as each bite releases a briny zip in your mouth.  Combined with the delicate salmon, milky sauce, fresh herbs and lemon, it was simultaneously comforting and refreshing — exactly what I needed to bolster me up so I could face the day.  Or at least the rest of the afternoon.

Judy met us after she finished work, and the three of us sat with lattes and tea while we chatted and reminisced.  Not once were we bothered by waitstaff, except to clear our scraped-clean plates.  I got the feeling that, had we chosen to, we could have sat there all night, laughing and watching the water, and peering into the dark for the swans we could no longer see.  River Station has the ideal atmosphere and menu for doing exactly that.

River Station
The Grove
Bristol, BS1 4RB
England
+44 0117 914 9463
riverstation.co.uk

Lunch at The Eagle.

Our last London meal was a bit stressful.  We needed a place that would be quick, didn’t require a reservation and was near where we had stored our luggage.  Oh, and ideally, the restaurant would be atmospheric and the food delicious… With these caveats firmly in place, we found ourselves at The Eagle, a gastropub in the Clerkenwell neighborhood of Islington.

When I use the word “gastropub,” what I really mean in this case is The Gastropub.  The team behind The Eagle were the first of London’s pubs to not only start serving dishes beyond the usual pub fare of bangers and mash or fish and chips, but to also create the genre of food itself.  In fact, if you look up gastropub on Wikipedia, there’s a photograph of The Eagle at the top of the page.  Seriously.

It was a typical British day (sunny in the morning, bullet-sized raindrops by mid-day) when we squeezed in amongst the crowded tables.  The Eagle is incredibly popular; we luckily snagged two stools at the counter overlooking Farringdon Road.  From there we could watch the activity behind the bar, where immense sausages were frizzling away on a flattop grill.  We also had a great view of the dining room itself; it’s a massive, window-lined space full of tables, mismatched chairs and squashy looking sofas underneath a pressed tin ceiling and framed with hunter green walls.  It was also absolutely packed with loud, chatty Londoners tossing back pints and ordering their lunches up at the bar, where the day’s offerings are chalked up on blackboards.

the-eagle2While I warmed my wet feet on the radiator underneath the narrow counter, Keith got in line at the bar.  He decided to go with a few of the aforementioned sausages; I chose the chicken, ham and mushroom risotto (£8.50), mostly because it’s a dish I have no patience to make myself.  The thought of all that stirring makes my arm feel sore even now, as I sit comfortably on my sofa, nowhere near a stove.

The Eagle’s risotto has a lovely creamy texture, and the dish wasn’t laced overwhelmingly with mushroom.  It was also neither laced overwhelmingly with any other flavor; the rice was almost too subtle, and I found myself adding liberal amounts of both salt and pepper to my plate, something I very rarely do.  In all fairness, each bite of chicken was especially tender and the ham was amazingly juicy — it was just the rice itself that I found a bit lacking.  Perhaps lacking is not the most appropriate word to use here.  I think missing is more accurate.

The menu at The Eagle begins with very English cuisine like Keith’s sausages, and then moves across Europe to land squarely in the Mediterranean; aside from my risotto, the chalkboard listed both a Spanish fish stew and similarly-styled grilled prawns.  It doesn’t matter if you prefer to stand on the British or Iberian side of the culinary fence, since a trip to London’s first gastropub shouldn’t be skipped.  The risotto, on the other hand…  Well, I’ll leave that up to you.

The Eagle
159, Farringdon Road
London EC1R 3
England
+44 020 7837 1353

The Eagle on Urbanspoon

Missed Opportunity.

I wish I had thought to photograph pub signs while I was traipsing around England — wouldn’t that have made a nice little photo essay?  Pub names are so interesting; I saw countless Kings Arms and Red Lions, a few Georges (The George, The George V, The George IV, The George & Dragon,  The George & Vulture, etc.), a couple of Alberts (The Prince Albert, Victoria & Albert, Albert Arms, Royal Albert, etc.) a Fleece & Firkin (which sounds a bit scandalous), The Happy Cocks (which sounds very scandalous) and both The King’s and The Queen’s Head.

Anyway, what I’m trying to get to is this:  what would I name my pub, if I were to open a pub?  Here’s a short list of potential names.  Please feel free to contribute!

  1. The Baby Head*
  2. The Gnome & Unicorn
  3. The Knitting Kitten
  4. The Stomping Stallion
  5. The Unruly Knockers (because you simply need a vaguely outrageous name)**
  6. The Vicious Circle**
*Keith coined this phrase to describe the way a drinker’s head droops when drunk.
**A co-writer’s credit must be given to my friend Marcella.  She knows why.