31 October, 2007

Irish adventures come to an end

We ventured a tiny ways afield, to Jerpoint Abbey near Thomastown, and it is worth a visit. Massive Gothic church and the ruins of a refectory, shining in the sunlight. So odd to have huge lorries rumbling by and shouting workmen commiserating over their lunches nearby, with the incredible stillness of the stone ruins all around us. Every once in awhile we came upon a small carved detail that brought to mind the real people who slaved over the construction, and the real monks who walked around the lawns with their hands tucked in their sleeves, thinking unworldly thoughts. And there was a kitten! Avery and I completely lost our heads, trotting after it with outstretched hands until it slithered under an off-limits doorway and was gone. An abbey kitten. We came away with Monuments in the Past: Photographs 1860-1936, and pored over the images of Victorian ladies picking their dainty way over castle ruins, holding up their skirts, as we had a lovely lunch in the Watergarden Cafe in Thomastown, a little tearoom dedicated to helping mentally and physically handicapped people in the nearby towns. Drop in when you've visited the abbey and have their salmon dip, or the tomato and six bean hummous. Delicious and inexpensive.

Avery paid for her front-seat privileges by having to open and close the gates for us every time we left the Castle! And look at this amazing gravestone we discovered in a nearby cemetery: why do you suppose someone from OUR castle was buried across the road and quite a distance away from his own grounds? I had an idea that the Irish Landmark Trust made a mistake, and that the real Clomantagh Castle was the structure under scaffolding that loomed over the cemetery, not the one we were staying in. Could that be true? Or is the Clomanto buried in the other cemetery a rogue cousin? A mystery to solve.

Finally it was our last day, one more cosy warm dinner around the Stanley stove, a few more games of Solitaire (a very clever way to help your Form VI daughter practice her maths without realising it) and we packed up. How do the books we bring with us seem to multiply as we travel? And mounds of filthy clothes, spattered about the ankles with mud, sleeves covered in horsey spit from our strolls in the countryside and grass from where Avery rolled around at the abbey, and mine with cooking spills from a kitchen with no apron. And we were off to catch the ferry back home, leaving the Castle behind in the pre-dawn mist. Thanks, Ireland, for a fabulous adventure.

Have you ever lain awake wondering what to do with your leftover cream of mushroom soup? I didn't think so, but as it happens, I have, and here is my best effort. It all started with the mushroom soup I had in Thomastown, which was delicious but made me want to make my own, with a dash of white wine, so I did. Only... no hand blender, which is just about the only kitchen tool I own that breaks the Laurie Colwin rule, "one must not have any implement in the kitchen that can do only one thing." I thought I could not live without my hand blender, but it turns out that with a little assiduous chopping, I could. The soup was lovely, but the chicken dish that followed was truly sublime, and won the John and Avery "Best Dinner of the Holiday" award, and you know how tough the competition can be for THAT.

Cream of Mushroom Soup
(serves two, plus leftovers)

1 pound button mushrooms (or baby portabello), finely chopped
2 tbsps butter
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 small white onion, minced
1/2 cup white wine
1 1/2 cups beef stock (from a cube worked fine)
1/2 cup cream
pinch dried thyme leaves
salt and pepper to taste

Melt butter in a heavy stockpot and add mushrooms, garlic and onion, saute till all are soft. Pour over wine and stock and simmer until mushrooms are very soft, then add cream and seasonings and simmer until reduced to a nice soup texture. Serve with toast soldiers.


Creamy Mushroom Chicken Breasts
(serves four)

4 chicken breast fillets, well-trimmed
2 tbsps butter
2 cloves garlic, sliced thin
6 large mushrooms, sliced thick
leftover mushroom soup
1/2 cup cream

Saute the garlic and mushrooms in the butter in a heavy skillet until slightly caramelised and push to the sides of the skillet. Lay chicken breasts in skillet and cook on each side until slightly browned, then pour leftover mushroom soup over, and cover the skillet. Cook over low heat, turning occasionally and basting with the soup. When chicken is cooked, removed breasts to a warm platter, turn up the heat (or on a Stanley, lift the burner lid and use the hot burner!) and add cream. Stir sauce until it's reduced to the consistency you want, put the chicken back in to warm, and serve with mashed potatoes and sauteed mixed red peppers, asparagus and sugar snap peas. Lovely!

29 October, 2007

lazy Castle days

Isn't it wonderful to sit around? You can repair to a chintz-covered sofa before a roaring fire, or stretch out on your medieval-canopied bed (Avery tried really hard all week not to think about the Laura Ashley tag on the bedspread), or go out to the front lawn and sit on a deck chair till it gets too chilly, or lie in the window seat. And you can have a fashion shoot with your child who's wearing her favorite outfit from Zara, and fantasise about her being the company-wide model. And you can pick apples in the abandoned orchard in back of the Castle and then make a nice crumble (they were ugly, pockmarked apples but under the skin, the MOST delicious and crispy perfection).

We all read like crazy. Want some suggestions for cosy Irish books? How about a good old-fashioned romantic suspense story set in modern-day restored abbey, with mysterious nightly goings-on, an American governess and Irish film star father? Abbeygate, by Cecily Crowe, is just the ticket. Or how about a brother who claims to be his own cousin and steals his identity to get an inheritance in Dublin? Then you want Murder Machree by Eleanor Boylan. Fancy a rest from Irish, but want English? John found the perfect book for me in the castle's well-stocked musty bookshelves, and I've ordered my own copy. Down the Kitchen Sink is a memoir by Beverley Nichols (a man! I felt so ignorant when I found out), an English novelist beginning as a Bright Young Thing journalist in 1920s London, and this is his account of his 40-year relationship with his devoted gentleman's gentleman, Gaskin. Think Jeeves without the silliness, and Lord Peter Wimsey's Bunter without the corpse in the buttery. It's just a wonderful story of bygone days and people who really knew what was what in the social arena. And some excellent name-dropping.

Well, let's see, I was inspired by my Irish cookbook and a trip to the distressingly modern and urban (but useful) supermarket in Kilkenny to produce a lovely salmon dish (although I was desperate for garlic and celery, so I added them). You should try it too. And it's a real testament to the versatility of the various areas of the Stanley stove! But you could cook it just as easily on your own stove at home, or even bake it. The important thing is to gently sweat and even crispy a little bit the celery before you cook the fish itself.

Salmon with Celery and White Wine
(serves four)

1 salmon fillet per person, skinless and boneless
2 tbsps butter
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
2 stalks celery, cut in half and then finely shredded lengthwise
1 cup white wine
1/2 cup cream
1/2 tsp dried thyme leaves
salt and pepper to taste

Melt the butter in a heavy skillet (the Castle came with four cast-iron beauties in graduated sizes! I was sorely tempted to nick them) and add the garlic and celery. Now, I put the skillet on the least-hot bit of the top of the stove and covered it with an upside-down dinner plate. Then I left it there for perhaps 20 minutes and it gently, gently cooked the celery through and got it slightly crispy.

Place the salmon on top of the celery and garlic and pour over the white wine and cream, then sprinkle with the seasonings. Cook covered VERY low until the salmon is just not bright pink in the middle, but lightly pink. Baste now and then with the wine and cream. It should take no more than 15 minutes to cook. Do NOT overcook! It should be meltingly tender and creamy, and a bite of salmon with a bit of celery is divine.

Serve with mashed potatoes and red pepper strips that have been sizzling low in butter (sorry, yes, more butter! Irish recipes do not include olive oil).


Avery and I are off to John Lewis to find black material for a Hogwarts robe for Wednesday's muted extravaganza. The English (save the children) are not keen on Halloween, feeling it a typically American import: greedy, intrusive and full of sugar. But needs must.

County Kilkenny, or Living the Dream

It's hard to believe, in the cold light of a London Monday, that we were ever in the delights of the Irish countryside with nothing more to worry us than how many apples to pick from the orchard behind the castle! This morning finds me discovering that we forgot to go to a concert for which I had really good tickets last night (good hard thwack on forehead), coming to terms with the fact that my passport expires in six months and therefore I need to go queue up at the wretched American Embassy and get it renewed. What's more, the school applications that were on my desk when we left are, for some curious reason, still there, blank as ever. And some dreaded long division has appeared in Avery's homework, so we all have little worries.

However. The fact remains that a week ago today, we woke up in Dublin, checked out of our lovely hotel, and hit the roads to Co. Kilkenny in a blinding rainstorm. The rain followed us through the countryside, passing road signs of dreamy romance: Co. Cork, Limerick! Avery and I amused ourselves by trying to translate the Gaelic into English, watching as the greener-than-green scenery flashed by. We had lunch in a darling little town called Abbeyleix in Co. Laois, just off the motorway, at Cafe Odhran, a tiny little establishment that winked out of the rain. Avery ran to do reconnaissance on the place and returned to say breathlessly, "There's a soup of the day, which must mean it's a nice place!" Lovely panini of pancetta and a local Irish Brie called Ballacolla, very flavourful and sharp and worth an order from here, and then Avery was desperate for a pudding but too shy to ask for it, probably because of her scratchy throat, but we persevered and finally she got her apple crumble. Then we were back in the car which was, by the way, completely packed to the gills so that Avery was squashed under books, pillows, rainboots, etc.

An uneventful drive until we reached Kilkenny at which point the directions from Landmark Trust were, let's see, laconic at best. I have a pet peeve about directions that say "follow the Thurles road," as opposed to "make a left on Route 639." How do I know which road is the Thurles road? So back and forth in the mist along one 5-kilometre stretch of road looking for "church ruins on your right," grrr! Finally we repaired to a tacky furniture store to ask real directions, and the sweet proprietor had useful bits of advice like actual mile distances and road signs. We passed through darling little Freshford, the nearest village, and I was thrilled to spy a series of tiny shops and, most wonderfully, a butcher! I made a mental note to return for provisions. And we were finally off in the right direction, and there were church ruins, as it turned out OUR church ruins! And immediately after that, Clomantagh Castle looked huge and dark in the distance.

We were greeted by the ultimate in Irish hospitality, the housekeeper Mrs Butler, who threw open the Dutch door and let out a waft of warm peaty air, the dulcet tones of Irish radio floating with it. "Sure and you've made better time than I thought you would, and this bein' a nasty rainy day for it," she said, and gave us a tour of the castle, up and down winding ancient stone steps, around mysterious corners, flinging open this and that bedroom door. "Now this is the blue room, and it's said the ghost, a lovely kind one to be sure, is to be found here most frequently," so immediately Avery claimed that room (although her enthusiasm waned a bit at actual bedtime). John and I chose the only bedroom in the castle proper, the others being in an ancient farmhouse addition attached to the castle itself. The kitchen was huge and intensely warm, with a massive Aga-like Irish Stanley stove on one wall and a cosy deep cushioned windowseat next to it. "I know that's where I will be reading," Avery gloated.

We let our bubbly hostess go home, settled in a bit and then headed to Freshford to get food, since nothing makes me more nervous than an empty fridge and empty cupboards. We repaired to "M Bergin, Victualler," and found ourselves served by a lovely, shyly friendly young butcher. I was in my usual position when speaking a foreign language (and Irish English is definitely a challenge, however much the illusion that's it's English): I ask a question that's perfectly understood by my listener, and then... I can't understand a word of the answer! Case in point. "That looks like lovely pork. Where do you get it?" And a stream of lilting mystery came back at me! So I smiled encouragingly and asked for a pound of stew beef, chose a nice green cabbage, some mushrooms, celery, onions, pears and apples from the boxes off to the side of the butcher counter, and departed in a soft flurry of indistinguishable communication.

Thence in turn to each of the little grocery stores around the village square, overhung with yellowing trees and bright green grass. One shop was tended by a sweet elderly couple, she with a perfect Lady Bird Johnson beehive lacquered hairdo, and he pleasantly deaf and smiling. There we acquired butter, milk, salt and pepper, herbs, apple juice. Onto another shop where we found bread, spaghetti and tinned tomatoes, and then I felt safely provisioned and could go back to the castle to settle in.

Avery was in heaven to discover that in the sprawling lawn outside the house, actually between the castle and the church ruins, was a pair of horse jumps! "Someone must have ridden cross-country here!" she exclaimed, and was perfectly happy to go racing across the wet grass in her school shoes, promptly soaking herself to the skin, the perfect position for a person recovering from a bad cold to be in. Into the house to sit by the stove and dry out. And I had my first experience cooking on a stove that's perennially ON. Over the next several days I had the MOST fun developing a relationship with the various strategic heat sources. For those of you who have cooked on an Aga or a stove like it, this will be old hat. But for me, it was like putting together the pieces of a puzzle to figure out how hot it would be under the heavy iron lid if I just opened it for a minute, or if I left it open for 10 minutes, and then there's the little rectangular space to the side of the burners that holds a bit of heat slightly above warm, but not hot enough to get above a little sizzle. Such fun.

I determined to cook nothing all week that Irish people wouldn't traditionally eat, and thankfully I had bought at the Georgian Museum in Dublin a tiny booklet of traditional Irish recipes. But the ovens? Forget it. I could never get them cool enough to put anything in without burning it, even with a lid. So the beef stew we had the first night was a bit less liquidy than yours will be, in a regular oven whose temperature you can control better.

Irish Beef Stew
(serves 4)

3 tbsps butter
1 pound beef cubed for stew
1 white onion, sliced thin
2 handsful small button mushrooms, cut in half
1/2 cup beef stock from bouillon cubes
good splash Irish whiskey
good pinch dried thyme leaves
good pinch "mixed herbs"
salt and pepper

Melt the butter in a good heavy casserole (the castle yielded a le Creuset) and over fairly high heat saute the beef and onions until the onions are soft, then add the mushrooms and stire well. Cover with stock and whiskey, add herbs and seasoning and cover. Place in not-too-hot oven for about 20 minutes. Serve with:

(serves 4)

3 tbsps butter
1/2 white cabbage, shredded
3 green onions, sliced
4 boiled potatoes
1 cup-ish cream
salt and pepper

Melt butter in a heavy skillet and saute cabbage and green onions, then set aside. Mash the potatoes with the cream and mix into the cabbage. Season well.


These two dishes were LOVELY together, and we invented a nice leftover dish from them as well, which was a perfect little lunch for John next day.

Sally the Ghost's Castle Pie
(serves one)

leftover beef stew
leftover colcannon
bit of butter

Put the leftover beef stew in an ovenproof dish and top with leftover colcannon. Dot with a little butter. Bake until warmed through.


Sally the Ghost, you ask? Yes, indeed, she appeared first time as I was cooking dinner and setting the table. I reached into the silver drawer for three forks and was JUST thinking, "I need a small one for Avery," when I looked down to see that all there was in the drawer were... two large forks and one small. No doubt the work of the ghost whose presence we read of in the Irish Landmark Trust logbooks, one of our favorite bits about staying in an LT house. Everyone who stays leaves stories of their adventures, and Sally popped up in many accounts. Later, Avery left her a note of thanks and an invitation to help herself to an apple should she feel peckish, and in the morning there was an apple with several bites from it, atop the note. Proof positive if ever we were in doubt.

Well, sadly the Embassy beckons, so I must go do my paperwork. Avery is happily ensconced making a black felt witch from a kit her loving Nonna sent her in the post, and I have no excuses to postpone my duties. More on life in the castle soon...

28 October, 2007

fair Dublin

Dublin, Dublin, where to start? Well, I know I run the risk of alienating the many people who will read this and doubtless adore the town, but I've got to say it: it wasn't our sort of place. Actually, that's being unfair. What didn't hit the spot for us was that it was perilously like... London. And you must keep in mind my intense adoration for my adopted home, but honestly, when you go on holiday, or when we go on holiday, we want to end up somewhere quite different from our home. Dublin is a crowded, enormously exciting, diverse conglomeration of massively beautiful architecture, shopping, people watching, city squares and leafy public greens. Gorgeous, yes, energising, yes, but different from London? Not so very much.

We adults immediately said that if we did not live in London, Dublin would have presented much a different face. It would have felt exotic, foreign, fascinating, offering up endless unusual pleasures. But as we do live in London, what stood out for us was the beauty of the Irish accent, the friendliness of every person we encountered from the hotel staff to the sweeper ladies in St Stephen's Green. And those were to be had in the countryside as well, no doubt.

The positives? St Stephen's Green itself, where our hotel, the Fitzwilliam, is located. A positive oasis of green, falling autumn leaves, young couples in love, older couples in a more jaded moment of life trying to rein in small obstreperous Irish children, old men lecturing younger men on park benches as to the merits of Guinness. And in fact, the whole Green was private until 1877, accessible only to the rich owners of houses the formed the square. But then the founder of the Guinness family and fortunes bought it out, fixed it up, and opened it to the public. What's not to love about the Guinness family, it would seem?

As well, we all three of us fell heavily in love with Trinity College, Dublin. John came home from an early morning walk extolling its virtues, and since we two are now too elderly and dried up to make fabulous plans for our own futures, we promptly informed Avery that her goal should be a place in its green and glorious gates. Actually they are wrought iron and very, very old. But more on Trinity later.

Let's see, what else on the positive side? Well, let me take you on our journey, start to finish, and you can choose the happy bits you want to do when you get there. And believe me, if you're coming, as we would have 15 years ago, straight from New York, or Iowa, or Indiana, there is much to marvel at in Dublin. But if you're already an inhabitant of a visitor-laden, hugely crowded and incredibly expensive cosmopolitan British-ish urban sprawl, you might not need to book a long stay. That's just our experience. And I know, I know, Ireland is not British! But you know what I mean: English-speaking, with Marks and Spencer, Hello! Magazine, tuna and sweetcorn on sandwiches, Waterstone's bookstore. That's what I mean. It was too familiar.

But let's begin at the beginning. Which was inauspicious to say the least. The Irish Ferry? Forget it. Slow, petrolly, evilly decorated and filled with mewling, screaming children waving bags of crisps and hitting their numberless siblings over the heads with bottles of sugar-laden drinks. I know I sound the worst possible snob, but I owe it to my readers. Seriously, hightail it to Luton or wherever and hop on Ryanair (no agent of the upper classes by any means, so I'm not a mindless snob) and land in Dublin, you'll be much happier. Our whingey experience was underlined by the presence of our ill child, silenced by laryngitis, but no fever and no strep, so we dragged her with us. I never thought I'd see the day that I'd long for the sort of running commentaries she gives us on whatever she is reading, or listening to, or thinking, but her silence made me wish she'd recite from the phone book, or her maths homework, anything but total silence. I felt so guilty having brought her, which was brought home to me further when we arrived at the Fitzwilliam and it was clear that all her energy had been completely used up by the journey. Poor mistreated child. But the hotel is the last word in luxury and her little pullout bed was already, well, pulled out, so we piled her up with hot water bottles and her animals and Harry Potter and she took a long rest.

Not so for me: I hit the streets in successful pursuit of the Temple Bar Food Market on Meeting House Square. Take your time finding it; it's not easily done, at least for me with the sense of direction of an oyster. But speaking of: there are delicious oysters on the half shell to be had in the market! I kept the little green napkin that I got with my two Atlantic specimens (unbelievably plump and flavorful), but somewhere between Dublin and home it's got lost again. But never mind, you'll find it. And a luscious treat for Avery called a "millionaire square," from a bakery about whom I can find almost nothing, but if you see their label, buy anything they make, Noirin's Bakehouse. Impossibly rich, even the three of us combined could not finish it: shortbread, caramel, toffee, chocolate. It revived even my sick child! And farmhouse artisan cheese from Corleggy Cheese, whose address reads like poetry: Corleggy, Belturbet, County Cavan. I came away with a lovely smelly cow's milk cheese called Drumlin, very hard and delicious if you cut off a chunk and eat it like parmesan. I imagine it would be lovely grated, or melted, as well.

And David Llewellyn's apples! Worth every penny, and the juice even more so. David is one of a growing number of Irish apple farmers who are growing organic. It's the best apple juice I have ever tasted, and Avery was an instant convert. "Sorry to give you this enormous bill," I apologized to the lady behind the stall, proferring my 10 Euro note, "but this is the first thing I've bought in Ireland and it's all I've got to begin with." The plump apple-cheeked lady (sorry, couldn't resist) said, "Sure now and I'm glad to hear that one of our apples is the first Irish food to pass your lips." Honestly! This is how the people talk. I could listen ALL DAY. And my accent, don't even get me started. I couldn't help it! Would listening to such dulcet tones ever get old? It would take a very long time. It's all poetry, what they're saying, no matter the topic. See?

But here's another caveat, I have to be honest and say. It was a lovely, gorgeous market. But it felt just like the Marylebone Farmer's Market, sure and it's one of my favorite places on earth, but it's very... familiar. But again, if you came from a place without gorgeous farmer's markets, you would have discovered something very wonderful that would brighten your life. And it did mine, for all it was not news to me. But it was wonderful for every interaction to include that lovely lilt.

I found my way back to the hotel, a miraculous feat given my history, to find that Avery had bravely taken some medicine and was feeling better. We headed out to find a place for dinner. And here I take up a bit of a lament: eating out in Dublin just... didn't happen for us. The place recommended by the sweet guy behind the hotel desk was impossibly touristy not to mention overrun by very drunk people who either had been sick or were about to be, so we wandered for a bit and finally, fearing for Avery's stamina, just alighted on a completely forgettable restaurant (see, I've forgotten it already) just to feed her and get her back to the hotel. And she was silent, completely silent, all evening! Poor girl, but she insisted, in sign language, that she had wanted to come, that she was fine. Probably a case where the actual adults in charge of her life should have said, "no." In any case, no sign of the famed Dublin restaurant scene for us, sadly. And the following evening, can I tell you what I succumbed to? I'll tell you so I can get it out of the way. Room service! It's all she wanted, plus a nice warm bath. That and the horror that is "Strictly Come Dancing." I would almost rather stick hot needles in my eyeballs than watch that programme, but there you go, I am not making this up, that's what we did in Dublin. No wonder I'm not in love with the town.

But the following morning all was right with the world because we discovered Trinity College. What a place! We enlisted the services of a completely charming young man who introduced himself only as "James," and he led us on a tour of the public spaces. It's well worth taking a tour, I think, at least if you get such a boy (well, somewhere between a boy and a man) with a biting wit and darling Irish hair, a beat-up leather bomber jacket and lots of hilarious tales. "It's said that if a student is to stand on this stone under the bell when it's being rung, he will not pass his exams. Of course this story may well have been started by a student who was standing on this stone when it was being rung, and... did not pass his exams." I was completely spellbound: it was like listening to a modern-day Sebastian Flyte, without the alcoholism.

I said to Avery, sotto voce, "Isn't he adorable? You could bring a nice boy like that home from university and your father and I wouldn't object one BIT." And what did the lady herself say in return? In her groggy voice, but laced with undeniable disdain, "Until the current fashion for showing one's underwear at the waistband of one's trousers passes away, I shall remain a spinster." John and I had to admit there was merit to her viewpoint, but for one circumstance: in my day, lo these many decades ago, a girl ran the risk of getting entirely too fond of a boy who might, after a suitable courtship period, reveal a deal-breaking preference: boxers or briefs? Now, of course, Avery will be spared this unhappy circumstance, since his underwear will be just about the first thing revealed. But I digress.

The Book of Kells? A bit of a (dare I say it) yawn. I am frightened to utter such a sacrilege, but I must explain myself. Firstly, the modern mania for untold rooms of multi-media setup for absolutely anything an institution might want you to see puts me right off whatever it ultimately turns out to be. It's like how I feel about Leonardo now, after we were all bludgeoned nearly to a bloody pulp by "The DaVinci Code." It's not his fault that he's been turned into a media circus! And left on its own, as I understand the Book used to be, sitting in an unpretentious glass case in the magnificent Long Room of the Trinity College Library, I might well have sighed in delight. Just to come upon it, as it were, and gaze. But to queue for ages, be herded like sheep through cubicle after cubicle of immensely enlarged views of this or that folio, with little videos of a hand (presumably not THE hand) illuminating a letter with the accompaniment of a little scratching sound! No, my scholar's mind protests. And then to be pressed against many other examples of humanity trying to breathe on the glass, no! A thousand times no.

Goodness, could I get any more curmudgeonly? I must say, in my long-ago and misspent youth I nearly wrote a master's thesis on Gothic illuminated manuscripts, one French Book of Hours in particular, and I adore the genre. But the Book of Kells did not inspire. However, do not let me put you off. And DO go see the Long Room. Avery was in absolute awe of the soaring shelves of infinite splendour. "This is even more books than we have!" she breathed to the guide, who then confided that two of her children go to Trinity and are in heaven. Avery officially has a goal. The dormitory buildings lining the squares are gorgeous, although James the guide informed us loftily that they "need updating." I'm sure to his 22-year-old mind they do, but look at the ivy! Avery showed a rare bit of pre-adolescent annoyance at her embarrassing parents, when we took this picture of her. "Suppose some nice student comes out and sees me trespassing!"

Well, from there we were off to a wonderful bookstore called Hodges Figgis, in Dawson Street. Avery had hoped to find some Irish children's books unprocurable in London, but didn't have much luck. This didn't stop her finding lots of other things she couldn't live without, and we had fun. Then onto the Georgian Museum at Number Twenty-Nine Merrion Square, for John's sake, given his obsession with Georgian architecture. So impressive: the furniture and plasterwork and reproductions of precise wallpaper and fabrics. Most wonderful: the rug in the main parlor. And the darling nursery, with scrolls of bits of knowledge that the governess would impart. But my oh my, you would want to be wealthy. The poor little housemaids' circumstances would not be desirable.

Oh, and the Celtic Whiskey Shop! I don't know if I have ever had Irish whiskey before, being a devoted servant of Scotch Whiskey, but if you can imagine they were giving away samples, in broad daylight, so of course we had to have some. We tried several, but the best to our minds was Redbreast, and we brought some home. Smooth, complex, lovely.

Our Dublin stay ended with a pilgrimage, as you can see, to the house where Avery's beloved Oscar Wilde was born. And then we were on our way out of town, saying a wistful goodbye to Trinity College, and looking forward in our heart of hearts to the part of our Irish adventure more conducive to our holiday spirit: a stay in a medieval castle! And it did NOT disappoint...

27 October, 2007

a right Gaelic time

Goodness, where to start? We're back, after a week in Ireland and a day in Wales, with a suitcase full of FILTHY laundry (it's dirty living in a 13th century castle, plus ponies, rolling on abbey lawns, countless cooking adventures with salmon, potatoes, cabbage and other sundries without an apron, nettles, rainstorms, you name it), cats unbelievably grateful to see us (which I think speaks to Dory's warm treatment of them while we were gone: if they had been lonely they'd punish us). I just crawled out from under a duvet with two cats stretched out on my legs and if I hadn't heard the *&^% sound of the washer telling me a load was ready to come out, I'd have stayed there all night.

We had the time of our lives. It started a bit rocky dragging a puny, lurgy (great English word that; in my family we say "snorky" but it all means full of something nasty in the head and chest) Avery with us. But she rallied.

I shall have lots more tomorrow, but feast your eyes on these photographs. And feel fortunate that the Irish accent I immediately developed ("stop pronouncing all those extras ts, Mummy!" I heard quite soon) doesn't come through on a blog. We are all collapsing, this misty evening, but I'll be back in fine form on the morrow, sure and you've been missing me...

19 October, 2007

the magic of classical music, live!

Well, just in case you're not going to the football on Saturday (!) there's something you simply must do. Get in the train and go to Oxford, to the North Wall, and hear English Sinfonia play. We went last evening to a concert at the Grosvenor Chapel here in Mayfair, sponsored in a very lordly fashion by our landlords the Grosvenor family, and it was a glorious, unforgettable evening. We went last year during the Christmas season (at least Avery's grandmother and I did, the rest of the family basely abandoning us for I forget what much less culturally enlightening evening's entertainment), so at least I knew what we were in for. And silly John refused to go again! So I took Avery's great friend Jamie, herself a pretty mean violinist, and could not have had a more appreciative couple of guests.

We settled down in our front-pew seats, fresh (or rather just flustered) from getting Avery out of riding clothes and into something for the concert, and having Jamie dropped off by her mum right before the concert. The church atmosphere quietened us right down, as did the lit votive candles all along the stained glass windows to either side. Autumnal flowers filled the nave, and lots of posh looking people filled the pews: in particular a very large, well-upholstered lady very well-dressed, full powdered, hair all bee-hived and lacquered into place. And with her was a tiny little youngish man, not looking at all as if went with her, so I kept my eye on them during the concert.

A Grosvenor gentleman stood up and announced the concert, welcomed us all, and said that tonight, for the first time ever, a new composition would be performed live, and that the composer, one Adrian Munsey, was in the audience to hear it (he was seated directly behind us). The girls were transfixed. Then out came the performers, and Jamie was thrilled to see that she was close enough to read the music on the stands, "St Paul's Suite," by Gustav Holst. "I could play some of that," she said, hushed. Then the first violinist came out and they began. I'm afraid I always cry a bit at live classical music. What is it? It's the combination of several notions running together: the lives the music has lived, the endurance through centuries of notes and arrangements created by some long-dead person, the individual griefs and joys of the people who must have heard it performed first. And then I looked at the little girls with me and thought, "Will this inspire them to play? To listen? Who will be listening to what they composed, two centuries from now?" Then I happened to look to my right and there was the fancy, well-upholstered lady, with tears running down her powdered cheeks. And once in awhile the tiny man beside her handed her another handkerchief. How much we do not know about the people across the aisle.

Finally the man behind us stood up and came to the aisle, visibly nervous. "They asked if I would like to conduct this piece, but the players assured me that no one ever pays attention to the conductor, so I declined. This piece is called "Requiem," but it is really in the spirit of a simple "Rest in Peace." And he sat down. The music began, thankfully (for me) nothing discordant or modern, but a beautifully traceable melody, with horns and woodwinds joining the strings. From the corner of my eye I saw the very beautiful wife of the composer reach under his suit jacket and grasp his hand, and he hung on for dear life. And that made me cry too. An English gentleman, having composed his peace to honor who knows what loss, "Rest in Peace," twenty years my senior, holding hands with his wife as he listened to his precious composition being performed for the first time.

It was glorious. The viola player danced! "He's nearly dancing!" Jamie whispered to me joyfully, and certainly he embodied his music. I looked at the wedding rings of the musicians and thought, "Are you married to another violinist? Or an investment banker? Or a great chef, or a novelist? Do you understand each other?" At the end the Grosvenor chap spoke about a scholarship to benefit "young aspiring musicians," and of course Avery and Jamie nudged one another in the ribs. What an evening.

From there we met John at a cute French cafe and had steak frites, and John took Jamie home in the crispy atumnal night air.

Sadly Avery awoke this morning with a nasty sore throat and slight fever (what the heck is 37.3 anyway?? well it turns out to be a bit over 99 degrees). Off to the doctor for a throat culture, and back home for a fortuitous pot of chicken noodle soup I had just happened to start the night before. So the proper nutritious, comforting lunch, an afternoon in bed with hot water bottles, and she's on the mend. No strep, so Ireland here we come in the morning! You shall hear not a word from me for a week, so enjoy your October break, and I'll be in touch soon about our leprechaun adventures!

16 October, 2007

a Chinese adventure, and a dip into Hampstead

I absolutely love this supermarket's slogan, in a guilty sort of way, since sadly in my language-limited life it applies to me: "All the Chinese You Need to Know." We maneuvered our way on Monday morning, on our friend Peter's advice, to Wing Yip's Chinese supply store, because I was frustrated by my attempts to cook real Chinese food with what my Chinese friend Amy assured me were virtually unrecognizably flavoured versions of the ingredients I needed. And while I cannot lisp the tender syllables of these time-honoured differences in quality, there is no doubt that my night's attempts to produce a truly memorable dish of sprouts, noodles and beef supplanted all others. Let me explain.

I have spent a fair amount of time trying to replicate my favourite dishes at Mandarin Kitchen in Queensway. The softshell crabs, the noodles and sprouts. And while what I produced has been good, then really good, then I felt quite delicious, it was never the same, shall we say, tenor of what one gets at the restaurant. And it never will be. But Wing Yip's is a sublime experience in grocery shopping, should your taste in entertainment run in that direction. And sadly perhaps, mine does. Mock duck in a tin! Hoisin flavoured duck tongues! Nine kilos of curry powder! Cuttlefish in every shape and form. Dozens of types of soy sauce. And I did buy some, and sesame oil in a deeper shade than I'd ever seen before, and garlic and ginger and sprouts. Granted, I had to stop at Waitrose for the silverside of beef, but suffice to say that the dish Avery and I cooked together that night was miles better than any other version. So go, take yourself off to Wing Yip, shop, and learn.

Ah well, it was but a matter of hours before Chinese delights turned into a dripping wet morning next day and we found ourselves trekking to Hampstead to view yet another school choice, and while I often lament my husband's insistence on trying every possibility before making a decision (his marriage being a notable exception, for which I'm grateful), I have to admit that this latest school has great possibilities. South Hampstead High School, on a leafy esplanade high up in Hampstead a fairly gruelling walk from the Heath, but there nonetheless. A glorious school filled with gulls of an impossible self-possession, sense of humour, willingness to work. A delightful deputy headmaster with whom I fell instantly in crushdom: twinkling eyes, perfect Oxford accent, and an unmistakable attitude of awe toward these budding adults. It's a real possibility for Avery for next year, though by no means a "safety school," which we're meant to be finding for the eventuality that she catches her hand in a dog's mouth (or some other unanticipated semi- demi- hemi-disaster) on the morning of the all-important exams. Goodness, what this household needs is at least one adult with a job, so as to keep our heads from living in what can be called only "Common Entrance Hell."

Well, I could not leave Hampstead without paying homage to what I firmly believe to be the BEST breadmaker in London: Gail's in the High Street. There's another location in Notting Hill, and I'd say, get there. Potato and rosemary sourdough bread, there is nothing like it. So substantial, real flavor, real heft. Great for sandwiches, toast, you name it. And a delightful "breakfast to go" sandwich of a sweet and crunch honeyed bread stuffed with a chive omelet, of all things, plus Brie cheese, spinach and tomatoes. Go, do, and have one.

Well, by then it was POURING rain and really time to go home, but then I passed the best produce shop in London, I think: Brian Lay-Jones just in Fitzjohn Street as you leave the High Street. Crooked, old-fashioned, nooks and crannies, produce piled up and all the staff joshing one another about the previous night's adventures. I could have bought a LOT but John was precariously parked and I limited myself to a nice paper bag full of portobellos for soup on that nasty day.

Well, sleep beckons. I've a lot to tell you about the concert I took Avery and Jamie to tonight, but more than one post a day (and this one has taken some time!) would smack of... self-absorption, and we certainly don't want THAT. Nighty-night.

13 October, 2007

a day out in Buckinghamshire, and Frieze!

Mark your calendars: next Sunday, 21st October, from 11:30-4, "Apple Day" at Iver Flowerland Field, Swallow Street, Iver. If we were not already scheduled to be in Dublin for the weekend (oh, poor us!) we'd be there. But we can highly recommend the apple picking, as it's being organised by the farm we visited yesterday, Home Cottage Farm. Iver is a tiny, sleepy little hamlet about 45 minutes' drive from central London, sadly along the horrid M40, but I bet there's a shun-motorway way to go, if you can get your SatNav to tell you how.

Yesterday morning we raced to pick up Avery's chum Anna, then raced to Kensington to retrieve Avery from her sleepover at Jamie's, and headed out to pick apples in the countryside. The farm itself is a rambling old house surrounded by field filled with sheep, chickens, guinea fowl and their cock (he literally said, "cocka-doodle-do" to the girls' delight). The elderly farmer lady led us to the till where she weighed our shabby old canvas bags and pointed out the way to the blackberry bushes, cautioning that "they're nearly over now, of course." But there were enough to fill a little two-pint container, and raspberries besides. But the apples! Cox, Spartan, Russet, Blenheim. She had mentioned that there were other varieties on the other side of the car park, but by then the girls could hardly carry their bags and we felt we had enough. A blue sky studded with filmy clouds, holly bushes heavy with red berries, a breeze cool enough to make you glad you had a jacket, but then an hour later you tied it around your waist because the sun was warming things up.

It was a pleasure to give the girls an experience that didn't cost anything (except to buy the apples themselves), didn't involve batteries or computers, and got them out in the fresh air. They raced up and down the orchards, picking apples tiny enough to give to their stuffed animals (they're still pretty little, after all, these girls), yelling gleefully over worm holes, sharing the weight of the bag. They had a fantastic time, and next weekend promises to be even more fun with not just apple picking but... ferret racing! Dog agility! Birds of prey, even. I'd go if I were you.

So we handed over our loot to the male version of the elderly lady farmer, quiet and dignified in his jumper all over holes. "How long have you been doing this, sir?" John asked, and he answered with a smile, "Forty years." I can see that being a very good life, in another life. The girls accomplished some mild stalking of the guinea fowl, and we headed home. To bake! I have created something of a cooking monster in Avery now, who feels she wants a hand in the creation of all meals now, and suggests baking projects at the most inopportune times, as in when I'm taking the main course out of the oven and lighting the candles for dinner. "May I make a dessert?" Well, no, not right now.

But there was nothing to stop Avery and Anna yesterday from inventing a very complex cake using ALL the items they had picked just minutes earlier. It's a variation on the simple cake we made the other night, and they had a great time doing it, although I realised that I am indulging them terribly by doing the dishes behind their backs, so they get all the fun and none of the drudgery. It's a revelation to cook with children, because they approach all the tasks with a tremendous creativity, as opposed to I who simply wants to get the dish finished. "Look at this flour coming out of the sieve, it's like it's snowing," and "feel how silky this powdered sugar is," and "ooh, how glossy and shiny the butter and sugar and eggs are, and SMELL! Oh, that smells so good."

Anna and Avery's Apple Cake with Raspberry and Blackberry Filling and Apple Sauce

Sift and then measure 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, add 1 tablespoon baking powder and set aside.

Cream 1/2 cup butter, 1 cup sugar, 2 tsps vanilla and 2 eggs. Beat light and fluffy. Measure 1 cup milk. Add alternately to the creamed mixture with about 1/2 cup flour at a time. Stir smooth with each addition. Stir in 5 apples, peeled and coarsely chopped.

Pour into 2 well-greased shallow pans [I used a springform and it was perfect]. Sprinkle the top of one cake with 1/2 cup brown sugar, and a mixture of cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves [to your taste]. On the top of the second cake, drizzle the juice of a dozen raspberries and a dozen blackberries (pushed through a sieve). Bake at 350 degrees for 35-40 minutes or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.

Let cool for 10 minutes. Remove springform rims from the cakes and spread applesauce made from about 6 apples, cinnamon, brown sugar and lemon juice over the top of the cake with the raspberry topping. Place the brown sugar cake on top, and sprinkle powdered sugar through a sieve on top. Then serve warm. If you like, you may serve with ice cream or whipped cream.


Let's see, Friday I was a real grownup. Got dressed up, made a new friend, and stretched my brain a bit with the Frieze Art Fair in Regent's Park. And unlike my normal ineptitude when I tell you about something I did in London and it closed that day, you can still get to Frieze today or tomorrow. I met up first with Susan, a lady newly transplanted from New York, a friend of a friend whose daughter used to ride with Avery in the Bronx in our old happy barn days there. We met at Villandry for a bite of lunch, since although it's practically adjacent to Avery's school I don't get there very often (you'd be surprised how crossing a single street can make a place too far away). You can eat either in the sort of communal left-hand side of the establishment, with long wooden tables and a very buzzy air of conversation, or as we did in the calmer white-tablecloth side. As always, the service was very spotty with languid French girls not too interested in helping us, and I was very surprised when my "chicken club sandwich" turned out to be mayonnaisey chicken salad instead of the sliced roast I was expecting, but it was yummy. Susan had a suckling pig sandwich which looked quite good. Mostly we got to know each other.

There is a certain profile of a New York lady that I love: born and raised in Manhattan, highly educated at the best schools, several impressive careers (lawyer, banker, entrepreneur), a wry sense of humor and sophisticated attitude toward everything from politics to food to child-rearing. As she spoke I thought of all the New York friends I have left behind, Francesca, Julia, Alyssa, Liz, and there was something of all of them in her. It made me very homesick. It felt like putting on an old glove to talk to Susan, even though we had just met, because she reminded me of so many other people. I suppose it's an amalgamation of the qualities that make Woody Allen popular: super intelligent, with an endless array of great stories to tell, a New Yorker's indomitable ability to adjust, fit in, enjoy life, but never suffering fools gladly, or at all. At any rate, we had a good time, and then we headed to the art fair. In a nutshell: a huge array of terrible, terrible art punctuated by a few gems that made my heart go pitter pat a bit, and feel nostalgic for my old gallery-owner days in New York.

Susan and I played the ever-entrancing game of "What would I buy if I were buying," and while she gravitated largely toward photography, I went for my usual: conceptual, minimalist, obsessively repetitive, either sculpture or work on paper. There was a simply breathtaking enormous Glenn Ligon piece in charcoal, a beautiful Antony Gormley figure made of articulated steel cubes, a Carl Andre installation of rough-hewn wood (I do love Carl, even if he's a questionable bloke in real life), and perhaps most impressive, a print by a young Italian artist called Luca Trevisani. This piece was a sequence of 1200 still shots from a video of ants being attracted to a hole in the ground filled with sugar. He shot the ants, one after another, each the size of a half grain of rice, walking toward the hole, then gathering around it, then going inside, and then but the film up into stills. Then he placed each still in sequence, then in backward order. And then made them into lithographic sort of stamps, and printed them them. Eeek! So picture an enormous piece of white paper, perhaps four feet across and three feet high, covered with tiny, tiny black images that you have to get your face right up against to recognize as ants, marching across the surface in a perfect sequence, making a beautiful, abstract but completely geometrically precise pattern. Gorgeous! And so FUNNY. Plus frankly I would have been tempted to buy anything at ALL from the sublimely sexy Milanese dealer who explained all this to me in great detail. Ants? Sure, I'll buy it. Just keep talking, please. And that gesture you make with your perfectly manicured hand against your chin? I'll take that too.

I haven't been able to find out a lot about young Luca to tell you, because everything is in Italian or very amusingly translated. But trust me, those ants are worth a look. But I think I would have seriously gone home with two silver gelatin photographs by the tragic suicidal artist Francesca Woodman, who my friend Sarah Webb wrote about so beautifully in her epilogue to our book. And I would have bought two pieces by the British artist Cornelia Parker, although they brought up nasty Holocaust associations for Susan: reclaimed dental gold transformed into thread-like wire, strung through a golden needle and sewn into beautiful patterns, between two pieces of glass. Stunning, but I can see her point. The second piece was made with a reclaimed bullet, perhaps less upsetting. Aesthetically, though, just gorgeous.

These few pieces reminded me of how much fun art can be, but the enormous preponderance of what was on display annoyed me. Garish, careless, sloppy and thoughtless! Call me old-fashioned, but I need to see effort, precision and skill when I look at art. Ah, well, taste is taste. The humor award went to an artist (didn't get his name) who created an installation (after a performance) of empty mussel shells in a pile in a corner made by mirrors. "Let Them Eat Mussels," it was called, after he cooked the mussels on site (the recipe was given on the wall text!), gave them to his audience and asked them to throw the spent shells in the corner. Sublime!

Anyway, we had a great time. Go on over and see for yourself. Right now I'm headed to Chinatown, for the first time! If I cook something fabulous as a result, I'll let you know.

11 October, 2007

lots of culture (and some cooking too)

Let's see, what have I been up to this week? Well, first thing that comes to mind was last night's first singing rehearsal for (we've got to find a name for ourselves) The Form VI Mothers Choir Ensemble! Yes, we really did it; after getting all excited at the school's birthday celebration, singing together and really enjoying it, one of the mothers actually booked us time with the school music mistress and five of us turned up last night to warble away. "Jesus Christ, the Apple Tree" (who knew he was one), "Early One Morning," "Scarborough Fair," you name it. I was not too shy to say right out that I'm no soprano, so I was in my familiar alto territory, and it was such an unexpected joy to discover that my (mostly childhood) musical skills came back to me! There were sudden surprising moments of clarity like realising that I "remembered" how it felt to have my voice go up two notes, so that the visual sign from an "e" to a "g" was a perfectly useful signal to me. And I hadn't forgotten how to read music, or to follow a part. And from some foggy memory came the absolute certainty that the key we were singing in would include an F sharp: and it did! The older I get the more I regret losing skills (although to be hopping around turning backflips at my age would be more than a little gruesome), so finding that all those years spent learning musical systems and skills were not lost after all, just buried under layers of picture book plots, recipes and the finer points of school volunteering.

Here's something to think about: when was the last time you DID something, just for yourself? And by "do" I don't mean see a movie, which is just watching someone else do something, or have dinner out, which is just eating, only more special than at home. No, I mean DO something, to express yourself and get out of the everyday mindset when you can multitask and walk and talk at the same time and look after other people? Because when you're not a very accomplished singer, and you're reading the music and listening to the other voices and paying attention to the accompanist, you can't do anything else at the same time. Or think of anything else. And to hear lovely sounds come from all our separate beings and make something lovely together: it was very satisfying. I think you should all find something similar to do, just one hour out of every couple of weeks. Why not?

We had a great time, and the lovely little teacher had a good time too. "This is my first time teaching an adult choir, and teaching people I can meet on eye level. You learn much faster, as well!" A real joy. I keep threatening Avery that we're going to buy enormous versions of the school uniform and perform at the Harvest Festival, but that's just a threat. Still, it could happen.

It was a very fulfilling end to an already full day: lunch with Dalia at Sagar, a superb vegetarian restaurant in Hammersmith. It's a definite keeper, so go on, get yourself there and order some rasa vada, an amazing dish of light-as-a-feather lentil doughnuts, with a hole in the middle and everything, swimming in a fragrant, spicy bath of something called rasam, a tomatoey broth with very complex peppery flavors. So exotic! So delicious. Then vegetable kootu, a liquidy curry with a strange but good sort of Indian marrow, carrots, beans and coconut. Divine! Next time I will definitely go for the garlic rice, which is described as being made with fresh garlic, cumin seeds and dried red chilli, served with raitha, that delicious and simple cucumber-yogurt delicacy. We had to roll ourselves to our writing class, whereupon it transpired that the tutor was giving us a miss. Just dumped us in favor of, apparently, a plumbing disaster, but how she could not have know this until five minutes after class was meant to begin, we could not fathom. A major irritant, and one I remember from this same tutor last spring.

We took a vote and five of us decided to stay and read our pieces to each other, I among them. Dalia took herself off to accomplish something, and truly it was a pain, to have arranged to get all the way to Hammersmith and have the class cancelled. But in the end, the five of us decided that it was much the nicest way to have a class! We all listened in turn to each other's pieces, and then made the usual sorts of comments, some supportive, some critical, some merely curious. Since we're writing autobiographical essays, everyone does want MORE at the end! Did you really spend summers in your grandmother's garden in Baghdad? No, you really lived in Germany with a host family who spoke no English? And Keith, seriously, a real live stage manager at the Royal Ballet in Covent Garden? Not to mention the lady who joined a bowls team after retirement and even bought the uniform! It turns out that everyone, absolutely everyone, has something interesting to write about. I felt rather bland with my story, but it turned out that possessing the dress that your mother wore for her engagement photo in a small town in Indiana is very interesting to English people, for its very foreignness. It was a wonderful afternoon, no less so for missing an alleged expert, because all of us seemed perfectly adequate to the task of listening critically and responding.

Home in a rush to find my sheet music for singing, and then a quick dash with John to watch Avery ride. It was a superbly autumnal afternoon, the trees beginning to turn and fall in the park. I must confess: why do tourists take pictures of our children on horseback? Not that I mind, particularly, but why? I know why I have hundreds of pictures of a small girl on horseback, but someone else's child? No thanks. And we reached something, later in the evening, of a behavior/attitude milestone. Now, I'm the first to say that Avery has a hard few months ahead of her, preparing for these exams, not getting the top mark in the class, not winning an election or two. And of course it's frustrating if she doesn't get to ride the exact pony she wants and gets put on scary Archie who flinches at a passing tissue left on the ground.

But I finally put my foot down last night and said, "You cannot hold our entire family hostage to your negativity. Of course school is hard, and there are disappointments, but we all have them. Please take a moment to think and reflect on how incredibly lucky you are to be where you are, and healthy, and with an awful lot to be happy about, and just... be positive. Of course you'll have negative thoughts, but don't let them overwhelm you." For a moment I thought she was either going to cry, or hurl her pencil at me, but wonder of wonders, the rest of the evening was MUCH nicer. Now I've probably caused her years of expensive psychotherapy, but you know what? By then she'll be out of the house. Call me selfish, but I just couldn't take the moaning another minute.

And we had a fabulous evening cooking together, for the first time! It has occurred to me many times that my practically-perfect mother's Extreme Dislike of Cooking has played no small part in my own love of it. Strictly speaking, my early experiences with cooking would fall under the category of self-defense, because a person who hates cooking cannot produce routinely delicious food that makes you sit up and take notice. So I had to learn. But lately I've been worrying that my loving to cook, and always being in charge of the kitchen, could produce a child who cannot open a box of cereal. What I discovered were several things: a child loves to cook! And it's MUCH slower to cook with her than to get on with it myself. But she followed directions perfectly, and was tremendously proud of the result. And I learned not to call the salmon "him," as in "make sure you cover him completely with the sauce," because in Avery's world, then she begins thinking of him swimming along with his friends and she doesn't want to eat him. I mean It.

Avery's Baked Salmon with Brandy and Creme Fraiche
(serves four)

1 pound salmon fillet
3 tbsps butter
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 shallots, minced
1/3 cup brandy
1/2 cup creme fraiche
1/2 cup light cream
squeeze of lemon juice
dried thyme (enough to fit in the hollow of your palm if you cup your hand, is a good measuring tool for a little girl)
sweet paprika, same amount
salt and pepper to taste

In a heavy skillet, melt the butter and saute garlic and shallots till soft. Now pour in the brandy, taking time to explain "deglazing" to your child. Then whisk in the creme fraiche, creme, lemon juice and herbs. Taste and season.

Place your salmon in a glass nonstick-sprayed dish and pour the sauce over him, I mean it. Bake at 425 for 25 minutes. Glorious.


And to finish, a completely simple apple cake, from my Gladys Taber cookbook (so it counts as research for my editing project). Perfectly spicy and autumnal, and I can almost guarantee you you'll have everything you need without shopping. I'm going to write out this recipe in Gladys's own style, although I've made a few changes (more spice).

Spicy apple cake
(perfect for after dinner, and warmed up for breakfast)

Sift and then measure 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour, add 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder and set aside.

Cream 1/4 cup butter, 1/2 cup sugar, 1 tsp vanilla and 1 egg. Beat light and fluffy. Measure 1/2 cup milk. Add alternately to the creamed mixture with about 1/2 cup flour at a time. Stir smooth with each addition. Stir in 3 apples, peeled and coarsely chopped. Pour into well greased shallow pan [I used a springform and it was perfect]. Arrange 2 more apples, nicely sliced, on the top of the batter and sprinkle with 1/2 cup brown sugar, a mixture of cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves [to your taste], and 3 tbsps melted butter. Bake at 350 degrees for 25-30 minutes and serve warm.


Now the suggestion to have part of the apples in, and part of them on, was Avery's and a very fine one it was. I think I have a budding cook on my hands. Tomorrow is Moroccan meatballs, which should be nice and messy and fun.

Well, we're about to run off and try a new restaurant since Avery's occupied at a sleepover. Her skating lesson today with her beloved friend Jamie was a non-event because guess what one of teenage Londoners' favorites to do to celebrate the end of Ramadan is? Yep, ice skating. I've never seen so many wacky boys and girls in my life, and they all had sharp blades attached to their extremities, so it was but the decision of a moment for Jamie's mother and me to confer with the teacher and decide that we didn't want to add our children to the list of those who had already been taken away by ambulance. So the two girls have gone off for an evening of blissful play. And so can we...

07 October, 2007

pick your own, anyone?

But before I get to that, picking apples that is, some lovely person left a very nice comment on my last post, describing one post as "Ramseyesque." Anonymous Reader, would you be so kind as to tell me what this adjective means? I feel very ignorant and would like not to be. Please?

We will, though, go apple-picking next weekend, I think. Apple (and pear, come to that) picking was a cherished tradition in our New York lives, always shared with Avery's beloved friend Annabelle's family. I remember we began going in September or October of 1999, and the following autumn it was enough of a tradition that I, the least crafty of all possible mothers, painted little tin pails with "Apple Picking With Avery and Annbelle 2000" the next year, and the girls used them every year after that. I wonder where that pail is now? Something tells me it's gathering dust in the cupboard over the refrigerator where things we never use can go, because it's too hard to get to. But I've got to dig it out and find something for Anna to use, as well, because she's going to join us. I've found the perfect farm.

Home Cottage Farm have a stand at the practically perfect Marylebone Farmer's Market, and I bought several varieties of apples there this morning, revelling as I do every Sunday in the delightful atmosphere of the market. It's filled, every week, with good people making good food and selling it happily to other nice people, and their dogs and children. It reassures me that humanity is not all something scary, to see purveyors of produce, fishes, ducklings, every cheese you can imagine, bread of every description, all smilingly handing over their wares and paying their bills and feeding their families thereby. Of course, I am a sucker for food-shopping of any kind, but it's still my favorite hour of the week, just about. So I came away with a variety of apple I had never heard of, Lord Lambourne, with a curiously waxy (the man behind the stand called it "soapy" skin, nothing you need to wash off, just a funny feeling that he says keeps the apple itself incredibly juicy, and it was.

So the guy at Home Cottage stand tells me it's a 15-mile drive from where we were standing, and I think that's our brief for next Saturday: up at a decent hour, collect Anna, and head off, in time to be back for Avery's acting lesson mid-afternoon. She's loving it: gets dressed up and imagines what she would do if some casting person came looking for a teeny-weeny version of Scarlett Johansson (Avery's a dead ringer for her). They're doing all sort of improv, and role-playing, and she's in the 11-14 age group now, so seeing as how she's a month shy of 11, she's in with the big girls and boys.

I seem to have spent the entirety of last week making plans for things to do in the future, as opposed to actually doing anything right NOW. As a result, we have tickets to go to York for Avery's actual birthday, and we're hot on the trail of a tiny, tiny castle in Somerset (with a moat!) for the weekend in the middle of the month when half-term will be over and she can take her friends Anna and Jamie off for two days of adventure. Her greatest wish is to see Exmoor ponies in the wild, and since her two friends are nearly equally horse-mad, it should be great fun. Then, John got tickets for us to go back to Connecticut for Christmas with all the family, and I got tickets for us to see the Olympia Horse Show, an annual favorite, right before we fly off. Whew.

I must say, some festivities are in order because she is working incredibly hard getting ready for these exams in January. Oh, that's the other thing I spent last week doing: filling out admissions forms for next year's school, wherever it shall be. It strikes me that most of our lives, right now, feature an uncomfortable degree of uncertainty (I hate uncertainty!). John still has no job (not that he minds), we have no house, we don't know where Avery will be in school next year. I know it's criminal to wish any time in this life away, but I will be happier when I know a bit more about how we're going to be arranged for these several really important things. Shiver. In the meantime, though, every day after school has been a struggle, to tell about results on practice exams and be reassured that it's all going to be fine, to hear stories of unfair homework practices, horrid judgmental teachers who refuse to acknowledge that she's already perfect (sigh), reassurances that coming second in the Poetry Competition is not tantamount to excommunication from the school (and all of England, she seemed to feel). She takes everything so to heart, poor child. My parents laughed when I told them this, asking, "Doesn't any of this remind you of anyone?" Well, I don't think I was accomplished enough at Avery's age to feel it as intensely as she feels it.

I'm trying to use some of my experiences at my new writing course to help her accept criticism from her teachers, but so far I have to say my technique is falling on deaf ears. "Look at it this way, Avery: I'm willing to PAY people to listen to my writing and tell me what's wrong with it. Try to listen to what the teachers say so you can improve." Alas, a piece of Dover white cliff would have been more receptive. Sigh. The writing class has been extremely enjoyable: a large-ish group of people all seemingly quite committed to turning up regularly, producing a piece of writing, being willing to read aloud. I walked out afterward this week with two late-middle age ladies, one from Dublin with a gorgeous lilting accent. She actually said, "Sure, and..." just like in books. We seem to be forming a nice supportive group, ready to follow the class rule of "the soundproof box," in which the person who's read aloud must listen to all the comments made, but any response has to wait till the end of the comments. Anything the reader would say before the end could not penetrate the soundproof box! It's so hard to listen to criticism and not jump in with "Well, what I MEANT to say..."!

In any case, the best thing to do is look toward the future and some adventures to come. This week will bring the first meeting of the Form VI Mothers' Singing Group! Becky says she's getting cold feet. What if it's only five or so of us, and the music mistress at school decides we should entertain the Christmas carol concert? I still think we'll be fine. I for one adore to sing, and I've missed singing since my old college days, making extra money as part of a rather rag-tag but still pretty good band, back in Indianapolis. I think we'll have a great time.

I'm sitting here sniffing as the aroma of day-long-cooking brisket floats into my study. John and I just came back from a five-mile walk through the Park and back, and Avery spent the entire day mucking out stalls and cantering down Rotten Row, so I feel fully justified in serving, with my brisket, a nice dish of Shetland Black Potatoes, from Morghew Farm, fried in...goose fat. Really. I bought a jar of it at the supermarket and tonight's the night. I love crazy heirloom produce, so plentiful in this country of ours. I will appease my conscience, not that I need to, harumph, with an enormous dish of roasted beetroot with balsamic vinegar. For some reason this vegetable, so repellent to so many people, is Avery's near-favorite. Go figure. She's cozy in a post-barn bath, John and I are about to watch a side-splitting episode of "A Bit of Fry and Laurie" (featuring two British comedians either of whom would make, most of us believe, a more competent Prime Minister than any candidates we have now). Enjoy your Sunday...

Roasted Beetroot with Balsamic Vinegar
(serves four)

3 beetroots per person, leaves removed
generous splash balsamic vinegar

Wrap the beetroots in heavy aluminium foil and roast in a hot oven (400-ish degrees) for at least an hour (for small beets) and as much as two hours (for very large). I find that most average-sized beets will cook, therefore, in an hour and a half. The nice thing is that they can stay in longer if the other thing you have in the oven requires a lower temperature (like brisket), or shorter if you're cooking at a higher temperature.

Let rest in the foil package until cool enough to handle, then open it up and one at a time you can squeeze the skin right off. Trim the bottom bit that can be a bit woody, with a sharp knife. Quarter the beets, if they're small, or cut into bite-size pieces if they're large. Sprinkle with the vinegar and continue to toss them occasionally as you get the rest of the your meal ready. Superfood!

06 October, 2007

Avery's away, the taste buds will play

So Avery's at Becky's house with her beloved Anna for a sleepover, and we have no time to spare: adult evening, which means... food Avery doesn't like. Quick, to the stove.

Seared Scallops with Moroccan spices
(serves two)

8 large scallops, with or without roe as you like (I do not like)
2 tbsps all-purpose flour
1 tsp ras el hanout
1 tsp black mustard seeds
2 tbsps butter

Mix ras el hanout with flour and mustard seeds. Simply heat your skillet until smoking, then add butter. Roll scallops in the flour mixture and place in hot butter, then turn after 1 minute, cook slightly on the second side and serve.


Curried Shrimp with Lemon Grass and Ginger
(serves two if you're starving)

1 pound raw shrimp, shells, legs and tails removed

2 tbsp butter
1 stalk lemon grass, outer layer removed, finely minced
3 medium hot chillis, minced
10 leaves basil, rolled and chopped (chiffonade)
4 cloves garlic, minced
1-inch knob ginger, peeled and minced
3 shallots, minced
1 tsp mild curry powder
1/2 tsp ginger powder
1 soup can-size can coconut milk, thoroughly shaken
salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste

In a heavy saucepan, heat butter until melted, then add everything up to curry powder and saute till ginger is soft. Add shrimp and cook till JUST pink, then remove shrimp to serving bowl. Add curry and ginger powders, then coconut milk, and season to taste. Simmer low for 20 minutes while you steam some rice. Before serving, put shrimps back in and bring heat up high to heat through. Done.

Baby Pak Choi and Savoy Cabbage
(serves two)

4 miniature pak choi, halved
1/2 savoy cabbage, sliced thin
2 tbsps vegetable oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tbsp fresh ginger, minced
1 tbsp soy sauce

Heat oil in a wok, then add garlic and ginger. When hot, toss in vegetables and toss till slightly, just SLIGHTLY soft. Sprinkle with soy sauce and serve at once.


A completely divine dinner. Now there must be an unsuitable movie waiting somewhere...

02 October, 2007

schoolchildren (and feeding a cold)

English schoolchildren, that is. My week seems to have been full, so far, of the unbearable sweetness of little gulls. Just a few gems: little Chantal was reading to me at school yesterday morning and she confided, "Mrs C, I don't have those really wonderful pens I had last term, do you remember, the blue one with the little cracked lid? I know how much you loved those pens, so I'm sorry." What I really loved, more than the pens, was that Chantal thought I loved her pens! And the little Lower Kindergartner who was so frightened, or excited, at the fire drill during reading that she... left a bit of a puddle on the pavement. Mrs D walked by saying, "That, my dears, is why the little ones have a full set of clothes, and I mean FULL, left here at school!"

Then there was a little boy in Starbucks, while I was waiting to have coffee with my friend Susan, who came in with his mother and a little sibling in a pushchair. The mum sent the little boy to the till with money of his own, to buy his snack. He was perhaps five. He showed the man behind the counter what he wanted, standing on tiptoe to give him the money, and when the man said automatically, "Takeaway?" so he would know whether to put the treat in a bag or on a plate, the little boy stopped in consternation, clearly having no idea what that mean. The man then said, pointing downwards, "To stay here?" and the little boy said in relief, "Oh, no, I'm going to sit over there with my mum!"

And Avery reported being put in charge of teaching the "littles," some just barely three years old, to play "Duck, duck, goose." "But Mummy, half of them forgot to say 'duck,' or when they did, the little gull forgot she needed to get up and run, and some of the walked backwards around the circle, not saying anything at all!" Experiences like that are essential for an only child! How we miss our niece Jane, who just last week on the phone told me that she was going to a party, and she thought she would wear, "Kewwy gween." Fair enough, a very festive colour indeed.

It's good to reflect on positive things because for one thing, this whole season of exam prep is getting Avery down, and it's a job and a half at pickup every day to manage all the negative reports from the day! Food awful (big surprise there), English teacher too critical, gym too tiring, singing too short, the French room too high up in the school, on and on. Today I decided it was hunger talking, so met her at the school door with a banana, two chocolate biscuits and a raspberry smoothie, and either it made her more positive, or her mouth was too full to contain complaints. Whichever, it works for me.

On the not positive side for me, in the middle of the night I woke up with a shocking sore throat, one I remember from just after Avery was born, and thinking, "This is more annoying than labor!" Only pretend throat drops in the cupboard, no better than candy. What was wanted was a swift blow to my head, but John was unhelpfully asleep. I sat up for the remainder of the night, and you know how anything at night is worse, than it will be in the day. I kept lying there thinking doggedly that the annoyance would stop and I'd go back to sleep. Should just have got up and blogged, now in retrospect. So with my voice somewhere in the cellar and a head full of whatever, I accompanied Avery and John to dropoff, thinking I'd stop at Boots, but the wretched place didn't open that early, so my kind husband dropped me at home, covered me with a throw, brought me a cat, and went out to return with some mega-anaesthetic you spray on, which has worked wonders all day, and I slept. As a result, however, I'm starving, and aren't you meant to feed a cold? Right now I have a large chicken in the oven sitting in thyme, sage, rosemary, white wine and garlic, which should make all things better in about two hours.

Let me tell you, in the meantime, what we had two nights ago, in our continuing love affair with sprouts.

Pan-Fried Duck Breasts with Sprouts, Noodles and Red Peppers
(serves four)

4 filleted duck breasts, skin on
6 cloves garlic
2-inch knob ginger, minced
1/4 cup sesame oil
1/3 cup soy sauce
juice of 1 lemon
3 tbsps peanut oil
1 sweet onion, sliced
1 large red bell pepper, sliced
1 package beansprouts
4 portions Chinese noodles, boiled and drained
extra soy sauce and peanut oil for tossing

Mix the garlic, ginger, sesame, soy and lemon juice in a bowl and submerge the duck breasts in the mixture, turning frequently while you slice your onion and pepper.

Heat a large skillet to nearly smoking and with a nice fine mesh screen in one hand, with the other put the duck skin side down. RESERVE the marinade. Cover the skillet with the screen but still stand back: they sputter. Fry high for 8 minutes, then turn the heat down to medium, turn the breasts over (stand back!) and cook for about 4 minutes more. Remove to a cutting board and let rest for five minutes.

During this time, return the marinade to the skillet and boil for a couple of minutes, then add the peanut oil, and fry your onion and pepper. Remove the skin from the duck (sorry, health insists, but have ONE bite) and slice however you like it, thick or thin. Toss the duck, the sprouts and the noodles into the skillet and toss with extra soy and/or peanut oil should it need a bit more sauce. Divine.


Well, in the school spirit of "if we can praise one child and leave all others in the dust," tomorrow is the finals of the Poetry Competition. Avery got into the final four with "The Lady of Shalott," and claims that the other three competitors are so nice that she won't mind who wins. Can this be true? Can she be the child of her uber-competitive father who would probably be spiking the other girls' milk if he could get away with it? I'll keep you posted. Right now I need another slug of anaesthetic and a look at my chicken... And a nice glass of the ginger water my nice foodie friend Faye suggested. Just boiled ginger. I'll try anything.