It’s hard to believe: 12 hours from the moment we walk out our door in London, we walk in the door of Red Gate Farm. Twelve hours from one world to the next, from taxi to airport, air then airport, another taxi, and here we are.
And we didn’t just arrive: we were welcomed! John’s mom was here, having put up the Christmas tree and the lights with the help of David across the street, and lit the candles on the dining table, and produced a pot of oyster stew, our traditional Christmas Eve dinner! And our reunion with last summer’s fluffy kitten, Jessamy.
It WAS Christmas Eve, just as Avery insisted it would be. The date really didn’t matter a bit; it was fine that all day the flight attendants and ticket takers said, “Merry Christmas.” When we arrived at home, it was Christmas Eve, with all the magic of carols playing in the background, everyone running around bringing up boxes from the basement, shouting, “Has anybody…
The best-laid plans…
I’m not meant to be blogging. I’m meant to be just a few hours away from my Connecticut farmhouse, ready to pull the Christmas trees from the waiting barn, hang all the silver balls and ornaments, race to the shop for wrapping paper, jump over to the grocery for all the ingredients for our mammoth Saturday dinner, get John’s mom’s room ready, put the traditional Christmas Eve oyster stew on the stove, the decorations just so…
Instead, I’m sitting in my London living room waiting for John and Avery to get home from “Harry Potter,” her consolation prize for being here. Two words: flight cancelled.
As you all know, I am extremely fond of my adopted home and even find many things about it — sausages and the accent, for example — superior to America. But there’s a can’t-do approach to snow removal here in England that boggles the Midwestern American mind. Here it is Wednesday, and Heathrow is still reeling from the four inches that fell, let’s see, on Sunday. It’s simply infuriating.
How on earth am I going to arrive on Christmas Night, with all my traditions turned upside down, and produce a proper Christmas, all the shops being shut? I can tell you that yesterday was challenging for me, who thrives on everything turning out just as I want. What was I to do?
I spent the afternoon on the phone breaking the news to my brother in law that I won’t be there to make the gravy, to the girl who was to housesit for us, arranging for her whole family to spend the holiday here enjoying our tree and decorations. A perverse consolation there: I’m not spoiling her holiday, Heathrow is: her family’s flights were cancelled too. John called his mom, who is bravely going to go ahead of us and open up the house the day before Christmas. And our dear, dear neighbors across the road have kindly filled our refrigerator to welcome her.
But still. A disappointment. What is Christmas without all the preparations, the candles on the mantel lit, the fire flickering over the silver balls on the tree, all the right dishes cooking at the right time, the stockings ready for their burdens of chocolate?
We pushed it all aside to run off to the wretched, incompetent airport to pick Avery up from her trip to St Petersburg. The various parents gathered in the International Arrivals area, trading stories of the texts we had received from our girls extolling the virtues of the Hermitage and the shopping, the icicles and the snowdrifts.
And suddenly there she was, red-cheeked with excitement, topped by an enormous fox fur hat, giving and receiving hugs from all her new best friends, shouting, “Merry Christmas!”
“It’s BOILING in this country!” she said, her down jacket falling off her shoulders. “And you call this snow?! As we were landing and we saw all the snow that had brought the country to a screeching halt, we just had to laugh!”
We postponed telling her to what a screeching halt her own plans had come to, and listened to the stories of room after room of lapis lazuli, malachite, carved plaster and gilded ceilings. And presents! Icons, scarves, a tiny matrushka doll set, the tiniest inside being the size of a popcorn kernel!
Her merriment was contagious! The fur hat perched on her head, she leant forward in the car and talked a blue streak, story after story of the recurring jokes among her friends, the terrible bed she had to sleep on, the awful food (“uncooked fish, but not fish that was meant to be eaten raw, just not COOKED!”), the endless cups of tea with more and more sugar to make them palatable, the fun of trying out her Russian! “I keep saying ‘pazhulste” and ‘spasiba’ to everyone now!”
We got home and sat immediately down at the dining room table to upload all the wonderful photos of her trip: “This is the chandelier tour of St Petersburg!” and to hear all the exciting stories. How thrilling to have her tell stories of an exotic place we’ve never been. “I want to take you there sometime and show you everything!”
We ate her favorite dinner of broccoli and tomatoey, cheesy pasta, and listened endlessly. Then with the confession that she had changed clothes not at ALL during the trip, merely adding layers as the days went by, she went off for a long, hot, bubbly bath and I started the washing machine humming in the background.
John and I sighed simultaneously and admitted that we were worn out! The drama and disappointment of the cancelled flight had been completely overwhelmed by the joy of having Avery safely home. I hadn’t admitted to myself how far away she felt, how insecure I felt being separated from her over such a distance, both physical and emotional. I hadn’t admitted it until she returned, and I looked at her glowing, beautiful, familiar face and felt suddenly, “This is all I need for Christmas.”
And it’s so true. Who cares what day of the month it is when we finally walk in the door of Red Gate Farm and fold John’s mom in a hug? What difference will it make whether or not the decorations are up when my nieces Jane and Molly are running around screeching and Avery is looking down at them from her great teenage height? Once my stalwart husband carries in the Christmas tree and lights the first of the holiday fires, it won’t matter a bit that I didn’t get to the grocery! Thanks to my friends across the road, the house will be warm to receive us, and when my sister and brother in law arrive for whatever dinner we’re able to manage, we’ll all be together.
Maybe I needed a little snow, a little delay, a little disruption, to shake me out of my silly wish to control all the details. Our Christmas will be right on time, whenever it happens.
If you’d asked me yesterday, I’d have said that our weekend break to West Sussex was just what the doctor ordered: all my energy back after the last chaotic weeks in London, ready to fly off to America to host our Christmas celebration.
That was yesterday. In the snowy, gorgeous, peaceful countryside.
Today, we awoke to news that at least two of Heathrow’s five runways are closed. Snow. And so our precarious calm has been shattered.
As a Midwestern American whose winters meant snow that fell in November and remained on the ground until March, I am completely flummoxed by the paralysis that takes over London and particularly Heathrow when two inches of snow fall on the ground. It’s as if every single winter, the occurrence of snow takes everyone entirely by surprise. “Wait, everyone, here it comes again, that white stuff! Forget Keep Calm and Carry On, it’s time to Panic and Freak Out!”
So I am taking a deep breath and trying to feel that it’s perfectly all right for my teenage daughter to be stranded in St Petersburg — her flight was to be tomorrow — and our whole family was to travel to America on Wednesday. Will any of this happen? Or will my poor mother in law arrive at my empty Connecticut home to fend for herself?
Somehow this is all eerily reminiscent of the last school trip, in April, to Pompeii… stranded by the volcano! It’s enough to make you just stay home.
Home, for the last several weeks, has been madness. There was the much-anticipated skating show at Queensway, for which Avery and her skating pal have been practicing for nearly a year. It’s one of those responsibilities of parents: turn up at your child’s event no matter what, even if it will take place on ICE with no heat and last three hours, only 92 seconds of which will feature your child.
So off we went, I leaving a cast-iron dish of slow-braising shoulder of beef and sausages and mushrooms, reposing in a very low oven. How nice it would be to return to a lovely, hot dinner after all that ICE. And of course there was drama. Just after Avery’s piece was finished — and she was lovely! — there was a bumping sound behind us and in the dark and confusion, it took some time for us to realize that an elderly lady had collapsed. First with a fainting spell, then falling into the mirrored wall at the edges of the rink.
Only John’s phone would work, so of course he was at the frontline of the rescue attempts. “Look at Daddy, how good he is to help out,” Avery whispered, shivering with cold. It was a bit disconcerting to experience just how long it took for an ambulance to come: shouldn’t the rink have at least a paramedic on hand at all times? I began to feel, as well, concern for my dinner, and on a larger scale, for my house should my dinner burn dry and catch the entire place on fire.
No worries, all was well when we arrived home (plus the lady was revived and fine, I’m ashamed to say concern for her lagged a bit behind concern for my dinner). Do look up the recipe on the index and cook that dish. It’s a total winner with everyone, and so flexible, as it turns out!
The following day Avery and I went with her friend Lille to a stunningly beautiful Christmas Carol concert last weekend at Holy Trinity Brompton, a church adjacent to the Brompton Oratory in South Kensington. What a church! The most varied group of parishioners I’ve ever seen in any church: young and old, black and white, from the obviously very posh to the lowliest student. And the music… a professional chamber orchestra, the church’s own choir. How I love to sing, and hardly ever get the chance.
What a holiday joy!
No report of our lives lately can be complete without a litany of the many, many vegetables it turns out can be successfully roasted, and eaten by my husband. He is a positive proselytizer on the subject. All of them simply cut in half or thirds, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with chili flakes, then roasted in a hot oven for 35 minutes. Roasted fennel and parsnips? Check.
And since woman cannot live by veg along, there have been so many heartwarming holidayish moments in life lately… there was the day I bought my usual weekly “The Big Issue” magazine from my local guy, outside the Tesco’s. What a lovely project that magazine is: employing homeless people right off the streets, giving them some support, some pride in providing a really nice read, and some respect from the neighbors walking by. “I almost bought one yesterday, outside Boots,” I assured him, “but I am loyal to you.” He looked a bit shy of me, but then reached into his bag and brought out a large square envelope. “Merry Christmas to you, love,” he said, “and thank you for your support.” The card is signed “Dave,” so now I know.
And the snowy day when I walked to pick up Avery at school, forgetting my umbrella. I stood outside the gates getting wetter and wetter, when I felt a hand on my shoulder. “My dear,” said a very Greek voice, “you must not stand here. You must come wait for your daughter in my car, while I wait for mine. Come.” I followed him cautiously, a big bear of a man. We sat in the steamy interior and he said suddenly,
“Is she your only child?”
“Yes, she is.”
“Mine too, and I have put everything I am, and everything I hope for, into my wishes for her future.”
“So have I,” I said, “and sometimes I worry that it’s too much for her.”
“I also, worry this,” he said.
“But I don’t think any child ever died from too much love,” I said, and he patted my hand and said, “I have concluded this as well.”
We introduced ourselves and exchanged stories about school, then I saw Avery in the dark and jumped out, thanking him. I looked back to wave at him and he pointed to a girl walking toward the car. “That’s my daughter,” I could lipread. I put my hand on Avery’s shoulder and smiled, and he smiled back at me.
And the next time I was chatting with Dave over “The Big Issue,” I was clasped in an enormous down-coated hug. “Kristen, my friend!” and it was Angelus, the dad from that wet day. “This is a nice lady,” Dave said and Angelus said, “I have reason to know it.” That is Christmas, to me.
And on these cold Christmassy days, what we all need is a warm, sustaining dinner to keep us going. Do you fancy these? My friend Karen can report that they are delicious, as she cooked them over the weekend!
1.5 pounds mixed beef, pork and lamb (or veal, or just one meat)
1/4 cup breadcrumbs
1/4 cup milk
large tbsp Italian seasoning
large tsp garlic salt
8 leaves basil, chopped
1 large ball mozzarella
3 tbsps olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 white onion, minced
1 large plus 1 small can whole tomatoes, squeezed
salt and pepper to taste
grated parmesan to garnish
Get the meat to not-freezing-cold temp. Mix the egg, milk, breadcrumbs, seasonings and basil in a large bowl. Add meat and mix thoroughly. Form into hollows in the palm of your hand, adding a dollop of mozzarella to each and forming meat around it. Tuck it in where necessary, rolling as best you can to keep mozzarella inside, forming about 10 balls.
Heat olive oil in heavy skillet. Fry meatballs gently on one side till brown, then using a combination of spatula and tongs, turn them each over to cook on the other side till brown. Transfer to a plate and cover to keep warm.
Fry garlic and onion in remaining oil, scraping up bits. Pour in tomatoes, squeezing as you go. Season to taste, and cook for about half an hour, stirring. Then gently add meatballs to the sauce. Turn heat down LOW LOW LOW and simmer for an hour or so, longer if you can, stirring a few times.
Garnish with cheese and serve with spaghetti.
These were my reward for a long couple of days preparing for the Preview and the Sale of Lost Property at Avery’s beloved school… frantic purchasing of all abandoned clothing, jewelry, trainers, and the occasional bizarre item — a sleeping bag? a pair of bouncing bumblebee antenna on a headband? one year there were six large chocolate fish wrapped in foil — what fun. Lots of girls wearing Christmas hats and bursting into spontaneous carols as they stand in the lunch queue.
And an innovation for your next roast chicken: try stuffing a big flat mushroom under the breast skin, then pushing in after the mushroom some butter into which you’ve mixed some chopped rosemary… delicious!
Delia Smith’s pancakes, with fillings by me
8 slices streaky bacon or ham, cut in small pieces
6 oz/165g plain flour
3 medium eggs
10 oz/300 ml milk, plus 5 oz/100 ml water
3 tbsps melted butter
a little extra butter for cooking pancakes
handful chives, minced
4 oz parmesan cheese, coarsely grated
Saute the ham/bacon until crisp, and take out of the frying pan. Sift flour and salt into a medium bowl, then crack eggs into the flour and begin whisking, scraping the sides as you go. Add the milk-water mixture gradually, whisking constantly. Scrape sides wtih a spatula and whisk one more time. Just before you’re ready to cook, add the melted butter and whisk again.
Melt butter in the frying pan you used for the bacon or ham, then when hot, add the batter and ham and chives, and cook on one side until bubbles appear, then turn over and sprinkle the cheese. Cook until done, then roll up and divide into 4 servings. So simple, so savory.
I think I can avoid it no longer. I’d better go on the British Airways website and try to find if Avery’s flight will in fact leave Russia tomorrow. That hurdle crossed, I can turn my mind to whether we’ll get away the following day, and then to packing up the Christmas presents, with all the faith in the holiday that I can muster. Wish me luck.
It’s to the point now, in my life, where I don’t feel I can say anything to anyone! I am carrying around many, many secrets. I’ll tell you why.
This Christmas I decided not to do random presents. I really put my chin in my hands and thought about what made everybody tick and tried to think of a thing each person would REALLY like, would smile when opening. A lot of my presents this year have no intrinsic value at all, only value to the people who are about to receive them. So if any packages get misaddressed, I’m in trouble!
It’s been a lot of fun. There have been secret emails with people I’ve never met, meetings with people I’d never met before and probably will never meet again, who can do things, make things, transform things into just the right presents for the people I love. As always with Christmas, it’s fun to have a couple of presents that aren’t even THINGS at all, but experiences, or sensations. One present might not come off, because I am counting on the kindness of one stranger, so my fingers are crossed that the holiday spirit will move that person, just enough.
So between organizing all my crazy gifts, and looking through last year’s Christmas cards to make sure I don’t leave anyone out this year, and cleaning up after the dratted cat who seems to think the tree skirt is another litterbox — grrrrr — I’m busy. Not too busy, however, to have two magnificent lunches out with girlfriends, which as you all know is just about my favorite thing. Gossip, commiseration, advice, laughing a little too loud for the comfort of the waitstaff… that’s glorious.
Tuesday saw me with my beautiful friend Dalia at Essenza, in Kensington Park Road in Notting Hill. I always love a little trip to Notting Hill, imagining its chic and expensive real estate in the depths of neglect, only 30–40 years ago. Essenza is an unassuming little spot, you’d pass by it if you weren’t looking for it, tucked away on a quiet little street next door to a darling nursery school, so I got to see lots of cute little English ankle-biters as I strolled by. Overheard:
small boy, tugging at his mother’s hand: “Mummy, you know Daddy loves you, don’t you? You know he does!”
Mummy: “Darling, Mummy’s very, very cross with Daddy right now, we’re having a massive row, so let’s just get you to school.”
Ouch! I wanted to stay and hear the rest. Somehow, spoken in such a beautiful accent, the words lost their menace. How bad could a “massive row” be, when she sounded like Princess Diana? Like my plumber today, Irish Pete. He sat back on his heels and told me how angry he was about the increase in university fees, but all I could think was, “Did that rhyme? I think that rhymed.” All Irish sentences rhyme, I think. I could have listened to him read the phone book.
But back to Essenza. Dalia had told me the food was to die for, completely authentic, and since this observation came on the heels of her week in Venice and mine in Florence, we were ready to be impressed. We decided to skip the main courses and share three starters, a very good idea. And oh my, the creaminess of the mozzarella di bufala, the sort of texture where you tear it gently with your fork, creamy milk mixing with the olive oil on the plate. With a real live tomato! Not a hard, tasteless thing, but a juicy, red fruit. “Where on earth did you find this tomato in December?” I wailed to the waiter who smiled and said, “That I cannot tell you, it is my secret.” Scattered with rocket, a salad to kill for, as my darling father-in-law used to say. Never to die for, oh no. To kill for.
And then calamari and gamberi fritti, fried squid and prawns, in a gorgeous batter, with a sweet chilli sauce. And king scallops with shaved courgette and roasted red pepper, perfectly cooked… heavenly!
Halfway through lunch Dalia said with clenched jaw, “Don’t look around, don’t pay any attention, but Sienna Miller just walked in.” With a dog, mind you. And they let her. And dear readers, she is stunning. Dalia claims the dog was prettier, but I don’t believe her, we’re both cat people. So it was fun to have a celebrity sighting!
And the very next day I was lucky enough to be with my friend Susan at Petersham Nurseries Cafe, in Richmond. Ah, Petersham Nurseries, I’ve been once before, to the fancy room where everything is too expensive but you don’t care because it’s so exquisite. This time, we repaired to what I can only call “the soup room,” because that’s what there was. Actually it was funny, and good that I am a good sport about odd service, because the chalkboard menu said, “potato and leek soup, or polenta with meatballs, or ham and mozzarella.” So I said to Susan, “I don’t really like polenta, do you mind sharing the ham and mozzarella instead?” She didn’t mind, so we ordered, and when it came it was… polenta. With ham.
“Excuse me, but we didn’t order the polenta, just the ham and mozzarella.”
Lovely wait lady: “Yes, the polenta with the ham.”
“No, we didn’t want the polenta, and anyway, doesn’t it come with meatballs?” pointing at the menu board.
“Ah… [long pause], I can see that that might be misleading [definitely!]. Try the polenta anyway and if you do not like it, we will replace it.”
And it turns out that I just don’t like BAD polenta! I definitely don’t like the runny kind, pretending to be mashed potatoes. But this was the stiff kind, and quite buttery and delicious. I don’t think I’d order it again in my low-carb mode, but I was glad I tried it. And so was the wait lady! So pleased that I was pleased.
As usual, Susan and I talked over and over each other, about child-raising (“always take credit for the good stuff they do, and none of the blame for the bad stuff,” we agree was our motto), child psychology (did you know that aggression and depression stem often from the same set of feelings, in children? I didn’t, but it makes sense), our girls’ lovely school and how much we love Lost Property. In short, the company of a girlfriend. I don’t know what I would do without mine.
Tonight we are off to be cooked for by friends, an occasion that doesn’t come along terribly often. I am sorry to say that my obsession with cooking makes people afraid to cook for me. I tell them all, but they don’t believe me: I like other people’s cooking at least as well as my own, and it’s such a delight to sit down and be given something to eat that I didn’t slave over myself! And tomorrow is the luncheon for school volunteers, which is always lovely because it’s a great group of people. Don’t you find that people who are willing to do thankless tasks for nothing are nice to be around?
As for my own cooking, my only experiment this week was a chicken casserole. Now, I offer you this recipe with the proviso that you must cook it only if you like the concept of a casserole. I myself was raised on the concept: a meat, a starch, and some sort of lubricating liquid (usually out of a Campbell’s soup can), mixed in a dish and baked for half an hour. Dinner done. For my mother, this basic concept kept us all alive for many years. Campbell’s used to make a soup called, believe it or not, “Noodles and Ground Beef.” They really called it a “soup,” even though it came rushing in a solid lump from the can just like cranberry jelly. I can’t imagine they make it anymore. But my mother bought it by the gross, and I mean GROSS. She then mixed it with more ground beef and noodles, I guess, and bob’s your uncle, dinner was on the table.
Since I am married to a fellow Midwestern child of the 1970s, we understand casseroles. There’s something beautiful about everything being mushed up together. My daughter, raised in the 21st century on all homemade, all the time? Not so much on the casseroles, I can tell you. She favors discrete items of food, easily distinguished from each other. Fair enough.
But if you fancy a casserole, I can tell you this one ticks all the boxes: creamy, savoury, inexpensive AND I added a vegetable to it, so you don’t even need a side dish. Go on, you know you want to.
Chicken Casserole with Butternut Squash and Fried Sage
four chicken breast fillets
Fox Point Seasoning
1 tbsp olive oil
2 cups basmati rice
1 butternut squash
smear of butter
3 cups homemade cream of mushroom soup (Campbell’s if you must!)
1 tbsp butter
8 sage leaves
It’s an assembly job. Sprinkle the chicken fillets with the Fox Point Seasoning (or just salt and pepper if you can’t get it) and the oil. Set aside.
Steam the basmati rice, and meanwhile, cut the butternut squash in half lengthwise, scoop out the seeds and smear each half with butter. Bake at 425F/220C while the rice steams, and a bit longer, about 35 minutes total.
Turn off the heat under the rice and let it steam on its own for five minutes or so: this will lessen the amount that sticks to the pan. Meanwhile, heat a frying pan and place the chicken breasts in it, oil side down. Cook until browned, then turn and brown on the other side. The chicken will still be uncooked inside, and that’s fine. Set aside.
Place the steamed rice into — you guessed it — a casserole dish! Lay the chicken breasts on top, pour the soup over. Cut the butternut squash into bite-size pieces and drop them into the casserole.
Bake in the same hot oven, 425F/220C, for about 35 minutes, turning the chicken over once and stirring the rice-soup mixture. Just before you take it out of the oven, melt the remaining butter in the frying pan from the chicken and fry the sage leaves gently, just till crisp. Crumble them on top of the casserole and serve.
This is a lovely, comforting, old-fashioned dish. Anyone can afford it, no one will be intimidated by the process, everyone will like it. Even Avery ate it perfectly happily, allowing that she could see, “it’s the kind of thing you’ll like if you like that kind of thing.”
I cannot offer you a photo of this dish because there is no way to make a casserole look pretty. It’s why all those old-fashioned cookbooks from the 1970s make food look so awful. Because they were ALL casseroles.
Time for me to make sure no one’s been looking at my email or opening packages addressed to me, or nosing around in parcels in my shoe closet. Don’t anyone try to rattle me: I can keep all these secrets, at least for another couple of weeks…
It’s one of the most perplexing questions to characterize my holiday season so far. When is a goose not a goose? Why, when it’s a calf, of course.
I was confused too, believe me.
Cooks — at least those who cook every day — can get in ruts. At least I can. Well, John would say they’re not so much ruts as they are flights of obsession, which means I cook the same thing over and over, trying to get it just right, or trying variations on the same theme. Many dishes have followed this same route: slow-braised chicken with root vegetables, homemade pizza, things deep-fried, bean salad. When I look through my beloved recipe index here, I see with embarrassment that there are MANY versions of ideas, as I experiment. Cheesy spinach, the perfect red pepper soup, the perfect brandy and sour cream sauce for chicken or salmon. All of these ideas have set up camp in my kitchen, for my long-suffering family to eat their way through, night after night.
So when last week I came upon an ingredient I’d never heard of, I knew it was time to try something new. “Goose skirt!” I said to the butcher boy behind the meat counter in Waitrose. I turned to John, who said, “I’ve never heard of it either,” and since it wasn’t expensive, I said I’d take two of the vacuum-packed meat and roast it at home, so much simpler than a whole goose.
“I don’t think I’ve ever cooked goose of any kind,” I made conversation with the butcher boy as he wrapped and weighed. And very casually he said, “This isn’t goose, you know. It’s veal.” VEAL? “You’re telling me that something called “goose skirt” is cow meat.” “That’s right.”
Well, you’ll find if you google it that there are very few mentions of goose skirt, and those there are only tell you to grill it, to treat it in fact like what in America is called “skirt steak” or a very similar cut, “flank steak.” All the recipes I could find to use this cheap and tough cut indicated marinating and grilling. Not very blogworthy, and not affording many chances to get obsessed with possible variations. So I decided to take a risk.
Slow-braising is the perfect wintry way to treat meat. We’re all feeling a bit poor, so it’s nice to honor the cheap cuts of meat that can be tough if treated the wrong way.
Slow-braising cooks itself, fills the house with savory and welcoming aromas, and the leftover sauce is perfect with pasta the next day. I’ve been slow-braising shoulder of beef - a bit obsessively perhaps — and thought, let’s try it with a goose skirt. And the result was spectacular. Unfortunately it wasn’t pretty, so there is no photo. But rich, deeply flavored and satisfying.
Slow-Braised Goose Skirt With Stout and Mushrooms
(serves four with leftovers)
1 kilo (about 2.2 pounds) goose skirt
juice of 1 lemon
2 tbsps olive oil
sea salt and pepper
1 pound chestnut mushrooms, sliced thick
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp fresh thyme leaves
1 white onion, cut in eighths
1 cup stout
enough beef stock just to cover the meat
2 tbsps flour
1 cup sour cream
chives to garnish
At least 12 hours before you want to eat, put the meat in a shallow dish and rub all over with lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper. Cover with cling film and refrigerate, up to three days.
About 4 hours before you want to eat, take the meat from the refrigerator and cut into large pieces, about 2 inches across. Pour the marinating juices and oil into a heavy-bottomed saucepan and heat till very hot, then throw in the mushrooms, garlic, thyme and onion. Add more oil if necessary and brown the vegetables. Remove from pan and replace with the meat. Brown the meat all over, then throw the vegetables back in, and cover with stout and stock. Cover tightly and turn heat down VERY low, then cook for about 4 hours, stirring occasionally.
Just before you want to eat, pour a little of the cooking sauce into a bowl and add the flour, whisking it till smooth. Add this mixture to the cooking pan and whisk nicely. Then add the sour cream, stir well, and heat up again. Serve with the chives as garnish.
This dish was GORGEOUS! Very much like my slow-braised shoulder, and just as inexpensive.
What I have not been able to discover is why on earth VEAL should be called GOOSE. No one seems to know! And I love things like that: small food mysteries lurking from the mists of time.
Fortified by this protein-laden, darkly delicious dish, I was able to throw myself into festive preparations.
Avery has been longing, for several years, to have a proper Christmas party. With Christmas crackers, and festive foods, and the decorations up around the house, and her guests all dressed to the nines. And this year was the year. She invited just the right group, we went shopping for table decorations, and I asked if she’d like to order pizzas as she had for her “mocktails” party last spring. “No, I have a menu in mind,” she said. “If it’s not too expensive, let’s have steaks, and Orlando potatoes, and green beans. And then for dessert, hot chocolate.”
And so it was. I enjoyed myself so much, puttering around for her, while she struggled with Russian, maths, Religious Studies and Latin, threw herself into practice for her Singing Tea. I decorated the table with things that cost almost nothing: pinecones, red candles at £1 apiece, napkins with reindeer on them, and a packet of little glittery glass pieces to scatter across the table. How lucky our daily dinner plates are green Fireking, perfect with all the red.
The girls arrived, dressed to the nines in every outlandish garment you can imagine and heels? Tottering, my dears! Fur hats, trailing scarves, lots of beautiful makeup, all examined by each girl in the minutest detail. There were shrieks of excitement, bursts of song, and the most gratifying hugs from her friends. And pulling of Christmas crackers!
We went into action, John grilling the steaks and me frying the matchstick potato pancakes in goose fat, simply heavenly. Thank you, Orlando, for this best of all potato recipes.
Orlando Potatoes in Goose Fat
(serves 6 hungry teenagers)
1 medium-ish potato per girl
3 small shallots
sea salt and fresh pepper
3 tbsps goose fat
Slice each potato very thin lengthwise, then turn the other way and slice very thin across, to make tiny matchsticks. Lay the potatoes on a thick tea towel and squeeze and roll in the towel until you’ve wrung as much water from the potatoes as possible. Place in a large bowl.
Mince the shallots very small and mix with the potatoes. Salt and pepper the mixture. Form into six cakes.
Heat the goose fat in a very large frying pan. When a tiny bit of potato dropped in the fat sizzles right away, it’s ready. Put the cakes in as quickly as you can and fry on one side for 2–3 minutes, then turn. If they fall apart slightly when turning, just push the ragged bits back toward each cake and press a bit. Cook for another 2–3 minutes on the other side, until golden brown. Turn again if you’re not satisfied. Serve HOT.
I wish I had a photo of these potatoes but honestly, the girls were practically chewing each other’s arms off, so we put a steak and a potato cake on each plate and everyone sat down to choose whether they wanted Bearnaise Sauce or Sauce Diane, and helped themselves to gorgeous green beans, simply steamed and tossed in melted butter and Fox Point Seasoning.
It was so satisfying! They ate like little wolves, not a scrap remaining on the plates, and gossiping, singing and lighting the tiny sparklers. They were… happy. And, so were we. In this world where we can control so little of our children’s happiness, to give an evening like that to them, safe and fun, was an enormous gift.
As soon as they were settled down, John and I produced our own dinner! Have to take the opportunity to eat something Avery doesn’t like. Roasted fennel, hot peppers and beets, tossed in chilli oil. And our all-time favorite scallop dish. You can’t have too much garlic, after all.
Scallops with Garlic, Parsley and Linguini
linguini for 2
16 large scallops
2/3 cup olive oil
6 cloves garlic
1 whole bunch flat-leaf parsley, chopped fine
2/3 cup breadcrumbs, toasted
sea salt and pepper to taste
Put the linguini on to cook. Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a wok until really hot, then throw in the scallops, garlic and parsley. Cook for about 2 minutes until scallops are done, but not tough. Turn the heat off.
Drain the pasta and throw it in the olive oil and scallops and turn the heat up high till bubbling. QUICKLY add the breadcrumbs and take off heat, tossing thoroughly. Salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle over hot dried chilli flakes if you like.
After cups of hot chocolate with every topping known to man — marshmallows, crushed candy canes, crushed biscuits and chocolate sauce — the girls repaired to the living room where the Christmas tree glittered, and watched a movie. John had blown up air mattresses for them and they settled right down. A happy evening.
We spent Saturday chauffeuring Avery and her friend to Samba, then Avery to acting, then we rushed home and got ready for a truly side-splitting play, “A Flea in Her Ear” at the Old Vic. I’ve never seen a French farce before! It had everything: maids in white ruffled aprons, mistaken identity, a character with a speech impediment, a love affair gone wrong, a misunderstood letter! You MUST see it.
Avery was agog with amazement at the sheer over-the-top nuttiness! Some gems of lines: “You’re as bad as Othello with that old handkerchief!” delighted her because they’re studying Othello in English! The character with the speech impediment loses his silver palate expander behind, and it’s returned to him.
“How did you know where to find me?” he asks in astonishment.
“Your name and address are engraved inside. Why bother with calling cards when you can just leave the roof of your mouth behind?”
We haven’t laughed so hard in an age. A stellar cast of people we’ve seen on Spooks, onstage in several productions, in films. Go, do! It was the perfect play to see on a night when, post-party, we were all too tired to pay attention to anything serious.
Well, dinner prep beckons. I can’t cook something new every night, it wouldn’t be very comforting. So it’s fried haddock and stuffed red peppers, two old standbys. We can use a little standby and a little experiment, with a great party tossed in, now and then.
It’s that time of year, as I note every year, when the pages start to fly off the calendar and the hours on a clock spin around, just like in a cartoon. In the three weeks before we head “home” for Christmas in Connecticut, we have two plays to see, a carol concert to attend, two dinner parties to go to and at least as many to host, a visit to the orthodontist, a trip for us grownups to a landmark house in West Sussex and a school trip to St Petersburg for Avery. It makes me tired just to write it all down, but the way I get around that is by reminding myself that all these things will be great fun individually; it’s just looking at the calendar that’s daunting.
Thanksgiving has come and gone. I think every single flat surface in my kitchen, that evening, was covered with something to eat. And eat we did, with lots of blazing candles and little fairy lights I’ve obsessively ordered from a really cheap lighting company, Lights4Fun. Our garden is full of them, our kitchen is draped all over. Of course, John reminds me that all the money I save buying them discounted, I will more than make up for in batteries. But it’s worth it, look and see.
The best part of the whole Thanksgiving dinner was, everyone agreed — even little children who took second and third helpings! — the cheesy spinach. After many years of offering you seemingly endless varieties of recipes for this dish, I have hit upon the perfect version. It’s simply to die for: creamy, salty, bright green, garlicky, cheesy. You will be shocked at how much everyone can eat.
The Ultimate Cheesy Spinach
(serves 4 easily)
500 grams (about 8 loosely packed cups, or 2 large packages in the UK) fresh baby spinach
3 tbsps butter
2 tsps flour
5 cloves garlic, minced
1/3 cup light cream
1 1/2 cups sharp Cheddar cheese, grated
celery salt to taste, perhaps 2–3 tsps
sprinkle grated Parmesan cheese
Simply chop the spinach in your food processor, a large handful at a time, pulsing so the leaves are incorporated from the top and the bottom leaves don’t turn to mush. You want the consistency of chopped onions. As you go through the handfuls, place the chopped spinach in a large bowl.
Now melt the butter in a large, heavy-bottomed frying pan or saucepan. Stir in the flour and cook, bubbling, for about a minute, not letting the mixture brown. Add the garlic and stir for a moment.
Add all the other ingredients but the Parmesan, and stir patiently over a low heat. At first it may seem that the ingredients will never come together, but they do, after 4–5 minutes. Taste for celery salt: don’t add too much at first because it is quite salty. When the cheese is melted and the spinach creamy, pour the whole lot into a baking dish, about 9x9 inches, and sprinkle the grated Parmesan on top. Bake at 350F/180C for about 25 minutes or until nicely golden and bubbly.
Let’s hope that all the goodness of this dish: the iron, the calcium, and let’s face it, the GARLIC, will give us all the strength to get through our Christmas prep, and maybe even enjoy it at the same time.