Well, I really should be getting Avery to bed (she’s wrapped up, post-bath, in her blue jammies, blue dressing gown, new blue slippers from the enormous sale at the Little White Company), but I invented a shrimp dish tonight that made us curl up our toes and sigh. So I’ll share:
Thai Prawns with Coconut Milk
2 tbsps sunflower or other mild oil
5 cloves garlic
1 small hot red chili
1 large (1–2 inch?) knob ginger, peeled
2 tsps turmeric
1 tsp cumin
juices of 1/2 lemon, 1/2 lime
large handful coriander leaves
large handful parsley leaves
1 red onion, quartered
fresh ground black pepper
1 kg king tiger prawns, heads removed
1 soup-size can coconut milk
red pepper flakes to taste
basmati rice for four (put to steam)
tenderstem broccolini to saute in olive oil
4 kaffir lime leaves
12 basil leaves, chiffonade
Probably your prawns will arrive to you frozen. Mine did. If so, place them in a bowl and let them thaw. Save the thawing liquid. If they come with heads, remove them and rinse.
So. Put all the ingredients up to and including the black pepper in a Cuisinart and whizz till a nice paste. You will have to take the lid…
It was a dream come true for Avery last night: her end-of-exams reward: a trip to the Vaudeville Theatre in the Strand to see “The Importance of Being Earnest,” her all-time favourite play. It all began with listening to a performance on tape, in the car on our way to see newborn baby Jane three years ago. I was desperate for something to listen to on the two-hour drive, to keep my mind off the near certainty that I would get lost trying to find the hospital (I did), so I just grabbed the cassettes and we were on our way. Well, it was the perfect entertainment. I can’t even remember who read it, but now I am the proud owner of the 1952 classic radio recording starring John Gielgud and Edith Evans. Can’t wait to listen to that!
Anyway, since then Avery’s read the play a thousand times (has a copy both here in London and in our Connecticut house, so she doesn’t get desperate), and adores the copy of Oscar Wilde’s “Epigrams” that she found in a dear little bookshop in West Hartford, near my sister’s house. Plus she made a special pilgrimage to his house in Dublin. “It was amazing!” she told one of her school interviewers. “There was his house, just as if it were an ordinary building! Only it had a blue plaque, which I love.”
So last night we ate an early (and may I say magnificent) dinner of macaroni and cheese (the secret is definitely two-fold, Dairylea, and stir CONSTANTLY with a whisk mind you), bangers and roasted beetroot, and off we went. Arriving early, we were able to see that as usual with the sorts of plays Avery wants to go to, she’s the youngest in the audience by about 30 years. And the play was LOVELY. You really must go. Penelope Keith of “To the Manor Born” fame was Lady Bracknell, a gentler, wiser version of the character than Judi Dench’s portrayal in the film. And the two young men, Jack and Algernon, were cast a bit to similar to one another for my taste. But Daisy Haggard as Gwendoline was quite perfect, and the SETS! Divinely luxurious. Avery’s little face when her favourite lines appeared was worth the whole ticket price: “A handbag!” “Victoria Station: the Brighton line!” She was in absolute heaven. “This makes me all the more determined to be an actress myself,” she said. Her plan now is to nobble her teacher gently at acting class on Saturday and see what she needs to do next to make that ambition come true.
Well, a very late night for her, and I confess to sleeping in, in a most extravagant way, this morning. As penance I made one of our crazy juices (it’s the only way I’m ever going to eat Tuscan kale or swiss chard, either one, as long as they’re masked by beets, carrots and pears) and then a really unctuous soup for lunch. I think I’ve given you this recipe before, but it bears repeating on a cold January day. Keep in mind: you can use ANY mushrooms, you can use chicken, vegetable or beef stock, you can use Madeira, brandy, cognac or champagne. And you can use whole milk, cream or creme fraiche. It’s all these variations that keep me from being at all bored with my admittedly limited cooking repertoire!
Creamy Mushroom Soup
(serves two as a main course)
2 tbsps butter
4 cloves garlic, sliced
1 white or yellow onion, sliced
1 lb mushrooms (I used chestnut today)
1 tsp dried thyme
3 cups beef stock
3 tbsps creme fraiche
juice of half a lemon
Maldon salt to taste
Melt the butter in a heavy saucepan and saute the garlic and onion briefly, then add mushrooms and stir just to coat with butter. Sprinkle with thyme, splash in the brandy and stir just till it nearly evaporates, then cover with beef stock. Simmer until mushrooms are tender, about 25 minutes. Whiz with a hand blender and stir in the creme fraiche and lemon juice. Salt to taste. Voila!
This would be so pretty with a drizzle of extra cream, a sprinkle of chives, but alas I had neither. Nor had I any day-old baguette to make toast to dip in it, which also would be very nice. I’m sure you’ll be clever enough to have these extras on hand. As it was, I was content because there’s no nicer aroma than cream of mushroom soup, even when it lingers in the house past lunch. It’s a lovely scent.
Do you remember those old ads on the telly for Alka-Seltzer? Well, forget the plop plop fizz fizz, but OH WHAT A RELIEF IT IS! Exams over. Full stop.
On Friday we dropped Avery off at the exalted, dreaded, anticipated and entirely lovely St Paul’s Girls School for her marathon, 6 1/2 hour exam. Her anxiety level was like this: halfway to the school she said mildly, “I’m nervous.” Now, in her place I would for one thing not have been able to sleep, wouldn’t have wanted breakfast but if I ate it would have come straight back up again, and would be curled in a miserable little ball in the back of the car. Not my intrepid offspring. Nope, nine hours’ sleep, stuffed full of apple turnover, blueberries and salami (heavens, could that be true?), and one little vague aside as she approached the ordeal. Oh to be Avery, sometimes!
Well, John and I puttered around looking at our watches and wondering what she was being asked, thinking of all the wonderful exam lore that has been produced during the last month. “Then this girl next to me found out at the last moment that she had turned over two pages of her maths at once and missed TWELVE QUESTIONS!” These sorts of comments are uttered with a mixture of awe, fear and a tinge of smugness. “One girl had to be moved because the roof was leaking over her desk!” So three o’clock found us sheepishly taking our places in the huge phalanx of cool parents waiting for the Actual Sufferers to be reunited with us. In the enormous gymnasium the little things were sitting on the ground with their elderly Sixth Form minders, under paper signs announcing the alphabetical groups, and there was Avery, under a sign that said “Bodwin to Curran.” “Look, my name’s on the sign!” she said gleefully, as if this was an accomplishment. She appeared to be none the worse for wear, reunited with Jamie at the exit, shrieked and hugged and rocked back and forth. “Wasn’t the maths WICKED?”
Well, there you go. All finished, except that two more schools have written to schedule interviews. Fine. But no more exams, no more frantically washing her and all our hands seventeen times a day with antibacterial wipes to ward off the rampant London stomach virus. No more worrying that she gets enough sleep even on a Saturday. No cancelling playdates to observe hideous amounts of exam-prep homework. No more English and maths teachers, who retire on Wednesday. What a relief. Now they can all play.
It’s so funny to hear her speak when she emerges from a long British experience. It’s not that she speaks with an English accent, although she can and sometimes drops into it if she’s on the telephone with an English friend, or wanting to impress with her bilingual status. It’s the expressions I notice. I need a long lunch with my friend 6point7 (wait, we just had one! but we didn’t talk language), because she can always explain the exact circumstances when certain expressions or words are used. Here are a few I noticed in Avery on Friday. She always says “bit,” not “part,” as in “there were some really difficult bits.” I think “parts” here is used just for raw chicken, and maybe theatre (or would they say “roles”? don’t know). And “loads of questions,” not “lots of questions.” Is “lots” just for auctions here? And “straightaway,” not “right away.” Those are the things one would have to get just right if one were writing an English novel as an American. But they come second nature to Avery.
The one Britishism that is suddenly getting on our nerves is the insistence on mispronouncing the name of a particular American Presidential candidate. It reminds me of the pronunciation “Los Angeleez.” Why? Anyway, here it is “Bear-uck” Obama, with the emphasis on the first syllable. Why on earth? No one in America has taught anyone to pronounce it that way. But this complaint is set against the undeniable superiority of the British news coverage in that they are even bothering to pronounce any candidate’s name, or follow the election at all. In America I cannot imagine that the debate over whether Gordon Brown should call an election made it to the nightly news. Of course, perhaps if we could find an alternate pronunciation for his name we would feel more ownership of his decision-making. I will give it some thought.
There was an almost imperceptible lightening of the spirits in our household yesterday. After her acting class (Avery’s been given the role of an Italian BOY in the class play: that should be interesting), she came home, sat down with her new American Girl doll from her Nonna, and we didn’t see her for the rest of the afternoon. She gathered up her other American Girl paraphernalia (most of it from her two doting grandmothers, thank you!), did all their hair, changed their outfits, equipped them with their various belongings, lined them up on her bed, did their hair again. All afternoon. She emerged to have dinner and a nice piece of:
Nonna’s Banana Bread (although I made it this time)
2 cups granulated sugar
1 cup softened butter
6 ripe bananas, mashed (approximately 3 cups)
4 eggs, well beaten
2 1/2 cups cake flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
With electric beater, cream together sugar and butter until light and fluffy. Add bananas and eggs, beating until well mixed.
Sift together dry ingredients three times. Blend with banana mixture, but do not over mix.
Pour into 2 lightly-greased loaf pans. Bake for 45 minutes to one hour, until firm in the centers and the edges begin to separate from pans.
Cool on a rack for 10 minutes before removing from pans. These freeze beautifully.
Well, it’s a simply gorgeous day (John really did bring the sunshine back to London, thank goodness), I’ve just drunk an enormous glass of beetroot, Tuscan kale, parsley, ginger, carrot, pear and celery juice and I feel pretty righteous. Maybe a nice long walk in the park before we collect (there’s a good Britishism for you, as if there’s more than one) Avery from the “stable,” she tells me, not the good old American term “barn.” “Barn means you’re likely to come upon livestock, Mommy,” she explained. It’s good to have a translator.
Things are, I hesitate to say, looking up. Blue skies all day! My best beloved slept from 11 p.m. to 10:30 a.m.! And Avery had her last important interview this afternoon. A school she’s not really interested in wrote yesterday to invite her for an interview on February 5! Lord have mercy, wasn’t this all meant to be over long before that? I’m not even sure she needs to go.
Tomorrow is, ta dah: the St Paul’s exam for which the poor child has been preparing for a year and a half. We can only hope she remains virus-free for the next 28 hours, and continues to be her usual intrepid self. Her only wish after her interview this afternoon was to pick up her darling friend Anna, have a biscuit and go play in the Regent’s Park playground where they go with their form for PE (and have to share all the desirable rides with their 25 compatriots). So since the day was fair, off we went. It’s very satisfying to know that she may be serious, hardworking and growing up faster than we ever would have dreamed, but she’s still awfully happy to sit on a merry-go-round with her best friend and giggle. They have a complex and ongoing game called “Shelty” in which Anna plays a Shetland pony (or puppy? I forget) and Avery her doting owner. I confess to my eyes’ glazing over when she tries to fill me in on the finer points, but it was great to see them cantering along in the mud and grass.
These interviews! “Look at this painting of a lady with a letter and tell me what you see” was a very lucky draw for Avery. There are very few instances in which a mother with a PhD in art history is of any practical use whatsoever, but this was one of them! “I wonder if it might be a Vermeer,” she said innocently, and although it was not, she got huge kudos for even wondering. “What is your favorite book?” was another good one, since she just finished “Rebecca” and the interviewer also loved it. They discussed character development, description and plot (good thing she wasn’t faking it), and then moved on to “What can you tell us about American politics?” to which she produced the all-too-telling reply, “I’ve completely given up on them.” Guess what she hears at home? So the lady tried again, with “What are some differences between Democrats and Republicans?” and got “Well, it’s mostly to do with what section of the country you live in,” revealing her New Yorker status, I’m afraid. I remember after the 2004 election, the cover of New York Magazine was black, utterly black, but for the words in white: “America to New York: Drop Dead.” Anyway, I don’t think Avery will win any points for her political savvy.
Then another headmistress showed her a photograph of a bird turning into ski slopes turning into leaves and flowers, and asked her to define the word “metamorphosis.” Whew. And told us a funny story, too, about the system of “coaching,” or “tutoring” for these exams that a lot of parents succumb to. Apparently the coaches get to be fairly well known in the school system, and like a painter with a favorite palette, they reveal their biases and inclinations and methods all too obviously. One apparently loves to equip his little charges with a list of “all-purpose adjectives,” which the gulls must plug into their various essays and answers. “One year, and I wish I were joking about this, the word ‘melancholy’ peppered at least 20 essays and so we knew they had all studied with that one particular tutor.” Avery piped up, “Well, it IS a nice word,” and the head looked at her sharply and said, “But not in absolutely any situation, surely,” and Avery said mildly, “Well, you can always try to say ‘NOT melancholy’, as well!”
Well, it’s nearly over. The dinner of champions tonight? This was her request.
Spaghetti Carbonara with Mushrooms
1/2 pound American (streaky) smoked bacon, diced
3 tbsps white wine
2 tbsps butter
1/2 pound mushrooms of any kind, sliced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 cups light (single) cream
1 egg yolk, lightly beaten
fresh black pepper
4 tbsps grated parmesan cheese, plus more for sprinkling
as much spaghetti as you like, perhaps shy of a pound
In a heavy skillet, brown the bacon to your liking, pouring off the fat as you do so. When the bottom of the skillet begins to get too brown with bacon bits, remove the bacon to a dish and deglaze the skillet with the wine. Add the butter and melt, then saute the mushrooms and garlic till soft. Pour in the cream and the egg yolk and mix well over low-medium heat (depending on your cooker), then sprinkle with the pepper and the cheese. Set more cheese aside to garnish the dish. Take the skillet off the heat.
Cook the spaghetti and drain well, then toss in the skillet of sauce and turn up the heat. Toss in the bacon. Stir until thoroughly warmed and thick, a couple of minutes. Yum.
With this she asked for roasted beets with balsamic vinegar. What child ASKS for beets? I ask you. And yet will she eat a carrot? Absolutely not.
And although I left early to make Avery’s interview, and the tutor was late, we had a really nice meeting of the creative writing class at Birkbeck. My goodness my classmates are talented. For various reasons my own attempt at the homework was lame by any standards this week, but Keith’s story of a psychotic throat-slashing (“their throats grinned up at me” or some such incredible description) and Carol’s of an alienated Ukrainian parking warden swapping his helmet for a yarmulke for shabbat… these stories were amazing. So impressive, and such nice, sympathetic people. I will really buckle down for next week’s homework. I have neglected it sorely, but then there have been other things on my mind.
Ah well, beets beckon. I cannot describe to you how brave Avery has been through this long preparation, too much competition (in my humble opinion), punishing schedule and rigorous exams, plus all the faux-social chitchat of these wretched interviews. Through it all she has been positive and even sunny, focused and energetic. ONE MORE DAY! Fingers crossed. And then, heaven forfend, I may have to get a life of my own. Carol asked me today, “Are you a helicopter mother, Kristen?” “What’s that?” I asked, startled. “One who hovers.” Oh, probably. I asked Avery, and she said, “Well, in a GOOD way.” I’m not sure there is a good way to hover, but it’s worked so far and I’m too old to learn new tricks now. Maybe with grandchildren…
Oh, now I’m just being silly (these links are of my treasured Linda Lee Johnson bracelet, thanks, darling Lulu). Seriously, though, I have been learning how to put links to other blogs I like in the sidebar of my front page. Do look. I’m so proud of myself, learning to write little “html” thingys that make these hot links appear. “Laraland” I love because Lara is a delight (a young exercise-mad mum in Marylebone), then “Fayefood” will give you an idea for dinner nearly every night (plus her little boy Ferdinand gets up to some amazing high jinks and conversation), and of course my friend Caz’s devotion to Matthew Macfadyen. “Free Rice” is a totally addictive vocabulary-testing site that is charitable as well. Well, anyway, dip in if you like. I’ll keep adding them as I remember places I like.
What I REALLY need to figure out, however, is how to build a recipe index. It’s all very well for me to expect you all to scroll through enormously long and boring posts just to get to the recipe embedded somewhere in it, when all you really want is to know how to make “Kristen’s Pretentious Meatloaf.” Well, that’s a bad example because the recipe appears right at the top of the post. Does anyone out there know how I could build an index? What I want is to have a list, like I have my list of links, and you could click on, for example, “seafood” and get my fabulous scallops recipe, with olive oil and parsley. Without having to slog through all my descriptions of our summer activities (although who could resist this Janey facey).
It’s all brought up, however, some thorny issues. Say I wanted to build a recipe index divided into categories, like “pasta,” or “seafood.” Does my scallops recipe go into pasta because it’s with spaghetti, or seafood because the main ingredient is scallops? And how about mushroom risotto? Is it a side dish, because it’s a starch with some veg, or is it potentially a main dish for vegetarians? I’m getting my knickers in a twist because every recipe seems to be a minefield of dangerous categorisation. Is there a separate section for chicken, or poultry, or does it all come under the heading of “meat dishes”? Or is “meat” only red meat? And is duck poultry or meat? I certainly cannot have a heading “game” with only recipe, that’s for sure.
I think I’m missing the boat here, really. I don’t think my blog, or my future cookbook, is really just a list of recipes. It’s really more of a memoir (of, sadly, a completely unremarkable life!). Maybe my recipes should be in categories like “comfort food,” although one person might gravitate to macaroni and cheese, in that mood, while another whips up lobster en gelee. I just don’t know.
Speaking of comfort food, and comfort in general, I am finding the world so bewildering lately that I’ve gone all out for dinner tonight: macaroni and cheese for a main course, and I’m taking my darling friend Becky’s advice and including some Dairylea, a sort of British baby cheese, for extra creaminess. I remember living in France in high school and encountering my first “real” cheese, my experiences to date having been limited to American, Parmesan in a green can, and Velveeta. I found that at age 16 I definitely preferred all the familiar flavors and found Brie, Camembert and the like completely unpalatable. As a joke, the family I was living with bought me some “La Vache Qui Rit,” known here as “The Laughing Cow,” and expected me to find it totally degeulasse (disgusting) and be converted to “their” cheese. No such. I still adore Vache, and Dairylea is very like it, only in slices, just perfect for that midnight grilled cheese. With the macaroni we’re having special “slow food” bangers from Food Fore Thought, and sauteed red peppers and broccolini. I feel a definite need for all things familiar and cosy. I must say, I tried to be a good person today and turn around the difficult or upsetting things in my life and see them as… opportunities. To achieve something, or get through something, or rise above something. As opposed to just feeling overwhelmed! Didn’t have a marked success, but I shall try again tomorrow. Just for practice.
This afternoon found us all at big King’s College, the big sister to Avery’s little prep school, for her interview there. A gorgeous Adam building, spanning actually six houses in Marylebone, and the most loquacious admissions director (or person of any kind, for that matter) that I have ever met. Not one of her sentences, once begun, ended in ANYTHING like the subject matter with which she had begun. Complaints about the endless rain became soliloquies on her skill with bathroom tiling, conversations begun with talking about the charm of prep school uniforms morphed into dissertations on the bad behavior of her grandson (clearly remarkable in every way). She seems reason enough to send Avery there! From there Avery was whisked away by the headmistress and then after a suitable interval, we ourselves were brought in. Such situations always make me look down at my hands and stammer, do you feel that way about female authority figures? A formidable woman like the bow of a ship, only with softly quirking eyebrows at some bit of particularly British wit. Very calming. I had no idea: if the child sits the exam at School #1, and is also applying to Schools 2 and 3 in the same group, only School #1 sees the actual exam itself, what they call “the script.” The other schools see merely the score, reported by School #1. So the rules may say that it’s entirely up to you where your child sits the exam, but had I worked out this extra detail ahead of time, I’d have thought, “Hmm, I wonder which school I want to have Avery’s actual SCRIPT in hand, and not just someone else’s interpretation of her mark.” Alas, too late. Actually probably she sat the exam at the right school anyway, but not through any parental brilliance on my part.
It’s exhausting. And we don’t even DO anything! Poor Avery on parade. She seems to thrive for the most part, and when asked, “What do you look for in a school, Avery?” replied calmly, “I like to meet friendly people. If I meet someone unfriendly, I might worry that that was the whole ethic of the school. Not that it’s happened, so far.” Ever the diplomat… thank goodness for her father’s influence.
Righty-ho. I still have my apron on which must mean, gosh, we haven’t eaten yet. Maybe that’s what’s got me kerfuffled: so far my food intake today has been enormous glass of juice made of beetroot, cavolo nero, celery, pear and parsley. Not exactly the diet of champions, more like a punishment for sins as yet uncommitted. Actually I really like my juices, so tomorrow maybe a little Dairylea on the side…
Just got back from the Sunday farmer’s market where I picked up all my favorites: red-chilli goats cheese, beetroot and cavolo nero and carrots for juice, Chegworth Worcester and Bramley apple juice, and some sausages for the macaroni and cheese I feel is in our future tomorrow night. Tonight, however, is destined to be scallops with parsley, because they were half price at Waitrose!
Scallops with Two Parslies
1 lb spaghetti (I prefer De Cecco)
1/2 cup olive oil
6 large sea scallops per person (slice in half if very large indeed)
5 cloves garlic minced
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
salt and pepper
1 large handful flat-leaf parsley, chopped
1 large handful curly parsley, chopped
1 cup fresh breadcrumbs, toasted lightly
The sauce will cook in just the time your spaghetti needs to boil, so bring the water to a boil and put in the pasta.
Now heat the olive oil and simmer the garlic, but don’t let it brown. Place the scallops in the oil and cook on high heat until they turn opaque (about three minutes), turning occasionally. Add the red peppers and salt and pepper, and take off the heat. Sprinkle the parsley on the scallops and toss gently. Drain the pasta and add to the scallops, then toss with the breadcrumbs. Delicious!
And of course on the way home from the market, it… RAINED. Honestly. Isn’t this a charming little Noah’s Ark? Here’s where you can order one.
Well, John is home safely from Iowa, and for the moment he’s resting. I think there will be a lot of resting in his future. It’s strangely sadder to have him back than it was to have him gone, but I think it’s only because actually seeing him makes his dad’s death real, somehow. The whole world feels different. One friend told me, about death and loss, “it makes the world feel as if it’s in a different orbit, for a time.” Then I suppose one absorbs it into one’s life experience. When we dropped Avery off at the barn, Kirsty asked John how his dad was doing, and when he told her, she said softly, “But remember the miraculous summer you had.” That is what we need to do.
At any rate, he’s home. And driving! His approach to the whole driving thing is completely different from mine. He OWNS the road, so everyone else has to make do. He roars down George Street, takes the yellow light at Edgware Road as a green, and roars ahead. It was so nice to be in the passenger seat again!
Nice, too, was Avery’s exam on Friday. She really does not seem to mind these ordeals! I picked her up in the (yep) rain on Friday afternoon, and she reported the opposite of last week: this time the maths were easy and the English impossible. So it would seem, between the two exams, no one will have done well because the strong English students will have thrived last week, and the strong maths students this week. But taken together… and here’s an exciting bit of news (at least exciting in the exam-obsessed life we are living right now): City of London School for Girls has written to say that based on her excellent performance last week, they’d like to see her for an interview on Tuesday. So interviews Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, and one more exam on Friday and then we can all breathe a sigh of relief. Perhaps the sun will come out? Best not to hope for ridiculous miracles, though.
On Friday night Avery spent the night with Anna and I treated myself to a ridiculous but so delicious extravagance: dinner at Nobu! But you know what: have your cocktail at home before you go. Because while I don’t mind paying lots of money for something I could never have at home, like yellowtail tuna with jalapeno, I do mind paying $24 for a martini. Even with whatever miraculous sake they use, and the tiny, tender little Japanese cucumbers floating on top. Save your money for the spicy tuna roll, and the soft shell crab roll. I did NOT allow my dinner to be spoiled by the annoying American businessman sitting next to me, overflowing his seat, talking on TWO mobile phones about whatever business deal was occupying his tiny mind. As I sat there he downed an entire plate of Kobe beef without chewing, as far as I could tell, ignoring the gorgeous trio of sauces, the pile of sauteed heirloom mushrooms. I couldn’t help stealing a glance at his bill when it came: 180 pounds! For one. My, my, I’m not in Kansas any longer.
Do you have an 11-year-old girl who needs a project? Avery’s latest obsession is latch-hooking. I remember going through a similar phase in my long-ago and misspent youth, and now she’s caught the bug. She dug out a smiley-face project that my friend Alyssa brought for her last Christmas, then laid away and forgotten. Finished that, got her friend Anna obsessed as well, and needed another project. So yesterday afternoon found us at John Lewis in the crafty department that usually brings to me a headache of enormous proportions as soon as I enter it. But this time we had a specific mission, and off we went to become the proud owners of an ENORMOUS Peter Rabbit rug-to-be.
Well, I think I hear my long-travelling husband stirring, so I shall go see what he needs. Enjoy your Sunday and… don’t forget your brolly.
Here’s a good London riddle: how soon would I have to stop posting on my blog if I couldn’t post on days when it… RAINED? Honestly. It’s enough to make me belligerently stop turning the water off while I brush my teeth. How can we possibly run out? It’s just awful, I have to say.
One of my writing class colleagues told me yesterday that she has “Seasonal Affective Disorder,” for real, not just feeling annoyed that it’s raining AGAIN, but true blues from not seeing the sun. How could you live here with such a condition? I even enjoy gray days, I never say, “I’ve got to get away,” or plan holidays on beaches in February. I don’t mind the winter. But constantly being wet is getting me down. You can choose from the following wardrobe options: wet tights, or wet trousers. And hair? There’s no point in ever blowing it dry. Mine is sticking up permanently now like I had an artichoke on my head. It’s really demoralizing.
So last night in the, you guessed it, RAIN, I picked up Avery at Anna’s house, turning down Becky’s dinner invitation reluctantly because it would have been nice to stay, but I just did not have the wherewithal to be friendly. Like an illness with no real symptoms. On the way home I thought, you know what, for once I’m going to buy some ready-made food that Waitrose is always touting as “just as good as homemade,” since there was enough leftover creamed chicken for Avery but not for me. Well, never again. Honestly, once you’ve unwrapped the food from all the plastic and cardboard that can’t go in the oven, and placed it all in dishes or on cookie sheets or whatever, to my mind I’d rather simply have chopped some garlic and cooked my own dinner. I won’t tell you what I bought because you might love it, but suffice to say next time I’m in that lazy mood, I’d rather stick a chicken in the oven and leave it for awhile and have something really good. I’ll go this far: I bought prawns. And for the money and the trouble, I’d just as soon:
Quick Prawns with Garlic and Chilli
(serves one lazy person)
6 giant tiger prawns, raw but shells removed
3 cloves garlic, minced
little shake of powdered ginger
1 tbsp peanut oil
splash sesame oil
sprinkle hot chilli flakes
3 spring onions, sliced
soy sauce to taste
Heat the oils in a wok or skillet and add everything else. Stir till prawns are pink. ENJOY.
Someday when I have a proper freezer I am even going to have little ice cube trays filled with mixed chopped garlic and ginger. Then I will officially have NO excuse for prepared food.
Anyway, Avery took her cozy bath, we ate our dinner and watched Becky’s gift of “Miss Potter,” which I adore, and that was that. As luck would have it, the temple of Avery’s eyeglasses snapped, totally unaccountably, so the poor thing has to do her Harry Potter imitation with scotch tape today.
This morning dawned (if you can use such a word for the alarm going off, since there was no actual dawn involved) soggy, but we persevered with a nice crepe filled with Nutella, a couple of slices of fabulous bacon, a juicy Comice pear, and then we were off. And we arrived at South Hampstead VERY early. Embarrassingly so, as my almost pre-teenager’s “Oh, Mommy!” pointed out to me. Nevertheless, I left her at the door with some Godolphin look-alike grownup girls, and slogged home. It’s sort of a relief: by this afternoon she’ll have done all she can to get into five of her six schools. Two more interviews next week and one more exam and she’s THROUGH. “Then it will be out of your hands,” I said reassuringly. Or so I thought. “But I’m the sort of person who LIKES having things in my hands, Mommy,” she pointed out. Ah well.
John will be home on Sunday, which will be glorious. No doubt with his arrival the rain will dry up and the sun will shine. Or maybe it will just seem that way. TGIF, everyone.
You know your appetite takes up the two sides of your brain: the one that eats for health and the one that eats for FUN. In my case, the fun isn’t chocolate, or even biscuits or candy. It’s CREAM. And butter. So I have two suggestions that, if you follow them both, will lead to the perfect balance of diet. I think.
The first is, and I’m beginning to believe it’s the key to all good health, a nice big glass of mixed fresh juice. I got my juicer last year, and while I will never become a fanatic who believes that all food should be eaten raw, I do think there’s something to getting the fruit and veg while they’re truly fresh. And, call me nutty, I have yet to come upon a combination of fruit and veg that isn’t nice together. Plus it’s a good way to use up those bits and pieces in your fridge that aren’t quite nice enough to eat whole. Today was blueberries, a good handful, a number of slightly shriveled baby tomatoes, a whole beetroot, a handful of celery stalks, 3 carrots, a knob of ginger and an apple. Plus a whole bunch of flat-leaf parsley which I am assured will completely neutralize that lovely vodka I had before dinner last night. Throw them in your juicer, stir it up and down the hatch. I swear, just the vibrant color will put a zing in your step. Truly.
I just came yesterday from my annual doctor’s checkup where I gave most of my blood to be analysed for all the stuff you spend the rest of the year not thinking about. Mostly cholesterol. And normally mine is very nice. So until I find out otherwise, I will continue to believe that one of the ultimate comfort dinners is:
Creamed Chicken with Single-Malt Scotch and Thyme
1 tbsp butter
1 small onion, minced
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tsps dried thyme
a good splash single-malt Scotch
2 chicken breast fillets, cut in bite-size pieces
1 tbsp sweet paprika
juice of 1/2 lemon
salt and fresh-ground pepper to taste
1 cup sour cream
Melt the butter in a heavy skillet. Then gently fry the onion and garlic till soft, and add the thyem. Pour in the Scotch and let it evaporate. Then stir in the chicken breasts and toss until nearly cooked through. Sprinkle with paprika and lemon juice, salt and pepper, and then stir in the sour cream. Turn OFF the heat. The chicken will continue to cook and not get tough, while you steam some basmati rice and broccoli on the side.
When the rice and broccoli are ready, turn up the heat under the chicken and stir until bubbly. Serve over the rice. HEAVEN.
Well, I stayed up far too late last night chatting with my adored relatives in Iowa, for which I must now pay the price and take a short nap or I will never make it to my writing class this afternoon. And tomorrow brings another exam for Avery, this one sat at South Hampstead High School. I’m trying to get up the courage to drive, but something tells me it will be a ruinous cab ride, instead. Wish her luck.
You know you’re scraping the bottom of the barrel of maternal reassurance when your response to your daughter’s ongoing exam anxiety is, “Just be glad we can afford to send you to school AT ALL.” This is at dinner after a waterlogged day of interview anxiety (it went fine), transportation anxiety, topped off with the confession that the splinters in her feet from Christmas still hurt.
OK, here’s where my mother claims her grandmother would say, “Just be glad you have two feet.” Clearly I come by my conversational techniques honestly. But seriously. I know a lot more serious things could be going wrong right now, and I keep reminding Avery of them. Note to self: this method of parenting is not effective. Children don’t care what BIGGER could be going wrong. The things that are going wrong right now are all that counts.
So I broke down and looked at her splinters. And it turns out they aren’t, even, they’re tiny shards of broken glass, I think. I have a vague memory of a broken glass in the kitchen over Christmas (was it here, or in Connecticut? I can’t even remember that much) and telling her not to run around barefoot. Clearly I was too late. Well, the fact that the little shards, which I can see just under the surface of her skin, still are bothering her nearly a month on means a trip to the doctor. This on top of everything else that is happening just seems like… too much. But off we go today, after school. I decided to kill two whatevers with one whatever, so I too am under the microscope: might as well get all that pesky blood work done so as to start the New Year knowing that my cholesterol is still all right, etc. So no food for me until 4 o’clock this afternoon. WHAT? Now I’m whingeing.
But I must say, the long-awaited interview at St. Paul’s was lovely, according to Avery. “She reminded me of Indiana Nona!” she said of her interviewer. “It was partly her sweater, which had cats on it, and partly that her eyes crinkled up when she smiled, and she was NICE to me,” she reported, so that was all right. Instead of being asked to identify a vegetable or discuss Mideast politics, she was shown a paperweight with a dandelion inside it, and asked to describe what she saw. “I said it looked like the kind of dandelion you blow on to make a wish, only since it was embedded in glass it might be like wishing on a crystal ball.” Sounds good to me. They discussed her favorite books, and the lady asked her to recommend her two favorite books FOR BOYS. Interesting. I think it was the official “Anything but Harry Potter” question, so happily Avery had two unusual books to suggest. I see one of them on my desk this morning, so I guess she’s been thinking about her answer.
I sat in the massive panelled entry hall, surrounded by oil portraits of Paulinas past, or illustrious benefactresses, who knows. Countless girls rushed around, arms full of books, all dressed in, you guessed it, skinny jeans, ballet flats, hoodies and long fringey scarves. They all looked mysteriously alike! And LOTS of hair. The dulcet tones of their posh accents rang through the hall, and I looked intently for signs of eating disorders, anxiety disorders, socialization disorders. None visible. In fact, three of the girls came bounding up to Avery as we waited and caroled, “Good luck! You’ll be fine! Welcome to St. Paul’s!” Very impressive. So the lady came up to us and said warmly, “You must be Avery,” and shook my hand, and that was that. Took her away. I tried to read my magazine, but I was too fascinated by all the activity around, and also by trying, unsuccessfully, to imagine Avery as an 18-year-old. What will she be like?
Anyway, the interview was fine. “I don’t know what I was so worried about!” she chortled, and I struggled to find a message in this. Struggled and failed. I feel lately as if everything I say were written in a Chinese fortune cookie, or an astrology reading. Really futile and boring! And anyway she doesn’t hear me. So all the exhortations like, “See, then that means there’s no reason to worry about the NEXT interview,” fall on deaf ears. Or rather ears that listen and then a mouth that says, “But that one will be completely different, Mommy!” You idiot, is the unspoken addendum. Sigh.
I’m beginning to see the point in a two-parent household. It’s so one of you can walk away, shut the door, turn off the sound of your precious child’s voice, and let the other adult get the brunt of the venting! I am steeling myself for the doctor’s office today. Actually, a secret little part of me is looking forward to someone else being in charge: the doctor will have to do what doctors do. I know Avery is spending her school day imagining a giant fork digging into her little foot. I said, “Just enjoy your school day and you can start worrying about the doctor at 3:20.”
Ah, well, it will all be over soon. Exam Friday, interview Monday, interview Thursday, exam Friday. Done and dusted. We’ll have to think up some massive treat at the end of it all. In the meantime, be glad you have two… oh, never mind. Be as whingey as you like. I’ll just cover my ears.
I know. In the grand scheme of things, a driving rainstorm at 8 a.m. when you’re trying to get your child to school is NOT a tragedy. I agree. But when you’re really not a morning person to begin with, and then you’re waiting on the corner for a taxi and cars fly by splashing you and there are no taxis and THEN your child remembers that her backpack is in the car, two blocks away, and it’s still raining… so you rush to the car, realise that by now you’ll be late if you don’t just DRIVE instead of finding a taxi, but then it occurs to you that you can’t read to the little Form Three gulls that you enjoy so much, because you now have a car that you’ll never find a parking spot for in the RAIN… then it officially becomes a day that has not started off auspiciously.
So I drove Avery to school in total silence because she’s 100 pages away from the end of “Little Women”, and for some reason has focused on finishing the book before her St. Paul’s interview this afternoon. Why? So she can say, in case anyone asks, that she’s read “Little Women.” I know, I don’t get it either.
Isn’t this a pretty photograph, anyway? I didn’t take it, but someone who doesn’t live in London where rain is not a thing you greet with open arms did, and you can see lots of other lovely photographs on his website. The page where I found the photograph is called “An Appreciation of Rain.” Well, ask anyone in England right now about rain and you’ll be in for an onslaught of invective. Flooding expected today in all the poor spots that were flooded in the summer. This is one of the few days when living in London just isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
It’s going to be one of those days. Two hours and fifteen minutes from now will find me back at school trying to find her, to get her to Brook Green, find something to feed her so she’s all sparkly, then get to the school for her interview at 1:15. I wonder what I should do with myself for however long it takes? Will it have stopped raining by then? I am chagrined that I have reached a stage in my life where my day consists merely of getting someone else to the thing that she needs to do. Do I ever actually DO anything myself, or do I merely wash clothes for, feed, and transport someone to do things? This shall remain a rhetorical question for today, because right now just ferrying her where she needs to be and being ready to respond to whatever happens at 1:15 is task enough. What will it be like, an interview at the top London girls’ day school? Rumours, amounting by this point to urban legend, are flying around the school. “Lucilla had to identify a picture of a gourd and say what it reminded her of, and she said it looked like her bottom,” is one story, and “Juliette says she was asked to describe the significance of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” and “Have you ever heard of a painter called Gauguin? Because Molly was shown a picture of a naked lady by him and had to describe the emotional content in it,” are some of the choice morsels. These children are 11 years old!
Ah well, by 3 o’clock, doubtless, it will all be over. Until the next big exam on Friday. The stories surrounding last Friday’s exam are already the stuff of urban legend. “If you sneeze, or anyone else sneezes, and you make eye contact with another student, the proctor will come and RIP UP your exam, right in front of you,” and “One girl was sitting her exam, and the roof started leaking, right onto her paper, and they wouldn’t let her move.” Honestly, what we will all talk about when this process is over I cannot imagine. We may, horror of horrors, have to get lives of our own. That prospect is actually beginning to sound appealing.
Perhaps the best thing to do is to concentrated on the World’ Greatest Bedtime Snack. As you know, I am a night owl, and it’s very tempting for me to stay up until all hours reading, watching Miss Marple’s Nemesis, talking on the telephone to people living five or six hours earlier than I am. But being in charge of the morning routine has meant a strict curtailing of all late-night pleasantries. Well, not quite. Midnight last night found me with:
Double Gloucester Omelet with Duchy Back Bacon
(serves one mother who should be asleep)
1 tsp butter
1 organic Harvest Moon egg (from the farmer’s market of course)
1 tbsp single cream
sprinkle Maldon sea salt
a dozen strokes across a grater of Double Gloucester cheese
1 slice Duchy Original Back Bacon
Melt the butter in a nonstick skillet (like the massively heavy Le Creuset one you got from your perfect mother in law for Christmas). Whisk together the egg and cream with a fork and gently pour it into one half or so of the skillet, leaving the other half for the bacon. Lay the bacon on that spot. Leave over a gentle heat until the egg is nearly cooked (just bubbling a bit) and grate the cheese over the egg. Turn over the bacon. Now, when the cheese is melted, fold the egg over on itself two times. Turn onto a warm plate with the bacon.
Obviously this is not a RECIPE per se. This is a celebration of perfect ingredients, a quiet household, the peace of midnight, and a wish that you could be there in Iowa with the ones you love to hand them the warm plate, kiss their cheeks and make everything all right.
Well, my chores beckon: turning warm cats out of beds and making them, scrubbing the omelet skillet, the inevitable laundry. Stay dry, everyone, and wish Avery good luck this afternoon. She may well need it.