25 February, 2007

friends, food, film and... a flop

First of all, drum roll please:

Vincent's Salmon with Cream & Vegetables

Preparation time: 10-15 minutes
Cooking Time: 25-30 minutes
Level of Difficulty: Very Easy
Occasion: Dinner Party or Sunday Lunch

Approx 1 Kilo of Salmon Fillet in one piece if possible - (Enough to
feed 4 generously or 6 if you're having a starter)
3 Medium to large carrots
1 Large fennel bulb
1 Medium Onion
1 Large Red Pepper
2 Large Celery Stalks
200g Green Vegetables (Green Beans, Asparagus etc.)
3 Tbsp Chopped Flat Leaf Parsley
1 1/2 Tbsp Chopped Dill
1 1/2 Tbsp Chopped Chervil (Not absolutely necessary)
Grated Rind of 1 Lemon
Juice of 1 Lemon
400 ml Creme Fraiche
150 ml White Wine (Chardonnay, Viognier, Sauvignion Blanc)

Preheat your oven to 200C (Medium hot oven). Put the vegetables through a food processor with a shredding/julienne blade. Transfer the grated vegetables to a mixing bowl. Add the grated lemon rind. In a separate mixing bowl, add the Creme Fraiche, lemon juice, white wine, chopped herbs and mix well. Season this with generous amounts of pepper and some salt. Pour the liquid mixture over the vegetables and mix thoroughly. When you're done, you should have a very wet mix of vegetables sitting in but not covered by liquid.

Partially strain and arrange 3/4 of the vegetable mixture evenly on the bottom of a large and flat backing pan/tray. Place the salmon fillet skin-side down on the vegetables. Season the salmon. Strain and place the remainder of the vegetables on the fish. You should have about 1 1/2 cups of liquid left in the bottom of your mixing bowl. Pour that over the salmon.

Bake the salmon for 25-30 minutes, checking half-way and basting the fish with some of the cooking liquid. When the time is up, check that the fish is cooked. It should be a bit "pink" in the middle.

Serve over white rice or boiled new potatoes and with some steamed green vegetables.

Chef's Tip: If the Salmon and vegetables render too much liquid during cooking, and the sauce looks watery/runny, then when you are done cooking, remove the fish from the pan along with most of the vegetable mixture. Take the remaining vegetables and all of the liquid and place in a pan. Add 2 Tbsp of creme fraiche, and reduce on a medium/high heat (stir regularly). When the sauce has achieve a pleasing consistency, add some of the fresh herbs if you have any left for color and pour over the fish and vegetables.


As you will have noted, I have kept in Vincent's charming recipe style, much more colorful than my own, but PERHAPS less honest, since I do think labelling this recipe as "very easy" is a bit, shall we say, optimistic? Not to say mendacious, since Vincent probably thinks this is "very easy." But I do know he is honest in his directions, so go ahead, dear readers, and enjoy.

At any rate, we did achieve our house, but not before Avery and I stopped to grocery shop at Marks & Sparks for dinner, SIGH! I never shop whilst full of food, all diet instructions to the contrary. I find myself much happier shopping when I'm hungry and I don't (although I know other people do) buy things I wouldn't normally want. What I do do is buy good food that I want to eat, and I enjoy myself doing it. But this trip was purely business: full as we were, five other hungry people were about to arrive at our house and want dinner, poor struggling tourists, Phoebe's family from Tribeca.

Little did we know. These people plumbed more exciting London destinations in four days than we have in a year! Well, not quite perhaps, but they were full of information. And did they eat. Fresh from tea at the Wolseley (so I don't know how they had any appetite at all). First, though, it was such fun to see Avery and Phoebe encounter each other, since it's been over a year and they had only one semester in school together before we moved here. But a great ice breaker is: matching spectacles. Or practically matching, plus both wearing brown t-shirts and with little plaits of hair. They stared at each other for a long moment while all parents held a collective breath... and then it was off to play. Phoebe's brother Julian hunted down a book in my study, sat down with Roald Dahl's "The Witches" and was down for the count. We adults repaired to the kitchen where, I have to say, I was getting kind of enthusiastic about my dinner, as full as I was. Two luscious roasted chickens were sputtering in the oven (this time I simply covered them with olive oil and salt and roasted them for two hours at 350-ish), sauteeing broccolini in olive oil, and good old English jacket potatoes, with sour cream and chives. A nice English repast for a Saturday evening.

Liz is a fascinating mixture of carpe diem enthusiasms for anything and everything ranging from English football (they had been to a Manchester United game (or "manyoo" as Liz wrote to me) and reported all the crazy antics there, like the fact that the song I thought was "God Save the Queen" all during the World Cup has its words replaced by long strings of profanity! who knew) to her daughter's sailing through the hell that is private school entrance exams in New York City. They are strongly considering Fieldston, where John and I envisioned Avery going, since it's a stone's throw from her stable in Riverdale; these are the depths to which a parent sinks, fresh from a 45-minute commute each way three times a week to watch a child go round and round on a pony. School nearby? Take it!

Liz regaled us with tales from Tribeca, the new principal at PS 234, the new hideous buildings jumping up on all vacant lots. I think we left at the right time. "But," she said, "where we're staying this trip, Hampstead, feels like the old Tribeca." So we planned to run up there after dinner and see the house-swap place they had found. Real estate: John was in heaven. But first we plowed through dinner, and I have never had such good customers! Phoebe ate her weight in chicken and scraped her potato completely clean. If I had been more inspired I would have rubbed the potatoes (nice Maris Pipers) all over with olive oil and sprinkled them with salt before baking, and then the skins would have been crispy. Do try that. We chatted about the ceremony of the keys at the Tower of London, to which they had acquired tickets by writing two months in advance! And they had seen "The Tempest" with Patrick Stewart. This is the sort of holiday you have when two brilliant parents with true historical motivation are in charge. I on the other hand drag my family through farmer's markets, cafes and bookstores. Ah well, we all have our strengths. I wish so much I had known Liz better, and Avery Phoebe, before we moved. But I think we're on track for a nice friendship across the pond, never a thing to despise.

We finished with Avery's fresh layer cake with raspberry jam filling, and she is justifiably proud of it. It stayed delicious for three days! Gone now, however. Good on you, Aves.

Avery's Layer Cake
(serves 9)

1 1/4 sticks butter, softened
1 cup sugar
2 eggs, separated
2 cups flour
1 cup milk
2 tsps baking powder
1/4 tsp salt

Cream butter and sugar together in a large mixing bowl at low speed, then add egg yolks, beat more, add milk, beat more. In another bowl sift together flour, baking powder and salt, then stir into batter. Beat egg whites till stiff and fold into batter. Pour into two non-stick sprayed layer cake pans and bake at 350 for about 40 minutes, or until they spring back from sides and a fork dipped in the center comes out clean. Cool slightly, then place one layer on a large plate and smear with jam. Put second layer on top and put jam all over the top and sides. Serve warm!


At that point, I threw the two chicken carcasses in a large stock pot, poured on water to cover, sprinkled in a lot of salt and turned the burner up high while we cleaned up in a hurry, then turned the stove off so as to get up to Hampstead and tour the amazing house in which they were staying. Owned by a writer called Simon Nye (author of "Men Behaving Badly") and lived in by him, his German wife and their four children, it's quite simply the coziest, happiest house I think I've ever seen. All old details like pocket doors and window shutters, moldings and old floors, a huge kitchen with one wall completely covered with blackboard material, and all the evidence of a busy family's life written on it: birthday parties, grocery lists, doodlings. Simply gorgeous. And exactly what we want, only smaller, except we can't afford it. Sigh. But it was fun to see.

So we left Phoebe's family framed in the doorway, surrounded by fairy-lit trees, and drove home, thinking that yes, the villagey atmosphere of Hampstead did feel like Tribeca. Maybe someday. Phoebe's dad, who I found as we parted company is a really significant writer (I felt very ignorant, having thought of him merely as... Phoebe's dad), with a new book coming out in October that sounds wonderful, "A Short History of the American Stomach") assures us that this holiday house-sharing scheme is a wonderful thing, so I think we'll give it a try at some point. Surely someone wants to rent a farmhouse in Connecticut?

Sunday found Avery at the stable to head out for the second round of the Pony Club Quiz, at which first round she had been so brilliantly clever last month. John and I repaired to the cinema and saw "Venus," which I am terribly disappointed did not win an Oscar last night. I hate it that every year, nearly, the most highly-acclaimed film is far too scary for me to see. "The Departed"? Forget about it, I'd never sleep again. But Peter O'Toole, oh, he was lovely. And the novice (but extremely talented) Jodie Whitaker. If it turns out she can do more than what I think might have been a Yorkshire accent, I would imagine the sky's the limit. Beautiful, aggressive, pitiful, childlike and seductive by turns, she benefits from a script that never lets you figure out exactly who she is. Do go see it.

Then my phone rang and it was Avery (I always find her voice so comical the few times I hear it on the phone, like a cartoon character speeded up), saying, "We're back from the Quiz!" "Oh, good, how did you do, darling?" "Well, we came in sixth place." (Underwhelming). "Good for you, out of how many teams?" "Six." Oh.

Well, at least this saves us from anymore mind-bendingly dull quiz sessions, as well as harboring the comforting knowledge that Avery can recognise sweet itch at a moment's notice, pack up a complete veterinary kit for ponies and small horses, and tell you how many feet in a furlong. No such thing as wasted knowledge, as I and my dormant PhD will tell you.

24 February, 2007


Have we done nothing but eat for the past three days? No, we've also talked until you'd think we would run out of words. By a coincidence of social planning, we have had lunch out, dinner party, lunch out, dinner party and if I don't stir anything or chew anything for the foreseeable future it will be too soon.

No, that's not even slightly true! In between extensive real estate visits trying desperately to find a house that doesn't come complete with divorce papers (can you tell we don't agree on what makes a perfect house? I thought so), and ferrying Avery to riding, and reading to my little school sprouts, we have been like people who are getting ready to move to another planet: we must see everyone we know before we go! Perhaps this week will be quieter, but then I'll be bored. And all this following on the heels of our whirlwind tour of New York and Connecticut has me quite befuddled.

It all started with my long-awaited lunch with Susan on Friday, at Fishworks where I had such a nice lunch a year ago, all by myself. How times have changed! Since we had not seen each other in weeks and weeks, we had a lot of ground to cover in just a couple of hours. Every time I see Susan I am reminded that she has a much more colorful life than I have! Her family simply bursts with drama, her past with famous college roommates and next-door neighbors who write tell-all thinly-disguised memoirs about their unfortunate family members, and now, it appears, a long-lost Polish great-uncle who has a portrait of Susan's grandmother, languishing in his studio. At least, it was languishing. Now it has made its mysterious way to Manchester, in the hands of another Polish relation, who is meeting with Susan today to try to get her to take it off his hands. "But I don't want it! My brother doesn't want it! My mother doesn't want it. Where will I put it?" Susan wails. She has problems. I can't wait to see it.

So I had an absolutely deliciously fresh whole sea bass, roasted with whole stems of rosemary tucked into the flesh, and with lots of crunchy sea salt clinging to it. Plus sauteed spinach with garlic and butter. So luxurious. And we didn't get through half what we needed to talk about, although Avery's English teacher got a thorough airing. When I called a meeting to discuss Avery's... treatment in English class, I was all but called an aggressive, perfectionist American mother who can't bear to see her child criticised. Well. Fair enough. But I hate to see this teacher pull off the impossible: turn a child whose greatest love is reading and writing into someone afraid to turn in her homework. It just is not helpful. Susan and I agreed, however, that actual drawing and quartering was not an option. Yet.

From there, it was a dash to make school pickup, and hand her to Becky for the afternoon of blissful play that was planned at Anna's house. How pathetic am I to go to pickup even when I don't need to? But I do like to see her little face. It warmed my heart so much to hear Becky refer to her as "Fifi," since only people who really love her do that. Then I was on to Selfridges to try to track down some beef ribs. No joy. Upon hearing the word "rib" the butcher insisted that I wanted a joint. No, ribs in the plural, please? How about a veal joint? No, I really want beef ribs. Apparently they don't do that here. I would say I was just using the wrong terminology, all too easy to do in this land of the spurious shared language. But I didn't see anything in the case resembling ribs. So I caved and bought pork spareribs, always lovely, but not what I wanted to braise in tomato sauce in a vain attempt to match Olimpia's perfect dish. And I don't think I can bring any back from America. Hmmm, more research needed obviously.

In any case, home I went to slather the ribs with honey and sea salt and put them in a slow oven (350, I'd say, or 180 here) for three hours, turning often and basting. Doesn't get any better than that. Just as they were getting tender, in trooped the McBs for our celebratory "Highly-Skilled Migrant Worker and His Dependents" dinner. It's not a holiday everyone observes, but for our family it was quite significant, since the McBs happily don't show any signs of going "home" either. They came bearing gifts: Erin's special two versions of sticky toffee pudding, complete with toffee sauce to heat up and pour over. By the time we had got through the ribs, an enormous dish of macaroni and cheese, a gigantic bowl of carrots caramelised in butter and brown sugar, it was hard to look upon the puddings with the favor they deserved, but... we managed. And so began the process of far too much food that continued into...

Luncheon with Vincent. Yes, as if he hasn't been generous enough with his menus, and then on Thursday his photographic skills, he invited us once again, this time to give John a chance to see the contact sheets from the photo shoot. Was there ever a better lunch? I don't hope ever to have one. And best of all, it put both Avery and John back on salmon, which I consider tantamount to an act of God. It will be wonderful to be able to bring that fish back into my kitchen, in an unsmoked form. Vincent's version was softly poached in the oven, smothered in a layer of finely julienned vegetables: red peppers, carrots, fennel, and served with a creamy sauce containing more of the vegetables. As soon as I get the actual recipe, I promise to share. With this was steamed broccoli (or rather, it was braised, as I saw Pete stirring it in a skillet) with lemon and olive oil, sliced boiled potatoes, oh heaven. We simply ate ourselves silly. Then of course there was salad! With a new thing I had never had before, beetroot sprouts. Spicy, crunchy, delicate. Definitely something to add. And THEN... the cheeseboard. Fully seven, eight cheeses? I lost count. A barely-there goats cheese, terribly young and delicate, a perfect Stilton, oh, I don't know. So good, with a hearty brown bread and oatcakes. And red and green grapes. And THEN... pudding. The simplest apricot tart you can imagine, just a perfect short crust and halved apricots, with a sugar syrup poured over. I saw him do this, so I can attest that even those of us who think we can't bake could do it.

Why isn't Vincent writing his own cookbook? Or start easy and do... a blog. Why not? Clearly anyone can. He is the real thing when it comes to cooking, where I am shown up as a bit of a fraud, but I don't mind as long as he feeds me. He truly does put a load of flour and a load of sugar and some butter in a Magimix and whizz it and... there's pastry for a tart. Even his salad dressings are spectacular. And through it all he's the most energetic father to his two beautiful little girls, who greatly enjoyed looking over the contact sheets with Avery (possibly her first ecounter with a loupe?). And Pete is the perfect foil for Vincent: where Vincent is mercurial, unpredictable, Pete is all appreciation, consanguinity, firm discipline of the girls while tickling them. And he is not without his own culinary masterpieces: upon hearing that John liked cheesecake, out one came from the fridge, of Pete's own design, and would you believe that John ate it? I confess I had two bites. Divinely cold and limey.

And I can say about the photographs only this: if you ever have the chance for a professional photographer who loves you to take your picture, DO IT. While I will never love looking at a picture of myself, I came closer than I ever thought I would. Thank you, Vincent.

I must go have dinner (! I know what I just said! but the stomach knows no reason), but I will tempt you with this photograph of Avery and one of her old school chums from New York, who came over last night... for dinner. I know, I know...

21 February, 2007


Guess what I spent two hours doing yesterday? Shh, don't tell John; it's his surprise birthday present, and he's not going to find out about it until tomorrow at lunchtime. But to you I will confess all.

Last thing at night before going to bed I always check my email. You never know. Well, on Wednesday night I got a message from Vincent, suggesting spontaneously (as is his wont, unlike plodding me) that I come by the next day and let him shoot some portraits of me, for John. My first reaction was, "Why would I subject myself, and ultimately poor John, to something so awful?" But Vincent is simply a brilliant photographer, with all the proper equipment, the studio, everything, so I paused. Then I figured, how bad could it be? This restrained enthusiasm is, I think, a sad commentary on how different a 42-year-old is from a 20-year-old (among many such sad comparisons!), because I have very vivid memories of modelling nude for a painting class in Florence, during one wonderful college summer spent there. Where has that person gone? Well, for one thing she's twice as old and probably a good twenty pounds heavier, but no matter. I decided to throw caution to the winds, and so yesterday I packed up one of John's white shirts, per Vincent's instructions, and told John I was leaving but couldn't tell him where, and that I'd pick Avery up at school. I must say he is completely mystified.

So I sped over to London Bridge and was a model! Vincent started out with a Polaroid shot of each pose, so I got to see them immediately and wasn't too horrified. He assures me that the real film shots will be much deeper and more vivid. I felt self-conscious, but his infectious good humor could not be resisted, plus his dancing to the salsa music emanating from the stereo, as well as his running commentary on all the things happening in his life: his happiness with his new loft, and with Pete, his fun photographing his two little girls, his plans for an enormous birthday party in Marrakesh! And through it all he took pictures. "Did you go to school to learn to do this, Vincent?" "No, indeed I am self-taught as they say." "But all this equipment! How did you know what to buy?" He roared at that. "Honey, I have never had any trouble knowing what to BUY."

Then I thought I had better get myself off to meet Avery, Anna and Ellie at school and take them riding, but Vincent, as is usual, was having none of my self-imposed duty. "We are going out to lunch," he announced, and with that phrase I saw collapsed all my Puritanical plans to be early, to bring a snack for the girls, all the other good-mother scenarios I tend to adhere to. Life with Vincent is an endless round of fun. So the three of us repaired to a local Bermondsey restaurant called Delfina, and had a fine time. I don't know if I would go again, but my hesitation is partly because I'm sure I ordered the wrong things. I started with an interesting-sounding soup ("I hate all soups," Vincent said categorically), and I have to say he was probably right in this case. Jerusalem artichoke, pear and chestnut puree, with little fried plantain curls on top. The problem? All the ingredients are the same color (greyish) and the same consistency (mushy) and it was too thick and too salty, I imagine to give it more flavor than could be had from the too-dull ingredients. So aside from just being soup, which makes me tend to like something, it didn't have much to recommend it. Then I had chicken liver pate to follow, which was, unaccountably, smeared across a slab of toasted ciabatta. Now, the pate itself was fine, but I really didn't want it slathered on the piece of toast which, left to its own devices, would have been a nice crunchy accompaniment but, as it was, filled the role of "mattress" in "The Princess and the Pea."

Pete, on the other hand, had an absolutely gorgeous little fillet of sea bass, on a bed of shredded cabbage and tiny noodles, and it looked divine. I don't know him quite well enough to ask to have a bite, so I cannot report on its goodness except to say that he ate every bite. Vincent had a pretentious-sounding but very yummy-looking "sumac smoked weiner schnitzel," and it was enormous. Fine for a big strapping fellow, but I could never have worked my way through it. Plus, by the time the main courses came I was in a kerfuffle over being possibly late to pickup (I have to remember that there's Greenwich Mean Time, and then there's Vincent Time, in which the clock stops for him to have fun and wrap his expansive good humour around everyone in his orbit). So I called Becky, always a mainstay of help without making me feel guilty, and arranged that she'd pick the girls up and I would meet them at the stable with Avery's stuff. Which was at home. Slight panic! Pete laughed. "I was regularly left at school. I was the youngest of five, and my mother, after school, would just sort of cock her ear for the level of noise in the house, find it appropriate for the number of children she thought were probably there, and leave it at that. It was sometimes 4:30 before anyone realised I was still at school." There does seem to be a special rule that decrees if I get to school on time, she's late, and if I'm late, she was early, and all the good things I do as her mother fly out of the window as she experiences that fate worse than death: Last Child Picked Up.

Meanwhile, as only a true foodie can do, even full as a tick, Vincent was talking recipes. He is absolutely 100% convinced that his version of anything he can cook is the version you should learn to, so I listened avidly. A souffle? To most people the word strikes fear in their culinary hearts, but to Vincent it's "what you cook on a Sunday night when no one can be bothered to cook." And he makes it sound so easy, using up all the ends of the cheeses you've had on your cheeseboard all week. (Do you have a cheeseboard all week? Oh, good, neither do I.) He is, quite simply, the most effortless cook, and host.

He was still in full creative flow as I pondered these questions. "Have I given you my scallops in scotch? All you do is throw a knob of butter in a skillet and sear the scallops quickly to brown on each side, then add a tub of creme fraiche ["this is Vincent's diet scallop recipe," Pete teased] and a good dollop of single-malt scotch, some salt and pepper, cook it down, pour it over the scallops. Divine." It sounds it, and when I see him tomorrow I'll get the real recipe and let you know how it turns out.

So yes, tomorrow will see us having lunch at Vincent's house while John looks at the contact sheets he doesn't know exist yet, and chooses which he'd like to have made into prints. I'm so excited. And I made it to the stable on time, in case you wondered.

20 February, 2007

been there, Donne that

Well. I have to apologise, just couldn't resist the cheesey post title. But last night I went to an amazing discussion/performance of the poetry of John Donne, hosted by an intriguing organisation called "English Pen." They are a group of intellectuals dedicated to the freedom of written expression (some of the monies they gather by selling pens marked "Mightier Than the Sword" go to efforts to free writers currently in prison). I had heard about the Donne event through my devotion to Google Alerts. Have you heard of these things? You ask Google to tell you who's talking about the things you love, and then you get emails telling you what news source, or even blog, is talking about, say, the divine actress Harriet Walter. You may have slogged through my paeans of praise to Harriet and to Edward Petherbridge who recently performed at the Park Lane Hotel's 80th birthday celebration. Now, that event I heard about because I belong to the Dorothy L. Sayers Society, she being the author of the Wimsey mysteries so wonderfully performed on film and audiobook by my darling Edward. But I decided after that evening that Harriet Walter was nearly equally wonderful, and thus I was led to an excellent blog about books and writing (and other things that interest Sarah, the blogger), who belongs to "English PEN" and therefore knew that Harriet would be performing last night! Got that?

Long story short (have you noticed that, in conversation, by the time someone utters this phrase it's already been a long story?), last evening found me, after a protracted accidental tour of the area surrounding the Farringdon tube station (yes, I admit it, I got lost -- again), at 60 Farringdon Road in the presence of many people much, much smarter than I am. And funnily enough, instead of being disconcerting, nay even depressing, it was really very energising. I don't know about you, but I tend to live on a very quotidien plane, addressing pretty much what needs to be done that particular day, and not really stretching my mind any further than directions to my destination (which granted, being me, can be every bit as absorbing as reproducing the Mona Lisa in marzipan). I think I am motivated enough now to be a little more intellectually adventurous, dust off my PhD and really think about something. Not every day, mind you, but...

Having finally found the dratted place, I was just in time to find a seat in the packed auditorium and be greeted by the young and gently effervescent Director of PEN, Jonathan Heawood, as he introduced the speakers. The center of attention was one John Stubbs, author of the newly-published biography of Dunne, "John Dunne: The Reformed Soul." I had to restrain myself from bopping him on the top of his tousled head, because the lad is but 29 years old. Now, with very few exceptions I have forsworn to have anything to do with people under 30, especially if they have accomplished anything that makes me feel inadequate (which is painfully easy to do). This man was just adorable, I have to say: a sort of combination of Harry Potter and Pete Doherty, if either of them had gone to Oxford. Actually, this boy looked as if he had been born and raised at Oxford and had never left. The compleat academic, disheveled in a lovely jumper and Viyella-ish shirt, constantly flopping his hair off and back onto his forehead, with an endearing sort of brainy stammer. And the sort of commentary that I thought resided only in my feverishly brilliant PhD tutor, Steven Z. Levine, a man for whom semi-colons were usable parts of speech. His hesitant manner of answering questions was a bit uncomfortable at first, to listen to, until it became apparent that he was hesitating not for lack of certainty as to what to say, but because it took that long for him to sift through the enormous number of possible words to find just the right one. And, dear readers, he spoke some words I didn't even know. I was ashamed of myself, and naturally I could not write them down because I had never heard them before. Plus some words that I recognised as being nominally part of my own mother tongue, but had never found occasion to utter, like "tertiary verisimilitude" and "amaneunses":

amanuensis \un-man-yoo-EN-sis\, noun; plural amanuenses, \-seez\:
A person employed to take dictation or to copy manuscripts.

and "internecine". Might he have said "proleptic"? Is that a word? And what's more, he was interesting. Much of the discussion, which was led by poet Ruth Padel, centered on Donne's attitude toward his Catholicism, in a time when the faith was punishable by imprisonment, or even being drawn and quartered. But almost best of all during the evening was the part that led me there in the first place, Harriet Walter's readings of the various poems that were relevant to the discussion.

The intellect and sense of humor of the English academic are such a joy to me, and I had forgotten what it was like to listen to them. The Director had introduced all the speakers by saying, "Ruth Padel is of course the great granddaughter of Charles Darwin, and Harriet Walter is the niece of Christopher Lee. John Stubbs is not the relative of anyone famous, although he does say he dreams of horses." Of course this got a laugh, but only if I had been really paying attention to living in London (which I must say I have been) would I know that he was referring to the equine painter George Stubbs.

Harriet Walter herself was just sublime, like a Kristin Scott Thomas who can laugh at herself, and very beautiful, these 20 years after her turn as Lord Peter Wimsey's amour Harriet Vane. And afterward I screwed up my courage and asked her for her autograph, in my old copy of my favorite of all the Wimsey-Vane novels, "Busman's Honeymoon," since Sayers herself described it as "a love story with detective interruptions." She was gracious and said, about the novel, "Oh, it's the one that got away," since for some untold reason the Sayers estate sold the film rights to someone who won't let anyone make a film of it.

Oh, and on the way to the event, would you believe: I was on one of the many streets I wasn't meant to be on, getting loster and loster, when I looked up to see... Avery's PS 234 friend Phoebe, and her family, wandering hand in hand along the pavement! Her mother Liz had emailed me to see if we were around this week and would we like to get together, and then smack! there they were right in front of me. Perhaps dinner tomorrow night.

Well, Avery has just made her first cake, from her first real-live cookbook recipe, and is now reposing in her bath and I've promised to read aloud. I'll let you know how the cake turns out, and it could be Avery's first recipe on my blog, properly cited in its original context, of course. I must say, I get very sentimental when she likes something I like, or liked as a child, and to pass along all my Ginnie and Geneva books and have her enjoy them is very satisfying indeed. And with the wonders of internet searches, you can get copies for your daughters, too.

19 February, 2007

home again home again

I know, I know, I am really provincial and not very sophisticated, but it just boggles my mind that I can be saying goodbye to Anne and David in Connecticut one minute, and seemingly literally just minutes later be descending my London front steps on the way to Marks and Spencer for groceries. People do this all the time, I know! But it takes a long time for me to re-acclimate. I feel for several days as if all the beloved people on both sides of the pond are residing in my pockets, or sitting on my shoulders, some wanting to know why I've left and others not realizing I've ever been gone. "Why, you know on Tuesday..." No, I wasn't here on Tuesday! "Over the weekend we..." Well, we were somewhere else! And to think of our beloved Red Gate Farm fireplaces dead and dark, our barns unlighted, the pond empty of our skating attempts, Rollie roofing the barn without us there to gloat, the snow melting over our footprints. I hate that! And yet, to come home to London and see that our cats are thriving, the oven still working for a roast chicken, "Top Gear" ready to be watched: that's all to the good as well. It does make me laugh to hear Jeremy Clarkson say that the "right turn on a red light" is the only significant contribution of American culture to the world. Thanks, Jeremy. I'll be sure and log the invention of potted chicken under YOUR nation's cultural achievements. Harumph.

I am totally inspired now, after our afternoon with Anne across the road, to begin work in earnest on my edition of her grandmother's recipes. Over a lovely lunch of oyster stew, we discussed strategies for choosing, presenting and updating Gladys's recipes. There are some lovely bits, like "scalloped oysters," or "sweet potato souffle," absolute marvels of simplicity and thrift. Then there are classic budget-conscious postwar gems like "Sour Cream Loaf" which features ground veal and chopped green peppers (an ingredient for which I feel a totally irrational hostility), as well as the eponymous dairy product. That's got to be a really weird dish. Then there's the recipe for lobster bisque, which involves mixing a can of mushroom soup and a can of tomato soup, and a "No.1 can of lobster". Now, I don't know what a No.1 can is, but I feel certain that no can should contain lobster.

Here's one fascinating thing about recipes from the past, I find: there is a curious contradiction about seasonality, and also affordability, that pervades many of the instructions. On the one hand, old-fashioned cookery writers are much more tolerant of simply not being able to get things at certain times of the year (like fruit in snowy Connecticut), or not being able to afford things (like a lobster fresh from the ocean). However, they are perfectly happy to use frozen strawberries, something I have never purchased, or canned cherries, or canned lobster. If I can't have it fresh (whether from availability or from cost), I just skip it. What does that mean about me as a cook, and about Gladys? I have a lot to think about, before I can put together a decent analysis of the cookery mood of one New Englander writer in the 1940s, and my own 21st century urban attitude, in this era when one can get (if one can afford) almost anything, almost anytime of the year. I am incredibly flattered that Anne thinks I am the right person to take on her beloved famous relative's work, and turn it into something that new readers can approach with enthusiasm. Most important, I think, is to point out that Martha Stewart did not invent domesticity, nor did Nigella Lawson, as wonderful as these people are. And there is a great deal to be said for a writer, and a person, who wanted her writing and her recipes to be accessible, not to scare people to death.

Anne feels that the best thing to do is to select a small number of good recipes, and test them all, possibly bring them up to date with modern ingredients, and surround them with some sort of text that will get across the enormous and lasting appeal of Gladys's writing. That is a tall order, on all sides. Because the recipes are really only the tip of her appeal. Of course that is in part because the collections are peppered with items like this gem: "Boiled Tongue: raisin sauce makes a nice change." I bet it does. No, the recipes are lovely, some delicious, and all of them evocative of a certain era in homemaking, but her real genius is in her genuine love for her farm, her friends, family, hospitality and enjoyment of her rural life. And I must say her concern for the overdevelopment of the surrounding countryside resonates awfully loudly today. So I must put on my thinking cap and do her justice. In the meantime, you should give her writing a whirl. I can only hope to produce anything half so valuable, but I'll try.

frosty Connecticut days

Goodness, we had fun in the snow. I hate to say this, given the annoyance the storm caused my poor family, trying to get to Indiana and Florida, and not having marked success. However, selfishly, it was a lot of good snow to play in, and play we did. Thursday dawned crispy and fair, and without a cloud in the sky, so I marched over to Anne and David's house across the road to shovel a path from their driveway to their door, just as they did for us so kindly. Lordy it was heavy! That sort of snowfall that is icy on the bottom, sticking to the grass, then fluffy in between, and icy on the top. Finally John came over and hacked through the top layer with a giant spade, until he finally broke the handle!

We all went down to the pond, which had frozen thoroughly over, and the stream too, so we walked along it as far as we could get before the Jewish olive branches and thorny rose branches made it too difficult to get through. John went to take a nap, and Avery and I were, for some reason, visited by an intense desire to turn the snowy frozen pond into... a skating rink. So I shovelled like crazy, feeling muscles I didn't know I had, as Avery skated in the ever-widening circumference, and in an hour or so, we had a skating rink! Then we got slightly freaked out by a hole at the mouth of the culvert that connects Anne's pond to ours, although the ice seemed very thick around the hole. Still, the sound of water sloshing about under the rink made us hesitate, and I told Avery the story of when my friend Joy and my annoying brother told me to test the ice on the lake where we had our weekend house, and if it was strong enough, they'd come out too. Guess if it was? I had to spend the rest of the day under an electric blanket, while my clothes went around and around in the dryer. Of course it would be that afternoon when the boy I had a crush on decided to drop in, and there I was, naked under an electric blanket. I'm pretty sure Joy got the boy!

Still, we were proud of our rink. And it was just the right night for a warming dish of pasta.

Rigatoni alla Vodka
(serves four)

3/4 lb rigatoni pasta
1 large can peeled plum tomatoes
1 tbsp Italian seasoning
3 tbsps butter
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 small onion, minced
1/2 cup vodka
1/2 cup light cream
1/2 cup grated parmesan or pecorino cheese
salt to taste
fresh pepper to taste
extra grated parmesan for garnish

Bring water to boil in large pot and pour in pasta. You now have 11 minutes to make your sauce. Pour tomatoes into food processor with Italian seasoning and whizz until nearly smooth, but leaving some nice tomato bites. Melt butter in heavy stockpot and saute garlic and onions until soft. Add vodka and cook over a high heat until the smell of alcohol disappears, about 4 minutes, then add tomatoes, cream and 1/2 cup cheese, and stir thoroughly. When pasta is done, toss it in the sauce before serving, and season with salt and pepper. Top with grated cheese.

And get an Advil for those aching muscles!

18 February, 2007

Olimpia feeds the family

All we can say is OOF. What a meal!

It was a crystal clear day, as you can see, as we set off for Olimpia's house in Catskill, New York, which is actually a pseudonym for "Very Far From Anywhere." As in, their driveway alone is like the distance from Avery's school to Buckingham Palace. You have to cross the Rip Van Winkle Bridge to get there, and thence resist the temptation to stop at the Rip Van Winkle Diner, but file under your hat the vacancies at the Rip Van Winkle Motel. You will have gathered that this literary phenomenon is the focal point of the cultural life of Catskill, New York. Except that we turned a blind eye on all these attractions, knowing that if our old VW station wagon could make it up the drive, ambrosia lay at the end of our journey. We were not disappointed.

I will never forget the day that Olimpia and I cooked all day long (or rather she cooked and I salaamed "I'm not worthy" at her feet, for John's work Christmas party just before we moved last year. Meatballs to serve 60! Ribs that spent the entire day in her homemade tomato basil sauce. All the other "food" that I submitted for consideration was entirely eclipsed, and people stood around the empty platter where the meatballs had been, saying, "But I didn't get any!" So when we knew we were going to have a chance to see Olimpia and her husband Tony during our visit home, we jumped on it. And I had no hesitation in asking her to make my favorites.

Tony built this log cabin with his own hands! It reminds me of the incredible accomplishment of my dad (well, we helped a little) when he built the bedroom extension on their house: the sheer capability boggles the mind. And now Tony's building a kitchen extension for Olimpia and we were able to see the plans, plus the work in progress, plus examine tile samples, peek at lighting fixtures, cabinets in progress. Very exciting, and you can imagine the views. The Catskill mountains loomed in the distance and there were fully two feet of snow. Avery was in heaven sledding, with all of us in attendance to try to pack down the trail.

We sat down to lunch, and it exceeded all our expectations. It was like eating through the entire menu of a small Italian restaurant. We began with lasagne, in which there were tiny, tiny meatballs instead of the mince I use to make mine. Avery was in heaven. From there we progressed to large meatballs and the succulent ribs, which had simmered all day in sauce. Then, if you can imagine it, a dish of flank steak wrapped around parsley, pine nuts and raisins, PLUS an eggplant dish with olive oil, capers and black olives. Oh MY. Simply sublime. And through it all we gossiped about John's abandoned office, Tony's colorful history as Deputy Fire Marshal of the FDNY (excitingly on the arson squad). Did you know that every FDNY fire helmet (and every one in the world, for all I know) is made from a cast of the individual fireman's head? Unique, every one. And Avery did her posh accent, and her David Beckham accent, which I must say is spot on.

I will pass on any recipes I can manage to cajole from Olimpia, especially the eggplant dish which revived my interest in that deadly nightshade (well, not deadly, but you know what I mean). Thank you, Olimpia and Tony, for everything.

15 February, 2007

we're official

Yes, we're officially visa-ed for life in England now. John is, ahem, drum roll: a "Highly Skilled Migrant Worker." Avery and I are his dependents. As if we didn't already know that.

We got up early Tuesday morning and rode down in the hotel elevator with lots of hilarious dogs in town for the Westminster Dog Show at Madison Square Garden, just down the street from the New Yorker. Oh, yes, we had to switch hotels after Alyssa visited the one I had chosen, and said that while she was not actually attacked by giant rodents and cockroaches, it was a near miss. And she thought maybe there was a dead person on the front steps. So I put my tail between my legs and let Olimpia book us into the boring but clean hotel John always stays at in town. Sigh, so much for experimentation and adventure.

But yes, after we dropped Avery off at school with Cici to spend the day being a non-uniformed co-ed girl, I had tea with Kathleen and then trekked up to the British Consulate to submit all the laborious paperwork John had gathered up: tax records, salary records, marriage and birth certificates, everything but my last grocery list and mammogram results.

But on the way in the taxi, I was again visited by the feeling that New York is simply littered with memories. Ballet on 6th Avenue, and the darling Jefferson Market library across the street, where little tutu-ed Avery spent so many happy hours. Our crazy miserable dentist who wanted to be an Olympic skier, on 10th Street just around the corner from the Halloween store, open every day of the year selling makeup, wigs, scary teeth, dead rubber rats, plastic swords and costumes. And then Friends Seminary where Annabelle goes to school and Avery spent so many hot summer days at camp with her, and Beth Israel Hospital, visible from the school, where Avery was born. Sigh. But London is beginning to feel like home, as well.

The visas were no problem at all, and then we found out our lunch with Alyssa had to be canceled because Elliot was busy filming a commercial for PBS! His red hair and general attitude of friendly, goofy abandon makes him a total obsession with the New York commercial set. So we abandoned our plan and instead spontaneously hopped on the V train and had pastrami sandwiches, matzoh ball soup and latkes at Katz Deli! There is just nothing like it, although I did recoil a bit at $13.45 for a sandwich. But since no sane person can eat a whole one, it's actually not that bad. In fact, perfect. Then a long walk to SoHo to find a down coat for me since the bitter wind was destined to make standing out at a pony lesson quite miserable. Boy are things on sale! EMS was good to me and I came away looking like a marshmallow, but cosy and warm. And I found, on the other end of the style spectrum, a beautiful halter-neck black dress to wear to the British Show Jumping Championships in April, for which John and Avery gave me fancy VIP tickets, for my birthday. Black tie, the Puissance Wall, it will be great, and now for a budget price at JCrew, I have a dress.

Just in time to pull outside school to get Avery, and I looked up to see my old friend Mya, one of the gallery's best clients, coming toward me! "What on EARTH?" she asked in astonishment. It was but the work of a moment to explain our mission, and she explained too that her eldest son Miles (who was just two when his parents bought their first painting) goes to school at VCS. Then there is the middle son who was born when the gallery was about a year old, and now there is a third son, with whom Mya was pregnant when I told her we were moving. We chatting energetically until it was time for Miles to be collected. How nice it would be if they came to London, but with three boys under seven, it might be tough.

Up the old familiar West Side Highway, past the newly-rebuilt crumble of the wall that so famously fell onto the road just feet from our car several years ago. What an adventure that was. Poor John's mom not being able to reach me with my dead cell phone, certain that we were buried under tons of rubble. We reached the barn to find all our friends milling about in the cold, some unrecognizable under woolly hats! Ali with her new, dear horse, Gabby and Nina jumping in the ring with dear Christine shouting at everyone to keep heels down, hands calm, shoulders straight. Arrangements were being made for the dinner that evening to reunite us all, and John was passing out coffee to everyone. Avery was on Ladybug, and as you can see, the meeting was a joy for all. What a dear pony, but I must say the lesson lasted just long enough in the freezing cold. And, dear readers, I managed to work in a trip to my beloved Fairway, quite possibly the best, and most affordable, food market I have ever been to. Huge piles of produce of every description as you enter, then onto the pantry goods with deals on olive oil and anchovies and pasta, plus a huge deli section where I snagged gravadlax, smoked rainbow trout, fresh cream cheese (bears no resemblance to the gelatinous cousin of the Philadelphia variety), and then into the famous Cold Room, where the entire space is a refrigerator. There I picked up an embarrassing quantity of fresh shucked oysters for stew for Friday night's supper, and regretfully passed up the whole beef fillets and giant pork roasts on the bone, not having enough people to feed to make it worthwhile. Up we went then to Avery's barn friend Nina's gorgeous town house, to snuggle before the fire and try to help Nina's mother Julia with her latest professional conundrum, a museum opportunity that sounds both compelling and confusing.

Dinner was a total delight. I cannot say that my appetite was at its most opportune, with a giant Katz Deli lunch in its recent past. So I contented myself with an enormous Caesar salad and had little bites of everyone else's pasta, John's gnocchi with wild mushrooms definitely winning out. It was a lovely restaurant, Centolire on Madison Avenue, and apparently when Julia told someone of our plans, the listener was incredulous. "You're taking CHILDREN there?" It's one of Pino Luongo's brainchildren, and had I known ahead of time where we were going, I would have saved my pastrami for another day. I remember the days years ago when we lived in SoHo (more waxing nostalgic), going to Il Cantinori in Little Italy for a special treat.

Certainly it was luxurious, and with a table for eight mothers (and John) and eight little girls, we were perfectly set for a relaxing evening. I just looked and looked at my friends and was so happy to be included: beautiful, earnest Florencia listening gravely to whatever story elegant, athletic Camille happened to be telling, and authoritative, opinionated Venezuelan Ana, daughter of Carolina Herrera, and then feisty, foxy Francesca who hosted us so memorably this summer, and fresh-faced Sandy, wife of a very popular CNN host and with an edge of Southern steely wit to her charm. And of course Julia to my right, still musing over her job offer, joining me in looking over at our daughters, ordering their dinners with grace and aplomb. How did they get old enough to deal with waiters, and receive such glowing smiles for their manners? All of them so sweet in their jodhpurs and long glossy ponytails. As always the discussion ranged from the most recent pony-human intrigues at the barn, who is winning versus who should be winning, what insane things Joey the trainer has been saying lately, worries over our daughters' growing up too quickly, and a lot of interest in our lives in London, especially Avery's riding. It seems magical, and almost impossible to me, that we can come back, and our friends are still here. As we finished dinner we looked out the window to see thick snow falling. "Better get going," John said, and we parted with many kisses, and headed back up to Connecticut.

We spent yesterday recovering from our mad schedule, doing nothing but cooking crabcakes and watching "The Manor House," a wonderful series of programmes detailing the Gosford Park-like lives of an invented, recreated aristocratic family life in Edwardian England. So far three of the volunteer scullery maids have quit, the French chef hates everyone, little Master Guy has received a pony for his birthday, and some of the shimmer is wearing off the generous attitudes of the people playing the landed gentry. What will this evening's episode be? Perhaps Rob the Footman will fall for Jennifer the Second Housemaid? We'll find out.

Kristen's Crabcakes (inspired by Joel's Crabcakes, thank you)
(makes approximately 8)

1 lb fresh claw crabmeat, cooked and picked over
1/2 cup thinly sliced green onions, white and green parts
1 red bell pepper, minced
1/2 cup mayonnaise
3 egg yolks, lightly beaten
1 1/2 cups fresh breadcrumbs
1/2 tsp chili powder
salt and pepper to taste
3 tbsps vegetable oil

(1 more cup breadcrumbs for rolling)

Mix all ingredients but oil, thoroughly. Form into 3-inch diameter cakes, about 3/4 inch thick. Roll in breadcrumbs and place in a single layer on a platter. Refrigerate as long as possible, at least 2 hours (this will keep them from falling apart while cooking). Before frying, firmly squeeze them into shape once again. Heat oil in a wide, deep skillet and place crabcakes in a single layer. Fry on one side 4 minutes, then turn and fry for another 4 minutes. Drain thoroughly on thick paper towels and serve with:

Spicy Chili Mayonnaise

3/4 cup mayonnaise
juice of one lemon
2 tbsps garlic chili sauce
1 tbsp Dijon mustard
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
salt and pepper to taste

Mix all ingredients and adjust seasonings to your taste. Serve in dollops on each dinner plate, alongside crabcakes.

fine new shoes and fine old friends

Monday morning found us at brunch in West Hartford with the family, being entertained by Jane who is clearly a favorite with the staff at the cute diner AC Petersen Farms, which they frequent. "When are you headed off to the sunshine, little one?" our waitress wanted to know. Joel and Jane are destined for the Florida sun to join my sister who is slaving away for ESPN on NASCAR business. My mom told hilarious stories about many of Jane's tricks that we have not yet seen, like her "blap guitar," made by strumming on her favorite birdseye diaper security item (don't ask, it's a family tradition), and the related "blap accordion." Suddenly then there was a beeping sound and Jane announced, "Coffee's done." Joel looked sheepish. "Well, our coffee maker beeps when the coffee's done, so..." Several hundred omelettes and pancakes later, we played in the snow at Joel's house for a bit, John using Jane as a shield against Avery's snowball fights. "You wouldn't hit an innocent baby, would you?" Then goodbyes all round, and we were off to the city.

The apogee, of course, of the day, was Avery's long-anticipated reunion with Cici. They hadn't seen each other since August, and the excitement was at fever pitch. We pulled up outside the Village Community School in the West Village and there it was: a completely typical urban New York school, red brick, high fence surrounding the play yard with its basketball hoops, the children's voices at wineglass-shattering octaves. And the universal sensation that is school pickup. It doesn't really matter what the accents are (Washington Square or Sloane Square), or whether the cars waiting outside the yard are mother-driven SUVs or chauffeur-driven Bentleys, or whether the kids are boys and girls in every outlandish outfit you can imagine, or little girls in pristine uniforms. The feeling is the same: how was English? Did you eat your lunch? Hurry and jump in the car because your sister is having a meltdown.

And there was Cici's mother waiting outside the yard, ready for our hugs and a bottle of champagne. "Cici's right there, Avery!" and there she was. Much screaming and jumping up and down, and Avery's little glowing face, being introduced to Cici's circle of friends, all of whom looked bemused, fascinated and a little skeptical, but friendly. Clearly there had been some advance press for the visit. We walked in the bitter, biting cold to their new apartment not far away, and had tea and caught up on family life. "I remember these plates!" Avery said in delight, and "Here's that picture of you and me eating a strand of spaghetti together, one on each end, until we kissed!" and showing off pictures of Cici riding at their stable in Connecticut, and stories of the embalming-chicken project that Cici is involved with at school. "We're studying King Tut!" Finally Kathleen and I left them drawing together while we nipped down to the gorgeous boutique on the ground level of their building, Zero by Maria Cornejo. She's a fascinating Chilean designer, and thank goodness there was an enormous sale, because Kathleen found a pair of really chic and useful black culottes that I put on immediately while the languid and bored shop assistant struggled mightily with the computer system. Gorgeous.

Then I was off to meet John in SoHo for a trip down memory lane, in our old stomping grounds of Spring and Broadway, looking up fondly at the second-story balcony (OK, OK, it was a fire escape) on which we had so many, many after-party hangouts, goodness, nearly 15 years ago. Looking downtown to the Woolworth Building and uptown to the Chrysler Building, there was never a cooler loft. Many cats, furniture styles, dinner parties and one child's entire life later, we looked up there and felt very... old. But happy. Off for my long-awaited shopping trip to Varda, quite simply the best shoe boutique in the world in my opinion. In our most recent closet purges, I finally said goodbye to two pairs of boots that had lasted (so to speak) me nearly 15 years, and I was ready for a bit of a blowout. Oh my, though, painful as it is to say, prices have increased in that period of time! Nevertheless, I came away with some gorgeous chocolate brown boots, flat-heeled, sadly, as John objects to any heel, and I am fool enough to want him to be happy. And a pair of pilgrim shoes, with a glossy little folded flap. The shopkeeper actually remembered me! Then it was off to Old Navy for t-shirts for Avery.

It's strange: normally I am not a shopper, at all. I have black turtlenecks and other black turtlenecks. Huge displays of clothing make me nervous, and shop assistants, too. In London of course I get sticker shock and never buy anything. But there was something sort of youthful and fun-loving about a little shopping spree! I think it's a SoHo thing, a mixture of old happy memories of what John used to call the "opportunity cost" of living at the corner of Spring and Broadway: there was always an opportunity for something to cost money! And I was a carefree young art history professor who felt it was part of my job to look chic. A bit of myself that has definitely gotten if not lost, then firmly pushed aside under layers of motherhood, moving into my scary 40s, many moves, job changes and other stresses. It was fun to out shopping with my husband, in a spending mood. All we were missing were John's parents, whose shopping trips used to cut a swathe through SoHo, John's mother's credit card in her hand as she said, "Charge!" Self-indulgent and fun.

Then we raced back up to the Village and collected Avery, arranged to meet everybody back at Cici's school in the morning, and raced back down to Tribeca for drinks with Alyssa, Annabelle and Elliot. As the girls immediately turned on their "Bop to the Top" soundtrack and began dancing, Alyssa said ironically, "Can it really have been TWO WHOLE MONTHS since we saw this dance?" She turned to Amy, the girls' babysitter from years gone by and explained, "It turns out that 'Bop to the Top' is appropriate for any occasion. Changing of the Guard? Bop. Waiting in line at the British Museum? Bop." Elliot skated around them, trying for a moment in the sun. All too soon, however, we were off in the cold to walk to the nice quiet Indian restaurant we had chosen for our evening with Jeanne and Cynthia. Alyssa went with us and we decided to pass by our old loft on Jay Street. So sad to look up into the windows and see that my miles and miles of zinc bookshelves, so lovingly designed and always chock-a-block full, were nearly empty. "And the place is lit up like a photography studio!" John wailed, thinking of his subtle and beautiful lighting schemes. We all sighed, thinking of the home that had been.

Just as we approached Salaam Bombay for dinner, John said, "I wonder how long it will be before you see somebody you know?" and there in our path was... Augustus, the painter from my gallery who had so famously (not that he knows that I told everyone the story) announced to me that we were meant to be together. Destined for a great passionate love. Intended by fate to join our creative instincts together in a great partnership of love and the arts. "But Augustus," I objected, "what about my husband and child, and your wife?" I don't even remember his response, but goodness he was appealing. So we stood there in the windy bitterness, my family and I, listening to him extol his own virtues, a pasttime at which he is amazingly talented. Give him credit, I thought to myself, he is a great painter. But it was a funny encounter, and little did he know he had provided excellent copy for my fiction class, in which he appeared as a murder suspect. Too funny.

Into the cosy restaurant, and a glorious evening of gossip and catching up with our dear friends. Avery, however, stayed awake only long enough to unwrap a present from Jeanne, a book on horse mythology, and to say thank you nicely, and then was down for the count under a drift of everyone's coats. Cynthia brought us up to date on the awful and costly renovation of her realty office (she is quite the most clever realtor that ever lived, having once described a house in an ad as "entirely upholstered"), and the pressures of having young job-hunting relatives living with them, and the health of various friends in common. And possible plans for them visit in May! They are trying to convince us to join them on their upcoming cruise on the Queen Mary II, but as far as vacations go, that one doesn't grab me. How wonderful, though, to be warm and well-fed, chatting with old friends, and making plans. The food was not quite as remarkable as I had remembered, the many times we ate there and more often ordered out, all the dishes except for the vindaloo tasting a bit as if they had all been cooked in the same sauce, albeit tasty. But a lovely evening. Back to the hotel with a boneless Avery, and to sleep. Because the next day was slated to be... busy, to say the least.

14 February, 2007

Happy Valentine's Day

I hope this finds you all as cosy as we are here in Connecticut: snow without, a flickering fire within. Of course all is not joy: my poor parents and brother are stuck at little Janie's house, their plans all awry with this winter storm that began last night and is still continuing. All the weather people are so happy! They have christened it "The Valentine's Day Storm," which to me sounds like a serial killer who hits only on Hallmark holidays, but I guess it had to have a moniker. Anyway, but for the extreme annoyance being caused to many travellers, it's simply beautiful here at Red Gate Farm. This picture makes me laugh: it's one of the Victorian candle holders attached to the branches of our hydrangea tree, so as to be lit up for Christmas Eve lo those many months ago as we prepared our big move to London. I guess the little things were lost in the lush branches and leaves this summer, when we arrived for our holidays.

Our trip here was a bit muddly as well: we arrived at the airport on Friday evening to find that although the flight had been delayed, boarding had been closed three hours early, and we were not allowed on. Grrr. There was nothing to do but go back home and return on Saturday, which we did without mishap, and hours later found ourselves waiting outside the terminal at JFK for a "car" to pick us up and drive us to Connecticut. "Oh my lord," John said, "that's not a car." "It's a stretch limo!" Avery shrieked in some combination of glee and total embarrassment. "I just hope nobody is looking out the window as we arrive," I groaned, since the austerity of our farming community does not really run to enormous long gas-guzzling vehicles too attenuated to fit in our driveway. We simply scuttled out of the car and raced inside, to perfect warmth from Rollie's coming in and getting the house ready for us. Plus food in the fridge from Anne and David! So perfect. We fell into bed, happy.

The next morning we were each up just two hours earlier than normal, so I was, unusually, happy at 7 a.m., in the grocery store. It was my favorite way to spend the day: surrounded by family, cooking and eating. My parents, brother, and Joel and Jane arrived and there were birthday present exchanges, no-reason present exchanges, catching up of news, and mostly appreciating all the hilarious things Jane says. She seems very low to the ground for someone who can say so much! She emerged from exploring the guest bathroom, holding a shampoo bottle and saying earnestly, "Ooh, I love barcodes." And she has several jokes in her two-year-old repertoire that require many, many repetitions. "Why chicken cross road?" "I don't know, Janie, why did the chicken cross the road?" "OTHER SIDE!" and shrieks of uncontrollable laughter. This she tells to UPS guys, visiting farmers, waiters and waitresses. Everyone seems to find it pretty entertaining. And she is so cute, just to look at. "Aunt Kristen, my shoes make funny sound." "Do they? You mean if you stamp up and down?" "No, just if I wiggle them, they squeak." Sure enough, as she twirled her little ankles around they squeaked in all their pink leather glory.

It seemed a good day for some hot soup, so I remembered that my beloved vichyssoise of summer probably started out its life as creamy leek and potato soup. Give it a try; it couldn't be any easier, or cheaper.

Creamy Leek and Potato Soup
(serves 8)

3 tbsps butter
6 leeks, just white part and a bit of the green, washed and sliced thin
3 medium onions
3 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
6 medium potatoes
6 cups chicken stock
1 cup half and half
chopped chives to garnish

Melt butter in a heavy stockpot and sweat the leeks and garlic gently until soft. Add onions and potatoes and coat with the butter, then cover with chicken stock and simmer high for 45 minutes. Blend with a hand blender and add half and half, then return to the stove and heat gently. Serve in warmed bowls and scatter chives on top.


With this we had simply obscene sandwiches of roast beef, turkey, red onion, avocado, tomato and fresh pesto, on sourdough toast. Oh, and some odd cheese that was completely delicious, in a very American-deli kind of way: it was called "buffalo wing cheddar" and was a creamy yellow cheese studded with jalapenos and laced with chili sauce. Delicious.

Then we just hung around. My mother is the best hanger-arounder I know. She gets comfortable in the old southern-Indiana rocker we bought 20 years ago for $15, and keeps me company, telling me what's up with my 94-year-old grandmother, all my cousins' babies I've never met and know only through birth announcements and sending picture books to them. We gossip about my sister's job, Jane's remarkable accomplishments, English mysteries we both love (including the new police procedural from our favorite Deborah Crombie, "Water Like a Stone" which we have both ordered and can't wait to read). She looks over my shoulder as I cook, marveling at my ability to do the simplest tasks, which makes her a very rewarding companion. I should make a mental note: when Avery is grown and I come to visit her, I need to find her as admirable and praiseworthy as my mother always claims to find me, even when I haven't done anything to deserve it. It's a nice feeling. My dad had tales of the enormous celebrations for the Colts' big Super Bowl win, and my brother reported on the latest Beatles reissue I gave him for my birthday. And through it all, Jane talked. And threw a tiny rubber ball from one of us to the other. And I stirred my brisket, and whipped up cole slaw for dinner. Rollie came barreling in to say hello and that yes, he and Judy could come to dinner after all, had Judy told me so? No. Small panic! Really? OK, Plan B: why not make a meatloaf? To go with the brisket? That way, as far as the menu went, you could choose beef... or beef! Which led to Joel's telling me that in some Indiana towns he's traveled to for business, chicken is offered as the vegetarian alternative. Oh, my home state.

I have to confess: the crazy social life of the past four days has caught up with all of us: two of us are asleep and I am nodding. More tomorrow. On tap: New York City adventures, horsey adventures, retail therapy, and...gnocchi. I know, you can hardly wait.

09 February, 2007

see you later, London

It's that holiday feeling again (didn't we just do this?). Half-term pickup with the air full of romantic whispers of holiday destinations: Cali's off to Norfolk, Ava to Yorkshire, Anna to Leeds and points beyond, and then there are the Continental types. Gigi to Val d'Isere, Lindsay to Zermatt, Sophia to the south of France. And we, well, we're neither English nor Continental, so... it's off to New York we go! The horrid school uniform has been flung into the suitcase to be worn at Cici's school, and Avery is chic and casual in her holiday clothes. You got your flared jeans, your distressed t-shirt, your little knitted shrug. She's ready for Virgin.

And many, many books have been crammed in amongst the presents we're taking back for everyone (would you believe 10 rolls of Polo mints for the ponies on Tuesday? plus British Skittles for Avery's dear former babysitter Amy, because did you know they don't contain animal gelatine and are therefore vegetarian-friendly? neither did I). And biscuits and lemon curd and everything British for our friends across the pond.

So next report: the snowy wilds of Red Gate Farm. And the exciting thing? Between now and next weekend, we'll get to see so many of you!

07 February, 2007

Notes on a Scandal (and a cautionary tale about mussels)

It's so unusual for me to find a movie that is meant for adults (not that there's anything wrong with seeing a good children's movie, but still), not a comedy, and not so scary or evil that it gives me bad dreams. I just don't do scary and evil. I remember last year, to celebrate my birthday I went to see "The Constant Gardener," because of my devotion to Ralph Fiennes, but I didn't do my homework. Silly me, I thought the film might be about... gardening, not that I garden, but at least it would be palatable, and I could stare at Ralph. But my goodness, I was scared for weeks afterward.

So yesterday it was such fun to meet up with my gorgeous friend Dalia (always a bit demoralising to be with a friend who makes everyone's head turn, but it's worth it for her biting wit) and see "Notes on a Scandal." Of course everyone is talking about it. I had not read the book by Zoe Heller, but from the reviews of the book, the screenplay (by the brilliant Patrick Marber) is spot on, some of it taken verbatim from the novel. I don't think I have ever seen Cate Blanchett in a film before, but the range she displays in this movie is awe-inspiring: her voice seems to reach across several octaves, her face can go from flowerlike innocence to pure hatred in the blink of an eye, and she perfectly captures the idiocy, waywardness and panic of this character. And a virtual cameo from one of my favorite British actresses, Anne-Marie Duff, right at the end. I adored her, alongside one of Matthew Macfadyen's most wonderful performances, in "The Way We Live Now." I wonder if she took such a tiny part just to be associated with this film. The husband, played by Bill Nighy (who seems able to do anything, from ageing rock star to corrupt politican to this adorable victim), reminded me of my own husband, so good, and with such an evil wife, poor thing.

It did make me laugh that in one of the book reviews, the adulterous wife was described as "an older woman." Eeek, at 37? This makes my 42nd, tomorrow, seem all the more like the first, or even third, nail in my coffin.

So do go see it. Now, I think I can look forward to several more films that won't give me nightmares but will be food for thought: "Becoming Jane" and "Venus" at least. I wonder how long we could go, seeing only British films, or at least about British people (even if it took Americans to make the film). I'm thinking our time in America next week will be too taken up with real people to see any onscreen; we've added one more longed-for encounter to our list. My dear "other mother" Jeanne and her daughter Binky will be coming into the city from New Jersey to have dinner with us. We need a quiet spot for real conversation, so I've got to get cracking to find the perfect spot, preferably in Tribeca, hmmm...

Now, to close today, although this anecdote will only underscore my iniquities as a home cook, I have to tell how it is possible to screw up my much-enjoyed simple mussel recipe. This screwup is the result of too much preparation and not enough spontaneity, so I will confess and share all. I'm going to give you the recipe here again, and then tell you what went wrong, so it doesn't happen to you, not that you'd be so inept. But I learned something, so that's always useful, and I think sometimes you don't learn without messing up, because you proceed in the blissful ignorance that nothing could go wrong. But it can.

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)
3 tbsps chopped parsley
6 Thai fresh green peppercorns, chopped
2 cups white wine
1 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.


OK. The beauty of this recipe was that I walked into the house one evening and remembered I had a pound of mussels given to me by my fishmonger because I had bought so bleeping many oysters for Christmas stew. What to do with them? With unwonted spontaneity (I am the least spontaneous person on the planet), I simply looked in fridge and in my pantry, got an indication online of how long to cook mussels, and in ten minutes flat, had this lovely dish on the table. Fair enough.

The second time I made them, I added chili flakes because I had no Thai peppercorns. All to the good, a little bite, very delicious.


Last night I had it all planned out: Avery and I would have lemon sole, and John would have the mussels, and I would share the broth, dipping in a nice baguette. But I was felled by my PLANS. Because it meant that I steamed the mussels, and then as I did everything else, I let the broth simply simmer, thinking what could it hurt? I lit the candles, made the fish, set the table, poured the milk, all the while letting the fresh flavors of my thyme and parsley die a slow, sad death in the liquid on the stove. The broth would have been completely bland and ugly, but for the SECOND screwup, which was far too many chili flakes. Yes, they were red and pretty, but we almost couldn't ingest the broth, and it killed all flavor of garlic, wine or anything else. Forget tasting the mussels: they totally disappeared. It was like casting me alongside Cate Blanchett and hoping that any male in the audience would listen to anything I said.

So there you go. The morale of the story: remember what personality each dish has, before you start. Not everything is brisket, nor is everything mussels. I have to learn to listen to what every dinner requires, and not paint them all with the same brush. Stick with jumping in at the last ten minutes, for a dish that relies on quick invention, and remember that brisket is better the second day. I'm sure there's an enormous life lesson in this, and if I figure out what it is, I'll let you know.

05 February, 2007

oops on brisket recipe

Clearly I need an editor. I skipped a crucial ingredient (tomatoes) and a crucial step (slicing), which I've now added to my recipe for you here. Sorry!

things American

It's getting closer! Our visit home. We've confirmed some more exciting plans: lunch in upstate New York with John's former assistant (and our permanent friend) Olimpia and her husband Tony. They have just built on an amazing new kitchen to their country place up in the mountains, from which Olimpia promises will issue... her famous meatballs. I cannot wait. And lunch with Alyssa at a new place in Tribeca, the Devin Tavern. Rustic American? That's what we're coming home for.

And we're staying in town at a little cozy-sounding place, The Union Square Inn. It gets hugely disparate reviews, and I hope it's decent, since it was my idea and John always likes better the sound of a place high in the sky, not low to the ground in the East Village. Anyway we'll be there only to sleep, so what's the problem. I don't think I have ever stayed in a New York hotel in the whole of my life. That's what happens when you live in a place; you don't see the hotels. Unless, that is, you live the kind of life where you do things in hotels in the town where you live, and alas... no. Sigh.

And in our uber-organised mode lately, John had the bright idea for me to renew my passport before we try to attach all sorts of legal immigration things to it, so we skidded over the two steps it takes to get to the American Embassy from our flat. Boy is that a weird place. Granted it's mind-bendingly ugly. I accept that. But I don't think I've ever been that close to a gun before, and they're all toting them, just like in American gangster films. Only not revolvers, but big long things with lots of handles. The demeanor of the chaps in the security hut is surprisingly jocular, considering their brief, but I guess you get used to anything. I had a little dropper bottle of what John calls "happy juice," a floral relaxation remedy (I know, I sound like a crackpot) in my bag, and let me tell you, the intense security and heightened state of alert in Grosvenor Square was alive to the possibilities of this potential breach of safety. The little bottle was scrutinized under the x-ray and then I was made to reach perilously into the bag myself (they weren't taking any risks with their own security, absolutely not), and hand it over, whereupon I was about to be given a claim ticket for it and watch it get installed ceremoniously in a locker. "Don't be silly, it's almost empty, you can pitch it," I said generously, and went in the building.

Afterwards I had a good spy-ish, plot-like thought (this is what comes of taking too many writing courses). What if, upon their finding my little bottle, I had made a fuss? Told them I had to take two droppers-ful every half hour or else drop dead? Or what if, even more sinister, I had given them back the bottle and then said that, on second thoughts, I didn't need to renew my passport that day, and had left? Would that have been terribly suspicious? John of course suggested that I should have said, "Oh keep it, I can always get more. It's just Polonium 210." I wonder if they would sic dogs on me? Life in London can be a little strange these days, especially in my neighborhood.

Anyway, the sweet embassy man behind Window #1 assured me that I should keep this passport as I could get only a year-long one on an emergency basis, fewer than 10 days before traveling, so I can look forward to visiting the embassy again when we return, and in the meantime I can run through some potential dialogue scenarios, smuggling this, smuggling that. I'm accepting scripts, if you'd like to apply.