Isn’t it nice to try something new now and again? Believe me, I am all for cooking the same things over and over, especially in the dull winter. But every once in awhile, I taste something really different, really unusual, and I can’t help trying it at home.
When I was in New York, eating at The Little Owl in Soho with my chum Alyssa, we had a salad dressing of the most sublime. I weasled the list of ingredients out of the waitress, who actually disappeared into the kitchen to give the fairly convincing impression that she was asking the chef. They were: olive oil, lemon juice and “a beurre noisette.”
This last term sent me to do a bit of research. I knew that noisette is French for “hazelnut,” yet there was no sign of them. It appears that a beurre noisette is a butter sauce cooked with clarified butter and browned, so that the butter takes on a nutty flavor, then with other ingredients being seemingly optional, like the capers in our Little Owl dressing, or lemon, or parsley.
It’s just delicious. Light, very Frenchy, sophisticated and quite the most…
Have I aged over the last 21 years? What do you think? In response to an implicit challenge from my ageless buddy Alyssa, who posted on Facebook a similarly timeless photo of herself and her ageless husband… WHERE did I get that haircut? That eye makeup? Avery is shuddering on my behalf. But I do think that the last couple of months have taken their toll on my appearance. Could anyone EVER have been as young as I was in 1990?
Here I am, sitting at the long banquet table in my kitchen, a remnant of yesterday’s luncheon for my 25 Lost Property volunteers, trying to summon up the energy to fold up the table, carry the extra chairs back up to the top of the house, to carry the boxes of champagne glasses back down to the basement.
Am I exhausted from, and recovering from, the glorious holidays? Yes.
Then, I go back to read my own accounts of those two weeks, snowbound in America, and I am overcome with nostalgia for a life that happened just over a week ago.
I confess to being somewhat overwhelmed by the separation from those wonderful times, to be replaced by jetlag, sweeping up needles endlessly, being back at Lost Property, sewing on buttons on forgotten pre-holiday clothes, ordering an autumn’s and holiday’s worth of photographs to fill albums I was given for Christmas, dithering over Avery’s homework anxiety… in short, real life.
These are, officially, the kind of problems one has when one has no problems. All is well. I’m just slightly overwhelmed by the sweep of emotions that come around when one spends two weeks in that alternate life — too short a period of time really to settle in, as we do in summer, but long enough to get entrenched — and then by the rush of love I feel for our life here in London. For our quirky and bizarre cats, for Avery’s gorgeous school, the joy of 30 different cheeses in just the supermarket shop. Even the endless gradations of the GREY of a London sky.
In this mood, I feel a desire to cook dark, savoury, slow foods. Do you cook seasonally? By that I don’t mean what foods are IN season, but what foods are appealing in certain seasons. In the summer, I want to cook things quickly, on the grill, or even not at all — cold soups, enormous salads. But in the winter, when it’s dark by 5 o’clock, and you’ve got to have something cooking itself while you’re at a Parents’ Guild meeting, it’s time for…
Savoury-Rubbed Slow-Braised Shoulder of Lamb
(serves at least 6)
1 whole lemon
6 cloves garlic
handful frsh rosemary
handful fresh thyme
2 tbsps capers
plenty of black pepper
handful flat-leaf parsley
Put ALL these ingredients in your food processor — really, the whole lemon, quartered — and blitz until a nice smooth paste. Rub the mixture all over the shoulder of lamb, on both sides. Roast in a nice sealed tent of aluminum foil for at least six hours, at 120C/220F. In the last half hour, drain all the cooking liquids from the dish, pour in a cup of cooked Beluga lentils, and separate the fat from the cooking liquids. Discard the fat, then hear the cooking liquids with a tablespoon of flour whisked in. Perfect gravy. PERFECT.
When the lamb is finished cooking, let it rest for 15 minutes and then simply tear apart with two forks. The meat will simply FALL off the bone. Serve with the gravy, and stand aside for the avalanche of compliments and gratitude.
Serve the lamb with this, the most savoury of all side dishes.
Sausage and Spinach-Stuffed Mushrooms
(serves 4, one mushroom per person)
5 large flat mushrooms (one to chop up for stuffing)
1 tsp olive oil
1 large sausage, casing removed
1 shallot, minced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp fresh thyme leaves
handful fresh spinach leaves
1/3 cup fresh breadcrumbs
3 tbsps goat cheese
sea salt and pepper to taste
olive oil to drizzle
Remove the stems from the flat mushrooms and chop them with the extra mushroom. Set aside.
Heat the olive oil in a heavy frying pan and add all the ingredients up to the spinach leaves. Saute till soft. Mix in a bowl with the spinach, breadcrumbs, goats cheese and season to taste. Pile the stuffing mixture onto the flat mushrooms and drizzle with olive oil. Bake at 200C/425F for about half an hour, till hot and cooked through.
And then there is the incomparable aroma of a roasting duck, in the dark evening while your daughter’s at a birthday party. The recipe for this dish is shocking. In that there is no recipe. Put it in the oven. Let it cook. Eat it.
1 Gressingham free-range duck (about 2 kilos)
salt and pepper
Lay the duck with its giblets in a large roasting tin, breast side up. Prick all over with a sharp fork, just deep enough to pierce the skin. Sprinkle plenty of salt and pepper over the duck. Roast for 2 1/2–3 hours, till skin is nicely browned and the legs separate easily from the body.
You could easily serve this duck, sliced beautifully, just on its own with a couple of side dishes. But if you steam a pile of Chinese pancakes and pile bites of duck on them, drizzle them with Hoisin sauce and sprinkle with a couple of matchsticks of cucumber… HEAVEN. Sadly, though, the cooking juices are mostly fat, so gravy is not an option here.
These are the foods I dream of preparing when I wake up in the night, with jetlag, worrying about Avery worrying: discussions her worries versus adult worries. “I know adults say, ‘your worries don’t really matter; wait till you have to pay taxes,’” she said one afternoon after school. “But our worries are the ones we have, and it’s really hard to keep remembering everything, where to be, what to bring, and having to put up with adults not treating us with any respect!”
I actually read of the results of a study that determined adults could tolerate the life of a second-grader for only a week! No authority, no power, little respect: just people all around telling the poor child what to do, rather arbitrarily most of the time, invoking empty authority as an inducement.
I’ve tried to be different as a parent, to give authority to Avery as much as possible unless it REALLY mattered that she do what I said: will that help with the pressures of being an almost-adult? I don’t know. Most of the time she seems quite happy, if stressed with all the pressures that her life– again, a life with no problems — has to offer.
Sometimes it seems that the sum total of what I can give her is security. The sense that she can collapse at home, complain with abandon, and get up the next day to face it all again. In the meantime, of course, I can give her dinner. And blueberry lemon cake for breakfast. Not a bad job for a mother, after all.
And now that the holidays are past, I can get down the business, once again, of just living, and helping my family to live, through January.
Lemon Blueberry Cake
(makes one loaf cake)
225 grams (one cup) unsalted butter, softened
225 grams (one cup) caster (ordinary American) sugar
zest of 3 lemons, finely grated
1 cup blueberries, dusted with a bit of flour
zest of 1 lime, finely grated225 grams (one cup) self-raising flour, or plain flour with 1 tsp baking powder added
juice of 3 lemons
85 grams (1/3 cup) caster sugar
Beat the butter and sugar till soft and fluffy, then beat in eggs one at a time. Stir in zests and flour gently until fully mixed (including the baking powder if you are using plain flour). Fold in the blueberries. Tip into a loaf pan and smooth the top flat with a spoon. Lick the spoon.
Bake for about 45 minutes in an oven set to 185C, 350F. Watch carefully, because all ovens are different. Take care not to burn bottom or brown top too much. The cake is done when the middle of the top doesn’t jiggle when pressed gently. Err on the side of baking less rather than longer.
Cool cake enough so that you can handle the tin. In the meantime, mix the lemon juice and sugar till dissolved. Prick the top of the cake all over with a fork and then SLOWLY drizzle the mixture over it. If you drizzle too fast, the mixture will end up all sliding down the sides of the cake. Serve warm.
We are safely home. We have not slept, hoisted luggage, opened mail, unpacked, done laundry. The usual. Changed credit cards and money in wallets. Yawned.
I have spent the day dragging, with John, the Christmas tree out of the living room and down two flights of stairs, a feat I compared, to my friend Alyssa, to dragging a pile of Pringles out of a tiny space without crunching them. Agony. And the ornaments. Why so numerous?
We all took naps. Then I opened the empty, pristine refrigerator and felt hungry.
“Gee,” I said to myself, “Self, your jeans are tight. Why would that be?”
The two choices seemed to be that they have smallened, or I had largened. And it was but the work of a moment from that observation to my own memory of the sheer LIST of ingredients that marked our holiday, for me to come to the obvious conclusions: food is GOOD.
I thought, just for fun, I’d list what I remember buying and cooking. This will help me in my quest to fit into my jeans, as well as providing a VERY happy gastronomic memory of my holiday. And onward to a bit more restraint!
THE LIST (as I would shop it if I were at Stop ‘N Shop in my town in Connecticut)
shrimp to stir fry
haddock to fry
oysters for stew
duck legs for cassoulet
pork belly for cassoulet
pork tenderloin for roast
lamb shoulder for cassoulet
pork sausage for Christmas morning, and for cassoulet
beef tenderloin to grill
buffalo mince for chilli
whole chicken to roast
chicken parts to bake
countless eggs to scramble for breakfast or a midnight snack
beets to roast
cauliflower to roast
butternut squash to roast
fennel to roast
carrots to roast
asparagus to saute
celery and onions, sage and mushrooms for stuffing
parsley, cilantro, basil, tarragon for garnish
broccoli to steam
spinach to cream
red peppers to make into soup
mushrooms to make into duxelles
tomatoes, avocado, red onion, basil for salad
garlic to roast
green beans to saute
potatoes to mash, to grate with cheese, to steam for hash
strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, rasperries
apples and bananas for cake
mozzarella, goat cheese, cheddar, feta, Parmesan, ricotta
homemade chicken stocks, turkey stocks for soup
the olive oil, lemons, balsamic vinegar, salt, pepper, Fox Point, celery salt, Italian seasoning, paprika, cumin, cayenne, chilli seasoning
chickpeas, black beans, red kidney beans, cannellini beans, Beluga lentils
pastas, tomatoes, pine nuts, Vodka for the occasional emergency pasta
and Nonna’s Christmas cappuccino, lime and savoury cheesy cookies as a garnish!
I am quite sure I could set this all to music if I weren’t so… jetlagged. Soon, I promise! In the meantime, a tiny bit of austerity shall prevail. Plus tennis… I hear rumors from John that indoor tennis is in our future. More to come. But in the meantime, I’m tearing up that grocery list. It only encourages me.
I am CERTAIN that somewhere, it’s bedtime. So good night.
Well, that’s the glass half full scenario. What’s really true is that I try not to think about how much I miss these particularly lovely things while the many months away unravel… including this heartstopping (to my New Yorker’s soul) view of Prince Street from today. But that’s not all I’m remembering.
Our gorgeous French dinner with Shelley and Erik, snowy frigid night without, warm food, outrageously generous Christmas presents and friendship within…
Brunch and board games with Jill’s family… watching Jane mastering “Camp” and Molly her colors and shapes. “There is only one brown octagon”…
Borrowing Egbert and Regina’s snowshoes and racing across the snow in blinding sunlight… coming across not one, or two, but three deer carcasses, victims of the local coyotes.
A late afternoon gossip with Judy, Rollie, Young Rollie and gorgeous Tricia… to think that the next time I see her, she will be holding a two-month old baby in her arms. It wasn’t possible to thank Judy enough for her friendship with John’s mom in those first hours of the crazy Christmas holiday, here just the two of them, preparing without me. That is friendship.
And and even later afternoon hot chai tea and kitty games with Anne, David and Kate, playing Jenga (“Jessamy don’t like Jenga, it’s too loud for her,” Kate observed many times), Anne and David as usual playing the best challenging advocates for Avery. “Go for it, lobby for that psychology class!” Anne encourages, and they both look on with admiration at the Tom Lehrer note. What heartwarming friends they are, and possibly my favorite memory of the holiday, the night they arrived in the dark and turned on their outside lamps to shine on the snow and receive our friendship. How lucky we are to have fallen into each other’s laps, across this magical road.
John’s last cuddle with Jessamy (too bad he really doesn’t like cats)…
Finally today, a drive into New York — that city of our happiest memories, our saddest memories, our strongest memories — to drop Jessamy off with Alice, her Primary Mother, and to drop me off for lunch in town with Alyssa, for Avery to spend a blissful afternoon shopping — Avery Goes Shopping Alone! — at Sephora, American Eagle, JCrew, in SoHo all on her own!
Alyssa and I ate splendidly at The Little Owl in the West Village. Their signature tiny meatballs on a cheesy bun, scallops and lobster with a rocket salad and a dressing of capers, lemon juice, baby leeks and melted BUTTER, and possibly the best French fries in the city. Mostly, it goes without saying, gossip, shouting with laughter, our usual menu of friendship. As we stood outside on the corner waiting for cabs, we agreed that we survive quite well seeing each other only twice a year, until… we see each other. Like children who are fine about babysitters until they get one. It’s as wonderful to be together — sharing memories of our daughters’ earliest years as babies in Tribeca — as it is sad to contemplate not being together. Let’s concentrate on the former.
And how gorgeous to amble into Dean and Deluca, choose three of the hunkiest pork chops in the world, relive all the years I spent grocery shopping there as if it were a grocery store! Lo, in the olden days of our newlywedhood. Carrying baby Avery in a Baby Bjorn, picking up the first of the world’s fingerling potatoes, baby radicchio, goat cheese fresh from France, delicacies New York had just discovered.
I crossed the blinkingly sunny New York street, revelling as usual in the unbelievable right of pedestrians ahead of cars! How funny to trade in two so different car cultures. On to Sephora, looking for my daughter, up to JCrew, and there she and her daddy were, fresh from a shopping spree, her first alone in New York. The first of many, I hope and fear.
Home to begin to organize our departure. The last loads of laundry, organizing dinner to use as many ingredients as possible! Clearing countertops of holiday paperwork, finishing the “Alice in Wonderland” puzzle. Avery and I decide to leave both puzzles in place, to discover at summertime, to help us remember our holiday.
And so it has wound down to the last few hours. We are anxiously watching the weather forecast, heavy snow forecast for just around the hour our plane is due to take off. I refuse to worry. All will be well, and with any luck, you’ll hear from me next, suffering from jetlag, presiding over Lost Property, in London. But what memories we will carry with us.
I love nothing more than a weather emergency. I put this down to my Midwestern American childhood where we LIVED for snow days. Listened feverishly to the local news on the evenings where snow was forecast, hoping desperately to find, in the morning, that the accumulation was enough to warrant a DAY OFF. Lord knows what our poor mothers thought on such days. “I’d give my [something incredibly valuable, like one of the children] not to have the kids off school tomorrow.”
Then, when I was about eight months pregnant with Avery, on the last weekend I was allowed to fly, I went to South Carolina to surprise my folks who were there on holiday. At least, I surprised my mother — I think it was decided at least one of them had to know I was coming to make sure they’d really be there! And while I was there, an enormous hurricane developed. I was the last person allowed on the last plane out, because of my advanced state of pregnancy. I arrived home in New York in a massive state of excitement to follow the storm on telly that I’d so narrowly escaped in real life.
So when, a few days ago, a snowstorm was predicted here in Connecticut, it was but the work of a moment, with Dorothy L. Sayers’s “The Nine Tailors” playing on the old-fashioned tape player, for me to climb in the car and head to the grocery, to provide us with the raw ingredients for several sustaining meals, to get us through the coming crisis. A little ham, a butternut squash, asparagus, buffalo mince and beans for chili, eggs. And when I got home, of course, I discovered it was difficult even to fit these in the fridge because of the pot of chicken stock, the leftover roast chicken, the beets, fennel and carrots I’d already stockpiled.
Overkill on storm prep, in other words.
But storm it did. Except that there was no wind. The snow just fell, and fell and fell, quietly and gently, all yesterday afternoon. And with no wind, all the snow stayed in place, on tree branches and roofs and fences and cars. Just beautiful.
It fell all day as we worked a puzzle of “Alice in Wonderland,” played with Jessamy, cleaned out the upstairs closets, and the chili cooked… We went for a walk up the road, unplowed as yet, pristine and timeless, white as far as the eye could see. When we got home, John shoveled a pathway for us, but we could see it was really pointless as the snow continued to fall.
Avery decided to make a snow angel, naturally, getting wetter and colder than any London teenager would ever get. Every once in awhile, we remember clearly why we kept this house, when we moved away.
This morning we awoke to the stillest day you can imagine. Not a breath of breeze, not a branch stirring. Just silent, snow-covered sentinels everywhere you looked, with the occasional startled squirrel trying to find its way across the branches and sending down a flurry of snow when he did. Just peace.
All day we enjoyed the scenery, a true fairytale wonderland. I can’t describe the peace and quiet! Finally we went out to load the car with all the things we’d gathered from the closets, to donate to Goodwill. John and I took turns shoveling out behind and around the car to be able to move. Then we went for a long walk, and encountered our friends Regina and Egbert, and Tom and Mika, out on snowshoes on the Landmark Trust land, planning a long excursion. And we found Konnie whose horses occupy our meadow in summer, out with her dog in the snow. New Year’s greetings and hugs.
“Walk in the path we make!” the snowshoers urged, in the waning almost-sunlight, as we made our way across the snowy meadows. “Onward to the bench!”
To John’s Dad’s Bench, in fact, at the little swell in the hill, snugged by trees. We all sat down to catch our breath. Avery had come out in ankle boots and, it transpired, ankle socks which had travelled down inside said boots and when we reached the bench, she held out her feet and showed us the SNOW inside her socks! We hit the trail back toward home, shouting goodbyes to the intrepid snowshoers on their way down the trail.
A quiet afternoon and early evening followed. I looked inside the refrigerator and saw leftovers coming out our ears, not to mention the pots frozen in the snow outside our back door. I brought in the chilli and the oyster stew from the back step, put them on the stove to warm, put the butternut squash in the oven to bake with butter. And guess what I found when I opened the back door? Regina and Egbert’s snowshoes, lent to us for tomorrow! Neighbors!
Avery and I had just settled in with the puzzle again when we saw an unusual sight: car headlights coming up our road and STOPPING.
Excitement: Anne and David and Kate had come home for the weekend, unexpectedly!
“I wanted to shovel their driveway all day!” John said. And I had told him to wait, it would snow again. He rushed out with a shovel, meeting David who was rapidly clearing a path in the 15 inches of snow, up to their doorway. Avery slipped into the car to sit with Katie, and I ran home to put a higher light under the chilli and to put the chicken soup into the microwave, pack it all up with some sour cream and grated cheese, take it over to them.
“You sound awful,” I said to Dave, and he said, “Been sick. Kate 102 yesterday, I’ve lost my voice.”
So it was especially nice to hand them the warm food, see lights go up in their house across the road, exchange hugs. They trooped inside, we hugged again, I came home to get our own dinner ready, to clean out the fridge.
A classic day in our road, then: much the same whether it’s the hot summer afternoon of a birthday party for the house, or a snowy stormy aftermath. There are always the neighbors, and the exchange of favors and food and happiness, whatever the season. That’s our road, and why we love it, no matter the weather.
But snow is FUN.
Red Gate Farm Chilli
2 tbsps olive oil
1 white onion, minced
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 lbs buffalo mince (or beef, if you must)
2 packets McCormick’s Chili Seasoning
2 soup-size tins red kidney beans, with liquid
1 soup-size tin black beans, drained
1 cup le Puy lentils, cooked
1 large can whole plum tomatoes
1 tbsp chilli powder
2 tsps ground cumin
sour cream to garnish
grated cheddar cheese to garnish
cilantro leaves to garnish
This couldn’t be easier, if I tried. Simply saute the onion and garlic in the olive oil, then add the buffalo/beef and stir until cooked through. Add the beans, lentils, tomatoes and seasonings and stir well. Leave at a simmer for least an hour, up to three hours.
Ladle into soup bowls and add sour cream, cheese and cilantro as you wish.
There is a point, at least for me, during every holiday season when all the preparation, the wishing and hoping, anticipation, and even the very real enjoyment of the exciting days and evenings begin to give way to a wish to simplify my life! To clear away the trees, the decorations, the burnt-down candles, the needles EVERYWHERE, and put everything carefully away for next year. The silver bells get wrapped in tissue paper and packed away…
The fragile ornaments go in their own tissue paper, the more robust things like tiny pairs of skates and ponies and fairies dressed in holiday clothes are placed carefully on just a bed of tissue paper, to spend the next 11 months discussing how they hate hanging from hooks. The lights are wound up around John’s arm and packed away with the stockings and the tree skirt…
But before I can rest and enjoy my clean, post-holiday house, I must tell you a bit of our adventures and share a couple of recipes that will put you right back in the cooking mood, ready to pitch the last crust of pumpkin pie and start fresh. So off we go.
Our wedding anniversary takes place on December 30, which is always a bit of an awkward day because Christmas is still fresh in our minds (especially when we celebrated it a day late to begin with!), and New Year’s is looming. Of course in our early days we gave a great deal of thought to the perfect, secret gift for each other: cufflinks with Avery’s initials for John, tiny gold earrings for me with five diamonds in each, for our 10th anniversary. Then, somewhere along the line, we took up a tradition of waking up on the day, saying, “Happy Anniversary” to each other in the warmest of tones, and… forgetting about it for the duration!
This year our anniversary was marked mainly by The Snowball Fight of the Century. I wish I could tell you it was fought between equals, but… alas… Avery’s father can never find anyone his own size to pick on.
He began in fine paternal protective style, saying as she raised the first snowball, “Don’t start something you can’t finish.” And from there it degenerated into total abandon. She’s on the ground at his feet? Check, cue for smashing the snow in her hair. A big blue saucer sled appears? Fine, he uses it to throw even greater quantities of snow in her face. Does she give up? No way. Not this girl.
Anne and David looked on in what I think was the silence of sheer horror, as their adored toddler daughter Kate played at their feet. Will the day come when Dave beats up his little girl in a freezing missile battle? Time will tell.
Home we came under a perfect blue sky, to put Avery in a nice warm bath with a cup of hot chocolate. She stayed in that bath for about three hours. Fully deserved. Meanwhile, John’s mom and I concocted a really delicious, exotic, sort of essentially anti-Christmas anniversary dish. Not a clove, potato or pumpkin in sight. Pure Asia.
Sweet and Spicy Anniversary Shrimp
2 dozen large shrimp, shells on, heads off
3 tbsps toasted sesame oil
4 tbsps soy sauce
chilli sauce (to taste, depending how hot it is and hot you want your sauce)
juice of 1 lime, plus zest
2 tbsps hoisin (plum) sauce
2 tbsps Japanese mirin (rice wine)
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp powdered ginger
basmati rice to steam and serve with shrimp
Cut up the back of each shrimp till you get to the tail, then set all the shrimp into a large shallow bowl.
Mix all the other ingredients but the rice and pour over shrimp. Mix them with your hands, pushing the marinade into the backs of the shrimp. leave to marinate as long as you like (we had about an hour).
Heat a large frying pan till very hot indeed, and pour in the shrimp, standing back as it spits! Stir fry the shrimp until just cooked, perhaps 2–3 minutes total depending on the size of the shrimp. Serve with steamed rice and plenty of napkins.
This dish is the perfect “Christmas is over” dish! Savory and unusual, exotic and fun to peel, you’ll love these shrimp.
The next day I spent in the kitchen with my intrepid companion John’s mom, preparing one of my favorite dishes of all time (and now a firm favorite of our traditional New Year’s Eve guests, Anne and David — and unbelievably Kate as well!). It was the sort of day I dream of when I’m just slogging through a day of work and domesticity in London: looking at out our snowy farmland, the red barns against the white, watching the birds on John’s feeders, and taking in a whole slate of soap operas as the day winds on. Cozy!
(serves at least 12)
for the confit:
4 duck legs
coarse sea salt
4 fat garlic cloves, finely chopped
4 bay leaves, broken in half
1 cup white wine
for the cassoulet:
4 Toulouse sausages (or mild Italian in the US)
350g/12oz belly pork, skinned and diced (just plain bacon if you’re in the US)
350g/12oz lamb neck fillet or rolled breast, diced (shoulder chops will work)
1 large onion, chopped roughly
2 large carrots, chopped roughly
2 celery sticks, chopped roughly
400g/14oz can chopped tomatoes
1 tbsp tomato purée
2 heaped tbsp fresh flat leaf parsley, chopped
1 heaped tbsp fresh thyme, chopped
sea salt and pepper
290ml/½ pint dry white wine
2 cans haricot or cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
850ml/1½pt chicken stock
for the topping:
1 large day-old baguette (or 1 cup fresh homemade breadcrumbs)
2 fat garlic cloves, halved
4 tbsp butter
2 heaped tbsp fresh flat leaf parsley, chopped
1 heaped tbsp fresh thyme, chopped
Place the duck legs skin side down in a skillet with a lid, sprinkle with the salt, garlic and bay leaves and pour the white wine around. Place the lid on top and cook at the tiniest simmer possible, for two hours. Of course, for real confit you’d pour the winey fat over the duck and preserve it, but no need for that step here, as you’ll be using the duck straightaway.
Meanwhile, place the sausages in a 220C/425F oven and bake for 20 minutes. Set aside to cool.
In a large stovetop– and ovenproof dish that will hold all the ingredients, place the belly pork and heat gently until fat begins to be released, then raise heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until all the fat has been released and the pork is crisp, but not dry. Lift the pork onto a plate with a slotted spoon, leaving all the fat behind.
Add the lamb to the pork fat and cook until colored on all sides, then lift out with slotted spoon and set aside with the pork.
Add the diced vegetables to the pork fat and cook till soft. Tip the ingredients from the plate back into the dish. Add the tomatoes, tomato purée and herbs, then season with sea salt and pepper to taste.
Add the wine, haricot beans and chicken stock to the dish and bring to the boil. Stir, then lower the heat so the liquid is just simmering. Keep the mixture in the same dish to cook or transfer it to an earthenware dish.
When the duck has cooked for two hours, remove it from the wine and fat and cool to handle. Remove the skin from the duck, then tuck the duck legs into the cassoulet.
Peel off the sausage skins, slice the sausagemeat thickly on the diagonal and add to the dish.
Cover the dish and bake for 1 hour, stirring once. Stir, then cook uncovered for a further 1–1½ hours, stirring halfway, until the meat is really tender and the sauce is thickened. Take the dish out of the oven and remove the duck legs. Strip the meat from the bones (it will fall off easily) and return the meat to the dish. Stir and add a little water, if necessary. Season if necessary, then return to the oven and bake for another 15 minutes until all the meat and beans are very tender.
For the topping, cut the crusts off the baguette, tear the bread into pieces and put in a food processor. Add the garlic and chop into coarse crumbs (you should have about a cup of garlicky bread crumbs).
Heat the butter in a large frying pan until sizzling, then stir fry the breadcrumbs and garlic over a moderate to high heat for 7–8 minutes until crisp and golden. Remove from the heat, toss in the herbs and stir to mix, then season well with salt and pepper.
Ladle the cassoulet in generous servings into warm bowls, sprinkle on a bit of topping, and serve.
Don’t be intimidated by the seemingly endless list of ingredients! It’s just an assembly job, and if you have plenty of time and someone — like John’s mom — to chat with as you cook, it makes for a delightful day. And with a salad and some baguette bites, you have a MAGNIFICENT supper. It’s rich, each bite is slightly different from the last, it’s complex and garlicky and sustaining. Just right to get your New Year started on a delicious note. I didn’t take a photo because it’s not a pretty dish, it’s a peasant dish. But the table looked lovely.
And to have our dear, beloved neighbors with us that evening, enjoying Kate’s growing conversational skills, listening to Avery’s tales of her Russian adventures, sipping hot cups of tea after dinner and just relaxing, was the sort of treat we dream of and all too rarely get to enjoy.
And we needed our energy, because that afternoon, Jill and Joel arrived to drop off Jane and Molly so they could attend their beloved (well, Joel’s beloved) Phish concert! The next 24 hours went by in a blur of Jane’s energy, Molly’s sudden ability to say whatever comes to mind (mostly “what is THIS?” when she sees a new thing), and feeding the two insatiable children. “Breakfast for dinner” was the requested menu, so we tucked into pancakes with my friend Judy’s homemade plum preserves, sausages and bacon. Story after story (John reading to Molly, I to Jane) and then a rather welcome bedtime. How embarrassing that two small children could drain four adults of all energy! I counted Avery as an adult for the duration, and her entertaining skills were more than up to the task.
The next day brought adventures on the swingsets across the road, and a frisky game of “Fox and Geese” suggested by John’s mom.
Once we’d fed the girls a quite amazing pizza from our local pizzeria and Molly had enjoyed a nap, their parents arrived and took them home, full of the stories of their sleepover date. And just in time because as they pulled away, another car pulled up containing Jessica, another of the kittens of the summer! Here for a playdate with Jessamy.
Yes, that’s right, a kitty playdate. Jessica came accompanied by her two parents, which means that for the duration of their time together that cold afternoon, there were two cats surrounded by six adults, all of us totally transfixed by the sight of the two furry sisters, trying to get to know each other again. We are all fools, but it was great fun.
And how our entire holiday was dominated by The Puzzle That Ate Christmas! It was my bright idea to order a personalized puzzle from Wentworth, a great company in England (there must be something similar here?) who will take your favorite and create a gorgeous wooden puzzle from it. But beware: these puzzles are menacingly difficult! John’s mom, Avery and I spent endless infuriating hours on it. But here ’tis. Well worth the torment!
I think, though, that my entire family would agree on the most wonderful moment of the Christmas season. Remember how I told you I was planning presents that would be wanted only by the people who would receive them? Well, no gift fit this description better than what Avery found in the mailbox, two days ago.
Are you among the lucky folks who know the satirical songwriting of Tom Lehrer? He is a singer-pianist-performer who is also really a Harvard mathematician, and his songs, mostly from the 1960s, have been part of my personal lore since childhood, because my parents were massive fans. “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park,” “The Vatican Rag,” all his other wickedly clever works are without peer in the songwriting world. He actually stopped performing and went back to teaching math because he got tired of repeating all his own songs!
Our family’s favorite, probably, is “The Elements,” in which he lists in perfect rhyming order all the elements of the chemical table, ending with “These are all the ones from which the news has come to Haaaaar-vard, and there may be many others but they haven’t been dis-caaaaahvered.”
It sounds crazy. Probably he is.
But one day Avery recited this song in her chemistry class to the avowed amazement of her teacher, who mentioned it in her report card. So I, stealthily, put it in an envelope and sent it off to Professor Lehrer with a note from me explaining Avery’s addiction to his music and asking him to sign it and send it back. And this is what came in the mail, that frosty late afternoon of the New Year.
My Christmas was complete, at that moment.
And so we slide gently into 2011, ready for whatever adventures our busy London life will contain. But to sustain us will be memories of our happy, crazy, busy, candlelit, delicious, love-filled holiday of 2010.
And of warm fires burning, a kitty sleeping.