Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Artistic delights

Our weekend began on Friday night when we met up to eat at Eat And Two Veg in Marylebone. The building was wonderfully cavernous with high ceilings, exposed brick and dark wooden furnishings, but the food was a little too stodgily vegetarian for my liking, featuring such old school ingredients as textured soya protein and quorn. I much prefer the fresher, more modern and imaginative vegetarian delights cooked up at Mildreds in Soho.

Saturday began with a rushed perusal through the Royal Academy's spectacular From Russia: French And Russian Master Paintings 1870–1925 From Moscow And St Petersburg exhibition. The place was so tightly packed with middle-aged and elderly out-of-towners that we were able to see very little, so we will return one Thursday after work when we're more likely at least to stand and admire paintings from C├ęzanne, Gauguin and Matisse to Kandinsky, Tatlin and Malevich at greater leisure.

Edward Burtynsky's magisterial photographs of large-scale quarries around the world (above) were on show at Flowers Central on Cork Street. This Canadian photographer is fascinated by the architectural possibilities of geography and landscapes transformed by industry, but despite this it is wonderfully unclear whether he is an environmentalist, an industrialist or simply a documentarist. The vast scale of his photos and their flattened, geometrical preoccupation reminded me of that other magisterial photographer Andreas Gursky.

Tim Simmons' elaborately lit photographs of snow at The Fine Art Society (above) on Bond Street were haunting, enigmatic and extremely cinematic and could easily be hung alongside contemporaries such as Philip-Lorca diCorcia and Gregory Crewdson.

I dragged M into Fenwick department store so I could use the loo but then used it as an excuse to also check out their baby department. And then we replenished our tea supplies at Postcard Teas on Dering Street. We bought second flush Darjeeling from the Fairtrade-endorsed, family-run Goomtee estate (left), some Japanese sencha from the Wazuka hills of Uji and a new tea we've never tried before from southern Korea - Hongcha. We love visiting this small tea shop because the owner regularly encourages us to taste his teas and has a story for each one. He told us how his Hongcha tea tasted remarkably and radically different when drunk in east and west London and we spent some time discussing how the different PH levels, chemical composition and processing techniques of London water affects how delicate teas taste.

After our disappointing experience looking for shirts on Jermyn Street a few weekends ago, we were extremely impressed by the Brooks Brothers store on Beak Street. Though the menswear and womenswear are a little too preppy for our tastes, the store had a wider variety of shirt collar styles that better suited M's preferences. The service was impeccable also and the store was uncrowded making the whole shopping experience much pleasanter. The best discovery was their fabulous Thom Browne collection (above).

We revived ourselves with chorizo and cheese (M) and Dorset ham and Montgomery cheese toasted ciabattas at Fernandez & Wells down the street, then walked along Great Titchfield to the Marco Bohr photographic exhibition Floating Cities at the Mummery + Schnelle gallery. The photos echoed the washed out, melancholy glaze preferred by many of the contemporary Japanese photographers I have seen and featured amateur musicians practicing their craft along the banks of the Tamagawa river on the outskirts of Tokyo - one of the few places they could play without disturbing others or being disturbed.

By this time, I was finally exhausted so we went home and chilled for a few hours before I had to head out again, back into town, for my friend R's 30th birthday celebrations in the St Alban on Regent Street. R looked fabulous, as usual. We used to work together at a development agency in London several years ago and bonded over the fact that we blatantly did not fit in with the non-profit, activist world (where I had to hide the fact that I enjoyed Coca Cola and occasionally shopped in Gap). Like me, she moved fully into the corporate sector before throwing in the towel for a life-enhancing trip to India and Hong Kong. Now she's back home in Ireland working in the corporate sector again and assessing her options.

St Alban features high-end comfort food such as charcoal grilled skate with capers, lemon and pine nuts and veal t-bone with olive mash and slow roasted Norfolk black pig with savoy cabbage and roasted quince. I had a moreish dish of slow-cooked lamb with chillies and chickpeas. The food was very nice, though a little too salty for my taste and I found the individual ingredients tended to overpower one another. But the company and the restaurant environment - featuring wall art by Michael Craig-Martin - were terrific and I was especially impressed that the car service the restaurant offered to ferry me back home (hey, I'm a pregnant woman, I'm allowed such luxuries!) cost exactly the same as a black cab.

Sunday was a quieter, more local affair. As usual, M went to the gym. I cleaned the house, did some laundry and read the weekend papers. Then I met up with M outside his gym and we browsed the local Mothercare. From Ambala we bought some sweet and sour, crunchy namkeen and from our favourite Indian supermarket we bought homemade vegetable samosas, pakoras and potato and pea kachori which we lunched on back at home with sweet lime and chilli pickle, that made Little Planethalder dance around inside me, and a clean and crisp raita M made (above).

M prepared a knuckle of lamb with whole and crushed black peppercorns, sat it on some whole garlic and shallots then popped it into the oven to slow roast at a low temperature for five hours or so while we vegged out for the rest of the afternoon with the engrossing and epic 10-part World War II drama Band Of Brothers on DVD. This TV series is incredibly addictive. I love the high production values, the washed out, metallic hues and how each episode focuses on a particular aspect of the war - whether it is the impact newcomers to the battlefield had on the more seasoned, battle-weary members of Easy Company, or the role of medics, or the effect fear in the battlefield had on all.

Our dinner guests at night were M's sister and one of her best friends - a recently qualified doctor who entertained us with all sorts of gruesome stories from her night shifts at A&E. M served the roast lamb with pumpkin mashed with chillies and cumin and a salad of watercress salad with peas (above). All so delicious. M's sister remarked what a lucky woman she was having a brother like M. I can only agree!

Oh, and here's my belly at 21 weeks and 5 days. That's all baby, promise...

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Clueless

Most of our grey and rainy Saturday was spent wandering through Marylebone - buying crisp white cotton bed linen from The White Company; lunching on salads of smoked mackerel and white beans (M) and chickpeas, goats cheese, roast squash and sun blush tomato pesto (me) at The Natural Kitchen; and browsing the Scandinavian designer tableware and furniture at Iittala. Laden down with goodies, we cabbed it to Covent Garden where we watched the terrifically tense and brooding modern Western movie No Country For Old Men (photo above) by the back-to-form Coen Brothers.

In Marylebone, we also popped into Daunt Books, where M picked up Mario Batali's mouthwatering collection of simple, everyday Italian recipes Molto Italiano (photo above), and I headed straight to the Pregnancy & Childcare section. The first book I bought was Dr Miriam Stoppard's First-time Parents: What Every New Parent Needs To Know, with chapters on how to change a newborn's nappy, how to bathe and dress it (photo below), how to feed it, how to soothe it when it cries, and other basic guides.

This morning, M and I were lazing in bed (those days will soon be gone) chatting about how neither of us have ever changed a nappy, how I've never even held a newborn baby (and M can barely remember if he has). Basically, we have no clue. How can we bring new life into the world?

I remember my good friends D and J telling me of the day they brought their firstborn home. All the well-wishers had departed and they were left alone sitting on the sofa holding a newborn who wouldn't stop crying and all they could say to each other was, "What the hell do we do now?".

My mum emailed me this morning telling me that she and my dad had no clue either and it was worse for her because none of her family was around. She wrote that, "We even didn't know how to raise a little baby. When you used to scream with tummy ache due to wind and refused to feed I used to cry. But we coped, didn't we? You became so nice and sweet." This, despite being a paediatrician. She just muddled through and it all worked out in the end.

I guess we'll just have to take it day by day, but believe me I am now doing a lot of reading - witness all the magazines I have bought... and that's just half of them!

Another book I picked up at Daunt Books was Ann Pleshette Murphy's The Seven Stages Of Motherhood, which explores the various shifts in identity a woman goes through as her child matures from a fetus in the womb to a toddler, from a school child to a young adult. Its focus is not on pregnancy, birth and child-rearing but on the woman as mother, and I'm enjoying it because it begins with defining motherhood as an identity that begins at conception.

On Friday night, I also downloaded from iTunes an audiobook of Deepak Chopra's A Holistic Guide To Pregnancy and listen to it at night as I drop off to sleep.

Now that I've passed the 20 week milestone, I feel more secure in imagining a life beyond pregnancy and the life of our baby. The Chopra and Murphy books are very meditative and are provoking all sorts of feelings and thoughts in me, which no doubt will gradually surface in this blog.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Mid-pregnancy notes

  • At 20 weeks, I'm still feeling tired but not as fatigued as in my first trimester when I was coming home, going straight to bed, only surfacing for the dinner my wonderful husband made (despite his long day in the office too), and then going back to bed again.

  • I'm craving just apple juice and fruit. Sometimes at work I go through two large M&S fruit bowls a day - expensive but it's what I'm craving. Odd, since before my pregnancy I hardly ate any fruit, being a savoury girl. I'm also eating more vegetables and carbohydrates in general and far less protein than I'm used to, which again is odd as pre-pregnancy I was a protein-a-holic. Having said that, I can still chomp on beef all day long if I am given the chance.

  • Until 19 weeks, the baby was still an abstract object inside of me and it didn't really feel real until I started to feel its movements - just tiny, dull tap tap taps at the moment, but signs of life nonetheless. I've noticed the baby is particularly active after a glass of ice cold milk, which I've been drinking twice a day since I've become pregnant.

  • I'm drinking not a drop of alcohol but am drinking a mug of coffee a day and a can of cola every so often for sanity. I'm not beating myself up for eating pre-packed salad leaves or soft-rind cheeses (albeit pasteurised) occasionally but I'm trying to avoid the usual suspects - it's only 9 months of deprivation after all.

  • Our October trip to Japan last year marked the early weeks of my pregnancy. I was so nauseous in Tokyo and Kyoto, that I couldn't even bring myself to blog about our trip properly. I certainly struggled to enjoy the food there and still now I can't quite stomach Japanese food - once my favourite "food group"! You may have noticed we no longer eat out at Japanese restaurants.

  • All this time, we have visualised the baby as a boy. Not because we wanted a boy as opposed to a girl, but that is just the pattern we slipped into. Despite this, by my 18th week I had a hunch, deep down, that the baby would be a girl. I did a frivolous Chinese Gender Predictor test online, which took my age and the month I conceived and predicted I would have a girl. This was confirmed in the 20 week scan, but I still slip up and think of "she" as a "he".

  • We had our boy and girl names chosen even before we conceived - both Indian names beginning with R. Our surname is English so the Indian first name makes it a perfect combination. Neither M nor I have middle names so the baby will have just the one name (which is good, because we're too lazy to decide on more names).

  • The worrying never stops - each twinge, or lack of, I take note of, and, until the 20 week scan at least, I still felt my breasts for tenderness to prove the pregnancy was still viable. It didn't help that in my so-called "blooming" second trimester, I no longer have the usual pregnancy symptoms of nausea and extreme fatigue or even spots.

  • My stomach feels like a brick and is rock hard. And I think I'm finally past the "just fat" stage and am looking properly pregnant now.

  • I am walking around like an elephant. I feel sorry for our downstairs neighbours (well, not that sorry - they are horrible people) as I am thud thud thudding all over the flat and simply can't help it. Another reason I'm anxious to move into our new house.

  • I'm very protective of the bump. I don't like anyone touching it apart from my mum and my husband and I find myself shielding it in crowds. If someone bumps into it then I feel an instinctive surge of anger.

  • The most worrying moments so far in this pregnancy were my nuchal scan and nuchal blood tests (which ended up being fine with a risk factor of 1:6560) and bleeding at 16 weeks (which ended up being due to an infection affecting my cervix, unrelated to the baby). My colleague, who is pregnant with her second child, says the worrying will never stop even when the baby is born, so I may as well get used to it!

  • As I've commented in the previous post, I've never been a broody person - I've never yearned for a child, so it should feel entirely strange having another heart beat and a new life growing inside of me. But in fact it feels entirely natural in reality. I'm surprised at how normal this is all feeling. Of course, I'm only halfway there. I expect as the baby grows bigger and stronger and I become better able to feel it kicking and moving around inside of me then it will feel odd. Watch this space...

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

It's a...

The baby wriggled around incessantly, kicked and punched me endlessly and did round upon round of head-over-heels until the sonographer, my husband and I were doubled up with laughter. I was scanned three times with gaps of 20 minutes between each scan, but eventually all necessary measurements were taken and my stubborn, active, playful baby was declared fine and dandy. It had passed the big, scary 20 week anomaly scan with flying colours and "it" was pronounced "she".

Yes, we're having a baby girl!

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Kolkata beef and coconut curry

It's been a while since I posted a recipe here on Planethalder. When it was still fashionable, I thrived on the protein-rich Atkins diet. Beef is my favourite meat and I nearly always choose it if it's on the menu. Steak done rare is my ultimate dish and it is what I ate, with rocket and sun-blush tomatoes dressed with balsamic vinegar and parmesan shavings, at Caffe Caldesi in Marylebone on Friday night after work. This weekend, we visited my parents in Suffolk. One of the wonderful things about visiting my mum and dad is the fantastic, home cooking. On Saturday, my mother cooked us an array of mouth-watering Indian dishes: dal with sultanas and fresh coconut pieces, curried mixed vegetables, plump cod steaks in a spiced coconut and mango sauce, and this dish - Kolkata beef and coconut curry...

Sunflower oil
450g/1lb diced beef
2 medium tomatoes sliced
3 medium sized potatoes diced
1 medium onion thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic crushed
1 tsp cumin seeds
3 tsps coriander seeds
1 tsp black peppercorns
1 tsp crushed red chillies
1 tsp sugar
2.5cm/1in piece fresh ginger peeled and finely chopped
1 tsp tumeric
1 tsp garam masala
Salt to taste
100g/4oz creamed coconut dissolved in half pint hot water
Juice of 1 lemon

1. Heat the oil in a large saucepan, add garlic and onion and fry for 3-5 mins until the onion is golden brown.
2. Crush the cumin, coriander, peppercorns and red chillis in a pestle & mortar and add to the pan. Fry for 2 mins, stirring continuously to blend with the onion mixture.
3. Add ginger, tumeric, garam masala and tomatoes and fry for another minute, stirring well.
4. Add the beef and stir well to coat with the spices. Fry for another 5 mins, stirring well to seal the meat on all sides.
5. Pour in the stock, bring to the boil, then reduce the heat, cover and simmer for 10-15 mins.
6. Stir in diced potatoes, bring to boil and simmer for another 20 minutes, adding more water if necessary.
7. Pour in creamed coconut and lemon juice and stir well. Cover and simmer gently for 40 mins until the meat is tender, stirring occasionally.

Serve with basmati rice.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Happy birthday, Mr Jones

I'm celebrating this guy's birthday today - 61 today. The only celebrity I still obsess about (since I was a child). I know Elvis would have been 73 today, but I don't remember him. It's the leper messiah I grew up with in the 1980s (albeit a decade too late), so Happy Birthday Dame David Bowie - your music and your many different looks have given me untold pleasure over the years.

My personal top three favourite David Bowie albums of all time: Station To Station (1976), Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) (1980), Heathen (2002).

Monday, January 07, 2008

In and out and about

Thursday turned out to be Indian Treats day for me. During my lunch break, I walked down to Drummond Street near Euston to pick up some paneer for the evening dinner when I passed by Diwani Bhel Poori House and thought, "Why not?" The place was packed due to the restaurant's buffet lunch special but I managed to find a table for one. I had bhel puri, of course, and then malai kofta with paratha. The food was not as tasty as my favourite Ravi Shankar Restaurant next door, but it hit the spot. Then I popped over the road to Ambala for a tub of their very moreish Ambala Mix. And then later, for dinner, I cooked paneer and peas curry.

On Friday, I discovered our company had changed their maternity regulations for the better. Instead of providing just the basic statutory rights, they are offering three months full pay, three months half pay, back to work bonus and all benefits including health, dental, pension and gym membership left intact. Apparently the company decided to make the changes because they didn't want to lose valuable female staff - since just three of us at work will be going on maternity leave soon it left me feeling very chuffed and valuable!

After work, I went out for drinks with colleagues and then met M for dinner at Hong Kong Diner in Chinatown. We ate chicken kung po, beef and spring onions, stir-fried greens and egg fried rice. At home, we ate some Ben & Jerry's vanilla ice cream with some thick dulce de leche poured over the top.

On Saturday, we visited Alicia Dubnyckyj's Two Cities exhibition at Sarah Myerscough Fine Art in Mayfair. Dubnyckyj took snapshot photos during trips to San Francisco and New York City then manipulated them on her computer before painting the images onto MDF with gloss paint. The results were interesting though a little too "paint by numbers" for my liking. We also popped into the Aicon Gallery to view their Winter Moderns exhibition (Jamini Roy, right), but once again nothing jumped out at me and I felt that much of it wouldn't have looked out of place in the wall art sections of Habitat or Ikea. That was my instant reaction anyway. However, with hindsight and longer reflection I realise now that at the time - early 20th century - these modern Indian masters really broke new ground within India in bringing a different artistic aesthetic to public attention. With that in mind, I will try and return to view the works with refreshed eyes.

We lunched on open rye bread sandwiches at the Nordic Bakery - M had pickled herring and I had cheese and pickles, plus the obligatory cinnamon bun. We browsed shirts for M on Jermyn Street but were disappointed with the quality and styles. I think he'll stick to his usual Jil Sander, Dries Van Noten, Martin Margiela and Gieves & Hawkes. Though he may also check out bespoke.

While in town, we also picked up some Korean Sparrow's Tongue and 2nd flush Darjeeling tea from East Teas; black rye bread and smoked Gouda from Fresh & Wild; Medoc and Malbec wines from Milroy's; a Korean cookbook and some Charles Dickens novels from Foyles; an umbrella from Muji; some tofu, daikon and miso paste from Arigato; and some dried macaroni from Lina Stores.

Back at home, M cooked baked macaroni with cheese, bacon and spinach - inspired by our lunch at Automat last weekend - and then we vegged out on the sofa with the weekend papers, books (The Old Curiosity Shop for me and Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games for M), and magazines.

On Sunday, the weather was bright and sunny and crisp with clear blue skies, so we went down to the Southbank and strolled a while along the river, peering into all the strollers as we went along. It seemed there were so many other young, mixed Indian-English couples out and about too with their Indian-English babies. We had fun wondering how ours will turn out - what colour skin tone, what colour hair, will he or she look more Indian or more English, how much hair will she or he have (alot I think, judging from the fact that M and I were both born with masses of thick dark hair).

Then we snuggled into the large, comfy armchairs at the Benugo cafe inside the BFI, for a couple of hours waiting for our movie - Wim Wenders' Alice In The Cities - to start. We lunched on deli sandwiches, thick-cut chips with ketchup and rice pudding with raspberry sauce, chatted, read the papers and people watched. The space at Benugo is great for families with strollers and there were many babies, toddlers and children around which will be terrific for us later on in the year. The Tate Modern members room is the same - great for parents with young children, complete with changing facilities. And the Barbican of course has parents and babies film showings most weekends. I'm beginning to file it all away!

The film was excellent - shot in grainy black and white, the film follows a blocked reporter who ends up on the road - travelling across America and Holland - with a nine year old girl in search of her mother who has deserted her.

Then back home, where M cooked a spicy lamb bhuna with crushed fennel, fenugreek, coriander, cumin and mustard seeds plus crushed dried red chillis, ginger, garlic and tomatoes. His first attempt at cooking a curry for me and it was superlative. When my mother found out she said, "How am I going to cook curries for him from now on?" as she knows how well my husband cooks. Don't worry Ma, I am sure he will gobble up all your delicious curries next weekend when we come visit you. Besides, you have decades more experience of cooking Indian food than him!

He also tried his hand at okra curry (above) and we ate the Indian feast together with his father, sister and sister's friend who came for dinner.

Delicious, M!

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

New Year notes

  • I have so much to be grateful for in 2007 - my husband, our romantic wedding in February, my ever-deepening relationship with my parents, gaining a new family, getting two pay rises and a promotion in a career and company I love, my husband enjoying his new job also, getting pregnant, re-visiting NYC, having two honeymoons in Japan and India, getting our offer on a house accepted, having another year of good health.

  • My life has not always been so blessed and joyous, and I know enough about how life works to not expect such blessings and joys so fulsomely all the time. But this was certainly my year for happiness and I am savouring it all.

  • I suspect 2008 will be just as busy and so I am again not making any New Year resolutions. When I recovered from cancer a few years ago, I vowed I would make the most of life and not just seize opportunities as they came to me but create opportunities for myself, without thinking too much and over-analysing and having the moment pass me by. It was the biggest resolution I could make to myself and has served me increasingly well over the years.

  • Having said all that, there are a few bite-sized resolutions I want to keep for 2008. I am guilty of never having read a Charles Dickens novel and as I love London so much I want to rectify this pronto. I want to get back into the habit of reading the current affairs sections of newspapers and magazines rather than contenting myself with the Arts or Lifestyle sections. I want to keep in better touch with family and friends - even if it simply means remembering to send birthday cards out on time. I want to make sure I slather on the body lotion each and every morning after my shower.

  • We saw the New Year in quietly at home, with a leg of lamb slow-roasted with rosemary and garlic and served with a salad of baby lettuces, sliced pears, orange segments, coriander leaves, pomegranate seeds, toasted pine nuts and roasted beetroot. M found the salad recipe in a local Austin newspaper from his business trip to Texas a few weeks ago. Then we watched Jools Holland on BBC2 and the sensational fireworks on the River Thames on BBC1 and soon after midnight phoned both sets of families - one in Suffolk, the other in Loughborough - to wish them a Happy New Year.

  • This may very well, God willing, be our last New Year together before we are joined by Little Planethalder so it was extra special seeing in 2008 just the two of us - M with his California syrah and me with my elderflower cordial. Hugging, kissing, being in love, being together.

  • And then today, the first day of 2008, we went walking across Hampstead Heath, where we were married earlier this - whoops, last year. One of my favourite places on earth and so close to home. Our boots sinking into the wet, squelching mud. Stopping for bangers and colcannon mash and bread pudding for lunch at Kenwood House.

  • At home, we began to watch Akira Kurosawa's medieval epic Kagemusha, but were so shattered from the walk and fresh air we collapsed into sleep.

  • Now M is preparing shepherd's pie from the lamb leftover from last night's roast and reading last weekend's New York Times and I'm catching up online.Tomorrow, it's back to work for both of us. Happy New Year one and all!