Wednesday, June 30, 2010

It's Celsius, Not Fahrenheit


It's scorching in England at the moment.  Not a dry, Californian heat, but a humid, muggy East Coast/Hong Kong kind of heat.  Having lived here for over three (!) years now (see how I've even adapted the quintessential British passive tone:  "Having ..."), I've learned to adapt to the measurements used in this country; bought myself a scale to measure baking ingredients (rather than using cups as all recipes here go by grams), but one thing I'm still kind of unsure of are temperature measurements.  Even though I know 30 degrees Celsius is pretty damned warm, I sometimes still have the urge to convert it back to Fahrenheit. 

I don't know why.

I think when you've always been familiar with a certain type of measurement, you relate everything back to those increments - so I can think of exactly how 40, 70, and 80 degrees Fahrenheit feels, but am still a little unsure of how 12, 18 and 25 feel (and those are big differences, I know, but I can't seem to pinpoint them).  Is 18 actually warm?  Or is it cold for the summer?  Is 12 really, really cold?  Or is it warm in the winter?

Another problem I have is with meters (or, "metres").  I still think in feet.  When I get out of the car to direct John into a tight space and he asks, "How much room have I got left?" I automatically size up the distance and say, "About a good two feet."  I know that doesn't mean much to him, but he good naturedly guesses anyway and skillfully backs into the spot.

I just might never adapt (by choice).
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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Fascinating Fascinators + A Very English Wedding Mash-Up


Last week, I had the daunting (daunting because I know my way around a suit shop like the average girl knows her way around an auto-parts store - and that's not sexist, that's just realistic) task of picking up John's suit for hire (that's "rental" for all my American friends) for his best friend's wedding at Moss Bros. in Covent Garden.  I huffed and puffed my way through slow-as-heck tourists and negotiated a path past those I'm-a-statue-but-I'm-a-real-person! street peddlars artists all the way to Longacre Street from The Strand, only to call John, visibly annoyed:  "I can't find it," I snapped.  "You said it was across from H&M and I'm standing at that very spot now."  "Ohhhhh ..." John said, sounding faraway in his glass-windowed tower of an office building in the City.  "I think it's actually on that road by HMV ..." he said, his voice drifting off.  I hung up without saying goodbye and huffed and puffed my way back around again through the slow-as-heck tourists and street artists, finally stomping into Moss Bros.  When I eventually located the damned suit hire counter (because their staff is useless at customer service, for the record), I was met by a sour-faced woman who slowly plodded off to fetch the said suit while I waited for 15 minutes in air-conditioned coolness on a leather chair that was so big, it made me look about 5.  After being informed (to my great displeasure) that I would have to pay the remaining balance on the suit, I just about lost my temper until the sales assistant took an inventory of the contents of the suit bag in front of me.  "One long jacket with tails," she said aloud, pulling out the grey tweed jacket and matching button-up vest, which looked dapper-as-heck. "Oooohh!" I said, as my mood was instantly lifted.  "One cravat," she pronounced, pulling out the seafoam green silk.  "OOOHHH!" I said, slightly louder, to her delight. "And one top hat."  Whoa, whoa, whoa.  Rewind.  What did she just say?  "One grey top hat," she repeated, replacing it in its hat box.  My heart swooned.  Then I envisioned John in the top hat and giggled. 

See, this is what I love about (the majority of) the English.  Everything is so formal and proper.  There are traditions and there is etiquette.  Even builders take their tea breaks.  I, unlike a lot of people, love formality for formality's sake and I've been to a couple of American weddings where the bridesmaids wore flip-flops and the groomsmen wore sneakers.  They were admittedly cute, low-key, and casual ceremonies and receptions but lacked the gravitas .  However, I just don't think the English do "casual" (except for a certain selection of the population, but I'll get to that another day).  I was super excited to attend a wedding that would include top hats for the gents and (hopefully, but probably) fascinators and hats for the ladies.

Above all, I love fascinators.  They're something we definitely don't do in the States and thus, something that screams "British" to me, like tea and scones with jam do.  I've never had the guts (nor had an occasion) to wear one, but I love seeing them on ladies here in the UK - whether it's at Ascot, a wedding or a party.  There's something so dignified, yet completely crazy (just google "fascinator" images and you'll find some insane creations) about them and headwear as an accessory always receives an exuberant "yes" in my book. 

At Tom and Danni's gorgeous Yorkshire wedding this past weekend (just check out that amazing flower arrangement above), I saw a lot of wonderful fascinators (and hats for the moms) and instantly wished I had braved one with my dress.  I think I'll gradually work my way up with some feathered headbands as recently seen in Accessorize before taking the plunge.    

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T. K. Maxx vs. T. J. Maxx

I have a really disgusting habit of telling everyone how much my clothes cost if I receive a compliment about them.  I think it comes from my mom, who happily lets everyone know that the jacquard Nordstrom jacket she's wearing was actually a 99 cent purchase from Value Village (yeah, isn't that a gross name for a store?  Might as well call it Bargain Hut).  Her love for her 99 cent specials knows no bounds; she stalks the rails during (almost) every 99-cent-Monday and whoops with glee when purchasing a gently used treasure.  "Do you have charity shops in the U.S.?" someone asked me at work.  "Yes!" I said enthusiastically.  "Except, without the charity element."  Okay, that's not true - I'm pretty sure The Salvation Army and Goodwill are considered "charity shops", but it's not like the British High Street, where you have shops for every charity from Age Concern to Cancer Research UK. 

Aside from thrift stores, however, my mother has only one other passion when it comes to shopping - and that's places like T. J. Maxx (branded as T. K. Maxx here in the UK), Marshalls, Ross, and yes, even Burlington Coat Factory (I can't shop in there because the lights make me nauseous).  Yes, the UK has T. K. Maxx and yes, the UK has Primark - but the extent of Britain's discount designer (or non-designer, as Primark is its own brand) shopping ends there.  Of course, there are the outlet and factory stores, but what I'm really interested in are the T. J. Maxxes of the world - where you can find a Kenneth Cole top for $2.50 (yes, I did and yes, it's fabulous) or a Le Creuset utensil holder (hello, everyone needs one!) for £2.99.  I think the UK needs more of those. 

One of the main reasons why I'm sad that I won't be going home until Christmas (besides missing my family and all that) is that I won't have the opportunity to indulge in one of my favorite thrifty habits: whenever I go home to Washington, my mom and I have a five-day Ross/Marshall's/T. K. Maxx marathon, where we go to every store within an approximately 20-mile radius at least twice.  We even comb the heinous clearance racks (where I found my $2.50 top) for buried treasure (literally - I found my prom dress on the floor of a Ross in Federal Way for $14.99.  Gross?  Probably.  Bargainous?  You betcha).  Americans are into bargains.  Like, real bargains.  Some of us even clip coupons (those are "vouchers", for all my UK readers) before we go shopping.  There's something so satisfying about not paying full price for an item that makes the shopping experience fun and thus, gives us permission to brag about our purchase. 

While I haven't quite yet developed the skill my mom possesses of making a 99-cent purchase work, I'll continue to shamelessly stick to my bargain hunting ways at the nearest T. K. Maxx.

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Saturday, June 26, 2010

It's Fab

What has sprinkles, chocolate and ice cream, in the form of pastel-colored popsicle goodness?  Fab.  Yes, it's fab and called Fab - how fab is that?

After driving for hours on probably one of the hottest days of the year in England (with no A/C, mind you), poor John desperately needed a gas station stop - for a popsicle (which they call "iced lollies" here, bizarrely.  Sounds like something Stewie from Family Guy would say.  I stubbornly stick to saying "popsicle" and roll my eyes when British people can't understand what I want.  Obnoxious?  Yes).  He picked a boring orange Calippo while I chose the clearly more exciting and satisfying Fab, although what I could have really used (and what I'm sure John would have preferred) was a giant-sized Slurpee from the gas stations in the States. 

Oh well, an iced treat is an iced treat and the Fab is probably the best of all.
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It's Cake Time (A Few Days Late): Apple & Cinnamon

I had wanted to make apple and cinnamon pancakes for breakfast last Sunday, but ... for some reason, never got around to it (I was also late to yoga that day, which is so unlike me, as I'm usually half an hour early to everything!).  I was having one of those days. 

However, I didn't want my deliciously sweet Pink Lady apples to go to waste and I knew I had all the ingredients to make the perfect apple and cinnamon cake, so at around 9 pm on a Sunday evening, I decided to furiously throw all the ingredients together in a bowl from this fabulous BBC GoodFood recipe (my go-to recipes for almost everything - I discovered a BBC GoodFood cake recipe book at Alison's house this weekend and thought about temporarily kidnapping it).  Note to self:  STOP BAKING AT 9 PM.  Last time, I made brownies for the boys returning from a stag do and didn't finish until 12 a.m.  I must have poked a knife into that thing about 20 times to check if it was ready. 

I deviated from the recipe a little bit, as it calls for one egg and 100 ml of milk and I used more like one and a half eggs and 150 ml of milk, as my mixture wasn't quite gooey and wet at the end of the process, so I would advise doing that as well.   I also dumped a lot of cinnamon in, as the recipe called for a "sprinkling" and I didn't think that would be enough.  And though the recipe tells you to put the mixture in a circular tin, I dumped mine in a loaf tin instead and it worked well.  The cake came out tasting like a baked apple pie in cake form - warm and delicious.  The best part about this particular recipe is that it's not too sweet, so you don't feel sickly after eating too many slices ... or maybe that's a bad thing!
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Sunday, June 20, 2010

Strawberry Pickin' Good

One of the things I miss the most about living in Washington is the plethora of fruit and vegetable stands that dot the roads on your way to places like Fife, Sumner and Tacoma - I'm sure they're everywhere else in the State, but those are the three places my parents used to get our fresh fruit and vegetables.  In fact, we used to buy sweet, crunchy, fresh ears of corn off the back of a pick-up truck parked opposite Mama Stortini's in Sumner from a farmer named Norm, who was completely deaf and wore overalls (I'm pretty sure he wore overalls, but I could be making that part up). 

Here, in comparison, there are also fruit and veg stands - only, they're not sold off the back of a farm, but rather off Kilburn High Road and Oxford Street, where the "fresh" grapes soak up probably 95% of the petrol fumes, human germs and God-knows-what-else-is-in-city-air.  While I don't buy this fruit for such reason, I see people buying it all the time and I'm curious to know if it's "better" (it's certainly cheaper) than supermarket produce. 

Whatever the case is, I really miss those fruit stands back home, with mounds and mounds of Honeycrisp apples arranged in perfect pyramids or fresh strawberries and Rainier cherries sold by the boxload.  In particular, I miss the pick-your-own fields from my childhood, where my parents took me to have my first strawberry-picking-outing.  So I was super excited when Adrienne suggested we (we being me, John, Joe, Jodi, Rob, plus Charlotte and Heidi, her and Rob's two adorable little girls - and Darcy, Joe and Jodi's celebrity dog - whew!) meet up at Grays Pick-Your-Own Farm in Berkshire this Saturday for some strawberry picking goodness and of course, the requisite pub lunch.

Though a lot of the strawberries weren't quite ripe yet (and those that were had been picked by earlier hands), we still managed to get a good bunch which I hope to turn into a strawberry short cake or use as a pancake topping this morning (if my apple and cinnamon pancakes turn out disastrous).  Jodi picked some gorgeously plump (but tart) gooseberries and I'm excited to see what she makes with them.  It was especially cute to see Charlotte (who'll be 2 in September), picking her own strawberries with Rob and Adrienne's help, as it brought back memories of my own strawberry picking experiences.  And there wasn't short a jealous (or perhaps curious) eye on the tube, as John and I lovingly carried ours back to Warwick Avenue. 
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Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Biggest, Fluffiest Naan You Ever Did See


It (mine's on top: peshwari, naturally, plain for John on the bottom) probably had 800 calories - 900, even - but I didn't care.  It was the biggest, fluffiest, sweetest peshwari naan I have ever had the pleasure of tasting and it came on the back of an electric scooter, courtesy of Meghna Grill in St. John's Wood.  Next time you're in town, I'll treat you to one.  Or two.
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Friday, June 18, 2010

Doctor, Doctor, I've Got A Fever - World Cup Fever

Oh my God.  What have I done?  Or rather, what's happened to me?  I've had to eat my words.  For the past week, I've been racing home from work, leaping onto the couch to turn on the projector, Freeview box and stereo (in that order), drawing the curtains and sitting down, waiting for kickoff to begin - at every World Cup match shown in the evening.  I've rushed in, ravenous and sweaty post-run or yoga, ignoring my intense desire to either eat or shower and turned, instead, to a sport.

A worried Chris called to say he was "concerned" about my previous suggestion to John about hosting a World Cup party at our flat - frightened that my snobbish, non-sports-oriented standards were slipping.  Surely she isn't morphing into a football hooligan, he must have thought to himself.  I don't dare think of what Chris imagines - I only hang my head in shame.

Last night, John came back from the pub, apparently delighted and crowing to his buddies that he had "scored the jackpot" with me, but slightly worried about my mental well-being as the footie has been on as soon as he walks in the door with me glued to the screen, eyes glazed over and body crouched over in a tense position.  When Brazil played North Korea, I watched the game nearly a total of three times - if John hadn't insisted on going to bed (well, almost - I watched it from start to finish by myself, then watched the highlights with John afterward, then wanted to watch it again from the beginning - WHO KNOWS WHY?  NO ONE.  That's why I need a doctor to cure my illness, clearly).  The worst part was when I started humming the theme tune from ITV's coverage of the games ... that's when John cowered in fear and seriously asked if I was feeling okay.  "Okay?" I said, incredulously.  "I feel GREAT!  I LOVE THE WORLD CUP!" I shouted.  He looked nervous.

Don't worry, I'll get back to writing about cakes and truffles tomorrow ... I've just got to check the score now on BBC online.

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Thursday, June 17, 2010

The World of Peter Rabbit


John recently confided that he had a Peter Rabbit mug he was served warm milk from when he was little and because the inside of the porcelain cup had a picture of Peter Rabbit, he'd drink his milk in great gulps, so as to save Peter from drowning.  I make him tell me this anecdote over and over again because I think it's absolutely adorable.

He wasn't the only one who was fond of The World of Peter Rabbit, however.  When I think about it, I realised that my interest in England and English culture began much further back than my pre-teen Agatha Christie and Jonathan Creek obsessions.  Thousands and thousands of miles away from the sleepy village of Peatling Magna, across the Atlantic, across the United States of America, in (what is now called) Edgewood, Washington - a town which bore no resemblance to the quiet, sleepy shire that John grew up in, except perhaps of the fact there were some cows and sheep grazing in a nearby unkempt farm - I, having pleased my mother with my six-year-old's interpretation of some piece she was teaching me on the piano, was allowed to choose a "prize" for my hard work.  I carefully selected a miniature set of Peter Rabbit books (except mine were even better than the one shown here, for it had an actual handle on the slipcase so I could pull the books out like a drawer) that I had been desperately wanting for ages in a gift shop in Sumner. 

I'll never forget the day I got that box set - I treasured it so much that I couldn't bear to take the individual books out, for fear of disrupting the order they were in.  I loved Beatrix Potter's illustrations and the tales of Peter Rabbit and his friends really appealed to my serious, yet child-like mind.

Today's children's characters have nothing (nuffin'!) on good old Peter Rabbit.
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Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Yummy Mummies

As I step out of my Maida Vale flat at precisely 8:34 a.m. every morning (okay, sometimes earlier, and mostly a lot later), I'm almost always nearly run down by a small child in school uniform on a scooter (not the motorized kind, the kind you push off on, like a skateboard with handles), followed by an immaculately dressed mom pushing a stroller with another baby or small child on it on their way to the school near my street.  When I say "immaculately dressed", I mean immaculate.  Although they may not look like Elle Macpherson above, dropping her children off at the school gates, they sure do try their damnedest to emulate her.  And they fascinate me.

This particular morning, for example, a slim, thirty-something woman with a cropped pixie haircut reminiscent of Victoria Beckham's former style, zoomed past me on her child's scooter, with her son in a regulatory green school blazer standing on the said scooter, with a look of what could only be described as pure delight on her face.  She wore four inch espadrille wedges and a pair of perfectly cut Seven jeans (that's 7 for All Mankind for all you non-fashionistas out there), and a crisp navy v-neck tee, one foot balanced precariously on the scooter and the other manicured foot pushing off with the wedges as her child shouted with laughter.  Passing two other parents taking their children to school, she waved with one hand and said hello.

In Edgewood, Washington, we have affluent soccer moms:  they drive mini-vans Range Rovers (or Escalades),  go to the same nail salons, and are the first to sign up their houses with pools for the end-of-the-year soccer BBQ parties.  They go to the same churches and purchase 1.5 Coach bags every month or so, (or whenever their husbands get paid).  They go on trips to Cabo, Mexico with their neighbors, Tammy and Paul, and make a trip down to LV (that's Las Vegas, not Louis Vuitton) three times a year with their other neighbors, Pam and Todd.

In London, and, I suppose, in other major cities in neighborhoods such as mine, we have "yummy mummies" - those who happily (and personally) send their children off to school every morning in Seven jeans and Balenciaga handbags then somehow find the time to get their nails done at Tillie's on Warwick Avenue and lunch in Ladbroke Grove.  Yesterday, I stood and openly gawked at a woman in full running gear, pounding the pavement - with one hand on a stroller, running at a speed of, oh, 7 or 8 miles per hour. 

Where are the dowdy moms?  You know, the ones who look like ... moms?  No, these women are fragrant with Chloe and Dior when I pass them, their hair tossing with blow-out perfection - they don't look a day older than 32 and obviously have a personal trainer, nanny, maid, and personal assistant to plan their lives for them.  I seriously do not get it.

But their children look happy, and it's always so cute to see their little helmeted heads zoom off to school each day as I make my way to the tube station.  

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Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Perfect (Quintessential) Summer (English) Desserts

After a week of rain and um, more rain, in London, the weather in Leicester was gorgeous last weekend - sunny, but not too hot, with a bit of breeze in between.  Who could ask for anything more?  We were fortunate enough to be able to barbecue in Alison's backyard (or "garden", as Brits call it ... more on that later) and eat almost every meal outside with our sunnies on.  Too perfect.

One thing I love about Alison's cooking, is that she doesn't do things in halves - meat is always accompanied by veg, whether that's a freshly tossed salad or caramelized carrots.  And there's always, always dessert (not to mention, room for dessert - that is, if you've saved yourself).  I was thrown into a state of shock and awe (and by "shock and awe", I mean I'm pretty sure I clapped my hands in glee and shouted, "JELLY!!!" when this delightful dish appeared before me) by Alison's homemade orange and lemon jelly (pictured right).  It kind of left me speechless.  What really topped it off, however, and made it quintessentially British, was the option of adding fresh single cream to the dish ... it seems as though the English add cream to all their afters, be it single, double or whipped cream.  Fresh, tangy, with a bit of extra zing, the cool jelly was a delightful way to end a lunch hour spent outdoors in a sundrenched garden.


The next day, we had one of my favorites - strawberries (that had been sprinkled with sugar) and vanilla ice cream.  Simple, yet refreshing and divine (I had the urge to mash mine up and make it into a strawberry milkshake, toddler-style, but I don't think Alison would have appreciated that at her lunchtable, being English and all.  Had I been at a friend's house in the States, well then, that would be another story ... I probably would have been encouraged to indulge in such uncouth activities ... or maybe the option of throwing it all in a blender since, you know, that's what an adult would do).


I've saved the best for last, even though we had it first.  The night we arrived, Alison uncovered a large plate of homemade meringues.  Yeah, I said it, homemade.  Perfectly crunchy on the outside and ever-so-slightly chewy in the middle, she served these decadent treats with some of Tesco's Finest Cornish clotted cream (which was so unbelieveably good, btw) and some - are you ready for this? - homemade raspberry compote.  I weep at the memory of it.  So delicious and perfect.

And there you have it - three quintessential English desserts, served up in the span of one weekend, by the Queen of Desserts-and-anything-else-to-do-with-domestic-gastronomical-delights, Alison.

(Oh, and if you're interested in making your own jelly from scratch, check out this timely guide from The Guardian on "how to deliver a quiver".)
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Monday, June 14, 2010

Team USA: Bring It On

I have to admit, that after all my huffing and puffing about how much I didn't care about the World Cup, I spent this weekend with a crazed look in my eye, hollering and jumping at the TV when Germany whooped Australia's ass (to my delight - sorry, Cristy) and spending most of my Monday morning wishing I was parked on my couch at home ... watching the games. 

Yep, I repent.  I love the World Cup. 

It's so exciting!  When Ghana scored their first goal, I almost wept.  And even though the vuvuzelas have me swotting at my ear every so often because I think there's a mosquito in it, I still insist the volume is turned up so I can hear every bit of commentary.  It's so sad.

But when it came down to which team I was rooting for on Saturday, I had no doubts - USA, of course.  John seemed shocked.  "Why not?"  I said.  "It's my home country and of course I would want them to beat England ... however unlikely that is!"  So when the score turned out to be a tie, I wasn't too upset. 

John had his second shock of the week when I blurted out, "Why don't you have your friends over sometime this week to watch a game here?  We've got the projector."  He slowly regarded me from his place on the couch, as if I had grown two horns on my head.  "Yes," he said tentatively.  "That's a good idea ..." But I wasn't listening - I was too busy daydreaming about all the snacks and cakes I could make for this World Cup partay.

Bring it on.

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Sunday, June 13, 2010

Alison's Kitchen

We were halfway up the M1 to Leicester for the weekend when I called John's mom, Alison, to give her our ETA.  "Oooh, lovely," she said.  "Shall I be pessimistic and estimate a bit later, as I haven't put dinner in the oven yet?"  Saliva automatically pooled in my mouth as I kicked an empty Pret sandwich box under my seat and smiled into the phone:  "Yes, that sounds great," I said.  I knew what she would say next.  "Well, it's nothing to get excited about, I just -" "Whipped up a little something," I finished for her.  By now, I know all too well what Alison means by "a little something".  After 3-4 years of visiting her sweet home in Wigston, Leicester, I know that at the end of our 1 hour 47 minute train journey or 2 hour car drive or 3 hour bus ride, eagerly awaiting our grumbling stomachs at 10 or 11 pm on a Friday night is not "a little something" but instead, something akin to three pizzas made from scratch with prawns atop one and four cheeses on the other.  Or four different spicy curries, lovingly stirred for hours on end and handmade dhosas (which miraculously survived the bin ... but that's a story for another time).

Last night was no exception, when we were greeted with a wonderful meaty aroma emanating from the oven.  "Mmm ... that smells divine!" I said as I entered the kitchen.  It turned out to be a manti recipe from Alison's Afghan neighbor when she was living in Germany - long  before John was even born.  Warm, delicious and filling, it was the perfect meal to end a hectic week.

The next morning, after a light breakfast, we decided to purchase materials for a BBQ (FINALLY, my first BBQ of the summer!) later that evening.  But first, Alison "threw together" a light lunch, which consisted of the lovely cous cous salad above, a roast lamb joint (seriously, sometimes I wonder where she hides these meals because they seem to appear out of nowhere and yet I have no doubt she's actually made them - give me a few of these dishes to "whip up" and it'd take me the whole day) and homemade mint sauce (as seen below, with fresh mint from the garden, nonetheless). 

While I'm only beginning to find my feet in the kitchen (as seen in my posts recording my Kraft Family adventures and other foolish attempts to pretend I know anything about cooking at all), John's mom's cooking continually makes me feel ... not worthy.  I bow in reverence to her fruit, lemon drizzle, and Victoria sponge cakes.  I smack my lips with primal ecstasy at her expertly cooked pork, lamb and beef roasts - all accompanied by gravy made from the meat juices and vegetable stock.  I shed a tear at her perfectly caramelized carrots, which seem to disintegrate and shrink to the size of my pinky in the pan when I attempt to make them.

In short, Alison makes me a firm believer that homemade never tasted so good.
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Sushi: What's Your Excuse?


What's your excuse to indulge in sushi?

We had a few on Friday:

"I'm too tired to cook."

"I want something light, but I'm hungry."

"We haven't had sushi for a while." 

"There's a special offer for extra chicken teriyaki rolls [sacrilege, I know] if our order's over £20."

Whatever our justification was ... it was worth it.
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Thursday, June 10, 2010

Service With A Smile: The American Way

As friendly as Brits are to Americans (on the whole) in this country, I can't help but be personally offended or annoyed when I see some good old American bashing in Op Ed articles in newspapers and magazines.  Some snooty Mulberry-toting woman commented in a Stylist issue a couple months ago about the "terrible" American imports we get that are "bad influences" (I paraphrase here as I cannot remember the exact words she used) on her precious organic-oats-eating-horse-back-riding pre-teen daughter, such as Hannah Montana.  Okay, fair enough, that show is pretty hideous.

Similarly, an article in The Daily Mail online (not that I read such trash - and surely not on every lunch break, and no, I don't turn around and discuss articles with my boss and every other co-worker who will listen and have read the same article on Katie Price's new nails) today criticized high street stores for using "U.S.-style" hard sell tactics on their customers.  Oh no - gasp - not ... THE HARD SELL?!?!?!?

Let me first explain that I have worked in one such U.S. store, which shall remain nameless - all you need to know is that it was aimed toward 12-20-somethings, sold copious amounts of their own branded-clothing with a massive logo plastered across the chest and played obscenely loud music to the point that when I got back home from work (it was a summer and Christmas holiday job that took me through my MHC years) my mom would ask me if I wanted some food and I'd croak, "No thanks, just a glass of water."  So that narrows it down to about 20 stores in the mall, I think. 

And yes, we were pushed to sell, sell, sell.  We didn't even work on commission.  If you didn't sell, you didn't get hours.  Simple as that.  No hours, no money.  See a customer go into the fitting with one pair of jeans?  Give her 2 other styles in her size and throw in at least 3 graphic tees to go along with that.  Each "team member" had a designated "role" for his/her shift.  The worst role - and I hated this - was that of the "greeter".  The greeter stood at the front table of the store and had to screech out, "HEEEEEYYYYYYY GUYYYYSSSSS ... HOW YA DOIN ... HEYYYYY JUST TO LET YOU KNOW, WE HAVE A 2 FOR $10 DEAL GOING ON FOR ALL GRAPHIC TEEEESSSSS ..."  And if our store manager couldn't hear you from where she was standing at the back of the store?  *throat slitting motion* You were gone.  No hours for you, mate.  So I put on a super affected voice and dutifully did this screeching every time I got the "greeter" role - I especially liked it when teen boys mocked me to my face because that is certainly what I would do if the roles were reversed.

I hated it.  So much.  But apparently, I was really good at it, because I was promoted to lead cashier within a couple of weeks.

But if you work in a store, in my opinion, your job is to sell the product.  You are a salesperson.  As to how far you go in pitching your sale, that's up to your company and store manager.  In the UK, salespeople don't sell.  They stand mutely by as you struggle to find your size, wander around obviously looking for help and generally, ignore you.  Yes, overzealous sales assistants piss me off.  But I'll admit I'm partial to someone who will help me rifle through a rack of jeans to help me find my size than someone who stands by watching idly as I struggle on when it's their job to assist.  Once, (and yes, I will name and shame in this case) I was in John Lewis - a department store chain that is known for its reputation for apparently remarkable customer service, as all the oldies (and twenty-somethings who like to pretend they are pensioners) love it.  So much so that their website boasts:  "Britain's Favourite Retailer". 

There were three people in the bedding department:  me, John and a sales assistant.  After pacing up and down the aisles searching for what I was looking for, I threw my hands up in despair.  "Did you find them?" John asked, also empty-handed.  "No," I said glumly, both of us in earshot of the assistant, who glanced up but made no move to offer any advice.  I sidled up to him and said loudly to John, "Maybe I should FIND someone to ASK."  Only then did this sales person deign to turn his head and mutter, after a pause, "What is it that you're looking for?"

Hard-sell or not, at least we're helpful and (mostly) friendly in the US - unlike you lot.  And I don't know where the hell this woman was shopping or what she was wearing because in all the shops I've been in that she's listed, I've been dutifully ignored.

Photo source
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Thursday Morning Tube Rant: Sitting Across From Men In Flip-Flops

I hate feet.  And toes.  But mostly feet.  That's because I was raised by my mother to believe that feet are dirty and mine are ugly.  She never ceases to remind me.  "Ooh no, you can't wear those," pointing to a gorgeous pair of Kurt Geiger sandals I have just tried on.  "They're too exposed ... you really can't.  Your toes are just soooo ugly."  Then she shudders for effect, which is, you know, not damaging to my self-esteem at all.  And it is true that after fourteen years of dancing and being on pointe, bunions, corns, hammer toes and callouses have served as a cruel reminder of my mangled foot-fate.

Having said that, John has the perfect toes and feet - it's not fair.  It's not fair that a man should have perfect toes (once I commented on this and he nodded very solemnly and said, "I know."  No modesty there) when women clearly need to show them off in cute sandals and barefeet in the summer.  Having said that, no man should wear flip-flops unless they have such perfect toes.  And this morning, I found myself face to face with someone who I could only describe as Shrek, sitting across from me on the tube. 

What disgusted me most was that Shrek was dressed in an all black and dark jeans ensemble, with his belly protruding through his too-tight black polo shirt, thinking that he was rocking this outfit.  And grossest of all, he was wearing black flip-flops.  This was problematic not only due to his sausage toes and abnormally hairy hobbit-feet but also due to the fact that the pinky nail was completely yellowed and crusty and the other nails were grimy.  Most appalling.  I didn't mean to examine Shrek's toes, but you know how it is when you're sitting on a crowded train with no reading material (left the Stylist on my desk yesterday along with the other book I'm in the middle of) - your eyes have no where to look but the floor and there they were - Shrekish toes.  Shudder.
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Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Ben & Jerry's Sundae on the Common: Moo-valous, Dahling (well, sort of)

I recently got an email from Ben & Jerry's announcing this year's line-up for their Sundae On The Common festival on Clapham Common. 

Last year, around this time, Natalie sidled up to me at the printer at work and said, in that sing-song voice of hers (which I adore, really), "I just bought my tickets to Sundae On The Common."  With just a hint of smugness.  "What's that?" I asked.  "It's the Ben & Jerry's Festival," she said.  With just a slight increase in smugness.  "There are lots of bands on the main stage and the best part is you can have as much ice cream as you can eat!"  The smugness won.   "Sounds good," I said, coolly, trying to hide my glaringly obvious jealousy.  "Have fun," I sniffed.  She beamed and trotted off.

So the next year, I made sure to buy my tickets in advance, so I could shove my own smugness into someone else's face.  Not that I would ever do that.

What do Brits know about Ben & Jerry's?  Only the tip of the iceberg.  You see, I grew up with Ben & Jerry's, with my mom introducing me to my first flavor (and her favorite), "Cherry Garcia" - creamy vanilla with dark chocolate chunks and marischino cherries.  The usual ice cream brands dominating our freezer (Dreyer's and Breyer's) bowed in reverence to Ben & Jerry's pint-sized tubs, which we only had once in a while as a treat.  My favorite was the since discontinued "Coconut Almond Fudge".  Because I like all those things.  But one that I had to try when I was home, out of sheer greed (and the fact that such flavors simply do not exist on this side of the Atlantic), was "Everything But The ...", which included chocolate ice cream, vanilla ice cream, Heath bar chunks, white chocolate chunks, peanut butter cups and chocolate covered almonds.  Feeling sick yet?  I did, after having two scoops and wished I had opted for a safer option.

Nostalgia aside, I am pleased that Ben & Jerry's is just as popular here in England, although I wish stores sold more flavors, rather than a rotation of 5 (or 6, if you're lucky).  And that they didn't cost £5 per tub. 

When we finally made it to the festival (that's Camera Obscura on the left, btw, the band we had actually wanted to see and bought the tickets for - a group I once described as "a sound akin to that of a record player stuck in the basement of a vintage store"), John was feverish and ill and the weather was terrible.  As in, raining and cold terrible.  Still, we managed to have a semi-decent time and as much ice cream as we liked (which only turned out to be 3 scoops each before we felt sick), but the lines were so long to each ice cream stall that you spent more time lining up and fending off people who cut or saved spots for their 20 "friends" to come along just as you got to the front than you did enjoying yourself and listening to music.  Maybe the weather had something to do with it, but in all honesty, I'm not returning this year.   One of those examples of "good idea, but not quite there yet." 
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The World Cup Begins: Who Cares?

An email was recently distributed at my office from the building's facilities management regarding "World Cup coverage" during the games.  But because it was tucked between emails about the hot water taps in the kitchen being "very hot" and the carpet cleaning schedule for the remaining days of June, I paid no attention - until today, when I was attempting to clean out my inbox after receiving my 1,000th email informing me that my inbox has "exceeded one or more size limits set by your administrator" and I will no longer be able to "send or receive new mail until you reduce your mailbox size."  So naturally, I clicked on the World Cup email with my finger poised over the delete button.  But before sending it to my Deleted Items box (why doesn't Outlook just call it "Trash"?  It's so much more satisfying to move work emails to an icon labeled "Trash" rather than "Deleted Items"), I considered this email thoughtfully.  'Only in England,' I thought to myself, 'would facilities management offer to "set up a projector and screen in the restaurant to broadcast the game should England get through to the second or subsequent rounds"'.  And only in England would you be given permission by your line manager to go down to the said restaurant to watch this game.  And possibly, only in England (with the exception of maybe France, because they're all into workers' rights and stuff there), would they broadcast other games in which England is not playing in the office and allow workers to watch these games.

When I go home to the States, people almost always ask me the same question (along with a myriad of the usual questions about where I live, such as, "Doesn't British food SUCK?" and "Doesn't it rain, like, ALL THE TIME, in London?" or "Don't British people have the worst teeth EVER?"), which is, "Don't y'all watch a lot of soccer over there?"  If "y'all" refers to me, then no.  But "over there", yes, people watch a lot of football here.  I don't mind it, and I sure as hell don't find it as obnoxious and irritating as that other version of football, which involves pig-skin tossing, beer guzzling and "tailgate" partying (British friends, I'll explain later), but I sure as hell don't CARE.  It may be the biggest sport in England and most of Europe, but I just can't get into it enough to give a flying turkey.

Four years ago, whenever the last World Cup happened, John bought me an England shirt and sent it to me in the US.  I wore it a couple times to bed, deemed it not-as-breathable-as-cotton and politely retired it to the back of my closet.  When England lost, he called me.  "It's because you didn't wear your England shirt!" he moaned.  I resisted the urge to reply, "No, it's because you've got a crap team" and responded with, "Oh noooooooooooo ... sorrrryyyyyyyyy," instead.

Last night, John said, "I can't decide what time to leave for Leicester this weekend."  "Why?" I asked.  "What's the problem?  We can either go Friday after work or Saturday morning."  "I know, but the World Cup is starting and I don't want to miss any of it," he said, forlornly.  Um, yeah, no sympathy from me there.  Eye roll.

Photo source
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Sunday, June 6, 2010

It's Cake Time!: Chocolate (Walnut) Brownie Cake

My friend Shirin has the best baking blog EVER.  Every mouth-watering entry is accompanied by photos of the process and her directions are straight-forward and easy to follow.  Although I have yet to try one of her delicious recipes (I lost my American measuring implements somewhere between Greville Road and Sutherland Avenue during The Move last year), I click on every update I receive from her in my Blogger Dashboard.

So this post is dedicated to Shirin, really, since she inspires me to bake - and not in those, pretentious-I-take-artistic-photos-of-my-creations-because-I'm-the-next-big-baking-blogger blog posts way, but a I-simply-love-to-bake-and-share-what-I-made way.  Did you follow that?  No, me neither.

Rambling aside, JK was off to a stag-do (read: bachelor party for all my American friends) yesterday so I had lots of girly free time on my hands, which translated into reading glossy magazines, taking a nap, watching Britain's Got Talent, then Britain's Got More Talent, then ransacking my cupboard and fridge for available items to bake with.  I found this great recipe on BBC Good Food (which I use a LOT) and threw in a handful of walnuts since I had some leftover from my last carrot cake venture.  I also used a loaf tin instead of a cake tin, because ... well, I felt like it.  This increased my cooking time by approximately 35 minutes, which had me yawning but catching the first half of one of my favorite rom-coms, The Holiday.  By the time Kate Winslet helped the little old guy back to his home and they had their "meet-cute" (if you're not familiar with the movie, you won't get this), the brownie-cake was ready. 

Good thing too, because an hour after I drifted off to dreamland, the boys stumbled in, drunk and happy to find a batch of warm brownie slices waiting on the kitchen counter for them, before passing out.
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Saturday, June 5, 2010

I Run For My Dad Because I Hate Diabetes

So I'm currently watching Britain's Got Talent with my foot propped up because I attained two rather largish blisters yesterday from walking a measly 10.62 miles yesterday for a work charity event (which had been probably lying in wait during my lunch time 5k runs as well) and decided to pop and drain them myself rather than wait for them to become callouses, as I'm too impatient and would like to get moving again soon.

I'm getting antsy because I have exactly five weeks before the ASICS British London 10k run and I'm no runner - no, I'm not athletic in the slightest.  Which is slightly disheartening when I'm surrounded by ultra-fit people in my life (ahem, Udita, Lauren, and JK) and I'm blobbed out like a heffalump on my couch eating Jelly Babies like there's no tomorrow (and yes, I finished the pack).

Anyway, while I was looking up methods of blister popping (because the ones I used to get in ballet from my pointe shoes tended to just pop themselves and bleed all over my shoes - lovely, I know), I came across this fantastic blog by a Californian podiatrist named Dr. Christopher Segler who gives a great rundown of blisters and blister treatment.  However, I hit a sobering point in my impatience and annoyance when I read that blisters on the feet of diabetics, such as my dad, should be considered a medical emergency.  I had to re-read that a couple times.  Although I knew (from growing up with a father who has suffered from this disease for over 30 years) that any foot injury to a diabetic was very, very serious, it took the words "medical emergency" to really make me pause and think about the gravity and importance of the cause I'm running for.

Although both my parents (and most of my extended family) suffer from diabetes, the person I'm mainly running for is my dad.  Watching him cope with this illness has been one of the most painful things to experience in my life, so I can't imagine what it's like for him.

More than anything, I'd like to raise awareness about diabetes as a non-preventable disease; often, when people hear the word "diabetes", they instantly write it off as an obesity/diet-related issue, which is sometimes the case, but in my dad's and family's situation?  It's not.  And that's what's difficult to accept.  For now, I'm just playing a waiting game.  Others will say, "Oh, but that's easy, you can just cut out sugar or eat less carbohydrates.  And don't you just inject yourself with insulin?  Or take pills?"  It's a complete lifestyle change.  And a lot of people don't understand that.  Nothing infuriates me more than people who know my dad and the extent of his diabetes only to hand him a piece of cake at a party or a jar of jam for his birthday.  Diabetes is an illness to be taken seriously.  Imagine having to have your feet amputated because you had an infected blister from running.  Or teetering on the dangerous brink of falling into a diabetic coma because your body could not cope with the sudden change in your blood sugar level - while you were asleep.

I hate cancer.  I also hate diabetes.  If you have a spare dollar or pound and would like to contribute to a terrific clause, please sponsor me here and help me reach my goal of raising £300 for Diabetes UK.
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Bargain Hunting: The Markets @ Camden Lock

I love markets, but I hate the crowds they bring (see left - that is an actual depiction of how I perceive crowds, conveniently taken by a shaky hand: blurry, chaotic and anxiety-provoking).  However, when you're with a tourist (my mom), you can't not go to a market, especially one of London's most beloved, Camden Lock.  Okay, so Camden Lock itself isn't actually a market, but I use the location to collectively refer to the several markets that fill the streets and infamous Camden Stables.

It wasn't until I with John and my mom last week that I'd realized how long it's been since I last visited.  "This is like Hong Kong's Ladies' Market!" my mom marveled as we pushed through the crowds, referencing the busy markets on Tung Choi Street and Fai Yuen Street in Kowloon where a lady selling fake Links of London bracelets once latched onto my hand and wouldn't let go because I refused to purchase her overpriced fakery (but that's another story for another time - I usually do come back with a lot of goodies from the Ladies' Market). 

I *heart* Camden Market.  Give me a £100 and a few hours there and I'd bet I'd come back with a few great finds.  It's less crafty than Spitalfields and Greenwich, less antique/worn/pretentious-driven than Portobello and perfectly in between all of the above.  It's not particularly easy to get to from where I live, but lovely on foot, along the canal. 

There is stall after stall of scarf dealers selling "pashminas" (yeah, I put that in quotes as I highly doubt their authenticity) and other decorative neck warmers, such as this lovely fuschia piece I picked up on the right for £10, guaranteed to brighten up my typically bland, boring, "I-liked-the-Gap-mannequin-so-I-bought-the-whole-damn-outfit" ensembles (I reached for the navy, but my mom shouted, "Don't you dare!" and swotted at my hand before I could plunge myself any further into wardrobe boredom purgatory).   My mom chose a similar one, albeit in a more sophisticated silver (to tone down her typically colorful ensembles ... two words: apple green *shudder*) and minus the little knitted balls.  To be honest, I could have spent a lot longer lingering at that particular scarf stall, but John looked like he could keel over at any minute due to man-accompanying-women-shopping syndrome, a condition which I am sympathetic towards.

But I guess that's one of the reasons why I haven't been back in such a long while - I have no reason to go and it's not exactly fun for my usual partner in crime, since almost all the stalls cater to the whimsical needs of women (yeah, I said that, and no, it doesn't make me any less of a feminist), minus the stables, where one could purchase some vintage cowboy boots, leather jackets or men's Levi's.  But I don't think he's particularly interested.

I suppose one thing that would interest both sexes, however, is the blessing of an overabundance of food stalls at Camden markets.  My mom and John opted for some West African goat curry served in little tinfoil containers with a fork stuck in (I love the sight of those containers - they make everything look unbelievably delicious for some reason) while I stuck to the safer option of a falafel-filled pita from Falafel Queen, which is a delicious option, btw, for all you vegetarians and vegans out there (though the filling could have had a bit more sauce in it, tbh).  From where this photo was taken, I spied a stand selling ice cold pina coladas served in a pineapple shell.  I didn't make it down there that day, but will sure do on my next adventure into Camden.

So yeah, if you're looking for a nice day out and don't suffer from agoraphobia, then you should definitely head over to Camden Lock.  Then, why not stay for an evening performance at The Roundhouse?  Or take a canal boat trip back the other way?  Both things I'd like to do.
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Thursday, June 3, 2010

Pour Me A Drink: Iced Tea

Until a co-worker walked by my desk today and pointed out how quintessentially "American" my jug of peach iced tea was (courtesy of Crystal Light packets my mom had brought over during her visit), I forgot how frequently we chug this delicious summer beverage back in my home country.  My mom used to make "sun tea" - her version of iced tea on our deck at home in the summer in a giant jar equipped with a spout at the bottom so you could fill your glass straight from the source.  She put a lot of lemons, sugar and tea bags in to whip up a refreshing cold drink for those hot Washington summers (when it wasn't raining - so basically, like it is in London). 

I miss having the different varieties of iced tea there, which are as ubiquitous as lemonade (not Sprite, which Brits refer to as "lemonade" but you know, the good ol' tart stuff) in restaurants during the warm summer months.  In particular, I miss Honest Tea, which bring back great memories of grabbing lunch from Blanchard at MHC and even the mainstream bottled teas, like Snapple and Arizona.  And I'm sure that now that I've been out of the US for a few years, there are some even better tasting cold teas out there waiting for me to sample during my next visit.

For now, the packets of Crystal Light stored in my desk drawer will have to suffice.

Photo source
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Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Alexei Lubimov @ The Royal Festival Hall


As my pianist mother has been the driving force behind my musical endeavours and primary musical influence, I've felt most homesick when attending classical music concerts in London.  It's with no offense to my friends that I often wish, silently, when they're in the seat beside me, that it was my mother there instead.  It's not that I'm ungrateful to have their company, but growing up in Edgewood, Washington, doesn't exactly offer many opportunities to hear world class musicians perform your favorite pieces and making it up to Seattle for such occasions were, in short, a big deal - so my mom and I would often attend concerts and masterclasses at the local colleges and universities or head to a performance by the Tacoma Symphony. 

I was delighted to be able to book at least two concerts for my mom and I to attend during her visit to London, one at Cadogan Hall and the other at The Royal Festival Hall last Friday.  I booked the second concert out of desperation, really, as my plans to take her to a show had amounted to nothing, nearly 2 days before her arrival.  So in haste, I bought balcony tickets to a full Rachmaninov performance by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, featuring pianist Alexei Lubimov (whom I was not familiar with) playing the Rachmaninov Piano Concerto #4.

Now, as a sidenote, I'd like to mention that for some reason, my mom has notorious bad luck when it comes to seat partners in concert halls.  At Cadogan Hall, she had the unfortunate privilege of sitting next to a man who breathed so heavily through his nose (it must have been distracting for the musicians on stage) that I was tempted to hand him two Sudafed tablets and possibly perform sinus surgery on him myself - it was that bad. 

Minutes before the lights dimmed at the Royal Festival Hall two days later, a woman rushed into the empty seat in front of my mom, kissing her husband/partner/special friend on the cheek and exclaiming, "Sorry I'm late, at least I made it, though!"  One minor problem.  She had a beehive.  Like, a properly combed back, 4-inch 60's beehive.  And what did this Beehive do throughout the performance?  Only lean forward in her seat and bob her head along to the music - AND NOT EVEN IN TIME TO THE MUSIC.  Thank God we found new seats after intermission.


With that explained, let's move on to the main course.  I hadn't heard any of the pieces on the program before, but the way I see it, you can't really go wrong with Rachmaninov.  His compositions are technically challenging for the performer(s) and one symphonic movement can go through more mood swings than me when I've got PMS:  triumphant to tragic to vengeful to romantic to mournful ... you get the idea.  And although I hadn't previously heard the Corelli variations he arranged (all I can think of when I hear the variations is my brother struggling through 'La Folia' at the age of 7 ... if that means nothing to you, then perhaps Suzuki Violin Book 3 does ... if not, then consider yourself lucky), I was pleasantly surprised by the Rachmaninov-like twists he included and made a mental note to find the piece on Spotify as soon as I got home. 

Alexei Lubimov's interpretation of the Rachmaninov Fourth Piano Concerto was stunning.  His movements, graceful and relaxed (not to mention, not OTT, which a lot of younger musicians tend to do), gave the impression that the technically challenging passages were effortless (though the audience knew otherwise).  Because of the perfect balance he struck between passion and reservation, the audience could thoroughly enjoy the piece without the usual distractions of flying hands or sweating brow. 

However, I wasn't as impressed with the LPO ... I do prefer the London Symphony Orchestra. Maybe I've got bad luck, but every time I see the LPO something disastrous happens ... intonation issues, missed cues, etc. This time, there was a noticeable problem with ensemble, particularly in the first violins (yes, for the first time, the second violins were not at fault! I know, I'm shocked too, as a second violin myself). I don't know if they were seated too far apart from each other or perhaps it was the Concertmaster's leadership style that was in question, but they were so not together. Winds, brass and percussion were exceptionally strong and the second violins truly pulled their weight, probably partly due to an enthusiastic section principal (and yes, I will continue to call section leaders "principals" rather than the British shudder-inducing term, "leaders").

After intermission, I settled myself in for what I thought would be a boring four movements, but was again, very pleasantly surprised by the emotion and intensity drawn out of Rachmaninov's First Symphony.  The orchestra seemed more confident here; the ensemble was nearly seamless and the raw energy required of this piece was present.  Conductor Neeme J√§rvi, full of gravitas (and possibly grump, though I couldn't really tell) deserved accolades for his work - he's the first conductor I've witness reign in and finesse this rather unruly symphony orchestra.

Sorry for the harsh words, but at the end of the day, it's my opinion
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Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Crackin' Cracklin' Pork Belly Roast


If you haven't noticed, I was a bit MIA this past week from my usual blogging duties, as my parents were visiting from the grand ol' U S of A and I had to give them my full, undivided attention (read: my mom stole my Mac to check the state of her stocks and the stock market every 2 seconds, thus rendering me unable to blog).  Now that they're gone (sob), I'm able to resume my daily, self-indulgent ramblings about absolutely nothing. 

With that said, after a tiring day traipsing around a windy and overcast Greenwich Market (one of my favorites in London) and searching for 0'0 longitude AKA the home of Greenwich Mean Time (which we found, btw), it was expressed (bizarrely, by my mother) that we should have roast pork to reward our efforts.

While this could have been remedied by a quick trip down the road to The Elgin, John and I decided it would be more fun to cook and dine at home.  We raced to Waitrose Bayswater before closing time and clocked the above ingredients (plus a recipe for the apple compote above, which I'm actually still not that sure about - it probably would have helped had I read the directions stating that the balsamic vinegar was to go ON the pork, rather than IN the apple mixture.  Oops, my bad).  John prepared the meat and potatoes, I did the girly bits (the buttered leeks and apple sauce).

Mmm, mmm good.
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I Like, I Want: The Royal Festival Hall Gift Shop

It's no secret that I'm a fan of gift shops.  Take me to any museum and it's the gift shop you'll have trouble tearing me away from - not the exhibit.

In London, there are two that I particularly enjoy browsing:  the shops at the V&A (Victoria and Albert Museum) and the Royal Festival Hall.  Problem is, I don't usually have a browsing buddy to help me make decisions (or the money, for that matter).  If I'm at a loss for Christmas or birthday gifts, I head to either of the two and am guaranteed to leave with a bag on my arm.  Although a lot of the products are often overpriced, the majority of them are unique and therefore, sure to make the person receiving the gift very happy (I know I would be).  From note cards, chic tote-bags bearing colorful designs to gorgeous jewellery, these shops will never leave you disappointed.

Luckily, my mom was on hand last week when we dashed into the Royal Festival Hall's gift shop minutes before (literally, minutes before - the cashier was still wrapping our purchases when the 5-minute announcement was made) a concert by the London Philharmonic Orchestra.  While she quickly decided on two, chunky and sophisticated necklaces, I selected the ring above, which, at £4 was an absolute bargain.  And as they come in a variety of colors, I may be back for more.  Who knows?
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Julian Lloyd Webber (and others) @ Cadogan Hall


When I went home for Christmas last year, I was rudely awakened from a jet-lagged nap by my mom furiously pounding away at the piano.  This was not unusual - if it wasn't her incompetent talented young students butchering finessing a recital piece, then she was rehearsing the accompaniment to some difficult flute or cello solo for another teacher's year-end recital.  It was truly, never-ending.
On this particular occasion, I was drawn to the beautiful melody in the accompaniment.  Still half asleep, I asked her what it was and she replied with some frustration, "This stupid Faure Elegy for cello!"  (okay, some frustration was an understatement - I think she hated the piece).  With an accompaniment that pretty, who needs to hear the solo?  So I Googled the Elegy and found a YouTube video of Julian Lloyd Webber playing it back in the day.  Oh. My. God.  Not only was it the most beautiful piece I've heard in a long time, but JLW was insanely attractive back then.

Imagine my excitement, then, when my neighbor Gordon kindly slipped the Cadogan Hall season catalogue under my door and I happened upon a listing for JLW performing at the Two Moors Festival's 10th Anniversary Concert.  Be still my heart.  After recovering from the initial shock, I realized that my mom's favorite, Schubert's Trout Quintet, was also being performed that evening.  Needless to say, I booked in a hurry.

I'd never been to Cadogan Hall before and was quite happy to find it easily situated within 2 minutes walking distance from Sloane Square tube (my mom and I killed some time at Peter Jones before, which I was sure she'd like since it's every senior citizen's dream department store come true and best for retail snobs).  The hall itself is lovely and perfect for smaller, more intimate performances - a perfect contrast to the massive space of the Royal Festival Hall, which we'd be visiting later in the week for a performance of the Rachmaninov Piano Concerto #4.

Pianist Leon McCawley began the program performing two pieces by Schubert (the famous 'Papillons' and 'Fruhlingsnacht'), then returned to the stage to accompany JLW (yes, I'm just going to call him that from now on), who introduced each piece and spoke a little bit about its history.  I loved this casual characteristic of the performance, which I think put the audience at ease and isn't typically found in performances by musicians of JLW's caliber.  That he didn't feel too "above" his listeners to speak from the stage spoke volumes of his character and preserved the "festival" aspect of the concert.  Although we had fabulous third row seats, I would have preferred (had I doled out the extra ££) to be in the middle of the hall, as we were seated a bit lower than the performers, thus affecting the sound we received from the instruments.  Schubert's Trout Quintet was also performed with fantastic aplomb (though I had to concentrate on not letting my eyes fall on the over-eager violist, lest I dissolve into fits of giggles, which had already happened once) and I was pleased to catch my mom smiling during a sneaked sideways glance.

And now, for your own enjoyment, the famed YouTube clip which led me to JLW and the Faure Elegy - tell me you don't fall in love with him and the piece after watching this:

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© angloyankophile

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