I’ve developed the beginnings of a life philosophy: contrast brings happiness.
After a week of solid rain, there is nothing so welcome as a dose of sunshine. But by the same token, after an unbroken period of blue skies, waking to the patter of rain on the windowsill is inexpressibly cozy.
Or take solitude. Today I am on my own all day because John’s gone off on one of his architectural jaunts, Avery has a long school day with play rehearsal at the end. And it’s strangely pleasant here with no one to talk to, no distractions from whatever my agenda is. But come tomorrow and I’ll be glad enough to drive down to Southampton with John and spend the day with my dear friends Lilith and Janice.
And what could be better after a long day’s blogging, cooking and laundry than a little catnap with Hello! magazine open beside you? If you hadn’t worked so hard, the nap wouldn’t be any fun.
So naturally, being me, I’ve extended this philosophy to my primary job: thinking about food, shopping for food, cooking, eating and then talking about food. And what more…
Yes, blessings, even literally, because last Sunday saw us at that most touching of all September happenings in London, Horseman’s Sunday, or “The Blessing of the Horses” at St John’s Church in Bayswater. Dozens of horses from the two stables in Bathurst Mews gather around in controlled chaos, little girls in bright blue jumpers and jodhpurs, bigger girls controlling their ponies with determined tugs on bridles, girls stepping behind with giant buckets and shovels and brooms, cleaning up the inevitable mess. All the sidling, whinnying and clapping of hooves that means September is here, the school year has begun, and it’s time for the horses to be blessed.
The vicar, who is known to be terrified of horses, waits until the last possible minute to be hoisted, in his green ceremonial cassock, onto the back of some pony deemed to be the calmest on the day. Once in place, the poor clergyman fixes a determined smile on his face and rides around the block to the church, where all the girls, plus dignitaries (not the Pope, we were disappointed to see) and visiting horses from all over the UK, gather.
And they are blessed! They are thanked for their service throughout the year, and for their companionship, and funny stories are told. The vicar tells about a horsey colleague of his who named his favorite pony “Parish Business,” so that when parishioners came to claim him for some annoying task, his wife could in all honesty report that he was “out on parish business.”
Avery is one of the big girls now, and as such is not on horseback but is given a little girl to lead around the festivities. The sun shone on them, because it would not dare to do any less on Horseman’s Sunday. Mr Nye, the beloved 85-year-old owner of the stable, held tight to his microphone as befitted the organiser of the event for the past 43 years and held sway, telling many questionable anecdotes and causing all the other adults to hold their breath at what might be coming next. Every year, exactly the same.
After the blessing, but before the gymkhana in the park, John and went for a completely spectacular meal at the nearby French bistro Angelus, quite simply one of the taste sensations of London. Foie gras creme brulee, if you please! I have tried to make it, to no avail. Creamy, delicate mousse of foie gras under a crackling, slightly sweet layer of poppy seeds and Demerara sugar.
The luxury! My favorite dish in all the world, I think. And completely satisfying to eat it in the only restaurant in the city that makes it, all the more because I’ve been defeated in making it myself.
But I can come home, after a long afternoon watching Avery on Wickham, bucking and rearing in the foxy sunlight, and make:
Roasted Root Vegetables with Chilli Oil and Sage
Simply peel and cut in bite-size pieces the root vegetables of your choice: beetroot, butternut squash, carrots, parsnips. Drizzle them with chilli-infused olive oil, sprinkle with chopped sage and dust with salt and pepper, and roast in the oven at 200C/400 F for 30 minutes, then toss in the oil and serve. Autumn on a plate.
And for complete perfection in a soup bowl, there is:
2 tbsps butter
6 red pepper, chopped roughly
1 shallot, chopped roughly
4 cloves garlic, chopped roughly
3 tbsps Marsala wine
sprinkling of fresh thyme leaves
chicken stock to cover, perhaps 3 cups?
1/2 cup double cream
Forget the fiddly business of roasting the peppers: it doesn’t matter. Simply saute the peppers, shallots and garlic in the butter, then add the Marsala wine and simmer high for a bit. Sprinkle on the thyme leaves and cover the whole lot with chicken stock. Simmer for 20 minutes until peppers are soft, then pulverize with your hand blender and run through a sieve into a clean pot. Swirl in the cream, and get out your straw: this is the best soup ever.
Then it was onto the real business of life: the arrival of our dear New York friends Olimpia and Tony. Olimpia once worked with John, and for that reason she has his number. All of them. She has seen him at his best — a generous and kind-hearted coworker — and at his worst — probably blaming everyone in sight for a plane ticket gone wrong, or in the depths of despair over a deal he’d worked his heart out for that was not going to pan out. In short, she knows him. And still loves him, which is real friendship.
They arrived late at night, with John and me waiting for them in the spitty, Londony rain (Avery annoyed that we had vetoed her staying up as well!). Wildly waving through the car windows, smiling with excitement, they arrived. We hustled their suitcases up to the serene guest room, all white bed linens and soft blue walls, the green beauty of the back garden hidden in the dark, a candle lit on the fireplace mantle, pictures of Avery everywhere, a stack of books — the latest Ian McEwan, an old Laurie Colwin, a Gladys Taber, an Agatha Christie — on the bedside table.
Thursday morning dawned wet and gray. “This is what we should expect of London weather,” Tony said bravely, but it seemed TOO bad when the weather had been gorgeous all month. Nothing, however, could stop us from our adventures, so we piled hilariously into the Fiat (“next time you do that, Tony, I need my video camera!” Olimpia crowed as he squeezed himself in, shoving the seat back and nearly breaking her knees), and drove off to Borough Market, where the tarpaulins and ancient roofs protected us from the downpour.
And the produce! I bought celeriac, basil, Italian parsley, and a bright orange pumpkin from the most perfect produce stand, exchanging wisdom with the proprietor on why my pumpkin soup of last week turned out so un-pumpkiny. “Love, you need a bright orange squash for that, and roasting it ahead of the soup wouldn’t hurt none either,” he allowed, so I am in his debt. If the soup turns out to be something other than creamy chicken stock, as it was last week, you’ll be the first to know.
You will never eat anything like it, until you have cooked with Olimpia. I am offering you the elixir of the gods, here, by sharing her inimitable, peerless recipe. Enjoy.
(makes 24 palm-sized meatballs)
800 grams/ 1 3/4 pounds Sillfield Farms wild boar mince
3–4 slices whole wheat bread, soaked in bread and squeezed dry
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
8 leaves basil, finely chopped
handful Italian parsley, finely chopped
olive oil for frying
In a large bowl, mix the mince with the squeezed bread, shredding the bread as you go. Sprinkle in the Parmesan cheese and mix very well.
In a smaller bowl, whisk eggs fully and mix in all other ingredients except olive oil.
Pour egg mixture into meat mixture and knead well with your hands until completely mixed, at least 5 minutes. Shape into 1 ½ inch balls and set on a platter.
Heat a very large frying pan with enough olive oil to cover the bottom and come up the sides ¼ inch. Fry the meatballs in a single layer, in batches until browned and fully cooked inside, turning twice and if necessary browning on the edges as well. Serve with…
Olimpia’s Magic Tomato Sauce
(makes 6 cups)
olive oil to coat bottom of pan (approximately 2 tbsps)
6 sausages of your choosing
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 large shallot
6 leaves basil, cut in half
½ cup good red wine, like Chianti
4 soup-size cans or 2 large cans crushed tomatoes
handful Italian parsley
salt and pepper to taste
Heat olive oil in large saucepan and fry sausages until brown on all sides. Add garlic, shallot and 1 leaf of basil and fry till garlic and shallot are translucent.
Pour in the red wine and cook down till reduced by half. Add tomatoes. If you cannot find crushed tomatoes, simply put whole or chopped tomatoes through the Cuisinart until smooth. Add parsley and the remaining basil leaves, then season to taste.
Cook sauce, covered, for at least 1 hour, preferably up to 4 hours. Place meatballs gently in sauce and simmer uncovered for at least 1 further hour.
Serve with pasta and Parmesan cheese.
We had the time of our lives cooking, that afternoon. The rain fell, Tony took pictures, we discussed the nature of life and love. I was Olimpia’s devoted slave and chopped, minced, pulverized ingredients to her satisfaction. We talked about wild boar. So much more delicious than beef, or pork! “And just think, Olimpia,” I said, “somebody will probably make head cheese out of all the scraps at that butcher,” and she laughed uproariously and said, “John’s the head cheese,” which made us laugh so hard we could hardly break eggs or grate cheese.
John came in and poured Chianti all round, and Olimpia fried her meatballs, and sauteed sausages, made sauce. The most perfect afternoon.
We headed out, then, we to pick up Avery from a late play rehearsal at school, and Tony and Olimpia to go to see “Deathtrap,” then we all reconvened late that night to hear the reaction (they loved it) and share sandwiches of fresh baguettes, shavings of culatello with finocchio (little prosciutto slices with fennel), slices of good English Double Gloucester cheese, rocket and my fresh pesto.
In the morning it was raining, if anything, even heavier. But Tony was adamant. “I predict it will stop in the afternoon,” and Olimpia chimed in, “He’s never wrong about the weather,” so we donned rain gear, packed umbrellas, and headed off to something I never in my life thought I would see my husband do: climb onto a London tour bus.
On the way, we stopped off at our old Mayfair house, where we moved when we first arrived lo these six years or so ago, and rang the bell of the porter, Laurie, an old friend. He promptly arrived and let us in so we could show Olimpia and Tony the secret garden, the walled splendor behind the houses lining that square, undreamed of from the street. We climbed to the roof and surveyed all of the Mary Poppinsy roofs of Mayfair, the American flag floating serenely above them all, strangely incongruous, but pointing to the American embassy below. The spitty rain fell, and we enjoyed the nostalgic trip. How happy we were there.
On to the bus, and to our tour of all scenic points of the city, stopping at St Paul’s Cathedral, where we got out and had a tour with an idiosyncratic and lovely lady tour guide, leading us from monument to painting to coffin. We decided not to climb to the top in such awful weather, and then left Olimpia and Tony to continue their tour while we raced off to meet Avery at the skating rink. Fridays are Fridays, after all, and skating lessons stop for no man.
Out in a whirl to The Popeseye for a meat-fest — rump, sirloin and fillet steaks all round, plus massive piles of chips (we ate them all), and four different kinds of mustard, plus ketchup, horseradish and a divine Bearnaise sauce. Heaven, discussing travel plans — Olimpia and Tony to Portugal in the morning, we to Florence in October — laughing, feeling grateful to have each other, in the white-paper-tableclothed intimacy of the restaurant, candles everywhere, a gorgeous dinner. Happiness.
And in the morning, after one of John’s famous scrambled-egg brunches (roasted tomatoes an unexpected hugely popular addition!), they were off, to points south and warm. The visit was over.
John and had a little adventure that afternoon, while Avery and her friend Lille samba-ed away in Mayfair: we rented bikes from the new Barclays hire scheme and went all round Hyde Park! What I want to know is why my legs were killing me, when we play tennis four times a week! Avery informed me solemnly that it’s like comparing horse back riding to ice skating. You use completely different muscles, apparently. A really lovely, civilized way to spend an hour, even if I am totally convinced that the park is uphill all the way. All the time. How that can be, I do not know. But I was puffing.
So normal life has returned. It’s Monday, and rainy again. A quiet day of home chores. Lunch of a new chickpea salad. Just September, winding herself down and gearing up for autumn. The darker days are coming.
Have you ever looked into your refrigerator, seen a big bunch of leeks and a container of cream and thought you ought to do something with them? So you moseyed on over to your computer, typed in the search box “leeks and cream recipes” and found a whole host of suggestions. From a whole host of sources, in fact, which in turn represent a whole host of cooks, who’ve contributed their recipes to these vast compendia, online. And did you find a recipe that you wanted to try?
Have you, on the other hand, ever sat down in a comfortable chair with a cookbook, or even a memoir by a cookery writer, and read beyond all the time you really had to spare, dog-earing pages that contained recipes you were tempted to try?
Well, I’ve done both. Many times, both. So I’m intrigued by the debate currently popping up around Facebook and other places I dart around on the internet: is there any justification for online recipe databases, or should we all be rooted firmly in the cookbook tradition? One chef I like a lot, Clifford A. Wright, has come down firmly on the side of cookbooks, calling internet recipe trawling nothing more than “cooking by numbers,” insisting that if you want to become a better cook, you need to read real books, written by real people and, importantly published by real publishers.
What’s the point, he asks, of looking up “lemon cake” for example on an internet search, and coming up with a recipe by (I’m paraphrasing here) Betty, handed to her by her friend Louisa? Who is Betty, anyway, much less who is Louise, and why should we care about their recipes for lemon cake? Have these ladies any bona fides, after all?
Wright insists that the battle toward good cooking is to be won by reading and learning from advice from tried and true sources, taken in context. Marcella Hazan, for example, doyenne of Italian cookery, just look at the cookbooks she has to her name, the published history, the famed reputation. Anything Marcella tells us has weight, believability, and CONTEXT. We know something about the recipe just because Marcella has given it to us.
Betty and Louise? Somewhere in Wisconsin? Not so much.
I think there is room for both, as far as inspiration, direction and just plain recipes go. Let me explain.
Clearly I have no trouble collecting cookbooks. When I first started cooking, and buying cookbooks, a quarter of a century ago, I looked for titles like “The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking,” or “Mrs Chiang’s Szechwan Cooking” (actually both of these were gifts from my adored mother in law!) or “The Breakfast Book,” by Marion Cunningham, a book that I read avidly, dog-earing nearly every other page. In short, I was an ignorant beginner, and I needed as many classic sets of instructions as possible. Olive oil for Italian cooking, peanut oil for Szechwan, rosemary for Italian, soy sauce for Szechwan, garlic for both, pasta beyond spaghetti and macaroni, Chinese food that involved chopping and stir-frying, rather than picking up the phone. And breakfast! Everybody needs a basic muffin recipe, and a way to make hollandaise in a blender, not a double boiler. Basics. Inspirational basics.
The longer I cooked, the more confident I felt in my own opinions. And the more I got interested in the life stories of the cookery writers I liked. As necessary as I found the recipe for Laurie Colwin’s beef stew, as a newlywed, even more sustaining was her commentary on “Alone in the Kitchen With An Eggplant,” her musings about how much she hated Thanksgiving stuffing and why, until she thought of one with Italian sausage and heavy cream… her memories of the worst hangover of her life and how much it was helped by toast and lemonade.
In short, I love cookbooks. I read them like fiction. I find hundreds of recipes I want to cook, I mark all the pages, I daydream and am inspired, and then… I read another. They enrich my life, their spines smile gently at me from my bookshelves when I have an idle moment, memories come back. That story about a whole beef filet, on New Year’s Day, with the tarragon mustard sauce… must make that again, and what about Orlando’s straw potatoes cooked in hot goose fat? How I love Orlando, how his writing workshop changed my life… Avery loves those potatoes.
That is an irreplaceable part of my life, that shelf full of cookbooks.
Now then. What about those leeks and cream in your fridge? What to do with them? Or the big plate of pears your neighbor Charlotte brought over, picked from her own back garden tree?
There is nothing easier than to run to the computer, type in “leeks and cream recipes” and decide to try a tart, adding some diced ham and a bit of fresh thyme you happen to have sitting in a glass on your counter. Or how about a hot soup, or cold vichyssoise? All wonderful ideas. Pear tart, pear and applesauce, pear salad with gorgonzola and rocket? Great ideas, to be found by typing in “pear recipes.” But possibly not one cookbook on your shelf would have recipes for them. You wanted laser-guided research for this one.
Or a leftover brisket stares you in the face. Couldn’t you make corned-beef hash of that, you think. What else is IN corned-beef hash, anyway, you wonder? Run to google, find several hundred recipes, all of which assure you: onions and potatoes and a lifetime supply of butter. Done.
Of course, you don’t get any sense of the life history of the author of Recipe Number 101 for leek tart. You don’t know if the corned-beef hash lady with the nicest photograph of her dish is English, or American or French. You just like her photo and the basics of her instructions. So be it. As Audrey Hepburn said in “Charade,” “I don’t have room in my life for another friend. In order for me to make a new friend, a friend I have now would have to die.” Sometimes you just want a recipe.
I proposed this debate — to find recipes online or not, that is the question– to my long-suffering husband and recipe guinea pig, John. And he immediately confirmed what I thought. (So convenient, that trait, in a husband). Both online and on-bookshelf are completely necessary. What you lose in the online search, he says, is simple. “There’s no accidental discovery.” Looking for corned-beef hash, you won’t accidentally come upon cassoulet, and be transported back to Paris in all its garlicky, bean-laden glory. You’ll find corned-beef hash.
It’s the old debate between the merits of Amazon.com, and the merits of Daunt Books in the Marylebone High Street. You go to Amazon.com when you want the latest in the Donna Leon mystery series set in Venice. There it is, you buy it. Corned-beef hash all over again. But if you don’t know WHAT you want, you just know you haven’t anything to read, you go to Daunt, and browse. You turn from Agatha Christie to Stephen Fry to street guides of Morocco to the Man Booker Prize shortlist. You are inspired.
You could make cassoulet after all.
So I am pleased that I don’t have to choose between allrecipes.com and “The Clatter of Forks and Spoons” by Richard Corrigan, that sexiest of all portly Irish chefs. I can look up the proportion of flour to yeast online when I want to make pizza, and accomplish that in 30 seconds, no distractions. And when I want to read about Dublin bay prawns and be lured into a recipe for a creamy crab tart with goats cheese, I can cozy up with Richard and be transported.
Isn’t it nice to have both.
And for a complete diversion, don’t forget that most spontaneous way to find a recipe. It’s on that plate of salad you had for lunch, at your local deli, and in your tastebuds and taste memories and the inspiration of your life’s cooking. Taste, be inspired, and cook.
Chickpea and Courgette Salad with Mint, Chillies and Goats Cheese
(serves 4 as a side dish)
2 soup-size tins chickpeas, drained
1 large courgette (zucchini), inner seedy core discarded, and the courgette diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
8 leaves mint, minced fine
handful flat-leaf parsley, minced fine
1/2 red onion, diced
juice of 1 lemon
LOTS of olive oil, perhaps 1/3 cup
sea salt to taste, fresh ground black pepper
sprinkling of minced hot red chillies
100 grams goats cheese, crumbled
In a big, shallow bowl, mix everything but the goats cheese very well, stirring as you add ingredients, letting stand a bit. Just before serving, sprinkle on goats cheese and mix gently.
What a difference it makes to have our family complete again! Since we are both working from home these days, John and I have become completely spoilt in the amount of time we spend together, nattering across the partner desk in the front study, sending each other emails as we speak, grocery shopping together, running Avery to and from her various activities, always both of us. Why? Because doing things with John elevates them from just tasks, just errands, to little special occasions, infused with his own special brand of good humor, his boundless energy, optimism, self-confidence and generosity of spirit. “Let me carry that for you,” or “Do you need any help with that?” are the sorts of things he says all day, because that is how he sees life. There must be something he can do to help.
So Avery and I returned to America without him with heavy hearts, a bit, but a little ashamed, because we used to do without him all the time, when he was on long business trips, or just long hours at the office. Why is it so much easier to get used to good things than to bad things? There is a philosophical dissertation in that. We have all got used to being together much easier than we learned to accept being apart. Of course, having the big kids around made everything a bit better… here they are, three Three Musketeers (Tacy refuses to join them, too princesslike is she).
And Avery and I did all right by ourselves! Even with my stomach bug, and jetlag and not being a morning person in any case, under the best of circumstances, we did just fine. It was actually kind of fun to get both the pre-school morning accounts of what was to come, and the post-game analysis at the end of the day. It was sort of sweet both to make the raspberry crumble for her breakfast late at night, and be up to warm it up for her the next day.
One day last week, I got more than a day’s worth of exercise in that most time-honored of all ways, which all parents will recognize… walking to and from school. Once to and from first thing in the morning (finding Avery’s PE shoe on the way home, so actually a little extra that trip), then back for Lost Property duty at noon, and home again. Back to pick Avery up at the end of the day, home with her. THEN back again for the Parents’ Guild meeting at 6. I say my piece at the meeting, vote on some things, listen to some debate, then sneak out to meet Orlando, my darling tutor from our Arvon writing class, for dinner. I dial his number to say I’m ready.
“This number is not in service. Please check your information and try again.”
Grrr. I try again. Same again.
I dial up Avery, at home, to get her to check my email to find the right number.
“You have reached Avery. Please leave a number at the beep, at least I think it’s a beep, I don’t really know.” Beep.
In frustration I leave my message but then realize I must go home AGAIN to get the proper phone number if I’m ever going to see Orlando, have a bite of supper, and get home AGAIN to get Avery to bed. I get home.
“Avery, why aren’t you answering your phone? I needed you to check my email so I didn’t have to come all the way back.”
“Uh… I think it doesn’t have any battery.” Grrr. I reprogramme the number, the phone rings, it’s Orlando already AT the restaurant, so I speed off again.
If you are a carnivore, and ONLY if, The Popeseye in Hammersmith is for you. To say the menu is limited is to utter an understatement. It’s steak. And chips. And salad. That’s ALL. Sirloin, rump, ribeye, fillet. All different sizes. But that is all. White paper tablecloths, lots of candles everywhere, a glorious wine list, apparently, and the best steak you could ever want, plus a charmingly enormous tray full of every condiment known to man and some unknown. Horseradish, mustard, ketchup, check. But the other six glass bowls? No idea.
Furious chatting. I love Orlando, and his lovely friend Susie, and the hour and a half at my disposal simply sped by. And ONE MORE walk home. I think five trips in one day is a record. I plan that it shall remain so.
And the next day I managed to get ready for the famed Lost Property luncheon all by myself, hauling extra chairs down from the top floor of the house, and the big ugly buffet table up from the cellar. Once I dragged the table out to the garden, however, and covered it with a thick old white linen cloth, it looked quite distinguished, and not at all as if it had a plastic top and folding metal legs.
But I was defeated by the kitchen island, made of a heavy Victorian wrought-iron base and an unattached 2-inch-thick slate top. I simply could not budge it, which John had warned me. “Get Selva to help you,” he advised. Well, getting Selva to help me do anything is a complete joy, not only because he is my dear neighbor and a really sweet man, but because he is drop-dead gorgeous. I have confessed my weakness to his beautiful wife Sara, who must hear such things every day, or at least witness them as the path before Selva is littered with the helpless bodies of females who cannot resist his urbane charms. He just can’t do anything about it.
So it was but the work of a moment to accost him with his family on the way to school and plead my case, and barely an hour later, there he was, ready to roll his sleeves up and drag that puppy across the kitchen floor. “How many people did you say were coming?” he asked, clearly thinking I had lost my tiny mind, looking around the kitchen at the neat piles of plates, glasses full of upended knives and forks, straight rows of champagne glasses. “Thirty,” I said, “and I know you won’t believe me when I say it’s the most relaxing afternoon of the year.”
But it is true! There are many reasons for this. I love to have a party, and this is the best kind: it’s filled with people who have great attitudes and charm and willingness to help. It’s in the afternoon so you can have a lovely time and then still be on time for pickup, and it’s potluck, which means the kitchen counter is filled to capacity with the generous and delicious donations of other people. All I contributed was stuffed mushrooms (they were very nice). Oh, and a gorgeous bowl of potato salad which… I forgot about, and found only after everyone had left. Rats!
The ladies arrived, some bringing little presents, some flowers, like this gorgeous display of very posh hydrangeas in dusty, muted tones of rosy gray. They brought salads of rocket and salmon, of beet and chard leaves with sunflower seeds, a huge platter of smoked haddock cakes with a tatziki dip, chicken with preserved lemons, olives and couscous, an enormous cheese plate, and a chocolate and raspberry Pavlova, decadent with both meringue AND whipped cream.
It’s one of the great pleasures of life, I think… time to talk with like-minded mothers about the things that matter to us: what books we read over the summer, how our girls are adjusting to the new school year, David Cameron’s new baby, and of course Lost Property itself. How to get the girls to stop leaving their housekeys, their bus passes, their asthma inhalers, their father’s cashmere sweaters, ALL over the school to be sorted through and reassigned?
Through it all the sun appeared and disappeared in a sky that threatened rain now and then. We sat on with our cheese plates and gossip, simply enjoying each other’s company.
And being the sort of ladies they are — problem solving LP ladies, that is — they left the kitchen in a state of absolute pristine perfection, dishtowels hung in front of the stove to dry, plates neatly stacked, glasses back in their cardboard boxes ready to be hauled down to the cellar again. My dear friend Sally even brought her own apron to wrap herself in as she washed countless plates and forks, chatting all the while, and giving me a ride to school afterward. How I love those ladies.
Avery and I more than ready to collapse that evening with a pizza, and spin out the hours till John came home, and before midnight, he did! Filling the house with his big presence, his jolly laugh, drawing the cats to him as they tried to remember who he was, devouring a piece or two of pizza while he filled us in with last details of the house, Connecticut life, his goodbyes to our friends. I laughed and told him that my friend Tricia had said on his last night there, “I think you left something behind in Connecticut, and it’s LONELY.”
We had all been a bit lonely!
So life took off again in its usual September fashion. Sadly, of course, one of the rituals included in this unfolding of the month is the awful anniversary of September 11. This year we went to the Memorial to British victims, in Grosvenor Square, where the American Embassy crouches heavily over all the green. We went, and remembered.
And that night we went to see the best play any of us can remember seeing! “Deathtrap”! An old classic, but well worth revisiting. Actual screaming from the audience, and TWICE, if you can believe it. We were all surprised out of skins TWICE. Go, do.
And on the Sunday we went to Hyde Park to try to rent bicycles in the new Bike Hire scheme, intent on getting some exercise. Alas, the scheme requires signing up ahead of time by computer, and although John whipped out his trusty iPhone, the website was down. But what a clever idea: once signed up, all you have to do is turn up at one of the hundreds of sites around the city, with bikes tethered electronically to stands, enter your information, and bob’s your uncle… you have a bike for as long as you want it! Then you return it to any of the sites, anywhere!
All we could do was to wander around in the blinky sunlight, and alight on some chairs by the Round Pond (guess why it’s called that) and read for a bit. A slow wander back home, and would you believe that during all this activity, dinner was cooking itself.
Slow-Cooked Shoulder of Pork with Beets and Butternut Squash
(serves at least 8, or 4 with leftovers for sandwiches)
1 shoulder of pork, boned and tied
handful each: fresh rosemary, fresh thyme, fresh marjoram
3 large beets, peeled and halved
1 large butternut squash, peeled and cut into large chunks
1 head garlic, cloves separated and peeled
drizzle olive oil
2 tbsps butter
sea salt and pepper
Simply lay the herbs in a large baking dish and lay the pork on top. Arrange the beets, squash and garlic around the pork, drizzle olive oil on vegetables and smear butter over top of the pork. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and wrap the whole dish in a piece of heavy foil, trying your best to seal it.
Roast at 110C/220F for six hours. Remove foil and lift vegetables onto a serving dish. Return pork to oven for one more hour. Fall down in heavenly happiness.
That’s autumn, on a plate. And next day, get yourself a nice floury ciabatta, slice the leftover pork, a little sharp Cheddar cheese. Spread some homemade salsa verde on one half of the bread and some mayo on the other half, then pile on some sliced red onion and a handful of rocket. There will be no better sandwich than that. Enjoy yours…
I’m a bit down, truth to tell. Walking home from dropping Avery off at school, with the first of the autumn leaves falling around me, I analyzed this situation.
Recovering from a dire stomach bug that hit me on Saturday… that’s part of it. Jetlag and shivery aches sort of elided, impossible to distinguish, and I spent all of Sunday feeling firmly sorry for myself. Avery stepped right up to the plate, running around the corner to the Everything Store to bring back all the fizzy beverages I felt would bring me back to the land of the living. But the alarm clock waited for no sick person, so up we were for the school week on Monday.
Partly, it’s down to the weather. I am terribly spoiled by our summer holiday! London’s grey, foggy skies are charming in their own way, but the contrast with Connecticut’s brilliant blue skies, green grass, creamy hydrangea blossoms is startling to say the least. It will take me awhile to get used to it.
I also must admit shamefully that I simply hate to see Avery go off to school again. I miss her! She has become, over the summer, an unquestioned young lady, full of hilarious observations about Doctor Who and its brilliant soundtrack, the varying benefits and pitfalls of foundations, concealers, shimmering bronzers and eye-popping mascaras. The house is so quiet without her; I find myself looking at my watch and saying pitifully to the cats, “She’ll be home soon.”
And added to that, our lovely summer conversations about kittens, fashion, and such are replaced by rather intense back-and-forths about Russian homework, outgrown PE kit, painful orthodontist appointments. Real life! That’s what I’m moaning about. Every day I look forward so much to seeing her after school, but I have to steel myself for the barrage of controversy and worrisome topics! We try to salve these with a calming snack at the deli: a slice of millionaire shortbread, perhaps, or a blueberry muffin.
This is a funny age, I think (hers, of course, there is NOTHING funny about being 45). Fourteen in November! New bits of independence seem to come at me from all sides. On Saturday she and her friend Lille ran all around Kensington with their own money, their own Tube cards, their phones, and their unshakeable self-confidence. I perched on the sofa, sewing a name tape onto Avery’s new school hoodie, looking at my watch and trying not to panic. And of course they turned up perfectly well. Sigh of relief.
But what about a question with her schoolwork? Is that still my business? The maternal instinct in me wants to intervene in a difficult situation, to sit down with the teacher myself, to take care of it all and let her be a child. But you know what? She isn’t any more. If she wears little kitten heels, she tops me by a smidgen. She teaches me how to add features to my blog! She deals with friendships and responsibilities with total aplomb. I have to learn to step aside, stay out of the space between her and the rest of the world, let the space close up, absorbing her little girlhood. I’m not very good at it.
And we miss John! He’s still in America, having real estate adventures in Maine, sending us tantalizing photographs of inimitable purple sunsets, lobster boats drawn up to the dock, beloved friends that we miss so much. He is headed today back to Red Gate Farm for the unenviable task of emptying the refrigerator, plus mundane things like turning off the water, going to the dump and bringing in the beautiful sign made by my father, which should not have to weather the winter winds and snow to come. He will then finally get on a plane and come back to us! Just in the nick of time, I think.
And Lost Property! How I love it, the volunteer ladies with a sparkle in their eyes, seeing the girls in all their variety (and variety of lost items! I’m very curious about where the pair of black maribou wings came from). The famed Autumn Term luncheon is Friday, and to stave off my gloom today, I did a luxurious Marks and Spencer food shop, came home to my cozy kitchen, turned on the BBC News, and settled down to experiment with two new recipes. Don’t you think these will please my Ladies Who Volunteer (and Then Lunch)?
Portobello Mushrooms Stuffed with White Crab, Goats Cheese and Chives
(serves 4 as a light lunch)
200 grams/7 ounces white crabmeat
200 grams/7 ounces goats cheese
12 chives, finely chopped
4 green onions/scallions, white part only, finely chopped
3 tbsps panko (Japanese) breadcrumbs
1 tbsp double cream
squirt lemon juice
extra chives, chopped large, to garnish
Remove the stems from the mushrooms and set aside for another recipe. Brush each mushroom with olive oil and bake at 180C/350F for 8 minutes.
Mix all other ingredients well and spoon into each mushroom evenly, piling high if necessary. Bake in the heated oven for 10 minutes. Garnish with chives. May be served hot, warm or at room temperature. Serve with baguette chunks if you like, for a heartier meal.
This dish is very pretty, very light, very ladylike. The panko really serves merely to absorb the combined juices of the cooking mushroom and the crabmeat. I thought about leaving out the cream, as the first version I made emitted a little pool of juice on the serving plate. But the luxurious texture and taste of English double cream is not to be despised, so the addition of the breadcrumbs seemed to be a good idea.
For something a bit heartier, a bit more of an autumn dish, try:
Portobello Mushrooms Stuffed with Chilli Sausage, Mushrooms, and Pecorino
(serves 4 as a light lunch)
4 portobello mushrooms
4 highly-flavored pork sausages, with chilli if you can find them (added chilli flakes if you cannot)
chopped stems of these mushrooms, plus 2 more chestnut mushrooms, chopped rather fine
1 tbsp double cream
3 tbsps panko (Japanese) breadcrumbs)
2 tbsps Pecorino cheese
handful chives, chopped large to garnish
Brush each mushroom with olive oil and bake at 180C/350F for 8 minutes.
Remove the sausages from their casings and saute until fully cooked. Add chopped mushrooms and saute until soft. Mix in a bowl with all the other ingredients besides chives.
Spoon mixture into each mushroom and bake in heated oven for 10 minutes. Garnish with chives and serve hot or warm.
Delicious! Rich! I felt duty-bound to eat one of each, “just to make sure they’re OK,” as John always says, to protect my guests, of course! I don’t know which I prefer, so I think on Friday I will make 6 of each and let my ladies fight over them.
This lovely cooking project has cheered me up, I admit. There is something warming and comforting about puttering around with ingredients, tasting and experimenting, filling the kitchen with savory aromas. The kitties milled around, sure there would be a scrap for them.
This evening I will deliver the extra mushrooms from my experiment to my dear neighbors, Sara and Selva, and hope I can rope Selva who is even taller than John, into helping me move the HUGE buffet table up from the cellar, dusty and spidery as it is, and to move the unbelievably heavy slate-topped kitchen island off to one side. The weather on Friday is — guess what — deluges of rain, so any hopes I had of planting half my guests into the garden must be scuppered.
Tonight Avery, with her too-tight braces, can have the most perfect creamy mushroom soup, nice and soft…
This soup was made with the most perfect stock from a roasted chicken… have you ever tucked beets in with your chicken? Simply peel one raw beet per person, cut them in half, and place them in the roasting dish with the chicken. Sprinkle with fresh thyme, whole garlic cloves, olive oil and sea salt, and roast the chicken at 180C/350F. You will find the resulting beets perfectly cooked, densely rich, and SO good for you.
You know, I’ve cheered myself up! Thank goodness for my kitchen, people to feed, and for my blog, where I can moan at will. A thin little sunray has decide to favor my garden! And in a few hours… Avery will be home.
Excuse me! It’s the jetlag talking. Our lives involve a fair amount of speculation as to what method will prevent jetlag. Or reduce jetlag. How to manage jetlag. There’s no foolproof approach.
Now, flying the other way, west, that is, is fine. We feel like it’s later than it is when we get there, so getting to sleep straightaway is no problem. I wake up early for about three days, but that just puts me where normal people usually are, feeling great at 7 a.m.
Going east, on the other hand, poses a small set of insurmountable little obstacles, primary among them the fact that we don’t want to GO! We want to stay where we are. A second problem involves Avery and me being nightowls to begin with, so when the clock tells us it’s bedtime, we’re just beginning to think about dinner. We tend to give Avery a week or so for her body to figure out the situation, then school starts.
This fall, we adopted a rather more radical approach that I’m calling “Pretend It Isn’t Happening.” We hopped on a day flight on Wednesday, spent eight delightful hours in the company of a young, gorgeous British comedy screenwriter (I’m not making this up), arrived in our London home at nearly midnight, and got up at 6:30 for school.
Did it work?
We thought it did, Thursday and Friday. I spent the days at Lost Property, sorting through piles of noxious flotsam, and Avery spent them in Latin, History and Biology, sorting though her own intellectual jetsam.
Today, however… I cannot seem to keep my eyes open! My latest strategy (I tried laundry, BBC News 24 and grocery shopping) is making pizza dough. Avery’s beloved friend Lille is over for dinner, and as such I’d better produce something. Cappellini alla carbonara and homemade garlic bread it is. But I’m still yawning.
My goodness, our flight companion was simply the best. Paul sat down, struggling with his carryon which was a backback tied up with shoelaces. “This is my new method of securing my belongings, since I don’t really believe in belongings, people who steal just don’t have enough themselves,” he assured us as he wove and unwove the shoestrings to remove a battered notebook covered in illegible but entertaining-looking graffiti.
“I’m just coming down from 89 days of couch-surfing,” Paul offered, and we fell for it.
“What’s couch-surfing?” I ask, ready to listen to just about anything this handsome, winsome and very young charmer had to tell us. Avery’s face was a picture. It was as if you’d given her a list of boxes to tick for “what makes a person fascinating” and there was her list, ticked off and only one mother’s airplane seat away. Slightly unshaven, flashing white smile (which flickered constantly), America-admiring, adventure-seeking English chap, hers for eight whole hours.
And couch-surfing! It’s dot.org, so you know it’s a good idea. My goodness, if I were 23 again I’d be all over the idea. You log in and go to the place you want to go, say New York, and find people who are willing to share their couches (and dinner tables, and sage advice, and probably a fair amount of alcohol) in exchange for the very vague, karma-friendly notion that someday they might need a couch in, say, Sydney.
So Paul and his three lovely friends — one brave girl among them! — who knew each other to varying degrees when the adventure began and, one imagines MUCH better by the time it ended — spent the whole summer touring the United States of America. On people’s couches.
And in hammocks! Their blog… well, it’s a heartwarming list, really, is here. Yes, if they couldn’t find a couch, they resorted to the hammocks they brought with them, and each other. “There had to be some spooning,” Paul reveals.
Can you imagine the adventure?! I can’t wait for Avery to be old enough — her father will say it’s a LONG WAY AWAY — to do something like this.
Our conversation ranged from Stupid Informercials We Have Known (Avery contributes “How often have you wished your blanket had ARMS?”) to food fads (Paul: “I have friends who are vegetarians but they eat fish. They are vegequarians.”), and everywhere in between. What fun.
John’s worst nightmare, to get on a plane and have to talk for eight hours. But it turns out that Avery is at least partly me.
England is just as wonderful as when we left. We are trying to remember our fluency in the language like “apart from” instead of “except for,” “cashpoint” instead of “ATM,” and said machine asking if you’d like an “advice slip” instead of a “receipt.” And last night Avery said, without missing a beat, that something at school was “Manda-tree,” instead of the prosaic American “Mandatory,” so I know we’re home.
The cats are ENORMOUSLY fat, both compared to how they were when we left (a summer of eating and not moving from their chairs except to eat) and compared to the tiny kittens we fostered. But the territorial fights with neighbor cat Charlie are as fierce as ever…
I’m ashamed to say I let this particular conflict last long enough for me to take a photograph, then I shooed Charlie away. After all, it counted as exercise and maybe Hermione peeled off a few ounces, out of sheer anxiety.
Partly what is making Avery and me so sleepy is our loneliness for our Third Musketeer. John has stayed behind in America, actually driving all the way up the Eastern Seaboard to spend some Him Time with old friends in Maine. He sends his love, and this view…
But real life is here at my dining room table, which soon must hold plates of creamy, garlicky pasta and wedges of crunchy, cheesy garlicky pizza dough, none of which will happen if I don’t run. Or walk.
8 oz dry capellini
1 cup good English bacon, diced
4 coves garlic, minced
1/2 cup grated Pecorino or Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup creme fraiche
3 tbsps light cream
1/2 tsp salt
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
fresh ground pepper
About 15 minutes before you want to eat, boil pasta according to directions, about 10 minutes. Drain over a bowl so you can reserve 1/2 cup of the cooking water. Set aside. In a large heavy skillet, fry the bacon and then add the garlic, stirring over the flame until the garlic is JUST cooked but not burned. Add the pasta, toss well and take off the heat.
In a large bowl, mix the cheese, creme fraiche, creme, salt and eggs. Then add the reserved pasta water and whisk well. Pour over the ham and spaghetti in the skillet and turn the heat up high for just long enough to toss the whole mixture together with tongs. Serve immediately with grated Parmesan.