We’ve had the most peaceful days. Long, lazy, sunshiny afternoons with us all stretched out in the Adirondack chairs, books piled up on the deep arms, feet up on the crazy crooked footstools, endless glasses of sweating ice water or tea, all of us interrupted in our reading by the appearance of Gary the Groundhog twirling peach pits or cherries between his little black paws from the pile of rejected fruit I keep rotating in his lunch spot. John accuses me of deliberately buying “off” fruit so it gets to Gary sooner, but that’s just calumny of the most callous. How can I offer moldy canteloupe to my human child? Or the contents of a box of raspberries whose best-by date was clearly over-optimistic and misleading? Two words: I can’t. So Gary gets them. And we all sit, enthralled and unmoving, to watch his feast. I have to tell my mother: he violates the sacred rule of our childhood dinner table: he eats with his mouth open.
The afternoons are punctuated…
How odd to think that a month from today we’ll be tooling down an unknown road from London to Cornwall, to stay with our lovely Annie and her family? A different universe, quite apart from its being a different continent and time zone… simply impossible to believe the two worlds belong to the same lives. But they do, and they will. In the meantime…
Say: did you know that your local pharmacy may have a Nurse Practitioner to consult should your trip there to buy toothpaste end up in being diagnosed with a massive case of Poison Ivy? Well, now we know. John’s been suffering for several days from itching scratches on his forearms, swollen, hot and miserable. I’ve had the very same, mysteriously, on my abdomen, which I didn’t want to tell anybody. Then, sadly, the rash moved to my face, so it was unavoidable. How we itch! How hot it is, how miserable when sweating from playing tennis in the sunshine. So tonight we were looked at by a lovely Italian girl sporting an impressive diamond engagement ring (“I’m getting married next July!”) who confirmed poison ivy. So in short, the gorgeously revealed stone wall that Rosemary and John slaved away on over the weekend (and I, unfortunately, pitched in to help just long enough to get infected), was not worth the trouble. I’d rather have a wall covered with ivy and not have touched any of it with my face.
So that was our evening tonight. Plus, would you believe that we had decided to go out for pizza, to give me a break (not really needed) from cooking, but the pizza place was, quixotically, closed on Mondays (perhaps they’re owned by the same people who own the bakery that’s closed on Mondays). So we ended up desperately at Denmo’s, for fried food. Which would have been fine, except all the fried food ended up closed up in the car while our brief pharmacy trip turned into a full-blown Visit To The Doctor. Let me tell you, you haven’t lived till you’ve opened up a car in 90-degree weather that’s been filled with fried clams and shrimps for half an hour. Arrgh! And there is nothing, repeat, NOTHING to recommend fried food that’s been closed up and turned to approximately the texture of damp paper towels. Tomorrow night’s barbecued pork tenderloin and warm salad of cannellini beans with rosemary and garlic is sounding better and better.
Anyway, we came home to down all the pills the lady gave us, and to eat our awful dinner and to wait, now I’m watching the clock, for the medicine to work. Heat makes it worse, I find, and it’s HOT. I hate to think back to our tennis game this morning, sweating like crazy in the blazing sun. No tennis tomorrow unless I feel a LOT better than I do right now.
Could I whine any more? I do apologize for my mood. It will pass. But our AC is broken! Another project for tomorrow. Once I make the moral decision to turn on the air conditioning, I hate being stymied.
I think I’ll feel better if I think back to last Thursday when I got to introduce two of my favorite friends: Becky and Shelley. And very exciting: Shelley brought along the feline friend we gave her last summer, and who Avery has never forgotten: Captain Hastings. He hasn’t changed a bit, except for having grown even more than Avery has (she comes in at four inches and untold pounds, in a year). But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The day itself dawned as looking particularly satisfying: the prospect of cooking all afternoon, after a good sweaty tennis game, watching the skies as the storms gathered: my recipe for happiness. The menu: a corn chowder with cream and fresh chives, then a grilled chicken satay dish on a bed of rocket/arugula.
The soup is simplicity itself:
(serves 8 with leftovers, and it’s BETTER cold!)
3 tbsps butter
12 ears corn, cut off raw
6 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
4 shallots, roughly choppped
6 cups chicken broth or stock
1 cup heavy cream
white pepper to taste
handful chives, roughly chopped
Simply melt the butter and throw in the corn, garlic and shallots and sweat till translucent and the corn is warmed through. Add the stock and bring to a high simmer for 15 minutes, then blend with a hand blender till as much of the corn as possible is pureed. Pass into another stockpot through a large-hole sieve, then in a Cuisinart blend what’s left behind in the sieve with some milk to get as much as possible fine enough to go through the sieve. Reduce the soup slightly by cooking over a low heat for a half hour or so. Add cream and pepper and take off the heat. Just before serving, heat again, and top each bowl with a sprinkle of chives.
Just as I finished this, and Rosemary put together the satay sauce (but I won’t report on my recipe because it wasn’t completely successful, another version will follow), several things happened all at once: John realized it was time to take Avery to riding, the rain began to fall, and… the power went out. “Well, dinner’s cooked!” Rosemary laughed, and since it was true, I waved them off to Avery’s lesson and drifted idly through the house in the gathering rainy dusk, lighting candles, setting the table, stirring the soup, and indulging in a quiet hour of thinking about my family, my friends, scattered to the four winds, but soon to be gathered around my table, to be fed, to meet each other, laugh and feel cherished, I hoped. I sat for a moment in the front doorway with a book and a cocktail, being lightly sprinkled with rain, gazing out past Avery’s tree swing (marked with her name, but hardly readable anymore), to the meadow where turkeys and deer stroll, to the trees beyond which become so incandescently colorful in the fall. The breeze blew raindrops onto my book and I closed my eyes to feel it on my face, and was happy.
First came Becky, laden with shopping bags in the rain. Figs for Rosemary! A fruit tart and chocolate tart for us, tiny pains au chocolat and shortbreads for Avery, a book for me, a sweater Avery had left behind. In short, her usual bounty, and offered all with her inimitable Becky smile of total generosity, fun-loving and waiting for the next adventure. And it didn’t take long: the rain was really pelting down in a gray curtain of wind and fury when Erik and Shelley arrived with… Hastings!
Our dear foster kitten from last summer, the tiniest little fellow you can imagine: now he’s long, and sleek and impressive! But with the same tiny screaming wail he emitted as a little boy. Shelley smiled on us gently as she always does, with her quiet air of enjoyment, tinged this time with her anticipation of missing the little guy when she left him behind. Erik as always stands behind her, if not literally, metaphorically, protecting and shielding her, seeming to surround her with support and love. What a joy to see them again. And then in an instant, I saw our car pull up in the driveway and there, through the driving rain, in flew Rosemary, John, crying, “We’re soaked and smelling of horses! Beware!” and then Avery, racing to change her clothes (yes, the horsey ones stayed on her bedroom rug till I found them later, her ONLY flaw!) and to take charge of her boy. The reunion between girl and cat was quite wonderful.
The drama! The windy rain, the dark gray skies, the warm light within (the power had come back on!), the soup bubbling and the cat dashing here and there… Becky and Shelley took to each other as I knew they would: two gentle, generous souls with nevertheless a slightly skewed sense of humor or else they wouldn’t have any time for me! How I have come up so lucky with my friends, and lord knows with my mother-in-law, I cannot begin to say. But I take not a moment for granted.
We gathered around the table for dinner, trading crazy stories about travels, our children, our pets, favorite foods, family trials and tribulations. The old brass church candle stand given to us years ago by my friend Livia flickered over us all, as moths kamikazied into them… Finally it was time for Becky to run away, to meet her daughter home from Guatemala, for Shelley and Erik to brave the highway, for Hastings to settle in to his week away from home, heaven for Avery. How dear of them to share him with us, how we appreciate it. A gorgeous evening.
How heart-wrenching to say goodbye to Becky, for who knows how long. But we have always overcome these separations in the past, and the same will hold for the future, with a couple of extra added plane flights to be sure. We hugged an extra couple of times, each hug encompassing for me so much history and love.
Well, I’ll close tonight (and just concentrate on itching) with my recommendation of a new blog: it’s Avery’s blog, and it’s dedicated to desserts! Well-written, erudite, a special blend of friendship and sweet things: give it a try and contribute your desserts to her effort! Lord knows with her sweet-tooth-challenged mother, she needs all the help she can get! You go, Avery. Well done.
Sometimes Connecticut is simply too good to be true. This early evening I was driving home from the supermarket (a bag of ice cubes and a tube of cortisone, which tells you that our holiday is full of cocktails and bug bites), and I passed a lawn simply COVERED with wild turkeys. Seven or eight or ten of them, all in a row, but not a mother and babies. More like a business meeting or a book signing. And they were all gathered under… an American flag atop a mailbox, with a red barn in the background. Too, too much.
And little Kate from across the road, lending her “hi!” and “bye-bye” and her china-blue gaze to all endeavors… aren’t she and Avery the most beautiful pair?
We’ve been elevated by our usual summertime social whirl. Rosemary has settled into her guest room without undue ceremony, after arriving late enough to want nothing more than a roast beef sandwich and a look at Avery’s school report, which does make awfully nice bedtime reading, I must say. I’ve stopped short of xeroxing it for ALL family members, but you know who you are. Actually, no one. But I will if you ask.
My point being, Avery simply has thrived at her new school. She is so relieved, she says, to have a summer where she’s not anticipating moving, or starting exams, or wondering what school she’ll get into, or how it will be. Now she knows all of the above, and can spend her summer in its righteous pursuits like trampolining, thinking about trampolining, and announcing that she is almost ready to begin trampolining.
Our quiet lives were spiced up last week by the arrival for a late lunch of our old, old (yes, they’re old) friends Craig and Renee, they of long-ago Tribeca days, our first loft when it was still cool to have a loft in Tribeca. And they were seriously cool: music producers for commercials, so Craig had a sound-proofed room (or do I just hope so, after some particularly amorous encounter with him at a dinner party?! Renee would kill me and then ask questions later), their son Ben was high-school cool, they even had a cool dog, a boxer called Oscar who Avery called “Okker” and heartily feared after getting stuck in the elevator with him, her face just at the level of his mouth.
Renee swears now that her first introduction to me involved her admiring my stainless-steel countertops, when she said, “So convenient for either cooking or gynecological exams,” which I wish I remembered, but since I had Avery hanging from my chest in a Baby Bjorn, I must have been distracted. But for sure, everything Renee and Craig ever said was filed, in my mind, under “how I wish I’d said that,” and I simply decided to have them around as much as possible to absorb the coolness.
We screamed with laughter the whole of their lunchtime visit, to the point that I worried a bit about Kate’s naptime across the road! It isn’t just the jokes or the one-liners, it’s the constant sparkle of fun in Renee’s eyes, which sparkle anyway just on their own, and Craig’s adoring (yes, it’s true) audience for her zany sense of humor… and then, just when you least expect it, he pulls out his iPhone to take a little video of us all together, “This is Kristen, and she cooked this food [moves the camera phone to the empty platter that had contained towers of mozzarella and tomato], which doesn’t look like much, but I’m sure it’ll be delicious,” then to the stacked empty plates from lunch piled up with cutlery, “this will be on offer, too, dinner from last night,” and finally to Renee, who smiled sweetly, then picked up a steak knife, and Craig uttered the most blood-curdling scream! A snuff film on on iPhone, at my picnic table. Which is FINE.
Avery tried hard to get Renee interested in her all-time favorite novel (which I have to aver is pretty marvelous), “The Silver Donkey,” relating its heart-warming tales of WWII bravery, soldier rescue, metaphorical beauty, only to find Renee gazing at her beatifically. “I always say, ‘dunkey,’ because why is it ‘munkey’ and not ‘dunkey’?” You must say it aloud yourself to get it. That’s Renee.
But what’s also Renee is that she BROUGHT even more food than I COOKED. “But you’ve come TO lunch,” I protested, as dish after dish appeared from the car. And what’s more, the darling, clever little containers they’re packaged in were gifts as well. Cabbage and meatball soup, apple cake (made with oil instead of butter so it could be served at a meal with meat!), gefilte fish, tatziki (a gorgeous dip of yogurt and dill and cucumber), potato kugel, all the Jewish favorites that Renee, who feels as my friend Alyssa feels, that I am a closet Jew, should have at her lunch table. This in addition to the shrimp salad with celery and peppers I had made…
Janice’s Cold Summer Shrimp Salad
(serves 6 as a main course for luncheon or a late supper)
1 1/2 lb cooked large shrimp, tails removed, cut in thirds
1 1/2 cups celery, chopped fine
1/2 red pepper, cut fine
tiny bit of shallot, minced
1 cup mayonnaise
1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
squeeze of lemon juice (plus the squeezed bit stirred through the salad)
1 tsp salt
handful chopped chives
Serve surrounded with endive, sprinkled with chives, very cold.
I had also thoughtfully provided tomato mozzarella towers with pinenuts and lemon zest and basil! But they were all eclipsed by Renee’s million-dollar cookies (whose recipe I’ll post, if I get permission). Actually I won’t post it, I’ll let Avery do that, as she’s started her own food blog! Strictly desserts, mind you, to fill in the gaps that I can’t fill, due to my sad lack of a sweet tooth. Well done, Avery: it’s beautifully written, simply presented, and will provide you with some much-needed sweet treats for summer and beyond.
Well, we laughed our way through the afternoon. John left to fetch his mama from the airport, and after a bit Craig and Renee insisted they had their own home to go to as well. Avery and I waved them off, wishing they could simply move in. Old friends, who remember you from the old days. Who say, “Remember that birthday party of Avery’s, where all you served was vichyssoise? And… those little cheese puffs, what were they called?” “Gougeres! Puff Daddies!” we all say together, and Renee remembers, “That was a recipe from Saveur magazine,” and I realize that my copy of the recipe, back in London, is the page torn from that very magazine. Old friends who kindly say, “You haven’t changed at all,” and then point out the under-eye wrinkles, but say they add character. Which is fine.
There was a brief interlude where I cleaned up the kitchen and watched the sun set, and then in swept John and his mom! Tight hugs, “oh, my goodness, Avery, stand there for a minute and let me see how tall you are!”, bringing in suitcases, settling her things in her room, settling in the kitchen where we all stood around building impromptu sandwiches of roast beef, ham, pesto, cheese, red onions. I’d marinated salmon with ginger and garlic in case we wanted “dinner,” but it was soon set aside in the fridge for the much more festive picnic. And catching up. And Avery’s magic paper airplanes…
John’s and my tennis has been definitely elevated by our new rackets! We rushed off in the morning to play a crazy game in hideous humidity, and has my face ever been redder? I think Rosemary was about to call 911. Typical me. Cleaned up, a nice lunch of the salmon from the night before, grilled, and the steamed rice turned instantly into fried rice. Try it with your leftover steamed rice.
Instant Fried Rice
1 cup basmati rice, steamed in a 1 1/2 cups water and set aside
2 tbsps peanut oil
1 tbsp sesame oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
handful green onions, minced (including green parts)
2 eggs, beaten
soy sauce to taste
Heat the oils in a heavy skillet or wok, then quickly fry the garlic and green onions. Add the pinenuts and eggs and stir quickly, breaking up the eggs as they scramble. Add the rice and sprinkle with soy sauce, then stir fry until the rice is warmed through. How easy is that?
The rain began just as we finished lunch, and the piano tuner appeared to tune my bargain piano that wouldn’t play into a rather expensive piano that would… almost.
More on all things piano, plus the return of a certain feline character from our summer world last year… soon!
Big news from Red Gate Farm: our dining room, so recently converted into a library, has inched even further up the interior design ladder and morphed into a Music Room! Truly, and here is the photograph to prove it.
In the interests of full disclosure, I must aver that the newly-acquired piano pictured here is now on the adjacent wall, with the advice of the tuner extraordinaire who spent the afternoon with us. “Interior walls, only, and NOT in contact with any heat source,” he instructed he, and so be it. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I arrived in Connecticut two weeks ago with the definite dream of finding a piano. My mother will be so happy to hear how much I’ve loved getting a bit closer to where I was after the hundreds of dollars my parents spent getting me educated in the ways of piano playing. The hours I practiced! The recitals and sheet music and competitions (most of which involved me trying to get my friend Amy’s brother Mark, on whom I had an enormous unrequited crush, to accompany me)… Well, here’s the way it works to get a used piano in Connecticut. To set the comparative scene, in London, in order to get a piano, I ask my friend Becky who’s moving away to sell me hers, and she does, and the London Piano Moving Company moves it the next day. Let me tell you it’s not that simple in the Nutmeg State.
I began on Craigslist, at John’s advice, and it’s a brave new world out there, I can tell you. In the site for my small area of Connecticut ALONE there were hundreds of musical instruments for sale, many of them pianos, and I tracked down a fair number, some of whose details were a bit sob-making. “Looks OK, most keys don’t work, no pedals, really heavy. Move it yourself.” That’s tempting! Finally I emailed six or so people who had pianos that sounded workable, and also found a mover in my neck of the woods who was happy to go get any number of the pianos I described to him, from their various locations. Steve of Astro Movers and I had several heartwarming conversations about my search for a piano, how expensive they were, how no one would tell me if they really worked or not, people were all secretive about how many steps up or down it required to reach the piano.
Finally, I had to call Steve and confess that my last piano hope sounded very dodgy. “Steve, the guy just says for me to come get it, he’ll give it to me for free, but he doesn’t have any idea if it WORKS or not!” And do you know what Steve said? In a typical laconic, easygoing tone, he said, “You know, I have a piano here you could have.” Silence. “You have a WHAT?” “A piano. Beautiful little thing, let you have it for… [names an unbelievably low price], moving included.”
It is not for me to wonder why this piano was not offered to me in any of the many early conversations I had with Steve. The point was, all I had to do was email all the people who were trying to get me to buy THEIR pianos and say no thank you, and get to the cash machine.
Sadly, not Steve (“he doesn’t come out in the rain,” his colleague explained simply) but three of his compatriots arrived this morning in, it has to be admitted, the rain, and delivered a lovely upright piano to my dining-room-turned-library. Well, it’s the Music Room now! We could tell immediately several things: it fits perfectly into our space, it’s a lovely old-fashioned thing that looks quite at home with our belongings, and… it was dreadfully out of tune. So this afternoon up turned a chap called Terry, with a bag full of tricks, among them his German grandfather’s tuning fork and a handful of newspaper articles about him, an immigrant who brought his skills over with him to the New World. Also in Terry’s bag was a DVD of his daughter’s rendition of “Ave Maria” at the Sacred Heart Christmas concert. “Anybody can see what a big voice she has,” he said, completely unable to conceal his enormous pride in her. Further conversation elicited that his son was a prodigy in the developmental pediatrics department at Yale. Is there anything more touching than the white heat of parental devotion?
Terry explained many things about our piano to us, including things about the length of the strings and therefore the tons of tension carried within them (“right to this solid cast-iron frame here,”) and the trying nature of the pads or keys, or something which meant that some number of them could not be meant to play. He was here for three and a half hours, crashing through any number of Chopin, Beethoven and Rachmaninoff pieces to demonstrate his progress, or lack thereof. Many comments were uttered sotto voce, with no one really within hearing distance as I sliced sirloin for pierrade and John installed a shelf in the bathroom and Avery shelled peas, against her will. But he seemed to need to express himself.
Throughout the long, gray, cacophanous afternoon, the rain fell, the washer and dryer hummed, I sliced meat, made a slaw of red cabbage, Savoy cabbage and red peppers with a mustardy dressing, and my first Bearnaise sauce! It’s a bit of trouble, but I think there is nothing more tempting to serve with beef.
Classic Bearnaise Sauce
1 stick unsalted (important!) butter (about 120 grams)
1/4 cup each white wine, white wine vinegar
1 tbsp tarragon leaves
2 shallots, minced
pinch white pepper
2 egg yolks
Now, this may sound involved, but it’s really not. Forget all the instructions about double boilers. I never heard of anything so silly. You merely need two saucepans of same or nearly same size. First, melt the butter JUST to melting, don’t brown, in a microwave if you have one. If not, use a saucepan. Put the melted butter in a bowl somewhere and wash out the saucepan. In this pan, boil the wine and vinegar, tarragon, shallots and pepper until the liquid is reduced by half. Strain this into a bowl and throw away the solids. Now boil some water in a saucepan, rinse out the one you boiled the wine mixture in, and pour the strained mixture into this second saucepan. Before you place this on the boiling water pan, whisk in the egg yolks. Now place the saucepan on top of the one containing boiling water and whisk until the the MOMENT the eggs thicken. Take off the heat. Put four ice cubes in the boiling water and return the saucepan with the sauce in it to the top of the hot water one, whisking in the melted butter VERY gradually until thick and yellow and all the butter is used up. If at any time the sauce seems to be breaking up, simply remove from the hot bottom saucepan and whisk till smooth.
When all the butter is incorporated, add a dash of cayenne pepper and salt to taste.
This sauce is incredibly tasty, a little goes a long way, and it’s the perfect accompaniment to beef of any kind. But especially our favorite, pierrade, with veal and duck (and its gorgeous satay sauce). Anne and David brought Kate across the road in the rain to join us (and Terry the tuner, for half an hour or so as he finished up). So cozy to sit on the dining room floor (I did find time today to scrub it, knowing we’d spend some time down there with a 1-year-old), kind indulgent Avery offering Kate hats to try on, watching her unique method of locomotion: hitching herself with one hand and two bent legs, surprisingly effective!
Finally Terry could do no more (a further visit is necessary for our problem piano child, but he enthused, “a great piano when it’s all said and done,” as all problem children are, I suppose). A fabulous, if frenetic dinner, with Dave looking on his family adoringly, Anne fetching dropped bananas, rejected raspberries, feeding her water from a coffee cup she found in our crazy kitchen, painted with kittens. The fat from the pierrade spattered us all, we passed sauces to and fro, the usual debate ensued: “Is this your duck bite? I forgot my veal and it’s burning…” We managed to discuss Obama’s reputation abroad, Avery’s school, pianos and music in general… but there is never enough time with them. We finished up with the cabbage slaw, so crunchy and refreshing, and then sadly it was time for the baby to go to bed. How lucky we are in our neighbors, I thought, and wanted ridiculously to take a picture of them crossing the road through the red gate, carrying their longed-for and so-adored baby, heading across to their own white farmhouse in the rain. I realized that the photograph I imagined was only in my own head… just a snapshot of a lovely moment, on our road, in our lives, with our children.
I wandered around downstairs when everyone had gone separate ways, scrubbing up the pierrade stone, admiring the piano, curating my refrigerator, folding laundry, all the little tasks that make being home so predictable, so repetitive, and therefore so cozy!
We’ve had more than our fair share of fun lately. Anne and David came also on Saturday to meet up with Jill, Joel, Jane and Molly: the great encounter of the babies! I think no one was less interested in each other than Molly and Kate. We all oohed and aahed, but truth be told, the babies were MUCH more enthralled with Avery and Jane, who put on their bathing suits and braved the setting sun for some fun on the slip ‘n slide. Were any four children ever more assiduously photographed? I think not! They’re all so photogenic, we think, and we often laugh at us, like a row of paparazzi, documenting their every move. Irresistible, really. That night we feasted on a favorite of mine, although cooked for the first time in America.
Crab Tart with Scallions and Goats Cheese
175 grams plain flour
75 grams cornflour (cornstarch)
1 tsp salt
120 grams cold butter
1 tbsp fresh thyme leaves
2 eggs, beaten
sprinkles cold water
250 grams white crabmeat
250 grams goats cheese
1 bunch scallion, minced
600 ml double cream
6 eggs, beaten
salt and pepper
1 egg, beaten
Make the pastry by mixing, in a food processor, the flour, cornflour, salt, butter (in little pieces, gradually), and thyme. Then add eggs and water to make a nice stiff dough and form into a ball. Wrap in clingfilm and refrigerate for at least 20 minutes.
Roll out pastry to be at least 2 inches larger all round than the tart tin (21 cm diameter and 3 cm deep). Line the tin gently with the pastry, draping the extra over the sides (do not trim yet). Line with foil and weight with beans and bake at 160C for 40 minutes, then take out the foil and beans and check to see if the pastry is dry. If not, bake again for 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, beat the eggs with the cream and season well. Beat the leftover egg and brush the baked pastry crust with it, all over. Scatter the scallions, goats cheese and crabmeat over the bottom, then pour over the cream and eggs. Bake at 180C for 20 minutes, then lower the heat to 160C for another 40 minutes. Leave tart to cool to room temperature before serving.
Now, I realize making this for the first time in America, it’s important to demystify the metrics. Just think: it’s merely equal measures of crab and goats cheese (about a cup of each in the recipe, but I always use more), and basically a stick of butter (a bit more for good measure). It’s a little more than a pint of whipping cream, not to worry.
And the pastry? You know what? Get a scale. You can measure all these things by volume, no doubt, as I’ve done all my life. But at the risk of seeming anti-American, it’s heavenly simple to weigh things and then you KNOW. So much easier to put butter on a scale than to slodge it into a measuring cup, smash it down, then try to get it out again. And trying to remember to use your measuring cup for dry ingredients FIRST so the dry ones won’t stick to the butter or cream you just put in the cup? Get a scale.
And before you get your knickers in a twist (one of my favorite English expressions) about temperature, figure to double the Celsius number for Fahrenheit. The legal conversion is much more complex, but doubling works.
Sunday morning found the kitchen immaculate as if a party had never happened (trust my organizational skills if not my poetry), and us in the car on the way to Brooklyn and a real trip down memory lane. Somehow, when we made our plans to see my fabulous former gallery assistant, the amazing photographer Rebecca Veit, in her studio in Brooklyn Heights, it didn’t really occur to us that we’d be taking a virtual tour of Places John Has Lived in order to get there.
My goodness, the memories came flooding back. His first brownstone in 1987 on President Street, surrounded by Italian families who planted Nativity scenes in their gardens as if they were rhododenrons… I remember arriving there to visit during his second year at Goldman Sachs, I a first-year graduate student on the run from my thesis… Then the rather fab, modern loft on Schermerhorn Street, where I helped him move in and cook Szechuan chicken and watch “Flashdance”! Then finally a charming but dodgy apartment on Atlantic Avenue (how dishy that block has become now, all home decor and antiquey)… with the owner’s huge smelly black labrador occupying the filthy walkup steps… and the owner’s nightly ritual saying goodnight to him (fuelled, John recalls, by the owner’s copious ingestion of beer). “Blackie, I love you. Blackie, you’re my life.”
How can so many years have flown by? I think of those times with enormous nostalgia: the glamor of John’s job, my enrapturement with Deconstruction, Post-Structuralism, feminist art historical theory, dressing the part all in black, about as thin as a splinter. But you know what? We are much happier now. I have to be honest and remember that as much fun as those days sound in memory, we argued all the time! About John’s work schedule, about my lack of money, about what we would do when and with whom. Either there was more to argue about or we just invented it! With the arrival of Avery there has seemed very little to argue about. We just sort of float through the days feeling lucky we all have each other, as sappy as that sounds.
But it was huge fun to do The Grand Tour, and show Avery all the sights. She manifests a polite and profound lack of belief that we were ever boyfriend and girlfriend, anxiously negotiating our passionate long-distance romance! Well, more power to her. The next big romance will be hers, and it will be very intriguing to see what form it takes.
From there we headed to Rebecca’s place, which she shares with her wildly creative boyfriend Mason, he of the splendidly quirky and addictive blog “Daily Routines,” which has now happily been suspended because it’s coming out as a book next year! It’s all about the daily routines of creative people (I count it as a matter of mere timing that he did not seek to interview moi). We did not get to meet Mason as he was (his daily routine) at the library, but it was wonderful to see Rebecca. She is a mysterious, dark-horseish person, with hidden depths that pop up now and then in conversation, and fully in her photography. With Rebecca, there’s a curious anomaly of the daily/everyday being quite full of mystery, and yet enormously mysterious things being presented as quite everyday and commonplace. Through it all her dark eyes sparkle and her dark curls bob: a truly insouciant person who I’ve missed more than I let myself realize. Ah, well, we’re now in the proud possession of two of her photographs which, when we hang them, I’ll show you. What a pleasure to see her, and to re-introduce Avery to her. Fully a third of Avery’s life has gone by since she saw Rebecca last, what a thing. Their hug was much more on a level than it was the last time they met.
Then it was on to Tribeca, another tour back into time (we moved away nearly four years ago). But you know what? With my best friend Alyssa as our guide, there is never room for sentiment (we save that for our post-visit emails which are positively tear-making). We marched off to Gigino, our old favorite pizzeria in the nabe, where Avery astonished me by remembering that every Wednesday I took her out of school and we had lunch there! How on earth does she remember that? The old pizza bianca with ricotta tasted just like those Wednesdays, when I had a much smaller daughter in tow, one who wanted to hold my hand when crossing the street. What wonderful afternoons those were, and how I cherished all my school volunteer jobs that allowed me to follow her back, walk in the doors with her, and keep my eye on her all the time.
Of course following us through our tour of the much-changed and yet still-wonderful Tribeca were countless terrible memories of September 11, which I find myself thinking of less and less. But surrounded by the past-saturated buildings, the street corner where I was standing when the first plane flew overhead, the restaurants who generously fed the firemen, the corners where countless news trucks were parked, the school where I ran to fetch Avery when it happened, the sandbox that had to be emptied by workers with hazmat gear before the children could play there again… so many memories came flooding back. One of the wonderful, unspoken things about my friendship with Alyssa is that all these things are in our minds, as we stroll along in the unbroken sunshine, passing the street where once, in a cold September rain after that awful day, she told me she was expecting Elliot… We never discuss these things, but the fact that we went through them together, scared stiff and yet still standing, are part of the glue that binds us.
It was so bloody hot on Sunday! We sweated our way, with Steve and Elliot, on a tour of the new buildings, the real estate that’s switched hands and for how much (the never-ending passion of any true New Yorker, however transplanted across the pond), galleries that have closed (here’s mine, now a LINGERIE store! how we laughed, the culture replaced by crotchless panties, ah well, we know which one made enough money to pay the rent)… restaurant spaces thrice changed over, and yet some dear places still the same: happily for John’s wallet, Avery’s beloved Shoofly shoe store was closed for Sunday! The child is definitely a shoe horse.
The single best addition to the hood? Whole Foods. I came away with simply the best salmon ever, and thus was hatched:
Grilled Salmon Teriyaki
4 fillets salmon
1-inch knob ginger, grated
3 cloves garlic, minced
handful chives, loosely chopped
zest of 1/2 lemon or lime
drizzle sesame oil
generous drizzle soy sauce
Let all these ingredients rest together on a platter till the fish comes to room temperature. Then grill or bake in a very hot oven (425F, 220C) for four minutes, then turn over and cook for a further four minutes. Simply (and I mean that) irresistible. So light, so savory.
I stayed up very late Sunday night, thinking of all we had seen, done, felt, thought… One of the great and terrible things about moving far away is coming home, to find that as happy and secure as we are in our lives in London, there is an alternate life here that pulls at us, that was wonderfully warm and satisfying when we were here, and that is always here to come home to. It’s important not to dwell on the past, though, as hard as that is: not to imagine myself back where an afternoon with Alyssa was a daily thing, not an opportunity to schedule on a calendar, look forward to for months, cherish for a couple of hours. Everything changes! It’s the intense joy of several lives, each of which deserved living and would be nice to have running, on several channels, all the time.
Monday we recovered with a quiet day while John gardened to obsessive smelliness, bless his heart, Avery and I went to the library, the bookstore, then spent a lazy time on her trampoline, then to a riding lesson (more nostalgia thinking back to her showing days on the New Jersey circuit), a rough game of tennis and a quick freezing swim in our lovely grotty municipal pool. Today the rumors of storms came true, and tomorrow, who knows? Visitors from New York for lunch, more nostalgia as we have not seen them since Avery was a baby! And best of all, Rosemary! Here for her summer visit. How lucky are we… her room is settled with the traditional barn-red coverlet on the bed, the old red rug on the floor, a picture of John’s dad, Scotch in hand, on the bedside table, a pile of tempting books carefully chosen from our laden shelves, a heavy brass whale to weight them down, a new green table lamp (will she notice? we’ll see)… More fun in store.
Let’s see, tomorrow brings the close of Camp Kristen, or more fairly Camp Red Gate Farm, since John has been at least as active a counselor as I have been. We’ll have to take Anna and Ellie home in the afternoon, so so sadly, as our household could very happily encompass three girls (or as Avery points out, THESE three girls) all the time. What fun we’ve had: pool, slip ‘n slide, trampoline, shopping trips, and quite the most fantabulous (or “fabulistic”, we can’t decide) dinner that ever hit the Camp: pierrade. And an unexpected and quite divine addition to the traditional menu of sirloin and duck: VEAL! It turns out to be the Meat of Choice for the camp girls, so two nights in a row found me slaving over the thin-slicing routine… such a pleasure, then, to see so much protein digested by such energetic girls. And in addition to the usual mustard accompaniment, there was a surprisingly popular second sauce:
1 10 ounce can coconut milk
1/2 cup crunchy peanut butter
1/2 small onion, grated
1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
2 teaspoons brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
Boil all ingredients at a low boil for three minutes, then set aside to cool. PERFECT for duck pierrade.
Mostly what we have done for the past week is revel in what every at-home parent will recognize as the selfish luxury of boredom with an at-home child, or three. Of course it’s a bore! Their games are of no interest to me, or to John, their conversation is often nothing that stirs a heartbeat. But we luxuriate in the total gift of that boredom, the heart-warming loveliness of that long-term investment of having this person, or people in our life, for such a short portion of ours. Adding a couple of extra girls to it all only enhances the fun. In such a short time we will be of no interest to them! Not even as transportation. The years when they ask interminably, “Mommy, Daddy, listen to this,” are so painfully short that we’re happy to live through the “But that’s so boring!” Thank goodness they want to tell us.
Today under a threatening sky, we took Ellie with us to our tennis game, leaving Avery and Anna alone for a nice period of time just on their own. Ellie played, served (“I’m much better at serving than hitting!”), and finally earned some spending money as “Ball Girl,” serving up balls to each of us, corralling all the stray balls as we played. The clouds gathered, however, and just as we were stopping play, and I was mentally reviewing the contents of my larder so as to know what to feed my charges, the heavens opened! We huddled at home, and I must say I adore the vista from my kitchen window as the rain pelts down. Very cozy.
Off to Danbury to shop afterward: fondue forks for pierrade, a new lamp for the new library, a shelf to hold all our bathroom bits and pieces, trainers and sandals for Avery, and just plain candy for the other campers: sorry, Becky, to have let them have so much, but what is one lone camp counselor to do?
Oh, and the girls had a lovely, if not very challenging riding lesson, on the most perfect afternoon ever. Deb the instructor was understandably conservative about letting Anna and Ellie do things she wasn’t sure they could do, but let Avery jump a bit, which seemed unfair. We were all relieved it didn’t go on too long, and I was happy to sign Avery up for six lessons for the next six weeks. Dusty, allergy-making, but a gorgeous afternoon in the sun, and as Becky said later, “Any time spent on a horse is better than time NOT spent on a horse.” True enough.
When we got home and were having dinner, one dish being fresh-shelled peas, I said, “I don’t know how the expression ‘like peas in a pod’ ever came to be. There are never any two peas alike, which you’ll find if you shell them!” And Ellie spoke up immediately, bringing tears to my eyes. “But Miss Kristen, that expression doesn’t mean the peas are ALIKE. It means they are CLOSE. Like, Anna, Avery and me.” She gestured along the table to encompass the two older girls on either side of her, and I imagined the loving security she must feel, so safe between them. What a lovely thing.
This morning dawned bright and fair and with the promise of MANY tasks undone: before I could blink I had scaled the lovely plants left for us by Rollie’s wife Judy, had jumped into the car with Avery and gone to the bakery for doughnuts for the upcoming Three-Girl Camp, thence to the Town Hall to pay our vehicle tax, thence to the New Town Hall to get our Southbury Community Pool Summer Pass, the laminated possession of which always spells Real Summer to me. Thence to Starchak’s Farm Stand for Avery’s summer favorite, black plums, and red peppers, peaches, white onions, local blueberries. Thence to the supermarket for everything else needed for a camp like sausages, melons, pasta, milk, you name it. The Gap happened to be next door, so Avery’s summer wardrobe was accomplished in about ten minutes in a humongous sale. She’s in that funny space between the oldest Gap Kids size and the smallest Ladies’ Gap, but we managed to find plenty of bits and pieces to kit her out for the foreseeable growth spurt.
Home to kiss John good luck for his massive dentist appointment, to drop off all our purchases, I fried a quick egg to get me through the next two hours in a car, and off we were to Greenwich, to find Avery’ camp-mates Anna and Ellie! A lightning-fast kiss for their mom Becky and sister Ashley who is, in her inimitably elegant teenage way, off for a trip to Guatemala tomorrow… such drama! I could happily kiss Becky every day of the week, and used to in the old, golden days in London, so once a Monday worked for me. Packed the girls up, and off back home.
A sandwich for lunch, a trip to the local bookstore for magazines for the pool, and we thought we were off there when up popped John, in Quincy! Who, dare you ask, is Quincy? Our 1967 Land Rover, of course, who regularly starts up with more reliability than our 1999 VW station wagon, but there you go. John home from the dentist early and with a burning desire to play tennis. So off we went, to drop the girls at the pool with their hot new summer pass, and we to play at the adjacent courts (lovely to hear “Avery” occasionally drift across the intervening pine-scented lawn). We played until clouds made the air entirely too cold for three urban chicks to tolerate, so up they came to the courts for snack money and to sit out the cloud cover in the car. “Isn’t anybody going to swim with me?” I wailed after our tennis game (much improved by several new trys at rackets, so hard to decide). I got Avery and Ellie, and Anna went home with John to get an early start on their trampoline routine.
A quick stop at the pool, then, to dive and swim and remember, as I do each summer, how the green of the pine trees against the blue of the sky reminds me of our old summers in Maine… why is that? A subliminal connection, so powerful and sweet, of old summer times in a faraway island.
Home via the supermarket where I had to supplement my earlier trip with the requested rigatoni for my vodka sauce! The perfect recipe for several starving girls.
Rigatoni alla Vodka
(serves six with leftovers)
1 lb dried rigatoni
2 tbsps olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 white onion, minced
generous splash vodka
2 tbsps Italian seasoning
1 large (larger than soup-size) can whole Italian plum tomatoes
1/2 cup light cream
Boil the pasta. In the meantime, saute the garlic and onions in the olive oil. When soft, add the vodka and cook high for two minutes. Add the Italian seasoning and mix well. If you like smooth sauce, puree the tomatoes in your food processor and add to the garlic mixture and cook till warmed through. If you like chunky sauce, add the tomatoes plain to the garlic mix and stir often over a medium heat till heated through.
When pasta is cooked through (10 minutes-ish), drain well and coat with sauce. Serve with grated pecorino or parmesan cheese.
This is so simple, so inexpensive and so lovely that you’ll forget how much you love it till your child begs on bended knee.
Tomorrow will depend upon the weather. Quassy Amusement Park if the fates smile well on the girls (and a bit cruelly on me? to be honest?) or an afternoon at home with the trampoline and the library of books, if it rains?
But mostly it has been such heaven to have three of our favorite girls (granted, one of them I gave birth to) with us, when we know that separation is in the offing, as they move entirely too far away. Anna and Ellie have been there for years for all my cooking, all Avery’s parties, all John’s silly jokes, countless rides in our now-gone convertible in London, endless rides on numberless ponies (with emergency shared gear, no doubt) and their mother Becky my constant companion for all of the above plus mindless grocery shopping, coffee drinking, errand running loveliness. Their presence and their charm marks out one of the most graceful periods in my whole life: our early time in London when a lonely newcomer (me) was picked up by a gracious, sophisticated world traveler (Becky) and we spent three happy years together just enjoying it all, watching our girls grow up through one of the most intensely changeling-ish periods (how long is a piece of string?), with each other’s always empathetic company to share the moments. Thank you, Becky, for all of that, and for the loan of your sweet girls this week.
What luxury, on the one hand, this week has been with no more pressing responsibilities than to settle in to Red Gate Farm, fix the little bits and pieces that have gone astray in our six months’ absence. But how lonely on the other hand, with no Avery! We’re looking forward to getting her back tomorrow, and then Monday we’ll have her partners in crime as well, Anna and Ellie, to wreak havoc and eat us out of house and home, I hope.
We have turned quite the Home Improvement Team, with John waking up super early filled with ideas on how we can try to stem the tide of disintegration here, and generally make things more livable. To that end, we spent all of Monday switching the dining room and entrance halls with each other. Why have we spent all these years with the dining table and all its many chairs (and therefore guests) crammed into the smallest room in the house, just because it was presented to us as the “dining room”? And equally, why did we leave the largest room in the house as the entry way, used only for the Christmas tree, since everyone who comes over comes in the back door? It was but the work of a moment (well, a back-breaking day) to swap them around, pure and simple.
But as Oscar Wilde said, things are never pure, and rarely simple, so in point of fact it was a massive undertaking. The dining table would not, of course, fit through the doorway between the dining room and the entrance hall and so had to be carried out the back door, down the terrace steps and all the way around the house. Keep in mind, now, that I’m 5’6″, my stalwart husband is 6’2″. We are not, therefore, the best of partners to be carrying enormously heavy furniture around half of the state of Connecticut. “Keep your end up! Don’t let the leg scratch the doorway! Come around the corner a bit faster!” he adjured me, and I was well tempted to point out that the world was filled with many wives who would refuse point-blank to play Happy Movers, but I held my tongue, and we got it done.
Equally, howsomever, the Shaker desk that we thought would look so much nicer in the dining-room-turned-library would not… fit through the doorway, so around the house we went again. We decided that in order to count as a library, the room needed more bookshelves, and if there is one thing this crazy house has, it’s bookshelves and the books to go in them, so back to the nasty room off the kitchen that we’ve always euphemistically referred to as the “pantry,” containing as it does the mice-eaten remnants of packets of wild rice, flour and crackers from previous seasons. In that room were languishing a gorgeous bookshelf from Scott Jordan, furniture purveyor to our newlywed days in SoHo, and a Victorian shelf from much the same period in our lives, dusty and neglected both of them.
Out they came, we managed to throw away nearly everything that had lived on their surfaces, I wiped them down with furniture polish (and a toothbrush for the curlicued carved ornamentation on the Victorian piece!), and we carried them (through the doorway, bless their legless hearts!) through to the newly-arranged rooms. And then, my friends, the real work began.
Because guess what’s in the big red barn? In addition to bats and Rollie’s second-hand tractor parts and the shutters that should adorn our house? Books, my dears, hundreds and hundreds of books that for some reason we left here during the big move to London. I made the executive decision to leave my art historical past behind me, and so I marked out dozens of boxes, imperfectly labelled to be sure, as “art history books,” and the long-suffering movers simply dumped them in the barn, whereupon we covered them with big blue tarps and looked upon them no more.
Well, Monday was their big comeback day. I dug into box after box after box, discovering many treasures of fiction, Avery’s picture books that somehow hadn’t made it to cousin Jane’s bookshelf, cookbooks and biographies, and finally, yes, some art history. All told, I carried in about 300 books, distributing them in that Quixotic way all book collectors will understand: not according to subject but according to how tall they are. For this reason “Great Paintings From the Hermitage” rubs shoulders with “Morrocan Barbecue” and “Amelia Earhart’s Adventures.” No Dewey Decimal System for me, that’s for sure. But it’s all colorful and pretty and there’s nothing to bring back memories like shelves full of beloved books. I even found my undergraduate thesis, “Michelangel’s Neoplatonic Sculpture and Poetry”! What on earth was it doing in my big red barn?
Well, that was the early part of our week. Everything has taken on that newish feeling, as objects do when you move them out of their accustomed places. Art from my old gallery that we had just propped up on flat surfaces got hung on the walls, mercury glass candlesticks that had become invisible on a desk here or mantelpiece there were put in new places and suddenly shone. It’s all really lovely, and I have the sore muscles and bruises marching up and down my inner arms to show for it. And guess what: the barn is STILL full of books. I didn’t even scratch the surface. We found one more bookshelf out there, but without the shelves or the pegs to lay them on. Hmmm. Food for thought.
This project completely exceeded my interest in home decorating, so we moved on to other things, like greeting our dear neighbors Konnie and Mark, here to deal with the horses they board in our back meadow. At some point they’ll mosey over with their nearly four-year-old daughter Stephanie, so I’d better get some cookies and be ready. And just as I was getting my baby-back ribs under some barbecue sauce and the corn on the cob OFF the cob and under some cream and garlic, Jill, Joel, Jane and Molly arrived! Jill and Joel were as handsome and chipper as ever, Jane as full of conversation and bounce, but little Molly has been completely transformed from slightly wobbly Christmas baby to a bundle of real person: bright eyes and placid gurgling, completely happy and content. She allowed me to carry her around, but she saved her real enthusiasm for John, who always looks much taller and bigger all around when he holds a baby.
Jane entertained us all with the recounting of several intricate picture book plots, we all tucked into barbecued ribs and scalloped corn, and generally basked in the luxury of being reunited. It’s always the same, every summer: standing the children up carefully in the doorway to the laundry room to put the latest measuring marks up: this summer Avery has grown two inches since Christmas, and Jane nearly as much. I suggested we prop Molly up for her first measuring, but I don’t think anyone listened to me.
The next day brought us the first visit and rambling account of local events from Farmer Rollie, pulling up in his battered blue Ford truck, smiling on us benevolently, declining to shake hands because he’d got his fingernail torn off the night before by a “cow who’d gone down.” “She whipped her head around and caught me, just like that, so it was off to the emergency room…” We are now completely caught up on Southbury gossip, of the sort, that is, that interests Rollie, namely second-hand farm equipment and its pricing methods. He reported gleefully to John, “Got some really good milking equipment last week, didn’t cost me more than 10 cents on the dollar, because I got it from a local guy who got arrested for running a crystal meth lab.”
Life has not been without its typical Connecticut encounters, to be sure. It’s hard to define, but there is such a thing as a Typical Connecticut Encounter, especially with a member of the sales community. Finally exasperated beyond tolerance by our dripping kitchen tap, we took ourselves off to the venerable Allen’s Plumbing in nearby Seymour. Defective cylinder in hand, Pete behind the counter turned the pages of the cylinder handbook with a well-licked thumb and motioned to a pile of fluorescent papers to his right. “Fill one of those out, if you have a mind to,” and we picked up the “Entry for Free and Discount Propane Contest.” Hmm. “What if I didn’t want any propane, but I won the contest. What else would you give me?” John asks. “But you DO want propane, we have a propane grill,” I object on the grounds of truthfulness, and John replies placidly, “I’m just asking. What else could I have? How about this Disney keychain?” “Don’t know as we could do that, Disney’s my nickname,” says Pete equally placidly. “Now, we could do you for some of this here Natural All-Purpose Cleaner.” “How about Squidge-Free Drain Unclogger?” John persists. Pete considers, then shakes his head. “Don’t think that’s included.”
As we drove home along the old Oxford Road, John laughed suddenly. “Lookee over there, there’s a cop parked by the side of the road, with an actual Dunkin Donut and a cup of coffee. That’s what we come home for.”
And then there are the inevitable strip malls lining the road, countless nail salons and package liquor stores, pizzerias and mortgage brokers, piano tuners and day-care centers. But my favorite is the little series of shops with “Internal Medicine” sandwiched between “Grand Prix Cigars” and “Pets ‘n More.” I just don’t think I’d be comfortable having my kidneys examined in between people pricing out stogies and clumping cat litter, call me a snob.
Being home for the summer always arouses in me a latent junk-foodie. I fill the cupboard with Doritos and Cheetos, the freezer with some sort of shredded potatoes that I am convinced, each summer, will be just as good as the hashed browns at the nearby Laurel Diner (but they never are, probably because I don’t cook them with a pound of butter each time). But this summer I drew the line at one of my childhood favorites, because it’s always so disappointing: Rice Pilaf, in a boil-in-the-bag. Things boiled in bags were a staple of my mother’s kitchen when I was a child, and the sight of the little Birds-Eye boxes in the freezer section always sends me into a mild nostalgic frenzy. But somehow the Shoepeg White Corn in Butter Sauce and yes, the Rice Pilaf With Mushrooms and Green Beans never taste as yummy as I remember them. So this summer I decided to make my own. And you know what? It’s just as good as I remembered.
Rice Pilaf with Mushrooms, Green Beans and Garlic
(serves 4 as a side dish)
1 cup mixed white grain and wild rice
2 cups chicken broth
3 tbsps butter
3 cloves garlic, minced
6 white mushrooms, chopped roughly
1 cup green beans, sliced roughly
seasoning to taste
Simply steam the rice carefully (do not boil dry!) in the broth in a covered saucepan for 50 minutes. Then take off the heat, still with the lid on, and leave aside while you saute the garlic, mushrooms and green beans in the butter. Then toss all together, salt and pepper to taste. LOVELY.
With this we grilled some marvellously fresh tuna steaks, marinated as I’ve described before in everything under the sun: chives, garlic, cilantro, sesame oil, lime zest, you name it. I couldn’t find any lemongrass here, so I substituted even more lime zest than my original recipe called for. And for lunch the next day? The tuna salad of your life, quite simply the most luxurious tuna salad you will ever have.
Grilled Tuna Salad
(serves 4 as a luncheon dish)
2 grilled (leftover!) tuna steaks
2 tbsps mayonnaise
1 tbsp chili sauce
2 stalks celery, split in three and minced
1 small cucumber, deseeded and sliced thin
1/2 red onion, minced
juice if 1/2 lime or lemon
fresh ground pepper
Pull the tuna apart into bite-size pieces with your hands, or I suppose you could cut it with a knife if you were feeling all neat and tidy. Then gently mix all the other ingredients with the tuna, and serve with toast or Triscuits or Ryvita, and a sliced avocado on the side.
Well, our terrace has been enlivened with several flowering plants in baskets, delivered by Rollie, along with a blueberry pound cake from his wife Judy, which I promptly put in the freezer to be part of the menu at Camp Avery next week, when we have three little girls to feed. John was taking a nap when Rollie arrived, so we sat together on the stones of the terrace, looking out over the peaceful afternoon landscape, sometimes chatting, sometimes silent. I enquired sternly if he had been taking proper care of his injured finger and he allowed as how he’d soaked it the night before and taken off all the dressings, which I’m sure the hospital staff did not intend him to do. Finally he said, “Well, I’d better mosey along, although if the boys catch sight of me they’ll have a whole list of stuff I should do, so maybe I’d better not go home…”
This afternoon will bring, we hope, the delivery of a whole batch of tennis rackets from an internet scheme: you get to try out a whole lot of them, and just send back the ones you don’t want! Since I’ve become rather a better tennis player than I was last summer (as in, I don’t completely suck all the time), John feels I deserve a better racket than the one I’ve currently got, which has a nasty habit of sort of grabbing at the ball and sending it all over kingdom come. Yesterday we actually played twice, feeling ambitious! We arrived in the early evening for our second game and there, slightly awkwardly for me, was Val, my teacher of last summer, who in comparison with Wacky Rocco in London simply did not teach me anything. I had wondered what I would say when I saw Val, since I haven’t signed up for lessons this summer, but I soon saw I had no reason for qualms. Fully the entire female population under 45 of my little town lined themselves up for an enormous group lesson! All highlighted blondes of a certain age, dressed in fancy little outfits (I simply must rise above my boring shorts and t-shirts!), brandishing fancy rackets and tossing their hair: Val won’t miss me at all!
Well. John’s stubble is lengthening, my interest in makeup is dwindling, the number of corncobs in my rubbish is piling up: it’s summer vacation. The barn is red, the goldfinches golden, Avery has been kidnapped by her best friend, the tiger lilies in the front yard are orange, the lawn guys have arrived with their earplugs and suntans, we’ve arrived.
We arrived, in fact, on Saturday evening to the blue skies and sunset colors of a New Jersey Fourth of July, and to a shower of overwhelming memories. Twenty years ago, as a nearly-married girl of 24, I moved to Maplewood, New Jersey to plan my wedding and settle down for a lifetime of married bliss. My first step in this direction was to enter the bookshop of my small town and introduce myself to the girl behind the counter. She was none other than Livia, a person whose smile and meeting of the eyes was perfect magic. I fell in love (not at all awkwardly, since my almost-married state could definitely encompass falling in love with just one more person), and we made fast friends within an instant. Livia and her mother, the effortlessly elegant and timelessly adorable Janice, became our constant companions for the following year. And then… John was transferred to London. Eleven months after we’d spent all our time cementing our friendship, we were… gone.
And yet such was our mutual admiration society that we have remained the most devoted of friends through the last 20 years. Livia came to us in London, we came to them every summer when we came home from England, we spent countless weekends with them after we returned to live in New York. I remember well the evening dinner party with them when I was just hours from giving birth to Avery, and the photograph of John cradling a giant piece of quartz from Livvy’s collection that she reckoned was about the size our baby would be when born… her gift of a monogrammed sterling silver cigarette case for Avery upon her birth was the most, let’s see, characteristic gift of all Avery received.
In the intervening years, we have had marathon phone calls from London to New Jersey, frantically intense visits on our returns home, a snowy dinner out at an Indian restaurant in Tribeca, the odd snatched dinner at their house, an unforgettable millennium house party in 1999… and finally a terrible, encompassingly loving arms-opening gesture to us in the days after we escaped our experiences of September 11, 2001. Our days there recovering from what we had been through will never be forgotten.
And through it all, many, many Fourths of July together, on the park hills of South Orange with glow-in-the-dark necklaces strung around Avery’s sweaty little girl neck, she donning a white dress with smocking of an American flag for YEARS until she could scarcely breathe in it!
And so our arrival on Saturday night was, for me, simply steeped in love and memories. Impossible to live up to and yet, because they are who they are, their welcome to us surpassed anything we had ever had before. “Nothing ever changes here,” Livia said placidly, pulling us into the white, white kitchen of the 1920s stone house. A glass of old Scotch, exchange of gifts, endless tale-telling, then a rush out to see fireworks… and back for the dish I had so hoped I would get: Janice’s pink gazpacho! Ice cold, flecked with roasted almonds and permeated with the perfume of cumin… We remembered the old days of trying to decide what Avery would call Janice, when she was a tiny tot, and the agreement upon “Janicemommy,” because for ages Avery could not seem to distinguish between “Janice” and “Mommy.” I couldn’t have been happier.
Candlelight both tall and in votives, Janice’s granddaughter Anastasia there in all her 25-year-old glory, inclining her head gracefully when we realized that she was the age Avery is NOW, when Avery was born. How felicitous, how delightful! She who taught us to sing “Over in Killarney,” to comfort newborn Baby Avery, and we still sing it to her every night.
Following the gazpacho was the most sublime cold shrimp salad, whose recipe I must share with you here:
Janice’s Cold Summer Shrimp Salad
(serves 6 as a main course for luncheon or a late supper)
1 1/2 lb cooked large shrimp, tails removed, cut in thirds
1 1/2 cups celery, chopped fine
1/2 red pepper, cut fine
tiny bit of shallot, minced
1 cup mayonnaise
1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
squeeze of lemon juice (plus the squeezed bit stirred through the salad)
1 tsp salt
Simply mix all, add the best of grateful friends and candlelight, and enjoy…
We succumbed in our own ways that evening to jetlag, or simply realistic exhaustion: first Avery who crept off to her old accustomed bedroom, sleeping with the plushy swan she has always slept with at Janicemommy’s house, her room lit subtly by the ceramic nightlight “Gladys the Goose,” tucked away in the corner of the room, dark shining wooden floors, white shelves filled with old children’s books, the shades pulled down against the ancient ivy climbing up the windows.
John settled down on his own sleeping porch, a screened-in room adjoining my own bedroom, where he has always slept for the years we have descended on the family… I covered his sleeping shoulder with a silk white eiderdown, turned off his bedside lamp, lowered the shades…
And I myself kissed everyone good night and retired to my high four-poster, propped up by vintage white pillows in cases with knitted and crocheted edging, looking at the fireplace mantel with the carved wooden cat, its nose embedded in its wooden tail, a ceramic cow on a ceramic bit of lawn, on the table a pile of books, from “Cold Comfort Farm” to “Pride and Prejudice,” with “Crime and Punishment” in between…”
It is a place of pure comfort, under the best and worst of circumstances, having seen life and death and fear and luxury. That is real comfort, I think, when where you are, and who you are with, have seen it all, and can still… comfort you.
Off in the morning to Red Gate Farm! A crazy afternoon settling in, unpacking our bits and pieces, looking up to see Anne, David and Kate coming across the road! John immediately races out the front door to open the gate (the RED one), which promptly falls off its hinges! “Welcome home!” Anne shouts! And there is baby Kate, a beautiful, plushy-haired, blue-eyed little-girl version of the baby we saw at Christmas, pulling herself up to Avery’s knees as she sat beneath the tree holding Avery’s tree swing, staring her in the eyes calmly while unleashing a ceaseless soft babble of unintelligible… language!
A slow, early evening, then everyone to sleep to awake early to the morning glories of Red Gate Farm… the chipmunks, John’s birds beginning to return, and finally Becky’s family, arrived to take Avery away to Greenwich for the week! We succumbed to the local brilliant fried-food joint, Denmo’s, for an indulgent American lunch: can you imagine us eating all this food! Shrimps, clams, chicken, burgers, curly fries… and then ice cream if you can imagine (I could not!). It was heavenly to see Becky, to catch up on gossip, to pass Avery off with all adjurements to shop for clothes, we’ll pay you back, be polite, have a fabulous time, enjoy it while you can (the unspoken undercurrent of every reunion with our old London friends)…
No wonder we feel exhausted by the first week of being back among our American ties: we haven’t even described yet the joyous reunion with Jill, Jane, Joel and Molly! Much less Rollie and the horses…
Praise me, please: for once I’m telling you about a play JUST as it opens, so you can all go to see it. “The Importance of Being Earnest,” a play so dated it is timeless, is playing now at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, and it is pure delight. A fabulous mirrored set (so clever, with all the double identities going on in the play), a curious klesmer group that I’m not sure added anything to the evening, some hilarious mishaps with a garden full of waving roses that each had to be “planted” individually during the interval, and then were stepped on and tripped over in the second act! It was the first night, so we have to imagine they’ll work out the kinks in the coming days. And there were some troubles with bits of the floor not fitting properly as the set was changed and having to be stuffed in by the admirably cool backstage crew. “I don’t think you really want to have your stage crew get applause,” Avery whispered. “They should be invisible, really.”
But this is all churlish commentary on what was a truly charming and very fresh rendition of Avery’s absolute favorite play. The girl playing Cecily was completely adorable, and there is one scene between her and Algernon that was a completely original interpretation involving a giant dollhouse: I won’t spoil it for you!
The trees waved, the sun set, the fireflies and swallows circled above us. As always, a beautiful night, and we were so lucky with the weather! Take along a picnic and have yourselves a gorgeous summer evening.
Our picnic, eaten in the setting sun on the grass of Regent’s Park on a funky little blue plaid rug was this: Giggly Pig Welsh Dragon sausages with Maille Dijon mustard, Pave d’Affinois cheese, cornichons, potato salad with cilantro, yogurt and red onion, egg salad with curry, Spanish cherries and English meringues for Avery, Ketel One vodka in my silver flask, Fever Tree tonic: such a European feast!
It did make me shake my head, aiming as we are today for America and for American food: beefsteak tomatoes, basil, crabmeat, lobster from Maine, sweetcorn in all forms (just off the cob, scalloped with cream and cheese, in salads with black beans and red onions and sugar snap peas), baby back ribs, rock oysters for broiling with cheese and spinach, chicken breast salad with spinach and pine nuts…
By the time we arrive, the lovely American Andy Roddick will or will not have trounced the arrogant Roger Federer with his pretentions of golden robes (in his case, waistcoats, t-shirts with gold-lined collars, sneakers with golden rackets representing the number of times he’s won something or other). We’ll be in New Jersey in time for fireworks, for the first time in four years! There has always been something a little… off, about spending the Fourth of July with Avery in school and NO celebrations (fair enough).
I must just set down here what a funny time I had at my pool reception duty this week. Avery’s friend Merrie came by with her houseguest Jonathan, a 17-year-old boy, son of friends of her parents. He was so touching, teetering on the brink between childhood and manhood, smiling fondly on the “little” girls, shaking hands with me very charmingly, then starting visibly when he saw the lifeguard, daughter of one of my Lost Property mothers. “I met her at a PARTY last night!” he whispered in some mixture of excitement and dismay. “Well, go and say hello,” I encouraged, “she’s a nice responsible girl and if you fall in, she’ll rescue you. What are you doing in town with Merrie’s family, anyway?” “Oh, we don’t have a house right now, so they’re taking us in,” he explained. Merrie and I said at the same time, “Don’t tell her that!” “Well, we do have a house in the South of France…” he hesitated. “Tell her that!” we chorused.
So he went in and they all swam, and he spent quite a bit of time on the lifeguard’s bench, chatting up his prey. I could NOT believe that as a person just a year older than he is, I was ready to choose my life’s mate! And I did an awfully creditable job, to be sure. But still. Heavens.
They all came out, dripping and pulling on their going-home clothes. Merrie took one look at Jonathan, wearing a towel as a sort of sari, and said, “I’m not walking home with you looking like THAT,” and he looked down. “What’s wrong, because I’m wearing a towel, you mean? Let go of your self-consciousness, Mer!” he called after her as she stalked out of the building. I said, “She can’t let go of it yet, she just got it, you know,” and he said, “True, true,” looking down at Amy, Merrie’s little 8-year-old sister. Amy chimed in, “I’m not self-conscious!” “Yet,” I said.
Jonathan looked suddenly quite old. “Wouldn’t it be nice if they could stay that way,” he said. What a dear. The future has a brighter look than I thought, with boys like that coming up. If only I could put a sort of hold on him for Avery, in ten years’ time or so. Ten? Who am I kidding? It’s right around the corner, with her teenage years looming in just November.
Right, we’re off to Heathrow. Happy Fourth of July, everyone, and we’ll see you from Connecticut!
How I wish interesting things would space themselves out: in JANUARY for instance, or the more boring moments of October. But NO, it all happens at once: Lost Property Sale, visitors, bill-paying, permission-slip-filling-out, packing to go away for the summer, end of school, Wimbledon!
All made slightly more challenging by the fact that I’ve been sick as the proverbial dog for a week, with what my doctor immediately feared (hoped?) was a return of scary digestive things from several years ago. Days of misery, medication, worry. Then up comes a test result: a rather rare “food-borne bacteria.” What, where did I eat? John and I nearly always eat the same things. A mystery. But so much better than a lifelong diagnosis of something life-changing. Still, the bug floored me for quite a while, and I still find myself longing for a chance to lie down in the middle of the day. One day finally John pushed me down on the sofa, gave me a glass of water, and left the room saying, “You just sleep,” and that 45 minutes or so saved me for the rest of the day, which included having friends to dinner! Let nothing slow me down, is the motto of yours truly.
In the meantime, while I was coddling myself, it’s happened, history has been made: the roof over Wimbledon Centre Court has been moved into place, Monday evening, for the historic Andy Murray win over Mr Swiss Person (I cannot remember his name). How I wish we had been there to see it, and I’m not even (yet) a huge Murray fan. But he is the Great British Hope, and for that, I’ll fight for him.
The British commentators breathed deeply, “Never thought we’d see the day,” the cameras returning again and again throughout the evening to the glowing, surreal lights of Centre Court surrounded by the darkness and the nursery coverings of the other courts, as well as the rest of the City of London which goes to bed with much more finality than Manhattan ever does. And I simply dote on the phraseology of the commentators. Andy Murray, was, they claimed, “asking awkward questions” of his opponent, and as the tension became quite unbearable and the cameras veered to Mrs Murray, one expert asked rhetorically, “Who would be a mother at the moment?” And there’s always the laconic cut-glass designation of “Juice!” which of course we Americans pronounce “Dooce.” Two people separated, as always, by a common language.
Speaking of language (or “talking of language,” as the British would say!) Avery and I have decided that we a new Pet Peeve as far as expressions go, and that is “which is FINE.” As in, at my recent writing seminar, “This cover letter you’ve written, So-and-So, is one of the worst you can write, WHICH IS FINE.” Which it patently is NOT! So condescending, so annoying. “Which is fine, since everyone does it, or which is fine, because for £300 I can tell you how not to do it again, or which is fine, because I would never be stupid enough to do it in the first place, but since you DID…” Awful! I hope I’ve never said it.
So the Lost Property almighty Preview and Sale have come and gone under my fearless (ish) leadership, and the truly fearless help of Annie. As usual, all the expected personalities emerged: the shouting, quirky, slightly scary head of Expensive Clothing, grabbing little first-years and holding jumpers up against them saying, “Hello, little alien, this jumper looks just right for you, and YOU [to her friend standing nearby staring as if at a train wreck], little Friend of Alien, this t-shirt is perfect for YOU.”
I myself came away with a cunning felted crocodile brooch! Which had sat disconsolately in the jewelry drawer, feeling inferior to the fake gold bracelets and lone earrings, for months. Now it’s mine. A bright orange cashmere scarf emerged from the months-old pile of scarves, to be snatched up for a pretty penny. Cups of tea were brought to us in the sweltering heat by dining room staff, our hands grew filthier and filthier, countless girls identified items at the sale as “definitely mine” when of course they hadn’t missed them for aeons. Nothing new under the sun.
Now my thoughts are turning ever more to our Connecticut paradise (or so it always seems from the vantage point of London responsibilities, schedules, obligations). I picture my old green and white quilt on my bed under a sloping ceiling, wavy glass to look through to the meadow, Avery’s room strung with ribbons and all the old paper dresses she makes every summer. Laundry room humming with bathing suits (swimming costumes!), towels, khaki shorts, dishtowels that form the basis of our laundry loads at summer time. After a few days, John’s beloved birds and our groundhog and wild turkeys and red foxes and blue herons will return for food, poor things, for six weeks! They do it every summer. Avery will trap crayfish, we’ll haul her trampoline and seesaw from the barn, disturbing the bats who will fly at sunset for several nights, in alarm.
But until we get there, we’ve still got Avery’s orthodontist appointment tomorrow, my reception and lifeguard-paying duty at her school pool to put in during the evening, and one more day of school, one more ice skating lesson, one more play to go to. What to take for the picnic, in Regent’s Park, under the glorious summer sunset? I’m thinking chicken wings with blue cheese dressing, or slow-roasted pulled pork in wraps with sour cream and black beans. Or I could go all Indiana childhood and make a meatloaf in the morning and turn it into sandwiches? Avery votes for simplicity: egg mayonnaise sandwiches on good English white bread, crusts removed, of course. In the meantime, there’s the post-pool dinner. And it’s a winner. Although I must ask: can anyone tell the difference between rainbow trout and salmon? I surely could not, either in appearance or taste, and I admit guiltily that I didn’t note the price difference. It went down just as happily no matter what the fish it ultimately might turn out to be. And if you lack Fox Point Seasoning, substitute another savoury salt mixture.
Grilled Rainbow Trout with Red and Savoy Cabbages and Celeriac Slaw
1 side rainbow trout
1 tbsp olive oil
Fox Point seasoning
2 cups each: shredded red cabbage, Savoy cabbage
1 cup celeriac, cut into matchsticks
1/2 red onion, sliced very thin
2 tbsps chilli-infused olive oil
3 tbsps mayonnaise
juice of 1 lemon
big dash celery salt
loads of fresh ground black pepper
Place the trout on a large platter, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with seasoning. Let arrive to room temperature before grilling.
Place all dressing ingredients in a jar with a tight lid, and shake till mixed thoroughly. Toss with the cabbages, celeriac and onion and refrigerate till needed.
Grill the trout skin side down for 4 minutes at high heat (210C, 425F), then on the other side for 4 minutes. Remove skin.
To serve, mound the slaw on a plate and place the serving of fish on top. A nice side of mashed potato is very good with this dish.
You’ll LOVE this slaw. If you make it right before eating, it will be quite crisp. If you refrigerate it for awhile, dressed, before eating, the fibers wilt a bit and produce more the texture of an American cole slaw. Pure nutrition, really crunchy, and beautiful to look at with the red, green and white.
Right, I’m off to begin packing. Who cares what I take? Red Gate Farm is a place where NO ONE will care what I look like (as if anyone does here, either, to be honest!) for at least six weeks. The pile of books to take is much more compelling…