That’s about all I can say: whew! Can it be only a week since we arrived for our Christmas holiday, and we leave again tomorrow? It’s a matter of airline availability, as unromantic as that seems. We just couldn’t get out any later. And anyway, there will be the return jet lag to contend with, and the beginning of school. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Our arrival, followed by a desperate bedtime, was followed then by a cloudy, semi-snowy Connecticut morning in which Rollie stopped by quite early just to say hello. “We were just about to come see you,” I said, “to pick up our tree.” I had, of course, written ahead in one of the few relationships in my life that involves putting pen to paper, exchanging views on local weather, wildlife, familial relations, etc. No phone, no email, a real letter. “Ayuh, but haven’t you looked in the big barn?” Rollie asked, in glee. “They’re all…
It’s hard to believe we’ve been here five whole days, it’s been a blur. But a nice blur, lighted by candles and firelight, enlivened by cold winds and washed down by oyster stew. And sprinkled with nearly all the family we have, all in one place. It’s been lovely.
We arrived late Friday night to the usual miracle of the change in seasons when our backs were turned. It’s really odd to leave our cozy farmhouse in early September, laying down our tennis rackets, watching the goldfinches dart in and out of the still-green oak leaves, chipmunks skittering around in the green grass, and to return three and a half months later to… snow! A thick foot-deep blanket of perfect white stuff stretching out over the meadows. And no leaves on the trees! We can see from our bathroom window upstairs straight across the road and to Anne and David’s frozen pond, a view that’s blocked by thick lilac bushes in summer. And we can see our next-door neighbors across the meadow, a house that’s hidden by enormous stands of oaks and birches in July and August. The pear tree full of still-hard fruit when we left? Bare, branches shining in the full moonlight. Crazy!
But the house was far from neglected these months. Rollie the farmer had kindly shoveled the driveway for us. Too funny: on the plane over, John laughed and said, “You know what, I had the funniest dream last night: that Rollie came and instead of shoveling the snow, he just hacked it away with a giant backhoe and took the lawn with it.” And when we woke up Saturday morning, John laughed again, and said ruefully, “A dream come true!” Not quite the whole lawn, but it was a bit of a bloodbath. Never mind, the kindness itself is worth the whole price of admission. And Anne and David had left a bowl of clementines (specially for John’s parents, who were delayed a couple of days unfortunately), and a fridge full of bread, soup, juice, eggs. And our beloved friend Olimpia saved our lives with a basket of English muffins, cranberry bread and jam. Great friends, all.
More soon, but we are all cozy and happy this Boxing Day. How’s London?
I remember last year at this time I felt that the world was spinning much too fast. It must be to do with the age of my child, and therefore the myriad activities that spread their tentacles into our adult lives, which without her would involve mostly laundry, scooping the litterbox and blogging. Suffice to say that life with an 11-year-old with many diverse interests fills up very quickly indeed. It’s nearly all good, it’s just… too much! Tonight we are all exhausted, and packing still beckons. Tomorrow we go to Connecticut for Christmas! But first, let me tell you about the last few crazy days. Some of it might be stuff you’d want to do in London next holiday season, but mostly I want to record it all in hopes that next year I’ll remember how insane everything was and SLOW DOWN. My bet is, however, on an exact repeat in 2008.
Well, after my fabulous encounter with Matthew on Monday, the week progressed to morning rehearsals at All Souls church for the afternoon carol service. I have to say “service,” because this austere terms explains why we can’t CLAP which I find terrible. Especially for the little littles, who seem so puzzled at the end of their performances to face… silence! The rehearsal went very smoothly with applause (a rehearsal!) from Mrs D and Miss C, and we felt very good about it! Then some Christmas shopping to fill in the hour or so between rehearsal and our lunch together. And a tip for you all? Do NOT go to the St George’s Hotel restaurant for lunch! Ever. It is, as was reputed, the most gorgeous view of what I suppose you’d call The Greater Marylebone Metropolitan Area, you could see for miles, but the scallops were, in a word, inedible, and other ladies’ tomato soup looked completely forgettable. Sorry, but standards are standards.
Thence to the performance, and the entire concert was just gorgeous. From the tiny littles barely able to squeak out “It’s a Baby,” to the senior choir and violinists so impressive, and our own mothers’ song, it was very touching and lovely. Lots of tissues needed on all sides. Finally out, to the school for everyone to gather together backpacks, change clothes, and off with Jamie and her mother, plus Anna and Ellie, to the Hyde Park Winter Wonderland!
Now, as bitter cold as it was, I’d definitely go back. A beautiful sort of London Eye ferris wheel thingy (too scary for me, but John said it was gorgeous), a very nice carousel, a couple of mildly scary rides and a nice German market with ornaments and other stocking stuffers. But COLD! And we could not get tickets for the skating rink, but from the report from on high, it was much too crowded for real skating anyway. A word to the wise.
The next day dawned so early! Avery off to the last half day of school, and I for some last-minute Christmas shopping, then picking her up and dashing off to lunch at the beloved Mandarin Kitchen with Avery’s school friend Sophia and her mother Susan. Delicious, and I tried to keep my mind from the fact that I was having dinner… there! That night. A request from Becky’s husband Mark. From lunch to the skating rink at Queensway to watch a truly needle-in-the-eyeball performance of “Sleeping Beauty,” performed by that saddest of athletes: the middle-aged, average skater. I just wouldn’t! I learned what I love about skating: watching my child skate, or mind-boggling professionals. No one in between, sorry! But the second half (one and a half hours into it, eergh, my feet have never been so cold) was much better: very short renditions of popular songs by lots of different skaters, very impressive and fun to watch. And most important, inspirational to the girls. Still, WAS I glad when it came to an end! We raced home to get ready to drop Avery at Anna’s and go out to dinner with her parents, and again a simply lovely evening. Brilliant conversation about all the places they have lived, all the places we have lived, visited, etc. And another very late night!
Up this morning to discuss all this, and then get ready for… the Olympia Horse Show! I remembered to pack enough antihistamines to get me through, and the show-jumping was stupendous. The crowds at the shopping! The Shetland Pony races were adorable, the dog agility hilarious, and the Cossacks very impressive. By the time Avery and Becky’s girls had given their all to the charity raffle and come away with several completely unnecessary stuffed ponies, and the Christmas finale had taken place, the noise level was unbelievable. We came home in a sort of daze of fun, admiration, and also a growing sense of scratchiness. Time for some relaxation. And I can report a culinary experiment gone very, very right. Give it a try.
Roast Chicken Without You
(serves four with soup leftovers)
1 large roasting chicken, preferably organic
1 tsp each: dried oregano, basil and thyme leaves
1/2 cup white wine
1/2 cup chicken stock
1 lemon, halved
3 tbsps butter
Place your chicken on a sheet of tinfoil in a large baking dish. Sprinkle with herbs, pour wine and stock around, stuff with lemon and smear with butter. Place in a 100 degree centigrade (280 degrees fahrenheit) oven and GO AWAY. Leave it for SIX HOURS. Even more, probably. Come home, baste it. Pour the juices into a gravy separator, whisk a dusting of flour into the juices in a skillet and add a tablespoon of cream. Heat through. Serve the sliced roast chicken with mashed potatoes and red peppers that you’ve cooked down in olive oil until they’re caramel-y. So comforting.
Well, we’re packed. We’re still irritable, a bit, which I put down to too much activity, all of it wonderful, but… too much. Time for a good night’s sleep, travel tomorrow, and arrival at the bliss that is Red Gate Farm. Merry Christmas everyone!
Well, the pace of life is ratcheting up as it does during this festive, confusing, pressurising and lovely season! Tacy has chosen her own inimitable way to handle the stress: she’s going visiting.
The first little widening of her tiny life was around Avery’s birthday when we gave Avery the horse jumps for the garden. We opened the garden door to take them out, and before we knew it, Tacy was out and about. I felt nervous about it at first because of her no-front claws situation, and her general air of adorable naivete, but hey, you only live once. Or nine times. So out she went, and then we began leaving our bedroom window open and she and Hermione, the only two svelte enough to fit, spend many happy hours coming in and out.
Then one day in November our neighbors Janet and John knocked on our door, and said, “Do you know that Tacy comes to visit us?” Apparently one family’s devotion is not enough. So she shows up at their sitting room window, and if they’re in view, they open it, and she washes her little feet on the hand towel I can see in their window sill, and spends a little time being petted by other people. Well, now it’s got so cold that we can’t just leave the window open, so if I see their light on, and one of them in the window, I open ours and out she goes like a flash. Then I look over at their windows and there is Janet or John, opening up, and in she goes. One night it got quite late and I was concerned, seeing no Tacy facey at my window to be let in. But at the stroke of 11, I heard their window scrape open, and there she was. When I saw Janet the next day she said in all earnestness, “Does Tacy have a curfew? I thought 11 was all right.” And on Sunday she came home at 10. “Well,” I reasoned, “It’s a school night.”
The rest of us do not find the holiday season quite so escapable. It’s all lovely in and of itself. It’s the aggregate that gets to me! The scheduling, and decisions about what gift is appropriate for a teacher who has Avery part of the day but not every day, singing rehearsals, clean uniforms, transport, making sure everyone eats properly, the insistence of SOME CAT of sleeping on all the Christmas cards that arrive in the post. I line them up nicely on the little Chinese chest, and next minute they’re flat under a cat.
We dropped in one evening at the lovely, if neglected and falling down, Victorian St Mark’s Church here in Mayfair, and heard an enthusiastic and inspiration rather Baptist style of Christmas carols, lots of hand waving and “Yea, Lord,” very heartwarming. And the reverend (or whatever the proper term is) gave a short speech expressing the congregation’s wish that the church remain a place of worship, and not a nail salon. A little research afterwards revealed the sad future of the building itself, Grade I listed but lacking a donor to keep it up as a religious institution. And in this real-estate obsessed town, of course someone will snap it up and turn it into luxury condominiums. I have to say I saw a look of cunning and avarice on my own husband’s countenance. “Grade I listed, you say?” But it was a sweet evening.
In the midst of all the playdates, present wrapping, shopping, diligent homework efforts and trips to and from the stable, I have become addicted to a charitable website called FreeRice. I have to warn you: do not go there if you have anything pressing to do in the next hour or so. Hour! I’ve spent more than that to reach level 50 (it took ages! and then I was obsessed with getting back). Here’s how it works. It’s a vocabulary quiz, and for every word you get right, the site donates 20 grains of rice to feed the hungry. It’s all non-profit and paid for by the advertisers who get seen every time you click and get a new screen. Go on, try it when you’ve been online for 2 hours trying to order a t-shirt for your fourth cousin once removed and you can’t take e-commerce for anther moment.
And when you need to feed your own family but don’t have a ton of time of money to spare, try this inexpensive, foolproof and delicious repast, perfect with some mashed potatoes and steamed broccoli for a comfort dinner.
Pork Tenderloin in Milk
1 pork tenderloin
2 sprigs rosemary
2 small onions, quartered
6 cloves garlic, peeled and squished slightly
2 cups whole milk
salt and pepper
Now line a 9x13 dish with aluminium foil and lay the rosemary in the center. Then lay the tenderloin across it, surround with the onions and garlic, and pour over the milk. Salt and pepper, and roast in the oven at 425 degrees for 35–40 minutes, depend on how done you like it. Roasted, that’s all it takes.
I know it sounds crazy, but it’s a classic Italian preparation. And while we’re on the comfort-food/cold night culinary theme, how about:
1 pound each: ground lamb, ground pork
4 tbsps butter
2 tbsps flour
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 white onion, minced
1 pound white mushrooms (or fancy if you like), chopped
1 cup white wine
2 cups beef stock
2 cups sour cream (or creme fraiche, or a mixture as I used)
1 tsp fresh thyme, chopped
salt and pepper
Mix your meats and form into 2-inch balls, or whatever size you like. Place on a plate and set aside.
In a large, heavy saucepan, melt the butter and add the flour. This is an ordinary roux, for thickening, so cook it but don’t burn it, until it’s golden and bubbling. Now add the garlic, onions and mushrooms and stir until they’re all mixed up in the roux. Add the white wine and stand back! Lower the heat and stir, then add the beef stock, and stir until thick. Add the sour cream, thyme, salt and pepper. Now gently drop the meatballs, in a close single layer, into the sauce. Cover lightly, turn down the heat and simmer for 25 minutes. You can stir and turn them occasionally.
Serve with buttered noodles and steamed carrots. Lovely.
Well, I’m off to pick up some last-minute Christmas gifts for Avery, then the final school pickup of the term (yippee! no more alarm until January), then lunch with a couple of friends from school, and to see a skating performance by the instructors at Avery’s rink. Is John going with us? Let’s see, his exact words were, I believe, “I would rather poke my eyeballs out with hot needles.” Fair enough. I, on the other hand, will martyr myself. Sigh. That’s the holiday spirit.
Can I just say? I of course must leave the Marylebone High Street now and then, I suppose: to eat, sleep, see my family, suchlike. But may I remind you all that it was a mere few months ago that, while on an innocent kitchen-supply shopping trip there, I saw… Matthew? And today… fate smiled on me once again. Let me explain.
In the third week of December a mother’s thoughts turn naturally to Christmas shopping. And, as well, to rehearsals for the Form Six Mums’ performance of “The Sussex Carol” at tomorrow’s school Christmas concert. We mothers turned up at school for what I can tell you was a tear-producing, at least for me, event. To enter the gorgeous Georgian proportions and carved plaster that make up the music room, to hear the piping voices of so many gulls raised in song… I almost just sat down and cried. Their little hands tugging at my legs as I walked by, “Mrs Curran, I read with you!” from gulls who would rather die, normally, than acknowledge they’ve ever seen me before. Miss Potts clapped for attention and said sternly, “Now, gulls, I know this is very exciting to have your mums here, but may I ask you PLEASE not to turn around and gaze at them?”
So we sang. I recovered my wits. Mrs D appeared and we were all silenced. Shannon next to me said, “We have an AUDIENCE.” We were prepared. It should all sound divine tomorrow. If I can stop weeping. I was able to pat Avery’s head as I walked by. Then it was onto… shopping.
Becky and I braved the wind and entered a shop that shall remain nameless for Christmas surprise purposes, when I looked up from a rack of adorable girls’ skirts and sweaters and I had to grab her arm. “It’s Matthew! It’s Matthew!” I shrieked in an undertone, and she looked up. “Oh, my gosh, Kristen,” she was kind enough to say in commiseration, since I cannot in all sincerity say that she would care, but for being with me. And, dear readers, let me describe his appearance, just so we can all picture him.
VERY tall and very slender, with that Tom Quinn jaw we all know and love. Could his hair have been highlighted? Spikey and short on top, but longer in back. Glasses, yes. Jeans, a jacket, not a coat although it was frigid out, and a new-looking pair of those Tom Quinn wingtip leather laceups we’re so familiar with. He gazed around, met my eye (again!) and still, I did nothing. Rooted to the spot! Although I had the sense to continue to hold the hanger in my hand, and not simply drop to the floor. The shop wasn’t crowded and everything was so charming that I cannot imagine why he didn’t stay to shop (what with a little girl of his own! but to each his own), and I swear I did nothing embarrassing to drive him away. Still, it made me wonder greatly what it is that drives him to shop in MY high street! Too, too thrilling.
Well, I have a simply divine recipe for meatballs stroganoff to tell you about, but that will have to wait until tomorrow. Yes, my dears, I did take time off from contemplating my amazing luck to cook and eat and clear up after dinner. Such things wait for no… Matthew. But it was LOVELY. Happy Holidays!
Well, it’s official: my last hope of remaining above the fray in this “11+ exam” insanity has been lost like a sock in the dryer. I had just been congratulating myself mildly on getting all the paperwork for all six schools on on time (just) and was planning to stop thinking about it all until the first exam in January, and telling myself how lucky we are to be able to afford a fancy school, when in the post came… an invitation to an interview at the top school. Now, we have no idea whether this is an indication of anything exciting (like a clandestine telephone call between our headmistress and the other?), or if every single applicant gets invited. In the absence of real data, we decided to err on the side of getting excited. Then in the post yesterday came two more invitations to interviews. And we know for certain that one further school doesn’t invite applicants for interviews until after the exam, but that still leaves two more exciting and scary envelopes to anticipate.
And of course each invitation requires a telephone call AND a furthering of the invitation back to the school to confirm that yes, she’s coming on that day. So in fact the madness continues. Listen to the child’s schedule so far in January: school starts up again January 8. Then:
January 11: exam #1
January 12: interview #1
January 15: interview #2
January 18: exam #2
January 21: interview #3
January 25: exam #3
Will she still be standing by Groundhog’s Day? Will any of us? We lay in the pre-school cuddle this morning and discussed it all in the bleak December light, with cats crawling all over trying to get to the radiator and press their faces against it. Surrounded by all her horsey rosettes that hang from the ribbon around her bedposts, it seemed like the world was a cosy enough place to protect her from all the pressure and competition that will be her life in a month’s time, but who knows. And me? I definitely hit a secret panic button and have been a little nervy ever since.
What really scares me is not that she won’t get into a good school, or two good schools, but that she WILL. And then everything will change. I hate change! I had a really vivid dream this morning about being back at her old school in New York, where we were so extremely happy, but where she was receiving at best a lacklustre education. But I was head of the Book Fair! And on the Winter Fair committee, and the Taste of Tribeca committee, and the Auction committee. I practically lived at school. Saw Avery nearly every day during school hours! And that was, if not quite the norm, certainly a common life for a Tribeca mother to live. We all lived at the school.
So in my dream the New York school was relocated to Sloane Square, but we were all still American. There were parents in my dream who I haven’t thought of more than twice since we moved, but who were lifelike to the touch as I slept, and we were all gossiping and keeping tabs on our children’s activities. And the amazing thing when I awoke was this: I feel nearly as at home now in our new school. Certainly I don’t live there. But then, no one does. There just isn’t the same level of parental involvement in an English school as there is in American schools, although I am comparing apples to oranges a bit: what if she had gone to a fee-paying school in America? Maybe they are as hands-off with parents as our school is, and yet our school considers itself to be very welcoming to parents, unusually so. It’s just a different level of expectation, and I can’t help but think that it has something to do with money. Our New York school wouldn’t have an art program without the Winter Fair to raise the money for it. The Silent Auction paid for the librarian. At Avery’s school now, all fund-raising efforts go to the Great Ormond Street Hospital.
Well, in any case I’m sure my dream was precipitated by my impromptu meeting yesterday with Avery’s headmistress, she having caught me as I went upstairs to be read to by my Form Three gulls. “Don’t leave, Kristen, without coming to see me about a date for your lecture!” This announcement gave me butterflies. What on earth made me think last summer that I was any kind of expert on literacy? When Mrs D invited me to speak this upcoming spring on the subject of reading aloud and children’s literacy, why did I accept? What on earth do I know, other than some horribly trite things like “it will bring you closer to your child,” or “it will help your dyslexic husband overcome his fear of the written word”? Because the latter is absolutely true, and maybe that’s enough to begin the lecture.
In any case, after all my children had diligently read aloud to me from their various little books in their piping voices, I headed down to Mrs D’s office to talk about my lecture. But although our comments on reading aloud flew fast and furious, what warmed my heart most was her absolute love for the children of King’s College. She knows Avery like the back of her hand, better than we do as far as her life as a student goes, and every anecdote and observation came with a fond, wise smile. And her irreplaceable English expressions! She is the only person I have ever heard actually utter the words, “but what really creased me up…” about something that made her smile! And “going after these exams like billy-o,” and saying that when something worries her, “and it occasionally does, Kristen!” she reaches for… Malory Towers! Comfort reading for the headmistress set!
I just wanted to leap across the desk and hug her. How lucky we have been to have her in our lives. I’m grateful, in a cowardly way, that we’re leaving when she retires. King’s College without her is unthinkable. At last I stood up to go, and saw the Christmas card from a former school family whose elder daughter is now gravely ill, and we talked for a moment about the family, our memories of them, the frightening prognosis. And then she did hug me. I’ve never cried in a headmistress’ office before, but as she did as well, it seemed all right. “Right, that’s enough of that, then, onward and upward!” she sniffed, and walked me to the door. What a lady.
Let’s see, what else are we up to? We’ve been decorating Christmas cards, and it’s really embarrassing when your child pats you on the hand and says, “Your ivy is getting much better, Mummy! Good on you! You’re making great progress.” Clearly she has been taking note of the English methods of encouraging backward pupils. She is an amazingly confident artist, and angels, bells, trumpets bearing tapestries, and snowflakes of every description flowed from her metallic pens. “The good thing about snowflakes is that no two are exactly alike, so it’s all right if yours are a bit… unpredictable!”
Do you by any chance need a nice holiday dip? I must pass along a quintessentially American-tasting concoction kindly provided by my dear friend Shannon, one of the Form Six Mums’ Choir (that just makes me laugh), who made it for us to tuck into after our choir practice on Monday. It’s simple, sweet, and you dip apples into it, so it’s even good for you.
3/4 cup light cream cheese
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup canned pumpkin
2 tsp maple syrup
1/2 tsp cinnamon
Place first three ingredients in a medium size bowl, beat until well blended. Add syrup and cinnamon, beat until smooth. Chill and serve with sliced apples.
And Christmas shopping by mail! My new favorite store is Pedlars, and I guarantee you a quick look will solve your shopping trials for at least one person, adult or child. I have made some very satisfying purchases for certain people, so give it a try yourself.
Remember my scallops in scotch and creme fraiche, from Vincent’s recipe? Well, in my time-honoured tradition of never being able to leave a recipe alone, I made it again last night with the addition of saffron, which made a lovely aroma and colour. It’s worth posting again here to save you the trouble of going back, but one of my goals for the New Year is to fashion some sort of index for all my recipes. I can call it “working on my cookbook,” to justify the time spent.
Scallops with Single-Malt Scotch, Creme Fraiche and Saffron
(serves 2 really hungry people)
16 King Scallops (the biggest you can get, roe on or off as you like)
4 tbsps unsalted butter
1 cup creme fraiche (or a mix of single and soured creams)
two shots good single malt scotch
juice of a half lemon
pinch of saffron threads soaked in hot water for 10 minutes
In a heavy skillet, melt the butter and simmer until it begins to brown, then lay the scallops in, clockwise so you remember which went in first. Cook until the edges begin to brown on the underside, and then turn the scallops over in the order in which you laid them in the skillet. Expect major splattering of butter. When the second side browns nicely, remove the scallops (again, in the proper order) to a waiting plate. This whole process should take about 4 minutes. Do not overcook.
To the skillet add the creme fraiche or creams. Simmer until the mixture is thick and coats the back of a spoon. Add the scotch and cook down until no more smell of alcohol rises from the skillet. Taste and add lime juice, then salt and pepper and saffron. Return the scallops to the skillet and toss in the sauce for a minute. Plate up with sauce on the bottom, a nice helping of celeriac-potato mash, top with scallops and serve with sauteed asparagus.
We had some bizarre gimmicky purple asparagus from Marks and Sparks, but don’t bother. It stays very little purple after being cooked and tastes just like regular asparagus.
Now I’m having trouble with the green notion of eating only things that can be had seasonally in Britain (or wherever you live). I do get nervous at the proud little airplane on some Marks and Sparks vegetable packages, since we’re meant to be AVOIDING food with air miles, not gravitating toward it. And I know some cookery writers say valiantly that no one REALLY wants strawberries in February, or asparagus in December, and that if we followed our taste instincts we would all want to eat nothing but root vegetables in all the months ending in R, and then live on tomatoes and corn on the cob during the summer. But in my heart of hearts, I want what I want, when I want it, and so does my family. Avery absolutely thrives on a bowl of mixed fruit every afternoon when she does her homework. And in December, it can’t be only apples! And anyway, don’t we need to support the people who grow bananas at Christmastime, for example? And what would we in Britain do for an avocado or lemon, I wonder? I’m getting curmudgeonly and it’s just from guilt. I’d be interested in hearing how other real people get on in food shopping and cooking, and how we can get away with ordering soft shell crabs from Thailand. Help, someone!
Oh, we’ve been loving the new BBC programme, “Monarchy: The Royal Family at Work.” It’s a series of episodes watching the Queen make a state visit to Washington (President Bush actually appears in a very charming light, as a real person rather nervous to meet the Queen, as he is nervous about displeasing his own mum!), and receiving delegations from Commonwealth nations, and having tea with Tony Blair at Balmoral. It’s very relaxing because it is so far removed from any normal person’s way of life that the viewer can just sit back and enjoy, with no possibility of empathy!
Lastly, I wanted to tell you about a cooking disaster I had, turned successful. Bless my mother in law for rising to the occasion and coming up with a solution. The real message here is that I should never try to bake. My friend Twiggy has a theory that one cannot successfully cook anything that one does not look forward to eating. The upshot of this for me is that anything that includes sugar will not be something I want to eat, and yet every once in awhile some maternal instinct gone horribly wrong forces me to reach for the baking powder and hand blender and try to produce something sweet. I can recommend these cookies, partly because they’re not particularly sweet, and partly for the burn of cinnamon that, frankly, makes them not much of a kid-pleaser. So last week when the itch to bake hit me, I thought, “Those cookies are foolproof, and if I make just half a batch, we should be able to appreciate them all. Plus cinnamon smells so Christmassy.” With these mindless justifications to hand, I began.
And promptly screwed up. Because if you change two cups of sugar to one cup, and a teaspoon of something or other into a half teaspoon, guess how two eggs should end up? Not as two eggs! But I did, put in both eggs, I mean, and immediately could see that I had turned cookie dough into… something not cookie dough. Double hogwash! I was so annoyed with myself that I just left it all on the counter, and walked out in a huff to pick Avery up at school. On the way I called my mother in law in defeat. “Just pitch it and start over,” was her first very welcome suggestion, but then we started to feel guilty over the air miles of my organic caster sugar, so she said bravely, with the air of a surgeon proposing one last, desperate measure to save the patient, “How about spread it in a big baking dish and make brownies?”
And it worked perfectly. They are dark, chewy, spicy and they keep forever (so far, over a week in an airtight biscuit tin). So try it yourself, do.
Treacle Brownies with Cinnamon
(makes about 32 brownies)
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp each ground cloves, cinnamon and ginger
3/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 cup butter, softened
1 3/4 cups caster sugar
1/2 cup black treacle
2 large eggs
Mix all dry ingredients in a medium bowl, and the butter and sugar in a larger bowl. Beat the butter and sugar till fluffy, then add the treacle and mix well, then the eggs (both of them!). Finally with a beater on low speed, gradually add the dry ingredients to the wet, then spread in a 9x13 glass dish that’s been sprayed with nonstick spray. Bake at 325 degrees for about 35–40 minutes, till center is cooked through.
And you know what? The ARE Christmassy.
But first: a milestone! The first evening that my family have taken more than 20 minutes to eat dinner. I am sorry to say that I do take these things into account now and then, especially when the time and effort put in are SO out of proportion to the length of time spent chewing and swallowing. I’m pleased to say that this evening’s example was a healthy 2:1. It was easy, everyone loved everything, and if I was still left with the dishes while Avery and John trotted down to catch “Top Gear,” at least that meant I didn’t have to watch. And the evening’s fare, brill? My first choice was and always is lemon sole, but there wasn’t any left. And some gorgeous and mysterious European-looking man was sauntering away from FishWorks as I approached and was identified as the fellow who grabbed the last Dover sole. So brill was suggested, and not a bad thing INDEED.
Brill with Butter
2 whole brill fish, filleted and skinned (I’m squeamish) by your fishmonger
4 tbsps butter
sprinkle sea salt
First of all, go over your fish from the fishmonger. Much as I love FishWorks, they’re not as meticulous as I am. For one thing, in my experience fishmongers believe you should buy and go home with the WHOLE fish. Well, I don’t do whole fish. Except at the restaurant itself where it’s been cooked by someone else and all I have to do is gallantly eat one half then lift up the tail and thereby the spine and attendant bones. No, if I’m going to cook it, I want someone to clean it beforehand.
But it’s never clean enough. So on a nice clean cutting board take each fillet and search it for skin, extra bones, whatever, and remove them so you have a perfectly soft and lovely eating experience.
Then in a large nonstick skillet (I don’t have one! waah!) melt the butter and bring it to fairly high heat without browning it. Then in go the fillets, as many as you can fit (I had to go in two rounds). Sprinkle with salt and let cook. After perhaps 2 minutes, turn, and swish the butter round. Add more if you need it. That’s IT.
With this we had my most sinful lazy indulgence, potatoes dauphinoise from Waitrose. Simply fabulous and so much better than my attempts at home (probably because of my shying away from buying a container with “double cream” on the label). And sauteed sugar snap peas with red peppers, so it was colourful and tasty and everyone was happy. Plus salsa verde and garlic mayonnaise, do you know about those? Everything tastes better with:
(makes plenty, save it)
1 large bunch flat-leaf parsley, leaves only
1 clove garlice
juice of half a lemon
sea salt to taste
extra virgin olive oil till liquid (perhaps 1/2 cup?)
Blend everything in the cuisinart and bask in the green glory. It’s lovely.
(again, makes plenty)
1 tsp white vinegar
3 egg yolks
1 tbsp Dijon mustard
1/4 tsp white pepper
3–5 garlic cloves
3/4 cup olive (not virgin) oil
1/2 tsp salt
juice of a lemon
Mince the garlic as finely as possible and add it to the olive oil. If you have a small food processor or blender, the two can be blended together. Whisk the egg yolks with the mustard in a small bowl. Whisk for two minutes, then as you whisk, begin to drizzle in the garlic oil in a very thin, steady, slow stream.
The yolks and oil will begin to come together. When about half the oil is in, and the mixture is beginning to resemble mayonnaise, add the vinegar and salt and pepper. Whisk together, then continue to drizzle in the oil while whisking. Stop before you’ve used all the oil.
Squeeze in a little lemon juice, stir it in well, then taste. If it needs more salt, lemon juice, pepper or garlic oil, add it now and whisk it in until it tastes right. It should be thick and creamy, not overly garlicky, with none of the other flavors too strong.
These two little gems with fish are just brilliant (I love that “brill” is Brit shorthand for ‘brilliant’), and not bad with the peppers and peas either. I was transported back to our honeymoon days when, I kid you not, every Saturday evening we had lobster (cold and gorgeous), sauteed red peppers, crusty warm baguettes, and salsa verde and aioli. EVERY WEEK. How decadent is that? But so delicious, colorful and not at all bad for you.
Let’s see, back to Christmas. If I could morph all the little perfect gifts I have for my niece Jane (nearly three) and turn them into things to give to all the people I’m stuck for… sadly this does not seem to be possible. Also, I am sorry to say that nearly every other gift I have to offer is… a book. Not the same book mind you, but… books. Well, it’s the gift that keeps on giving, isn’t it? Fathers are completely impossible, and some mothers are harder than others. Sisters, don’t get me started. I’m hoping some serious inspiration will hit me, say, tomorrow.
We did pick up a number of exciting things to give at Saturday’s Christmas Fair at the Godolphin and Latymer School, one of Avery’s choices (we hope) for next autumn. Our friends the McBs have two girls there now, and were in the stalwart position of selling Christmas cards to benefit the scholarship fund, so a number of you will see the beauty of this in your post soon! We wandered all around the school, bemoaning the universal costume of SUPER skinny jeans, scary scarves draped around LONG hair with lots of product, shiny gold ballet flats and little t-shirts that leave much too much exposed between shirt and jean, in our opinion. Oh dear. But Avery assures us that if she doesn’t care about the fashions now, she probably won’t when she gets to senior school. “I’m mostly about the 1940s anyway, and if I don’t mind that it’s not fashionable now, it shouldn’t be a big deal next year.” Fair enough.
It’s completely exhausting, I find! Tonight at the Form Six mothers’ choir practice, Anne’s mother and I commiserated about the joys and pains of their getting to be so OLD. “You know, Kristen, next year I keep thinking, we won’t be welcome at the school. We won’t sing together, or even know each other. Last year at the Christmas sing I caught Anne’s eye as we both sang a carol, and I have to tell you, FLOODS of tears. From me!” I admitted to just the same and we both got teary just remembering. And this evening’s drama! As we mothers were blamelessly singing, Avery and her friend Caroline were in the school cafeteria working on a book of remembrance for their two teachers who are retiring (one will not be missed), when the fire alarm rang. “Never mind,” the singing teacher gestured, and on we sang. At the end, when we had partaken of Caroline’s mother’s PERFECT pumpkin dip with apple slices, she and I meandered down to the cafeteria to find them, and there they were, drawing away, but SHAKING with fear.
“We thought it was a real fire!” Avery broke out. “And we obeyed all the fire drill instructions and tried the fire door but it was LOCKED! We though we would burn up!” The caretaker, Mr Nixon, came forward and said proudly, “They behaved beautifully! Never strayed from their instructions [although later Avery confessed that if she could have got to the music room sooner she would have been hot on my trail, whatever the instructions].” Goodness. The poor child had post traumatic stress disorder in the supermarket afterward when someone’s cart went past the barrier and an alarm went off. Poor dear.
But nothing compares to her thrill at having won a duet with Ami at the upcoming carol festival for which we’re all practicing. Whew, she has a part. That’s a relief.
Let’s see, aside from the Christmas school fair over the weekend, mostly… it rained. All over our Notting Hill shopping trip to Graham and Greene and Verandah, with a glorious lunchtime side trip to E&O. That restaurant just can’t put a foot wrong, in my opinion. We had a starter of “sesame crispy spinach,” but the revelation was a layer of something vaguely mushroomy, subtly salty… it was tofu! Soaked, we decided, in a mixture of soy sauce and tahini, probably. But a little sesame cracker with a slice of this stuff, then topped with crispy fried spinach and sesame seeds. Delightful. It made me feel more confident in my side dish of the weekend:
Warm Asian Handful Salad
1 tbsp peanut oil
dash sesame oil
3 carrots, grated on a box grater (mind your knuckles!)
handful red cabbage, grated
handful white cabbage, grated
handful baby kale, chopped
handful bean sprouts
handful mint leaves, chopped
handful fresh coriander, chopped
handful peanuts, chopped
dressing: 2 tbsps fish sauce, juice of a lime, 1 tsp sugar, shaken
Now, simply heat the oil in a wok or large skillet, and throw in all the vegetables up to the mint. Saute till slightly soft. If you don’t want liquid in the bottom, spoon it out, but otherwise pour into a large bowl and add all the rest of the ingredients and toss well. LOVELY. Especially with lamb chops. Go on, don’t be intimidated. They’re tiny, delicate, and from Green Valley not too expensive, and everyone can gnaw. But allow at least three person, even children:
Perfectly Simple Lamb Chops
2 tbsps olive oil
10 rib lamb chops (room temperature)
2 tbsps chopped fresh rosemary
Heat oil in a large skillet and lay in the lamb chops, single layer. Sprinkle with rosemary. Cook about 2 minutes, then turn to other side and add salt and pepper. Now, after another minute or so, carefully turn each chop to its fatty side and sear the fat, so you can happily eat it if you like. When the fat is brown (another minute or so), turn back to the chops’ flat sides and roll skillet so oil travels about. Done.
Even the most hardened “I can’t eat lamb, they’re too cute” child will succumb to the aroma. Enjoy.
I’m back to Christmas shopping… what do you want, anyway?
No, I’m not producing my own escargots! But this is awfully funny. I put out a stockpot full of chicken stock, out in my “larder,” otherwise known as the space outside my bedroom door, leading toward our communal garden. I used a lid that was larger than the pot, having the sneaking feeling the true lid was in… Connecticut. Well, I brought the pot in to skim off the fat yesterday, and there, on the underside of the lid, was this little fellow! He was amazingly brave, even when I showed him to the cats (who with true domesticated disinterest just gazed at him). I was tempted to keep him for Avery when she came home from school, but he moved so quickly in just a couple of minutes that I knew I’d have no idea where he was, very shortly, so off he went back to the garden.
It’s official: I’ve sent off the last piece of paperwork for Avery’s senior school applications. Each school has a different system: some want a copy of her birth certificate (presumably so we can’t send a very small 18-year-old to take the exam), some want a passport photo, each wants a substantial check for their pains. Then there’s the second tier of paperwork: once you’ve applied to the school, then they send you a form to fill out to apply to the exam. Sigh. Finally, though, done and dusted, all six sets of stuff off my desk and out to the schools. Now it’s up to Avery, poor dear. After a little early-week meltdown over the horrid “mock exams,” she has found her stride again and is pretty cheerful. We were walking home in the unbelievably early dusk last night and stopped off at the newsstand for a little light reading, then headed home. “You know what I want to do when I get home, Mommy? I know it sounds trivial, but I just want to draw and listen to the soundtrack to “White Christmas.” I had to laugh, “Listen, you’re talking to a person with Hello! magazine under her arm, so trivial is not really a problem.” “Good point,” she said, and it struck me that she’s a real person these days, not really to be treated as a child very much anymore. A real conversationalist, a person who loves Bing Crosby on her own, knows things I don’t know, has had experiences I can only imagine, can do so many things I can’t do! How did it happen so quickly?
The Christmas tree is up (it’s a little runty, but in the end I chose aroma over size, as the large trees smelled like precisely nothing and this one emits a wonderful flavor) and decorated as you see, and I’ve been able to turn my attention to little matters like The Ultimate Shrimp Dish. Try it and be amazed.
It’s a variation on a recipe I found in Red magazine while I was having my hair cut. My Italian hair guy was going on and ON in sweet but unintelligible detail about his grandmother’s recipe for chicken escalopes (“her secret, Kristen, she cook them twice,” what this means I know not), so I asked him if it was kosher to rip the recipe out of the magazine, and as it was an October copy, yes. The author is an Indian cook called Vicky Bhogal, from her “A Year of Cooking Like Mummyji,” and I’ll definitely look for the book. You can also try her website. It’s really annoying: in addition to being no doubt a great cook, she’s gorgeous. Just what I need in my life: another Nigella Lawson.
I left out the suggested grated coconut (yuck) and substituted ground cumin for cumin seeds, red chillies for green, and added garlic (how can what’s essentially a curry dish not include garlic? for shame!). But you can turn all those bits around if you like. I served the shrimps shell-on, with just the back cut with scissors, but on second thoughts I’d shell them: less mess and less effort at the table. But sublime.
Coconut and Cumin Prawns
1 tbsp olive oil
3 tbsps butter
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tsps ground cumin
1 white onion, minced
1 can plum tomatoes, squeezed by hand over skillet
1 tsp sea salt
3 red chillies, deseeded and chopped
1 tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp red chilli powder
1 tsp garam masala
1 can coconut milk
2 pounds raw prawns, shelled
handful fresh coriander, roughly chopped
In a large skillet, melt the butter with the oil and then add the garlic, cumin and onion and saute until soft. Squeeze the tomatoes to crush them, and add all the juice. Add the salt, chillies (wash your hands before you rub your eyes! I didn’t), turmeric, chilli powder and garam masala and cook down until tomatoes are thick. Add the coconut milk and blend well. At this point you can put the sauce aside and get on with your other dishes. Then five minutes or so before you want to eat, heat the sauce again till bubbling and add the shrimps. Cook until they turn thoroughly pink, then stop the heat and serve with rice.
With this I made a dish of sauteed green mixed vegetables with a sauce that was very nice, and could also be very good on, I thought, beef tenderloin or chicken breasts.
Mustard Seed Cream Sauce
1 tbsp olive oil
3 tbsps butter
1 tbsp black mustard seeds
1 tsp ground cumin
1 white onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/2 tsp sea salt
2 red chillies finely chopped
1 tsp garam masala
1 cup creme fraiche
whole milk to thin
asparagus, sugar snap peas, broccolini, baby pak choi
Melt the butter and oil together and add everything except the creme fraiche, stir over medium heat until onion is soft. Then add the creme fraiche, mix well, and set aside. Saute the asparagus and broccolini until cooked through, then add the peas and pak choi (be careful not to overcook them as they are very delicate). Heat the sauce again and serve everything piping hot.
So good and so simple.
Let’s see, if you’re feeling really precious and want to impress a holiday guest with your presentation skills, try this:
6 beetroots, roasted in tinfoil for 90 minutes, then peeled and sliced thin
1 hydroponic cucumber, or 3 small British cucumbers, sliced thin
100 grams goats cheese with chillies or chives
1 avocado, sliced thin
dressing: fresh pesto shaken up in a jar with peperoncino oil
handful of chopped chives
To assemble this beautiful salad, start with a white plate. Arrange three slices of beetroot in a spiral, then layer a slice of goats cheese, three slices cucumber and two slices avocado. Continue to layer until you run out of ingredients, then drizzle the dressing over all and sprinkle the entire plate with chives. Lovely.
Tonight we have a Christmas party at the ultra-stylish St John’s Wood home of one of Avery’s classmates, which should be great for John’s ever-present real estate misery. Our rotten landlords have raised the rent for our flat to a truly astronomical level, rubbing salt in the wound of our house-less state. But there is truly no point at all in buying a house now, when we won’t know where Avery’s going to school next year until February. I would really like to live near enough to her school that she can comfortably walk, since everyone with older children assures me that by mid-autumn next year she won’t want me within sight of the school. No more dropoff and pickup heaven for me. Goodness, that stage went quickly. I’m sure my mother radar will continue to go off at 3:20 for the rest of my life, and whatever I’m doing at that hour, in perpetuity, I’ll look in panic at my watch and wonder how I could have forgotten to pick her up. Maybe someday she’ll let me pick up her children…
Have you ever heard of a Johnnie? That is, a PetitJean from Brittany who comes to Britain in the winter months to sell his pink onions and pink garlic? Well, neither had I, until today. That is, I had bought his onions and garlic but had never know that he had a National Identity. But he has.
Apparently a French gentleman in 1828 decided that there might be a better market for his lovely smelly veg, and headed across the Channel. And ever since (although in lesser numbers today than in 1828) French men in berets on bicycles have sold their wares throughout Britain. And one just happens to park his bicycle adjacent to the Marylebone Farmer’s Market, where I spend nearly every Sunday of my life.
Including today, although I was sorely tempted to stay home. We had just dropped Avery off at the stable (the threat of all-day rain is no deterrent to her, even though she’ll have the hated job of scooping wet poo from the streets), and the skies simply opened. I had an umbrella, but it was large and cumbersome and off-putting. “Sure you don’t want to give up?” John offered, but no, I was determined that if the market people were there, I could be there. And in fact it rained heavily only for ten minutes or so and then subsided into the desultory but still drenching little drizzle that characterises so much of English life. And occasionally a stall awning that I was standing under chose that moment to invert itself and dump the hour or so’s accumulated water on me. Ah, the devotion I feel to the market.
And it was worth the rain. I picked up two logs and one round of goats cheese from Nut Knowle Farm, my absolute hands-down favorite for goats cheese. Whether it’s the logs covered in chives or hot chillies, or the round covered in garlic and herbs (“Little Garlic,” it’s called), you will not go wrong. Strongly flavoured, creamy, crumbly. Perfect with the rosemary bread from the Italian stall. And the lemon cake lady! I don’t know the name of her bakery, but Avery is passionately devoted to the lemon cake, for breakfast. Her stall is simply piled with cakes, casually cut into slices right there for you, and I always wish I had a sweet tooth so as to enjoy the samples of coconut cake and Victoria sponge.
The Christmas puddings are back! Order one now, and some carrot cake to go with it. And then there was the butcher chanting, “We’ve got all your wild game needs: pheasant, quail, your Sunday lunch, our pleasure…” But I didn’t succumb. A pork tenderloin from Downland Produce, simply the most tender bite of meat you will ever taste.
Pork Tenderloin with Sesame, Garlic and Lime
(serves 4 with leftovers for the sandwich of your life)
1 pork tenderloin
4 cloves garlic
3 tbsps sesame oil
juice of two limes, save the limes
1 white onion, sliced thick
dash of Maldon Salt
Put the tenderloin in a ziplock plastic bag and throw all the other ingredients in. Close tightly and massage the tenderloin around, then put in the fridge and leave it there while you do everything else for your dinner.
Spray a glass dish with nonstick spray and place the tenderloin in it, along with everything in the plastic bag. Roast at 400 degrees until done but still pink, about 35–40 minutes. Let rest five minutes before slicing.
And a new vegetable! Jerusalem artichokes: new to me, that is. Probably the rest of you cook with it all the time, and lord knows I’ve seen it on loads of restaurant menus and have occasionally ordered something containing it. But until today I have never bought one. I think I was lured by the burlap sack filled to the brim and accompanied by the charming sign: “Raised on pure mushroom compost.” Yum yum. Seriously, though, the little mushroom purveyor looked so cold and wet that I felt I owed it to him to buy something, and there were the little guys, huddling together as if to gain courage in numbers. The seller assured me that they are very nutritious (something complicated about being useful for diabetics because of the way their starch is processed?), so I scooped up a handful of the nasty little tuberous things and managed to get my freezing hands to find some coins.
Then it was home with my burden and to find a suggestion about how to cook them. My instinct said, “Soup, dear lady, and puree it,” so I obeyed. First, though, a quick internet search led me to this adorable blog, and a recipe not unlike what I was planning myself. And can I just kvell a bit? This was the best soup EVER. And a simpler recipe you will not find.
Veloute of Jerusalem Artichoke
(serves four as a starter, or two as lunch)
3 tbsps butter
1 pound Jerusalem artichokes
1 clove garlic, roughly chopped
1 large shallot or small rose onion, chopped
chicken stock to cover, perhaps 3 cups?
dash white wine
1 cup whole milk
Now, I must first say that if you can get raw milk, do so. I am a firm supporter of unpasteurised milk from reputable sources. SO delicious, and since it’s not homogenised either, the cream stays at the top. If you carry it home carefully, ths milk at the top of the bottle will be really rich and perfect for your soup. Hurdlebrook are brilliant. You could easily use cream, creme fraiche or sour cream, too, whatever you have.
To prepare the artichokes, wash them well and peel them completely. You’ll be amazed by the texture. Not an artichoke leaf or heart to be seen. More like a radish, only tasteless. Completely tasteless raw. I was seriously disturbed at this point and wondering at my wisdom in providing nothing more for lunch.
Melt the butter and saute the artichokes, garlic and shallot until the garlic is soft. Then cover with chicken stock, add salt to taste, the white wine, and cook at high simmer for about 24 minutes or until the artichokes are easily pierced with a fork. Puree with a hand blender, add milk and… you’re in HEAVEN.
Well, I’ve dried off now, and am thinking of tackling the Christmas tree lights. Avery is most anxious that the annoying work all be accomplished when she comes home, so that after scraping the pony poo off her in a quick bath, she can hang ornaments. Here’s the perfect present, by the way, for anyone who loves London, especially my little corner, Marylebone. “Between the Lines: The Howard de Walden Estate in 2006.” I have bought so many copies as presents that my wallet is suffering. But you’ll have to ring up Daunt Books to get it. Gorgeous and evocative photography, really informative historical commentary, and if you look closely, probably lots of people you know, if you live here.
Now as for those lights…
First, I must credit the lovely photograph here to a wonderful specialist webpage: this man really loves truffles. I sometimes find that learning this much about a food ingredient can… put me off, so I have not delved very deeply into his work. But I think it’s a gorgeous image, and I’ve never been able to afford enough truffles at one time to TAKE a photograph, so more power to him.
Well, last night was Friday and as such, everyone was tired. We had Avery’s dear friend Jamie with us, and had taken them both to the skating rink. The din! The bad cooking smells! The crowds. They had their lesson with beloved Nicky (who is a saint, full stop), and then had very little interest in sticking around. I had arranged for us to go hear Christmas carols in the neighborhood, but we emerged from the skating rink into a dank drizzle that, as we headed home (the Mini stacked to the GILLS with backpacks, skate bags, gym kits, etc.) developed into a steady downpour. It was but the work of a moment to decide to stay home, and our dinner out turned into dinner in. John bravely went to fetch pizzas from La Caricatura in North Audley Street, and I must say: it was SUBLIME. Let me explain.
Now last year at some time this lovely new pizzeria opened up and so naturally we went. And as I reported, that last visit yielded the information that the service was spotty but the food really good. Now I am very sorry I can’t report any news on the service since we took our pizzas away. We intended fully to visit! Next time. But in any case, I would have put up with a lot of waiterly inconsistencies had there been any for… the truffle pizza. Called the “Simone,” you simply must RUN there and have one. The moment wet and unhappy John entered the kitchen and opened the box… the aroma! The unbelievable aroma. Of course the girls were also in heaven with their margherita and quattro formaggi, but we knew the real truth: it’s truffles or bust. We both agreed we could have eaten a pizza EACH. Sad but true.
So head straight over there, and order the Simone. But also have the carpaccio di manzo, because while it’s nice takeaway, a large part of the appeal is in the lovely presentation at the restaurant itself. Huge slivers of parmesan, perfect rocket, and the beef itself as fresh as can be and so tender.
Thanks, Caricatura, for brightening up our damp and dismal Friday night. We’ll be back.