31 December, 2006

soggy, soggy, soggy

Oh, it was bound to end badly, as Alyssa would say. Or as the English say, "it ended in tears." Well, not literally, but we were wet enough.

As soon as everybody left for "Dick Whittington," John and I decided to open Jill and Joel's Christmas box and see what was inside. And there, tantalizingly, was the "Collectors' Edition" Gone With the Wind that I had begged for! It was but the work of a moment to put Disc Three in and we were deep in the world of Margaret Mitchell, casting Scarlett, George Cukor's hissy fits. So when the hour to leave for dinner arrived, I think it's safe to say that for a bet, we would both just have stayed home. But you know when it's An Event, like your anniversary, and you've made the reservations, and your child is safely in someone else's hands (forget safely, in fact, she's just somewhere else), you feel you must Go Out. So we did.

Straight into a blinding, blowing, freezing rainstorm. The corner of Wood's Mews and Park Lane was like something from the Wizard of Oz, without the music and the witch on a bicycle. No, actually there were several witches on bicycles, and they each rode perilously close to us. The little space of black tights between my skirt and boots was instantly soaked, and I wanted to go home. Plus no taxis, and it was too late to take a bus. There was nothing for it: John decided we would drive. So he spun around and elbowed me in the face, breaking the temple off glasses and dashing them to the wet sidewalk. Now, THEN, it was definitely time to stay home. But no, we were intrepid. Into the house I go, find old skanky glasses (after all, it's only my wedding anniversary, no need to look appealing, he's stuck with me), then back out to crawl into the car and be off.

I wish I could say that "dinner was all we remembered," but either we don't remember much because our experiences at Wodka were heavily steeped in vodka, or the restaurant had declined. For whatever reason, it wasn't tremendously yummy. I don't think we'd go back. Unaccountably, a small bull terrier was part of the decor, following wet patrons from the door to their tables and then looking truculent. And the menu was paper. And the food very oily, except when it was dry and shooting off the plate. Actually, a starter called "pelimeni" was quite good, a sort of meatball in a dumpling (how could it be bad?), but even the iced vodkas were not as good as the many varieties I remember John and I made when we moved back to New York the last time. We found that anything was good in vodka! Except watermelon, which watered it down. But cucumber? Fresh ginger? Chili peppers? All good.

Ah well, soon enough we were home and cozy.

This morning we headed out to the British Museum to meet up with everyone and hear all about last evening. More on that later, but right now... Happy New Year's Eve! We hope you are doing what you like best: whether that's sitting quietly on your own with a book, or partying madly with lots of sloshed friends, or getting engaged on top of the Empire State Building, or having dinner with a select group (as we did). See you in 2007!

30 December, 2006

another reason to stop smoking, or Our Day At the Zoo

What, you might ask, do these concepts have in common? I too was ignorant until this afternoon.

There we were, in the monkey section of the London Zoo in Regent's Park (although with Annabelle, Avery and Elliot around, pretty much any section qualifies as the monkey section). One of our fellow tourists was just about to light up a cigarette when the little zoo guide elf person stepped quickly and efficiently forward. "Sorry, madam, we do ask that you refrain from smoking. The monkeys will think you're putting food in your mouth and they will just go for your face."

That was worth, as they say, the whole price of admission.

Truth be told, zoos alternately drive me crazy and bore me to tears. I simply do not care how many varieties of an awful lot of creatures there are. Creatures in the category of how many there are I don't care about include all insects, most birds and nearly all fish. Now, big cats, there I'm interested. Even meerkats. But reptiles? Butterflies? Don't care.

Glad to get that out of my system. We sent John home to take a nice nap and then proceeded to martyr ourselves to all this fauna, plus an unbelievably unappealing hot dog in a baguette (we're not in Paris anymore!). Then, somewhere between the chain-smoking primates and the penguin pool, it started to rain. Which necessitated visiting the parts of the zoo that are even less pleasurable than primates and penguins: things indoors, behind glass, under water. Grrr.

Finally home to popcorn, a nap for Elliot, a good gossip session with Alyssa who sat on the floor of my study while I looked up restaurants for tonight. Oh, Happy Anniversary to us! Seventeen years ago tonight, we got married at the Junior League House of Indianapolis, Indiana. Why? I don't remember. Wait, John wants me to point out that I remember WHY I got married, I just don't remember why at the Junior League House! So noted.

Avery is going with everyone else to see "Dick Whittington and His Cat", a classic "panto" which Alyssa was determined to put everyone through before they left. Meanwhile, John and I will revisit, if not our misspent youth, then at least one of the restaurants where we spent a lot of it: Wodka. Lovely Polish food and lovely Polish vodka. Can't wait. And... put out that cigarette.

29 December, 2006

little memories

So as we're putting them to bed (I am ashamed to say we still sing to Avery every night before she goes to sleep; my New Year's resolution is to put a plan in effect to phase out the ritual before she goes to college). Avery says, "Last night, Annabelle tried to sing the whole of all the songs to me and she doesn't know all the words." "Avery!" I exclaimed. "How many of the words to [trying desperately to think of something she might have heard occasionally but not all the time] 'Dreidl, dreidl, dreidl,' do you know?" "Well [she says defensively], 'dreidl, dreidl, dreidl...'" Explosions of laughter as it's clear this is as far as her memory goes!

Annabelle chimes in, "I'm pretty good with your nighttime songs. I've heard them enough. 'Over in Killarney...'" I thought of the dozens of sleepovers at our house, and Annabelle's house, over the seven or so years that they have been friends. I remember that this picture was taken at the Easter just after Annabelle turned four: we have always spent Easter dyeing eggs with Annabelle, just as Avery has spent every Hannukah lighting candles and playing dreidl, and Annabelle has come to decorate our Christmas tree, and we have come to Passover dinner (where the matzoh ball soup includes asparagus, lucky us).

John and I just looked at each other over their heads and wished simultaneously for them to stay forever as happy as they are tonight, to be as protected, and to have each other to turn to, giggling, whenever the need might arise...


Although as Alyssa rightly points out, if we started observing the sabbath in London when the sun really sets, only a few of us would have got out of our showers in time. I forget, being a local, how early it gets dark. Of course, I love it, and start getting nervous when the sun isn't down by the time Avery's homework is finished.

Speaking of, can I say how wonderful it is when she doesn't have any? Sorry.

The crowning glory of the reunion of the "Kristen and Alyssa Show," that staple of family entertainment, was the chance for Kristen to eat matzoh ball soup. Of course, it was also vastly important to show Annabelle Avery's school (I don't know who yawned harder, Annabelle or Avery, although most of Avery's energy was taken up refusing to walk up the steps: "I have to walk up these steps every DAY!"). But I insisted. Then we had a nice snack in Patisserie Valerie in honor of Alyssa's sister Val, and came home to make Shabbat dinner. Not, as Alyssa assures me, that they do this every Friday night, but it was a nice coincidence that the first available night to do it was... Friday. I can tell you right now that there's almost no point posting the recipe for the soup. It's like... it's like having Mozart play the piano for you, and at the end you ask him where he got his sheet music. Perfection.

Pastrami and salt beef from Selfridges, rye bread, weird pickles from the supermarket, good German mustard, soured cream, homemade applesauce with one apple left unpeeled, as per Alyssa's Nanny's recipe. "What? When on earth did you have a nanny?" I asked, horrified that an entire chapter of Alyssa lore might have been lost to me during our long years of friendship. "No, my NANNY. My grandmother! Yes, I had a nanny. When my mother was doing what?" We all simply tucked in and were happy. Of course the evening degenerated into the children's renditions of "Bop Till You Drop," from High School Musical, which I am afraid has thoroughly supplanted any lovely Christmas carols as the Song of the Holiday. Ah well, every silver lining has its cloud.

Tell you what. I'll ask Alyssa for the soup recipe, and then you and I collectively can try to figure out what she's left off, to keep us in her thrall. Meanwhile, I have the leftovers...

28 December, 2006

compleat tourists

Let's see: it all started on Boxing Day with the Big Bus Company Sightseeing Tour of London! From there it degenerated (or was elevated, depending upon your perspective) into every tourist site in the greater London metropolitan area. It's like this: in New York, no self-respecting citizen would go to 1) the Empire State Building, 2) the Statue of Liberty, or 3) one of those tacky horse-drawn carriages in Central Park. Likewise, in London, no one who lives here does any of the touristy stuff. Suffice to say, if you have out of town visitors (especially who promise to make you matzoh ball soup), all such restrictions fly out the proverbial window.

As a consequence, although I have always wanted to do the tour bus thing, and my anti-tourist husband would not let me... Ah ha! Alyssa comes to town and I can do exactly what I please, because SHE wants to as well! So Tuesday morning found us shivering on top of the double-decker red bus, swanning our way through Mayfair, Fleet Street, across Tower Bridge (to the accompaniment of the tour guide who threw out such gems of wisdom as pointing out the shop who supplies knickers to the Queen, and the Angus Steakhouse, "who has got back some of its popularity since it put the missing "G" back in its name"). At the Tower we descended and thought we'd visit the Instruments of Torture and Doom, but the Tower was closed, since it was Boxing Day. So off to the boat half of the tour back to the Houses of Parliament. Periodically John, who had taken himself off to do other things, like stick hot needles in his eyeballs, called to get an update on all the cool things he had missed. Steve passed the time on the boat ride back by looking at the same map we were all looking at and saying OUT LOUD all the things we were passing. "That's Blackfriars Bridge," he'd announce, to which I could say only, "Oh, look, it's Blackfriars Bridge on my map too." This is the sort of brother-sisterly conversation that makes getting me and Steve together really annoying to everyone around us, but we don't seem to mind.

Then, let's see, I had to point out all the things Steve was pronouncing wrong, and making us look like tourists (oh, wait, we were tourists, but as Avery always says, we don't have to look like it). "If you say one more time how close your flat is to SOUTH-WARK Cathedral, I'm not making bolognese for you," I said severely, "say it three times quick, 'Suth-ick, suth-ick, suth-ick.'" At that point Steve said just "ick," so we moved on to annoying each other in some other way.

Then there was the visit to the actual Tower of London itself, which I remember visiting about three thousand times when we lived here 15 years ago, but since all my internal brain energy has since been replaced by an encyclopedic knowledge of picture books and recipes, was new to me. And terrible fish and chips! And sixty different kinds of beers! And the only, according to Annabelle and me, bad hot dog ever invented. But there you go. Tourist traps.

Meanwhile we've been watching the Christmas episode of our favorite show, "QI" with Stephen Fry. My favorite line? "When I was up at Oxford at Christmas we used to ring up Jesus College and ask, 'Is that Jesus?' and then sing, 'Happy Birthday to you...'"

And what else? The Changing of the Guard, where I nearly had to hire a chiropractor to help me recover from carrying Annabelle on my shoulders (John had Avery, to be fair). Why were they playing show tunes? I swear, not even show tunes, at one point the band was playing, "People who need people... are the luckiest people... in the world...." WHY? I finally decided that because the Queen was at Balmoral, all the Guards were just goofing off. From there we had lunch in Piccadilly, and then shopping at Fortnum and Mason, and then Steve and Alyssa went off to dinner by themselves and we hung out with Elliot. He is officially the funniest child I have ever met, with really an adult sense of humor. And no, Steve, by that I don't mean you have to produce a driver's license to think he's funny. He's just one of my favorite people, who happens to weigh 40 pounds. He can be read to for an infinite amount of time, and finally succumbed to "Santa Mouse" and was down for the count.

Today was a riding lesson for Fifi, finally. Annabelle came along to pickup and got to hear Avery's full-on English accent, from when she's been hanging with English chicks. "There was a leaf-blowing machine, and the ponies were scared, but Smokey was the best pony EVAH." Then home to feast on some of the Lincolnshire Poacher cheese Steve kindly brought to me from Neal's Yard Dairy, yum yum. Then we parted ways: John to haunt the neighborhood of the house he wants to buy, Steve and Elliot to the London Eye, and us girls to the Sixties Fashion Exhibition at the Victoria and Albert, where I got all nostalgic looking through the glass doors of the National Art Library where I did so much research, these 15 years ago. What fun that was.

Whew. I'm going to take a break, see what the children are up to, and then I'll tell you about the real reason for the entire Sadoff family visit: the Matzoh Ball Soup... I'd tell you I'm just kidding, but Alyssa knows the truth. Actually, here's some food (so to speak) for thought: the whole song, and concept, "Make new friends and keep the old, one is silver and the other gold." What does that mean, exactly? Because in the taxi on the way to the V & A, we analyzed it. "Well, gold is more valuable, so..." but that didn't seem right, because there's no way a new friend like Becky or Anna is less valuable than an old friend like Alyssa or Annabelle. In the end, I think, like a jewelry box is more satisfying to open if you see both shiny gold and shiny silver... maybe that works? Who knows. I just feel extremely lucky to be able to show our old friends around London and see, around so many corners, happy memories that involve new friends. The best of both worlds. The glass-half-full approach. Because truthfully, in my dark Scandinavian heart of hearts, I'm glass-half-empty. Wherever I go, there's somebody to miss.

27 December, 2006

life is good when...

Well, when a couple of things happen. I'd think of ten and make a Top Ten list, but I'm too tired. For starters, it's awfully nice when one of your oldest friends comes to visit and brings... companion holiday socks. And then your mother takes the mirror off the kitchen wall where she normally checks her hair (awful) before school dropoff, and turns it into a holiday village for the table in the sitting room.

Can our friends stay here forever with us? One of my most favoritest moments in life ever (I can't foresee much happening before I die that will change this) is sitting on the sofa looking at the Christmas tree, listening to Annabelle and Avery play "Outrage," the game sold at the Tower of London gift shop (along with 4 million other things your child CANNOT live without), while "A Charlie Brown Christmas" music played in the background, and John and Steve sat in the kitchen debating the relative merits of Marks and Spencer canned cocktails (very few merits, as it turns out, as I can attest having reluctantly sampled the Harvey Wallbanger, oh my it should be against the law) and torturing Elliot, making him smell John's socks and beg for mercy. In the background simmered bolognese sauce, although I had been almost too tired to make it. "Just order Chinese, Kristen," Alyssa advised, while the kids clamored, "Bolognese, bolognese..." "But it's up to you, Mummy," Avery allowed. To have small children beg is really compelling, so I caved. "You made a good choice, Kristen," Elliot solemnly assured me. Alyssa sat next to me and moved buttons and snaps on Avery's favorite grey skirt so she can continue to wear it in the New Year, and I just sat and felt happy to have everyone around me.

More tomorrow, but all is well here. How was your holiday?

24 December, 2006

Christmas Eve

It's finally here: Christmas Eve. Our friends have arrived, hugs have been exchanged more than once, the merest beginnings of gossip relayed and received (a week will by no means exhaust Alyssa's and my appetite for this topic), the cats have been mildely terrorized, Avery and Annabelle have listened to all the music of "High School Musical" more than once and sung and danced, a mammoth lunch of ham sandwiches with Wensleydale and Red Leicester cheese, red onions, avocados, tomatoes, and fresh Thai basil and cilantro pesto has been eaten. "A Christmas Carol" in rather unexpected humorous tones has been taken in (although some audience members who shall remain nameless but were severely jet-lagged, slept through the second half). Someday, I promised, I'll tell Alyssa how it ends.

Home to oyster stew, the first presents of Christmas Eve unwrapped, Elliot's nap in my new plastic orange boa (don't ask) enjoyed by all, and the elder Sadoffs (not very elderly to be sure) and Master Elliot have whisked themselves off to their rented flat. Avery and Annabelle watched "Olive, the Other Reindeer," and then we read "Twas the Night Before Christmas," "Santa Mouse," and "Pussycat's Christmas," and they are sound asleep, tucked up with numerous hot water bottles. John and I are madly finishing last-minute things with thousand of interlocking identical parts, while Hermione chases tissue paper and ribbon. In other words, it's the last throes of Christmas Eve. Cookies, milk and carrots await Santa and the reindeer on the window sill.

How WONDERFUL it is to have our friends here.

A joyous and peaceful Christmas to all of you and yours...

23 December, 2006

finally! Borough Market, and the results (plus spectacles)

Finally, I have made it to Borough Market, the place everyone I know has sent me to all year since I arrived. It needed the Saturday before Christmas, the busiest day of the known calendar, to get me there. But it was SO worth it.

First off, of course I had to get lost. John and I had stopped off to pick up five dozen oysters at Partridges farmer's market in South Kensington, first detouring into Partridges itself to laugh at $15 boxes of Cheerios and other American necessities! Too funny. (Is it possibly a record to visit two markets in one day?). From there he drove me to the Green Park underground station, instructing me to take the Jubilee line straight to London Bridge. Only, I panicked: was it meant to be Tower Bridge? A frantic phone call to Twiggy, who I was meeting there, she didn't pick up. Panicked message, call John who didn't pick up. Finally I asked the tube attendant, and after a search through a map with a well-licked thumb, I was assured that London Bridge was my destination. Whew. Off I went. It required another series of silly phone calls between Twiggy and me to meet up finally outside Neal's Yard Dairy with a massive queue outside! For cheese! Which sort of summed up the market. Long, long queues for everything, but so worth it. I will go back many times, I'm sure. I sampled everything! First, Twiggy offered me a sip of her hot organic apple juice, and I ended up commandeering the rest of it, so comforting and delicious.

Then it was onto one of the few treasured English traditions that I ended up not liking: roasted chestnuts. Hmm, the texture of building material, with a sweet, slick exterior. Plus I burned my fingers, which is almost impossible with my asbestos hands. I hated to disappoint Twiggy, but honesty prevailed. Maybe it's an acquired taste.

Onto an olive stand where we sampled a green variety stuffed with carrots, of all things. Most delicious, crunchy and unexpected. Then a lovely mild Stilton, which I've always thought I didn't like, but it was creamy and nice, so I bought a wedge from the apple-cheeked central-casting English farmer girl (I wouldn't have minded bringing her home as well, so pretty). Then an oyster! Just to try another purveyor, and it was fresh and cold. Twiggy averted her vegetarian eyes. Then onto a Polish stand with gorgeous dried salami and a condiment called "cowberry sauce," or borowka which was sweet and tart and actually very good with the salami (defiantly flaunting John's stringent rules prohibiting anything with fruit and meat together). Then we ended up at a juice stand and had hot pomegranate and blueberry juice, which Twiggy assured me would cure, or prevent everything bad. Lovely! And flax seed (did you know it was the same as "linseed"? I didn't) johnny cakes! And fresh sage and butternut squash ravioli from The Fresh Pasta Company, to die for! I bought asparagus and pecorino tortelloni instead, though when I can plan to cook and eat it I do not know, with our company coming today. And finally a little triangle of palek paneer at Mrs Bassa's Indian Kitchen, lovely. "I was just telling Eddie last week that there were no Indian stalls at the market, and here she is! But my mother can make better," Twiggy promised, and one of our plans for 2007 is for her to teach me some Indian cookery secrets. I can't wait. My first Indian friend, and she can cook. What luck.

After chugging one more oyster, picking up two enormous stalks of brussels sprouts, trawling Konditor and Cook with their chocolate delights, and politely refusing a bunch of mistletoe the size of Southwark Cathedral (which looms over the market like a benevolent uncle), I reluctantly parted company with Twiggy and came home.

Avery had just come home from the stable, but had an agenda: to go to the eyeglasses store and get her prescription filled. Did you know that Boots pharmacy will provide a free exam and prescription to children? They do. So off we went, leaving John with a cup of hot lemon juice with fresh-grated ginger and honey, to soothe his hacking cough. We ended up at Optical Express and ordered two darling pairs, which were ready by the time we finished our mammoth shop at Tesco. Avery is a new woman: "I can see EVERYTHING! I can read the little print on that street sign, and see people's eyelashes, and the spots in the sidewalk where people have dropped gum! It's incredible! It's magical!"

"I've run out of superlatives!" she exclaimed finally, stopping point blank in Oxford Street to notice that the lights above were all individual! Not just an incalculable mass of illumination. It reminded me so of the first day I wore glasses, and said to my mother, "The trees have individual leaves! Not just up close, but far away, too!"

She settled down to reading Christmas books, and I hunkered down in the kitchen with various tasks. First up was to brine my turkey. Vincent gave me quite the stern lecture about the importance of an organic turkey, at lunch yesterday, but I was having none of it. I braved his considerable and implacable directives and came home with my usual Dolly Parton of a fowl, and within minutes he was reposing in a nice warm bath (had to be filled by the bathtub tap, actually! too heavy to carry the pot, full of water, down the stairs and out the bedroom door). I watched Nigella yesterday put cinnamon, cloves, allspice and other nasty things in her turkey brine, but not for me. No, savory is the order of the day. Into my pot went my fresh Thai green peppercorns, now nicely shriveling into regular crunchy specimens, and lots of fresh sage, rosemary, onion and celery, and two lemons, juice squeezed and their little bodies dropped into the water.

Then I was determined to take advantage of my trip to the dusty, dank, unimpressive but entirely brilliant Thai market I visited yesterday. I have looked in vain online for any information about this shop, so I'll have to check back with Vincent and find out exactly where it is. Westbourne Grove-ish. Even the spectacularly surly checkout girls could not dim my enthusiasm. I invented a lovely sauce, and let me see if I can remember exactly what I did. With it you can serve sauteed chicken or beef (I did both, actually, a cut of beef I've never heard called an "olive steak", rather like flank). I think you could also do steamed potatoes and carrots for a vegetarian version. Here goes:

Kristen's Thai curry
(serves four)

2 tbsps olive oil
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium onion, minced
12 leaves Thai basil, chiffonaded (you know, rolled up and cut in slices)
4 leaves Thai mint, chiffonaded
1 stalk lemon grass, first outer layer peeled off, and sliced very thin
1 soup-size can of coconut milk (thoroughly stirred to mix as it separates on storage)
2 tbsps Thai green curry paste
1/2 cup water.

Saute the garlic, onion, basil, mint and lemon grass in the oil until soft. Then add coconut milk, curry paste and water and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Serve with sauteed chicken, beef or prawns, and with basmati rice.


It turned out really well! Too spicy for Avery, though, who contented herself with strips of beef and a mound of rice.

Through it all, my pot of oyster stew, waiting for Alyssa's family arrival today, bubbled at the back of the stove. So exciting to putter about and produce good things to eat. The stew has joined his briney brother out on what I think of as my larder, the little step outside my bedroom door. That's a must for any new house: somewhere outdoors, even a window ledge, to cool food.

So now it is Christmas Eve Day. We all arose early to do last-minute things to make the house festive, in that sort of nervy, anticipatory feeling that is part of every Christmas Eve Day. Thank goodness for the fresh tree! It twinkles merrily. I've put the various Christmas cards that have crossed the Atlantic on our Chinese chest in the foyer, and music from "The Nutcracker" is caroling away, Keechie has had her valium so as to survive Annabelle and her brother Elliot, and all is in readiness. Last night we all had a cozy talk with my family in Indiana, Janie warbling "Jingle Bells," Joel asking me to identify various packages that had arrived at my parents' house for their arrival, my mother and dad sounding excited and appreciative of the baby's arrival. Avery is feverishly finishing various secret items and John is pocketing a list of last-minute ingredients for our holiday. This afternoon we'll see "A Christmas Carol," so I shall report on how that is. In the meantime, everyone: Merry Christmas!

22 December, 2006

bless the girl

May I just take a moment to be grateful? To have a child at any time. But to have a little girl at Christmas time, who takes so much joy in what is under the tree that is NOT for her, who is so excited for, more than any gift, the arrival of her friend Annabelle from New York for a visit, is a thing to behold.

And I must say as well, while I'm being all sentimental, one of my strongest childhood memories of Christmas is of the piano recital just days after my darling Grandpa Loyd died (yes, he was a Loyd with only one l, just as my grandmother was and IS a Bettye with an extra e!). I remember coming home from school just after we had spent Thanksgiving with my grandparents on their southern Indiana "estate", Five Green Acres, and how we loved to visit them there. The pickle tree! The basement with the pool table! The stairway we could all slide down, toward my grandfather's study with his tree full of pipes to be smoked. For YEARS afterward, whenever I smelled a pipe being smoked, I though it was my grandpa.

Well, one day shortly after Thanksgiving I came home from school, and instead of just opening up the front door, which was never locked as far as I can remember, my mother opened the door herself and stood, tall as anybody you ever saw (and she wasn't all that tall), crying. I never saw her cry, except when the boy across the street was hit by a car (he was fine, by the way). But, her father, my beloved Grandpa Loyd, had died. Something super sudden, super painless, just gone. And my mother was gone, then, too, to help my grandmother prepare for the funeral. And there we were, us three kids, sitting on top of the washing machine in the middle of a cycle, trying to figure out what happened after the clothes came out, and my dad was there, being valiant, folding clothes, and wondering what to do about the piano recital?

Because of course, as parents with small children, you find that plans must go on. In the end, our great, old-lady friend Mrs Young from two doors down, came to take me to the piano recital. Did my sister play? She would remember better than I. But I played. "I'll Be Home For Christmas..." My mother couldn't be there, but there was Mrs Young, who I remember visiting in a nursing home on the morning after my wedding, and my husband spent the whole of our after-wedding day with her lipstick on his collar (imagine her stopping to put on lipstick!). And she had been there for me at my Christmas recital.

I suppose, more than dinners or presents or stockings, this is what we remember for Christmas. And I'm grateful for everyone who was there, when I was a little girl.

heavenly voices and... foie gras

Oh my. Can I just say that last night's concert was quite the most beautiful, touching and festive events of our holiday season? And as you know quite well, it's been packed with good things. But if you ever get a chance to hear The Choir of St George's Chapel, Windsor, run, don't walk. They were simply breathtakingly marvelous.

Call me ignorant, but it never occurred to me that, when you listen to a CD of Christmas music, the high piping voices belong to... little boys! Not to sopranos at all, dumb me. I actually felt a pang of worry that Avery would be bored, since all the singers looked to be boys. What was I thinking? Now, I imagine adult choirs have to run to actual females, but if you don't have to, don't. And THIS from a card-carrying feminist! No, truly there is nothing sweeter than little boys singing, and I don't think I ever have done, before, actually live. They sang all the wonderful bits I love, like "Joy to the World," and my all-time favorite, "In the Bleak Midwinter," although to a completely different tune than I am used to. Of course in blogworld I cannot sing this tune to you. But has anyone else heard two different versions? Anyway, it was lovely. And "The Holly and the Ivy," and to Avery's delight, "Ding Dong Merrily on High," since she played the violin for it at the school festival. Just wonderful. When the interval came, we had the awful thought that it was over! But no, there was more. John turned to me and said, "I don't think I have ever shed a tear listening to music, since we listened to 'Concert for New York,' after the World Trade Center." It was terribly moving. And then after the interval came what the conductor called wryly, "The loneliest solo in the business," the beginning verse of "Once in royal David's city," which our little friend Lindsay sang at the school festival. All alone, out there on the stage in front of everyone, a little chap called Oliver sang his heart out last night, their "senior chorister," looking as if he should be in the dusty stacks of the British Library, looking up some arcane bit of pre-Raphaelite intelligence. A dear little fellow, and a simply magical voice. Then, also mysteriously, there was a carol called "Angels from the realms of glory," but I'm sorry, it was "Angels we have heard on high." Who knows from what arcane distinctions these variations arise.

Then they trotted out a female opera singer as, one supposes, a sop to those who want to hear a lady sing, and she was a yawn. Unfortunately I happened to mention to Avery that she looked like "The Opera Camel," a reference to a joke I had with a friend in college, when we could make all sorts of camel faces. There was the "Scholarly Camel," the "Supercilious Camel," the "Astonished Camel," and the "Pathologically Shy Camel." But the "Opera Camel" comes with a dark, dark history. Years ago, during our first sojourn in London in the early 1990s, my dear family came to visit us at Christmastime, to mark the end of my sister's dreaded semester at Essex University, or "Gotham City," as she referred to it (suffice to say she spent a lot of time at our flat in London). As a special holiday treat, we all went to hear Handel's "Messiah." Which would have been lovely except that as an ignorant idiot, I thought there was the "Hallelujah Chorus," and that was it, and we'd all go have a lovely dinner. Oh ho. It lasted for HOURS. And my sister and I began to get squirrelly. I made one, just ONE "Opera Camel" face at her, and after that, all bets were off. No amount of stern looks from our mother (who sadly began to do camel faces too after a bit), or angry glances from other occupants of our pew (shaking with laughter) could dispel. Then John got it. One by one, we had to leave the chapel, to try to stop laughing, but it was no good. We snickered and shook the pew and giggled until finally it was the bleeping "Hallelujah Chorus" and we could just shout and get it out of our systems.

Well, I'm ashamed to say that Avery took the "Opera Camel" face in much the same spirit. She is, however, considerably more mature than I was at, say, 26 years of age, and came to her senses. Whew.

We emerged from the concert into the glow of St. Paul's cathedral, and came home in a fog of appreciation. Plus Avery was wearing my favorite grey coat that makes her look so cozy, and a very fancy dress from Morgane le Fay that her Iowa grandparents bought for her at least three years ago and which has seen her through every festivity in her life since. Dark blue woollen knit, swirly about the hems, with a dark-blue silk lining. And a cream-colored silk blouse with a ruffled collar. With this fetching ensemble she wore a grey felt beret with a felt rabbit on it. Both John and I were quite silly with admiration for her, in the tube.

This morning she tripped off to her eye doctor appointment with John while I slept in like a lazy slob. What on EARTH am I going to do when he eventually gets a job? I have got sinfully accustomed to having a second parent in the house. And I must say that late last night, after Avery had gone to sleep and we were having a restorative shared scrambled egg in the kitchen, we discussed the incredible luxury of a two-parent household at all. We're looking to buy a house in North Kensington, currently lived in by a lovely Irish lady called Sally and her little boy William. And that's all. How incredibly brave of her to manage on her own, without the adult to talk to at the end of the day, to share errands, handle half (or more, in the case of my husband) the moral dilemmas and behavioral concerns. I wanted to take the two of them in to live with us! Hey, if we are able to buy her house, you never know! Seriously, though. A thing to be grateful for at any season, but especially now: a second parent. And we realized: this is the first Christmas ever that John has been able to do anything about the holiday. Which was always fine, because I love anything to do with Christmas preparations, and historically he has been very Scroogey. But now I wonder how much was Scrooge and how much was just sheer exhaustion. I remember the childhood feeling of my dad being able to relax. It was always like an extra Christmas present, having him be the self he probably always would have been without the pressure of being head of household. At Christmastime he got to have fun, and be funny, and play jokes and have me sit on his lap in the firelight (which, dear readers, I did throughout college). What old fashioned lives we still lead, some of us, at-home mothers with working husbands. And what a treat to get out from under the mantle, this one Christmas, and play a different role.

Anyway, Avery needs glasses, it turns out! Never one to be conventional, her left eye is near-sighted, her right eye far-sighted. Not to worry, modern technology will figure this out. From her eye exam she went to her classmate Kimia's for a playdate, and I? I swanned off to a Thai grocery store with my friend Vincent, since I never really been to such a thing. Vincent specializes in three things: one, knowing all the cool things to do, two, introducing them to his friends, and three, sitting back and loving watching his friends like what he likes. It goes for Thai groceries, favorite restaurants, other friends. It's one of the nicest things about him, his generosity about what he loves. We had FUN. And I bought lots of exotic things like kaffir lime leaves, Thai basil, three different kinds of pickled cabbage for John to try (having a childhood friend from Vietnam who instilled in him a lifelong love of kimchi). Noodles, green curry paste, lemon grass, you name it. Tomorrow night is, I'm thinking, Thai night.

From there, we ended up having a totally unexpected lunch out (at least, unexpected for me, but Vincent had of course booked) at The Providores in the Marylebone High Street. Second direction for you to run, not walk, should have the opportunity: a lunch to die for. First, "can I take all those packages for you?" meaning, "can I stop you from entering my uber-cool restaurant with all those tacky Thai grocery bags?" Although to be fair, she also took our bags from Skandium, the sublime Swedish design store, and Brora, the Scottish cashmere shop (I cannot divulge, for obvious reasons, anything that was acquired anywhere).

The food sounds indescribably pretentious when I think how to describe it, when what it really is is imaginative New Zealand fare. Which includes... kangaroo. Don't fret! I did not indulge. Too... pouchy for me. Or something. But I did have a wonderful bowl of something called laksa, which is an Indian-ish soup with a coconut milk base. This particular bowl happened to be filled with crab, black cardamom, and galangal root, with a fried crab dumpling (to die for), lime-leaf-marinated squid (never did like eating rubber bands, so Vincent got mine) and green tea noodles. Sounds ridiculous? Perfect, Some noodles and the crab to eat with chopsticks, and a nice sterling spoon to get the coconut milk, unbelievably rich and creamy. To follow I had... foie gras, pan-fried with roasted pineapple and, I have to say, an oily coriander pikelet (a sort of potato rosti, a non-Jewish latke). Tell the truth, I always say! What was great was great, but the pikelet was oily. There you have it.

Vincent's friend Pete joined us later on, and we lingered, oh did we linger. How wonderful to abandon any idea of what you thought you would do between sort of 1 and 3, and just sit, and eat and chat. Total luxury. Presents were exchanged, and I came home to see if John was still among the living, and I must say, even with the glorious restaurant lunch, the lingering aroma of homemade chicken soup was pretty amazing. Last bits of present wrapping, now, and so the clock to Christmas winds down.

21 December, 2006

London fog

Yes, truly! It's my favorite sort of weather emergency: lots of coverage on the news, but nobody gets hurt. At least, it can last until Saturday when our friends from New York get ready to fly here for Christmas. The fog is simply blanketing the country, even London itself, in a misty, sort of frozen fluff. All the airports are closed, which is of course massively inconvenient for everyone. But if one does not need to fly, it is very cozy outside. John and Avery just came in from Christmas shopping and I am not allowed to go in the living room. But the smell from the tree is drifting into my study. It's amazing how much more you appreciate a Christmas tree if you have struggled to put one up, then struggled even more to get it down and out of your house, and then put up another one. Now I plan just to sit back and enjoy its glittery, fragrant magic. Don't you love the little horsey riding jacket ornament? It just came yesterday, in the post all the way from Indiana. Thank you, Nonna and Grandpa Paul.

The guys who came to deliver it yesterday were such central-casting Londoners. The head honcho assured us, "You need a picture hung, or a new tap put in? We can do that for you, no worries. You pay us by the hour, we do whatever you need doing. You're nice people, I can see that. Give me that saw, I'll take the end off that tree for you." At one point he somewhat surprisingly lifted up his sweatshirt to display a large tattoo of a cross. "I'm a real good Catholic, so Christmas is big for me."

I'm catching up on friends' Christmas adventures by blog, and stalking oysters, for Christmas Eve oyster stew (I think I've tracked them down at the Partridges Farmer's Market on Saturday), and putting tips in Christmas cards for our porter and cleaning lady, and listening to Avery while she wraps presents. It feels like the calm before the storm: will we be able to pull off a suitably festive Christmas for our Jewish visitors, for whom this could be the first and last Christmas? Although my friend Alyssa warns me that if Elliot has too much fun, we could have him on our doorstep every December 25th for the next 75 years. That sounds just about right.

Tonight we're headed to the Barbican (don't worry, I'll have John with me so I won't get lost again) to hear the the Choir of St. George's, Windsor, sing Christmas carols. I can hardly wait. I realize at the violin concert with Rosemary how much I love hearing live music, especially Christmas music, so it should be good fun.

20 December, 2006

rewind, somebody push play, and... the tree is here!

Ooof, the old tree has been soundly kissed goodnight and disposed of, with the help of our saint Porter, Laurie, and his saw. John has an awful cold, but rose to the occasion to render the old tree ready to take outside, and the construction workers across the way kindly agreed to take the detritus. Thence I sent John to rest, while Avery and I hoovered up and swept up the gatrillions of needles from the floor in the reception room, and, painfully, the carpeted foyer. Ouch. Thousands of them! Pricks to all exposed skin, needles buried in the carpet, kitties scared to death. Finally done.

Off we were to Tesco to get chicken soup ingredients (since the ambrosia virtually cured Grandpa Jack of the cold he had while he was here), then to get Tree The Second. He's lovely as you can see, much smaller than his earlier brother, but smelling divine. As much as the kitties jumped about the sofa chasing the ornaments as I removed them from Tree the First, nothing was broken. So we got home with the tree, I put a chicken in to roast (a bed of slightly wilting fresh thyme from the weekend's soup did not go astray) with wine and stock poured on, and onions all round, and set to work. Several hours later all was in readiness: tree decorated, more needles hoovered up, chicken roasted nicely and here's a thought: separate the whole breast for sandwiches, and put the legs and rib bones straight into a pot for soup. I added several carrots and a couple of stalks of celery, and John had a very nice bowl of restorative soup to help him mend. Meanwhile, the tree looks and smells lovely. I am BEAT! But here's a great and festive-looking side dish that cooks itself, along with your chicken:

Oven-roasted tomatoes with a kick

1 dozen small tomatoes on the vine
olive oil to drizzle
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 red chili pepper, minced
1 tbsp rosemary, minced
sea salt to sprinkle

Simply halve the tomatoes and lay in a glass dish, nonstick-sprayed of course. Then drizzle on olive oil, sprinkle on the glorious Christmas-colored garlic, pepper and rosemary, sprinkle on salt, and roast with chicken, for at least an hour and a half. The tomatoes will be wrinkly and soft, perfect to pile on a sandwich of sliced chicken breast, cheddar cheese, red onion and mayo. Now we're collapsing and letting Avery read to us. What a dear girl.

19 December, 2006

strings, hooves and real estate

But first, did you ever see such a Christmas present? John's mom, over the fall months, asked me for one of Avery's school uniforms, and created this: the first known American Girl doll to attend our school! I am absolutely convinced that she could take all of London by storm if she made dresses for all the little girls' schools in town. Except that, from her description, these are not items to churn out. I think she slaved for weeks! What a touching and perfect gift. Two of them, so Avery and a friend can each dress up a doll and play. Thank you, Nonna.

As for my post title, well, perhaps not in that order, but that's what's been happening around here in these last frantic days before The Big Day. Yesterday, on her way to Angelica's caroling party, Avery became the proud... renter? yes, of a violin! From the gorgeous old shop, really like a stage set for some bygone era, JP Guivier, in Mortimer Street. The instrument is for school use, but we hear it came in handy when they began to sing "Ding Dong, Merrily on High," which had been practiced in advance of the school concert last week. She is so proud! We dropped her off at her party and I ended up in Wigmore Street at Boosey and Hawkes, a comprehensive music store staffed with delightful English roses, little sheet music elves, who helped me find the music required by QCPS, and some other cute surprises besides. What a glorious winter evening, pink and lavender sky in the west over Portman Square, everyone out shopping and being festive. I stopped in Margaret Howell and while I was sorely tempted by several sweaters and skirts, I ended up with a Christmas present for John! For obvious reasons, I cannot divulge its nature in these pages, but suffice to say that the design section of that shop is just wonderful. All modern, sleek and elegant, just what he likes.

Home to concoct my mussels, but since I don't like mussels, I had leftover oyster stew from our Christmas evening with his parents, before they, sadly, left for Iowa. That is, I don't know if they're sad to have gone, but we're bereft now that we're on our own. We had such fun. Anyway, we had our traditional oyster stew for Christmas Eve, and I greedily bought far too many oysters so that we would have extra. It's sinfully easy, and this year, because of my various food shopping obsessions, we had the Rolls Royce of oysters, as well as the sublime raw, unpasteurised milk from the farmer's market, as well as the French organic pink onions and garlic, and celery salt from the Spice Shop in Notting Hill. Don't miss a visit to this shop, if you're ever in the neighborhood. The German proprietress is lovely. Anyway, the stew was quite without peer. You should make it your tradition, too.

Christmas Eve Oyster Stew
(serves perhaps 10 if you're not greedy)

6 tbsps butter
4 tbsps flour
2 medium onions, minced
6 cloves garlic, minced
4-6 stalks celery depending on size, plus leaves, minced
4 dozen freshly shucked oysters with their liquor
1 gallon whole milk
3 shakes Tabasco
1 tbsp celery salt
salt to taste

In a very large pot, make a roux with your butter and flour, and cook until it bubbles. Add the onion, garlic and celery and saute until slightly softened. Then add the oysters and their liquor and stir until the oysters' edges have curled up in that pretty ruffly way they do. Now add the milk and bring to a high simmer. Add the Tabasco, celery salt and sea salt, and taste. Just a little! Actually I find it requires an unusual number of spoon-dippings to get the seasonings just right, but then that's the sort of sacrifice I'm willing to make for my guests. Once you've got the seasonings properly adjusted, let the stew cool out on your back porch or wherever, if you're not eating it right away, and believe you me, it's better reheated. Serve with oyster crackers.


But it was not to be ours to eat right away, on Sunday morning when I made it, because Twiggy and Eddie were coming to Sunday lunch and they are strict vegetarians. At least, as strict about anything as two such fun-loving, charming people can be. So I buckled down and produced a suitable feast. It required all my concentration to make sure I didn't put the wrong ingredients on the various pots on my cooktop, because at one point, they all contained olive oil, minced garlic and onion! Then I had to remember which pot was which. Once I finished the oyster stew and it was cooling, I moved on to:

Red Pepper Soup with Calvados and Fresh Thyme
(serves six with second helpings)

3 tbsps olive oil
6 large red bell peppers, very roughly chopped
1 large onion, roughly chopped
4 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
vegetable stock to cover (perhaps 5 cups), or chicken if not vegetarian
1/2 cup Calvados
1 tbsp fresh thyme leaves
1 cup single cream
1/2 cup creme fraiche for garnish, if desired

Because you are going to puree this soup, nothing has to be chopped nicely. Simply saute the vegetables in the oil until the garlic is cooked, then throw in the stock and Calvados and thyme, and set it boiling. After 45 minutes, the peppers should be quite soft and ready for the hand blender. What a marvelous tool. It can turn anything into soup. Blend thoroughly, and taste to see if any pepper skin bits annoy the tongue: if they do, strain through a colander into another pot. NOT, mind you, forgetting that other pot! Believe it or not, I have been known to pour soup, and stock, right the way through the colander, into... nothing. Just down the drain. Do not succumb to any such idiocy. Then add the cream and the soup can simmer gently until you're ready for it. Ladle into warm bowls and drop a spoon of creme fraiche on top, if you like.

So simple! But tasty.

While the soup was simmering, then, I was onto the main course. I think these two dishes were fine together, but there was a lot of red, and if you don't need to adhere to a vegetarian menu, I'd serve them separately. I should think of a really good green main dish to have with the pepper soup. But no one complained at what we did have:

Eggplant Stew
(serves six)

6 tbsps olive oil
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 large onion, minced
2 large eggplants, or four small, peeled and cut into cubes
2 large cans or four small cans peeled plum tomatoes
1 large bunch flat-leaf parsley, chopped
hot chilli flakes to taste
salt to taste
fresh ground pepper to taste
1 cup freshly grated parmesan

Saute the garlic, onion and eggplant in the olive oil until softened. Some people natter on about soaking eggplant in salted water to take away the bitterness, and then straining it, and drying it on kitchen towels. Bother! I wouldn't make the stew if I had to go through all that. And I never find eggplant bitter. So there. Add the tomatoes and simmer a long while, probably an hour, stirring occasional to break up the tomatoes. Don't start out with chopped tomatoes, though, or you will end with mush. Toward the end of cooking, add the parsley and seasonings, and taste. The green of the parsley is very festive, and whole dish is wonderful topped with lots of parmesan cheese. I served the stew on steamed rice, but you don't have to.


Twiggy and Ed turned up with a fabulous bottle of old Talisker single malt scotch, lovely! And a whole bevy of tiny mince pies from Konditor and Cook at Borough Market. We had lovely champagne, and sat around the Christmas tree listening to its needles dropping, and talked... real estate. They have just settled into their new house, and we are increasingly panicking over our situation. At least, I am. John is in heaven. I don't think he actually cares where we live! It's shopping to him. Makes me insane. We have seen a lot of houses to buy, and flats to rent should we not find a house to buy in time. So nice and relaxing, that scenario. Everything is unbelievably, unfathomably expensive. At least John didn't quit his job. Oh wait, he DID! I find it all quite worrying, but he seems relaxed so I am trying to stay out of it. Except that I keep having to visit real estate.

We saw a lovely, lovely house in Notting Hill yesterday, both the home and the surgery (I love the English use of that term, nothing to do with scalpels! just the doctor's office) of a very posh and successful GP. In a three-piece tweed suit! Doctor to the stars, in Notting Hill. The house is on five storeys, pristine in condition, all the original charming details like plasterwork kept in. I just wanted to lie down on one of the examination tables and stay. Just let John move us out of here and into there, maybe leaving Avery at the stable for the duration. He likes it too, but we must keep looking. Aargh. Out again today, in West Kensington. I don't think he realizes how much I worry! He just happily sees houses, whereas I mentally move us in, have our favorite people to dinner, playdates, Christmas parties, find a place for the litterbox, alphabetize my books, and oops! It's onto the next candidate. I find it all very tiring and worrisome, frankly. But we have to move.

But I am getting out of order. Last night was the final evening of the Olympia Horse show, and it was impressive. The finals of everything! Show jumping, and dog agility, just wonderful. The announcers are so... English! "Come on, folks, is that the best you can do? This evening, well, it's going to be a right cracker!" And when one of the dogs misses a jump, "We know how you feel, Thomas, there now. It's not your fault!" And guess who was there to present prizes? The Duchess of Cornwall! I know, I know, it's That Woman, but I have to confess that all judgments about Diana, Princess of Wales, and that nasty lady who broke them up, go out the window when there she is, right in front of you, in all her green velvet "you'll never be Queen" glory. Pretty impressive. She sat up in her Royal Box, receiving the Hanoverians' salutes, and was served champagne and probably lovely things to eat, all clinking china and whisking white napkins across her lap. Avery stroked my hand sympathetically. "I know, Mommy, it's probably foie gras. Maybe next year."

We came home close to midnight and all of us knackered, as they say. Imagine if we'd actually ridden! Or done anything at all! I'm getting too old to stay out late.

Nearly time to get Avery at the stable. Tomorrow, I'm biting the bullet and getting... a new Christmas tree. I just don't think I can enjoy the holiday listening to needles tinkling to the floor. Especially with Annabelle and her family coming on Sunday, yippee! Alyssa emailed today to say that they were up for a full Christmas do, although her Jewish side will still be marched into the kitchen to make matzoh ball soup for me. Celebrate everything, is our motto! So in the meantime I must remove every ornament from the tree, give it a decent burial in the garden, get a new one, put it up, and then have the fun of decorating it again. Wish me luck.

How Can I Get More Cool, or Why Am I Not More Like Nigella?

Okay, obviously the first problem is that the only cool thing about me in this photograph is my gorgeous new dress from Vince, which you can't even see properly, but it was my major Christmas present from my mother in law (don't even get me started on how lucky I am to have a mother in law who gives me Vince). My point is that Nigella has me completely flummoxed. Has anyone seen her Christmas series? Where she effortlessly produces six whole roasted poussins with chili oil and a festive rub, while having cocktails OUT with friends, and then there's also two side dishes and a pudding? Here's my objection: unlike Martha Stewart, Nigella makes a fetish of being simple, easily-imitated, "you can do this." Only it's all a horrible, horrible fake. First of all, she's effortlessly English, so I cannot do HER. And it's worse to be told emphatically how easy it is, than to be told, as Martha does, "you should only hope you could be me." With Martha I don't even try.

But wait: my problem is in presentation. Not of the dish per se, although that's lacking at times. No, my problem is in the presentation of ME. I do not exude glamour. I do not exude a sort of sexy apologetic "these three courses are all I could manage, sorry," while being impossibly gorgeous and sophisticated, nor do I even have an adorable incompetent glow about me. No, I'm that awful thing in between: I can do things, fine, no problem, but they don't look COOL.

I need all your help on this! How am I ever going to turn my blog into a cookbook, much less a television programme that makes people like me feel bad, if I just sit here and live, occasionally feeding people and then telling you about it? Obviously something is needed in the way of presentation.

Take this evening, for example. Truly, in all honesty, I did walk in the house from dropping Avery off at her friend's house to play, and within ten minutes produce:

Mussels with White Wine and Fresh Thyme
(serves one hungry husband with a wife who doesn't like mussels)

3 tbsps olive oil
1 lb mussels, cleaned
4 cloves garlic, chopped fine
3 shallots, chopped fine
1 tbsp fresh thyme (chopped without stems)
6 Thai fresh green peppercorns, chopped (from Spice Shop in Notting Hill)
2 cups white wine
½ cup chicken stock
2 tbsps butter

Saute garlic, shallots, thyme and peppercorns in olive oil, then add white wine and stock. Bring to a boil, add mussels, cover and steam for 8 minutes. Discard any that did not open, and lift good mussels into a large bowl with slotted spoon, bring wine sauce to a boil again and whisk in butter. Pour over mussels and serve with warm baguette and goats cheese.


Now, don't misunderstand me. I think this dish was all to the good, and it follows our long tradition of either cooking mussels or getting them in Belgo, where he eats all the mussels and I soak up all the sauce with French bread, or just drink it straight, as I'm sorry to say we have photographic evidence of my doing, perhaps 15 years ago in this very city.

No, my objection is that I have no... PR. That's right, no one is watching me, styling me, doing my hair, making sure the right number of friends laugh on cue in the background or that my child and her friends unaccountably begin to enjoy crab cakes, or spicy babyback ribs, at my Christmas party, something that would never happen. No, my parties and even just accidental dinners occur without fanfare. Which is why I find Nigella so depressing!

And why, you might ask, am I awake at 1 a.m. being depressed my B-list food celebrities when I should be getting my beauty sleep so as to deserve B-list celebrity status? Because we got in from the final night of the horse show at 11, and it takes me a minimum of two hours to decompress from any event involving hay. And bad sausages. Yawn. Tired. And sad to have said goodbye last night (okay, they left this morning but I was asleep) to John's mom and dad. What an empty spot their guest room is today.

I have lots more to tell you about my busy, if un-glamorous life, but right now I shall sip a Calvados and contemplate sleep. If you have any suggestions on how I can get more glamorous in (ideally two, or three) a couple of steps, let me know. In the meantime, what I am grateful for tonight are a few things: family who let me cook for them, and say they enjoy it, and friends who come by, like darling Twiggy and Eddie for Sunday lunch (vegetarian! I'll tell you all about it), and happily enjoy whatever I cook for them. Surrounded by them, and anticipating more to come, I'm quite satisfied. But a little glamour wouldn't hurt!

16 December, 2006

Happy Birthday, Cousin Ellen!

Drat these time differences! It's been so hard to find the proper time to call Avery's Cousin Ellen for her birthday. By the time she gets home from school her grandparents are asleep, here in London. Today we can call, though, because it's Saturday. Happy birthday, dear. We hope that before you're a year older, you'll have made it to London.

We spent the entire sunny, crispy day today at our beloved Portobello Market. This is a classic thing to do with John's parents, because as I have hinted before, they can SHOP. We all forgot, however, to bring very much cash, so our spending was curtailed, but I can still safely say that we brought home some treasures, some secret things, to make Christmas a little more fun. I think we'll exchange gifts tomorrow evening. The Market is the only place I can think of where crowds are more fun than not. There's something celebratory, albeit it crazy, about struggling down the pavement with half the world's population, peeking in past the outdoor bits on sale to see if it's worth ducking inside. And it usually is. After our last dinner party here, I decided that my carbon-steel cutlery, though sharp and also lovely (19th century Russian), it is not practical. The blades just darken and get nasty to easily. So at the market today I found some really nice stainless-steel blades with ivory-colored Bakelite-ish handles. Six for five pounds! Not bad. So I got a dozen, and now I can have ten friends all come to dinner and I won't have to lie awake the night before planning on food that we don't all have to cut at the same time, a rather ridiculous situation before a party. If I only had cheese knives, I'd be all set. Someday.

I spent some considerable time in a button shop (nearly as wonderful as The Button Queen in Marylebone), looking in vain for buttons with lambs on them for our farmer friends in Connecticut. Two years ago, Avery fed the baby lambs with milk from Corona beer bottles, and then the next Christmas Rollie's wife Judy knitted a hat for Avery from wool from the babies she'd fed. Alas, no buttons to be found. Although the sight-challenged proprietor offered up some that he was positive had great impressive bucks on them. Now, I did not tell him that firstly, I didn't want bucks, I wanted sheep, and secondly, the animal on his buttons was... a bunny.

Avery madly bargained for what she wanted, and came away with a fabulous stamp album. She spent all of lunch perusing it and now wants to go through the album her Grandpa Paul gave her for her birthday, and see if she has any countries he did not have. She has grand plans to alphabetize them all, as well. That's the sort of thing to do on Christmas vacation, especially when your best friend has jetted off to Africa for the duration. I hope Anna and her family are having an incredible time. We collapsed for a late lunch at Eclipse, which although it is a chain throughout London, is remarkable for American-style burgers and Bloody Marys, should you be in the mood. Although the traditional french fries are replaced by fried wedges of potatoes, do not despair: they are crispy, incredibly hot, and dusted with nice flakes of sea salt. Yummy.

Avery and her Nonna are watching "High School Musical," for about the hundredth time for Avery, and the first for Nonna, who feels it is de rigeur for being a granny to three small girls. I felt that watching it once was quite enough, so I'm up here monitoring my chicken soup. Last night, however, we all gathered around the television set to watch the Puissance event at the Olympia Horse Show. Oh, my, that wall was high. The concept is that a wall is built out of light collapsible bricks, beginning at 5 feet 9 inches, I think. Then the riders and horses who can accomplish that go on to attempt an even higher wall, and so on until the wall reaches over seven feet, if anyone gets that far. In the case of last evening, it was a triumvirate of Whitakers including Avery's beloved Ellen (she stalked her on Thursday and got her autograph again!), and one lone Swiss fellow. Wonderful sport! Just as long as Avery has no intention of ever doing any such thing...

15 December, 2006

of princesses, horses and celeriac

We saw Zara Phillips! Yes, indeed, the star of Hello! magazine, the BBC's newly-crowned "Sports Personality of the Year," and last but not least, a real-live Princess (although something tells me her mother, Princess Anne, declined to give her children titles? must look that up), was at the Horse Show at Olympia yesterday. I must say I have always a bit discounted her, thinking she probably coasted to the top. But now that I know better, from Avery's experiences struggling to learn to trot, then to canter, finally to jump, and to jump ever higher, I can say with certainty that one coasts nowhere in the horse world. Being a Princess does not keep your horse from knocking down a fence, nor does it help you to be the fastest rider against the clock. So I was pretty thrilled to see her. Avery nearly jumped out of her skin. And she's beautiful in person, with a real glow. She and her horse Toytown were really a joy to see.

We picked Avery up at school yesterday to hear all sorts of exciting news. The four houses at school (Potter, Nightingale, Franklin and Avery's own Curie) were competing at assembly in a Quizmaster-ish programme. Avery had spent all the dinner hour the night before asking to be quizzed, and I'm here to tell you the child knows a lot of weird stuff. Strange scientific knowledge, like that, in fact, the egg came first, because it was hatched by a dinosaur, but turned out to be a chicken. I have to feel sorry for that dinosaur. Can you imagine, going to Dinosaurs R Us, shopping for clothes, buying a crib, getting all excited for your baby dinosaur, and the egg hatches to reveal... a chicken? Bummer. Much worse, even, than buying for a girl and getting a boy. Chicken.

But I digress. My point is, at pickup she reported having won the match for Curie! Cool. Plus a really stellar report card for end-of-term. What a trooper. This being the child who was practically written off in mathematics by her New York school. I can't tell you how proud we are. The frustrating thing with Avery is that we don't get much time to be proud of a thing, or excited, because right around the corner is another thing to get proud and excited for. I shouldn't let that happen, because she really deserves to be thrilled at each new achievement.

So she shed her horrid uniform, shouted, "I'm free!" and hopped into a taxi with us to be taken to the Horse Show. And what fun it was. There were the usual stunningly high and scary jumps, and the usual dressage performances, but then there were two events that really made the whole show, for me. One was called the "Pony Club Mini-Major Relay," featuring one professional grownup rider, like Ellen Whitaker, and paired with a little tiny Pony Club child, in this case a little girl called Rosie, I think. The concept is that the course is filled with two sets of jumps, one big and one small. The professional rider starts out, against the clock, determined not to knock over any jumps. Just as she approaches her last jump, a referee signals to the little rider to begin HER round. Fascinating to see the little ones impressively accomplished, even in the company of some really famous riders. Happily for the feminists among us, Ellen and her little friend came top, over pairs of man and boy, and man and girl, and woman and boy! It must have been the crowning glory of that little girl's life so far. She then got to ride in the Santa sleigh with Ellen in the Christmas pageant at the end of the afternoon.

The second most adorable event was the dog jumping! They call it "dog agility," but that's just the English trying to lend gravitas and dignity to what is actually a laugh-out-loud entertainment. You would not believe the hilarity of this. The dogs are completely over-the-top frantic with excitement, trying to evade their trainers, escape from their leads, but then when it's time to jump the course (and go through fabric tunnels! and run a course of little wickets!) they mean business. And all sorts of dogs! "Here comes that perennial favorite, the Jack Russell!" the announcer boomed. "And don't discount the toy collie! She's a beautiful jumper." I can't describe how funny. The dogs absolutely run like the wind, flattening themselves like otters to become more aerodynamic. And the trainers! They have to run along to encourage them and keep them from clocking themselves on the poles. You must go sometime.

Then we shopped. Which got old very quickly. One can withstand only so many tents full of bridles, bits, my favorite, the "shipping fuzzy," and so on. Well, one can withstand only so many, if one is not Avery. She was in heaven. And the poor child doesn't even have a pony to hang the things on. Then after a period of intense negotiations (consisting of Avery's saying, "I want Nonna and Grandpa Jack to stay, and you guys can go home"), John and I left and had our lovely dinner out.

Well, they got home at nearly midnight and Avery simply fell into bed, to be dragged out this morning for the Gill Roberts Cookery Morning. I got all my family's packages wrapped and packed up and the enormous box from Fortnum and Mason is on its way to Indianapolis. Sadly for them, the box was emptied of its gorgeous Christmas hamper, a present from darling Becky's family. Oh, the teas and coffees, biscuits and chocolate. What a treat.

Now Avery's been collected early from cooking, driven to the stable and swept up by Alexa and the other little gulls for a rare glimpse of the behind-the-scenes action at the Horse Show. Life at ten is a never-ending round of fun. But frankly this evening I think she, and all of us, will be ready for a cosy comfort dinner and a Christmas movie. Oh, speaking of dinner, I invented, may I say, the best soup I have ever tasted, much less actually made myself? It won approval all round the dinner table, so I can say with relative impunity that it's excellent. And a complete fluke. My mother in law happened to point out an extremely ugly vegetable at Sunday's farmer's market and said, "I've always wanted to make celeriac soup." I had to admit that this life ambition had rather passed me by, until that moment. However, I rose to the challenge, and tucked a couple of the nasty-looking tuberous roots in my bag and brought them home. Whereupon they reposed in splendor on my countertop while I ignored them and cooked other, more familiar things. Finally, though, their obstinate presence made me feel guilty, so before I could lose courage, I produced this, and so can you:

Cream of Celeriac Soup with Champagne
(serves four, unless you have a straw and don't tell anyone you've made it, then it serves one)

2 tbsps butter
2 bulbs celeriac, peeled and cut into smallish chunks
3 cloves garlic, chopped coarsely
1 medium onion, chopped coarsely
3 cups chicken stock
1 good splash champagne (mine was rather old and flat, leftover)
1 tsp celery salt
1/2 cup single cream

I am not kidding here: simply throw all this, except for the cream, in a stockpot and boil gently for an hour. Then pulverize with a hand blender and add the cream.

DIVINE! Where I thought it might be stringy, like celery soup which has to be strained, it was velvety. Where I thought it might taste as boring as it looked (white), it was complex and interesting. And where I thought it might be simply weird, it was perfect. Comforting, creamy, perfectly smooth. I can't say enough about it. Nutrition? I have no idea. No, now I'll look it up and we'll all be the wiser.

Tonight, however, will be roast chicken, jacket potatoes with soured cream and chives, and spicy spinach casserole with cheddar cheese. What the hell, I'll give you that recipe too. It comes from Laurie Colwin's inimitable and irreplaceable cookbook, Home Cooking. There will never be a better recipe. As Laurie herself says, "It made me sit up and beg like a dog." Even children like it. You will too.

Laurie Colwin's Spinach Casserole
(serves 8)

First of all, a word about the spinach itself. Do not use fresh. In my opinion, there is only one purpose in life for frozen spinach and this is it. Now, in America, frozen spinach comes in little square-ish flat boxes. You need two of these. In England, however, frozen spinach comes in bags, in which you will find intriguing sort of hockey-puck shapes. For this, you need about 1 pound.

1 lb frozen spinach
6 tbsps butter
4 tbsps flour
1 medium onion, minced
4 cloves garlic, minced
6 ounces evaporated milk
8 ounces any sharp cheese, like cheddar
sprinkling of chili flakes (or in America you can use jalapeno Monterey Jack cheese)
1 tbsp celery salt (essential!)
3/4 cup fresh breadcrumbs
3/4 cup grated parmesan

Spray a 9x9 glass dish with nonstick spray. Believe me, you don't want to skip this step. Then put the spinach in a saucepan, cover with water, and boil till cooked, but don't overcook. In the meantime, melt the butter in a heavy saucepan and then add the flour, and let bubble for about two minutes to cook the floury taste away. Add the minced onion and garlic and saute till soft, but do not burn the floury butter. When your spinach is cooked, drain off the water, but into a measuring cup, till you have 1 cup liquid. Discard the remainder. Slowly add the liquid to the onion and garlic, and stir till thick. Add the evaporated milk, the cheese, the chili flakes, the celery salt, and stir until cheese is melted. Pour the mixture into the glass dish and top first with breadcrumbs and then with cheese. Bake at 400 degrees for half an hour, or until bubbly and browned on top. Heaven.


I have two more days until our next entertaining event, which will be my friend Twiggy and her husband Eddie coming to Sunday lunch. I've recovered from the mammoth dinner with Vincent and Peter here last weekend: roast stuffed pork, my Thanksgiving dressing and brussels sprouts, roast beetroot with balsamic vinegar, a salad, cheeseboard and treacle cinnamon cookies! I think I used every saucepan, skillet, baking dish, plate, utensil and glass in my possession. Not to mention every ounce of energy! I confessed to Vincent, who is the compleat cook, that I had Waitrose stuff and tie up my roast for me. "I don't know how to tie up meat!" I wailed! His reply? "If you can wrap a Christmas present, you can tie a roast." I'm not so sure, especially after my lame attempts to clean a fish. But we had a completely lovely time.

Totally unexpectedly, we ended up on the floor surrounded by my huge collection of photo albums, looking for the New Year's party we had at our loft on Broadway, just before I got pregnant (and stopped having 60 people to my house, black tie). Vincent had been there along with the McBs, some slightly famous guy from MTV, lots of fashion designers, jewelers, actors, agents! Boy that was fun. I remember John saying plaintively at one point, "Nobody's having fun, they're all leaving," and we looked at our watches to see that it was four o'clock in the morning. A jacuzzi bathtub filled with ice, flashlights, and bottles of champagne! That was the year it was cool for women to smoke cigars (if it lasted a year, that trend, probably not), so the pictures of us with Vincent are all in a haze of smoke. My black silk Kenzo tuxedo! John's goatee! What carefree bliss. Such fun to look at all the pictures, reminisce about old times now nearly 10 years ago, to find the photograph of Vincent holding newborn Baby Avery, realizing how important it is to keep old friends.

Not to mention that he taught me, at dinner, the proper way to cut different sorts of cheeses! Ignorant Americans (if there are any besides me) do not know these things. He practically ripped the cheese knife out of my hand, saying, "I cannot bear to see you butcher that innocent foodstuff for another moment. Watch and learn." So it turns out you need one knife for cheddary, hard cheeses, one knife for anything blue, and one knife for goat's cheese. And one for triple cremes, but I didn't have any that night. Then, you cut a round cheese in little pie-shaped wedges, and a wedge of cheese along the triangular side, evenly, and a hard cheese on just one end, to preserve the seal on the other sides. Who knew? With them we taste-tested oatcakes, deciding that the Prince of Wales's Duchy label wins out. This is the sort of thing you do when you have really taken food pretensions to the outer limit.

Well, I'm all alone in my house, so to stave off loneliness I shall go read and look at the Christmas tree. If I'm real quiet, perhaps I can hear the Salvation Army band at the Marks and Spencers in Oxford Street. "We Wish You a Merry Christmas"...

14 December, 2006

voices raised in song

The Christmas festivities at school were simply lovely. The majesty! The accomplishment. The sound of many, many little girls coughing simultaneously! And the dump truck and street cleaner busily at work outside the stained-glass windows. Such are the accoutrements of an urban holiday celebration.

Miss Leslie cleverly suggested that we sit up high, in the galleries above the pews, and it was a revelation. Not for us the craning of necks, to catch the occasional glimpse of our child. We got to see her the whole time! She played her violin, she sang in English, in Latin, in French! All the songs that had been getting a little tiresome, a little repetitive heard over the whir of the food processor or the running of bath water, took on a whole new dimension in the gravity the church, and coming from 130 throats. They were all so well-behaved, even the minute little Lower Kindergarten gulls whose only transgressions were the occasional swinging foot or waving hand, to an older sister. They sang "It's a Baby!" with great enthusiasm, but perhaps not the gravitas of the upper grades and their guitar, recorder, flute and violin performances. I passed out kleenexes to my mother in law and to Susan, who sat next to me, but no one blubs quite as much as I do. I tried my best to be dignified, and spent some quality time staring at Sam's new baby cradled on her chest. What a nice time of year to have a small baby.

Mrs D read a lesson, and you could hear a pin drop. Those gulls are terrified of her! And Isabelle's mother read, as Chair of the Parents' Circle, and the head gull and deputy head gull read, very impressively. The Reverend Whoever (I simply can never remember his name) gave a very nice prayer, to the accompaniment of the construction site outside, and then we all crushed out the door, losing Sophia and her parents in the meantime and causing some minor panic as to whether or not her parents had gone ahead to our house, and Sophia had been left at the church. But as we walked back to the school with Mrs D, it was hard not to feel that all was right with the world. She put her arm around Avery's shoulder and praised her violin playing, and we praised the incredible organisation that went into the whole hour and a half long event. And who knew Miss Leslie played the bass? She was dressed in her usual whimsical, individual fashion, with a gauzy flowered skirt peeping beneath her pink tweed coat with a leopard collar! And knee-length boots.

We came home with Sophia's family and tucked into champagne and tea sandwiches: duck pate, roast pork and dressing, egg mayonnaise, smoked salmon and cream cheese, and a sandwich of my own design: sliced plum tomatoes with butter and cilantro pesto! Pretty good, if I do say so myself.

Right now, I'm just back from The London International Horse Show at Olympia, which I'll tell you more about later (plus an incredible soup recipe of my own design), but John's parents kept Avery at the show and John and I can have... a date! What shall we do? I know, a spicy dinner out. Maybe Deya? We've always had so much fun there.