12 April, 2007

we're back

Can I just say? Seriously. Someone HIGH UP in charge of the betterment of my soul via fear-conquering was having a serious laugh yesterday. It's not enough I conquer big planes, nice weather. Then you got your big planes, bad weather. Ratchet up to tiny plane, nice weather. Yesterday we had the whole nine yards. Well, actually I take that back, the pilot did not have an actual heart attack necessitating my activation of the parachute mechanism. But we were nearly grounded by a freak snowstorm. Please! Don't wanna do that. But I did, kicking and screaming, get on the plane. And we were fine. But note to self: arrange NOT in the future to be the only people dumb enough to get up to 11,000 feet in a snowstorm so that we were the only people in the sky reporting on the weather conditions. Either that or arrange not to be listening to all of it on the radar headphones.

Ah, well, this too shall pass, and it did. We got ourselves happily on the Great Big Plane to come from Chicago to London, uneventfully. But seriously. Crazy scary.

We're back from our week in Iowa, where John's dad's not well and so we were all hands on deck, or whatever the expression is, when we all step up and play the parts allotted to us in family situations. Let's see, in our family that meant that John's mom completely threw herself into enjoying what the kids were doing: Avery, John's sister's girls, the grandkids of John's parents' best friends. Did they want to go swimming at the hotel? Fine, she was there with her camera, and willing to shampoo any number of girls' hair afterward. Did they want to dye eggs for Easter? Sure, how many dozen? Endless permutations of markers came forth from her craft boxes, trips to the Hobby Lobby for yet more notebooks, ribbons, stickers for projects. And John? He wrote letters, fixed computers, filled the cars up with gas, organized paperwork. John's sister devoted herself to endless research projects and of course on top of everything else she had on her plate, generously decided she wanted Avery to spend the night at the hotel with them, complete with a breakfast swim. Her husband, easily the most organized person I have ever met, completed a spreadsheet of more phone numbers and email addresses than I have ever seen. If the number isn't there, we don't need it.

And me? I cooked. Not that appetite is always first and foremost on everyone's list of concerns, but it generally heads up my list, and so I cooked. A roast chicken so we could have sandwiches and soup. And three variations on my celeriac soup: garlic-less for a more delicate constitution, vegetarian for John's sister, and one using very flavorful homemade chicken stock for... me, who happened to have some on hand. I would say that all these versions are worthwhile, but keep in mind that no garlic means very simple, vegetable stock can mean very carroty (still good, but not as delicate and very orange), and homemade stock means the celeriac gets lost. Not a bad soup, but not what I would say highlights the celeriac flavor. All these permutations are useful to know about, I think. But the best version is with plain old, watery, rather tasteless canned chicken broth, so use it and be glad there's a purpose in life for a thing in a can.

Oh, and quite a spectacular cooking failure. Word to the wise: if you burn the cheese sauce for macaroni and cheese, the finished dish will taste as if you are enjoying it through a Marlboro filter. Just pitch it and start over. Do not believe the various well-meaning relatives who pass through the kitchen, take a bite, and say, "It just tastes like you used smoked cheddar." It doesn't. It's awful and belongs in the garbage. I hate to screw up! But I took it as a learning point. You have to learn other people's stoves, and since John's mom's stove never turns on her, and has never before turned on me, I must assume I was really not paying attention.

And while I was not ruining the evening's meal, I was busy crashing John's mother's car into the post that separates the two parking spots in their garage. Well, "crashing" is exaggerating. More like rubbing up against and then just continuing to do so until all the paint on the post was transferred to the side of the car. As I did this, John's sister's family pulled up in their car and everyone just stood, open-mouthed. Now I know where the expression, "It was like watching a train wreck" comes from. No one could look away. Finally my brother-in-law said, "I don't think we're helping by just standing here," and thankfully hustled everyone away. John said, "That's just what we needed, one more thing," but then he took pity on me and said something like, "It's just a garage." The things we have to rise above, when I am around.

But in the end, we also spent a lot of time chatting, me getting to know my nieces who are dear, intelligent girls (I think Sarah is a great chef in the making, so I hope I didn't interrupt her progress with my mistakes, and Ellen is a terrific athlete and a real ball of energy), hanging out at our friend Stephanie's barn and watching the kids groom the horses, going to the bookstore with Stephanie's wonderful mom's gift certificates for the children, all of us drinking Bloody Marys and "helping" John and his mother scramble three dozen eggs for Easter brunch, hiding plastic eggs full of all the candy Target could offer, on Stephanie and David's enormous tree-filled lot. But it was freezing! Literally, below freezing. What was Iowa thinking? But it meant we had lovely evenings by the gas fire (the fireplace of which John and I, famously, checked as LUGGAGE lo these 15 years ago, when we moved back from London the first time), sipping single malt scotch, reminiscing about our many, many vacations together, the hundreds of times John and his dad have stolen the check from each other at dinner ("Hey, Dad, there's a reason I have the same name as you: you never know which credit card slip you're signing"), the hundreds of books John's mom and I have recommended to each other, the hundreds of treats they have both arranged for Avery, for all their grandchildren.

One evening I was up after everyone else went to bed (OK, that happens every evening I spend in Iowa), and I wandered around through the house, seeing the Battersea box with caviar on the top that I gave them when we were living in Moscow, the Russian icon I smuggled in through Moscow customs, the mercury glass flower vases John found in Portobello Market, the bronze architectural replicas John's mom collects and to which we've contributed the New York landmarks we could see from our first SoHo apartment, the enlarged photo of little John as Eeyore that I gave John's mom when I unearthed it years ago in her limitless photo collection. And the lithograph by Mauricio Lasansky, hanging by their front door, the only object that would comfort month-old Baby Avery when she came to visit for her first Christmas. "Look," John's dad would say, dangling her from his outstretched arm, "She loves this thing. Who says babies don't understand art?" It wasn't a week later that we found ourselves in the storeroom at the University of Iowa, letting the tiny baby choose a lithograph for herself, which has hung over her bed all her life.

Family is excellent. It's funny to me to see us all take our places, the same places we always take, in good times and bad. It gives me a nice sense of continuity. And now that we're back home in London, I know the old places are still there like squares on a chessboard, and everyone knows the rules of where to go. We just have to get all the pieces on the same board at the same time. What a rare treat it was.

But truth be told: Iowa also contains some very odd things. I will never forget being a new girlfriend and turning up in Waterloo to find, of all things, a "Grout Museum." I said in wonder, "Are there enough kinds of grout to justify a museum? Or was grout invented here, or something?" Silence prevailed. Finally someone said, "Kristen, the Grout family endowed the money for the museum. It's filled with priceless historical documents about science." Oh.

And get this: hot LEGS. No, not hot wings, which we've all had and enjoyed (or not) in our times in places like TGI Fridays, or Dennys, or whatever horror the town you're visiting contains. I myself adore hot wings, anywhere, of any description. But hot LEGS? This is what dieticians worry about when they analyze the diet of the Midwest of my homeland. If you can get it bigger, you'll get it bigger. So hey: it turns out the little roundy bit on a chicken wing? You can supersize that and you get a drumstick! I hate to say it made me laugh. Probably the next time I'm there I'll have some.

Well, in any case, the holiday is over and real life beckons. As in the much-vaunted, looked-forward-to, nay hyped opening of the new Primark department store at the corner of Park Street and Oxford Street. Open your mouth wide. Take a deep breath. Now... YAWN. Yep, a big yawn. Hordes of people, everyone fighting over the next sequined or ruched thing made of some not-cotton fabric. But Avery and I were the only people who did not exit with a bag filled with merchandise. We escaped in mortal fear.

Tomorrow John comes back from Iowa, and we head immediately to Birmingham for the British Show Jumping Championships! VIP tickets, for my birthday present, so we must pack tuxedo, formal black dress for me (darn, no one reminded me to diet this month), Avery will be a vision in Morgane Le Fay.

And before I go, I have to tell you the most successful menu of my week. It involves, strangely, one dish being dependent on another. At first I thought this was cheating, that my risotto would never taste the same for you as it did for me, because you wouldn't have the fresh roast turkey drippings I had. But then John's mom and I realized, they can if I tell them to! So here is the perfect comfort menu for people who don't want anything challenging, or expensive, or with hard to find ingredients. And it's DELICIOUS. Keep in mind the ingredient list is for the whole DINNER. Take it with you to the supermarket.

Roast Turkey with Mushroom Risotto and Broccolini
(serves five people awfully happy to eat dinner together in Iowa)

1 large turkey breast, on the bone (not split, crucially)
6 tbsps butter
4 tbsps olive oil
1/2 tsp each: dried basil, oregano, paprika, garlic salt
2 cloves garlic, minced
4 tbsps minced onion
1 1/2 cup arborio, or risotto rice
two handfuls baby portabella or button mushrooms, chopped roughly
1/2 cup white wine
at least 4 cups chicken broth (canned!)
1 cup fresh grated pecorino or parmesan cheese
1/2 tbsps fresh thyme leaves (not the stems)
3 bunches broccolini, trimmed and rinsed
fresh ground pepper, and salt to taste

So here's what you do. Two and a half hours before you want to eat, preheat your oven to 325 degrees. Spray an oven-safe dish large enough for the turkey breast with nonstick spray. Lay the turkey breast in the dish, sprinkle with herbs and place 3 tbsps of the butter, in pats, along the top of the breast. Roast for two hours.

Meanwhile, mince your garlic and onion and tear off your thyme leaves. Grate your cheese. Trim your broccolini and lay it in a skillet covered with 2 tbsps of the olive oil, and some salt.

Half an hour before you want to eat, place the remaining butter and olive oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Melt and saute the onion and garlic, then toss in the rice and stir till completely coated. Add the mushrooms. Add the white wine and stir over low-medium heat till absorbed. Now, add the chicken stock a bit at a time, maybe half a cup at a time, and stir continuously as you do so, adjusting the heat so the liquid is absorbing steadily but the mixture never spits at you. If you have a willing and gracious mother-in-law, she could do this while you do the other bits and pieces.

Ten minutes before you want to eat, put the heat on under the broccolini and stir with tongs, lifting up the stalks so they get sauted gently on both sides. Meanwhile, get the risotto to the consistency you want (I like wet but not runny), and remove from heat.

HERE'S THE MAGICAL PART. Take the turkey breast out of the oven and drain all the cooking liquids from the dish into the risotto. It will be a mixture of turkey juices, butter and herbs. Simply perfect, and you can't get that depth of flavor any other way. Stir gently, add the cheese and the thyme leaves and taste for salt and pepper.

Carve your turkey breast and you're in business. Enjoy.

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