Thursday found us driving a desperately anxious Avery to have her dental surgery. Somehow I imagined this happening in a dentist’s office (silly me, that’s what happens in America, I think, never having been through any such thing), and since the dental surgeon had told us to expect the procedure to last a half hour, I had us home about an hour and a half later, relieved at its being over.
I had it all wrong.
We pulled up to the stated address to find ourselves at a hospital. A real, proper hospital. Avery’s despair deepened. Up to a hospital ROOM, complete with bed with head and foot that moved according to a little remote control, an entirely unbelievable menu of food items like “Vegetable Pakora with Raita” and “Seared Cod with Miso Sauce” (in a HOSPITAL??), and perhaps most incredible, a complete list of wines and spirits. At this point,…
Let’s see, this evening we’re in a moment of calm between an adventure in Golders Green, a magnificent weekend in the country, and Avery’s dental surgery tomorrow. We’ll start with the matzoh balls.
Because that is why I went to Golders Green, deep in North London. Having spent a fair amount of my adult life in New York City, I feel a deep and abiding love for most things Jewish, and all things Jewish food. Chicken soup with matzoh balls. Potato Latkes, pastrami, bagels. I miss it all. And so when my foodie friend Janet arrived for one of her all-too-infreqent trips to London from LA, off we went to Golders Green, on a pilgrimage to find the perfect spot for lunch. And we did, in Blooms.
“What are kneidlach?” I asked my adorable young waitress.
“Those are the, how do you say, the… noodles. Homemade.”
“Thank you. What are kreplach?”
“Those are the dumplings, they are filled with minced meat.”
“Excellent. What are lokschen?”
“Those are the matzoh balls.”
“Fine, I’ll have chicken soup with ALL of them.”
This was lovely. Golden, rich, simple, with that flavor that can be imparted, I truly believe, only by a Jewish hand, and with love of the dish. I have made it myself, to no real success (and I’m a mean soup-maker, I’d say). But get my friend Alyssa in front of a stove, in my very own kitchen, and her chicken soup with matzoh balls is a revelation in health-giving, life-giving elixir. It’s about the love.
There is no one like my friend Janet to have a food adventure with. We wandered into a Polish delicatessen where she encouraged me to buy kielbasa, sauerkraut from an old wooden barrel, little chocolate cookies and little sugar cookies in the shape of leaves (“leaf novelties” as I later translated the label).
And then the next day, our little Cinquecento stuffed like a tick with our overnight gear AND one of the children of our hosts, we were off to the country.
One gorgeous house, five wonderful children, a tennis court, an all-singing, all-dancing kitchen with an Aga, AND the family was happy for me to cook dinner! Meatballs stuffed with mozzarella, with one of the middle daughters as my helper, garlic bread and sauteed sugar snap peas. The dad made bread in a machine, overnight! I am researching buying just such a machine… the aroma was irresistible. During the weekend I was taken to Beechcroft Farm where I hugged no fewer than two baby lambs, one born the day before, and met several newborn calves and pigs, and bought pork sausages, bacon, sirloin steaks and lambs’ liver. Let me elaborate.
Lambs’ Liver with Marsala Wine, Bacon and Onions
4 slices bacon, cut in small pieces
3 tbsps butter
2 white onions, sliced thick
3 tbsps Marsala wine
squeeze lemon juice
sea salt and pepper to taste
8 slices lambs’ liver
scattering of fresh chives
Fry the bacon in a medium skillet and push to the edges of it, then add butter and fry onions until soft. Pour in the Marsala and scrape up all the little bits from the bottom, then add lemon juice and salt and pepper. Push everything to the sides and place the slices of liver in the center. Fry gently perhaps 3 minutes on the first side and 2 on the other. This timing will depend on several things: how thick the slices are, how high your heat, and how rare you like your liver. I mean, THE liver.
Pile everything on a nice platter and scatter chives over. Serve with some sharp salad, like lentils with a chilli dressing, beetroot with balsamic vinegar, tomatoes with lemon juice. Also toasted baguette if you like. Rich with iron, only a small serving needed: elemental.
Long walks in the countryside as you see, with girls all around to make us laugh.
Tonight was the first night for pierrade! Huge platters of thinly-sliced duck and the sirloin from Beechcroft: peerless and delicious. Served with Sate sauce, Hoisin sauce, Dijon mustard. Plus dauphinoise potatoes (not beautiful, as you see, but gorgeously rich and creamy) and roasted carrots and parsnips. Spring HEAVEN, although it sounds wintry. But to eat outside, to saute each bite for oneself in the spring evening, EVEN though we were being rained on ever so slightly… heaven.
Roasted Carrots and Parsnips
drizzle chilli oil
scattering brown sugar
pinch sea salt
8 sage leaves
1 tbsp butter
Halve the carrots lengthwise (unpeeled, but washed), and quarter the parsnips lengthwise (peeled). Lay in a baking dish and drizzle with chilli oil, then scatter brown sugar over, and salt, then scatter sage over all. Roast in a hot oven (200C, 400F) for 30 minutes, then take dish out and add butter and toss the vegetables in the accumulated oil and butter. Place in oven for another 10 minutes. Perfect.
All this has been lovely. Tennis, even though I keep straining some muscle/joint in my elbow. Lost Property: the Sale of goods made a record amount of money yesterday! Twelve mothers, 6 hours, and we raised… £400. Well, it’s something, and most important, it’s tradition and we were there, and the ways of Avery’s school go on.
Today saw me writing up the Sales Proceeds, making up the rota for next term, a schedule of requests for next term’s fabulous Luncheon, generally accomplishing things. And worrying. About Avery and tomorrow.
One wouldn’t think that a child’s perfectly routine surgery could throw a family into a tailspin, but we are, a bit, simply because of our lack of experience with… Avery being in pain.
I just don’t like it. I know without a doubt that she will be absolutely fine, by tomorrow evening she will be safely ensconced back in the circle of my arm (with a secret present in her hands), and a Chilly Billy to suck on, if she wants to.
But it seems to me, as I sweat and fret and worry, that there is something elemental in a parent’s makeup that says, “No pain, please, for my child.” We would always rather go through it ourselves, whatever it is, even though we know that the experience of pain is normal, part of life, and something that everyone learns to submit to, to overcome. In fact, I suppose, the job of a parent is not to smooth the path for the child, to take away all potential sources of pain, but to teach her to shoulder up to pain, to make friends with it, to set it on the side of the road and move on.
But I don’t like it.
Onward and upward to tomorrow afternoon, Avery and her bravery and whatever chew-less foods I can invent, as long as she needs them.
The past week or so has been an exercise in taking my own advice: simply putting aside the imaginings of what I ought to be accomplishing, in favor of the here and now of my rather needy family of late.
Avery’s day off school descended into that most dismal of all ailments, the common cold. Not enough of an illness to justify staying home (although if John weren’t breathing down my neck, I’d always rather she stayed home when the slightest runny nose strikes), but enough to make life miserable for the duration. Achy, no appetite to speak of (which strikes terror in my feeding-people heart), cranky and apathetic. One of Avery’s favorite jokes? “Are you ignorant, or just apathetic? I don’t know and I don’t care.”
Then John’s tooth flared up again and he spent a miserable weekend anticipating a root canal, which took place yesterday. Then last evening, while I volunteered at a school drinks party, John took Avery to the maxillo-facial surgeon (can that be right?) for a consultation on her upcoming surgery to bring down her incisors, to be met with her braces and pulled into place.
The poor guys. All I can do is make chicken soup and other soft, warm foods, and feel sorry for them both.
In the meantime, I managed to meet up with my new blog designer here, over an enormous dish of macaroni and cheese and a mammoth salad of beet leaves, rocket, olives, tomatoes, artichoke hearts. The plans that young man has for my efforts! Have you ever heard of SEO? Neither had I, but it stands for “Search Engine Optimization,” or how to get Google to pay more attention to me. For instance, if I write about our trip to Venice, he has strategies for getting my blog to come up early in people’s Google searches for “Venice,” and the same for creamy sweetcorn and rocket soup. And he has wonderful ideas for randomly-appearing recipe hot links to pop up every time you log on, and a different banner photo for every post. And a logo! There will be a whole series of deadlines, test drives, opinion polls (you can weigh in if you like!), before finally going live with the New And Improved Kristen in London on… May 20.
That’s all very well for me, in the dull month of March, to keep me occupied. And John’s had more than enough to contend with visiting dentists. Our entire household has been livened up in a very minor way by our acquisition of a “toastie machine,” which makes anything between two slices of bread a hot, chewy, glorious meal: buffalo mozzarella, bresaola, rocket and homemade pesto, as you see. Something to keep us entertained.
But dear Avery? Readers, I can hardly convey to you her frustration with the piano. She hates the songs she’s been given to learn at school, her lessons occur during other lessons at school, so she must leave, miss the homework assignment and rush to meet up with her teacher for a scant 20 minutes or so of instruction. Then she forgets a lesson, then her teacher is called away and cancels. You can imagine.
So the poor dear sits on the velvet bench, music propped disconsolately in front of her, banging away as I cook dinner. “But Avery, that’s meant to be an F sharp, I’m sure.” “I like it this way.” Dear me. Moments of silence fall between songs as she gathers her mental strength to continue. The whole instrument seems to encapsulate everything frustrating about education: being at other people’s mercy, having to do what THEY say, having to follow all the stupid rules when YOUR way sounds just as nice. My sister and I have agreed that to play the piano at least on a basic level, or at least to read music competently, seems to us a skill akin to reading or subtracting. So I insist that Avery continue, just for a bit.
So, the antidote for all this musical misery? Not, as I would have thought, immersion in Facebook or video games or television. No, in a display of the sort of wisdom that makes me look at her in awe, she picked up, as you see, an old guitar, loaned to her by one of my friends, and began to improvise. Strumming away in the dimly lighted study, by herself, she looked for all the world like the next Joan Baez. Even what she was wearing, and fall of her hair, seemed an image of serenity from bygone days. How beautiful the sound was, how it took me back to my childhood with my brother’s incredible talent playing itself out every day from his guitars…
How peaceful the house suddenly was, one sort of music acting as a cure for another. She played from “High School Musical,” unrecognizable from its awful pop incarnation, just softly thrumming chords. The cats settled down near her, candles flickered on the table, and my dinner vegetable bubbled away in the oven. Quite perfect, and so unexpected! A cure for anxiety: guitar and butternut squash.
Baked Butternut Squash with Sage
2 smallish butternut squashes
4 tbsps butter
4 tbsps brown sugar
drizzle olive oil
16 sage leaves
sprinkle sea salt
Heat oven to 400F, 200C. Line a cookie sheet or baking sheet with foil. Cut each butternut squash in half lengthways and scoop out the seeds. In the cavity left behind the seeds, place 1 tbsp butter and 1 tbsp brown sugar. Drizzle with olive oil, place 4 sage leaves on each squash half and sprinkle with salt. Bake for at least 40 minutes or until very soft. Lift out carefully because the squash may collapse, and mind the very hot butter-sugar mixture. Spoon the melted sugar butter over the whole half squash and serve hot or warm.
Speaking of music, we are on our way to a charming English school institution known as “The Singing Tea.” Just what it says on the tin (also one of my favorite English expressions), it’s a teatime concert of performances by girls who are taking singing lessons at school. You turn up in time for a cup of tea, or a glass of elderflower, you take a little piece of date and walnut cake, and chat for a bit with other parents. Then the girls are called onto the stage in the Singing Hall, one by one, to perform the pieces they are practicing for the upcoming National Exams this weekend. Avery is singing one piece in French (very depressing words, but they sound lovely) and one piece in German (she assures me it’s a bucolic tale of frolic and mayhem, but it sounds like a funeral dirge).
I’ll take plenty of tissues.
I sometimes go through phases when I wonder, “What purpose am I serving, anyway?” Days pass when I don’t seem to accomplish anything more significant than emptying the laundry basket, grocery shopping, putting a few things in envelopes and mailing them. Tasks anybody could do, I’m nothing special for it. These are days I will wish I had back when my days are more obviously numbered than I already know them to be.
At such times, I imagine myself with a proper job. Showing up at my local cafe every morning to make lattes and serve unappreciative customers with shouting children. Showing up every day at my local fishmonger to sweep the floor and tidy up after the people working there who actually know how to fillet a hake (and how to tell a hake from a cod).
Or I could go back to school to get a degree in child psychology, and start a practice helping teenage girls get along with their parents. Or open that mythical art gallery/bookshop and get used all over again to worrying about how to pay the rent.
I know this is all an unbelievable luxury. Most people don’t have the option to sit around having existential anxiety; they are too busy surviving. But I do have the luxury, and I do worry. What is it all about? My friend Bee has suggested that “middle age” isn’t so much about having lived half your life, but rather being in the middle: between your mother and your child, wondering sometimes what it is all about, and who we are meant to be for the time we have left.
Then, like clockwork, before I can indulge myself too much in my quest for self-expression, my phone rings.
“Hi, cutie, what’s up?”
“My throat is really sore. I maybe don’t think I can stay at school.”
“Well, I’m in a car with your father just passing the school, so you have to decide RIGHT NOW.”
“But I don’t know what the teachers would say, or where to go, and I’m losing my voice.”
“Then do you want me to come get you? Quick!”
A trailing wail… “I don’t KNOW…”
I jump out of the car, saying, “I’ll get to school in five minutes and then you can decide.”
The phone rings again. It’s that old classic: the grumpy school nurse.
“Your daughter is here saying she feels unwell.” (Avery told me later that when she turned up at the infirmary, the dear lady harrumphed and said, “I was just about to take a tea break.” A born nurturer, clearly: Nurse Ratchet’s English sister.)
“Yes, I know, I’m on my way and I’ll be there in five minutes.”
“Well, we don’t want our girls standing about outside the school in the cold, so you can telephone when you arrive, and I’ll send her up.”
So warm and fuzzy. I arrive, I ring up, a couple of windy, unpleasant minutes pass and Avery appears, gray-faced with her eyes looking, as my mother would say, “like burned holes in a blanket.” I take her schoolbag, she buttons her coat, she puts her arm around my waist and we head home.
“Did you at least have lunch?”
“Well, sort of. It was meant to be a chicken stir fry, but I put in my fork and up came a PRAWN.”
“Perhaps a bowl of chicken soup when we get home… I made some for Daddy’s toothache and there’s a little left.”
So we arrive at home, she has a bowl of soup and some buttered crackers, I give her a cough drop, a warm throw around her knees, a new mystery propped up beside her. I share the throw and we lie at opposite ends of the sofa, legs stretched out, she takes her temperature, no fever. Relief.
And there we stay, all the rest of the afternoon, each with our book, dozing slightly and watching the bare branches outside waving back and forth against the steely March sky, feeling lucky. And today, a gorgeous dish of apple crumble to reward her for going to school when I would much rather have kept her home.
I know there aren’t many years left when the voice on the other end of the phone could be my daughter, needing to be picked up at school, given a little TLC, a child who wants to spend the afternoon curled up with me and a cat, recovering.
My plan for self-actualization can definitely wait awhile.
(enough for one child for at least six breakfasts)
150 grams/2/3 cup plain flour
60 grams/1/4 cup granulated white sugar
80 grams/1/3 cup cold butter
4 Granny Smith apples, peeled and cut in bite-size pieces
sprinkle fresh-ground nutmeg
sprinkle fresh-ground cinnamon (or powdered)
This is a lovely, light crumble, by Simon Hopkinson, one of my favorite English cookery writers. My crumbles used to have too much butter, which resulted in a heavy topping. And my friend Livia gave me, for Christmas, a cinnamon grinder. I’m devoted to it now. The scent is so much fresher than ready-ground, and it’s fun to do. I’ve also turned my back on ready-ground nutmeg. The aroma of fresh-ground just runs circles around the powdered stuff.
Place the flour and sugar in your food processor and turn it on. Then, a little chunk at a time, drop the butter into the little hole at the top and clamp your hand over the hole: flour will tend to shower out the top when the butter disturbs it, the first couple of chunks. Use up all the butter and whizz until the mixture is nice and sandy.
Scatter the apples in a nice ovenproof dish, sort of 8x6, or even a pie plate would do, I suppose. Scatter the crumble topping over all and grate a sprinkle of nutmeg, and of cinnamon, over the whole thing. Just a dusting.
Bake at 180C/350F for about 25 minutes, till the top is golden. Don’t let it burn. Serve warm with ice cream for that sore throat.
The reason I will never have a Kindle. (There are many reasons, but here is just one GOOD one).
I picked up a book to read tonight, and on the flyleaf, completely ruining any resale value, I know, is a notation, dated October 25, 1999. Avery was just shy of three years old. It runs like this.
I close her bedroom door.
“Wait, wait, “Avery says, “don’t close it yet. I have to say ‘sleep well’ to you.”
I open her door again.
“Sleep well, darling,” Avery says. “Good night, darling.”
Tell me what Kindle will ever have THAT written on its flyleaf, for me to find on a chilly London night, and you’re sold. Until then, I’ll stick with my bookshelves full of treasures, unsaleable to be sure, heavy to lug around yes, and all the more LOVED for that. Grocery lists for birthday parties, ideas for exhibits at my old gallery, notations of nightmares (involving raw chicken and futons?? don’t ask), memos to thank someone for a dinner party. I could not live happily without this flotsam and jetsam of my past, thank you, not even for a slim, convenient plastic thing full of words.
Speaking of jottings, I’ve simply got to jot down the adventures of our last day in Venice before they are all permanently replaced in my brain by by the flurry of activity here: a very late-night, luxurious dinner out with a girlfriend visiting from the States, “Cinderella on Ice” at the Royal Albert Hall (production closed now, but look out for it next year: magnificent!), John’s birthday, and my obsession with homemade pizza! Isn’t this the most gorgeous pizza you’ve ever seen?
It’s kind of a garbage, clean-out-the-fridge dinner, with homemade crust (the easiest thing in the world to make) tomato sauce from a jar (my only requirement: no sugar!), pesto, leftover artichokes, half a leftover red pepper, sliced really thin, leftover Giggly Pig sausages, some slightly shrivelly baby tomatoes, red onions, mozzarella, a handful of olives stolen from John’s martini stash, and after it’s all cooked, a handful of rocket scattered on top…
Heaven. The dough recipe makes more than twice what you need for two pizzas, but trust me, you want that leftover dough. Nothing makes Avery and John as happy as that dough, rolled out super-thin, baked on a red-hot pizza stone for 10 minutes with some slices of buffalo mozzarella and a sprinkle of parsley and garlic salt. The most wonderful, cheapest, easiest little slice of paradise, perfect little side dish for pasta.
So Venice, Day Three. We started out at simply the most beautiful market I have ever seen: the famed Rialto Market of all the guidebooks and novels. I thought all the descriptions were completely over the top: how wonderful could it be? Well, as you see. And dear readers, the tragedy was that I could not buy anything! Never again will I stay in a hotel in Venice; we need a flat with a kitchen. The crispest looking fennel, the firmest onions, beautiful baby artichokes (I adore them now, want to put them on everything but ice cream), and the fish? Don’t even get me started! I don’t particularly love squid, but it was magical-looking. And cuttlefish and live prawns (these creeped Avery out, “Somebody get a bowl of water for these poor gasping fish!”) and scallops in the shell… I did buy two heart-shaped salamis from a gorgeous charcuterie (or whatever the word is in Italian), reluctantly leaving behind the salame in the shape of a dinosaur, seriously.
And there was a horse butcher. I mean, horse meat, not a butcher who was a horse. Don’t ask Avery about that, either. The Rialto Market is not for the faint of heart.
From there, we hopped on the vaporetto and headed for the Peggy Guggenheim Museum, and there, I saw my entire career as an art historian flash before my eyes. My field was international art from 1900–1940, and that… is the Guggenheim Collection. Boccioni, Brancusi, Kandinsky, Duchamp, Mondrian… I found myself smiling like a silly ass as the memories of my teaching days came back: my lectures linking the earliest Mondrian paintings of light dancing on water, through the classic red, blue, black and yellow geometric works, to the ultimate, Broadway Boogie-Woogie, that paean to New York city culture…
We played our usual “what would you buy” game, and I came down unable to decide between Brancusi’s Bird in Space and Boccioni’s Development of a Bottle in Space. John fell in love with a Giacometti group of walking men, or maybe a Joseph Cornell box, and Avery went back over and over to a drawing by an artist I’d never heard of, a British documentary filmmaker named Humphrey Jennings. A lovely little Surrealist piece.
An unforgettable place.
From there we wandered to lunch at the nearby Al Vechio Forner, a tiny osteria devoted to… lasagne! Of every description. It wasn’t the most brilliant lasagne I’ve ever had, but it was homey, warm and tasty, and the staff were lovely to us, letting me speak my slow, basic Italian. I had scallop and artichoke lasagne (I know, artichokes again), John had raddichio and Fontina, and Avery had what we decided was the best, a simple bolognese.
We stumbled upon the world’s best marbled paper shop! Alberto Valese Ebru, tucked away, just waiting for Avery to relinquish her gelato to John and slip in with me to find presents for Anna whose birthday is coming, I get a photo album for the hundreds of photos I’ve managed to get printed but not put in albums… I also manage to say “Thank you so much, no, we don’t need a bag, we can put everything in this one I have HERE!” Totally thrilling.
As we stood on the Accademia Bridge, admiring the view, suddenly there was a flurry of boats below, all containing people in black brandishing enormous cameras with telephoto lenses. “It’s the paparazzi,” John said wisely, “Let’s wait to see who it is.” And it was the ultimate, if you like that sort of thing: Brangelina! Stopping at a gorgeous palazzo, Brad emerging first, then reaching down into the boat to hand out child after child after child! Finally, Angelina stepped up to the dock and they rushed inside, not even stopping to give their adoring fans, who had gathered in the dozens on the bridge, a smile. Ah well, our brush with fame was sort of fun, in a shame-faced way.
We crossed the bridge finally and went into the Istituto Veneto where there was an exhibition of the paintings of Venetian artist Zoran Music. I am not even normally very enthusiastic about figurative art, but this man’s work was overwhelming. A survivor of the Holocaust, he painted landscapes, self-portraits and Venetian cityscapes for 25 years before his experiences resurfaced and demanded to be expressed… and the resulting series of paintings was very, very difficult to look at. I can only imagine if one had actually experienced the Holocaust oneself, what it would be like to look at those paintings.
Strangely, John had decided earlier in the day that he wanted to visit the Jewish ghetto and museum, so, our minds still filled with Zoran’s work, we went off to drop our parcels at the hotel and head off on foot. Such an innocent-looking little square, housing the synagogue (which was closed) and the museum, under renovation. So hard to believe there was ever a mass exodus, a rounding up of all the Jews in the quarter, only 8 of whom ever returned. Children were racing around the square in a burst of energy after school, I suppose, and a tiny wet dog raced with them, chasing a tennis ball. How bizarre to think what the place had been like 70 years before.
The most lasting result of our visit to the ghetto was our discovery of the restaurant where we had the best meal of our stay in Venice! And it was kosher. Gam-Gam, down a tiny, dark street off the ghetto square, where we passed the only man I saw in Venice wearing a yarmulke. Oh, the food! An Israeli tapas (weird fusion name, that) platter of housemade pita bread with at least 8 salad-y bits: hummous, cucumbers in oil, beetroot roasted and cubed with parsley, a sort of egg salad with paprika, roasted red peppers, a mixed bean dish. Avery had matzo-ball soup and it was the absolute best we’ve had since we left New York. I had moussaka, lovely with velvety aubergines and a creamy bechamel sauce. John had wiener schnitzel which was sort of average, but then we all shared a lovely platter of latkes. Just gorgeous. And the staff were beyond friendly and helpful, speaking to each other in Hewbrew and to us in Italian and English.
And that was Venice. Well, except for our horrid departure. We got up early to take the water bus to the bus station, and stood at the stop, chattering about our adventure and watching the rain begin to fall. And we waited, and waited and waited. Finally a woman standing nearby answered her phone and said, “Sciopera!” Oh no! A bus strike! Just going in the direction we wanted to go, just announced that moment. What to do! We walked.
And walked, and walked, in the pouring rain, pouring so hard that when we got home, five hours later, the clothes and books INSIDE the suitcases were wet! Just awful. We attached our duffel to Avery’s wheeled luggage (we may never again be able to make fun of her for succumbing to function over form: John usually hates wheeled luggage! but it saved our life), and simply ran and walked the 40 minutes or so to the bus station. Jumped on for the wildest ride of our lives, at excessive speed through massive throwings-up of pooled rain water at the side of the road. Avery simply closed her eyes. A freezing cold airplane ride in our soaking wet clothes, and home.
Well, my friends, I must close because we have a concert at Avery’s school to go to, and then guests for dinner, and I’ve committed that sin that people always warn me never to commit: I’ve cooked something I’ve never cooked before, to offer to guests, and it’s really scary-looking. I’ll tell all when the worst is known.