We knew the day would come, and it’s been the most glorious of blue-sky marvels. Jessamy has gone away. And I’ve set my company table for the last time. Summer is nearly over.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
This week has been a whirlwind of emotion, letting each kitten go to her new family. And while Avery’s been a total star, I’m an emotional wreck! But it couldn’t have ended more happily for everyone, so I’ll tell you all about it.
Jessica was first, John’s favorite, to fly the coop. And what an image, as it turns out, because as we pulled hesitantly into the driveway where Lily and Matthew live, looking around to make sure we were in the right place, there were… chickens!
And, in the distance, cows, even! A glorious barn built, we found out later, by Matthew’s very own hands (the hands that cradled Jessica so expertly, ready instantly to take her home), then a small Federal saltbox, if those two designations make sense? A little white house, tucked up behind masses of…
I have a new philosophy… it’s not any one thing, or state of being, that makes me happy. It’s contrast! And finally, after seemingly endless summer days of sunshine, the skies heard the wishes of my farmer friends and sent us two straight days of cool, sustaining rain. Not the pounding, soaking kind that sends John up a ladder to check on his beloved gutters. No, this was the gentle, pattering sort that comes with an unexpected autumnal breeze, makes you reach for that cardigan you bought last month and NEVER really thought you’d want to wear.
The rain came the weekend after our momentous visit to the sunny farmer’s market, and remember my Gorgeous Peach Guy? Well, he turned out to want… a kitten! We came home in a fever of anticipation, and sure enough, the very next afternoon, up turned Jemima, Gorgeous Peach Guy’s Gorgeous Girlfriend, all long tanned legs and shiny hair, terribly young and beautiful, accompanied by her twin Jenny, who I think was meant to make the choice between the two kittens easier. Not so much.
“Oh, Jemima, how can you ever decide… [small moan escapes Jenny’s lovely lips]… I don’t think I could…”
“Jenny, help me here! Do I want the fuzzy one, or the sleek one?”
“Oh, the sleek one’s purring right here next to me, OH, leaning up against my leg…”
“JENNY! Stop it [similar moan of ecstasy}… the fuzzy one just climbed on my shoulder, and now, it’s purring too.”
John just sat by them and offered moral support for taking both! Here was his strategy for convincing them that two kittens are better than one.
“Why don’t you take both, and then call us tomorrow and let us know which one you want to discard?”
In the end, we couldn’t reach the shelter lady, who has to approve all paperwork for new adopting families, so there could be no taking of a kitten anyway. But Jemima actually eeny-meeny-miny-mo’ed and said determinedly, “Right! I’m taking the hairy one.” And in just such an anticlimatic fashion, Jamie found her home.
And the very next day, I was sitting out here on my terrace reading a detective story in a desultory manner, when I heard Anne’s voice coming round the corner of the house. “Kristen, this is my carpenter friend Matthew, and he wants… a kitten!” We brought him inside and handed him Jessica, and as you see, a family was born.
I never saw anyone fall so instantly in love as Matthew and Jessica. She fell asleep, totally relaxed and content. I asked, “What do you think?” and Matthew gazed at me in patent disbelief. “Of course I’m taking her…” I emailed him the paperwork from the shelter and later that afternoon got a reply. “I haven’t even known her that long, but it was so hard to drive away and leave Jessica behind.”
How unutterably lucky we have been! Gentle, needy Jessamy will go to two sweet and gentle ladies, for whom she will very soon achieve the status of Kitten Princess, I am quite sure. Rugged, daring Jamie will go to two Gorgeous Young Farmers, and vie with them for the title of Prettiest Person in the House. And wily, insta-purr Jessica will go to a brilliant craftsman and his wife who are counting the days till they can take her home.
Kudos to Avery who took three kittens, hiding in our laundry room, and spent about five days of her life doing nothing but sitting quietly and letting them emerge, then be petted, then learn to accept being picked up incessantly and kissed all day long. These kittens purr if you make eye contact with them. I woke up yesterday morning to feel Jessamy licking my eyelids! Now, naturally this is not to everyone’s liking, but it was to mine.
It will be hard to see them go.
Anne called me to check how the visit from the Peach Girl had gone. “They were in your driveway for a long time, so I assumed it went well?” Avery, passing me on the steps to go upstairs, kitten slung over her shoulder, said, “I can’t believe you guys are talking on the phone when she’s right across the street.” “Oh yeah?” I countered. “How about your emailing me when you’re in bed and I’m in the kitchen?”
With the kittens taken care of, and waking to a rainy day, we went off to Waterbury for a movie, waving goodbye to Kate in Anne’s arms, wet trees blowing her hair around. What a beautiful sight, our little neighbor child tousled in the weather, leaves falling all around her. Just lovely. One of those images of someone that seems iconic. That was Katie, right then, held tight by her doting mother. Lovely.
And the worst movie EVER! Salt, with Angelina Jolie (which should have been my first clue). I’m not a fan, and it’s not her bee-stung lips I object to, since my daughter has very gorgeous lips as well. No, it’s everything else about her. True, she has several facial expressions: seductive (even when there is no reasonable seducing going on), determined (unbelievably chiselled jawline set), and evil (lots of eye movements from right to left, as if she were watching an invisible tennis match). But it was the “script” that really got us, and I apologize now to whoever was sitting behind us as we snickered helplessly behind our hands. “Converge on the crypt, people, repeat: converge on the crypt.”
Perhaps the most wonderful moment of the movie happened when I was taking a long, dragged-out bathroom break (wondering how reasonably long I could loiter outside the theater without alarming the management). I returned stealthily to my seat only to have Avery pull on my hand as I sat down.
“You missed it: she pulled off her face.”
“She pulled off her face, and guess what? She had fresh lip gloss on underneath.”
Leave it to Avery, my makeup-blogging daughter, to notice this, possibly the LEAST unbelievable thing in this film. Argh. Two hours of my life I will never get back. And they have left the narrative door open for a SEQUEL. John says it will be called “MSG.”
There could be only one antidote to this fiasco. An evening in the kitchen.
Corned Beef Hash
(serves six, probably)
four good-sized Yukon Gold or red potatoes, peeled
about 1 1/2 lbs leftover cooked brisket (mine was slow-grilled)
2 tbsps butter
1 Vidalia onion, minced
3 cloves garlic, minced
sea salt and fresh black pepper, to taste
Put potatoes on to boil, about 20 minutes until easily pierced by a fork. Meanwhile, cut leftover brisket into large chunks, then feed them into your food processor and pulse gently, till it is all hashed-up, but not so long that it becomes pasty. Chop boiled potatoes to nice little dice.
Melt butter in a heavy skillet, then add brisket and stir until any fat has become nice and hot. Throw in the potatoes, onion and garlic and season well. Sizzle over high heat for about 15–20 minutes, stirring at first, but then in the last few minutes, leaving the hash still, to achieve a crisp crust.
I so impressed myself with this dish! Let me tell you why I was so pleased. I adore brisket, and have had many interesting conversations with cooking friends (Alyssa and Yaz especially come to mind) about the proper preparation of it. My favorite has always been slow-cooked on the stove in a mixture of tomatos, molasses and beer, but on the day I wanted to eat this brisket, it was HOT and my interest in turning on the stove minimal, especially for a slow-cooked anything. Save that for a snowy New Year’s day any time.
So I looked up some recipes for slow-cooking brisket on the grill. That seemed like an idea whose time had come, and John loves to grill. So into a Ziplock bag went the brisket with a LOT of molasses, some soy sauce, lime zest and minced garlic. And John grilled that puppy.
But guess what. Never add soy sauce or salt to brisket! Not that I was able to taste it raw, but it must have been mightily salted in its preparation, because the finished grilled product, while tasty, was almost inedibly salty. Of course, we managed to put away a fair bit of it, but only at the price of swilling down gallons of water afterward!
So there was the leftover half a brisket. What was a girl to do.
The second reason I love this dish now will not surprise you. You know how, all summer, I’ve been finding that favorite dishes you eat out are even BETTER made at home. And this just adds to the list (burgers, pizza, fried shrimp all having succumbed already).
And leftover corned beef hash, oh MY! I say this recipe serves six, but I’m only guessing because one serving made its way to Avery, tucked up in her cozy hideaway bedroom before dinner, with my anxious question, “Is this all right?” And after dinner we were left with some quantity which at BREAKFAST next day, puts our local diner out of business. Simply reheat it, shoved over to one half of that same skillet, whilst frying eggs in the other half and toasting English muffins off to one side. HEAVEN.
The last item on my “I’ll never eat out again if I can make this” list… hashed-brown potatoes. But I think that unlike the hash, the only thing that makes diner potatoes so special is BUTTER. CUPS of it. And you know me, I love butter. But I can’t in good conscience haul out a cup of the stuff to feed my family. Not all at ONCE.
Oh, the delicious feeling of luxury that evening, pot of chicken soup bubbling away fragrantly on the stove, knowing that all the ingredients of my hash were chopped and ready to fry up. I lay back on the living room sofa with a book, listening to rain, watching trees blow, a rare moment of sitting still and just watching the world around me, feeling lucky.
The second day of rain I spent running errands with Avery (American school supplies! it doesn’t get any better than Ticonderoga pencils, pink erasers and good old Elmer’s glue). Living away makes you appreciate the strangest things, like strolling through the supermarket parking lot under a threatening gray summer sky, coming upon tanned, fit-looking American children in minivans with other families stopped outside them, elbows leaning out windows, exchanging comments on the first day of school. “I got Mrs Schrage, who’d you get? Oh, she’s nice!” while mothers gossip. There is something so cozy about mothers and children, picking up the threads of autumn acquaintance after a summer of fun, dressed in good American clothes, especially Yankees t-shirts. I just love it, and I don’t think I’d have even noticed the little scene, if I hadn’t moved away. “Are you in that new building they built? It has really good lockers, I heard… Pomperaug High’s having a car wash, if you want to come by… Tryouts for girls’ softball are Saturday, are you gonna be there?” American summer, and kids safe and sound with their pretty, healthy mothers, headed into the grocery store to stock up on high fructose corn syrup and condensed cream of mushroom soup.
On the tail end of the storm came a dinner of meatballs in a rich tomato sauce, with Jill and Joel, Jane and Molly.
All of us sat around the dining room table for the first time this summer, the wind and spitting rain just coming through the maple trees too much to make eating outside possible. That is, except for John who always has to be dragged kicking and screaming to eat indoors. Plus, eating inside has an unexpectedly uncivilizing effect on him, and his behavior with his nieces, and he revs them up to a crazy level of energy and silliness. Molly in particular. Here is a typical exchange, Molly in her high chair, John sitting alongside.
[my sister] “Molly, show Uncle John how you open you mouth for a big bite of yogurt!”
[John] “Molly, show your mommy how you can say NO!”
It turns out she LOVES to say no!
Oh dear. Come to think of it, he’s just as bad when we eat out at the picnic table, but at least there isn’t a low Federal ceiling to hold in Molly’s shrieks of delight.
She is a perfect angel.
And here’s an easy dessert: in your grocery store, can you buy ready-made crepes? I can, and they contain almost nothing in the way of calories, carbs, sugar, anything. Which is more than I can say for the substance masquerading as “whipped cream” in the yogurt section. DO NOT buy this! Just look at the label. All you need is a container of whipping cream, a hand beater or a Cuisinart, and a couple of flavorings. We really like a bit of Demerara sugar (perhaps a tablespoon for enough cream for six people), and a bit of lemon zest, a bit of vanilla extract. But none of the scary stuff you can’t pronounce, in the can. To be banished firmly, alongside ready-made breadcrumbs and diced tomatoes. Whizz up your leftover bread yourself, and dice those nice whole tomatoes. What sort of bread and tomatoes do food companies save for the stuff they’re planning to pulverize for you? It doesn’t bear thinking about.
Serve those little crepes rolled up with cream and strawberries inside, and everyone is happy. Except Jane, who prefers ice cream. We can do that.
Once the sun reappeared, albeit behind some clouds, John and I headed off across the road to pick up some of the old firewood that Anne has had piled up here and there in her meadow, for our Christmas holiday to come.
Lastly, did you all see that my brilliant Blogidol Julian has given me a subscription feature! Right at the top of the post, right hand side. So you never have to miss a post. You know it’s what you’ve all been wishing for! And that’s all from Red Gate Farm for now, the only house I know whose beloved contours have been immortalized in… a hand-knitted dishtowel. Now THAT’S friendship. Thank you, Karen.
Shh.… can you hear it?
Wasn’t there a poet that said “unheard melodies are sweetest”? That’s what I’m hearing today, out on my terrace, dappled in mid-afternoon sunshine, a goldfinch on the distant birdfeeder, the hydrangea finally in bloom. Unheard melodies. It’s perfectly quiet. For once, this entire summer, there is nothing happening.
To be sure, this morning the air rang with the sound of Avery, Kate and neighbor Taylor’s laughing as they jumped on the trampoline (someone has taught Kate to say “boing” but no one is owning up to it). And even earlier in the day you could have heard John and me apologizing for bad tennis shots, at the court next to the pool. But right now… silence.
Actually, mostly what you hear at the tennis court are the unceasing accusations of “Leo, that was so LONG,” and “You idiot, it’s not 30/30, it’s 40/40, what are you, blind?” from the foursome we have come to call The Grumpy Old Men. Four men in their 80s, in varying stages of decrepitude, but all sharing an unerring instinct for the unpleasant comment, hurled at one another as the game progresses. One day we actually booked the shady court, because I had had my fill of playing in the blazing sun, and would you believe these guys refused to move over! “We’ll give you a couple of bucks to go away,” one of them jeered. In between games they trade slightly off-color stories about their exploits off-court, many of them punctuated with references to Viagra. Honestly, you have to hand it to them, infirm as they are, still in their tennis whites batting the ball back and forth. But get off the shady court, gentlemen!
The quiet of my afternoon has been interrupted by my intrepid husband, hauling firewood from across the road to our woodshed in the back of his trusty Land Rover, circa 1967.
He is puffing and sweating in the sun, but I can assure you that he’ll be full of pride in his achievement later, and full of plans for our Christmas holiday here, with plenty of firewood.
It’s the Twelve Days of Summer, that’s all we have left. Who would have guessed on that day in early July that the summer would speed by so quickly? Well, I would have, because I know from summers back that that’s how it goes. You pack up in London, little believing that the holiday has really arrived, and you float across the wide Atlantic, slowly leaving behind the school year cares of homework, wretched piano teachers, steamy days in Lost Property, the burglar alarm that WILL NOT stop turning itself on every time a cat goes by… and you arrive at Red Gate Farm.
For about a week you revel in the peace, and then the craziness begins. Endless friends and family troop in and out, bringing dishes of food, numberless candles are lit and burn down as conversations spin out around the table. Trooping into the hot city for plays, shopping trips, lunches, dinners, family get-togethers… and days at the stable, watching the teenager go round and round, me trying not to sneeze…
And life picks up pace. Every summer. Trips to the ice cream shop up the road, for that one fried-food lunch at Denmo’s that leaves us remembering why I learned to fry shrimp, afternoons see-sawing with Kate, explorations of the barn to discover once and for all WHERE is the hardware for our shutters? And visits to Tricia’s farm, where I come away with a new friend and an apronful of treasures…
Until we’re left at the end thinking, “Where did the time go?” So I’m glad to have one afternoon, just one Thursday afternoon, with nothing to do but sit here and appreciate the horses whinnying in the back meadow…
Actually, our quiet day today will be enlivened by a visit to the local farmer’s market, one of my favorite places to be on any given summer Thursday. Will the peach farmer be as drop-dead gorgeous as usual, or will he have sent his dad along instead? We can hope.
So life this past week has been frantic, even for me. The last time to breathe was Saturday, when after a whole day of cooking for the following day’s party, we piled in the car and headed over to New Milford to The Archive, a unique collection of photographs of New York City, advertisements for long-gone health products, Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup, Real Silk hosiery and Lana Turner. All the images were collected by Hugh A. Dunne, and the enterprise is now run by his delightful daughter Susie and her husband Jeff, in a Victorian house on a sunny street. So far they’ve been able to organize only a bit of his half-million-object collection, so we couldn’t find anything about Tribeca. Next time.
And Sunday brought the party of the century. Of two centuries, actually, since it was a gathering to celebrate the 200th birthday of the house! I know, in England that’s nothing to write home about, but here in NEW England, we get excited about two hundred years. To think of the births and deaths, illness and tragedy, weddings and wars this house has seen. And my mother’s birthday, substantially less than 200 of them, fell on the same weekend, so the party we normally have for her kind of… exploded! Added to the general family mayhem were dignitaries from the Southbury Land trust, of which constellation of acres our property is a shining star. And our friends Olimpia and Tony, all the way from the Catskills!
And from the farthest away, my darling friend Becky and her two girls, Avery’s best friend Anna and her sister Ellie, all the way from Charlotte! They made a really good decorating committee.
And of course Jill and her girls… Jane got the award for having the most fun with her feet. The socks… didn’t survive.
The day was one of those that even as it’s happening, stands out as one of the best. Right now I close my eyes and see the day unfold, watching everyone fall into place in the happiest spot possible. Rollie rolled up early in his pickup to unload the long tables that would later hold untold amounts of delicious food… he and I manhandled stuff out quick as lightning, unfolding chairs, shaking out cushions. What would we do without Rollie and Judy? Because along with the tables and chairs came Judy’s collection of plates in every size you can imagine, and tablecloths, and broccoli salad with bacon!
And then up came Becky’s rental car and out spilled the girls, miles taller than when I saw them last a year and a half ago, suddenly young ladies, as is my own, so why am I surprised? And Becky herself, she of the warmest, lingering hugs, her serene face, her bubbling laugh, her Southernisms. “What do y’all want me to do to help?” And instantly we were back in our old London mode of pitching in together, holding down tablecloths in the breeze, taping them down, pouring ice into buckets, arranging Squirt and Diet Pepsi and pink lemonade and beers.
And Shelley, all the way from New York state, behind the scenes taking the most delicious photos… how did she become so talented! It was Shelley who captured Jane’s feet… priceless.
Olimpia and Tony brought her usual ambrosial array of Italian delicacies to unpack, ooh and ahh over, taste “just to make sure they’re OK…” Meatballs in a tomato sauce redolent of fresh basil, beef ribs with the meat falling off the bone, plump sausages and fresh, warm rolls and a garlicky caponata with capers and black olives. Olimpia! Will you marry me?
And the party unfolded. There were, in addition to Olimpia’s offerings, my own sticky chicken wings in a sauce of dark molasses, beer and garlic, red cabbage slaw with a sesame oil and ginger dressing, plus blue poppy seeds… an orzo salad with my homemade pesto and chopped Moroccan olives, and Tricia brought a lovely colorful salad of her own beans and edible calendula flowers!
There were practically hundreds of devilled eggs because they are the favorite of the birthday girl, my mother. Why don’t I make them more often?
(allow a whole egg per person, so this serves 24)
2 dozen very fresh eggs (makes easier peeling when they’re fresh)
about 1/2 cup mayonnaise
2 tbsps dijon mustard
1 tsp mild curry powder, or kefta seasoning
fresh ground pepper and sea salt to taste
Place eggs in a heavy-bottomed saucepan and cover with water, plus an inch over that. Bring to a boil, then turn off heat, cover pan and leave for 15 minutes. Drain and place in a cool bowl, add a handful or two of ice cubes and cover with cold water. Leave until cool, then peel and cut eggs in half lengthwise.
Remove yolks to a large bowl and add enough mayonnaise for your taste. My daughter likes very little; I can never get enough mayonnaise on anything! Season with curry powder and salt and pepper, then spoon the mixture into each egg half. Arrange on a platter and dust with paprika, just, as the great food/mystery writer Virginia Rich says, “for pretty.” Done.
I wish I had stopped to take photographs of all the food, like a good blogger should, but to be honest, for once I was actually AT my party, actually IN my life! And therefore, some moments went unphotographed. But here’s a sense of the beauty of the table.
It was a wonderful, lively, friendly party, with a whole other party going on in the kitchen as cleanup started… Olimpia, Becky and Jill ended up in a sort of sorority of suds, trading life stories, organizing and bringing order to chaos as only three superwomen could do.
Anne made a speech! As eloquently as only Anne could do, chronicling the “lucky days” of our house and its protected property, ending with the day we decided to buy it. How lucky WE have been in our neighbors, who started out as lovely people to wave to over a white picket fence, and have grown into the best of friends.
And then there was the cake. Chocolate mousse, with some sort of Frangelico or other alcohol-y essence, and “Red Gate Farm 1810–2010″ and “Happy Birthday, Mona” on it. Mona? My mother explained to the party at large. “My name is really Nonna, Italian for grandmother, but somehow in the first year of this traditional August party, the baker listened to “Happy Birthday, Nonna,” and heard ‘Happy Birthday, Mona.’ Now everyone, especially Jane, insists on ‘Mona.’”
What a wonderful day… and just as everyone began to drift away, large raindrops fell onto the enormous maple leaves overhead, shielding us as that tree has shielded this terrace since the last owner’s husband built it himself of rocks from the property. Finally, the party was over, for another year.
But Becky’s family visit had just begun! She is the most wonderful houseguest: casually picking up dishes to dry, laundry to fold, much as Rosemary does, so having the two of them together meant I hardly had to lift a finger! And the chats… oh, the luxury of having her HERE, where I could give her a hug if I wanted to, where we could sit for hours and just “visit,” as she says in her Southern way. Not the sort of frantic visiting you do on a phone from Charlotte to London, where you know you have to hang up in fifteen minutes, and you’re left with a whole list of things you forgot to say.
No, this is the sort of over-the-kitchen-table visiting that took me straight back to her London kitchen, where there were always at least four and usually more little girls in school uniforms running around, shrieking, looking for snacks, sitting on our laps. Becky and her family represent for me a whole part of my life, a simpler one when our children were always with us, and little, full of Sports Days and school concerts and playdates. When did playdates disappear? Somewhere after Becky moved away, taking a certain part of life with her.
But for four days, we got it back. Magic.
Not the least of which were…
(serves at least 8, but more with other side dishes on offer)
3 lbs/1 ½ kilos potatoes (Maris Piper in England is a good choice, or a Yukon Gold in the US)
3 round shallots or 1 banana shallot, minced
2 cups/ 474 ml grated or shredded Cheddar or Double Gloucester cheese
1 tsp garlic powder
sea salt and pepper
3 cups/1 pint/474 ml single cream or Half and Half
Boil potatoes until easily pierced with a fork, then peel when cool. Grate them on a coarse grater and set aside.
Lighly oil or nonstick spray a deep glass or pottery casserole dish, perhaps 9 inches in diameter and 5 inches or so high (mine is round, which is an appealing shape). Scatter a layer of grated potatoes on the bottom, then cover with a layer of cheese, a sprinkling of shallot, a sprinkle of garlic powder, and season well. Repeat layering until you have run out of ingredients, ending with cheese. Then pour the cream over the casserole.
Bake at 180C, 350F until bubbly and the cheese begins to brown, about 45 minutes, depending on the depth of the casserole.
Of all the dishes that have come out of my kitchen all summer, this one was a first in many ways: all the children ate it, everyone had second helpings, and it was ALL gone, no leftovers! Becky always says cruelly, “This is even better second day,” knowing in her heart of hearts that there is NEVER a second day.
And big news: while the girls were all here, our friend Alice decided to adopt Jessamy! She is the fluffiest of all three kittens, with quite a beautiful personality. And to think she’ll now be in our lives forever, just a visit to Manhattan away. And there are inklings that there may be some babysitting duties at Christmas to look forward to…
Then we were off to one last family lunch at my sister’s house (lovely flank steak, Joel, and I cooked my telly contest soup!), and then goodbye to my mother, father and brother until Christmas. It was a wrench to pack them up into my sister’s car and wave them off to the airport. But glass half full: it was unforgettable to have them here.
And to make us feel better, we packed up the girls and headed to Quassy! Quassy holds a special place in my heart, because I can’t decide if I love it, or hate it. A little of each, I think. It’s old fashioned, it’s hot, the air smells nauseatingly of cotton candy and fried dough (I know, don’t ask), the rides are almost all too scary for me, but it’s a bit of our summer tradition. So I go.
This summer Avery and John actually went on the Mad Mouse, a hideously rickety roller coaster, and guess what? They’re demolishing it later in the summer (like, tomorrow probably) and building a new one! Who would ride a roller coaster on its LAST LEGS, advertised as such? My daughter and husband. Yikes.
Then home for pizza and a haircolor spa led by Becky, with much hilarity and chagrin from our girls as they settled into bed only to find that the air mattress had sprung a leak! A mad dash to bring up all the cushions from sofas… a crazy end to a crazy visit.
And so they departed. We were left with a quiet house, my head and heart bursting full of memories that I will only really believe in on some cold, gray, rainy day in London. Then, I’ll sit back and watch the droplets stream down my English windows, and conjure up a house full of birthday guests and the smell of L’Oreal, the taste of birthday cake and the feeling of my mother’s arms around me in a hug, and the heft of Molly on my hip, and it will be summer again.
We couldn’t be more thrilled… Jessamy, the fluffiest of the three kittens, all gray with stripes, has found a new home! And to one of our favorite families in the world, so we can keep track of her as she goes to her first prom, decides what to major in at college, you know the sort of thing.
Alice, we love you. Jessamy will be so happy with you, and our two families are united at last!
My mother’s birthday is legendary, these last few years, as we return home for the summers to Connecticut from our schoolyear months in London. She makes the long trek from Indiana, with my dad and brother, every August, to take up residence with my sister and her family, who live providentially close, a short car journey away. Such a far cry from the many hours’ time difference, not to mention the enormous pond that separate us, for so many months of the year. For a few short days, we are all together! My dad’s twinkling eye, my brother’s endless appetite, and my mother’s gentle humor and pride in us all seem to bubble inside me like a shaken-up seltzer bottle, so much to absorb and enjoy, such a short time.
And that means John’s mom, too, who brings her own magic to the occasions… camera at the ready, always prepared to pull up and enjoy whatever someone else is passionate about at that moment. John’s iPad? Now she has one, a gift from him, and they share the joy. Avery’s love of Coldplay? She will watch endless music videos. My piles of garlic and peppers and bottles of olive oil? She takes up a knife and makes short work of whatever needs to be done. Kittens to be admired? That’s easy.
Last night was crab cakes, OMG, at my sister’s house (see the recipe in my beloved index!) to welcome the weary travelers from Indiana… and lemon bars, made amazingly by me, with Rosemary’s help, as the birthday cake. And would you believe, I can screw up even a perfect Ina Garten recipe? And yet… readers, they were delicious. I actually accidentally doubled the amount of flour in the crust, but I can say, hand on heart, it didn’t matter. They were perfect. So think seriously about screwing it up yourself!
Ina Garten’s Lemon Bars
(makes 24 bars)
For the crust, cream the butter and sugar until light in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Combine the flour and salt and, with the mixer on low, add to the butter until just mixed. Dump the dough onto a well-floured board and gather into a ball. Flatten the dough with floured hands and press it into a 9 by 13 by 2-inch baking sheet, building up a 1/2-inch edge on all sides. Chill.
Bake the crust for 15 to 20 minutes, until very lightly browned. Let cool on a wire rack. Leave the oven on.
For the filling, whisk together the eggs, sugar, lemon zest, lemon juice, and flour. Pour over the crust and bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until the filling is set. Let cool to room temperature.
Cut into triangles and dust with confectioners’ sugar.
So TART! Lovely. Perfect for a birthday evening.
We’ve been having adventures! The kittens have been taken to the dreaded vet for their spaying and vaccinations, nail clipping and (I suspect) teeth whitening, since they look like Scarlett Johansson when they smile. And tonight the whole family gathered around for burgers and ribs on the grill, and the most wonderful grilled vegetables. Take a look at their before and after photographs…
3 tbsps each: sesame oil, olive oil
Fox Point Seasoning
Simply rub this all over:
eggplant, sweet peppers, zucchini, hot peppers
Grill on a medium heat for 15–20 minutes, turning twice… so simple. These vegetables are velvety, fresh, they retain all their color and personality, and are so perfect a foil for a rich, cheesey burger. Summer.
And my telly programme has aired! John has been the ultimate clever bunny and posted just the bits where I feature, and without the name of the programme itself, and you can find it here. Enjoy, until someone decides I’ve violated something and takes it down! I had an amazingly delightful time filming, and simply ignore the side ponytail… it was a week-long aberration and just happened to occur during the one day OF MY LIFE when I was on telly. I think it makes me look about twelve. Ah, well, I liked being twelve, so experiencing it twice can’t be too terrible.
I must collapse. Tomorrow will be an entire day of cooking, because Sunday, heaven help me, 35 or so people will descend on my house to celebrate its 200th anniversary! My mother will be celebrating her birthday too, but I’m too nice a daughter to publish her age on my blog, or for that matter, in frosting. And my dearest friend Becky and two of her three girls will be here with us, houseguests from North Carolina… there’s been an orgy of new sheets and pillowcase-buying, and tomorrow will be housecleaning too, to make everything gorgeous for my darlings. I’ll fill you in on the festivities when I’ve recovered, which could be.. awhile.
I know, Avery has already pointed out to me that “they” have done away with the Four Basic Food Groups. Now there is a pyramid, or some such. It’s very complex, with different sorts of Fats To Remember. I liked the old system, but I’ve made some adjustments. How about 1) Butter, 2) Salt, 3) Foie Gras, and 4) Garlic.
I LOVE garlic.
And it’s good for you! Not just in a “Twilight” kind of way, but truly good for your health, which is wonderful to hear because my family must reek of it. I like it minced to a tiny pulp with lemon juice and salt, sprinkled on a tomato. Simmering in a tomato sauce, waiting for meatballs. Stuffed under the skin of a roasting chicken, or mixed with goat cheese to spoon into a red pepper and baked till bubbling…
And then there’s pesto. My Italian mother-in-law first introduced me to pesto, which she made in vast quantities in her Iowa kitchen with basil from her garden. When would that have been? As early as 1984, when I sat down at her kitchen table and watched her work her magic as we chatted about my boyfriend, who we both agreed was practically perfect in every way… that’s a happy memory. Her freezer was always full of little jam jars of the green elixir, ready to be brought out on cold winter days to be mixed with hot spaghetti for a simple supper. She inspired John and me to go to the Union Square Farmer’s Market in New York and come home with armfuls of pungent basil to fill our own freezers…
Lemon in pesto? I think so. But it’s up to you. It couldn’t be simpler…
Just whizz up in your food processor the following ingredients, in the quantities that appeal to you (but I’ve given some basics):
(serves four as sauce for starter with pasta)
4 cups loosely packed whole fresh basil leaves
¾ cup extra virgin olive oil
juice ½ lemon
3 tbsps pine nuts
3 tbsps grated pecorino or Parmesan cheese
2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
pinch sea salt to taste
Place all ingredients in food processor and blend till smooth, taking care to scrape the pesto away from the sides of the processor to incorporate all bits.
And then, for something lighter, to drizzle on your “everything in a lettuce leaf” supper, or just sprinkle on a piece of mozzarella-topped toast, there’s
(makes plenty, save it)
1 large bunch each of flat-leaf parsley, arugula and cilantro, leaves only 2 cloves garlic
juice of half a lemon
sea salt to taste
extra virgin olive oil till liquid (perhaps 1/2 cup?)
Blend everything in the cuisinart and bask in the green glory. It’s lovely.
And then there’s baked garlic… just cut the tops off really firm bulbs of garlic, drizzle them with olive oil, sprinkle them with lemon zest and sea salt and bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes…
I can’t explain what happens to garlic when you bake it. All the sharpness disappears into a velvety, dreamy spreadable buttery stuff to put on toast, and top with a couple of scrambled eggs, a slice of sausage and a sprinkle of chives.
Are you hungry yet?
I’ve been having so much fun reading other people’s blogs lately. This is unusual for me, I must admit, because normally I find that living, and thinking and writing about living, take up all my time! It’s hard to find time to read about other people’s lives, but I have just happened upon several lately that are well worth a visit. And gorgeous photographs, which make it even more satisfying. Try dollop, which is written by my college friend Ann in Texas. Talk about making you hungry! Gorgeous photographs, you’ll be inspired. And 365 Kitchen, the brainchild of my new friend Sarah in Brooklyn… and Dinner: A Love Story, by a lady I don’t even know but am severely envious of, because her blog has become… a cookbook. I like these ladies and their work because they all share my philosophy: life is nicer when you cook good food for your family, everyone sits down together and enjoys it, and now and then you get extra people in your kitchen and around your table to enjoy it too.
Speaking of which, my kitchen and a pork tenderloin beckon because our friend Kathleen is coming and bringing her daughter Cici to have lunch. Cici and Avery met when Avery was three days old, and they have never looked back. They were inseparable for nine years until we cruelly separated them to move to London, but distance has not dimmed the silliness when they see each other. So I will head into the kitchen, grate some ginger, zest some limes and make a splendid marinade for my pork. Oh, and I’ll have to mince a little… garlic, while I’m at it.
I admit it: I get on food binges. Obsessions. Well, sort of fads, where I’ve made something once, and enjoyed it so much that I want to make it again and again RIGHT AWAY, and then try to fool my family into thinking I’ve done something different, by making little adjustments. They are rarely taken in by this sophistry, and pretty soon John says, “Here we go again.”
The latest? Everything on a lettuce leaf. It’s a common-enough way to eat in Thailand (or at least that’s what I hear, never having been closer to Thailand than a takeout menu from that place in Tribeca). Larb is eaten this way, that I do know, having made it myself (check out that recipe index, folks!), a lovely concoction of ground chicken sauteed and tossed in a lovely spicy, minty vinaigrette. Then you pile the chicken on a lettuce leaf, along with cilantro leaves, cucumber, spicy sauces, crushed peanuts.
Well, here’s what happened to me to put me on my present lettuce kick. The supermarket had an enormous special on oven-stuffer roaster chickens. So I bought one. And promptly understood why they were on special. Because it was 100 degrees outside and just about that inside, too, once my oven had been at 350 degrees for the requisite three hours to cook this enormous, Dolly-Parton-breasted bird. Yack! SO HOT.
The thought of eating that HOT roasted chicken was about as appealing as suggesting to a woman fresh from her first labor that big families are nice. The chicken was sad. No one wanted him.
Until I had my brainwave. Let him cool off!
Roast Chicken in Lettuce Leaves
(serves at least 6)
1 oven-stuffer roasting chicken
various fresh herbs: rosemary, sage, summer savory, thyme, whatever you have
splash white wine
2 tbsps soft butter
1 lemon, cut in half
sea salt and pepper
2 red bell peppers
1 large cucumber, deseeded
2 bunches spring onions (scallions)
2 large handfuls chives
2 large handfuls cilantro (coriander)
1 cup pine nuts or sliced almonds or crushed peanuts
various sauces, just from jars: Hoisin, satay, hot chilli, horseradish
Place chicken in a large roasting pan on top of the fresh herbs. Pour wine over, smear with butter, stick the cut lemon inside, sprinkle on sea salt and fresh black pepper. Roast at 350 degrees for three hours, or until the wretched little timer pops up.
Tear chicken into strips, pile all the luscious, juicy bites (complete with crispy, salty skin, of course) on two platters, alongside a huge pile of Boston lettuce leaves. Boston is perfect, I find, because it’s more pliable than Romaine or iceberg, so you can really wrap things up in it. Wash it well and put through a spinner so the leaves are nice and dry.
On two more platters, offer strips of cucumber, red pepper, spring onions, chives.
Put the pine nuts or other nuts in small bowls, and ditto with the sauces. Make them reacheable by everyone at the table. Now dig in!
I cannot convey adequately how 1) delicious, 2) festive, 3) cool, 4) individual this dinner is! It’s perfect for a party, especially if you’re not sure exactly what your guests like, because everyone builds her own lettuce sandwich.
And here’s a thought: when you’ve pulled all the lovely meat from the chicken, throw him in a large stockpot with all the detritus from the roasting pan, plus an onion or two and some celery, cover with water and simmer for three hours or so. Salt to taste, then strain. It’s the perfect chicken stock.
Which is good, because say you’re compelled to make this dish the very next night too, since Shelley and her family are coming for dinner. One of her family cannot eat wheat or dairy, but rice is a definite yes. Steam your basmati rice in your homemade chicken stock! It is DELICIOUS, so comforting and homey. Rice makes a very nice addition to something in a lettuce leaf.
Keep in mind that you are aiming for maximum mess. Everyone needs a LARGE napkin. The first bite is quite civilized. Everyone looks presentable. Then the second bite… pine nuts tinkle to the plate. Sauces drip down fingers, peppers start to ooze out the end as you try desperately to keep the lettuce wrapped around everything inside. DIVINE.
We had SUCH fun that night. A night to remember.
Let’s see, when I’ve been able to tear myself away from piling things on lettuce, I’ve been keeping my eyes peeled for baby Gary! As you all know, our backyard here is graced by the almost daily presence of a big, fat brown groundhog named Gary. But we’re rethinking the nomenclature, as a tiny baby version has suddenly appeared this summer! Boy groundhogs are not apparently known for their domesticity or fatherly instincts, so we’re having to re-assess Gary as possibly Garina. John sighs in frustration as fruits that have managed to “go off” emerge from my kitchen to be placed within Gary’s reach.
And she emerges, squat and suspicious, to crawl to the bowl and investigate. Melon is particularly popular. Once I put out some peach pits and skin, in a darling little ceramic bowl I brought back from Islesford, Maine, and she lifted the bowl up in her hands and made as if to take the bowl back to her home in the woodshed! I had to stomp my foot slightly to get her to drop it, and just eat from it decently so we could watch. If I ever get a photo, rest assured I shall post it.
Meanwhile, Avery’s been riding up a storm, with her latest trainer, Lynn, a no-nonsense, get-it-done-NOW sort of lady who runs an amazing horsey place in South Carolina, in case you’re looking to buy, sell, train, do just about anything with a mane. Avery’s usual trainer Amie had the temerity to give birth a couple of weeks ago, and she intelligently asked Lynn to come up and cover her classes. It’s been a hoot. Sadly we did not bring with us from London a camera that is any good at motion shots, so I’ll have to leave you with this image of the stable… it pretty much says it all.
And we’ve of course been for ice cream, more times than I can count. But Sunday was special, because it was Kate-Across-the-Road’s first ice cream cone! She is such an old-fashioned-looking little girl, all big blue eyes and ringlets, but her personality is 100% in the Now. She has a wickedly life-affirming smile, with all her teeth lined up and dimples ready, and an accompanying silvery laugh that makes it absolutely impossible not to tickle her. She liked her ice cream, but she liked being with her Idol, Avery, even more.
I even broke down and had possibly the best ice cream sandwich EVER, made on the premises, minty and fresh, with that sort of cookie texture that sticks to your teeth and reminds you of all the summers of your midwestern childhood…
Thank goodness, the humidity has loosened its grip on the Northeast! I thought we were all going to be reduced to a puddle of sweat, frankly. The last day of the terrible heat was Thursday, when naturally I had made plans to be in New York City. Let me just say outright that there is no place as humid as New York when it’s humid. The air looked like it was raining, but it was just the dampness suspended between the buildings, rising up from the sweltering sidewalks. Ugh.
But this nasty situation did not stop me from having a completely wonderful time with my dearest friend Alyssa and her dear friend Ivy, my editor and publisher of Vintage Magazine, the coolest new kid on the block of print media. I am terribly proud to have had pieces published in both the first and second issues of Vintage, and if you get a chance, subscribe. Whether you alight on an article extolling the nostalgic virtues of the typewriter, or an essay on “Mad Men,” or my own piece on bell-ringing and Dorothy L. Sayers, you will find something to whet your creative appetite, and my dears, the paper quality! No two articles on the same paper, it seems, and pop-ups and cut-outs and all the excitement you never get from a magazine anymore. I’m really tickled to be part of it.
Alyssa introduced Ivy to my blog some time ago, and although we’ve successfully negotiated two editing experiences together, Ivy and I had not met in person until Thursday. We convened at The Clinton Street Baking Company on New York’s LES (Lower East Side, I didn’t know either when I saw it on the waitress’s t-shirt) where granted, as the name implies, most of the emphasis is on baking. Alyssa and Ivy both chose the enormous waffle topped with peaches AND nectarines and whipped cream. Not having a sweet tooth, of course, I gravitated to the savory bits on the menu and had a really fresh, crunchy Cobb-ish salad where instead of chicken, there were giant shrimps poached in a fennel broth, and avocado, crisp bacon, blue cheese, romaine lettuce and tomatoes: luscious.
Ivy is a delight. A real iconoclast with her own way of doing things, as you’ll see from the magazine. What it must be like to live inside a brain teeming as hers is with such wide-ranging creative notions! True to her journalistic obsession with how the past can be brought into the present, she wore a vintage Hermes blue suit, over a sweater with martini glasses knitted into it. Vintage pumps, and handbag. And she carries her credit cards in an enamelled case! Not for her the worn-out wallet that graces my cotton tote bag, stuffed with hand wipes and a library book just in case. Total style is what Ivy has. I could never pull it off.
We had such fun, talking about the magazine (which has won accolades left, right and center), our children, food, New York versus Connecticut. The kind of far-reaching discussion I count on my girlfriends for, and now I have a new one, in Ivy.
We parted from Ivy and slogged through the heat up the street to Katz’s Deli, my answer to that Food Network’s program, “The Best Thing I Ever Ate,” the episode called “Between Bread.” What’s the best sandwich you ever ate? For me, it’s hands-down the pastrami on rye from Katz’s, with a slathering of hot mustard and a pile of half-sour pickles on the side. Not to mention the matzoh ball soup (not as good as Alyssa’s but damn good), and the potato latkes with sour cream (or applesauce, if you’re Avery). Alyssa smiled indulgently at me as the bags piled up around my feet, watched me fighting for my spot at the pastrami-slicing counter, handing over cash (that’s all they take) for my golden haul. “Your car’s going to smell REAL good on that two-hour drive,” she laughed. It did.
And my goodness, on the drive into Manhattan, the nostalgia! NoHo, where we brought home our tiny baby Avery, and baby Avery’s first doctor visit just off Washington Square, Shakespeare and Co booksellers where I first took her book shopping, the Gap where I went in just home from the hospital to say, “I’m sure I’ll be a size 6 again someday,” with clerks solemnly advising, “Why not wait a bit… buy an 8…”
But so much changed! The iconic DKNY mural at Broadway and Houston, which featured the World Trade Center, is now a Hollister ad, a sign of the times… I will never forget that I once sat in traffic in the dead of night, home from teaching, at that very intersection. A traffic drama ensued and, in the car next to me, the driver reached behind his visor, pulled out a pistol, got out of the car and walked to the car who had pulled into his lane. Tapped with the pistol on the duct-taped plastic that served as a driver’s-side window, pushed aside the plastic, said, “What the ****?” and then the light changed. He got back in his car, put the gun back behind the visor, and we all resumed our journeys. New York City, never boring!
Alyssa dragged me through the half-humid-mist, half-rain, under her leopard-print umbrella, to Economy Candy, a mecca from which I would never be able to extricate Avery, should I take her there. Where else could you buy gum in a package that says, “Don’t Have Ugly Kids”? Only on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, for $1. Visit their website, do: it tells you everything you need to know. Just awful, and yet somehow wonderful too. I am a fool about New York.
We all spent that night in a funk over the kitty shelter’s demand that we bring them in for an Adoption Event on Saturday. NOOO! We had not had them long enough. The drama even cast a pall over the marvel of pastrami… and indeed all Friday I felt under a cloud at the idea of letting Jessica, Jamie and Jessamy go…
But time, and an impending dinner party, wait for no man, so there was nothing for it but to get to work. Bleaching the picnic table, site of innumerable lunches and dinners, and soon to be laden with dinner for my darling friend Shelley and her family! And in between this chore and scrubbing the barn windows (why I was compelled to do this when so many of them are broken or outright missing, I do not know), I managed to catch most of “Days of Our Lives” and “General Hospital,” a massive pleasure of mine when I’m in America. I am living in shock at the cancellation of “As The World Turns,” so close on the heels of losing “Guiding Light” last fall. Times do change.
And Shelley and her family arrived, to our excitement, and bearing masses of gifts: wine, tomatoes, cucumbers, chocolate mint (the herb, not the candy!), basil, oregano, sage and rosemary from their herb patch. Heavenly! Now, I shall wait until tomorrow’s post to tell you what we ate… because it is a post all on its own. For the moment, be content with the Condiment of the Night:
(serves a lot as a drizzle, then an addition to salad dressing, a dollop on a burger, etc.)
2 cups each: basil, curly or Italian parsley, arugula
4 cloves garlic
juice of 1 lemon
sea salt and pepper to taste
enough olive oil to make a paste (perhaps 3/4 cup?)
Simply put everything in the Cuisinart and run it until it’s a perfect saucey consistency. It’s like pesto, only without cheese, or pine nuts. VERY light and adds a zesty JNSQ (you know, “je ne sais quoi”) to everything. LOVE IT.
As we ate, revelling in familiar company and the sort of conversation that occurs when three teenage girls get together, and when friends like Shelley and I can hold at least three topics in the air at once, our friend Rollie, Jr., and his gorgeous wife Tricia stopped by, bearing… ZUCCHINI and CUCUMBERS! Our bounty was complete. Tricia laughed over various goat recipes I had given her: we have become firm friends on Facebook, and that means nothing’s off limits as far as topics go! And before we knew it, Anne had stopped by, and we pored over materials from the Gladys Taber reunion, organized by Shelley and Erik, here and across the street, in June before we arrived. I am flabbergasted by the fans Gladys had, still has, and the love they have for our two humble white clapboard houses, sitting in friendship across a dirt road, for 200 years.
I sat back, listening to the girls’ laughter, Shelley’s soft comments at my piece in Vintage, Rollie and Tricia’s tales of the garden, Anne’s rueful reports of bathtime and the dreaded Washing-Of-Hair across the road. “Did you hear the screams?” And I simply felt grateful. Grateful for the gracious, ancient maple tree spreading its branches out to cover our table, grateful for the gift of friendship, visits to my terrace both planned and impromptu, for my darling daughter and husband, for the kittens scrabbling inside. Even grateful for the mountain of dirty dishes I knew was mounting up ahead of me, and for the knowledge that I had to choose between the dishwasher and the washing machine: our electricity cannot handle both at the same time!
Summer, in fact, whether in town or country, is suiting me just fine.
And to top it all off, the shelter called just as we were going to bed, to say they had enough kittens for their Adoption Event and we could keep ours to find homes for them ourselves. HUGE sigh of relief, tumbled into bed with the three of them milling about, chewing on each other, bouncing off the walls. And then… to sleep.