‘Fences’: Lenny Henry playing Troy Maxson at the Cambridge Arts Theatre

Lenny Henry was outstanding as the troubled family patriarch, Troy Maxson, in August Wilson’s play, ‘Fences’ last night.  He appears to go from strength to strength as a character actor and lead, not in the least overshadowed by his illustrious predecessors in the role; James Earl Jones and Denzil Washington.

Troy, a black man who was denied his chance at baseball stardom by the racism prevalent in American sport post-war, has become an embittered refuse collector.  His bitterness leads him to destroy his family around him.  Denying his son, Cory [played by Ashley Zhanghazha] the sporting chance he has, and eventually even alienating his loving wife, Rose, and his great friend, Bono.

It sounds bleak. And in some ways it is.  But apart from being the gripping unraveling of a tortured man, it is also shot through with affectionate humour and loving banter.  It says much of Lenny Henry’s new won status that even in the funniest moments you never think, “Oh, here he goes being a comedian again.”

It also doesn’t descend into a neat scenario, where everything turns out for the best.  It remains hard and true to the end.  Rose, a woman who channeled her life through Troy, becomes strong and independent again.  Cory finds another vocation, and even Troy’s brother, war damaged and cheated on, finds a form of salvation at the end.

All the cast were outstanding, especially Tanya Moodie as Rose, and Colin McFarlane as Bono.  But Lenny Henry’s tour de force performance left the stage feeling somehow emptier on the few occasions when he wasn’t there.  Incredible, impassioned, bawdy, and drawing an electrical response from his exchanges with other cast members, Lenny Henry has moved, I feel, from a good serious actor to a seriously good actor!

Moving to the Duchess Theatre in London, from 26th June to 14th September, I will be seeing it again and would recommend it to anyone.

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Focaccia Pomodoro – Buy it? – or – Bake it!

If you have a lovely local Italian Deli where they bake their own and you can buy it warm and soft – Buy it and support them!     If however you don’t…………….or it’s a Sunday & they’re closed and if overpriced, flabby, supermarket pap is your only alternative – Bake it yourself!  It’s easy and delicious with that wonderful feeling – I made this!  All it takes is a little time.

Don’t ever make the mistake of using anything other than the best ingredients you can find.  This doesn’t mean paying the earth.  Sometimes it just means getting up off your backside and going to a market or finding a good deli.   Balzano’s Deli in Cambridge for instance has wonderful Sun-blushed tomatoes and lovely Olives, and Seafood, and Prosciutto, and, and, and…………..

Ingredients for 1. ‘Course while you’re at it you could make two or three………

12 oz [350 g] Good quality strong white bread flour; 1/2 tsp sea salt; 1 tsp thyme; 2 tbsp good Olive Oil; 200 ml warm water; 1 tsp yeast.    4/5 pitted & halved black olives; 6 sun-dried or sun-blushed tomatoes [a wonderful treat if you can find them locally.]

Mix the flour, salt & thyme well together in a large mixing bowl.  Crumb the oil into the mix.  Stir the yeast into the warm water and mix that in too.  Knead it together, not too vigorously, then cover the bowl and leave in a warm place for 2 hours.

Turn on to a floured surface, lightly knead again, then flatten and spread to an oval shape and put onto a oiled baking sheet.  No thinner than 1/2 “.  Arrange your olives and tomatoes on the surface, and leave in that warm place for 45 mins to rise further.  When risen indent all over with your fingers [my favourite bit!] and drizzle a little Olive Oil and sprinkle a little salt.  Pre-heat the oven to 180 [170 if a fan oven] and bake for 35/40 mins.  It’s done when golden-brown and slightly hollow sounding when tapped on the bottom.  A bit like me really………………………..

Serve with a Green Salad and/or Antipasti.

Buono Appetito

Spring to Summer

“Oh, do leave the snowdrop there, put it by my bedside table.”
The snow though piles against the walls
Do you feel cocooned or trapped

Dreaming, moving from room to room
Looking for lost children
Waking to find the snowdrift of our bed

Easels on the sand, watery smears of blue and green
Prussian and Cobalt Blue, Viridian and Terre Verte
Skies indistinguished from Seas below

Sitting beneath a big Beech tree in wicker chairs
Flimsy, floaty dress and big straw hat
I tilt it up, and kiss you softly on the cheek

The peppery sweet perfume of Pinks
The heady smell of new mown grass
The mower cuts its swathe

A long hot summer beckons
Barefoot in the grass
Lost in love those Winter thoughts

Risotto Bianco for Dummies!

So many make a great fuss about Risottos.  It actually takes no more time than any other hearty family dish.  Does it need stirring?  Yes!  So what!  It only needs it each time you chuck another ladleful of stock in.  Use the time in between to prepare something else, the pudding, or test the wine, talk to your guests, grate the cheese, whatever!  This is cooking not a boring task like scrubbing the bath!   Enjoy!

This is a simple recipe for a basic risotto, excellent on its own, or you can experiment and add items [mushrooms, sea-food, bottled artichoke hearts, etc] to make something even more special.

Serves 4, though as usual you can increase the basic ingredients to suit the number of bodies!

1 1/2 pints stock [I make mine from organic veg cubes or powder, but, even better, if you have your own stock, chicken, fish or w.h.y. do use it as appropriate for the dish];  1/2 a good size fennel bulb separated and finely chopped; 2 cloves of garlic, finely sliced; a medium onion finely chopped; 8 oz of proper Risotto rice; 1 good wineglass of Pino Grigio [and make it a good one, don’t cook with stuff you wouldn’t serve to your favourite guests]or a Dry Vermouth; 2 oz unsalted butter; 2 tbsp good olive oil; about 3 to 4 oz of grated Manchego [personal bias again,I just find it creamier when melted than Parmesan]; Sea salt & pepper to taste.

Heat the stock ’til it has boiled then leave to stand on one side, add a pinch or two of sea salt and pepper. I put mine in a large jug with ladle at the ready in it.  Use a good size, wide & deep, fry pan with a flat bottom and cover  if you have one, and heat the olive oil & butter together ’til melted.  Add the Fennel, Garlic and Onion and cook on a lowish heat for about 15 mins stirring occasionally so it goes translucent but NOT brown.  When the mix, or soffrito, is ready add your rice and turn up the heat.

The rice begins to fry, keep stirring and the rice begins to take on the oil and become somewhat translucent itself.  When it does add the wine/ vermouth and stir away ’til the rice has absorbed it, enjoying the delightful smell being given off.  Cook’s Perks!

Then add your first ladleful of hot stock.  A soon as it boils up turn down the heat to a simmer so the rice doesn’t begin to harden on the outside. Stir and push the rice around so that it begins to give off its creamy starch.  Let each ladleful get absorbed before adding the next.  I usually add my extra ingredients, if I’m using any, about half way through the stock jugs contents. This is plenty of time for seafood, artichokes or whatever to heat through without breaking down to mush.

Continue adding stock and stirring the rice and test when you think it may be done.  A slight al dente is about perfect.  Don’t worry if you run out of stock before this happens, just have a little boiling water on hand to add to your jug and keep going ’til it’s done.  By this time it will be creamy and smooth.

Turn the heat off and sprinkle the grated Manchego over evenly.  Put your cover on and leave for a couple of minutes ’til it’s melded into a delicious whole.  Serve immediately, with a mixed green salad and ripe plum tomatoes, sliced.  Perfecto!

Buono Appetito!

Zuppa di Pasta e Fagioli

For this soup it is well worth seeking out from your local deli the small pasta shapes, which are intended for these dishes, Nochette, Anelli, Acini di Pepe, or Ditalini.  Failing that most supermarkets these days have Orzo, the small pasta which looks like rice.

Serves 4/6

To make this a quick and simple dish I would use 2 drained cans of suitable beans, in water, Flageolet, Borlotti or Cannelini are perhaps best; 2 tsp olive oil; 2 rashers of unsmoked bacon or bacon pieces, chopped small; 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped, 1 onion, finely chopped; 1 stick of celery, finely chopped [or better still if you have any 1 ‘skin’ of Fennel Bulb, finely sliced]; 1 litre of stock, homemade if you have it, or for convenience I often use organic, low salt, stock cubes or powder; 1 can organic chopped Italian tomatoes; 200 g of small pasta; freshly grated Manchego to top, which I find melts deliciously rather than floating like Parmesan ice floes tend to.

Heat a large saucepan with the oil and put in the bacon, garlic, onion and celery or fennel.  Saute stirring until soft and the garlic is just turning brown.  Add the tomatoes, 3/4 of the stock and bring to the boil.  Turn down and simmer for about 15 mins, then add your beans and simmer for a further 5 mins.  Scoop out a good quantity of the beans in a sieve, and then push them through the sieve back into the soup.  Bring back to the boil and add your pasta.  Though small they may well take 10 mins to soften so keep stirring to prevent your soup sticking.  The soup should be thick.  If getting too dry add the remaining stock.

Serve into soup bowls grating a little black pepper on each and adding the Manchego.   Accompany with thickly sliced, warmed, ciabatta loaf and you have the perfect supper dish for a chilly day, Spring or Winter.

Franglais

I’ve often wanted so it seems

To write Bon Mots

To girls in dreams

Encourage them

To bill & coo

With just a Billet Doux (or two)

But now it seems my Savoir Faire

Often really isn’t there

So back I go Pied a Terre

My worst Faux Pas

A Cri de Coeur

to dance a little Pas de Deux

But, lo! It’s not a Cul de Sac

My Belle Epoque

It has come back!

Fait Accompli declare I can!

My Love is here

San Fairy Ann!

With the typical Tommies’ fortitude and good humour in the face of grim reality, “San Fairy Ann”, British Army slang for the French, “Ca ne fait rein” or “It doesn’t really matter”, came into use in WW1.  My grandfather, a pre-war regular who survived the horrors of the trenches, albeit not unscathed, used it often.  I now find myself using it, usually accompanied with a wry smile, and my children have become so used to the phrase that I’m sure it will live on, at least in my family.

Keralan Lamb Stew

A tasty curry which, though mild enough to serve to the wimpiest non-curry aficionado, I find myself being asked to cook again & again by even hardened India hands.

About 3 lbs  of stewing lamb, neck or shoulder is best, either left on the bone or trimmed and cut into small chunks;  4 tbsp rice or veg oil; cinnamon sticks in 2″ pieces, about 2 or 3; 10 cloves; 10/12 green cardamom pods; 2 tsp black peppercorns; 1 lb onions finely sliced; 2″ fresh ginger, peeled then finely sliced and cut into ‘matchsticks’; 6 whole long green chillies slit down the centre; 1 lb potatoes, peeled, big enough to cut into 4 lengthways and give you thick wedges; 1 pint thin coconut milk; 1/2 lb ‘banana’ shallots, peeled and thin sliced; a handful of fresh curry leaves or about 2 tbsp of dried; 2 tbsp lime juice.

For this you will need a large casserole.  Heat the oil and when hot put in the cinnamon sticks, cloves, cardamoms, and peppercorns.  Stir to coat with oil, then add the onions and ginger.  Cook until the onions are translucent, then add the lamb, green chillies and 1 pint of the coconut milk.  Bring to the boil, then turn down and simmer for about 35 mins.  Add the potatoes, bring back to the boil and then fast simmer for about 20 mins or until the potatoes are soft enough to push a fork into but not falling apart.

Heat a little more oil in a small pan and saute the shallots until they are nicely browned.  Add the curry leaves and stir through. Put in the remaining coconut milk and when it comes to a simmer add the whole pan to the stew stirring it in along with the lime juice.

The result will be a delicious creamy stew, the chillies will have lost all their heat, the lamb will be mouth-wateringly tender and just watch people fighting over the potatoes!  Serve in large bowls,  just accompanied by Naan Breads to wipe up the last bit of juice!