Here I sit on a wet, windy Easter afternoon, rather revelling for once in the sight of my rainswept garden, enjoying the quiet of a spring Sunday.
We’ve had unheard-of stretches of sunny days this lovely April, arousing in the average Londoner the conflicting emotions of tremendous gratitude and a superstitious fear that sun in England is limited and we may have been using it up with rather too much abandon. The English are trained to look upon every dry moment with amazement, lest April be all the summer we get and the “real” summer is a washout.
But today, gardeners everywhere are celebrating the damp, watching the bluebells lift their faces to drink. Just last week, this was the scene in our sunny garden, such a beautiful sight that even shy, frightened Keechie ventured out to smell the blossoms.
Even more so than sunshine, this Easter season, I have been grateful to be peacefully at home and NOT contemplating a house move. Would you believe that in 2008,
There are any number of ways to live in England as a foreigner, to be sure. You can maintain an allegiance to your American roots, determined to find Lucky Charms for £7 a box and following Red Sox news, or you can develop a full-on English accent and dress in Purdeys tweeds. Or you can do as we tend to do, somewhere in between, and bring a naive American enthusiasm to as many English doings as we can possibly understand.
Among these is the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race, every spring. We became aware of this traditional sporting encounter two years ago when I invited English friends to Sunday lunch, and they accepted with the proviso that we wander down to the river at an appointed time to watch “The Boat Race.” There are many boat races, but this one is The Boat Race, gathering thousands of supporters along the Thames from Putney, where it begins, to a spot where it ends, just shy of Chiswick Bridge.
For a week or so ahead of this big Race, there were lots and lots of smaller races — for schoolchildren, for amateurs, for senior citizens — and every day, the river was covered with boats for the rowers, and boats for their coaches alongside, shouting instructions at them through megaphones. And on the banks of the river, on either side, lined up team after team of hardy spring specimens, shouldering their burdens cheerfully, looking as privileged and posh as any group of people I’ve ever seen. These people will run the country someday, it would seem.
It was a real treat to live so near the river. Every errand we ran, we passed scores of people sitting on the wall separating the road from the towpath, drinking pints, smoking convivially, basking in the rare sunshine. Finally the Big Race Day arrived.
This was the scene in our neighborhood yesterday, when we watched the race from my friend Elspeth’s house, sipping glasses of bubbly and nibbling delicious tidbits: Boursin-stuffed chicken bites wrapped in bacon, nuggets of butternut squash cooked in maple syrup and cinnamon, perfect egg mayonnaise on sourdough toast squares. We felt quite spoiled looking down at the wet watchers without.
No sunshine, sadly, just a steady drizzle of the sort of English rain that you just ignore after awhile. It’s hydrating.
All along the river, windows were flung open, little-used balconies filled with people, and there was a general air of festivity, even under the wet grey sky.
Believe it or not, the Race for which everyone along the Thames becomes so excited lasts only about 16 minutes! So we all watched the beginning, out of sight, on telly, and then when Oxford, who happened to be leading, rounded the bend in the river and were visible, we trooped out into the rain to enjoy the brief few moments when their boat was before our eyes.
A British friend of mine was a bit derisive. “It used to be that the rowers were just ordinary students at the universities who liked to row. Now they recruit people from the Olympics, I believe, and there are SPONSORS.” Dirty word, that, rather bringing the lovely English tradition down to (unspoken words) an American level.
Ah well, we enjoyed it. I had to run before it was over, to get to church on time to ring for Evensong, catching the smiles of lots of familiar parishioners — people I see in the fruit and veg shop, people I’ve trained with at Home-Start, people from my new yoga class. It was terribly cosy and English, but my ringing was really not up to snuff. I’ve begun work on a new skill called “a touch,” wherein you’re merrily ringing away to your heart’s content in your laboriously memorized pattern, and a cruel, cruel person called a conductor shouts, “Bob!” and everything changes — where you are, where you’re meant to go, who you’re meant to follow. I might not be up to the challenge, but I’ve haven’t given up yet.
Avery is on holiday now, “end of term.” Spring is officially here, with all the trees in bud. Our lovely cleaning lady labored away sweeping and mopping our wide stone terrace this week, only to come indoor, shut the kitchen door and look back to see…
In that springtime mood of invention, and re-invention, I was moved one evening to create a really simple, light, delicious Thai dish, so much better than anything you could have delivered to your door costing so much more. This is a very mild yet flavorful recipe that will appeal to adults and children alike.
Thai Chicken Stir-Fry with Slivered Green Beans and Red Peppers
1 tbsp sesame oil
1 large handful green beans, sliced lengthwise
2 red peppers, slivered
4 cloves garlic, minced
1-inch-long knob ginger, peeled and grated
1 stalk lemongrass, minced
1 hot Thai chilli, minced
2 Kaffir lime leaves
zest and juice of 1 lime
pinch ground turmeric
3 chicken breast fillets, cut into slivers
1 soup-size tin coconut milk
sea salt to taste
coriander/cilantro leaves to taste
hot chili oil to taste
In a large frying pan, heat the sesame oil, then add the beans and peppers, garlic, ginger, lemongrass and chilli. Fry for 1 minute, then add the lime leaves, the lime zest and juice and the turmeric. Add the chicken slivers and toss over high heat until the chicken is just tender. Add the coconut milk and season. Simmer for a moment to warm the coconut milk, then serve with steamed rice or fried rice.
My friend Janet was here for a long visit from New York, which meant that we could have a lovely, muddy, nettly visit to our plot of land.
We stood in the center of the plot, imagining where rooms would go, how high we would build, what the views would eventually be. The views are ever-changing as the buildings alongside take shape.
We repaired with our visions to a nearby fabulous restaurant, The Brigade, housed in an old firehouse. Inventive, affordable food cooked by a team of formerly homeless trainee chefs. An incredibly worthy project, and the salmon with grilled skin on a bed of fennel and satsumas? Yes please.
Visits to the site always make the otherwise fantastical project seem rather more real, for the duration of the time I stand there. John is deep into architect choices now, and very soon things will begin to happen.
These school holidays — even taking place just before huge exams, which means we can’t go away — wouldn’t be the same without “University Challenge.” This is, of course, the maddeningly pretentious and yet addictive British game show, pitting two university quiz teams against each other to ask them impossible questions. Taken together, the three of us here at home make up the knowledge of approximately one of the students on the telly. If John’s mom is with us, we are one and a half students in total.
We award ourselves points if we guess anything that the competitors guess, even if they’re wrong.
All maths questions are ignored by all of us. Avery occasionally stuns with an unexpected physics answer.
Quizmaster: “Can you name two flavors of quarks?”
Avery: “Strange and charmed.” (this was correct, if you can imagine)
I am distressingly unreliable in matters of art history (defunct PhD lets me down), but very good on arcane food ingredients and 20th century fiction. John of course gets all the architecture and most of the economics questions. Mostly we are silly.
Quizmaster: “Please provide a three-letter word, that with an added consonant can become another word, like ‘hut,’ and ‘shut.’”
Avery: “Or like ‘hit’ and…”
Quizmaster: “Which German town saw the first outbreak of the bovine disease which results in stillbirths?”
Avery: “Foot and Mouth!”
John: “Ah yes, the popular German tourist destination of ‘Foot and Mouth’…”
One quiet Saturday afternoon, Avery and I turned to baking to keep ourselves out of trouble. Now, I am no baker as you know, but Avery found the recipe, so I did the shopping and we got down to business together in the kitchen, for so-called “Buckeye Brownies,” an American reference that even I don’t get. These were gorgeous, although we cut out a cup of the suggested amount of white sugar in the brownie base, and another cup of the powdered sugar in the peanut butter filling. I think you could cut even more. Delicious, in tiny bites.
Chicken Liver Pate
(makes enough to fill three ramekins, 7x3 cm/3/1 inch approx.)
3 tbsps butter melted
1 small white onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 bay leaf
1 pound chicken livers, trimmed of all sinew and stringy membrane
3 tbsps cold butter, cut in 6 pieces
1 tbsp double/heavy cream
2 tbsps brandy or Cognac
sea salt and pepper to taste
Melt the butter in a frying pan wide enough to accommodate the chicken livers in one layer. Cook onion and garlic with bay leaf till vegetables are soft, then remove bay leaf. Add trimmed chicken livers (it isn’t important to keep the livers intact when you trim them). Cook just till tender. Place all in food processor. Turn it on and through the top add, one at a time, the pieces of cold butter, pulsing for a few seconds between each addition, and then the cream and the brandy or cognac. Blend till smooth, then season to taste. Pass through a fine sieve, pressing with a spatula. Discard what remains and pour pate into ramekins. Chill at least 2 hours. Serve with crackers or toasted baguette.
After all these treats, we decided we needed some amusement and exercise, and with John’s refusal to let Avery and me get a kitten, we have been forced to turn to Tacy, poor girl. She is really getting the hang of her new harness and lead.
All the cats are on high alert when the Visitor Kitty, called “Cressida” by us (although local knowledge claims it to be a boy) comes to call. Here she sits among all the notes and books and papers that could be claiming Avery’s attention.
These lazy days won’t last, we know — and we’ll look back on them with nostalgia once exams begin next month for real — so we are enjoying them while they are here.
I have been an absolute rubbish blogger lately. I’ll explain why, and then how my beautiful mother changed my mind.
Sometimes doesn’t life just seem relentlessly daily? Litterboxes, full dishwashers to empty, empty refrigerators to fill. Volunteering at Lost Property, cycling to errands. Always laundry. Even when doing all these things is against the backdrop of the Thames cruising past my bedroom window, or the lilting accents of the BBC burble in the background while I cook dinner, there doesn’t seem to be much of a noteworthy nature happening. Certainly not noteworthy enough to ask my loyal readers to be interested.
And then I spoke with my mother on the phone last night, and when I said, “Life’s been a bit… boring lately. Nothing really to report,” she laughed and said, “That sounds pretty good to me. Lately I really like it if nothing is happening, because that means nothing bad is happening. And I’m always interested in what’s happening to you.”
That is a much healthier outlook, it occurs, to me, than looking for drama around every corner. How much nicer to appreciate the dailiness of life, and how lucky I am to follow the peaceful path that life has woven as spring has sprung.
It was peaceful to make my way to Avery’s school to listen to her “Singing Tea,” which sounds odd unless you live in Britain where any event is paired with the drinking of tea, whenever possible. So every term we parents (mothers, really) of girls who are taking singing lessons gather in the Hall to hear our girls practice the songs they will shortly perform for the official government exams every March. With cups of tea and slices of cake beforehand. Hence, the “Singing Tea.” (There is also a “Wind Tea” which sounds much more exotic, but it’s really only flutes). Avery sang bravely in Russian before us all, and then that night John and I could hear her practicing in her room at the top of the house. That is a sound I will greatly miss when she goes off to university.
Of course dailiness includes ringing.
This month the bells took second stage to administration for two consecutive weekends, once while I cooked potatoes Dauphinoise and stuffed mushrooms for 40, to feed all the ringers turning up to our Annual General Meeting, and then vegetable and halloumi couscous and cucumber dill salad for another 40, the guests of the “Chiswick Lunch,” which brings everyone together who ever rings for Sunday services at St Nicholas, Chiswick. I think the mushrooms were the star attraction.
4 large flat mushrooms
4 smaller mushrooms
1 red pepper
2 cloves garlic
1/2 red onion
1 tbsp olive oil
1 round Boursin cheese
handful Panko breadcrumbs
sea salt and fresh pepper to taste
extra olive oil to drizzle over
grated Parmesan to sprinkle over
Pull the stems from the large mushrooms and dice them with the additional mushrooms. Dice all other vegetables and saute them in the olive oil until soft. Mix with Boursin and breadcrumbs and season to taste. Pile the stuffing evenly into the tops of the large mushrooms. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with Parmesan. Bake at 400F/200C for about 30 minutes or until stuffing is hot and Parmesan melted. Remove to a plate and wait while mushrooms release juices, then lift mushrooms onto a clean plate to serve.
Once all the pressing matters of bell-ringing had been sorted to our satisfaction (where to go on the summer outing, what sort of shape the handbells were in, who will vacuum the belfry stairway before the summer Fete), we repaired to our real business, ringing for a beautiful spring wedding.
Of course daily life wouldn’t be nearly so happy if it weren’t for my Home-Start work. I can’t tell you anything about “my” current family except that there are babies involved, really small babies. I cycle over every Friday, sink myself into the domestic routine of tiny clothes, tiny bottles of milk, reports of night wakings, and then walk with “my” mum and the babies to a play group. I have decided that almost any sort of anxiety in life could be solved, at least temporarily, by giving every person a small, warm, sleeping baby to hold on one’s shoulder, for about 15 minutes. The Zen nature of the breathing in, breathing out of a little creature who is absolutely content to be in one’s arms is not to be underestimated.
My Thursdays have been enlivened by a new activity, “Total Body Conditioning.” I put on very silly and overly-youthful black spandex leggings and cycle to my friend Carrie’s studio, and she leads me and several other willing ladies through a series of very stretchy and challenging exercises, as well as the heavenly sound of her voice calmly explaining muscle groups, the importance of deep breathing, the efficacy of coconut oil in cooking. It’s an hour of absolute Nirvana, of delightful self-indulgence, of “me-time.” And then I cycle home feeling hungry and virtuous, passing the high street’s blanket of daffodils in all their temporary glory.
March saw Londoners enjoying that most rare of occurrences: sunshine! Everyone’s mood was perceptibly lighter as people ran, cycled, ambled, or rowed their way through the days. Of course Tacy found an ideal spot.
Keechie, in the blossoming of her personality that has been an unexpected result of Wimsey’s death, has emerged from the dark basement to sit with us on the living room sofa. The Princess and the Pea, we call her now.
Cats are odd, aren’t they? Just when you’ve lived with one for 12 years and have resigned yourself not ever to have a relationship with her, a true cat-person petting relationship, suddenly everything turns on its head and you’ve got a completely new animal on your hands. I think truly she realised that her mostly companion, Wimsey, was leaving her, and that it behooved her to make other friends. Us.
And then the sun disappeared and there was HAIL!
Ultimate Macaroni and Cheese
(serves about 8)
1 pounds conchiglie pasta, or other shape that will hold sauce
3 tbsps butter
1 tbsp flour
1 tbsp cornstarch/cornflour
grating of fresh nutmeg
lots of fresh black pepper
dash of onion powder
3–4 cups/750-950ml whole milk (depending on how much sauce you want in proportion to noodles)
1 pound/454g Taleggio cheese, rind removed
2/3 cup/60g homemade breadcrumbs
Boil the pasta according to package instructions, drain and pour into a buttered casserole dish that will hold the noodles plus sauce.
Melt the butter in a heavy saucepan and add flour, cornflour and seasonings, then mix with a whisk and cook for 1 minute. Pour in milk slowly, whisking all the time. Do not let the mixture boil, or even simmer. Add cheese in small chunks and keep over low heat, stirring often with the whisk, until cheese is melted. Pour over pasta and stir gently to allow sauce to cover all the hollows in the pasta. Top with breadcrumbs and bake at 400F/200C for about 45 minutes or until hot and bubbling.
I have made macaroni and cheese about a thousand times, sometimes with four or five different cheeses, sometimes with raw milk when I can get it from the farmer’s market. This time my goal was a superbly creamy sauce with no grainy texture, and I think this was achieved by the addition of the cornstarch, and by the avoidance of aged, hard cheese like Cheddar, Lancashire Poacher or the like. The Taleggio afforded an incredibly smooth sauce with plenty of flavor. Served simply with something green, this is the ultimate supper for cosy comfort.
I must admit: there was one event of undisputed coolness in the last month, and that was the performance of Elgar’s “Dream of Gerontius” at the Royal Albert Hall. Now, before you scratch your head and say, “Kristen, I have never known you to be a massive fan of classical orchestral music,” I must aver that what made this performance special was… Avery. She sang in it! As part of her school’s Senior Choir.
Now, I don’t expect you to be able to find her in the rows of tiny heads in the distance, but she was there, singing her heart out with some of the best and brightest that the English musical scene has to offer.
John and I sat proudly, drinking in every incomprehensible syllable, asking ourselves how a nice girl from Indiana and a nice boy from Iowa ended up in the Royal Albert Hall listening to their daughter sing. It was a very proud moment. Such a beautiful, English thing to do.
Drum roll, please… as of this morning, John are proud possessors of a passing grade in the “Life in the UK” official government exam!
To achieve this feat, we spent many hours on our iPhone apps practicing. “To what do the three crosses in the British flag refer?” “Which countries make up Great Britain and which the United Kingdom?” “Who built the Tower of London?” “What is the significance of the Magna Charta?” What made Henry VIII famous?” Perhaps less momentously, but still of importance, “What is the official flower of Wales?” (It’s a daffodil.)
We are, therefore, one step closer to dual citizenship. Watch this space.
Speaking of space, we moseyed over on the weekend to our plot of dirt, with friends visiting from America. It’s always amusing to see people’s faces when we arrive at this inauspicious-looking location. What will ever, ever be built there?
Soon it will be April. The month will see us supporting Avery through her school “holidays” which will be nothing of the sort, but rather endless revising for the all-important AS exams coming up in the summer term. Much comfort food will be needed, and it is to be hoped the sun will shine for at least part of the time.
All quite ordinary. And yet pretty magical, too. Thank you, Mom, for helping me remember.
A distraction, a massive time-waster, a postmodern conversion of true friendship into a series of “likes,” call it what you will. I love Facebook. The reason was never clearer than in this past week, when we’ve been reunited with one of our dear friends from university days, Charlie.
There are just certain people in your life, and you know who they are, for whom the passage of time has made no difference. Ironically, these are often people with whom you’ve lost touch, usually because one of you stayed in the same place and the other flew the coop, or because both of you went merrily off in different directions, and other friends, other experiences, other ties, came to fill the gap.
When you have the chance to be reunited, you are thoroughly flooded with memories of the joys of that past friendship, and you grab it back with both hands and come away absolutely determined not to lose each other again. Such has been our week with Charlie. And we owe it all to Facebook, to bring us together, remind us how much we always made each other laugh, and make a point of spending as much time together as possible when he made his jaunt to London this week.
First he appeared at our little house, laden with flowers and a much-needed injection of Fox Point Seasoning, whose level had dropped alarmingly since my Christmas fix. You should all know that the way to my heart — and a home-cooked dinner of your choosing — when your travels bring you to London is merely a glass jar of dried shallot mixture. I’m so easy.
We talked nonstop, Avery listening bemusedly to our ramblings, for hours and hours, first over drinks, then dinner, then tea. Since he wouldn’t tell me what he really wanted to eat, I fed Charlie what I really wanted to eat. The nicest thing about this dish (aside from its sheer luxurious deliciousness) is that it cooks itself.
Seven-Hour Braised Leg of Lamb with Umami Rub
(serves at least 6)
This recipe combines two of my favorite lamb dishes: a slow-cooked one from my friend Orlando’s divine cookbook, “A Table in the Tarn,” and a very simple one I’ve invented myself that combines every savoury ingredient in your pantry for a spectacularly messy rub. And the beauty is, this dish cooks itself all day while you do other things.
1 tbsp olive oil
1 whole bone-in leg of lamb (the size does not matter as the leg cooks very slowly and thoroughly)
1 whole lemon
6 cloves garlic
handful fresh rosemary
handful fresh thyme
2 tbsps capers
four anchovies in oil, drained
plenty of black pepper
handful flat-leaf parsley
4 onions, sliced
6 carrots, cut in large chunks
300ml white wine
300 ml chicken or beef stock
2 cups Beluga lentils, prepared and cooked
Heat the oil in a heavy pot with a close-fitting lid (or a tent of aluminium foil can do to cover the dish if you have no lid). Brown the lamb all over in the oil, for about 10 minutes, until as much of the surface has been scorched as possible. Lift the lamb onto a dish to wait.
Put ALL the ingredients up to and including the parsley in your food processor — really, the whole lemon, quartered — and blitz until a nice smooth paste. Rub the mixture all over the shoulder of lamb, on both sides.
Cook the onions and carrots in the oil and lamb fat for about 10 minutes, until the onions are translucent, then add the garlic and cook for another couple of minutes. Scatter the lentils over the onions and carrots and pour over the wine and stock. Lay the lamb in its rub on top of the vegetables and seal with the lid or foil.
Braise slowly at 120C/220F for up to seven hours, but at least six hours. In the last half hour, drain all the cooking liquids from the dish, and separate the fat from the cooking liquids. Discard the fat, then heat the cooking liquids in a frying pan with a tablespoon of flour whisked in, simmering until the gravy is thickened.
Simply tear the meat apart with two forks. The meat will fall off the bone. Serve with the gravy or homemade mustard, or both. The lentils, onions and carrots will still be edible, as well, although very soft.
We did our level best — with many sidetracks, anecdotes and Charlie’s brilliant quipping (“There is no ‘I’ in ‘team’, but there are plenty in ‘narcissistic’”) to cover the last quarter century of our lives. Washington, D.C., Virginia, Chicago for Charlie, following political campaigns and congressmen, PR and investing, New York, London, art history, cooking and property development for us. Avery chipped in with tales of hideous mock AS level exams and mistakes made in Olympic Russian interpretation!
Not having broken the surface of what we needed to say to each other, we met up mid-week at Harrods, of all places! There is nothing like out-of-town visitors to get you out of your rut, to see a little of what makes London a destination for so many people, and not just home to us.
In the olden days, the Terrace Restaurant was the place I hung out with John’s beloved dad when they visited. It was the scene of many a Christmas-shopping lunch, plotting what to give John’s mom, going over our happy past as daughter-and father-in-law. Happy memories. They do a lovely champagne tea, too.
And precisely NOTHING had changed. Oh, the club sandwich is now described in amusingly “modern” terms like “Donley Farm bacon,” “heirloom tomatoes,” and “free-range hard-cooked egg.” But it’s still a club sandwich, and what better to have at Harrods? The sun came out for Charlie and his mother, who could not have been more delightful, guiding us into the past to find out how we met, what we’ve been doing all these years, to extract descriptions of just how above-average our child is. Wonderful people.
And Charlie came with gifts: a James Bond novel for Avery, an architecture book for John, and for me, my new favorite book of the hour and one I would like to give to everyone, “Love Letters of the Great War.” A collection of genuinely moving epistles from the battlefields to lovers back home, from wives in Poland and Moscow and Philadelphia to their soldiers. You will love it.
Today, on Charlie’s last day in London, we met up at our crazy Plot of Dirt, at the foot of Tower Bridge, to show him just in how insane a fashion John spends his days. Will this Plot of Dirt ever be a home?
As you can see, the development next door is coming along considerably faster than ours. We were given a tour of the penthouses as they shoot up into the sky (sadly obscuring our view of the bridge, but one cannot stand in the way of progress).
What will never be obscured is the view over the Thames. How majestic!
Once we’d had our fill of imagining the future, we sauntered along the river to Borough Market, which amazingly will be my local food purveyor when we eventually move into our new home. John groans in dismay at the dent this will make in his wallet, as I simply cannot resist the lure of the butchers (a plump duck came home with me), the cheesemongers (a quite magical sheep-goat Robiola, yum yum), the bakers. Check out these garlic and olive breadsticks.
Oh, the fruit and veg purveyors. There are so many, each more beautiful than the last.
And just to underline how my photographs of food pale in comparison with Avery’s, look what she did with the tomatoes when we got home.
We drove Charlie to Trafalgar Square and dropped him at St Martin’s in the Field, loath to say goodbye. But he’ll be back. We must hope so, because he is one of those givers that you meet too seldom in life: someone who packs joy into his suitcase along with the Fox Point, who approaches every new person, new adventure, new idea with energy and the kind of curiosity that makes you feel much more interesting than you really are. His motto is “Be the good energy in the room,” and my goodness, he fulfills it.
John and I managed to have one bit of fun without Charlie this week, and that was our joint birthday lunch, a gift from his mom, to Benares in Berkeley Square, quite the most incredible Indian restaurant in the world, the only one in London with a Michelin star.
Crispy soft-shell crab with squid rings and mango-passion fruit salsa, cumin-dusted scallops with cauliflower six ways, fried Indian-spiced John Dory with super-spicy chilli dip, lamb rump and shoulder samosa with coriander chickpeas and a tamarind sauce… heaven. I can cook fair Italian food, not-embarrassing Chinese food, and really pretty darn good Japanese food, but Indian eludes me. I think you have to be Indian. What a treat.
Still, we were happy to have my jazzed-up spaghetti carbonara that evening for dinner. The added chicken and asparagus make the traditional garlicky, bacony flavors even more special, in my opinion.
Spaghetti Carbonara with Asparagus and Chicken
(serves four generously)
1 pound bacon (American or English), diced
1/2 small white onion, finely minced
a bunch asparagus
2 chicken breast fillets
4 cloves garlic, finely minced
1/2 cup/118ml light cream
1/2 cup/118ml creme fraiche
1 egg yolk
sprinkling fresh grated nutmeg
sprinkling fresh black pepper
3/4 pound spaghetti
1/2 grated pecorino romano or parmesan
Boil water for pasta. Then in a large skillet, saute bacon bits over low to medium heat, stirring nearly constantly and taking care that the bacon does not scorch. If you are using American bacon, you will need to drain the fat frequently. British bacon will provide just enough fat for a nice sauce. When bacon is cooked, add onion, asparagus and chicken and fry until chicken is JUST cooked through, then add garlic, stirring for a moment, then turn off heat.
In a medium bowl, combine cream, creme fraiche, egg yolk, nutmeg and pepper.
Cook pasta and drain, reserving about 1/4 cup of the pasta water. Whisk hot water into creamy sauce, then throw the pasta into the sauce skillet and toss well with the sauce and reserved hot water. Serve immediately with cheese sprinkled on top.
And so our February, filled with sorrows and joys, pressures and adventures, rain and sunshine, and a truly wonderful reunion, has come to and end. Spring is in sight, here in London town.
It breaks my heart to write those words, because this week we lost a beloved member of our family, the majestic, artistocratic Lord Peter Wimsey of Balliol.
Of course it’s part of having pets as part of the family. Once, many years ago when saying goodbye to beloved foster kittens, I watched little Avery cry and asked her, “Are you sure it’s worth it, for you to be this sad?” And she answered, “That’s how you know it’s worth it, when you’re this sad.”
The wisdom of a small child was needed this week when we had to make the awful decision to let our lovely vet help Wimsey out of the world. He had been failing for some days, refusing to eat, hissing at his sisters, wandering the house looking uncomfortable and unhappy. We took him into the vet where he then spent four days in hospital, while the whole of the staff tried to piece together what was wrong. Finally he came home for the weekend.
But the lovely thing was, he had one last wander around his beloved garden, sniffing for signs of visitor cats, walking as he often did right through the plantings of perennial bulbs, which had raised their heads earlier this month. That night, he slept behind a chair, and Avery brought him a sweater to sleep on. “He looked cold.”
And that was that. The vet asked us to bring him back on Monday for another scan, and there the cause of his distress became clear; several spots of cancer. It was the end.
We all said goodbye to him that evening. He stood next to each of us, on the vet’s table, pressing his face into our chests one by one. We murmured how much we loved him, feeling his bones too prominent. And then I stayed while the vet took the difficult action that is the kindest thing we can do for our beloved pets. Afterward, the vet said, “It was the right thing to do. I know that doesn’t make it any easier.” “Yes, it does,” I said. Then I sat in the dark churchyard across the road and cried. There was one candle alight in the window of the ancient, 13th century chapel, which comforted me obscurely.
All week we’ve been remembering the funny ways he had. The first month or so that we had him, as a tiny shelter kitten, when we drove him to visit our friends Livia and Janice in New Jersey for the Fourth of July. My, it was hot! He lay on his back on their cretonne-covered sofa, with his pink kitten mouth slightly open, panting in the heat; they had no air-conditioning. Finally in desperation, John drove him all the way back into the city to deposit him in our cool apartment, then drove back to spend the rest of the holiday with us. It was only in the weeks and months to come that we realised he always breathed with his little mouth slightly open. This incident gave rise to one of his many nicknames, “Lord Peter Flimsey.”
Every Easter, he consented to have the perfect white tip of his tail dipped in the very brightest of the egg dyes, and Avery delighted in kissing his white forehead with bright red lipstick, leaving a lingering pink kiss for some days.
He was our only boy, ever. His sisters treated him with great respect, love and longing, and occasionally he condescended to give a bath to one of them, or share a chair. The two tabbies could often be seen together.
He was the absolute apple of Keechie’s eye and she spent most of her life trying to get his attention. How thrilled she was when she had success.
He was the absolute king of the nightly treat of awful wet food, leading the pack of cats churning into the kitchen every time John moved a muscle, in the hour or so leading up to the magical 6 o’clock, wailing furiously all the while. All that excitement every day, for about 90 seconds of happiness.
Little Avery, who was five years old when he came to us, used to stroke his fur in one direction and say, “More stripes,” then stroke in the other direction for “More white.” He strolled with authority through our enormous New York loft, like a furry landlord surveying his property. He moved bravely with us to London, and from the first house to four more.
In each house he set about finding the cosiest places to sleep, the best window from which to watch leaves or snow fall (which he chased with his eyes).
Even unwell, in his last weeks, he could make us smile. I had set a plate out on the counter containing a leftover pork chop and a few roasted beets. I turned my back (never do that). The next thing I knew, Wimsey had absconded with a chunk of beet, desirable for its proximity to the pork chop. He dashed about the kitchen with the beet in his mouth, pursued by me and Avery. “Release the beet! Release the beet!” we cried, as he ran past us, dropping the beet here, then there. Oh the greediness of a tabby!
He was only twelve years old, really much too soon to say goodbye.
We are muddling through with the other three, who are responding rather bemusedly, being rather more affectionate than usual. We all miss him, his affection, his rather bumbly personality, his love. Our family is less without him. Rest in peace, dear Lord Peter.
Well, little did I know when John took this photograph on our post-flood footpath by the Thames that it would make me wax all nostalgic just a few days later.
Because I have sprained my ankle. Walking down a slippery, rainy set of steps outside a Children’s Centre with my Home-Start infant strapped to my chest, I tripped. Luckily I was able to save the baby and not simply pitch downwards onto both our faces, but the save was at the expense of my foot, which twisted under me at a most unnatural angle. It took me just a moment to swallow my yelp of astonished pain and to remind myself that I was there to HELP, not hinder. So I persevered. We walked the babies to their house, I kissed them and said goodbye, limped to my bicycle in the pouring rain and got myself home to the sofa.
I have hardly budged from there for three days. Ouch!
The lovely thing has been having John and Avery coddle me, carrying laundry, cleaning litter boxes, fetching bags of frozen peas for my ankle and hot water bottles to thaw the rest of me. And John has been cooking! A delicious supper of grilled pork chops, sauteed spinach and everyone’s favorite comfort dish.
(serves 4 generously)
6 medium potatoes
1 tbsp butter
sprinkle onion, garlic powders
sea salt and fresh black pepper
2 small shallots or 1 banana shallot, minced
1 cup/236ml whole milk
1 cup/236ml single cream
2 tbsps butter
Peel the potatoes and slice them thinly or run them through the slicer of a food processor.
Butter an ovenproof dish about 9 inches/22cm square. Layer half the potatoes on the bottom, then sprinkle over minced shallot, onion and garlic powders. Add another layer of potatoes, then mix milk and cream and pour over the potatoes. Dot in four places with the butter. Bake at 425F/220 for about an hour, checking to make sure the potatoes are not browning too much and turning down heat slightly if they are. Serve hot.
My main accomplishments since being felled have been reading all of “Lolita” at one sitting (a bit sickening, to be honest), and cleaning up the entire recipe index on this lovely blog! No more duplications, no more finding chicken meatballs under “salads,” no more unwanted recipes from many years ago, and lots of photographs added. Enjoy!
It’s the half-term “holiday” which is a tiny bit of a joke because Avery has stacks of books, files and notes at which she is meant to stare for upwards of six hours a day. The “mock” exams for these will occur right after the “holiday,” so there’s no rest for the weary. All she can do is surface now and then to take lovely photographs of the springlike garden in our February winter. We are very lucky to have been spared any flooding in this epic English season.
The clock is ticking on my sprained ankle because this week is full of things to look forward to: coffee with friends, a matinee of “Les Mis” with Avery, lunch with a chum coming in from Oxford and dinner with a long-awaited visiting Chicago friend! So I shall sit here, patiently on my sofa, while life occurs all round me and I heal. Wish me luck.
I am an absolute glutton for birthday celebrations. I’ll tell you why.
Every other “holiday” is reciprocal; everyone has to care about how everyone else is feeling. Halloween, you have to make sure that everyone gets a say in the design of the jack o’lanterns. Thanksgiving involves so many hundreds of people that the enjoyment of it is mostly in the chaos and mad social uncertainty! Christmas… is Christmas, absolute tops in requiring that everyone’s wishes are answered. And don’t misunderstand me. I love all those occasions, too.
But my birthday is just for me! Selfishly, I love it. Presents, of course. Many years ago I declared that I was all grown-up and didn’t need any presents. Unfortunately everyone took me at my word. I cried. Never again. I love presents! John is a past master at choosing just the right quirky things: a bright blue silicone colander, the perfect black turtleneck, an orange messenger bag to replace my tired handbag.
Part of the fun of a birthday is, of course, stretching it out over an entire week, or as close as I can get to it. First was a jaunt to Brick Lane in East London, for Nordic Noir! A whole festival dedicated to Scandinavian crime telly dramas. I am not making this up.
We trooped off early Sunday morning to spend the entire day, shivering in an abandoned brewery, screening (hipster-speak for “watching”) episodes of our favorites, “Wallander” and “The Bridge,” and revelling in Q&A sessions with the actors. It was, as John said, about as nerdy a thing as one could ever do, except perhaps for bell-ringing. The fact that I left bell-ringing early to get to “Nordicana” says something quite eloquent about my life. And there were Swedish meatballs. What fun.
The revelries continued on Wednesday with my darling friend Elspeth treating me to lunch at the new trendy local place, the “Olympic,” a cafe and cinema in the High Street. We came in from the nasty, blowy February rain and feasted on roasted cod, hangar steak and roasted winter vegetables, washed down with a celebratory glass of Prosecco, and then meandered into the unbelievably plushy red cinema, for a fabulous screening (again with the “screening”!) of a live performance of the National Theatre’s “Coriolanus,” starring the impressive Tom Hiddleston. Oh my.
What a simple and yet brilliant idea, such a democratic way to share an extraordinary theatrical experience: have proper camera people swan around a Shakespearean production at the Donmar Warehouse, getting far better inclusive views than a live person could get no matter how good the seat, then show the film in cinemas. The film has been shown worldwide since January 30, so if you get a chance at your local theatre, do not miss this fabulous (if bloody) production. Star-studded, too, with even one of our favorite Scandy stars, Birgitte Hjort Sorensen, playing Virgilia, Mark Gattis as Menenius. But it was Tom who stole the show, and it has made him a star of epic proportions.
We came away in a daze of admiration for Hiddleston’s nuanced, sensitive performance (watch for the scene where he washes his battle wounds in a shower cascading from the enormously high ceiling). Luckily I had a good, warming winter supper planned: pan-fried pork tenderloin and roasted root vegetables in quite the most perfect sauce ever.
Roasted Root Vegetables with Tahini Ginger Sauce
(serves 4 as a main course)
4 medium beetroots
1 large butternut squash
1 medium head cauliflower
2 tbsps olive oil
1/3 cup tahini
2 tbsps clear honey
3 tbsps soy sauce
juice and zest of 1 lime
2-inch knob ginger
4 cloves garlic
Peel the beetroots and cut into bite-sized pieces. Peel and seed the squash and cut into pieces twice as big as the beets. Cut the cauliflower into florets, halved if very large. Toss all the vegetables in the olive oil and scatter in one layer in a foil-lined tray. Bake at 425F/220C for about 40 minutes, or until all vegetables are tender to a knifepoint.
Place the tahini, honey, soy sauce and lime juice in a medium bowl and grate the ginger and garlic into it. Whisk together well, adding a bit of very hot water if too thick.
Drizzle over the vegetables, hot or room temperature. This sauce will also be delicious with whatever meat might be on your plate, in our case roasted chicken.
And because I am incredibly lucky in my girlfriends, a casual invitation to have “a birthday coffee” at a local hotel turned into a festival of flowers, cupcakes, sparklers, presents and “Happy Birthday” played for me on tiny handbells! We solved all the problems of the local universe, agreed that all our children are above average, recommended dozens of books and generally had a quite perfect time, over latte.
We went our separate ways, me to Lost Property where I hoped to see Avery, but she was too busy. It was, however, as much fun as always to catch up with the staff and their news, especially Jon the Gardener, a man as intimidating to the new girls as he is beloved to the older ones, with his long fairy-tale beard and hair, his stories of departed teachers buried under the lacrosse field, his identity as merely “Jon” in a school full of Dr This and Miss That. In fact, at a recent school play, our tickets were listed under “Curran,” but Jon’s were listed under… “Jon.” That made him laugh. “Sometimes I forget I have a last name myself.”
And then it was home, laden with gorgeous ingredients from the butcher, greengrocer and baker, to get ready for the next day’s birthday lunch. The garden woke up to welcome me to the kitchen, with a rare London February sun shining through the skylight.
For my birthday celebrations, I decided on the dish that embodies everything I love about food: slow, loving cooking, rich duck and lamb, tons of haricot beans, and GARLIC. Unlike most of my recipes which I can say with total honesty are quite simple, this dish requires one or more complete days in the kitchen, about a thousand different techniques and ingredients, and all your devotion as a cook. It is worth every minute you put into it.
(serves 6 hearty eaters)
for the confit:
1/2 cup/120ml olive oil
1/2 cup/100g duck fat
4 duck legs
coarse sea salt
4 fat garlic cloves, finely chopped
4 bay leaves, broken in half
2 cups/570ml white wine
for the cassoulet:
4 Toulouse sausages, ready-made or make your own
350g/12oz belly pork, skinned and diced (slab bacon, or ordinary bacon if you must)
350g/12oz lamb neck fillet, shoulder or rolled breast, diced
1 large onion, chopped roughly
2 large carrots, chopped roughly
2 celery sticks, chopped roughly
400g/14oz can chopped tomatoes
1 tbsp tomato purée
2 heaped tbsp fresh flat leaf parsley, chopped
1 heaped tbsp fresh thyme, chopped
sea salt and pepper
290ml/½ pint dry white wine
3 soup cans haricot or cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
3 1/2 cups/850ml chicken stock, with more to add later if needed
for the topping:
1 large day-old baguette (or 1 cup fresh homemade breadcrumbs)
2 fat garlic cloves, halved
4 tbsp butter
2 heaped tbsp fresh flat leaf parsley, chopped
1 heaped tbsp fresh thyme, chopped
In a large frying pan big enough to accommodate the duck, and which has a lid, heat the duck fat until melted. Place the duck legs skin side down in the frying pan, sprinkle with the salt, garlic and bay leaves and pour the white wine around. Place the lid on top and cook at the tiniest simmer possible, for two hours. Of course, for real confit you’d pour the winey fat over the duck in a sealed container and preserve it, but no need for that step here, as you’ll be using the duck straightaway.
Meanwhile, place the sausages in a 220C/425F oven and bake for 20 minutes. Set aside to cool.
In a large stovetop– and ovenproof dish that will hold all the ingredients, place the belly pork and heat gently until fat begins to be released, then raise heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until all the fat has been released and the pork is crisp, but not dry. Lift the pork onto a plate with a slotted spoon, leaving all the fat behind.
Add the lamb to the pork fat and cook until colored on all sides, then lift out with slotted spoon and set aside with the pork.
Add the diced vegetables to the pork fat and cook till soft. Tip the ingredients from the plate back into the dish. Add the tomatoes, tomato purée and herbs, then season with sea salt and pepper to taste.
Add the wine, haricot beans and chicken stock to the dish and bring to the boil. Stir, then lower the heat so the liquid is just simmering. Keep the mixture in the same dish to cook or transfer it to an earthenware dish.
When the duck has cooked for two hours, remove it from the duck-fat/wine and cool to handle. Remove the skin from the duck, then tuck the duck legs into the cassoulet. Set aside the duck-fat/wine mixture.
Peel off the sausage skins, slice the sausagemeat thickly on the diagonal and tuck into the dish.
Cover the dish and bake for 1 hour, stirring once. Stir, then cook uncovered for a further 1–1½ hours, stirring halfway, until the meat is really tender and the sauce is thickened. Take the dish out of the oven and remove the duck legs. Strip the meat from the bones (it will fall off easily) and return the meat to the dish. Stir and add a little stock and some of the duck-fat/wine, if necessary. Season if necessary, then return to the oven and bake for another 15 minutes until all the meat and beans are very tender. At this point the cassoulet can be refrigerated for up to two days, then reheated to serve.
For the topping, cut the crusts off the baguette, tear the bread into pieces and put in a food processor. Add the garlic and chop into coarse crumbs (you should have about a cup of garlicky bread crumbs).
Heat the butter in a large frying pan until sizzling, then stir fry the breadcrumbs and garlic over a moderate to high heat for 7–8 minutes until crisp and golden. Remove from the heat, toss in the herbs and stir to mix, then season well with salt and pepper.
Ladle the cassoulet in generous servings into warm bowls, sprinkle on a bit of topping, and serve.
As I labored, watching “General Hospital“and “Days of Our Lives” on my computer, I was surprised by Avery’s early arrival, tradition on Fridays these days. “I’m so glad you’re here! Can you take some photographs?”
And we had the happiest afternoon, discussing politics, favorite books, the upcoming debate day for which she would have to miss my birthday lunch. It was the sort of afternoon I will miss greatly when she goes off to university.
And then John came home and we made our own Toulouse Sausages to include in the cassoulet. No cutting corners for me! But it is a two-man job, with another to record it all.
And then it was onto Elspeth’s gorgeous lemon-polenta-almond cake, just about the only dessert I actually request.
We finished my Birthday Week in the most unexpectedly enjoyable way: watching the Olympic opening ceremonies with someone who speaks Russian! “That’s not really what he’s saying,” Avery said at certain points, re-pronouncing athletes’ names in the proper manner, explaining the alphabet to us (why Canada and Korea were together, for instance; there is no hard C in the Russian language!).
Altogether a most auspicious week to start my 50th year. What will next year’s landmark birthday hold? Watch this space, and rest assured whatever happens, it will be delicious.
Isn’t it funny how a simple head cold can make you feel like everything is beyond your grasp? I knew when I sneezed 31 times in a row two evenings ago that something was up, and sure enough. The silver lining to feeling unwell is having a husband willing and able to make possibly the world’s most medicinal soup.
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 cloves garlic
2 Kaffir lime 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
juice of 1 lime
1 banana shallot, peeled and cut into chunks
handful coriander/cilantro with stems
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/473ml water or stock (fish or chicken).
Now for the soup:
1 pound raw peeled shrimp, or chicken breast thinly sliced on the bias
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, with rice vermicelli if desired.
This soup has everything: spicy, sour, sweet, with the refreshing zing of plenty of ginger and the creamy luxury of coconut milk. It may make your nose run just a tiny bit more, but in a good way. That cold can’t last forever, and a little Tom Yum is pure comfort.
To think that over the weekend I was perfectly well, well enough for an entire Saturday’s bellringing adventure. The ivy-filled churchyard above was just one of the beautiful places on our agenda, as we went from tower to tower along the banks of the Thames, ringing as guests of very hospitable people who were only too happy to open their ringing chambers for us.
It’s a funny distinction, but I always think of us as visiting “churches,” where real ringers think of them, and indeed refer to them, as “towers,” as if the only relevant aspect of the structure is the part that houses the bells. I love the whole churchly aspect to these places, the sense of the passage of time, the acknowledgement of the way history has affected the parishioners.
We happened upon one particularly stunning monument in the wonderfully-named St James the Less, parish church to Dorney Court, a gorgeous medieval private home that’s been in the Palmer family uninterruptedly for the last 450 years.
If you look closely, you can see that some of the 15 children of this particular generation of Palmers are holding skulls, indicating that they died before their parents. How touching, that even in the days when it was quite common to have children die young, this family felt each loss so deeply.
We rang at three churches in the morning, had lunch, then rang in three more in the afternoon, before heading home in the dusk, tired, but satisfied with our labors. Whenever I feel disappointed in my ringing achievements, knowing I have so much more to learn, I have to stop and be satisfied just a little bit that I could take part in a whole day’s outing, participating in many of the rings, a welcome member of the group.
And my reward for all this activity was to come home to a perfect dinner cooked by John, who although he does not love cooking, is happy to do it when I’ve been out (or ill), and it’s a good opportunity to test one of the cookbook recipes, and prove that it works. This pasta dish is one of the all-time umami favorites, featuring very strong flavors of caper, anchovy and oil-cured olives. One of the nice bits of this recipe is that aside from the Parmesan, you can have everything in your cupboard and not have to go shopping.
1/2 lb spaghetti
3 tbsps olive oil
4 cloves garlic
1/2 red onion
7 oz/200g oil-cured black olives, pitted and cut in half
1 soup-size can peeled tomatoes, cut in sixths
3 tbsps capers, rinsed if held in salt
6 anchovies, rinsed
1 cup grated Parmesan
Boil spaghetti. In the meantime, mince the garlic and onion. Saute in olive oil in a saucepan, then when soft, add the olives, tomatoes, capers and anchovies. Saute till mixed. Throw in the drained spaghetti and serve with cheese.
It was absolutely heavenly to rest in bed that night, full of Puttanesca sauce, with a hot water bottle, a cat at my feet under the covers, a glass of brandy at my elbow, a sleeping husband at my side, listening to Avery practice for her upcoming singing exams up in her room, watching the rain swish against the bedroom windows with the Thames just below.
We’ve been to two absolutely unforgettable Shakespeare productions which are still on, if you can but get a ticket. I don’t know which was more impressive: the tour de force that was Simon Russell Beale’s “King Lear,” or the equally outstanding David Tennant as “Richard II.” Two completely different actors: Beale a burly, cruel bully, and Tennant a lithe and sensuous poet, equally at the top of their games. We enjoyed both tremendously, feeling our usual sense of exhilaration at being south of the river in the thick of the theatre.
I am thrilled to say that I have my new Home-Start family! Of course I cannot tell you anything about them for confidentiality’s sake, but suffice it to say that they are very small babies, smaller than I had remembered they start. What fun to go back to the beginning of the whole maternal adventure. I found myself slightly envious — although I don’t think I have it in me to start over — of having a child at an age where the things they could possibly need, or even want, are so few in number, and it’s entirely within the parent’s power to provide them all. How much more confusing, I find, to have a child who isn’t even any longer a child, whose thoughts are entirely her own and usually unknowable to a parent, whose needs and wants are so much more complex.
How can we possibly be talking about university choices? But we are.
Finally it was time for that most enjoyable of January activities: the first Lost Property luncheon of the new year! It’s always such fun to set out all the champagne glasses, put up the extra table and chairs, throw together a couple of main courses for 20, and let the doorbell start ringing.
There is something in the nature of a lady who would want to volunteer at Lost Property that makes her a good friend. It’s partly a lack of pretension about getting dirty — those lacrosse boots can be pretty overwhelming — and partly a desire to help, to make order out of mess, to reunite girls with their belongings (“oh, thank goodness, I have chemistry next and I had no idea I’d lost my file!”), to eavesdrop on their funny conversations, to get an hour’s glimpse once or twice a term into their daily lives.
I offered them a luscious roasted side of salmon with a lovely, simple salsa of red pepper and cucumber, and a bowl of garlic mayonnaise. But the star of the show was the eggplant casserole. How else can you use up about a half a bottle of olive oil in one go? I’ve posted this recipe before, but it bears repeating, as every lady wanted to make it when she got home.
Eggplant, Chickpea and Tomato Casserole
(serves about 6 as side dish)
4 medium eggplants, cut in 1/4 inch slices
1/2 cup olive oil (add more as needed)
1 soup-size tin chickpeas
1 large tin plum tomatoes
2 medium white onions, sliced thin
6 cloves garlic, minced
3 balls buffalo mozzarella cheese
sprinkling Parmesan or Pecorino cheese
sea salt and fresh black pepper
handful chopped flat-leaf parsley
With all eggplants sliced and ready, heat olive oil in a large shallow frying pan. In a series of single-layer batches, fry eggplant slices until soft, adding olive oil as needed. Set aside on paper towels.
Fry sliced onions in the leftover oil until soft, then add garlic. Do not burn the garlic.
When all eggplant and onions and garlic are fried, cover the bottom of a 9x13 casserole dish with a layer of eggplant, then spread the onions and garlic over them. Add another layer of eggplant and scatter over half the plum tomatoes, squeezing them into smallish pieces as you take them out of the tin. Add salt and fresh pepper. Add the chickpeas. Add half the cheese, torn into bite-size pieces, then finish with a layer of eggplant and top with the rest of the tomatoes and scatter the remaining cheese on top. Season sauce to taste and stir in half the parsley.
Alternately, just tip the eggplants back in the frying pan with the onions and garlic, then stir in the tomatoes and chickpeas and half the parsley, then season to taste. Simmer until you are ready to serve, then tear the mozzarella into bite-sized pieces and scatter them over the casserole with the rest of the parsley. Serve hot or warm.
This is the perfect main course for the vegetarian in your life, or even the vegan if you leave out the cheese. Some of my friends swear by the substitution of tofu for mozzarella in many dishes, and this should certainly be one of them. It’s also an excellent side dish to any roasted or grilled meat. I served a bowl of sliced Cumberland sausages alongside the casserole at the Lost Property lunch, for anyone who wanted a heartier lunch.
Because it’s a potluck, I get the chance to eat other wonderful dishes like the roasted beet and walnut salad brought by my lovely friend Elspeth.
We all agree that the chance to get together with 30+ like-minded, intelligent and willing women, raise a glass of bubbly within while cold rains persist without, is one of the moments to look forward to in this dreary month.
Surely I can last two more days, and then the shortest month, and the one happily containing my birthday, will be here, banishing January for one more year.
What a whirlwind of a two weeks we’ve had! In my usual post-holiday sense of confusion, it seems mightily unbelievable to me that two weeks ago today, we were in transit back to our London lives, after the joys and chaos of Christmas.
But here we are. With irises blooming in the back garden, as you see, and little shoots of things coming up in the front garden, if you can imagine it. The weather is incredibly mild, a bit disturbingly so after the more appropriate frozen tundra we left behind in America. Actually, the deep freeze happened as our plane was taking off from Newark. What we actually left behind at Red Gate Farm was torrential rainfall and this resulting drama from Anne’s pond.
And twelve hours later, we arrived at our other home, one that’s much more about responsibilities, pressure, schedules, challenges. It’s hard to explain why, given this stark contrast, we are always happy to be back in London. Of course, some of that is about our feline family, left alone for the holidays. They were very happy to see us.
January food is, to me, all about contrast from the warm, comfortable, comforting food of the holiday season. It’s about simple flavors, bright colors, challenging textures. And not a sage leaf or turkey leg in sight.
Scallop, Egg, Beetroot, Goat Cheese, Avocado, Asparagus, Bacon, Spinach Salad
(serves 4 as a main course)
4 medium beetroots
8 eggs, hard-boiled
1 tbsp butter
12 large scallops
340g/12 ounces crumbly goat cheese
1 ripe avocado
juice of 1/2 lemon
24 spears asparagus
8 slices smoked pancetta bacon
4 handfuls baby spinach
2 tbsps balsamic vinegar
First, wrap the beetroots in foil and roast for 1 hour at 220C/425C. Let rest in the closed foil for a few minutes to allow the skin to steam loose, then rub the skin from the beetroots and cut them into bite-size pieces. Set aside.
While the beetroots cook, bring the eggs to boil and boil for 5 minutes, then run under cold water, peel and cut into quarters.
In a very hot frying pan, melt the butter. Then fry the scallops for about 90 seconds on one side or until lightly coloured, then turn over and cook on the other side for about the same time, until the scallops feel slightly stiff to the touch. Err on the side of undercooked, and set aside on a covered plate, leaving the buttery frying pan to use later.
Crumble the goat cheese and set aside.
De-seed, peel and slice the avocado, then sprinkle lemon juice over and toss till all slices are covered in juice.
In the scallop frying pan, fry the asparagus in the butter left behind, as well as any scallop juices that have accumulated on the scallop plate, until lightly colored and leave in the frying pan to stay warm.
Bake the bacon in a very hot oven just until crisp, about four minutes.
Now it’s just an assembly job. Arrange the ingredients on 4 individual plates, in whatever way pleases you — the asparagus like the spokes of a wheel in the centre is pretty — and drizzle with the balsamic vinegar. Heaven on a plate.
This salad combines everything I love in taste and texture, as well as in visual delights. Soft buttery scallops, rich egg yolk, crisp asparagus, earthy beetroot, all the green goodness of the avocado and spinach, and well, bacon: there is no need to justify bacon! It’s natural human instinct.
We had this salad for dinner, and afterward we both agreed that it felt more like a very substantial lunch. For an equally superfoody jolt to dinner, try this soup for your first course.
Watercress Soup with Nutmeg
1 tbsp butter
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 shallot, minced
4 bunches or bags (about 340g/12 ounces fresh watercress, washed and spun dry
chicken stock or vegetable stock to cover the leaves nearly halfway — about 2 cups
pinch fresh nutmeg
sea salt and fresh black pepper to taste
1/2 cup creme fraiche (if desired)
Saute the garlic and shallot in the butter until soft. Add the watercress and pour in chicken stock until the level of liquid is about halfway up the level of leaves. Simmer for two minutes, then season with nutmeg and fresh pepper to taste. Adjust salt if the stock needs it. Blend with hand blender until completely smooth (flecks of watercress will remain). Add cream if desired. Serve either hot or cold. This soup is also delicious with a few handfuls of fresh spinach added to the watercress.
Every January, I throw myself immediately into all my usual activities, trying to pretend jetlag isn’t a real thing. But I am a creature who depends on sleep, and waking up gritty-eyed and cranky every hour or so does not suit me. This is my nighttime experience for days after travelling east (travelling west does not seem to bother me). A peripatetic friend has actually suggested to me that once you’ve been living in five hours’ time change for five days, you have to count on one day for each of those five hours to recover when you go back. The best way to persevere through those five painful days is to face up to… January Lost Property at Avery’s school.
Every holiday, the cleaning staff go nuts scooping up every item in school that isn’t stapled to a flat surface. Which means this on Day One after Christmas.
Eight bin liners simply bloated with STUFF, not to mention the two giant bins that hold the normal dose of Lost Property on a daily basis. Some vague combination of OCD and a martyrish devotion to duty meant that I worked all by myself to clear all this away. Filthy lacrosse boots, countless PE kit hoodies, random text books, about 16 copies of “The French Revolution,” library books, several Santa hats from pre-holiday celebrations, and undoubtedly the grossest thing to find: bags full of crunchy, mouldy towels and rolled-up, dried out swimsuits. Ick! But after two days, this was the vista:
A place for everything, everything in its place. Throughout those two dusty, chilly, chaotic days, it was great fun to see the girls trooping in during their lunchtimes, screaming with glee at finding a missing pencil case, chemistry notebook, a mother’s cashmere jumper nicked from her closet, HOUSE KEYS. Avery popped in with her clan to say hello and advise that I just turn off the lights, lock the door, and abandon the whole project. “You’re head of Lost Property! Just walk away.”
Of course my beloved bells at St Mary’s welcomed me back, maybe even more than my fellow ringers. We got started right away with ringing for a funeral. Really, it was more the celebration of a life than an occasion for mourning: the 96-year-old great-grandmother of our teenage ringer Flora. The singing sunshine of the January day lit the graveyard with a glow that seemed to reflect the family’s pride and sorrow.
The sheer age of some of the graves, crypts and plaques is a line drawn under all our common humanity. Part reassurance, part a reminder of how fleeting all this is.
Finally then the rains came, and we were ready, at last, for a comfort dinner.
Pork Chops with Mushrooms, Fresh Sage and Creme Fraiche
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp butter
pinch sea salt and fresh black pepper
4 boneless pork chops
8 leaves sage, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 banana shallot, minced
12 chestnut or baby portobello mushrooms, sliced
1 tbsp flour
1 1/2 c/350 ml beef stock
2 tbsps Madeira or Marsala
1/2 c /118ml half-fat creme fraiche or sour cream
sea salt and fresh black pepper to taste
In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil, butter and salt and pepper until bubbling fast. Place the pork chops in the saucepan over high heat and fry for 2 minutes, then turn over and fry on second side for two minutes. Remove to a plate and place the sage, garlic, shallot and mushrooms in the saucepan in the pork chop juices, pouring over any that may accumulate on the pork chop plate. Fry until mushrooms are soft and fully cooked. Remove mushrooms to a plate.
Sprinkle the flour on the juices remaining in the saucepan and fry until bubbling, adding a bit more olive oil if needed. Pour in the beef stock and Madeira or Marsala and bring to a high simmer, whisking until thickened. Add creme fraiche or sour cream and whisk until smooth.
At this point you may turn off the heat and wait until your side dishes are ready to serve. When about five minutes away from serving, turn up the heat high under the sauce until bubbling and place the pork chops and the mushrooms in the sauce. Cook, moving the pork chops around, for about 2 further minutes or until pork chops are just pink and firm to the touch. You may choose to serve each person with a whole chop, or slice them all on a cutting board and arrange on a platter with the sauce. If you choose to slice them, remove them to the cutting board and allow to rest for 2 minutes before slicing. Keep sauce hot in either case until ready to serve.
This dish is perfect with mashed or Dauphinoise potatoes and something bright green, like sauteed broccoli, spinach or asparagus. You may also substitute chicken breasts, veal chops or fillet steak.
We have been taking our customary long walks along the river — one of the benefits, along with seeing the lovely Thames from my bedroom window, of living right on its banks. We start here in Barnes, walking along to Chiswick Bridge, crossing over to continue along the north side of the river, past boating houses and playing fields, and finally crossing over Barnes Bridge, stopping to look back at the incomparable river sunset, so peaceful and timeless.
There has been time for a bit of culture, as well. My dear friend Susan treated me to an evening of Fascinating Aida, a three-woman cabaret act of incomparable wit, brilliance and shocking language! The show isn’t called “Charm Offensive” for nothing. They are like a three-person combination of the great musician and comedian Christine Lavin, and the amazing Tom Lehrer. Go, if you ever get a chance. They are touring now, so give it a whirl. Incredibly clever; you’ll have to sit up and pay attention.
As always, on leaving the Royal Festival Hall, one has to stop and just marvel at the view.
It wouldn’t be home in London without having friends over, and really my favorite way these days is a leisurely Sunday brunch. We’re just not English enough for the mid-afternoon, traditional roast dinner with all the trimmings. We’re much more likely to do a vast platter of bagels with cream cheese, smoked salmon and avocados, or a huge skillet of rich scrambled eggs wit sauteed mushrooms. Or in this case, for our friends Nora and Tom and their two adorable little boys, a make-ahead, cooks-itself indulgence, a sort of “faux souffle,” recipe courtesy of Saveur Magazine.
Warm, cheesy, soft and luscious, this dish, along with a fruit salad brought by generous guests, will set you up for the whole of the day. It certainly gave dear, dear Artie enough energy to lounge in the one place in the kitchen just the right size for him.
And finally, this weekend, something we’d all been looking forward to immensely: Simon Russell Beale in “King Lear.” It was worth the wait.
It’s a difficult play to watch, and it was my first time. There is a great deal of violence, of hatred, of tragic family loss and trauma. But Beale brought a spectrum of emotion and vulnerability to Lear that made it bearable to witness. The play’s just in previews, Press Night Thursday. Go if you possibly can.
Onward we press, on this third week of the (to me) longest month of the year. Eleven months until Christmas, short wet days, grey skies and all, January hasn’t beaten me yet.
It’s the night before we go back “home,” whatever that means, to London. We are all running around the house turning Red Gate Farm back from a Christmas wonderland to a plain old house, ready to welcome us back in July. This means taking down the decorations and carrying the two trees to the back meadow where they join their branchless cousins of Christmases past, and hoovering up all the needles from between the wide floorboards, washing all the sheets and making the beds fresh, cleaning out the fridge and putting all the mice-tempting comestibles from the pantry into a big plastic box to await summer’s menus.
In short, it’s depressing.
So to reward myself for all my hard work, I’m going to show you all the fun we had over the past week, cramming all the important — well, almost all the important relationships into a very short time, and even having a surprise or two.
There was New Year’s Eve dinner here at home with Anne, David and Kate from “across the road.” Four-cheese lasagne!
No holiday at Red Gate Farm would be complete without a celebratory trip into the city, whether in the blistering heat of an August afternoon or, as it was this time, nostril-shrivelling subzero temperatures! Never mind, we saw FRIENDS! Avery was reunited with her beloved Cici from her babyhood, and I was reunited with their pug, who obviously worships me.
Cici’s mother fed us a beautiful eggy, sausagey brunch dish and we families caught up with our busy lives as best we could in a short couple of hours, trying to hear everyone’s news in entirely too little time. How to squash the lives of three very accomplished kids — an aspiring political historian (Avery), visual artist and filmmaker (Cici) and professional tennis player (seriously, Noah) into one morning was impossible, but terribly touching, and nostalgic, thinking back to our long history together.
I rushed from seeing them to a slightly hysterical lunch at the Odeon for a “perfect hangover” brunch with my dearest Alyssa, although neither of us had hangovers… fried calamari, french fries, French onion soup. Mostly an unbelievably luxurious two hours to spend together gossiping, reminiscing, trying to believe that the girls we introduced at age 2+ are nearly 18… And a momentary cuddle with the — let me get this straight — “long-haired Teacup Chihuahua” they’re babysitting over the holidays. Oh. Em. Gee.
Alyssa and I always ask each other after our biannual get-togethers, “Why doesn’t it ever feel as if any time has passed?” I remember so clearly our first meeting, when she dropped off her little Annabelle for one of Avery’s first playdates, and the girls spent the afternoon sharing grilled cheese and stepping into the carefully-planned bowls of beads I had laid out for them to make bracelets. Much more fun to kick them around. Happy memories. As Alyssa and I always remark after our times together, “There is nothing quite like OLD friends.” They play a heart-warming part in your life that no new, or even semi-old friends can.
Then onto a totally unexpected meetup with my London best friend of years gone by, Becky! In town for just a day with her eldest. We met up at the Standard Hotel at Chelsea’s Highline.
Worlds colliding! London when our girls were little, Greenwich when they first moved back to the States, putting Avery on her first-ever alone flight to visit them in Charlotte, their visit to us several hot summers ago for my mother’s birthday… I will never be able to put into words the love that Becky’s family offered to us when we moved to London, the warmth and love and history that bind our two families. Spending a cold late afternoon in Chelsea together, over cups of tea and hot chocolate, was heaven on earth.
To console herself, Avery had her hair colored. Why not, aged 17? It looks glorious.
And then, it SNOWED.
In the morning, the world was glittery, powdery, perfection. John and I both had immediate flashbacks to our Midwestern childhoods full of snow that fell in December and never melted until Easter. We had the luxury, that January morning here at Red Gate Farm, of frozen perfection.
How we thought back to last summer and the hot, HOT day when Dave and John repaired the ancient mailboxes, now crowned with snowy caps.
We slipped in visits to Mike, Lauren and beautiful Abigail, as a coda to their dinner with us. We managed a visit from Shelley, our beloved friend who captured our hearts years ago when she adopted Avery’s rescue kitten Captain Hastings… we spent an afternoon sledding on first Prickly Bush Hill…
Remember when you were a child and at the first sight of a snowfall, you went out and STAYED out until your mother made you come home, and then your clothes were all stiff with snow and you couldn’t feel your toes or fingers? That’s how we all felt. We settled down in front of the fire, blue-flamed with the colored pine cones Jill gave me for Christmas, to enjoy hot chocolate spiked with candy canes, and Nonna’s Cappuccino Cookies.
Nonna’s Cappuccino Cookies
(makes about 4 dozen)
1 cup/226g butter, softened
1/2 cup/100g +2 tbsps/ sugar
1 egg yolk
1 tbsp freeze-dried coffee/espresso
1 tbsp cocoa powder
1 tsp ground cinnamon
3/4 tsp salt
1 cup/128g cake flour
1 cup/128g white flour
1/2 cup/64g mini chocolate chips
Cream butter till fluffy. Add sugar and cream again. Mix coffee, cocoa, cinnamon and salt in a small dish. Add by small amounts to butter and sugar mixture and mix well. Mix two flours, then add gradually to butter and sugar mixture. Stir in chips with a spatula.
Divide dough into thirds and roll each third onto parchment paper in 1-inch logs. Chill 1 hour. Bake at 350F/180C for about 8 minutes, then cool on rack.
Jill and her family came for a last joyful, chaotic brunch with Rollie and Judy dropping in to say hello, the dishwasher breaking down, laundry loads overflowing as we prepared to leave.
And finally, we had our last glimpse of holiday Stillmeadow, our cherished view across the road, the last before we must leave for our “real” lives across the pond. It is almost impossible for me to believe that all these dear people, all these beautiful places, our experiences and memories, will be here for us to recapture in July. But they will.
Next post: the fresh school term in London! Happy New Year, all!