Here in rainy, chilly southwest London, moving house continues with all its pains and pleasures.
The lovely things that we have found in our latest run-up to a house move cannot be topped by this beautiful gem, given to Avery when she was born by our brilliant silversmith and jeweler friend, a neighbor in our first New York loft. Was it ever used? Even if not, we cherished it, and now it’s been unearthed in the back of a cupboard, tarnished and a bit sad. But nothing that a bit of polish couldn’t put right.
It’s funny how … inevitable one’s life seems sometimes, how everything and everyone is in the spot that life has set out, and one can’t imagine it any other way.
And then, the landlords come back to view “their” house preparatory to moving back in next month, and I have had an amazing morning seeing a whole alternate life within these walls where we three have been so happy for two years. Far from the quiet peace of our life, here was an entire family — four children under 9! — running all over “their” house, chasing our cats (who…
It’s hard to get sometimes.
Just ordinary daily life sometimes can seem to be quite enough to be going with: the quotidien tasks of sorting out Lost Property at school, looking after my social work family, ringing my bells and trying to keep interesting food on the table feels like a full plate. Feeding 30 Lost Property ladies on a beautiful, sunny, warm spring day is the icing on the cake.
And then just to mix things up, life throws you a curve ball. This time around, it came to me in a text from John.
“Do you want the good news or the bad news?”
“The bad news, please.”
“Our landlords are coming back from Sweden and they want the house.”
Our house, that is. Except that it isn’t.
It’s much nicer to own your home, as it turns out. We’ve rented many apartments and houses in our day, and we’ve owned a couple too, and I can tell you that the phone call from real estate agents telling you you’ve got to uproot your lives is one you really don’t want to get. Especially with the garden in a state of loveliness and peace.
So ordinary life, which had until then seemed like plenty, gets shoved aside to be replaced by the familiar hunt (by John) for places to view, the trips around various neighborhoods, analyzing the proximity to public transport, food shops, walking into strange houses and trying to picture our furniture, books, art and cats in the places of other people’s lives.
It’s time suddenly to pack up the cats into their kitty prisons and drag them, their voices raised in woe, to the vet for the vaccinations that will allow them to stay in their kitty hotel for the duration of the movers’ work. They don’t like moving any more than we do.
Time to drag through my memory for the names of the art hanger, the bookshelf installation people, the carpet cleaners. Time to weigh the relative merits of being close to Avery’s school in a not-nice house, or being farther away in a nice house.
“If this house were clean, if the carpets were clean, it would look so much nicer.”
“Yes, and if there weren’t mirrors behind all the bookshelves and there wasn’t water damage to the floor and all that calcium damage to the bathroom faucets…”
The nice house won!
Then it’s time to start getting cautiously excited about starting fresh. Where will the sofa fit, and the long dining room table? Which will be Avery’s room and which the guest room? Will the kitchen be big enough for the Lost Property lunch? Movers come to give estimates and John wrangles over various unacceptable aspects to the lease.
It’s a chance to make decisions about how much we actually need and love all our belongings! “Think of it this way: do you love that stockpot enough to pay somebody to put it in a box and take it out again?” we ask each other in a hundred different ways.
During all this upheaval, Avery is facing the long exam season: over 20 exams in 11 subjects over the course of five weeks. Every day sees another exam or two under her belt: from Russian, French and Latin to all the sciences, maths, history… whew! The most important thing to do, now we’ve found a house, is to keep life sane and calm for her to accomplish this enormous task and then be able to push aside the subjects she’s decided to drop, and get ready for next year’s concentration on the things she loves.
In a fit of bad timing, we had just booked our tickets back “home” the day before we found we had to move. So between Avery’s last exam and our trip back to Red Gate Farm, we have six days. Two to pack up this house, two to fill up the new house, and a day of cushion on either side.
Although it’s frustrating to go through all this craziness at the behest of other people, it’s important to keep perspective once again. We’re incredibly lucky to be strong and healthy enough to go through the whole process once again, and to have each other to keep sane and even happy as we uproot everything and try to put it back together on the other side. Sometimes it’s hard to keep that all in mind!
Since I didn’t have enough to think about, my bellringing mentors decided it was time for a new challenge: ringing what’s called a “Quarter Peal” from the treble bell at the beautiful Christchurch in Colliers Wood, in southwest London.
Of course last year around this time I rang my first Quarter Peal, from the tenor bell. It’s a 45-minute-ish mad whirl of continuous ringing, and the difference this year was that instead of my bell simply ringing the last sound every six blows, my bell was changing all the time, now ringing first, then second, then third, then fourth, then fifth. It was MUCH more fun, but much more difficult than anything I’ve ever done before. Thank goodness for all the different colored sallies, unique in my experience, and so much more festive than plain blue or red!
I made plenty of mistakes, but all the experienced ringers around me were patient and helped me out with raised eyebrows and little nods and other indications of where my bell should be. Thank goodness it’s over! I can stop practicing on the computer now, for awhile, and rest on my laurels.
Perhaps the best way to celebrate my triumph would be a plate of perfect potato cakes, adapted from my dear friend Orlando’s cookbook. Possibly Avery’s favorite food on earth.
4 large potatoes
1 large shallot
sea salt and fresh black pepper to taste
3 tbsps goose or duck fat
Peel the potatoes and slice them very thin lengthwise, then slice them the other way into very fine matchsticks. Plunge into cold water until you’re ready to use them. Meanwhile, mince the shallot very fine. Drain the potatoes and mix them in a large bowl with the shallots and season them to taste. Lay a large teatowel on the work surface and pile the mixture on top, then fold the towel around the mixture and roll it up tightly. Leave to let the moisture be absorbed by the towel, until you are ready to cook.
Heat the fat in a large nonstick frying pan until a piece of potato sizzles when dropped in. Form the potatoes into four cakes, dropping them carefully into the hot fat to avoid splatters. Fry on one side until it’s crisp and browned, then turn over carefully and press down slightly. Fry on the second side until it’s browned as well. This process will take three or four minutes per side, depending on how large your potatoes were. Remove from the pan and place on a pile of paper towel. Serve straightaway.
These potatoes are the ultimate use of that particular carb: they are creamy inside, crunchy on the outside, and the duck or goose fat adds a completely different flavor from any other fat. Of course you could cook these potatoes in olive oil or butter, but go for the special fat. After all, you don’t eat them every day (although Avery would if she could).
Orlando potatoes may not be enough to protect us from the spiky moments of life — moving house, exams, Quarter Peals — but they will surely make them more delicious. And that puts it all into perspective. Keep life delicious and the details will take care of themselves.
In London, that is, belatedly! We are all taking total credit for bringing this lovely warm weather — and sun! — home from our American Easter holiday.
On our way to cross the pond, we stopped in New Jersey to visit our beloved friends Livia and Janice, in their peaceful, unchanging oasis of a house.
Old, old friends who know us backwards and forwards, endlessly interested in the relative chaos and change of our lives.
We sit in their vast white kitchen, gossiping over single-malt Scotch, ginger ale for Avery, telling tales of our Easter fun, hearing about the insanity of Livia’s real estate business (“I have clients now who demand that visitors wear paper booties when they come in the house,” she chortles), the adventures of Livia’s niece in the cutthroat New York publishing world, their thoughts on Avery’s and my cookbook-in-the-making. Livia may have a contact for a publisher! Fingers crossed he will like our ideas.
Out for dinner to our traditional old-fashioned Italian restaurant where we dither, predictably, over the familiar choices. Flounder diavolo, or tortellini Michelangelo? Artichoke soup or a chopped salad? Everything loaded with garlic and accompanied by soft, heavy Italian bread. Traditions. Dear Livia, one of the most brilliant minds I have ever known, and every year Avery becomes more like her. What could be better?
As always, after any significant time away from our English lives, I find it quite intense to re-enter, to fit into this still-foreign culture. I always find it fascinating to analyze the approach that outsiders take to “fitting in” here. I know some people who resolutely remain themselves in every way, either because they are supremely confident in themselves or because it’s just too difficult or too much trouble to be a chameleon. The sense of reserve that permeates much of English life can be a bit intimidating, and I certainly understand those expats who just don’t try to overcome it; they make only American friends, they shop at the Gap and stream CNN. If you look in their kitchen cupboards, you will see Rice Krispie Treats, Vermont maple syrup and Doritos, carefully collected from the various British shops that cater to the Americans here. These people seem perfectly content to remain entirely American, surrounded by a foreign culture.
But I do try to fit in. I’m not sure why. Take my beloved hobby: bellringing is just about as English as you can get! We rang last week in honor of St George — the patron saint of England — on a sunny, warm spring evening.
And of course there is the wonderful Dorothy L Sayers Society of which I am a fervently loyal member. Although I cannot make it to many of their events as they take place during the summer, I managed to join everyone over the weekend at a performance by one of my very favorite English actors, Edward Petherbridge, in one of the most unusual plays I have ever seen, “My Perfect Mind” at the Young Vic.
Because dear Edward was simply the definitive Lord Peter Wimsey, that iconic English detective in Dorothy L Sayers’ novels, we in the Society make an effort to turn up at any play he might appear in, and this latest was truly a tour de force.
The idea of the play came about when Edward was cast as King Lear in New Zealand, several years ago, and suffered a debilitating series of strokes on the second day of rehearsal. While in recovery, although he had lost many physical abilities, he found he had retained all of the content of the play, and “My Perfect Mind” is an exploration of his recovery, his childhood, his entire acting career, punctuated by hypnotic excerpts from “King Lear” itself, a play I’ve never seen performed. All this was told in a kaleidoscope of memory, sadness, humor and ambition, spanning his entire life. You simply MUST go. It’s been extended for a week, closing May 4. I think I’ll go again, perhaps dragging my family with me.
Believe it or not, after the matinee of this play, I sauntered over to the National Theatre to meet John and Avery for Othello! Two plays in one day: a first for me. I sat outside at the wonderfully scruffy famous skateboarding at Southbank, reading Edward’s memoirs, “Slim Chances” and waiting for Avery and John to arrive for early sushi, and the play. And while it was a very good production, lavish and dramatic, expensive kitted out and full of stars, I much preferred the far simpler staging and subtle humor of Edward’s play.
What I will NOT do in my quest to fit in in my adopted land is succumb to my bellringing teacher Howard’s pressure to pronounce certain words in the English fashion! Ready to ring at Chiswick last Sunday, gathered around the ancient baptismal font which was open ready for a ceremony, he sprinkled me with water. “Howard! That’s blasphemous in the extreme,” I said. “You’re going to find yourself in Purgatory before you know it.”
He hooted. “‘Purga-tory’? What’s that? You do NOT pronounce it that way, surely. Repeat after me. ‘Purga-tree.’”
“Purga-tory,” I insisted. “And while we’re at it, ‘ceme-tery,” ‘manda-tory’ and best of all, ‘LAB-ora-tory,’” I finished triumphantly.
“‘Ceme-tree’, ‘manda-tree’ and ‘la-BOR-atree’!” he moaned in mock distress.
No, I will not give in on those.
We’ve been playing tennis madly (too madly in fact; I have a wretched backache right now from what I think is a pulled muscle) and eating lovely salads for lunch, in an attempt to throw off some our winter weight. How about avocado, halloumi, baby leaves, tomatoes and hard-boiled eggs?
In order to eat more vegetables, I’ve had another delivery from the divine Natoora, supplier of all things deliciously Italian. I went a bit mad, I think. Got fennel?
To cope with the influx, I invented a fennel soup with Pernod, then reverted to one of John’s favorite slaws of fennel and carrot, and best of all, experimented successfully with a beautiful chicken and fennel dish.
Roast Chicken with Fennel and Lemon
(serves four with leftovers)
1 medium chicken
2 bulbs fennel, sliced thickly
2 lemons, sliced thickly
6 cloves garlic, minced
4 fresh bay leaves
dozen baby tomatoes
drizzle olive oil
handful grated Parmesan
fresh black pepper
Place the chicken in a large roasting dish and arrange the fennel and lemon slices around it. Scatter over the garlic and capers and tomatoes and tuck the bay leaves in here and there. Drizzle olive oil over the fennel slices and top with a sprinkle of Parmesan and black pepper. Roast at 325F/160C for two hours.
Lacrosse boots covered with caked dirt, piles of textbooks, single drama shoes and sneakers, named and unnamed clothing of every description. At one point I reached blindly into an enormous bag and felt something WET. I screamed! “It could be anything, a severed head!” I said desperately. But it was only leftover leaves from the work of the School Flower Team. One of the Flower Team was just leaving, having sprinkled her fragrant magic around the school. “This stuff stinks,” she said smiling, picking her away across the LP room, strewn with dirty clothes.
And then there are the inexplicable items that just make us shake our heads. This time, I think the prize for “weirdest thing in Lost Property” had to be divided between a human-sized plywood cross and a six-foot woolly stuffed snake. Really? Really. Even odder than the snake itself was the maths teacher who came trotting over. “That snake is mine, actually.”
Go for it, mate.
Someday I’m going to buy one of those welcome mats that say “The Muck Stops Here” and put it outside the Lost Property door.
This week will bring the beloved termly luncheon, for which I must decide what to make. I’m thinking of my brother in law Joel’s delicious artichoke dip, since my Italian vegetable delivery included two dozen baby purple artichokes! Or even the frittata I made this week.
Artichoke and Iberico Ham Frittata
(serves two hungry people)
dozen baby purple artichokes
1 tsp olive oil
1 tsp butter
six slices Iberico ham, torn into bite-size pieces
3 tbsps single (light) cream
1/4 cup grated Parmesan
fresh black pepper
First, prepare the artichokes. Cut about 1/4 inch off the top of each artichoke and cut off the stem. Peel away the outer leaves until you judge that you have reached the softest leaves. This will result in an artichoke that’s about half the size it was originally. Have a bowl of water with the lemon juiced into it to one side as you do this, and cut each artichoke into four slices, top to bottom, then drop them in the lemony water to prevent discoloration. When you are ready to cook them, drain them and pat with a paper towel.
Heat the oil and butter in a frying pan and fry the artichoke slices for about four minutes. Scatter the ham bits over them. Whisk the eggs with the cream and pour the mixture over the artichokes and ham, tilting the frying pan so that the eggs cover all the surface. Sprinkle with the cheese and pepper and cook gently, not too hot, until the eggs are just nearly fully cooked. A little squidginess is fine. Do not overcook. Remove from heat, place a plate over the frittata and turn the pan upside down. Done.
This is quite simply one of the most delicious things you can eat. It’s savoury, it’s creamy, and the artichokes impart an exotic bite and an indescribable flavor. Homemade they are so far superior to the ones you find in a jar that you may never go back. I’m marinating the remaining dozen artichokes in olive oil and garlic right now, but they will require three weeks to be ready. You have to think ahead!
It’s that wonderful Sunday afternoon feeling right now, a mixture of relief that ringing is over for the week until Friday practice, lunch has been cleared away and it’s not quite time to start thinking about dinner. Another busy week beckons. And spring has sprung.
It’s the last day of our spring break here at Red Gate Farm, and you know what that means: packing, doing endless loads of laundry, eating weird combinations of food to get it out of the fridge, madly buying the odd American things we can’t seem to live without in London like gallon Ziplock bags, Fox Point seasoning, those Pennsylvania Dutch egg noodles Avery loves so much, and plenty of “stress-relief” eucalpytus and spearmint hand soap that I’m convinced is even more effective than Xanax on an anxious day. It’s certainly more expensive! My long-suffering brother in law Joel, who patiently receives parcels for us during our London months and stores them in his basement, reports that said basement is distinctly stressed-out now, since I’ve removed my stash to take it back with us.
We’ve had our last super brunch at the inimitable Laurel Diner, home of the butteriest hashbrowns, the richest corned-beef hash and the nicest staff in the world. Look what I came away with this time, how perfect to wear bellringing in London! You can bet I’ll be the only girl on my block with one of these tees.
Avery has been diligently studying, or “revising” as one says in English English, for the massive exams looming over her life next month, the dreaded GCSEs. Eleven subjects, over the course of a month, to be suffered through in the school Sports Hall under the most rigorous of conditions (no sneezing has been bandied about by the exam rumor mill, for example). The dinner table this “holiday” has been taken over by her papers, files, books, pens. We cleared off a small portion for our dinners, though. Lobsters for Nonna’s last night!
To be perfectly honest, the lobster dinner was pretty much a very expensive excuse to get Avery to photograph a lobster roll. We are making massive headway on the list of photos we need for our cookbook-in-the-making, and this one tops the list for cover image, don’t you think?
We’ve sadly waved goodbye to Nonna, whose visit was as much fun as ever, punctuated with great cooking together, manic games of Aggravation…
She’s one of those people who makes you cooler just by watching whatever you do and making it seem interesting. Chopping garlic! Setting the table! With my mother in law by my side, even the most boring tasks take on color because she’s so intensely fascinated by everything going on around her. And she gives wonderful gifts. These little artichoke candles are my new favorite possession.
It was time for one last party, one last gathering around the table with people we never get to spend quite enough time with, for a bagel brunch loaded luxuriously with smoked salmon. The spring light made the table so lovely.
This time the cast of characters included our dearest neighbor and friend Anne, up here all by herself to accomplish some home repairs across the road, leaving dear David and Kate behind. How hard it is to wait until summer to see them! The Elder Rollie, as he must be called now that there’s not only Young Rollie but Even Younger Rollie these days, came with Judy who brought fruit salad and daffodils, as well as her beautiful smile, one of the warmest in the world. Such dear friends, all.
And dear Matt and Laura, who brought a cake and even more importantly the most beautiful baby this side of the Atlantic. Can you just believe little Annabella, nearly a year old now…
What fun it was to have a little one crawling around here again, now that our nieces are so elderly, four and eight. Annabella raced around on all fours, finding Avery’s old dollhouse and all its accoutrements. She is just charm itself, listening intently to everything being said and smiling now and then as if at some internal happy thought.
How we feasted! Real American bagels, plenty of cream cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, avocados, the smoked salmon with fresh dill, Rollie’s delicious home-smoked bluefish. We lingered in the kitchen where Annabella was playing, sitting on various uncomfortable surfaces like the hard bench before the woodstove, the straight-backed kitchen chairs, or the floor, in my case. The power went out, naturally, as it does all the time in this crazy house, but even so, we stayed where we were.
No one wanted to leave, and we all wanted to watch the little girl enjoy the dollhouse people, so we made coffee and tea and just hung around, chatting about the state of the local government, the Land Trust, the peepers in the swamp, our families. “Well, my dad’s slowing down, naturally, as you do when you get older,” Matt said, then looked at The Elder Rollie. “Well, not YOU, maybe, Rollie!” “Yeah, that memo about slowing down, I didn’t get it!” Rollie crowed.
And when everyone else finally did depart, Rollie stayed behind to help John set up the generator, since as city folk we could not possibly go more than two hours without the internet! They entered the feared and cobweb-festooned crawl space to emerge with the magic source of energy.
Judy and I stood to one side as “the boys” got the generator going, then shouting a bit over the din, went over to inspect the new wall. How beautiful it looks! The most costly expanse of stones I can imagine, but worth it to see it standing firm now.
Should we be worried about the expanse of moss accumulating on our roof? Rollie deems not.
The party was over, the early evening air chill. The last guest gone, the holiday over. It’s back to London for us, to ring bells and mate socks at Lost Property for me, for John to continue planning his beloved river-edge property, for Avery to take the wretched exams. And when we see Red Gate Farm next, there will be a chicken in the chicken house for the first time in half a century, I imagine. That will be worth coming back for. For now… holiday over.
What a madcap ten days we’ve had here!
It’s what happens when we’ve been absent for seven months from our beloved home here in the Connecticut valleys. The birds have missed us, as have the chipmunks and the elusive woodchuck Gary. Agatha, our brilliant cleaning lady, had been and gone, leaving her magical perfection and a pot of blooming daffodils behind her. Our neighbors had been involved in an intense rivalry as to who could leave the most welcoming pot of jam, loaf of bread, sweet Easter note.
It’s been eight years since we were here for the Easter holiday, and in those long years in London I had forgotten about the various miracles that take place in the country in April. Snowdrops abound in Anne’s gardens across our quiet road.
In the shadow of our farmhouse, overlooking the Big Meadow, the bed of ferns, dormant and brown throughout the winter months, begins to come alive again, without our having to do anything about it. Perfect.
“Our generator’s been stolen!” John says sadly, walking in from his inventory of the Big Red Barn. “Oh, no, how disappointing to have something bad happen at Red Gate Farm,” I mourn, hating to think our shangri-la had been invaded. I messaged my dear farmer friend up the road to ask if there had been other such thefts and she replied immediately, “OMG, didn’t anybody tell you? We came over and took it down to your basement for safe-keeping after the big snowstorm!”
So, far from a theft on our beloved farm, we have been visited by yet more kindness.
How thrilling to see the new/old wall, repaired laboriously by our dear stonemason Tony. It will last forever.
We went to bed the first night puzzled to hear a strange singsong, almost buzzing sound outside the windows. “Is it cicada season?” John wondered, and we fell asleep wondering.
In the morning we followed the sound through the cold spring air across the road far into Anne’s property, into a stand of shivery bare trees, to the swamp that the nearby main road is named after. And there we found hundreds and hundreds of very vocal little newborn frogs, just below the surface, “peepers,” as it turned out, and living up to every inch of their names. You can’t see them here, sadly, as they’re hiding, but trust me, they’re there and chirping away.
We crossed the road and admired the tiny shoots coming up in the tiger lily bed in front of the house. We’ll miss nearly all of them, but there is usually one holdout at the beginning of July to welcome us.
How heavenly to settle in, watching “Days of Our Lives,” “General Hospital” and “Young and the Restless.” What on earth is Jason doing on Y&R, and Ashley on Days? I prepare lunches of red cabbage slaw, leftover chicken burgers, soups from the dinner before, happily looking out my kitchen window at the — admittedly brown — sweep of lawn down to the barns.
Then it’s time to make our seasonal pilgrimage to the Gap for sale t-shirts and underwear. “Nice to see you! But what are you doing here at Easter?” the saleslady asks. Have I been spending too much time at Gap? We visit our beloved American grocery stores for the American foods we long for all year long: truly garlicky dill pickles from the deli counter, yellow American cheese, Doritos and Cheetos, bison for burgers.
It was absolutely freezing, literally, the first days of our vacation, but did that stop us from playing tennis? Of course not! Our hibernating bodies were shocked to be asked to run, jump and hit balls. We persevered, secure in the knowledge that John’s mom’s approval would make it all worthwhile. And it did, when we retrieved her from the cozy nearby airport and brought her home, stopping for the ultimate eggy brunch — a sandwich with fried eggs, sausage, bacon AND cheese! — at the perfect Laurel Diner, the best diner on the face of the earth.
Everything tastes better there, and it was such fun to greet our friends Peter and Stephanie who run that wonderful spot.
And from Nonna’s arrival, the pace of life ratched up. We were off to my sister’s for a delicious pork rib dinner, fresh from my brother in law’s grill. “We had a little dinner guest here awhile ago, and she said how great the ‘meat sticks’ were,” Joel laughed. I have a feeling ribs will always be “meat sticks,” now. How wonderful as always to be cooked for, in their beautiful, serene house, full of my nieces’ shouting laughter. I can’t believe we forgot a camera!
But Avery was there to photograph one of our favorite Red Gate Farm dishes: scallop and parsley pasta.
We’re hard at work on our cookbook and much of our diet lately has come under the heading of “Do we need a photo of that?”
One morning, for some reason John was visited by an intense desire to redo Avery’s childhood room. “Why should you be all crowded in there with two beds? Let’s take one down and get you a chair and some bookshelves.” So we took down one twin bed and poor Avery had to go through all her books, papers, girly stickers and toys. It looks gorgeous and peaceful in there now.
One more bit of childhood gone, in a visit that began with the discovery of No More Rope Swing. How sad.
I suppose it shouldn’t have surprised us, as the swing’s been up since 2004 and the branch has drooped visibly in the last few years. But I will miss it, scene of many lovely summer afternoon swinging sessions with Avery, her visiting friends, the neighbor children, Jane and Molly.
And then my beautiful mother and brother arrived! How wonderful to have everyone together, finally. Here are all the ladies of my beloved family. What fun to sit and gossip with and just plain enjoy my mom.
Just look at Miss Molly at school, revelling in her own special parking spot, thanks to the school auction!
We had a fabulous time with the “dip me again, Aunt Kristen!” ploy.
Lots of time in the backyard on the swingset. Too bad Molly isn’t a ham, at all.
And Saturday brought us a belated Easter Egg Hunt! No need to bother with explanations of the Bunny’s visiting twice in one year, this hunt was purely a gift to our nieces from us.
And they had fun in the cold, cold morning air.
We had a delicious, if totally unexpected Easter lunch. I had decided that the best way to feed everyone would be a roasted ham, but I definitely did not want the already-cooked, and heaven forbid already-sliced things that seemed to dominate the butcher section at the grocery. “Do you have an uncooked, fresh ham?” I asked the “butcher” uncertainly, as most people standing behind American meat counters have no real relation to the profession of butchery. But this fellow did, with the bloody apron to prove it. And he sold us a fresh ham.
Which turns out to be… pork roast. I should have realized that fresh ham here is a whole separate category to what we’d think of as fresh ham in England, which is called a gammon joint and has been cured. “Fresh ham” in the States is really not at all, except that it’s the cut that would eventually become a ham, if cured. Ours was a simple, giant pork roast on the bone. Delicious, once we got used to it. Here is our springtime, Easter table.
Of course, I’ve been bellringing, amidst all this activity! I made the trip down to Brewster gladly, since the now-defunct Melrose School and its beautiful tower is one of my favorite places in the world.
The number five bell’s rope simply severed in Bill’s hands, thank goodness not mine! The practice devolved into an impromptu rope replacement seminar, high up in the belltower, with the drama of which rope to choose taking place in the ringing chamber.
We had a glorious couple of hours, ringing something maddening called “Little Bob,” which involves ringing on six bells but pretending there are only four, only you DO have to count the extra two, but not really? You can imagine my level of skill at this endeavor! “One, two, three, four, Little Bob is such a bore. What did I choose the treble for?” Never mind, it was tremendous fun. Goodbye to Melrose until July! I got to greet the resident baby cow (don’t ask, no idea what he’s doing here) on my way to the car.
It’s so difficult for me to believe, when I’m here, that our London life exists. Life here is all about baby Rollie’s birthday party, complete with a visit to his new chicks and ducks, and his love of the Wellies we brought him from London.
It’s about his mother Tricia bringing me a dozen of her hen’s eggs, and it’s about the school bus trundling by on its daily rounds, past the Big Red Barn.
It’s about American friends, and dear, dear family with whom we never get to spend enough time. Two weeks of bliss, and then back to our other life, with its joys and sorrows. How lucky we are to have both lives, and everyone who peoples them.
Well, it’s back to the tennis courts for us. The sun is shining, the warm air welcomes us, and it’s spring vacation at Red Gate Farm. Happy days.
It’s been an extremely busy, at times rather gruelling autumn and winter, spent entirely within the world of London. It’s been seven months of the weekly rounds of social work, bellringing lessons and services, the constant mess at Lost Property, worrying with Avery over her exams, endlessly cooking and writing about cooking. We can remember the very days that weren’t cold, wet and grey precisely because there were so few of them! At least we had our visitor kitty Shastokovich to cheer us, seen here enjoying a treat on the terrace.
So, it’s time for a break. On Thursday, the school term finally ends and with it our self-imposed exile in London. Sunday will take us to Red Gate Farm! Our mothers will appear for some much-needed family time, we’ll be reunited with Jill, Joel and the girls, and all our unique Connecticut friends will appear with their particularly American personalities and dearly-missed conversation, adorable children and enthusiastic appetites.
I can’t really complain about our London life, since so much of it is quite wonderful. Our lovely neighbors’ beautiful dinner party with bacon-wrapped monkfish and a light and delicious shrimp risotto (the chef says under his breath, “It’s made with that chicken stock you gave us.”)… We’ve had a lovely sausage-roll party here with dear friends, and I can tell you that is one fabulous dish. Simply take your own homemade sausages or the best you can find at the shop, wrap it in puff pastry, brush with egg white and sprinkle with Parmesan. Bake at 350F/180C for 35 minutes. Heaven, a very popular dinner party idea.
There have been long cosy afternoons sitting on the wide sofa with friends and a cup of tea, lunches at the garden end of the dining table with another chum, a sushi adventure with a visitor from New York, and “Macbeth” with the divine James McAvoy. You must try to see that if you can. His is a violently physical Macbeth, visibly declining from ambition to murderous insanity, whilst spilling quite a lot of blood, jumping from table to chair, dispatching enemies right and left, once right onto the foot of an unsuspecting audience member in the onstage seats! McAvoy is a brooding revelation, totally exhausting to watch.
But it can get repetitive, a bit predictable to watch the parade of days spent emptying dishwashers and doing laundry. How much more fun to spend two weeks at Red Gate Farm doing those things in a different place.
And we’ll be able to see in person, with our own eyes, the tree branch that’s fallen on Avery’s beloved childhood tree swing, investigate whatever spring flowers are popping up (it’s been eight years since we were “home” for Easter), and most exciting, we’ll be able to view the new meadow wall. Or rather, the old, old meadow wall taken apart and put back together, with drainage pipes and invisible cement layers to hold it all up for another 600 or so years. This is what we last saw via email. What — or who — IS under that tarp?!
Avery will be bringing along a heavy tote bag full of all the papers and books she needs to study, or “revise” as it’s called here, for her upcoming massive exams in May and June. How thrilled she will be when this is all over and she can set fire to all the notes related to the sciences, maths, Latin, French and Drama. Then the autumn will bring a whole new and beloved slate of subjects: Russian, Economics, History and Politics. But “vacation” will certainly have to encompass some work. How wonderful to do it in the atmosphere of our peaceful Connecticut home.
In other news, before I fly away and get totally distracted by life on the other side of the pond, I’d like to offer you a piece of delicious advice.
Eat More Plants!
Now, I’m not talking about vegetarianism here. Lord knows our family like their roasted chickens, lamb meatballs and sirloin burgers! What I’m interested in is finding ways to fit more vegetables into our diet as well. As the revered food and culture writer Michael Pollan tells us, the best way to a healthy diet is threefold. “Eat real food, eat less of it, and eat more plants.” Avery is probably the most fervent meat-eater among us, and I predict that when the sad/wonderful day comes that she goes off to university, we will eat a larger proportion of vegetables than we do now. John could probably be vegetarian, in fact, if I weren’t in charge of our diet.
Three surefire ways to introduce more vegetables into your diet are soup, dips, and slaws. I am a soup junkie and will eat absolutely anything if it’s been cooked in chicken stock and pureed with a hand blender, period. Dips are a deceptively seductive way to eat more vegetables on a similar principle: anything scooped up with a poppadum or tortilla chip or rice cracker or celery stick is appealing. And slaws? Most any firm vegetable, low in moisture, is a delight to eat when cut into matchsticks and dressed in anchovy and lemon juice. Here are some of my favorite examples of all these ideas. Get inspired!
Butternut squash soup is real comfort food. The squash can be cooked in stock after being roasted, as in this recipe, but if you’re really into simplicity, the squash can be simply peeled and cut into cubes and then cooked in the stock. Allow about 30 minutes for this method. There is something very inspiring about the bright orange of this soup.
One of Avery’s absolute favorites is mushroom and thyme soup, flavored with Madeira or Marsala wine. So smooth and heavenly, and a perfect way to use mushrooms that are perhaps a bit elderly and not up to being eaten raw. There is no herb more appealing than thyme, especially if you can get the tender young version like my brother in law Joel grows. But it doesn’t really matter, as you’re going to puree this soup and you can put it through a sieve to catch any woody bits at the last minute.
Perhaps the most inexpensive soup in the world is this one, and you can have everything in your pantry and fridge, no shopping needed.
White Bean and Rosemary Soup
knob of butter
4 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
2 shallots, roughly chopped
2 cans white beans (small white, haricot, butter beans, all these work fine)
2 stems rosemary, leaves only
vegetable or chicken stock to cover beans
splash white wine
salt and pepper to taste
dash of cream
Melt the butter in a heavy saucepan and saute the garlic and shallots until softened. Add rosemary, beans, stock and wine and cook for about 10 minutes at a high simmer. Season with salt and pepper to taste and add the cream.
And it’s time to dip! I challenge you to find anyone who doesn’t love dipping things in things. It’s casual and fun, and reminds us all of Super Bowls, football matches, Red Nose Day and the Oscars, everyone gathered around the telly with a platter of vegetables cut into sticks, chips of every sort, and large bowls of DIP. But forget the fat-filled commercial dips of our childhood, loaded with preservatives and unwanted sugar. Try my favorites.
Black Bean Dip
(hard to tell how many it serves: my husband can eat the lot at one go)
2 tbsps olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 small white onion, chopped
1 tsp each (or to taste): turmeric, ground cumin, paprika, chili powder
2 soup-size tins black beans, rinsed and drained
juice and zest of 1 lime or lemon or both
sea salt and fresh black pepper to taste
Soften the garlic and onion in the hot olive oil and add the spices. Fry for a bit, then add the beans and citrus juice. Cook for five minutes, then tip into a food processor and process until as smooth as you like it.
And who can forget guacamole? This rich avocadoy delight is a classic and requires only that most elusive of vegetables: a perfectly ripe avocado.
When you’re ready for something colorful and crunchy, try red cabbage slaw with anchovy dressing.
The dressing is simplicity itself. And you must try it with any firm vegetable that you can cut into matchsticks: carrots, beets, red pepper, or sliced fennel bulb. And if you add a tablespoon of wholegrain mustard, you will have the perfect dressing for a remoulade of the humble and yet rather exotic celeriac root.
There is just nothing like the magical umami flavor of anchovies in salad dressing. For fun, get them fresh and fillet them yourself. It’s like fishmongery in a dollhouse.
In case you are craving something fatty and meaty to go with any of these treats, here is the ultimate such rich recipe, simplified a bit from this original recipe, given to me by my friend Frances. This dish is the last word in indulgence. After all, the essence of life is in its variety!
1 lb/1000 g pork belly
thumb-sized knob/150 g ginger, sliced
2 tbsps peanut oil
1 tbsp sugar
a large/90g scallion, white part cut into 3-inch pieces
3 dried red chili peppers
1 tsp red Sichuan peppercorns
2 tbsps Mirin (Chinese cooking wine)
3 tbsps dark soy sauce
1 star anise
1 1-inch piece cinnamon stick or a pinch of ground cinnamon
1 tsp salt
1 cup/250 ml water
“Red-cooked” simply means that the main ingredient of the cooking liquid will be soy sauce. So be ready with plenty, and extra to serve with the steamed rice you will want alongside. Bring a pot of water to boil. Immerse entire slab of pork belly with ginger. Remove any scum that surfaces. After five minutes, discard water and rinse meat and ginger with cold water. Slice pork belly into 1-inch cubes.
Heat cooking oil and sugar in a clay pot over low flame and let the sugar begin to melt. Toss in the pork pieces and ginger with scallion, chili peppers, Sichuan peppercorns and brown over high flame. Add Mirin and dark soy sauce while continuing to stir fry. Add salt, star anise, cinnamon and water. Bring to a gentle boil then simmer over lowest flame, covered for at least 2 hours. Stir occasionally.
Now I must go pack. Easter treats for the egg hunt we will host next weekend, presents for a certain birthday boy, presents for mothers who will be travelling far to be with us, many copies of the school newspaper with Avery’s first byline in it. Happy Easter to you all!
Who knew a simple springtime “walk” along the bike path by the Thames could result in such peril as we found today! I’ll begin at the beginning.
The day was blowy, full of huge snowflakes that melted as they fell, but made a lovely picture. “Let’s go for a walk,” we decided. These daily walks are the only thing standing between us and endlessly ballooning waistlines, in this no-tennis weather. So we set out.
Our house is just a road’s length away from the lovely river, one of the perks of our neighborhood. The river is home to endless rowing races, sailboat displays, mallards, swans, pigeons and even seagulls, whirling dramatically overhead. It’s just lovely.
“Whoa! Look how high the river is,” John said, as we noted a puddle on the edge of the path. “I’ve never seen it that high before.”
We turned to the right, ready for our mile-long trek. And here is what we found.
As we rounded the first bend, sloshing through the puddles in our trusty Wellington boots, threading our way through the occasional dry spot, we looked up to find THIS sight.
“No, it’s fine! As long as the water doesn’t go above our Wellies, it’ll be an adventure!” John said. Famous last words.
Readers, there were TIDAL EDDIES as we walked along. Not to mention the biting wind and residual snowflakes. We passed a group of boys at the nearby school, watched over by a stern schoolmaster. He called to us over the cast-iron fence that ran around the school, “Don’t get swept away, seriously! Stay close to the fence.” I began to worry, and with good reason as the freezing water quickly closed, briefly, over the tops of my boots. EEEK!
There were some scary moments, truth be told. Well, John claims he wasn’t scared, but I was. Feeling the tide pulling at my feet, occasionally stumbling over a root in the path, far below the surface of the water, feeling the wind buffet my face, not knowing how much deeper it could get before the mile was over… “I can hear the headlines now,” I moaned. “Expatriate schoolgirl orphaned by idiot parents in local flash floods”…
“I can see the bridge!” John yelled. “Not too far to go, now.” We stopped for a breather on a handy bench, perched on a stone slab above the fray.
Home, into dry clothes and thick socks, to concoct the perfect comfort dinner. I’ve made this once before, so I can report that it is just about the most delicious, simple, inexpensive thing you might ever get out of a package of chicken thighs.
Slow-braised Chicken Thighs in White Wine, Bay Leaf and Mushrooms
8 chicken thighs, bone-in, skin on
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium white onion, sliced
1/4 cup each: white wine, olive oil, chicken stock
juice of 1/2 lemon
plenty of fresh black pepper
4 bay leaves
dozen chestnut mushrooms, sliced
1 tbsp cream
Place the chicken thighs skin up in a nice heavy baking dish. Scatter over the garlic and onion. Mix the wine, oil, stock and lemon juice in a small bowl, then pour over the chicken. Sprinkle the black pepper on top and tuck the bay leaves in with the onions and garlic. Sprinkle on the mushrooms. Cover the whole thing tightly with foil.
Braise in a medium oven, about 325F/160C, for two hours. Remove the foil and up the heat to about 450F/225C. Roast in this oven for 30 minutes, or until the skin of the thighs is golden and crisp. Pour the juices and vegetables from the dish into a frying pan (discard the bay leaves) and add a tablespoon or so of cream, whisking to mix. This will be the best gravy you have ever, ever tasted.
This dinner, served with potato puree and cheesy spinach, was consumed for the first few moments in total silence. Then we all started to talk at once. “They’re so tender! And this gravy!” Even Avery who is no fan of meat containing bones, was speechless with delight. When we had finished eating she picked up her plate and said spontaneously, “Thank you for that.” I always know she is appreciative of her dinners, but this was very welcome to my ears. And it cost almost nothing, perhaps $6 in total. My advice: make twice as much, because they would have been terrific, leftover, for lunch the next day.
This triumph capped a week that had been full of activity. I had invited the wonderfully warm, cosy Rector of my bellringing church to lunch, so I could ask him lots of questions of a spiritual nature. He graciously accepted, saying, “I only wish MORE of my work were discussions of anything spiritual, rather than admin, paperwork and dealing with people who are SURE they could think of a better to do absolutely everything!” We sat down to chicken meatballs in a sour cream sauce loaded with paprika and a touch of brandy. There was a lovely fennel salad with an anchovy dressing (one of my latest obsessions) to go alongside. I wanted to feed him up so he could withstand my queries.
We had a lovely afternoon. For once, the sun shone brightly, warmly through our glass ceiling. We talked about the way he came to be involved with religion — although he isn’t too keen on the idea of “religion,” sharing the attitude of so many of my spiritual friends who prefer notions of “belief” and a “relationship with God” to the notion of an organisation. But of course, he IS the organisation, so he must follow the terminology and structures. “It is a shame that our human minds cannot encompass a being that isn’t really a being, and certainly isn’t a ‘he’ or ‘she,’” he mused. “God is much more than that, but we can’t grasp the true nature of God so we call him Our Father, and refer to Jesus as his son. But it’s much bigger than that.”
We talked about what happens after death. I have been deeply involved lately with a friend who has suffered a terrible bereavement, trying to find better ways of listening, learning not to talk to her or at her, but just to listen, and she has very strong beliefs about where her beloved is now. She really feels her presence in many comforting ways. “What do YOU believe happens after we die?” I asked. He sighed and looked out at the garden, which is coming back to life after winter. “My answer to your question is, I have no idea. No idea whatsoever. But in the face of something that can’t be proved or disproved, I choose belief. I choose to believe that something lingers, because it comforts me.”
“What if that’s just wishful thinking?” I asked. “What’s the difference between wishful thinking and belief?”
“Not much,” he answered. “But in the face of never, ever being able to know for sure, to my mind there is nothing wrong at all with wishful thinking.”
How wonderful. I was thrilled by his unabashed agnosticism. The whole experience of talking with him was like going back to the very best kind of school with a teacher you can ask absolutely anything. AND he liked my chicken meatballs.
Partly my interest in speaking with him was prompted by the amazing amount of time I have been spending in churches recently, up and down the Home Counties, ringing beloved bells.
I find it absolutely impossible to be surrounded by so much sheer age, longevity of institutions, mausolea containing mortal remains going back hundreds of years, and be immune to the suggestion of belief.
“Agnostic” covers my feelings pretty well, set alongside the life-affirming beliefs of many of my friends, and the absolute atheism of my husband and daughter. Talking with the Rector hadn’t so much changed those feelings I have, as given them a structure. I like very much the idea that we can choose what to believe. It’s not as if we’re looking at a blue sky and “choosing to believe” it’s orange. We’re staring into a total abyss and trying to find some sense in it.
The most I could say for myself, as I lay trying to get to sleep that night, was that at least I live a life — most of the time! — that a person of whatever faith would try to. I take care of my family and friends as best I can, and reach out to strangers when I get a chance. That’s about the most I can say. One of my favorite Scottish writers said of a character in her novel, “She may not have believed in God, but I’m pretty sure God believed in her.”
As for bellringing, I’ve really turned a corner, I say cautiously! I’ve learned to do two things — to “treble,” which means lead the band in their merry ways, and to “cover,” which means to fall in at the very end and bring the merry ways to a close. This makes me much more useful than I was when all I could do was to memorize a pattern. Everyone says that ringing involves three things: listening to the sound of your bell, looking around the chamber to see which rope you should follow, and counting the places you are meant to be in. Suddenly, all three of these things are happening at the same time and I’m getting better each week. How I LOVE it.
And of course I can’t tell you anything about my social work, except that say that it is an absolute dream having very small children sitting heavily in my lap, singing “The Wheels On the Bus,” “Twinkle, Twinkle,” and host of English songs that I am having to learn very quickly! The sound of many small children singing in English accents is immensely entertaining. What a responsibility it is, the care of other people’s children who are in need of a little comfort and fun. It makes me terribly happy that they now automatically laugh uproariously when I come into the house. How I wish, wish my brilliant child-psychologist dad were here to tell of my adventures. Given his utter lack of sentimentality, he could easily say, “Yeah, well, give it time and the thrill will be gone,” but in my heart of hearts I think he would be proud of me.
Feeding the family beckons, so I must love you and leave you. My heavenly chicken dish awaits. Enjoy your own supper. And mind the flooding!
It must be a consequence of getting older (old?) that the endless parade of grey, wet, blowy days in February have a depressive effect. Our daily walks along the tow path by the river are treks along sticky vistas of mud, our faces slapped by cold drizzle. There are signs of hope, however.
It’s no longer dark when Avery comes home from school, the funny little tree in our front driveway has begun, optimistically, to put out little purple shoots that will eventually blossom into beautiful flowers. And it’s my birthday month! I could feel, way back in January, that a party would be a most welcome diversion from the dailiness of life. And so it was. My absolute favorite way to spend a day, gathering up our best napkins and napkin rings, cleaning the old Russian silver, hunting for ingredients for all my favorite foods. The sun even came out to celebrate! And how I cooked! Creamy celeriac soup, served in beautiful crystal shot glasses and topped with a crisp shard of bacon. These were such fun to hold, warm and comforting, in one hand, with a glass of bubbly in the other! Ten of my favorite ladies gathered on the cold night, bearing flowers, homemade elderflower cordial, pussy willows, champagne and an enormous stack of books, and not a single duplicate! So, so thoughtful. It was heavenly to introduce all my guests to each other — and I could have invited three times as many women, so lucky am I have such staunch and entertaining friends. But I didn’t have 30 plates! We tucked into a terrine of smoked salmon and poached salmon mousse, fragrant with tarragon, dill, chives and cilantro. Then it was onto my hands-down favorite dish of all time, chicken meatballs in a rich sour cream-brandy-paprika sauce. Served with basmati rice tossed through with sauteed broccolini and asparagus, though I say it myself, it was wonderful. The loveliest thing was watching the mix of ladies, right down the table, finding points of common interest, whether American or British, whether the mother of a newborn or the proud grandmother of twins, whether friends I have met online or friends with whom I have decorated for the school Christmas Fair, everyone chattered happily. And the nicest, most satisfying thing was that it wasn’t just chat. We discussed religion, politics, literature, charity work, travel, books. A heavenly evening.
And what could possibly say Valentine’s Day like homemade sausages? Yes, I continue in my obsession with mincing/grinding my own meat, as the Great Horsemeat Scandal continues here in Europe. Horse in IKEA sausages! I’m sure there’s a fabulous Swedish word for that phenomenon. So it was but the work of a moment to appear at the butcher’s to buy lovely pork steaks, venison and chicken breasts and haul out the mincer. Add some cheese, herbs and spices and bob’s your uncle. The first time around, we made lovely sausage patties. So fresh, so pure, so savoury! But of course I had to go one step further and approach the butcher the next time for real sausage casings. Lamb’s intestines, if you please! Slippery, latex-like tubes of unbelievable strength. “Brings back memories, eh?” the butcher leered. Our friend Sam turned up for the first batch, at an all-sausage dinner. We weren’t thrilled with the venison, rather dry. But the chicken with feta and Fox Point and pork with caramelised fennel and red onion, plus my friend Kim’s fennel seasoning, were divine. It was such a success that a few days later, we had a sausage-making party!
But sometimes you have to go the extra mile and make something completely NEW. Something exotic, foreign, thrilling. I’ve had two of those experiments lately and they were both resounding successes.
Do you like Thai flavors? I LOVE them, so refreshing, so different from American or English or Italian flavors. Just a few well-chosen ingredients and you have super aromas floating around the house. I was so in the mood for Tom Yum Soup last week, and brought in shrimp and coconut milk, as well as hot chillis and coriander. It was only when the local food shop had closed and darkness had fallen that I began to cook and I realized to my chagrin that in a kitchen clean-out, I had thrown away my jar of Tom Yum paste. Oh no, it’s only the MAIN INGREDIENT.
Never mind, if someone could make it and put it in a jar, surely I could make it! And I could. So much fresher, more intense and better than anything in a jar, I promise you. And I had everything I needed in my pantry and fridge.
Homemade Tom Yum Paste
(makes enough for soup to serve 4)
1 stalk lemongrass, lightly crushed, or zest of 1 lemon
1-inch knob of ginger, peeled
2 Kaffir lime leaves — 2/3 leaves sliced thinly, or zest of 1 lime
1 tbsp Thai roasted chilli paste or chilli garlic sauce
Thai bird’s eye chillies, to taste
2 tbsps Thai fish sauce — 2 tbsp
juice of 1 lime
1 banana shallot, peeled and cut into chunks
Simply place everything in your food processor and process till as smooth as you can get it. Dump it in a saucepan with a can of half-fat coconut milk and 2 cups/500 grams boiling water.
Now for the soup:
1 pound raw peeled shrimp
8 chestnut mushrooms, thinly sliced
1 bunch scallions/spring onions, thinly sliced both white and green part
chopped red hot chillis to taste
handful coriander/cilantro leaves, no stems
Bring the paste and milk mixture to a simmer and put in the shrimp and mushrooms. Simmer for just a couple of minutes until the shrimp are JUST cooked. Add everything else and serve hot. Divine!
So exotic! And you made it all yourself.
Then, there is the new vegetable in our lives. We went out to the delectable local Riva, the most perfect Italian restaurant ever, for John’s birthday the last week of the month. And there we were given puntarelle, a chicory-like vegetable that contains, hidden in its core depths and covered in many pointy leaves, little asparagus-like spears. These were served in a simply heavenly anchovy-laced oily dressing.
I had to find puntarelle of my own. They were slightly crisp, but slightly wilty, and so pretty. Plus who can resist a vegetable you’ve never even HEARD of before? I certainly couldn’t. So I searched and searched and finally found this incredible food source, Natoora, who offered me many other delicious things like veal escalopes and burrata and salame, and turned up on my doorstep with puntarelle. Here they are, whole.
Then you cut off the spears one by one and slice them into strips. This step allows more surfaces to be revealed and exposed to the cold water bath to follow, which removes all bitterness. Allow at least an hour.
How yummy, how foreign, how fun! I had ordered two heads and now I wish I had ordered loads more. They would also be good with a blue cheese dressing, I think. A Roman delicacy! I am shortly to be in possession of SEEDS, which I shall take home to my dear Connecticut friend to plant in her garden. Fingers crossed. I can report in the meantime that this anchovy dressing is addictive. I drizzled it over a fennel salad yesterday and it was a delight. Don’t forget to rinse the anchovies if they’re preserved in salt.
And there you have it, really. These adventures plus a couple of fabulous political plays — “The Audience,” all about the 60 years of the Queen’s weekly meetings with the current Prime Minister — and “This House,” chronicling the Parliamentary lead-up to the Thatcher years. We have seen so much incredible theatre this year that I feel quite surfeited, quite spoiled. But why not take advantage of living in the greatest theatre capital of the world, AND having a daughter doing a drama GCSE exam? We can write it all off to Avery’s education.
Well, the early March sun has set. I for once am not cooking dinner and await the delivery of crispy, no-work-for-me wood oven pizza. Enjoy these lengthening days…
It’s been a peaceful few weeks here in post-holiday London. Lots and lots of muddy, squelchy walks along the nearby bike trail, causing me to break out one of John’s birthday presents early: a bootjack! Such fun to walk along the river, noting the tidal changes, enjoying the peace.
Well, actually it hasn’t been peaceful here if you ask Avery, who braved her way through the many, many “mock” exams in preparation for the real thing in April and May. It was a gruelling 8 or 9 days with constant exams throughout every day. A 15-minute break between French and Russian, outrageous! She worked incredibly hard, and to great results.
We parents agreed, whenever two or more of us gathered, that we’d rather be taking the exams ourselves than watching helplessly! All I could do was feed her up, with all her favorite foods. Among them was the always-delicious stuffed chicken breast…
Chicken Breasts Stuffed with Mozzarella, Pesto and Spinach
four chicken breast fillets
four handfuls spinach
4 tbsps pesto
1 ball buffalo mozzarella
16 strips streaky (American) bacon
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp butter
This is merely an assembly job. In order to maintain perfect kitchen hygiene, the most important thing to do is to make sure you have removed your portion of spinach from the bag before you begin, and that you’ve counted out your bacon strips. The last thing you want to do is contaminate the rest of the spinach and bacon with raw chicken juice. As well, you should have your 4 tbsps of pesto in a small dish of their own, rather than dipping a chickeny spoon into the general pesto pot, and have counted out your toothpicks and set them aside. Make sense?
Now, gather your ingredients in easy reach and get a sharp knife. Lay each chicken breast on a cutting board and carefully cut a slice horizontally through the breast, not going all the way through to the back. Essentially you are making a pocket, an envelope, in the chicken breast.
Now spread a spoonful of pesto in the pocket, and tuck the spinach leaves and a quarter of the mozzarella ball into each pocket. As best as possible, close up the pocket and wrap each breast in four strips of bacon, securing the bacon through the chicken with the toothpicks.
Heat the oil and butter in a large, heavy skillet and place the chicken breasts in it. Cook, turning frequently, for about 20–25 minutes, poking at the breasts experimentally to feel them stiffen and become thoroughly cooked inside. Finally you may feel you want to cut on breast in half to ascertain that they are fully cooked.
These little guys are incredibly savoury in so many ways: the garlicky goodness of the pesto, the saltiness of the bacon, the iron richness of the spinach, the creamy melted cheese, all surrounded by tender, juicy chicken. They’re worth the effort!
I’ve had bellringing triumphs this dank and dreary month. Once I was able to go back to the Tower after my month-long chesty cold, I was given the chance to “conduct call changes” for the first time! Let me explain. When we ring for services, we begin by ringing what are called “rounds,” which means the person ringing the smallest bell, which makes the highest sound, rings first. She’s called the “treble” bell. Then in “rounds,” we simply go “round” the circle. The next larger bell rings next, in seconds place, the next larger rings next, in thirds place, and so on until we get to the last bell, the 8, called the “tenor” and making the lowest sound. The musicians among you will recognize this as an “octave.” Eight bells, ringing highest to lowest, over and over and over.
Well, this would be enough for me! But some 500 years ago, cleverer bellringers than I got bored. Very quickly. So they began an activity called “call changes,” which means that a conductor calls out an instruction like “six to seven,” in a very loud and authoritative voice. This is the signal for the 7 bell in the circle to ring after the 5, instead of after the 6. The octave is changed by two bells. Then the conductor continues and changes other bells. The rule is that bells can move only one place at a time. But you can imagine that very quickly, bells are all over the place and able to change all sorts of ways, and the tune changes every time.
So two weeks ago I was merrily ringing rounds on a Sunday morning, when my teacher suddenly shouted, “Kristen, call some changes.” WHAT? Me, who had never held a rope 18 months ago? But I did! I called three sets of changes, heart pounding, and then I called them “back,” putting them back into “rounds.” Oh, the power!
Very exciting. I went from that achievement, as dotty as it sounds, to a full day’s outing last Saturday, ringing at 6 different towers in 9 hours! Here is an account of our day, if you’re interested, on the bellringing blog that I keep for our church. A cold and sunny day in the English countryside. So lovely.
Do you find yourself rather depressed in January? I do, and every January I worry that I’m descending into some Scandinavian permanent state of despair. Then every January, somewhere around the 20th, John reminds me that this is an annual and short-lived feeling. But in the meantime, the cliche prevails that the best path to happiness is by thinking of someone else rather than myself. Here my volunteer social-work gig comes in very handy.
Of course I cannot tell you any details about my new family, but I can tell you that I had completely forgotten how satisfying it is to rock a sobbing little toddler on your lap and comfort her tears. I’d forgotten how intensely repetitive little children are, how pretending to bite a hand emerging from a coat gets a laugh every SINGLE time, how a pretend hiccup whilst drinking imaginary milk gets a laugh every SINGLE time. This family speaks a foreign language, luckily one I know a bit of, so we all speak in a combination of our two tongues, to much merriment. A lovely two-hour interlude in every week.
And it SNOWED! That cheered me up for at least two days, while it lasted. The bike path!
How happy it made everyone! School closed two hours early on the last day of exams, hurrah! I celebrated, naturally, by making one of my absolute favorite dishes, duck rillettes. What? You haven’t ever eaten rillettes? They’re quite simply a dish of shredded meat — duck, rabbit, venison — after the meat has been cooked very slowly in oil and wine. You need to do this.
(serves as many as you like, as an appetizer, with whatever duck you leave behind available for another meal)
8 duck legs
8 bay leaves
2 cups olive oil
2 cups white wine
You must start this dish a day before you want to eat it. In a large ovenproof dish, place four of the duck legs skin side down, sprinkle with salt and pepper and lay a bay lef on top. Now place the other four duck legs onto the ones already in the dish, this time skin side up. Sprinkle on more salt and pepper and add a bay leaf to each leg. Cover in plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
In the early morning, shake the salt and pepper off the duck legs and replace them in the dish in one crowded layer. Place the bay leaves back in top and pour on the oil and wine. Place in a very low oven, 120C/200F and cook for 12 hours.
For the rillettes, simply shred the meat of as many of the legs as you like, using it all if you like, or leaving some of the legs to be eaten as is. The meat will fall off the bone. Pour over a bit of the oil-wine mixture, salt to taste and add fresh black pepper. Serve with crusty French bread and a dollop of creme fraiche, if you like.
Very popular! John normally turns up his nose at rillettes, even the gorgeous version I brought home from Paris last spring, but he LOVED my homemade rillettes. Triumph!
Of course, January brings the termly Lost Property luncheon and its attendant joys and anxieties. The joys involve seeing all the wonderful volunteers and chatting about lacrosse boots, exams, our wonderful and remarkable children, the snow. The anxieties involve numbers of chairs and forks, whether or not the stuffed boneless chicken I roasted will feed enough people (answer: no! I had counted on leftovers for supper but there weren’t any!), whether the ladies meant to bring dessert and cheese will remember. High on our list of topics to discuss was the recent Inauguration, for which we’d been invited to a spectacular party.
I am always shamed by the depth of knowledge and analysis of our British friends, on the subject of American politics. If I didn’t live here in London, could I name any of the British cabinet secretaries? No. And yet the British are able to discuss the Electoral College and the relative merits of proposed new Secretaries of State. It’s a real privilege to hear their views. “What you have to remember, Kristen,” one friend at the party said, “is that we HAVE to pay attention to your country because you get us in so many scrapes!” Their admiration for America is always heartwarming.
My fun with HandPicked Nation continues! My latest obsession: Grinding, or “mincing” my own meat. Why, you ask? Because the nation’s largest supermarket chain was discovered last week to have undisclosed HORSE meat included in its frozen “beef” burgers! Now, I have no objection in principle to eating horse meat, if it’s humanely supplied and it’s what I thought I bought! But hiding in my beef, no. The only way to be sure is to grind your own. So, so much better.
Well, the sky is blue right now. A rare enough occurrence to get us into our Wellies and off to the bike path. And when I see you next, this grey, tiring, letdownish (but delicious) month of January will be history.
We all woke up this morning with the distinct sensation that real life had begun again, after the myriad joys of the holiday. January 2. It sounds distressingly ordinary!
Actually, that’s not true. I for one am ready for a bit of ordinary. We’ve been rushed off our feet with all the plans each of us made for our holiday season, sometimes piling on top of each other, making it feel as if the days were pushing each other rudely off the calendar in a rush of activity.
Part of the fun of Christmas, for me, is being invited to see other people’s decorations! At least, the invitation is ostensibly to dinner, or for coffee or champagne, but I waste no time in sidling up to people’s trees to investigate their ornaments, or to mantels above flickering fires to see the ever-fascinating displays of Christmas cards, their cousins’s cousins’ children’s photos. I love the variety of everyone’s table settings, Christmas crackers, place settings!
The joys of being cooked for, sitting at a beautifully decorated table surrounded by laughing friends. Oh, the standing ribs of beef, the creamy potatoes Dauphinoise with chives, the roasted cheesy cauliflower at my friend Elspeth’s festive house, Christmas trees glittering, hung with dozens of red ribbons.
I spent one quiet afternoon all alone when John took Avery off to see “Yes, Prime Minister,” a theatre version of the classic British telly series, updated to reflect current politics (apparently to David Cameron’s open annoyance as Prime Minister!). I sat quietly watching an old movie, covered with a fuzzy throw and a tortoiseshell cat, with the tree flickering to the side. How I will hate to dismantle it!
We woke up on the morning of the 30th, our 23rd wedding anniversary, full of anticipation of our annual celebratory lunch at Nobu, the sushi-fest of our entire year. But as we asked Avery to take our photograph, I noticed she was dead-white. Absolutely the color of paper. “I don’t feel very good,” she whispered, and off she went, back to bed with an upset stomach and chills. “Man proposes, and God disposes,” ran through my mind from the old Lord Peter Wimsey story, and it sometimes does feel that someone up there wants to remind us that we’re not in charge.
Ah, well, it was but the work of a moment for John to ring up and change our reservation to the following day, as I was certainly not going to enjoy an extravagant lunch out with the poor patient left at home to suffer. And it was just as well, because later that day John announced he felt awful, too, and there ensued several hours of worry and deliveries of Sprite and crackers. But in the way of these things, by evening everyone was ready for one more helping of medicinal chicken soup and all was normal once again.
Nobu the next day! A rain-spattered, chilly, unpleasant New Year’s Eve Day, but nothing could spoil our fun.
How we wished for the afternoon to last forever! It is simply the best restaurant on earth, in our opinion. There is nothing quite so luxurious, for me, as being fed dishes I could never, never make at home. Yellowtail tuna with jalapenos and coriander in a tart, citrusy dressing, toro with caviar swimming in a spicy sauce, suspended over crushed ice. A wonderful concoction called “soft shell crab harumaki,” which means spring roll, but WHAT a spring roll! Deep-fried soft shell crab, tiny flecks of chive, tiny diced red peppers, all wrapped in the most delicate of super-crunchy pastry, on a pool of wasabi mayonnaise and thick sweet soy. I could never dream of making such a thing! Perhaps the best example of this phenomenon was the classic rock shrimp tempura in creamy, spicy sauce.
Now you might remember my forays recently into making this dish at home (scroll down through the post for the recipe!). It was jolly successful, very tasty. But honey, it was NOT NOBU. There is an ineffable difference between my amateurish grasp of tempura, my blunderings with the proportions of sauce to shrimp, just my ineptness in general that I would never have noticed if I hadn’t eaten the real thing. The key, I think, is in the razor-sharp line between the shrimp being undercooked and being JUST cooked. Heaven.
We indulged in our usual anniversary games of “what was the best play you saw this year?” and “what are you proudest of this year?” and “what would you like to have accomplished by the next time we sit down to this dish?” Twenty-three years of those discussions! Amazing.
Home to hoover up yet another several thousand needles from under the tree. Hermione the tabby insists on playing underneath the tree, batting at the ornaments, waving her tail to and fro under the branches. And at this advanced date, all you have to do is LOOK at the tree and it drops needles. We lit all the candles and brought out the champagne glasses and the doorbell rang: John and Suzanne come bravely through the drizzle, all the way from next door, to share our New Year’s Eve. What friends they are.
It was a typical me-party, I realized. Lots of candles, pretty napkins, wonderful friends, and a cooking disaster. Do NOT try to make parmesan shortbread with gluten-free flour! John and Avery tasted them before the party began. I offered a disclaimer. “First of all, I warn you, you can’t pick them up. They disintegrate in a most unexpected way.” “Into powder!” John agreed. “They stick to the roof of your mouth very oddly,” Avery said. “Oh, forget it,” I gave in, and rummaged through the fridge for an alternative. Luckily, also typical-me, there was plenty to choose from. We sat down to creamy roasted salmon mousse, Boursin cheese with black pepper, Moroccan oil-cured olives, crisp crackers. No problem.
John and Suzanne had celebrated their anniversary the day before ours and had kindly brought over their wedding album, which I went through avidly. So sweet to see their children, now parents themselves, as children! John recited awful jokes from the family’s Christmas crackers. “What sort of pizza does King Wenceslas like? Deep and crisp and even.” “What has a neck but cannot swallow? A bottle.” There are endless lists of these, just so you know! Some of them require a degree of fluency in being English, to be funny. “What do you get when you cross a cat with a chemist? Puss in Boots.”
Off they went to their dinner party, off Avery went to her New Year’s sleepover. We settled down for an extremely glamorous supper of leftover chilli, but so what? Lunch had been Nobu!
New Year’s Day found us joining our friend Emily and a clutch of teenaged girls, in a crowded, chaotic pub in the village, surrounded by families with lots of adorable English apple-cheeked children, harried staff and… Hayley Mills! She hasn’t changed much since “The Parent Trap.” Cool celebrity sighting, although arguably not quite as cool as Robert Pattinson who had been in the night before. Fair enough. Burgers, fish and chips and a lot of incomprehensible quotations-in-tandem by the girls of television dialogue, movie dialogue, Shakespeare, and Carol Channing movie quotes as interpreted by stand-up comics.
Totally unlike Nobu, the food was only so-so and I in fact could possibly have done it better! But John and I agreed later that as long as you know what you want from an experience, it doesn’t always have to be perfect. That day, in the thin midwinter afternoon sunlight, we wanted to be out of the house, surrounded by our girls, watching them laugh and be happy, on New Year’s Day.
And finally, it was our last adventure of the holidays: “Cabaret”! It was fun to come from having read “Goodbye to Berlin” (a truly dismal book with wildly unlikable characters, I thought, although Avery was more enthusiastic) and seen “I Am A Camera” (much more enjoyable than the book largely due to amazing performances and perfect casting) to this dizzying delight! First of all, the Savoy Theatre is a must for anyone who loves London because it’s adjacent to the Savoy Hotel, one of the coolest, most iconic spots in this wonderful city.
Excitingly for the understudy, the actor normally playing the central character, the narrator, was ill. One can only imagine the understudy’s supply of airborne flu germs! Oh, the drama of a real West End musical.
And that was that. One last celebration. Home to settle in for the coming week which will mean for me, taking down the tree, for John, desperately trying to save our investments from the “fiscal cliff” (how I can’t wait never to hear that phrase again!), and for poor Avery, the dreaded “revision” for the upcoming GCSE mock exams. Eighteen “mocks” now and 27 “real exams” in June! So much work. I plan to cook whatever she wants for dinner, for the duration. It’s about all I can do to help.
Perhaps we’ll find time for a quiet pleasure along the lines of this Christmas present from me to her: a puzzle of the tops of the cupcakes she had for her birthday!
How many layers of craziness is this? Book covers in icing, turned into a photo, then turned into a puzzle, then a photo of the puzzle! I think we have squeezed every ounce of enjoyment from that birthday present that could ever be squeezed.
Perhaps I can find another silly, semi-athletic, mostly hilarious event for charity for us to do, like the pre-Christmas Santa Run for Home-Start! We had so much fun on that crisp, sunny day, running/walking 5K through glorious Greenwich Park. How many Santas does it take to pay a social-worker?
Through it all, miraculously we have all been spared the Winter Womiting Wirus, I mean Vomiting Virus, that has felled over 1 million Brits. Fingers crossed, hands washed. Someday this month-long cold I have been slogging through will be over. In the meantime, 2013 has begun, a year that promises to bring adventures with our plot of dirt in Southwark, with the cookbook Avery and I are working on, with new recipes to experiment with and people to feed.
Avery, John and I wish you and yours the happiest and healthiest of New Years!