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.

Perfect!

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.

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