06 June, 2006

I'm back

I'm sorry I've been so silent! A long-awaited visit from John's parents, combined with a nasty bout of a stomach bug called ulcerative colitis, have curtailed my communications for a couple of weeks. But the visit is, sadly, over, and the bug, not so sadly, on its last legs, so here I am.

Second mental note to self (after the one not to ruin very expensive dress shirts and school uniforms with one flick of a pashmina): don't try to melt butter in a Pyrex dish directly on top of a scary ceramic stove. Why not? Because it freakin' EXPLODED! There I was, innocently cooking dinner last night, and the main dish was to be Mama Nel's chicken, named after my darling mother who invented it. It's easy peasy, as Jamie Oliver would say: simply pour some flour into a grocery bag, or some other bag, and add lots of herbs: rosemary, thyme, paprika, garlic powder, basil, marjoram, whatever you like. Then pour some vegetable oil in a nice Pyrex dish and dip chicken pieces skin side down in the oil. Then shake them up in the herbed flour and lay again skin side down in the oiled pan. Bake for about 20 minutes at 425, then turn over and bake skin side up for another 20 minutes. You can do the last few minutes on broil if you like crispy skin.

Anyway, I decided to combine the oil with a little butter, so I was herbing my flour and watching the butter melt on top of the stove when KABOOM the whole thing simply exploded into hundreds of tiny shrapnel pieces. I'm lucky I didn't put my eye out, or some kitty's eye. My bleats of dismay brought Avery and John, who looked on in horror, and then John cut himself trying to help. Finally it was all cleared up and dinner on its way, only to find, as we ate the steamed basmati rice to go with the chicken, that glass fragments had found their way into the butter I put on top. A very effective way to control portions, it turns out. No one wanted to eat anything after that! What a night.

John's parents' visit was completely wonderful. As you can see above, they went everywhere with us! They accompanied us to the barn and met Cookie, and to school and met Mrs Davies, and to playdate dropoff where they met Becky and her family. It was school half term, so things like showing them Avery's ice skating had to happen with just us, not the fun of the whole class, but still, I think they got a good feel for the way we live now. Let's see, they treated us to a ruinously expensive afternoon tea at Brown's Hotel (I've always wanted to go back since my own parents took us way back in 1990 or so). Since then of course we have acquired Avery who is a great fan of Agatha Christie, and in particular the thinly-disguised version of Brown's that appears in "At Bertram's Hotel." So I innocently booked us for one afternoon, not knowing that by now it has climbed in price to the astronomical fee of 29 pounds per person! Honestly, even for Londoners that's going some. Still, it was lovely.

We trekked out to the countryside to see Lullingstone Castle, whose family fortunes (or lack thereof) and renovation have been the subject of a wonderful BBC documentary that we're addicted to. We actually got to meet Tom Dyke Hart, the son and heir, and inventor of the marvelous garden that's the centerpiece of the new public areas of the house and grounds. John went around mumbling, "I REALLY want that house..." Then we went to see the "Mousetrap," and John's parents took my tickets to see "Coriolanus" at the Globe (my acting class was studying it, I thought, but it turns out I was wrong and THEY were all at "Titus Andronicus"!), we went to an incredible polo match at the Guards Polo Club in Windsor (Prince Philip's own polo club, if you please). Did you know that at halftime, after the first three "chukkas", the crowd are all asked to go out on to the field and stomp on the "divets"? So there we all were, finding all the places where the hooves and mallets had chewed up the polo lawn, and stomping the sod back in place! Of course, only John Curran could make this a competitive sport, so he was practically mowing Avery down trying to stomp on all the divets SHE found.

On the last day of the visit, after Avery's riding lesson in Wimbledon, we moseyed out to the McBs' for Sunday lunch in Stroud. Incredibly all four children were there, so John's parents got to see the towering thing that is Nick (who I first met when he was four, sob), shortly to leave his rowing days at Eton behind and conquer Yale University, and Emma who's off to Exeter, and Rose whose birth announcement I discovered in a box of memorabilia last week, and Una who was not even born when we last lived in London. How have they all grown so old, and so accomplished? Every time we see that family I feel that it's best just to skip the fiery crash and give Avery to them now. They're such professionals!

John's dad performed his usual neighborhood miracle and found us a local restaurant to patronize, the Lucky Spot, right on South Audley Street, so we went twice in a row and were much made over. Their stracciatelli soup, lemony and eggy, was just what the doctor ordered for my fragile health. We discovered many heretofore unknown bus routes and went to the Tower of London, the Portobello farmer's market, shopping in Oxford Street, and everywhere else you can imagine. Through it all we ate: even with my sad stomach, we ATE. Susan's orange and ginger chicken curry, roasted pork spareribs (their leftovers made a superb picnic for the polo match), avocado salad galore, cream of red pepper soup with fresh thyme, you name it. And pink gazpacho, for which I must give you the recipe because it's sinfully simple and inexpensive, and aside from a cucumber and an avocado you can easily have everything on hand in your pantry:

Jeanne Grieger's Pink Summer Gazpacho

1 cup slivered almonds or pine nuts
2 pieces white or wheat bread or 1 cup breadcrumbs
2 cans plum tomatoes
1/2 long hydroponic cucumber, or two small kirbys, sliced
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup cider vinegar (you can use balsamic but it will change the color of the soup)
1 tbsp ground cumin
1 tbsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp chili pepper or cayenne
salt and pepper to taste
2 cups chicken broth
1 cup half and half
1 avocado, cut in small bite-size pieces

Pulverize the almonds or pine nuts in a Cuisinart, then whiz in the bread. Add the tomatoes, cucumber, oil and vinegar and spices and pulverize until smooth. Pour into a very large bowl and add the chicken broth and half and half and blend well. Taste it and add more of whatever spices or salt you think is needed. Chill thoroughly and serve with a little group of avocado pieces mounded in the center. Delicious, and so good for you! If you like a more elegant soup, you can peel the cucumber first, or you can strain the soup. But I find the green bits and the nutty bits are very nice.

Sadly the inlaws have gone callously home, leaving me with nothing more exciting to do than laundry. I caved to the pressure of my tiny washing machine and yesterday dropped off two huge bags of sheets, towels and John's business shirts at a nice laundry in the Marylebone High Street. Simply abandoned it all.

So today I don't get Avery back in my clutches until 5:30, due to the fever-pitch excitement of rehearsals for the school-wide production of "Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat." What I don't know about Joseph's 10 hapless siblings, the many hues of the coat, and the endless number of repetitions of "AHA" isn't worth knowing. Andrew Lloyd Webber has a lot to answer for, in my humble opinion, but I'm sure when it's not just burbled at me in a taxi on the way to school or chortled at me as cooking implements explode, it will be very charming. The production is on June 17 so we have a ways to go as far as exposure. Avery was astounded that her grandparents did not immediately change their tickets and stay an extra twelve days in order to see the performance. They are such saints, I think they actually considered it. How we miss them. Now it's time for MY parents to come! But I am afraid I have to wait until the fall for that delight.

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