14 November, 2006

we must save Ratty

It's a first: fund-raising on Kristen in London! But as I was munching my lunch in front of the BBC midday news today, I saw a story that made me sit up and stop chewing. The Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust are appealing for donations to help them buy 72 acres of land in Berkshire, land and a river that inspired Kenneth Grahame to write the iconic Wind in the Willows. Apparently this area is home to all the Rattys, Toads (and presumably their Toad Halls), Mole and all their friends. How I remember the hours and hours spent reading that book aloud to Avery when she was tiny, and then watching the hilarious films. It took the devoted attention of both John and me singly to get through that long book the first time, and I imagine that experience is one that taught Avery the benefits of a long attention span. Not for her the instant gratification of Archie comics! Oh, wait, that's one of her favorites as well. I suppose it's the eclectic life that pleases. Oh, and if you need a little-child present there is almost nothing nicer than the Jill Barklem set of stories called "Brambly Hedge," where you get not only your voles, but your basic set of other hedge inhabitants as well, mostly mice as I recall. I bet you if I offered to read aloud from "Brambly Hedge" at bedtime, Avery would still be happy to listen.

Anyway, my point is this: having spent many happy hours with "Wind in the Willows", and almost as many happy hours listening to our Connecticut friend Anne talk about her work with the Southbury Land Trust, I can tell you that supporting a land or wildlife preserve is a good thing to do. There are 80% fewer water voles (i.e Ratty) now than there were just 20 years ago, poor things. But helping to buy this tract of land will ensure that Rattys can come and go as they please and no McMansions will be built. Why, it was only this summer that Avery was feeding Young Rollie's goats on the farm formerly known as the Lovdal Farm down the road from our house, recently acquired by the Southbury Land Trust. What if 40 houses had been built on that land? Well, in any case it's food for thought. There you go, now I'll step off my soapbox and store it under my desk for the next cause that takes my fancy.

Other than that bit of news, it's a grey, rainy day here in Mayfair, perfect for picking up my bedraggled childhood copy of "Ammie, Come Home," the wonderful Georgetown ghost story that I read every November, for coziness sake. The rain means also, however, no top down on Emmy when I go pick up Avery and drive her to the stable. It's always the first thing she says when she approaches the car: "Top down, top down!" I read with my Form Three gulls this morning and had the pleasure of hearing about four pages of Harry Potter with the amazing Victoria. It's so much fun just to watch these gulls' little English mouths form the words. Next week is the Book Fair, and at the grocery store yesterday I was forced to pause in the cat food aisle and take an urgent mobile call from the Librarian, Mrs Palmer, asking for my assistance. Absolutely! This is actually Book Fair week at PS 234 in New York, so it comes at the right time.

Yesterday I spent most of the day ordering tickets for us to see "A Christmas Carol" at the Shaw Theatre, and a traditional choral concert of Christmas songs at the dreaded Barbican. I'd better bring my walking stick with the compass in the head and a flask of brandy slung around my neck. Then a long session discussing the trials and tribulations of homework for Avery, over a bowl of (I'm ashamed to say) gloriously crunchy and salty french fries at Patisserie Valerie. I know I should be giving her granola bars or something, but it's hard to resist those fries. Plus she needed all the strength she could get to cope with English revisions, science questions, maths timestables, French memorization. As usual we cracked up over the word for "lawyer" and "avocado" being the same. "Je suis un avocat," "I am an avocado." Juvenile bilingual humor always gets me. Luckily for both of us and our appetites, spaghetti and meatballs were in store for our dinner. Now, my meatball recipe is flexible in the extreme, unlike the quite, quite perfect recipe made by John's assistant Olimpia. I cannot compete. Her name ends in a vowel, she was born in Italy, enough said. Maybe if I called mine Norwegian meatballs the bar would be lower. But Avery likes mine well enough, and I suspect Olimpia of leaving out some crucial secret step, rubbing her hands together and knowing that I will never ever be able to achieve her success. No, she's too sweet for that. But anyway, mine are easy and you don't have to worry about their sticking together properly and looking nice, because they end up their cooking being braised in the tomato sauce. That way all flaws are hidden, an important ingredient in my non-perfectionistic cooking style.

First you want to start your tomato sauce so it can cook down while you play with the meatballs. It's the easiest sauce in the world and smells heavenly as it cooks.

Kristen's Tomato Sauce
(serves four)

3 tbsps olive oil
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 medium onion, finely chopped
3 soup-size cans whole peeled plum tomatoes
1 cup red wine
3 tbsps Italian seasoning
salt and pepper to taste

In a wide saucepan, saute garlic and onions in the olive oil, till soft. Then add all the other ingredients and prepare to wait. And stir. And wait, and stir some more. You can also break up the whole tomatoes with the back of your spoon. I advise against starting with chopped tomatoes because they just cook down into a mush. This way, you end up with nice recognizable and beautiful bites of tomato and a rich sauce.

Spaghetti and Meatballs
(serves four, or two people two nights in a row, in my life)

good splash olive oil
1 medium red onion finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 lb ground beef, lamb, pork or my combo of all three
one handful parsley, finely chopped
3 tbsps Italian seasoning
1 tsp dried basil
1/3 cup homemade bread crumbs
1/2 cup ricotta cheese
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
1 egg, beaten

First, in a large skillet saute the garlic and onions in the olive oil and let cool off the stove. Then mix all the other ingredients together. When garlic and onions are cool enough to touch, add them and mix, using your hands (sorry to say) at the end. Form into balls that fit in the palm of your hand (you should get about six). Heat more olive oil in the skillet you used for the garlic and onions and place the meatballs in a single layer. Fry on one side for about three minutes, then gently turn them over and fry on the other for three minutes. Gently remove the meatballs one by one with a tongs, and place in your tomato sauce. This can simmer indefinitely, at a very low simmer, while you make your salad and correct your child's geography homework and boil your spaghetti. To serve, place a tongs-full of spaghetti on a plate, add two meatballs, and ladle over sauce. Top with grated parmesan.

It was so funny last night, though: first, I discovered I was out of butter, a complete catastrophe in my fat-laden household (I usually add a pat to my tomato sauce at the last minute, but it isn't necessary). Then I found I was out of lemons for my Absolut Citron cocktail as well as to sprinkle on the avocado I insist on eating every night as I cook dinner. Just sliced, with lemon juice and Maldon salt that my mother in law and I are obsessed with (I have to add here that if you go on the Maldon website, by clicking the hot link, you can download a movie called, I am not making this up, "The Magic of Salt." So far even I do not have THAT much time on my hands). So then I discovered I was out of salt! And I had no milk. Finally, I asked Avery in desperation, "What is, in your opinion, the main ingredient in spaghetti and meatballs?" "The meatballs," she answered promptly. "Oh, thank goodness," I breathed in relief, "because we're out of spaghetti."

(Linguini worked fine.)

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