Yes, truly! It’s my favorite sort of weather emergency: lots of coverage on the news, but nobody gets hurt. At least, it can last until Saturday when our friends from New York get ready to fly here for Christmas. The fog is simply blanketing the country, even London itself, in a misty, sort of frozen fluff. All the airports are closed, which is of course massively inconvenient for everyone. But if one does not need to fly, it is very cozy outside. John and Avery just came in from Christmas shopping and I am not allowed to go in the living room. But the smell from the tree is drifting into my study. It’s amazing how much more you appreciate a Christmas tree if you have struggled to put one up, then struggled even more to get it down and out of your house, and then put up another one. Now I plan just to sit back and…
Ooof, the old tree has been soundly kissed goodnight and disposed of, with the help of our saint Porter, Laurie, and his saw. John has an awful cold, but rose to the occasion to render the old tree ready to take outside, and the construction workers across the way kindly agreed to take the detritus. Thence I sent John to rest, while Avery and I hoovered up and swept up the gatrillions of needles from the floor in the reception room, and, painfully, the carpeted foyer. Ouch. Thousands of them! Pricks to all exposed skin, needles buried in the carpet, kitties scared to death. Finally done.
Off we were to Tesco to get chicken soup ingredients (since the ambrosia virtually cured Grandpa Jack of the cold he had while he was here), then to get Tree The Second. He’s lovely as you can see, much smaller than his earlier brother, but smelling divine. As much as the kitties jumped about the sofa chasing the ornaments as I removed them from Tree the First, nothing was broken. So we got home with the tree, I put a chicken in to roast (a bed of slightly wilting fresh thyme from the weekend’s soup did not go astray) with wine and stock poured on, and onions all round, and set to work. Several hours later all was in readiness: tree decorated, more needles hoovered up, chicken roasted nicely and here’s a thought: separate the whole breast for sandwiches, and put the legs and rib bones straight into a pot for soup. I added several carrots and a couple of stalks of celery, and John had a very nice bowl of restorative soup to help him mend. Meanwhile, the tree looks and smells lovely. I am BEAT! But here’s a great and festive-looking side dish that cooks itself, along with your chicken:
Oven-roasted tomatoes with a kick
1 dozen small tomatoes on the vine
olive oil to drizzle
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 red chili pepper, minced
1 tbsp rosemary, minced
sea salt to sprinkle
Simply halve the tomatoes and lay in a glass dish, nonstick-sprayed of course. Then drizzle on olive oil, sprinkle on the glorious Christmas-colored garlic, pepper and rosemary, sprinkle on salt, and roast with chicken, for at least an hour and a half. The tomatoes will be wrinkly and soft, perfect to pile on a sandwich of sliced chicken breast, cheddar cheese, red onion and mayo. Now we’re collapsing and letting Avery read to us. What a dear girl.
But first, did you ever see such a Christmas present? John’s mom, over the fall months, asked me for one of Avery’s school uniforms, and created this: the first known American Girl doll to attend our school! I am absolutely convinced that she could take all of London by storm if she made dresses for all the little girls’ schools in town. Except that, from her description, these are not items to churn out. I think she slaved for weeks! What a touching and perfect gift. Two of them, so Avery and a friend can each dress up a doll and play. Thank you, Nonna.
As for my post title, well, perhaps not in that order, but that’s what’s been happening around here in these last frantic days before The Big Day. Yesterday, on her way to Angelica’s caroling party, Avery became the proud… renter? yes, of a violin! From the gorgeous old shop, really like a stage set for some bygone era, JP Guivier, in Mortimer Street. The instrument is for school use, but we hear it came in handy when they began to sing “Ding Dong, Merrily on High,” which had been practiced in advance of the school concert last week. She is so proud! We dropped her off at her party and I ended up in Wigmore Street at Boosey and Hawkes, a comprehensive music store staffed with delightful English roses, little sheet music elves, who helped me find the music required by QCPS, and some other cute surprises besides. What a glorious winter evening, pink and lavender sky in the west over Portman Square, everyone out shopping and being festive. I stopped in Margaret Howell and while I was sorely tempted by several sweaters and skirts, I ended up with a Christmas present for John! For obvious reasons, I cannot divulge its nature in these pages, but suffice to say that the design section of that shop is just wonderful. All modern, sleek and elegant, just what he likes.
Home to concoct my mussels, but since I don’t like mussels, I had leftover oyster stew from our Christmas evening with his parents, before they, sadly, left for Iowa. That is, I don’t know if they’re sad to have gone, but we’re bereft now that we’re on our own. We had such fun. Anyway, we had our traditional oyster stew for Christmas Eve, and I greedily bought far too many oysters so that we would have extra. It’s sinfully easy, and this year, because of my various food shopping obsessions, we had the Rolls Royce of oysters, as well as the sublime raw, unpasteurised milk from the farmer’s market, as well as the French organic pink onions and garlic, and celery salt from the Spice Shop in Notting Hill. Don’t miss a visit to this shop, if you’re ever in the neighborhood. The German proprietress is lovely. Anyway, the stew was quite without peer. You should make it your tradition, too.
Christmas Eve Oyster Stew
(serves perhaps 10 if you’re not greedy)
6 tbsps butter
4 tbsps flour
2 medium onions, minced
6 cloves garlic, minced
4–6 stalks celery depending on size, plus leaves, minced
4 dozen freshly shucked oysters with their liquor
1 gallon whole milk
3 shakes Tabasco
1 tbsp celery salt
salt to taste
In a very large pot, make a roux with your butter and flour, and cook until it bubbles. Add the onion, garlic and celery and saute until slightly softened. Then add the oysters and their liquor and stir until the oysters’ edges have curled up in that pretty ruffly way they do. Now add the milk and bring to a high simmer. Add the Tabasco, celery salt and sea salt, and taste. Just a little! Actually I find it requires an unusual number of spoon-dippings to get the seasonings just right, but then that’s the sort of sacrifice I’m willing to make for my guests. Once you’ve got the seasonings properly adjusted, let the stew cool out on your back porch or wherever, if you’re not eating it right away, and believe you me, it’s better reheated. Serve with oyster crackers.
But it was not to be ours to eat right away, on Sunday morning when I made it, because Twiggy and Eddie were coming to Sunday lunch and they are strict vegetarians. At least, as strict about anything as two such fun-loving, charming people can be. So I buckled down and produced a suitable feast. It required all my concentration to make sure I didn’t put the wrong ingredients on the various pots on my cooktop, because at one point, they all contained olive oil, minced garlic and onion! Then I had to remember which pot was which. Once I finished the oyster stew and it was cooling, I moved on to:
Red Pepper Soup with Calvados and Fresh Thyme
(serves six with second helpings)
3 tbsps olive oil
6 large red bell peppers, very roughly chopped
1 large onion, roughly chopped
4 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
vegetable stock to cover (perhaps 5 cups), or chicken if not vegetarian
1/2 cup Calvados
1 tbsp fresh thyme leaves
1 cup single cream
1/2 cup creme fraiche for garnish, if desired
Because you are going to puree this soup, nothing has to be chopped nicely. Simply saute the vegetables in the oil until the garlic is cooked, then throw in the stock and Calvados and thyme, and set it boiling. After 45 minutes, the peppers should be quite soft and ready for the hand blender. What a marvelous tool. It can turn anything into soup. Blend thoroughly, and taste to see if any pepper skin bits annoy the tongue: if they do, strain through a colander into another pot. NOT, mind you, forgetting that other pot! Believe it or not, I have been known to pour soup, and stock, right the way through the colander, into… nothing. Just down the drain. Do not succumb to any such idiocy. Then add the cream and the soup can simmer gently until you’re ready for it. Ladle into warm bowls and drop a spoon of creme fraiche on top, if you like.
So simple! But tasty.
While the soup was simmering, then, I was onto the main course. I think these two dishes were fine together, but there was a lot of red, and if you don’t need to adhere to a vegetarian menu, I’d serve them separately. I should think of a really good green main dish to have with the pepper soup. But no one complained at what we did have:
6 tbsps olive oil
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 large onion, minced
2 large eggplants, or four small, peeled and cut into cubes
2 large cans or four small cans peeled plum tomatoes
1 large bunch flat-leaf parsley, chopped
hot chilli flakes to taste
salt to taste
fresh ground pepper to taste
1 cup freshly grated parmesan
Saute the garlic, onion and eggplant in the olive oil until softened. Some people natter on about soaking eggplant in salted water to take away the bitterness, and then straining it, and drying it on kitchen towels. Bother! I wouldn’t make the stew if I had to go through all that. And I never find eggplant bitter. So there. Add the tomatoes and simmer a long while, probably an hour, stirring occasional to break up the tomatoes. Don’t start out with chopped tomatoes, though, or you will end with mush. Toward the end of cooking, add the parsley and seasonings, and taste. The green of the parsley is very festive, and whole dish is wonderful topped with lots of parmesan cheese. I served the stew on steamed rice, but you don’t have to.
Twiggy and Ed turned up with a fabulous bottle of old Talisker single malt scotch, lovely! And a whole bevy of tiny mince pies from Konditor and Cook at Borough Market. We had lovely champagne, and sat around the Christmas tree listening to its needles dropping, and talked… real estate. They have just settled into their new house, and we are increasingly panicking over our situation. At least, I am. John is in heaven. I don’t think he actually cares where we live! It’s shopping to him. Makes me insane. We have seen a lot of houses to buy, and flats to rent should we not find a house to buy in time. So nice and relaxing, that scenario. Everything is unbelievably, unfathomably expensive. At least John didn’t quit his job. Oh wait, he DID! I find it all quite worrying, but he seems relaxed so I am trying to stay out of it. Except that I keep having to visit real estate.
We saw a lovely, lovely house in Notting Hill yesterday, both the home and the surgery (I love the English use of that term, nothing to do with scalpels! just the doctor’s office) of a very posh and successful GP. In a three-piece tweed suit! Doctor to the stars, in Notting Hill. The house is on five storeys, pristine in condition, all the original charming details like plasterwork kept in. I just wanted to lie down on one of the examination tables and stay. Just let John move us out of here and into there, maybe leaving Avery at the stable for the duration. He likes it too, but we must keep looking. Aargh. Out again today, in West Kensington. I don’t think he realizes how much I worry! He just happily sees houses, whereas I mentally move us in, have our favorite people to dinner, playdates, Christmas parties, find a place for the litterbox, alphabetize my books, and oops! It’s onto the next candidate. I find it all very tiring and worrisome, frankly. But we have to move.
But I am getting out of order. Last night was the final evening of the Olympia Horse show, and it was impressive. The finals of everything! Show jumping, and dog agility, just wonderful. The announcers are so… English! “Come on, folks, is that the best you can do? This evening, well, it’s going to be a right cracker!” And when one of the dogs misses a jump, “We know how you feel, Thomas, there now. It’s not your fault!” And guess who was there to present prizes? The Duchess of Cornwall! I know, I know, it’s That Woman, but I have to confess that all judgments about Diana, Princess of Wales, and that nasty lady who broke them up, go out the window when there she is, right in front of you, in all her green velvet “you’ll never be Queen” glory. Pretty impressive. She sat up in her Royal Box, receiving the Hanoverians’ salutes, and was served champagne and probably lovely things to eat, all clinking china and whisking white napkins across her lap. Avery stroked my hand sympathetically. “I know, Mommy, it’s probably foie gras. Maybe next year.”
We came home close to midnight and all of us knackered, as they say. Imagine if we’d actually ridden! Or done anything at all! I’m getting too old to stay out late.
Nearly time to get Avery at the stable. Tomorrow, I’m biting the bullet and getting… a new Christmas tree. I just don’t think I can enjoy the holiday listening to needles tinkling to the floor. Especially with Annabelle and her family coming on Sunday, yippee! Alyssa emailed today to say that they were up for a full Christmas do, although her Jewish side will still be marched into the kitchen to make matzoh ball soup for me. Celebrate everything, is our motto! So in the meantime I must remove every ornament from the tree, give it a decent burial in the garden, get a new one, put it up, and then have the fun of decorating it again. Wish me luck.
Okay, obviously the first problem is that the only cool thing about me in this photograph is my gorgeous new dress from Vince, which you can’t even see properly, but it was my major Christmas present from my mother in law (don’t even get me started on how lucky I am to have a mother in law who gives me Vince). My point is that Nigella has me completely flummoxed. Has anyone seen her Christmas series? Where she effortlessly produces six whole roasted poussins with chili oil and a festive rub, while having cocktails OUT with friends, and then there’s also two side dishes and a pudding? Here’s my objection: unlike Martha Stewart, Nigella makes a fetish of being simple, easily-imitated, “you can do this.” Only it’s all a horrible, horrible fake. First of all, she’s effortlessly English, so I cannot do HER. And it’s worse to be told emphatically how easy it is, than to be told, as Martha does, “you should only hope you could be me.” With Martha I don’t even try.
But wait: my problem is in presentation. Not of the dish per se, although that’s lacking at times. No, my problem is in the presentation of ME. I do not exude glamour. I do not exude a sort of sexy apologetic “these three courses are all I could manage, sorry,” while being impossibly gorgeous and sophisticated, nor do I even have an adorable incompetent glow about me. No, I’m that awful thing in between: I can do things, fine, no problem, but they don’t look COOL.
I need all your help on this! How am I ever going to turn my blog into a cookbook, much less a television programme that makes people like me feel bad, if I just sit here and live, occasionally feeding people and then telling you about it? Obviously something is needed in the way of presentation.
Take this evening, for example. Truly, in all honesty, I did walk in the house from dropping Avery off at her friend’s house to play, and within ten minutes produce:
Mussels with White Wine and Fresh Thyme
(serves one hungry husband with a wife who doesn’t like mussels)
3 tbsps olive oil
1 lb mussels, cleaned
4 cloves garlic, chopped fine
3 shallots, chopped fine
1 tbsp fresh thyme (chopped without stems)
6 Thai fresh green peppercorns, chopped (from Spice Shop in Notting Hill)
2 cups white wine
½ cup chicken stock
2 tbsps butter
Saute garlic, shallots, thyme and peppercorns in olive oil, then add white wine and stock. Bring to a boil, add mussels, cover and steam for 8 minutes. Discard any that did not open, and lift good mussels into a large bowl with slotted spoon, bring wine sauce to a boil again and whisk in butter. Pour over mussels and serve with warm baguette and goats cheese.
Now, don’t misunderstand me. I think this dish was all to the good, and it follows our long tradition of either cooking mussels or getting them in Belgo, where he eats all the mussels and I soak up all the sauce with French bread, or just drink it straight, as I’m sorry to say we have photographic evidence of my doing, perhaps 15 years ago in this very city.
No, my objection is that I have no… PR. That’s right, no one is watching me, styling me, doing my hair, making sure the right number of friends laugh on cue in the background or that my child and her friends unaccountably begin to enjoy crab cakes, or spicy babyback ribs, at my Christmas party, something that would never happen. No, my parties and even just accidental dinners occur without fanfare. Which is why I find Nigella so depressing!
And why, you might ask, am I awake at 1 a.m. being depressed my B-list food celebrities when I should be getting my beauty sleep so as to deserve B-list celebrity status? Because we got in from the final night of the horse show at 11, and it takes me a minimum of two hours to decompress from any event involving hay. And bad sausages. Yawn. Tired. And sad to have said goodbye last night (okay, they left this morning but I was asleep) to John’s mom and dad. What an empty spot their guest room is today.
I have lots more to tell you about my busy, if un-glamorous life, but right now I shall sip a Calvados and contemplate sleep. If you have any suggestions on how I can get more glamorous in (ideally two, or three) a couple of steps, let me know. In the meantime, what I am grateful for tonight are a few things: family who let me cook for them, and say they enjoy it, and friends who come by, like darling Twiggy and Eddie for Sunday lunch (vegetarian! I’ll tell you all about it), and happily enjoy whatever I cook for them. Surrounded by them, and anticipating more to come, I’m quite satisfied. But a little glamour wouldn’t hurt!
Drat these time differences! It’s been so hard to find the proper time to call Avery’s Cousin Ellen for her birthday. By the time she gets home from school her grandparents are asleep, here in London. Today we can call, though, because it’s Saturday. Happy birthday, dear. We hope that before you’re a year older, you’ll have made it to London.
We spent the entire sunny, crispy day today at our beloved Portobello Market. This is a classic thing to do with John’s parents, because as I have hinted before, they can SHOP. We all forgot, however, to bring very much cash, so our spending was curtailed, but I can still safely say that we brought home some treasures, some secret things, to make Christmas a little more fun. I think we’ll exchange gifts tomorrow evening. The Market is the only place I can think of where crowds are more fun than not. There’s something celebratory, albeit it crazy, about struggling down the pavement with half the world’s population, peeking in past the outdoor bits on sale to see if it’s worth ducking inside. And it usually is. After our last dinner party here, I decided that my carbon-steel cutlery, though sharp and also lovely (19th century Russian), it is not practical. The blades just darken and get nasty to easily. So at the market today I found some really nice stainless-steel blades with ivory-colored Bakelite-ish handles. Six for five pounds! Not bad. So I got a dozen, and now I can have ten friends all come to dinner and I won’t have to lie awake the night before planning on food that we don’t all have to cut at the same time, a rather ridiculous situation before a party. If I only had cheese knives, I’d be all set. Someday.
I spent some considerable time in a button shop (nearly as wonderful as The Button Queen in Marylebone), looking in vain for buttons with lambs on them for our farmer friends in Connecticut. Two years ago, Avery fed the baby lambs with milk from Corona beer bottles, and then the next Christmas Rollie’s wife Judy knitted a hat for Avery from wool from the babies she’d fed. Alas, no buttons to be found. Although the sight-challenged proprietor offered up some that he was positive had great impressive bucks on them. Now, I did not tell him that firstly, I didn’t want bucks, I wanted sheep, and secondly, the animal on his buttons was… a bunny.
Avery madly bargained for what she wanted, and came away with a fabulous stamp album. She spent all of lunch perusing it and now wants to go through the album her Grandpa Paul gave her for her birthday, and see if she has any countries he did not have. She has grand plans to alphabetize them all, as well. That’s the sort of thing to do on Christmas vacation, especially when your best friend has jetted off to Africa for the duration. I hope Anna and her family are having an incredible time. We collapsed for a late lunch at Eclipse, which although it is a chain throughout London, is remarkable for American-style burgers and Bloody Marys, should you be in the mood. Although the traditional french fries are replaced by fried wedges of potatoes, do not despair: they are crispy, incredibly hot, and dusted with nice flakes of sea salt. Yummy.
Avery and her Nonna are watching “High School Musical,” for about the hundredth time for Avery, and the first for Nonna, who feels it is de rigeur for being a granny to three small girls. I felt that watching it once was quite enough, so I’m up here monitoring my chicken soup. Last night, however, we all gathered around the television set to watch the Puissance event at the Olympia Horse Show. Oh, my, that wall was high. The concept is that a wall is built out of light collapsible bricks, beginning at 5 feet 9 inches, I think. Then the riders and horses who can accomplish that go on to attempt an even higher wall, and so on until the wall reaches over seven feet, if anyone gets that far. In the case of last evening, it was a triumvirate of Whitakers including Avery’s beloved Ellen (she stalked her on Thursday and got her autograph again!), and one lone Swiss fellow. Wonderful sport! Just as long as Avery has no intention of ever doing any such thing…
We saw Zara Phillips! Yes, indeed, the star of Hello! magazine, the BBC’s newly-crowned “Sports Personality of the Year,” and last but not least, a real-live Princess (although something tells me her mother, Princess Anne, declined to give her children titles? must look that up), was at the Horse Show at Olympia yesterday. I must say I have always a bit discounted her, thinking she probably coasted to the top. But now that I know better, from Avery’s experiences struggling to learn to trot, then to canter, finally to jump, and to jump ever higher, I can say with certainty that one coasts nowhere in the horse world. Being a Princess does not keep your horse from knocking down a fence, nor does it help you to be the fastest rider against the clock. So I was pretty thrilled to see her. Avery nearly jumped out of her skin. And she’s beautiful in person, with a real glow. She and her horse Toytown were really a joy to see.
We picked Avery up at school yesterday to hear all sorts of exciting news. The four houses at school (Potter, Nightingale, Franklin and Avery’s own Curie) were competing at assembly in a Quizmaster-ish programme. Avery had spent all the dinner hour the night before asking to be quizzed, and I’m here to tell you the child knows a lot of weird stuff. Strange scientific knowledge, like that, in fact, the egg came first, because it was hatched by a dinosaur, but turned out to be a chicken. I have to feel sorry for that dinosaur. Can you imagine, going to Dinosaurs R Us, shopping for clothes, buying a crib, getting all excited for your baby dinosaur, and the egg hatches to reveal… a chicken? Bummer. Much worse, even, than buying for a girl and getting a boy. Chicken.
But I digress. My point is, at pickup she reported having won the match for Curie! Cool. Plus a really stellar report card for end-of-term. What a trooper. This being the child who was practically written off in mathematics by her New York school. I can’t tell you how proud we are. The frustrating thing with Avery is that we don’t get much time to be proud of a thing, or excited, because right around the corner is another thing to get proud and excited for. I shouldn’t let that happen, because she really deserves to be thrilled at each new achievement.
So she shed her horrid uniform, shouted, “I’m free!” and hopped into a taxi with us to be taken to the Horse Show. And what fun it was. There were the usual stunningly high and scary jumps, and the usual dressage performances, but then there were two events that really made the whole show, for me. One was called the “Pony Club Mini-Major Relay,” featuring one professional grownup rider, like Ellen Whitaker, and paired with a little tiny Pony Club child, in this case a little girl called Rosie, I think. The concept is that the course is filled with two sets of jumps, one big and one small. The professional rider starts out, against the clock, determined not to knock over any jumps. Just as she approaches her last jump, a referee signals to the little rider to begin HER round. Fascinating to see the little ones impressively accomplished, even in the company of some really famous riders. Happily for the feminists among us, Ellen and her little friend came top, over pairs of man and boy, and man and girl, and woman and boy! It must have been the crowning glory of that little girl’s life so far. She then got to ride in the Santa sleigh with Ellen in the Christmas pageant at the end of the afternoon.
The second most adorable event was the dog jumping! They call it “dog agility,” but that’s just the English trying to lend gravitas and dignity to what is actually a laugh-out-loud entertainment. You would not believe the hilarity of this. The dogs are completely over-the-top frantic with excitement, trying to evade their trainers, escape from their leads, but then when it’s time to jump the course (and go through fabric tunnels! and run a course of little wickets!) they mean business. And all sorts of dogs! “Here comes that perennial favorite, the Jack Russell!” the announcer boomed. “And don’t discount the toy collie! She’s a beautiful jumper.” I can’t describe how funny. The dogs absolutely run like the wind, flattening themselves like otters to become more aerodynamic. And the trainers! They have to run along to encourage them and keep them from clocking themselves on the poles. You must go sometime.
Then we shopped. Which got old very quickly. One can withstand only so many tents full of bridles, bits, my favorite, the “shipping fuzzy,” and so on. Well, one can withstand only so many, if one is not Avery. She was in heaven. And the poor child doesn’t even have a pony to hang the things on. Then after a period of intense negotiations (consisting of Avery’s saying, “I want Nonna and Grandpa Jack to stay, and you guys can go home”), John and I left and had our lovely dinner out.
Well, they got home at nearly midnight and Avery simply fell into bed, to be dragged out this morning for the Gill Roberts Cookery Morning. I got all my family’s packages wrapped and packed up and the enormous box from Fortnum and Mason is on its way to Indianapolis. Sadly for them, the box was emptied of its gorgeous Christmas hamper, a present from darling Becky’s family. Oh, the teas and coffees, biscuits and chocolate. What a treat.
Now Avery’s been collected early from cooking, driven to the stable and swept up by Alexa and the other little gulls for a rare glimpse of the behind-the-scenes action at the Horse Show. Life at ten is a never-ending round of fun. But frankly this evening I think she, and all of us, will be ready for a cosy comfort dinner and a Christmas movie. Oh, speaking of dinner, I invented, may I say, the best soup I have ever tasted, much less actually made myself? It won approval all round the dinner table, so I can say with relative impunity that it’s excellent. And a complete fluke. My mother in law happened to point out an extremely ugly vegetable at Sunday’s farmer’s market and said, “I’ve always wanted to make celeriac soup.” I had to admit that this life ambition had rather passed me by, until that moment. However, I rose to the challenge, and tucked a couple of the nasty-looking tuberous roots in my bag and brought them home. Whereupon they reposed in splendor on my countertop while I ignored them and cooked other, more familiar things. Finally, though, their obstinate presence made me feel guilty, so before I could lose courage, I produced this, and so can you:
Cream of Celeriac Soup with Champagne
(serves four, unless you have a straw and don’t tell anyone you’ve made it, then it serves one)
2 tbsps butter
2 bulbs celeriac, peeled and cut into smallish chunks
3 cloves garlic, chopped coarsely
1 medium onion, chopped coarsely
3 cups chicken stock
1 good splash champagne (mine was rather old and flat, leftover)
1 tsp celery salt
1/2 cup single cream
I am not kidding here: simply throw all this, except for the cream, in a stockpot and boil gently for an hour. Then pulverize with a hand blender and add the cream.
DIVINE! Where I thought it might be stringy, like celery soup which has to be strained, it was velvety. Where I thought it might taste as boring as it looked (white), it was complex and interesting. And where I thought it might be simply weird, it was perfect. Comforting, creamy, perfectly smooth. I can’t say enough about it. Nutrition? I have no idea. No, now I’ll look it up and we’ll all be the wiser.
Tonight, however, will be roast chicken, jacket potatoes with soured cream and chives, and spicy spinach casserole with cheddar cheese. What the hell, I’ll give you that recipe too. It comes from Laurie Colwin’s inimitable and irreplaceable cookbook, Home Cooking. There will never be a better recipe. As Laurie herself says, “It made me sit up and beg like a dog.” Even children like it. You will too.
Laurie Colwin’s Spinach Casserole
First of all, a word about the spinach itself. Do not use fresh. In my opinion, there is only one purpose in life for frozen spinach and this is it. Now, in America, frozen spinach comes in little square-ish flat boxes. You need two of these. In England, however, frozen spinach comes in bags, in which you will find intriguing sort of hockey-puck shapes. For this, you need about 1 pound.
1 lb frozen spinach
6 tbsps butter
4 tbsps flour
1 medium onion, minced
4 cloves garlic, minced
6 ounces evaporated milk
8 ounces any sharp cheese, like cheddar
sprinkling of chili flakes (or in America you can use jalapeno Monterey Jack cheese)
1 tbsp celery salt (essential!)
3/4 cup fresh breadcrumbs
3/4 cup grated parmesan
Spray a 9x9 glass dish with nonstick spray. Believe me, you don’t want to skip this step. Then put the spinach in a saucepan, cover with water, and boil till cooked, but don’t overcook. In the meantime, melt the butter in a heavy saucepan and then add the flour, and let bubble for about two minutes to cook the floury taste away. Add the minced onion and garlic and saute till soft, but do not burn the floury butter. When your spinach is cooked, drain off the water, but into a measuring cup, till you have 1 cup liquid. Discard the remainder. Slowly add the liquid to the onion and garlic, and stir till thick. Add the evaporated milk, the cheese, the chili flakes, the celery salt, and stir until cheese is melted. Pour the mixture into the glass dish and top first with breadcrumbs and then with cheese. Bake at 400 degrees for half an hour, or until bubbly and browned on top. Heaven.
I have two more days until our next entertaining event, which will be my friend Twiggy and her husband Eddie coming to Sunday lunch. I’ve recovered from the mammoth dinner with Vincent and Peter here last weekend: roast stuffed pork, my Thanksgiving dressing and brussels sprouts, roast beetroot with balsamic vinegar, a salad, cheeseboard and treacle cinnamon cookies! I think I used every saucepan, skillet, baking dish, plate, utensil and glass in my possession. Not to mention every ounce of energy! I confessed to Vincent, who is the compleat cook, that I had Waitrose stuff and tie up my roast for me. “I don’t know how to tie up meat!” I wailed! His reply? “If you can wrap a Christmas present, you can tie a roast.” I’m not so sure, especially after my lame attempts to clean a fish. But we had a completely lovely time.
Totally unexpectedly, we ended up on the floor surrounded by my huge collection of photo albums, looking for the New Year’s party we had at our loft on Broadway, just before I got pregnant (and stopped having 60 people to my house, black tie). Vincent had been there along with the McBs, some slightly famous guy from MTV, lots of fashion designers, jewelers, actors, agents! Boy that was fun. I remember John saying plaintively at one point, “Nobody’s having fun, they’re all leaving,” and we looked at our watches to see that it was four o’clock in the morning. A jacuzzi bathtub filled with ice, flashlights, and bottles of champagne! That was the year it was cool for women to smoke cigars (if it lasted a year, that trend, probably not), so the pictures of us with Vincent are all in a haze of smoke. My black silk Kenzo tuxedo! John’s goatee! What carefree bliss. Such fun to look at all the pictures, reminisce about old times now nearly 10 years ago, to find the photograph of Vincent holding newborn Baby Avery, realizing how important it is to keep old friends.
Not to mention that he taught me, at dinner, the proper way to cut different sorts of cheeses! Ignorant Americans (if there are any besides me) do not know these things. He practically ripped the cheese knife out of my hand, saying, “I cannot bear to see you butcher that innocent foodstuff for another moment. Watch and learn.” So it turns out you need one knife for cheddary, hard cheeses, one knife for anything blue, and one knife for goat’s cheese. And one for triple cremes, but I didn’t have any that night. Then, you cut a round cheese in little pie-shaped wedges, and a wedge of cheese along the triangular side, evenly, and a hard cheese on just one end, to preserve the seal on the other sides. Who knew? With them we taste-tested oatcakes, deciding that the Prince of Wales’s Duchy label wins out. This is the sort of thing you do when you have really taken food pretensions to the outer limit.
Well, I’m all alone in my house, so to stave off loneliness I shall go read and look at the Christmas tree. If I’m real quiet, perhaps I can hear the Salvation Army band at the Marks and Spencers in Oxford Street. “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”…
The Christmas festivities at school were simply lovely. The majesty! The accomplishment. The sound of many, many little girls coughing simultaneously! And the dump truck and street cleaner busily at work outside the stained-glass windows. Such are the accoutrements of an urban holiday celebration.
Miss Leslie cleverly suggested that we sit up high, in the galleries above the pews, and it was a revelation. Not for us the craning of necks, to catch the occasional glimpse of our child. We got to see her the whole time! She played her violin, she sang in English, in Latin, in French! All the songs that had been getting a little tiresome, a little repetitive heard over the whir of the food processor or the running of bath water, took on a whole new dimension in the gravity the church, and coming from 130 throats. They were all so well-behaved, even the minute little Lower Kindergarten gulls whose only transgressions were the occasional swinging foot or waving hand, to an older sister. They sang “It’s a Baby!” with great enthusiasm, but perhaps not the gravitas of the upper grades and their guitar, recorder, flute and violin performances. I passed out kleenexes to my mother in law and to Susan, who sat next to me, but no one blubs quite as much as I do. I tried my best to be dignified, and spent some quality time staring at Sam’s new baby cradled on her chest. What a nice time of year to have a small baby.
Mrs D read a lesson, and you could hear a pin drop. Those gulls are terrified of her! And Isabelle’s mother read, as Chair of the Parents’ Circle, and the head gull and deputy head gull read, very impressively. The Reverend Whoever (I simply can never remember his name) gave a very nice prayer, to the accompaniment of the construction site outside, and then we all crushed out the door, losing Sophia and her parents in the meantime and causing some minor panic as to whether or not her parents had gone ahead to our house, and Sophia had been left at the church. But as we walked back to the school with Mrs D, it was hard not to feel that all was right with the world. She put her arm around Avery’s shoulder and praised her violin playing, and we praised the incredible organisation that went into the whole hour and a half long event. And who knew Miss Leslie played the bass? She was dressed in her usual whimsical, individual fashion, with a gauzy flowered skirt peeping beneath her pink tweed coat with a leopard collar! And knee-length boots.
We came home with Sophia’s family and tucked into champagne and tea sandwiches: duck pate, roast pork and dressing, egg mayonnaise, smoked salmon and cream cheese, and a sandwich of my own design: sliced plum tomatoes with butter and cilantro pesto! Pretty good, if I do say so myself.
Right now, I’m just back from The London International Horse Show at Olympia, which I’ll tell you more about later (plus an incredible soup recipe of my own design), but John’s parents kept Avery at the show and John and I can have… a date! What shall we do? I know, a spicy dinner out. Maybe Deya? We’ve always had so much fun there.
So we’re innocently viewing flats on Friday, in the rain that the BBC weather people variously describe as a downpour, a deluge, or merely a soaking. I love it when the weather guy says earnestly, “The rain should stop around lunchtime, leaving us with a gentle drizzle.” I don’t think Americans, as a general rule, consider that it has stopped raining if it is still drizzling. However. My point is, our real estate search was sort of hampered by drizzle, or whatever you call it, because it was less appealing just to wander through the neighborhood. We looked in Notting Hill, and what might be more properly called Holland Park, and saw one possible flat, except that there was a nasty leak, dripping from the ceiling into a saucepan. And guess what the estate agent (“realtor” to us Yanks) said? “Oh, after this bit of rain today it will stop. And it won’t rain anymore.” Well, that engenders confidence in her honesty! It’s only England: of course it won’t rain anymore.
Then another much nicer flat, whose owner opened the door with the encouraging words, “Welcome to the House of Lurgy.” True to her word, the flat was inhabited by two darling little girls coughing and sneezing and generally being ill. We vowed not to touch anything and to wash our hands immediately upon leaving. A very nice modern do-up of essentially two floors of a Victorian house. Perfectly nice, with a garden, and Avery could have more room in her room. This is beginning to be essential as she, her hundreds of books, her pony gear, are threatening to burst the seams of her current space. This flat was a real possibility.
From there, we went to Hyde Park Village, a hop and skip from the stable, which is a bonus. There we saw an extremely nice, if boring, small house. It had been done up to appeal to expats, and so was neutral throughout, which is dull but would be livened up by our things, so it appealed to me. And, dear readers: a separate DRYER! This means that I could actually dry more then one bedsheet at a time, a true luxury. And a real-sized freezer. I have found that even from my days of living in France in 1982, the European disdain for ice has increased. Therefore, one cannot find ice trays in stores, and icemakers in freezers do not exist, plus the freezers are too small to accomodate a bag of ice, which in any case is extremely hard to find. What is it about Americans and ice! But I love ice, and this freezer had room to store it. A strange thing to love about a house, but there you go.
Home to lunch and a head spinning with real estate. John’s mom had gamely gone along to all the flats, squeezing in and out of Emmy with aplomb. She happily entered into all John’s obsessive discussions on the topic of where to live, while I served my fancy tuna salad. Because John and his mom liked it so much, I shall share (the recipe, not the salad, because Blogger does not run to food across the wires):
Fancy Tuna Salad
First of all, keep this important cultural rule in mind: if you order “tuna salad” in England, that’s what you’ll get. Tuna. With salad. If you want what Americans think of as tuna salad, you must order “tuna mayonnaise.” That being said…
1 jar or 2 cans, yellowtail tuna steaks in olive oil (you can use the ordinary flake tuna, and I often have, but if you can find really fancy tuna, it’s just a couple of pounds more and will really improve the result)
1/2 can (200 grams) chick peas
zest and juice of 1 lemon
1 small red onion, minced
2 stalks celery, coarsely chopped
1/3 cup mayonnaise
4 leaves butter lettuce (also called Boston, or here, “round lettuce”)
Separate the tuna steaks into nice bite-size chunks, and add all other ingredient, mix without completely shredding the tuna. Eat piled onto lettuce leaves.
So that was Friday. On Saturday we dropped Avery off at Sophia’s house for an afternoon of theatre! Oh, I almost forgot to tell you about an amazing musical evening John’s mom and I went to, at the Grosvenor Chapel in South Audley Street. Actually it was our nasty, greedy landlords’ one generous gesture, inviting us to this concert, whereupon they raised the rent 18%. Oh well, carping does no one any favors. The point is, if you ever get a chance to hear English Sinfonia, you must go! They are a group of perhaps 8 women (and one chap, playing the bass!) on violin and viola, and they produced, in that gorgeous candlelit church, the most magical sounds you can imagine. I don’t hear very much live music, and it seemed completely impossible that human bodies in front of me could simply lift up their instruments and become… a concert! Just gorgeous. Mostly Handel, and some Vivaldi, but then a fellow called Edward Elgar, whose music reminded me of my childhood experiments with Debussy under the watchful ear (can an ear watch? whatever) of my piano-talented mother. His piece was called “Serenade for Strings,” and the instructions were “allegro piacevole,” which to my non-fluent Italian vocabulary sounds like… “fast enough to please a vole”? Surely not. Anyway, it was just gorgeous. I wish Avery had gone, because she has just begun violin lessons (what a terrible thing to learn just at the very beginning!) and would have been inspired.
We picked Avery up at Sophia’s house, with her father Claus opening the door to us in the drizzly dark, warm cosy English light (and Diva the black lab!) spilling out the door onto the checkered tiles. How beautiful. He welcome us in for a warming glass of champagne, and then the girls and Susan came barreling back in from their theatre adventure, full of incoherent (well, Susan wasn’t) stories about the opera they had seen, “Chincha-Chancha Cooroo, or the Weaver’s Wedding.” Adriana’s parents came to collect her as well, and we all sat around gossiping about the holidays, the iniquities of the French teacher, recipes for treacle cookies!
And now I must run get sandwich ingredients for the tea party we’re having this afternoon. Sophia’s family will come over after the school Christmas concert, which promises to be one of those thousand-tissue events. I’ll let you know how it goes. Suffice right now to say: Avery will be playing the violin…
One thing about my mother in law: she can SHOP. Food, clothes, books, Christmas ornaments, even apartments and houses! She loves to shop. Now, normally I do not. As you know, food is the exception: I’ll go in any place that purports to act as a food purveyor and be quite happy. But clothes, well, I wear the same things over and over, and if they aren’t black they’re grey. Books, I tend to read the same things over and over! Or really branch out and read the new thing just out, by someone I already love. And I have so many Christmas ornaments from these many years of married bliss that I really should never buy another. Don’t even get me started on the real estate hell that is rapidly taking over our lives.
So I have to admit that Rosemary’s arrival has been a real shot in my acquisitive, commercial and holiday spirit arm! Boy have we shopped. Not even so much buying things, although Marks and Spencer benefited a lot from a sort of random “hey, this would do for Sarah!” moment last night. But we have been in and out of Selfridges hundreds of times, and little shops in St. Christopher’s Place, and everywhere around school. She is such a tireless walker, too, that we’ve been getting plenty of exercise. Then, too, my father in law Jack arrived on Sunday and he just eggs us on. It’s good for people like me who tend to run a track in sort of a triangle: home, stable and school, and I just wear that out, but never do anything new. We’ve had fun. And of course we’ve spent plenty of time the three of us, and four of us including John (when he’s not running apartments and houses to earth in his tireless search for our next home) doing the home, stable and school circuit.
I’m definitely getting in the mood for Christmas. What are your earliest childhood Christmas memories? Mine are funny, not really about Christmas per se, but family things with a holiday tint. One of my most cherished is of my new baby sister dressed in a minute Santa suit given her by two maiden aunts who were our rare babysitters (my parents’ budget not really running to a night life), in her antique cradle, beside the fireplace my dad built. And speaking of my dad, he claims to be the Compleat Curmudgeon the rest of the year, but Christmas turns him to complete mush. He often says he wishes he could keep my mother’s beautiful decorations up all year round. And my brother and me waiting at the top of the steps outside our bedrooms, waiting for my father to bring us a glass of orange juice before we descended into Christmas land, because allegedly my mother once fell downstairs from being lightheaded and spent Christmas concussed. This being my family and given its penchant for Writer’s Embellishment, one never knows, but the tradition holds. And being given the mammoth task of vacuuming the family room before my grandparents’ visit, and my grandfather’s booming laugh and pipe smoke, his face obscured by armloads of towering presents, my grandmother laughing gently, nicely girdled.
And coming home from college, completely worn out by the round of exams and partying, to my mother’s perfectly decorated house, several Christmas trees all round the place, mulling spices simmering on the stove, and not having to DO anything to get it that way! Adult Christmas, especially with a small child, is another matter. Everything that needs to be done has to be done by… me! And my husband, who would also like to “smallen down” as Avery says, and have Christmas done for us, at times! Youth is wasted on the young, as they say.
All right, it’s time to produce spaghetti and meatballs, amidst the piles of wrapping paper, endless bottles of single malt scotch that accompany any gathering of John and his dad, and figs in every form to please my mother in law. Avery has just burst in from riding, so between those stories and homework, I had better scoot.
I’ve always read about treacle! Just the word sounds so distasteful, doesn’t it? And then there’s the dire-sounding “treacle tart,” and even people in English novels are described as “treacly,” which I always took to mean something like nasty and truculent. That’s why, the word sound like “truculent.” Or little children waking up from “treacly” nightmares, which I imagine is when your feet are stuck in treacle and you cannot escape The Bad Guy. How unfair on treacle, in any case, as it turns out. Because it’s molasses. And boy does it make a good cookie.
In the course of making these cookies, I learned several things the hard way, about baking in England. One, you cannot use “plain” sugar. It is too coarse and doesn’t meld with the butter properly, so the cookies were not flat and shiny, they were plump and matte. Also, baking soda, or “bicarbonate of soda” as it is rather baldly named here (always sounds like a murder mystery where something is supposed to be arsenic and isn’t) is only “single” rising, not double as it apparently is in America. Whatever. They were delicious at our house too.
Treacle and Cinnamon cookies
4 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsps each ground cloves, cinnamon and ginger
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsps baking soda
1 cup butter, softened
3 1/2 cups caster sugar
1 cup black treacle
2 large eggs
In a medium bowl, mix together dry ingredients. Did you know you have to run a fork all through a new bag of flour, to rustle up the air pockets so you don’t get too heavy a quantity? I didn’t either, but my mother in law put me right. The things she knows. Anyway, then with a mixer (since the move we can find only one of the beaters and we don’t recommend mixing with one beater!) cream together the butter and sugar, then add the treacle and the eggs. Now gradually mix in the flour. It will seem like too much dry ingredients, but it isn’t. I looked over my mother in law’s shoulder, being involved with cooking the other parts of the meal myself, and she persevered to good effect.
Bake for 10–12 minutes at about 180 in England, 350 in America. Yum yum. And in fact, if you want to spend/waste a lot of time looking at the ways we do things differently in the kitchen in the UK and in America, go to this fascinating site. You can get lost in all the different vocabulary in this ostensibly “same language” situation!
I must finish emailing all the various people to whom I have double-booked, overcommitted and otherwise screwed up in my vain attempt to organise our holiday season. For example, doubtless my child, although clearly remarkable in every way, cannot be at both Grace’s cookery party and Julia’s ice skating date, which happen at precisely the same times on Friday. Likewise not arrange for Anna to come play while Avery in fact is at the Olympia Horse Show. I must also make a Mental Note to in fact be here when I host Sophia’s family for a tea party tomorrow. Oh well, they’ll remind me when I see them at the school Christmas concert tomorrow at All Souls’ Church. Unless I forget to go…