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"...

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