31 July, 2007

I couldn't stay away!















































Well, I tried to take a break! Filled up the birdbath that John repaired after it fell over the first year we tried to provide his precious birds with the amenities (but they still prefer the pond and the stream), managed to make a start on powerwashing the white picket fence and the Red Gate (John has taken over the chore, though, since it involves a power tool). I think we can start painting it on Friday. As you can see, it's embarrassing right now, but that's the nasty halfway point of a project. The FedEx guy delivered something today and when John said, "Enjoy your afternoon," he grinned and said, "Ayuh, you need to get back to that fence!"

We've been keeping a close eye on the family of wild turkeys that frequent our backyard, as well as the groundhogs who will eat any fruit and the squirrels who turned up their noses at some stale almonds, but will do anything for bird seed. And we have spent some time jumping with Avery on the trampoline, tooling around in the Land Rover now that the registration is legal again, and over the weekend took another trip into the city to watch Avery ride (the lovely and tiny Albert, this time -- his show name is Little Einstein--).

But I can't stay silent on the subject of the flooding in my adopted land. I feel guilty enjoying a gorgeous rainstorm here in Connecticut when so many of our favorite spots in gorgeous England are underwater, and the townspeople suffering such agonies of ruined homes, no drinking water. We're very worried. Stay safe, everyone, and we'll keep fingers crossed for dry weather to come.

Then, too, of course I found myself in the kitchen and turned out two new recipes, each of which is a milestone in its own way. Number one: I thought I didn't like zucchini, and number two, I almost never make or eat desserts. But rules are made to be broken, aren't they?

We found ourselves the other day at the farmstand owned by Farmer Rollie's wife Judy's brother (got that?), and manned by Judy herself, and there was a lovely display of green and yellow zucchini. "You know, I want to like zucchini, but I just don't," I said. "Why not try this?" she suggested.

Judy's Baked Zucchini
(serves four as a side dish)


2 slender green zucchini (leave the big monsters for someone else!)
2 slender yellow zucchini
2 cloves garlic, minced
handful basil leaves
3 tbsps olive oil
sea salt
1 cup grated cheese: cheddar, Gouda, Edam, anything

Wash and slice the zucchini into thin disks. Spray a 9 x 9 dish with nonstick spray and line with half the zucchini, then sprinkle the garlic over them and top with the remainder of the zucchini. Chiffonade the basil and sprinkle it over top, then drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with sea salt, and layer the cheese over all. Bake at 325 degrees for 20 minutes or until bubbly and browning.

*********

This was just divine. Of course, anything with garlic, olive oil and topped with melting cheese can't be bad, but there was something fresh and appealing about the combination of zucchini and basil, too. It was a definite winner.

And then for some reason Avery said, "I wish I had a chocolate cake." "I can do that," I said bravely, not really knowing what we had in the way of ingredients. It turns out that even my dessert-starved pantry yielded some interesting stuff. I ended up over the next two days with two varieties of the easiest cake you can imagine, each of which is really good. They strike me as very old-fashioned, with a nursery-like warmth and no surprises. Simple, nothing fake or fancy, and you'll probably have everything in your cupboard and fridge without having to shop. The frosting, especially, made me laugh as it was a complete emergency inspiration. Go on, have a piece as soon as it comes out of the oven. Very comforting. Plus, I have declared a moratorium on white sugar, so this cake is made with something called "Sugar in the Raw." This sugar is made from a very minimal initial processing, without going to the lengths that it takes to remove its natural amber color. It's a nice crunchy texture, too, and has real flavor, as opposed to just a vague "sweet" impression.

Avery's Favorite Chocolate Cake and Crazy Frosting

1/2 cup butter, room temperature
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups "Sugar in the Raw"
pinch salt
2 tsps baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 cup chocolate chips, melted (they stay a bit grainy, don't worry)
2 eggs
2 tsps vanilla extract
3/4 cup evaporated milk
3/4 cup sour cream, plus 1/2 cup more for frosting
1 packet Swiss Miss Hot Chocolate mix

Now, in Connecticut I don't have a hand blender, and guess what? You don't need one. I also do not have a sifter, and as far as I can tell, I don't need one of those, either. I just mixed all the dry ingredients together, beat them about 300 times with the milk, sour cream and vanilla. Then I added the egg and beat about 150 times more, then stirred in the chocolate chips which were grainy and not liquidy at all, so the resulting batter is a sort of golden color with brown flecks. Bake at 325 degrees for about 35-40 minutes.

Now, the crazy frosting. Not feeling confident about what frosting involved in the way of ingredients, I looked up many recipes in my trusty and venerable New York Times Cookbook. The link I've given you here is to the fabulous, quirky, intelligent and delightful Hickory Stick Bookshop in Washington Depot, Connecticut, our "local" bookstore. It is always a favorite (and extremely expensive) afternoon there, as we all find things we had no idea existed but then feel like things we can't live without. But I digress.

About frosting. So all the recipes I read called for confectioner's sugar and light corn syrup, neither of which I had. Also, I knew the chocolate chips wouldn't melt enough for frosting. So I had an inspiration: why not hot chocolate mix? Listed on its ingredient label were both confectioner's sugar AND light corn syrup! Further inspiration: sour cream? And sure, enough, the extra half cup of sour cream made the mix absolutely creamy, spreadable, and it melted right over the top of the cake, and into the holes I made with the tines of a fork. Delicious!

And if you want this cake to be lemony instead of chocolate, substitute the grated rind of three lemons, plus 2 teaspoons of lemon extract, for the chocolate. Then, I did acquire some confectioner's sugar by the time I tried the lemon version of the cake, and a little lemon juice plus sour cream plus confectioner's sugar makes a DIVINE glaze.

Never say I'm not sweet...

Tomorrow I get to see my friend Alyssa! For the first time since February. We just have not been able to get it together this July. So August 1 will see me in Tribeca, dogging her heels, following her around and generally making a nuisance of myself. I can't wait.

26 July, 2007

a little rest

















Well, I honestly can't think that much is going to happen in the next few weeks of interest to anyone looking for "Kristen in London," namely because I'm... not in London! We'll be back there September 1, and if anything cool happens here, or I cook something of stupendous novelty, or Avery achieves anything noteworthy, or John gets a job, or I get a publishing contract (I'm trying to think of really outlandish scenarios), I'll be on the horn. Until then, I'm going to catch a few zzzzs...

Let me know if there's anything I need to know!

xxxxxxx

25 July, 2007

if you're feeling starved...



























No, not this lovely salad. That's the flank steak dish I told you about yesterday, with shredded carrots added to the second try. Avery says this: "The bean sprouts are already kind of sweet, and the beef is so savory, that I worry it overpowers the beef to add carrots, but it's good." I like them for the color, but you try it both ways and see. We've finally come to the end of the leftover flank steak. I love what Gladys Taber says about leftovers, "it's a terrible word. 'Remainders' is even worse." But if you can use things in a nice way, it's so satisfying and budget-conscious.

No, what I'm talking about as far as diet-busting, uber-rich, super special-treat, is... Homemade Fried Chicken! Have you ever fried chicken? Neither had I, until last night. For some reason it sounded so good, and so ambitious to do, that I thought about it all afternoon and read Laurie Colwin's recipe in Home Cooking (here adapted by Sara Moulton for the Food Network, and Bobby Flay's online version, and then adapted both sets of instructions to my own approach. Mostly I needed help in depth of oil, timing and what to do with it when it's cooked. Turns out, the short answers are: 2 inches, 12 minutes, lay it on paper towels. But here's the real deal. The secret to my flavoring is a tablespoon of a new spice blend I found in the fabulous Penzeys Spice Shop in Minneapolis, led there by my talented and energetic niece Sarah.

Homemade Fried Chicken
(serves 6)


1 chicken cut up (breast halves cut in half again)
1 cup milk
1 1/2 cups flour
1 tbsp each: Fox Point seasoning, paprika, garlic salt, lemon pepper
Wesson Oil to fill 2 inches deep in large, deep-sided skillet (with a lid)

Mix the spices in the flour by means of a leak-proof plastic bag (possibly the one you carried the chicken home in?).

Have a bowl ready for your milk, a big bowl for your seasoned flour, a platter for the floured pieces, and the skillet ready full of oil. Since I am notoriously bad at keeping track of heating skillets, I waited until I had finished dipping the chicken pieces to heat the oil. Probably you can pay attention to each, and if so, more power to you.

Dip each chicken piece in milk and wet every bit. Then place in seasoned flour and pack as much flour as you can on each piece, laying each one on the platter when you've finished. When you're finished, dust a little more seasoned flour on the waiting layer of chicken pieces.

DON AN APRON. I'm not kidding. And place either a dishtowel or some paper towel on the floor under the front of the stove. But don't slide on it!

Heat the oil until a piece of bread on the end of a fork fries immediately when placed in the oil. Then places as many pieces as you can of the chicken in the bubbling oil. You can crowd a bit, because the chicken pieces shrink as they cook. Cover immediately and cook for about 5 minutes, then turn each piece carefully. Continue to cover and cook, turn and cover and cook, several times, but letting at least 10 minutes elapse for the breast quarters and wings, and at least 14 minutes for the thighs and drumsticks. When they look brown and appealing, they are ready. Remove to a clean platter lined with paper towels and let rest for about 5 minutes before eating.

*************

Ambrosia! But RICH. If you're like our family, you don't eat much fried food. You'll be surprised at how little it takes to satisfy you. Then quickly wrap up any leftovers, drive to your neighbor Farmer Rollie and his wife Judy, and donate them. They will be thrilled, and it's a good excuse to sit and gossip for a bit.

We're off to the pool. More later...

23 July, 2007

WICKED!






































Oh, yes! We went to "Wicked." I must say, I have been almost dreading it, just going along to chaperone Avery and Cici as our birthday gift to Cici. Why dreading it, you ask? Oh, only because for the past four or five months Avery has been insisting on playing it in the car on the way to school, on her iPod to which she sings along, making drawings and puppets and stories, talking about it incessantly with her best friend Anna. Overdose! I would challenge you to enjoy anything to which you've been so completely overexposed as to need an antidote.

But... it was fabulous! I have not been to a play or musical on Broadway, actual Broadway, since something archaic like "Miss Saigon" or "The Phantom of the Opera," just because when you actually live in New York, you (or at least I) are woefully inadequate at doing any of the things that bring other people to New York. And when I say other people? Can I just say how many TOO MANY of them there were in Times Square! It was a mercifully cool and pleasant day, but even so, walking, no wading, through the masses of tourists was simply overwhelming. Have you been to Times Square recently? Don't go! You will be trampled.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. We drove down from the barn on Saturday after Avery's riding lesson, and John dropped us off at the rather unremarkable but acceptable Cafe Un Deux Trois for lunch, while he headed down to Tribeca for lunch with a friend. Why Cafe Un Deux Trois, I wonder? I think we have an ancient memory of a nice kid-friendly dinner there with friends years and years ago, and remembered that it was a nice, calm place to take children. In the end, of course, I didn't reckon on how extremely elderly the children were that I was taking with me (isn't it shocking how grownup they are! and how beautiful), and we could have gone somewhere really elegant. But in the end they quite enjoyed drawing on the paper tablecloth just as much as their much-younger counterparts at other tables. And the soaring ceilings and lovely old tile floors made for a nice, classic atmosphere. So do go with your little ones, if you can stomach the prices for very average food (a forgettable salade nicoise for me, an unmanageable and unwieldy chicken sandwich for Cici, and very dull ravioli for Avery, but completely edible and priced out at about $70 for the three of us, ouch).

From there we emerged into the crowds and held onto each other's hands like children lost in a forest. And indeed, it was a forest of people. Every nationality known to mankind, overwhelming shiny billboards, scalpers selling tickets, people selling water, little tiny yellow taxicab toys, sunglasses, sunscreen, and everyone in an impossibly jolly mood. Honestly, you wouldn't think such a place could exist on the same planet as Red Gate Farm. I often compare Times Square to Oxford Street in London, when people ask what it's like. Never again! Chalk and cheese, as they say. Nothing in London could possibly be as tacky (and yet peculiarly quite marvelous) as Times Square. Everything seemed about one hour old, as if it would change again in the next hour to the REALLY modern version. I am such a fuddy duddy.

To the theater where we ensconced ourselves and waited for the big event. I confess to nearly falling asleep before the show started, but then... it was just amazing. I tend to forget that famed things, and places, and events, are famed for a reason! Of course when you can gather the absolute best at everything in one place, it's going to be amazing. Winnie Holzman's story was really entertaining, the choreography perfect and precise, and the singers really enchanting. And perversely all that overexposure from Avery meant that I could really enjoy it, having memorized every song a hundred times over. There is nothing like the obsessive attention span of a ten-year-old to make every family member fully engaged with the current topic, I'll tell you that.

We waited outside afterward for autographs, and they got them! All three leads. Very gracious and sweet. I have to say: it was very expensive, but it was a pleasure. Would you believe: evening performances are sold out until February?!

So home again, in the glow of other people's achievements. And to an unexpectedly delicious dinner at our local eatery Julio's, which we normally treat as an emergency "don't have time to cook" destination, not as a source of gastronomic delight. But I had a salad of arugula (it's considered something of a delicacy still, in America, rather than the ubiquitous green of all London plates) and sauteed scallops. Well done, Julio's!

Sunday saw us hosting Jill, Joel and Jane, along with Anne and David, for flank steak on the grill. I have to confess I went to the grocery store to get a fillet roast, no matter the cost. I really was in the mood to roll it in some herbs and freshly ground pepper, as we did in Iowa, and grill it to perfection. Happily, I was saved from this ruinously expensive goal by the sheer fact that there wasn't an unsliced roast at the store, just little steaks. So I picked up a number of flank steaks and figured I would marinate them and they'd be fine. Well, not only were they fine, they were gloriously delicious! And they provided divine leftovers for an absolutely splendid Asian dish the next day. Here you go:

Grilled Flank Steak with Ginger and Lime
(serves 8 with lots of leftovers)


3 flank steaks weighing 1 1/2 lbs each
2-inch knob ginger, peeled and minced
5 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
juice and zest of 2 limes
2 tbsps sesame oil
3 tbsps soy sauce

Mix all marinade ingredients and slather over the flank steaks on both sides. Grill at a medium-high heat (375 degrees on a propane-fired grill) for 7 minutes per side for medium rare. Let rest for at least 5 minutes before slicing thin; lots of juices will accumulate. And here's a hint: after you slice it, serve with the accumulated juices poured over the top.

Baby Red and Yukon Gold Potato Salad
(serves 10)


4 pounds potatoes total (if you can't find the tiny ones, use new potatoes)

dressing:
2/3 cup mayonnaise
2/3 cup sour cream
juice of 1 lemon
large handful dill, chopped
6 green onions, sliced (both white and green parts)
1 red onion, minced
sea salt and fresh pepper

Steam or boil potatoes for 30 minutes or until piercable with a fork. Depending on the size, halve or quarter them. You're after bite-sized pieces. Toss with the dressing and serve at room temperature-ish.

************

These two dishes were perfect together, if I do say so myself. And my dear brother in law brought his appetizer that I first had a week or so ago, and it deserves a second appearance here. We both think we'll try adding crabmeat sometime.

Joel's Artichoke Dip
(serves eight)


1 cup artichoke hearts (fresh or from a jar), chopped
1 cup mayonnaise
1 cup grated parmesan cheese

Mix well and place in a 9 x 9 baking dish (non-stick sprayed to make life easier), or several individual ramekins if you want to place them around an appetizer table at a party. Bake at 400 degrees for about 20-3- minute or until bubbly and brown on top. Serve with toasted baguette rounds or crackers.

**************

But the true glory, I must say, was the little luncheon dish Avery invented today. She's gotten to be such a useful person to have around the kitchen. She thinks spontaneously about what might be good together, throws out ideas, and then I implement them! Today I said, "How about some leftover flank steak for lunch?" And she said, "Didn't you mention tossing it with some bean sprouts and soy sauce? Well, how about adding those Asian noodles I like so much?" So I did. We all simply gobbled it up; I wish I had made more. And you know what? I will tomorrow. What gets me excited about a dish like this is its sheer economy and total ease. I will own up to something that you all have probably noticed: I do thrive sometimes on expensive, clever, labor-intensive recipes, and then every once in awhile it's glorious to make something effortless and CHEAP. Give it a try! You'll be very popular in your kitchen, and you can hoard the secret knowledge that you didn't put much effort into it at ALL.

Stir-Fried Flank Steak with Bean Sprouts and Noodles
(serves four if you serve yourself fast)

a good chunk of leftover grilled flank steak: perhaps 1 pound?
1/2 half Vidalia onion, sliced in large slices
1/2 package Asian noodles (labelled "for stir-fry"), cooked and drained well
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 handfuls bean sprouts
2 tbsps peanut oil
2 tsps sesame oil
3 tbsps soy sauce

Slice your flank steak into bite-sized strips and set aside. Heat the two oils to nearly smoking, then throw in everything at once. Toss very well; the noodles will tend to stick together, but the oils and soy should separate them. Stir-fry while tossing with tongs for about 3 minutes over high heat. THAT'S IT.

I'm now thinking the obvious: you can double this recipe and use up all of every ingredient: the onion, bean sprouts and noodles. Try it: you'll be a star.

a big storm, and a tiny pony










































What a fabulous time we've had here with Cici to add to the vacation cheer. The first day of her visit was a washout, which was actually perfect: cozy indoor times for Avery and Cici to catch up on all the year's gossip and news, time for me to bleach out the nasty kitchen cupboards that had gathered cob- and spiderwebs all year, to empty out the pantry staples that didn't survive the winter, assess what needed to be brought home from the supermarket, watch a little "Days of Our Lives," revel in the enormous washing machine (but it doesn't do half the job our much-maligned tiny Miele does in England: you can get either efficiency or capacity, it would seem but not both).

The lawn thrived over the winter, as you can see, with the intrepid help of our grass-care team who refuses to bill us. Honestly, we live in fear of the day that whoever in the office at that outfit finds out they haven't billed us in four years. How many times can we beg for an invoice? "Ayep, I'll have to talk to Eric/Scott/David in the office and they'll be in touch about that. See ya." Oh my. We'll owe the national debt. It's just one of those Connecticut things. They exist on a different plane here.

Avery had a tennis lesson! A nice Eastern European man called Val, in superb physical condition, with a nice no-nonsense manner, taught her for an hour, very relaxed but exacting, and by the end of the lesson she was able to hold up her end of a very respectable rally, or volley, or whatever it's called. Then, sadly, the next morning during HIS lesson with Val, John tore up some essential muscle in his back and spent the day full of Advil and feeling every one of his 43 years. It's tough to get old! We girls on the other hand spent the day lazing around at the Southbury Municipal Pool, soaking up carefully screened sun, paging through books (Avery was amused to see that a lady across the grass was just about as far through the fifth Harry Potter book as Avery was herself!), watching clouds cross the sun at infrequent intervals. At one point I heard a voice say, "Hey there," and then, "Hello!" and finally decided the person was talking to me, and I gazed up with my hand blocking the sun to see... my sister Jill! Have you ever been taken completely unaware by a person who most definitely didn't belong where she was? I felt that an alternate universe had opened up, or a hole in time. What fun to have an unexpected chat! She had been on her way from checking on a race-support truck in New Jersey (the life of an ESPN executive stops for no one) and decided to take a detour and see us, and was sent to the pool by the patient John, flat on his injured back. We made a plan to get together over the weekend.

Finally we had to go home, with a stop at the grocery store to get ingredients for a lip-smacking barbecued rib dinner complete with corn on the cob. I sent Avery and Cici over to invited Anne and David from across the road, and it was but the work of a moment to put together a variation on the barbecue sauce I gave you last week:

Barbecue Sauce Part II

equal parts: ketchup, soy sauce, sesame oil, lime juice
1-inch knob of giner, peeled and minced
3 cloves garlic, minced
zest of 1 lemon

Mix all ingredients and slather over whatever you plan to grill. Our baby back spare ribs took about an hour on medium heat, after marinating for half an hour. Longer marination would be better even than that, but they were really tasty.

***************

What a delight to have Anne and David back in our lives. I try not to think, during the year in London, what it used to be like to have their friendship a road's width away every weekend. As much as I adore my London friends, and our happy social circle (happy for the most part, of course!), there's nothing like old friends, who have known you under lots of different circumstances: being introduced on that first sunny house-hunting day so long ago, when we first encountered Red Gate Farm. We were all standing across the road, having just met, looking over at the house and feeling the first thrill of ownership. Anne was most diffident in explaining her connection to the neighborhood: having been raised there weekends with her famous grandmother, Gladys Taber. David described a very small bit his upcoming book publication, which later of course was revealed as the extremely well-researched and unputdownable Crash Out, about Sing Sing Prison. Both of them were completely unnecessarily nice to Avery, then just a small five-year-old with a penchant for behaving already as if she belonged in a covey of adults.

Since then of course there have been countless visits over the fence, a heartwarming bagel brunch on one anniversary of September 11, when it felt right to be with other New Yorkers, candelit picnic table dinners by the dozens, a Christmas Eve cocktail party here with all Gladys Taber hors d'oeuvres! And so many lively discussions of books, films, the antics of Quincy and Emmy the cats. How many times have they entertained Avery just on her own? It takes unusual people to want to answer the screen-door knock of a six- or even ten-year old girl, to hear what she has to say.

So we sat on by the light of the candles on Friday evening, watching moths do their kamikaze routines, while the girls watched a movie, and just caught up. As we do every time we go back and forth between America and England, we ended up surveying the world scene as we see it and comparing American views to what we've been exposed to as English views, analyzing politics of the past and present, wondering what is on the horizon for the coming year or so. I always come away from these talks wishing I were even half as well-informed and analytical as they are; I think of them as true New Yorkers who would not let the week go by without thoroughly perusing the Times (which I could never manage even when I lived there) and giving ample thought to the week's events, critical of what they see and read, ready to have a passionate opinion on just about everything, but in the end, optimistic and full of energy. Such fun just to sit back and revel in the discussion. Then, too, we heard stories about the Land Trust activities around here (always grateful for every piece of green earth that escapes the developers!), the various wildlife cruising the neighborhood, they heard stories about Avery's manic London schedule, John's real estate obsessions, my cooking goals. It's always hard to look at the clock and admit we should all go to sleep and be ready to face the next morning!

Which brought a trip into town, eventually to see "Wicked," but first to stop off in Riverdale for a riding lesson with Avery's beloved and much-missed trainer Christine. Oh, the contrast between her London experiences and these in New York! There is no way to prefer one over the other, but it's night and day. In London Avery's responsible for tacking up, cleaning saddles, forking hay, cleaning up all the muck, sweeping up poo from the streets as they make their way home from Hyde Park. Then there's a little bit of time riding! The stable is presided over by the regal Kirstie Nye (unless her 80-year-old father is around!) and the children are an integral part of the workings of every day. And the horses! Big ones, small ones, mouths of steel, temperamental prima donnas, enormous guys who are terrified of a tissue floating by, and then little 37-year-old ponies who have seen it all. But at Riverdale: Avery shows up in her riding togs, and a lovely young man who speaks no English leads her to a perfect, completely pristine white pony who looks as if she just stepped off a carousel. Avery is given a "leg up" onto the pony and rides regally down from the stable to the ring, where she is mercilessly screamed at (why she loves this I do not know) for an hour, going round and round, jumping ever higher and more perfectly, on jumps set up by a groom before her arrival. At the end of the hour, she rides serenely back to the stable where she's relieved of the pony by another groom, and goodbye!

There's room in the world, certainly, for both approaches. I love seeing her on a specimen of ponydom that simply has no flaws, and with whom it's possible for Avery to achieve any skill without thinking about what the pony wants or needs. On the other hand, seeing her get to know many different horses' personalities, leading them to their stalls and taking off all their little bits and pieces, understanding their weaknesses and flaws: that's lovely too. And I wouldn't want to have to choose, full-stop, between the gorgeous red barns and white fences of Riverdale, and the urban glories of Hyde Park. How nice we can have both.

It's great to be back. I keep trying to analyze what makes life in Connecticut so different from life in London. Some of it is nothing more than the difference between suburban and big-city life: it's so much easier to live out in the boondocks where the parking spaces are plentiful and all larger than you need, where the supermarket aisles are ridiculously wide and there is always everything you need in the store! No traffic jams, no pollution, no crowds, and GREEN everywhere, plus the sound of a rolling brook when it rains, and the sight of a flock of wild turkeys in the meadow! And did Gary the groundhog eat the melon rind you left for him? It's such a welcome change from remembering complicated schedules, circling the block to find a place to put your car (I know! we shouldn't have one at all), dragging home too-heavy bags of stuff for dinner, for lunch at the barn, all the bustle of city life, as much as I adore London.

But some of the contrasts are in the differences between America and England. America feels so relentlessly young! Energetic, spontaneous, positive, powerful, ambitious, friendly, optimistic, endearingly naive sometimes, and undaunted by... anything. England in retrospect feels very historically grounded, complex, slow to make judgments about people, reserved and elegant, reluctant to commit itself, a little disappointed, I think, in the world around her, sophisticated and cosmopolitan. Does that make sense? I love them both, and the flip side of loving them both is that I always miss the energy of America when I'm in England, and miss the thoughtfulness of England when I'm in America. What would we have if we could combine them? In either a person or a country. Maybe if we play our cards right, we could have... Avery!

17 July, 2007

Midwestern glorious food (and a brilliant Bat Mitzvah)















Well, knock me over with a feather. I owe all my recipe readers (and potential users) an apology, although I didn't actually do the thing I should be apologizing for. Let me explain.

Last Saturday found us in Minneapolis for the simply stunning Bat Mitzvah for our niece Sarah. Now, Sarah's dad David would be the first to tell you that normally (as in the dinner the night before, and the dinner the day after), food for the multitudes which must, in the synagogue, be kosher, is not something that will make you stand up and cheer. As we were working our way through the Friday night shabbat dinner, hugely enjoying catching up with Sarah, her sister Ellen, and lots of relatives we had not seen since John's sister Cathy's wedding to David, David himself came over to the table and said mournfully, "This dinner will not make the blog." And so it did not, in terms of describing anything we ate. HOWEVER. Saturday lunch was unbelievably delicious, and included a wild rice salad that I fully intended to give you a "recipe" for even though I had not tried to cook it myself. And in my defense, John's mother (cook extraordinaire) agreed with me: there was nothing to it! You cook the wild rice, saute some lovely bits of colorful vegetables in a quantity of olive oil and garlic, and toss it altogether. Except...

I have never cooked wild rice.

Ever.

And it turns out that the package directions are, well, inconclusive to say the least. Four cups of water to one puny package of wild rice? How on earth would that work? So I boiled it and boiled it and took a freakin' shower and boiled it some more... Finally I drained off the excess water and found a rather starchy, lumpy mass of whatever. Edible, yes, yummy, no. And it bore no resemblance to what we had at the Bat Mitzvah. But anyway, I had diced many adorable piles of yellow and red peppers, yellow and green zucchini (courgettes, to you across the Pond), red onion, garlic, and some cucumbers to keep chilly to add at the end.

Kathleen turned up with Avery's beloved Cici in tow (what a joyous reunion! just like last summer), and I fed it to her, and to John. Many suggestions: cook the rice less, add some vinegar or citrus to the olive oil, lots more garlic. Since then I have been online and found that most recipes call for you to boil the rice for about 50 minutes, then drain it and cook it dry and fluff it up. I shall try it again and let you know.

I'm so ashamed I almost posted a recipe without trying it! Rest assured, I have learned my lesson. Also that I'll take any advice on wild rice.

Anyway. Obviously of more importance than the food (but the poached salmon was divine! sorry, back on topic) was the gloriously personal, accomplished job Sarah did at her Bat Mitzvah. The rabbi was a perfect combination of informal (she made a point of recommending the challah bread, "very fresh; other days, not so much,"), devoted to Sarah and her family and their place in the community, so grateful to see John's dad there, and so praising of their family in accepting the Judaism Cathy has so devoted herself to. Sarah read and chanted and sang for nearly an hour in Hebrew, her sister Ellen read beautifully, Avery did a lovely job with her prayer. The entire experience made me terribly envious of that wort of warm community. I would happily make chicken and matzoh ball soup every Friday, if I could only ever do (ad believe) the other myriad things required to be Jewish. The sense of openness to questioning, sympathy to other points of view, respect for a wider world, awareness of international issues: all these things combined to make a very intriguing and welcoming day. And how Cathy and David managed their speeches, how Sarah got through her speech, I cannot imagine, without sobbing. For heaven's sake, I sobbed myself and it wasn't even my child! I could never.

It was a gorgeous, lovely day. John's uncle and aunt (whom I last saw in London nearly 16 years ago, feeding them dinner on the heels of my horrendous car crash into a Finnish tour bus!) were there, his aunt and her new husband ("I was alone for 45 years, and he is my reward!" she crowed, and he said, "Such as I am," obviously blissfully happy), all the Iowa friends of a lifetime, all of Cathy and David's eclectic and fascinating group of friends. It's always heartwarming to see people you know and love as family, in their milieu as independent adults with their own sets of friends, clearly the center of their community, and much loved.

And the hotel! Can I say how gorgeous the Sofitel is? We have gone online since and ordered the ridiculously luxurious featherbeds upon which we slept. Unheard-of comfort.

Back to Iowa for just a few days, spent mostly in the company of Avery's beloved friend Meta (with horses, dogs, two new kittens, and the same sense of humor that binds those two crazy chicks together every summer). And Avery got her hair all cut off. Shoulder-length, so she could donate 10 inches to Locks of Love, a sweet organization that arranges replacement hair for childhood victims of hair-loss. I don't envy John's mother the creepy task of mailing that ponytail off! She spent the whole car ride from the barbershop holding the ponytail up to the back of John's and cracking herself up. The secret truth: my mother in law has always longed for her husband to have a ponytail. So I guess holding up her granddaughter's cut-off ponytail to her own son's head is a scary, scary substitute.

One of my favorite lines overheard in Iowa: Avery's hairdresser is her beloved pal Meta's hairdresser, so as Avery was having her hair washed the girl asked, "So how do you know Meta?" and Avery said, oh-so-confidently, "Well, her parents are some of my parents' best friends, from sort of childhood, and it goes back even farther than that..." I should say it does: Meta's grandparents are Avery's grandparents' best friends for the past 45 years. It does make for coziness.

Well, home from Iowa now. Avery and Cici are talking hard and fast after nearly 12 hours together, and I'm ready for bed. Summer is good.

the land of corn and family


























Goodness, I'm sorry I've been so silent! I had some crazy idea that by leaving London where we were pulled in thousands of different directions, and arriving in America where we would... relax... I'd have more time to tell you all about what's happening. But in reality, life got even busier here in Iowa than it was at home. Truly!

We arrived on Wednesday last week to bright blue skies, warm luscious summertime air and the longed-for embrace of John's mother and father. I have to tell you: I have been arriving at one Iowa airport or another now for 24 years, to perfect summer weather and the expectation of sun, swimming, great food and my irreplaceable in-laws, and this arrival was no different. Just better, if that's possible. Because this summer we're not taking anything for granted.

Imagine you were loaned something many years ago, something you knew you liked and would enjoy having. You heard the word "loan" but you didn't really think much about it, because the term of the loan was so long. And anyway, you didn't know back then how much you would come to treasure the thing. So the years went by as you got to appreciate your loan ever more, and enjoy its presence in your life. It became a part of the beloved tapestry of your days and years, always there to appreciate, always the same. You never took it for granted, but you didn't always take the time to evaluate its worth to you, either. It provided one of the essential spices of life.

Then the lender reappeared, and said, "You remember that was a loan, don't you? And its term is due." You are completely unprepared. No, you didn't properly remember that you were only loaned this precious thing. It has become quite something you cannot live without. At first you find yourself in absolute unwillingness to play by the rules. You will keep this thing, no matter what an earlier agreement might have been. But in your heart you understand that these were the terms, and gradually you realize that giving it back will become part of the fabric of your life as well. In this realization, you examine your heart, which has been quite lazy up until now, and you see very clearly the worth that this loan has had in your life, and you are thankful.

By some incredible reshuffling of the kaleidoscope, then, the lender does not come back when you expect it. The loan is still with you, inexplicably, the same as always, only larger than life now, all its qualities magnified somehow, and set against a backdrop of a perfect summer evening, warm and welcoming, safe and cozy. You don't know how long it will last, but you find yourself wordlessly thankful for the extra time, for however long it lasts.

That's what our time in Iowa has been like.

And it all began with the Gilbertville "Cornerstone Tap"! There is no other place like it, except all the pubs in England where have ventured in, knowing we didn't really belong, but wanting to spend an evening with the locals, and hoping we didn't stick out too much. I first went to Gilbertville with John's dad many years ago, to the Locker where you can order any cut of meat, in any quantity, just for the asking. I have a mysterious soft spot (considering I'm rather squeamish in many ways) for butchers. There's something about appreciating where your dinner comes from, and appreciating the skill it takes to bring it to you, that warms my heart and makes me feel that it's all right not to be vegetarian. I loved my first visit there, coming away with a stack of luscious loin lamb chops that rival anything Scotland can produce in the month of May. Marinated with John's mother's garden rosemary, lemon juice, olive oil and fresh black pepper (never salt lamb raw! it leeches the juices), and then grilled to perfection. You can't beat it.

But we were too hungry when we arrived to contemplate cooking, so thank goodness for the "Cornerstone." Gratefully, we sidled into the Tap and sat down to order a tenderloin. Before we could, however, in marched John's parents' adored friends, several sets of them and their kids, complete with "WELCOME TO IOWA" signs! Totally heartwarming! And could there be a more delicious pork tenderloin on the face of the earth? I don't think so. Delicately breaded, hugely overflowing the bun, piled with red onions, lettuce and tomatoes. And you want to hear something funny? We drank the bar out of gin! And I think we ate everything they had. A glorious perfect evening that reflected one of my favorite wedding toasts: "To friends who are family, and family who are friends."

More soon! About the Bat Mitzvah for our niece in Minneapolis, and Avery's... radical haircut. I told you, we've been busy.

10 July, 2007

summer cooking














No, we're not serving up groundhog, at least not yet! But I couldn't resist posting a picture of darling Gary, the groundhog. Or it could be his offspring, who Avery has christened Canteloupe (guess why). It's hard not to just buy fruit and take it straight out to them. I hope they don't give up on us while we're away for a week in Iowa, and Minnesota.

Yep, we leave tomorrow morning to visit John's parents in Iowa, then drive up (over? I'm unclear) to Minnesota for our niece Sarah's exciting bat mitzvah (my first!), then back to Iowa, then back here in a week. I'm trying not to remember my last trip back from Iowa, in a snowstorm in a tiny four-seater plane. What a bad memory! But tomorrow will be entirely large commercial planes flown by, presumably, professionals, and I'm taking plenty of Bach's Flower Remedies anyway, just in case I get nervous. I am really not much of a traveler.

I just have to tell you about my latest rediscovery: Cornish game hens. In a childhood singularly untouched by events of a noteworthy gastronomic quality, we did eat, for whatever reason, Cornish game hens. Just Perdue, nothing exotic, but I think I discovered them in high school and had some success. Well, yesterday I was planning barbecued chicken, when I was visited by an inspiration. Why not buy some of the little guys and try my invented sauce on them? And it was sublime.

Barbecued Cornish Game Hens
(serves four)


3 Cornish game hens

equal parts (about 3/4 cup each): ketchup, honey, maple syrup, Worcestershire sauce
peel (but not bitter pith) of 1 lemon or lime
3 cloves garlic
half a red onion, cut in chunks

Place all the marinade ingredients in your Cuisinart and whizz till nicely mixed, but with chunks of onion left.

Now here's the trick: split your hens down the back, choosing one side or the other of the spine and cutting the spine away when you've thoroughly split the birds. Throw the spines, with the neck and kidneys from the giblet bag, in a pot and cover with water, salt thoroughly and simmer for a couple of hours. There's a nice pot of chicken stock for you.

Now line a big baking dish or cookie sheet with foil and lay the hens out, then slather with the marinade. Leave as long as you can, but at least an hour.

Fire your grill (we have a propane Weber, thank you Jill and Joel) up to nearly its hottest, about 400 degrees internal temperature. Grill the birds skin side up for 15 minutes, then skin side down for another 15 minutes. Perfection!

*************

And, can I also report a very nice alternative to traditional vinaigrette?

White Balsamic Dressing with Celery
(make however much you like)

3 parts olive oil
1 part white balsamic vinegar (in nice supermarkets, next to the dark sort)
juice of 1 lemon (if making at least a cup total)
1 tsp celery salt
handful celery leaves, chopped coarsely
handful flat parsley leaves, chopped coarsely
1 tsp prepared horseradish
pinch Maldon salt

Place all these in jar with a tightly-sealing lid, or in a bowl to whisk, and mix thoroughly. It looks very delicate and pale, but has a nice kick.

****************

Lastly, I replicated with fair success one of Avery's favorite dishes from our beloved Mandarin Kitchen, in Queensway, London.

Fried Noodles with Sprouts and Onions
(serves four)


1/2 package dried Asian noodles (labelled "for stir-fry")
2 tsps peanut oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 Vidalia onion, sliced thin
2 cups bean sprouts
1 tsp sesame oil
1 tsp soy sauce

Boil water for noodles while you mince the garlic, then cook the noodles as directed and drain thoroughly. Toss in several paper towels. This step is very important as you do not want them to render the dish soggy at all.

Saute the garlic and onion in the peanut oil until soft. Add the noodles and stir fry at as high a heat as you can without burning the garlic. Add the bean sprouts and toss to mix, then pour over the sesame oil and soy sauce, toss to blend. So simple and tasty.

**************

More from Iowa! Is it hot where you are?

09 July, 2007

you CAN go home again















It's official: we're back in America! We made it through a last few days of insane activity (the highlight being a real milestone at King's College: a kiss from the headmistress AND she called me by my first name!), last riding lesson and dinner playdate with Avery's new friend Anastacia (a quite impossibly sophisticated Swiss family in Notting Hill Gate), a last hurried dinner of my favorite garlic and parsley scallops. Finally in Friday we headed off to the airport where we sat through an unexplained five-hour delay, and finally got off. The long car trip up to Connecticut from JKF, Avery sleeping on my lap, whizzing past all the familiar highway exits that we used to pass every Friday evening on our way up from town, to arrive in very foggy darkness at Red Gate Farm. Lights blazing, thank you Farmer Rollie! Bread, eggs and milk in the fridge, thank you neighbors Anne and David... we tumbled into bed. And awoke to a perfect Connecticut morning: blue sky, green meadows, red barn (newly roofed over the winter), and a family of wild turkeys in the side lawn! They did not take kindly to being observed and scuttled quickly back into the woods.

It's a regular wildlife preserve here, especially once John refilled the bird feeders and corn holders, and I had my first canteloupe rind from Avery's breakfast. "That's not even half convincing," John objected. "You just cut that open to lure Gary the Groundhog." Which was true, and it worked! He came quite quickly, trained from last summer to expect the best fruit castoffs. And this morning he brought his little bride! Or perhaps a teenage offspring? Anyway, we have two groundhogs so far. And yesterday when we went to the big barn to haul out the trampoline, there were, high in the rooftops, hundreds of baby bats. A few flew over our heads just to impress us. And chipmunks, dashing importantly from terrace to barn to woodshed, taking bird seed to their nests.

Here's a weird breakfast: pesto on toast. Why eat such a thing? Because I got up super early with a bit of jetlag, and knew we'd want pesto for lunch, and it smelled incredibly good. John and I ended up cutting off endless slices from the excellent Chabaso wheat sourdough bread (voted Connecticut's best bakery!) that Anne and David left for us, toasting it, and slathering it with fresh pesto.

Basil Pesto
(makes about 2 cups)


4 large handfuls fresh basil leaves, stems removed (they're bitter)
1 cup pinenuts
3 cloves garlic
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
juice of 1 lemon
salt to taste (the cheese is salty already)
olive oil

Place all ingredients in a Cuisinart and add about 1 cup olive oil. Whizz till blended, and add more olive oil if needed to get a nice creamy consistency.

**********

Delicious! You can also make this with parsley, cilantro, any highly-flavored green leaves. And you can use hazelnuts or almonds or any other nuts you like. In a pinch I've also used other hard cheeses, like a very highly aged gouda or cheddar. It's very versatile.

We were still ready for more at lunchtime.

Capellini with Fresh Pesto and Crabmeat
(serves four as a light lunch)


1/2 lb capellini, cooked in plenty of salted water
2 tbsps butter, room temperature
1 cup-ish fresh pesto (amount to taste)
1 cup fresh crabmeat

Toss cooked pasta with butter and pesto and mix thoroughly. Once mixed well, toss quickly with crabmeat. So simple and so good.

**********

Then we have been reunited with Sweet Baby Jane, quite simply the sweetest niece that ever lived, and sadly not a baby anymore. (And her parents are pretty nice too.) On Saturday afternoon we headed up north to see Jill and Joel in their perfect house, smelling quite irresistibly of garlic and cheese (Joel is an amazing cook), and the equally irresistible Jane, grown terribly tall and with long real-girl hair. To think this time last summer she was in diapers. She showed us her "real underwear" with great pride, pointing out the stripes as she held up her diminutive khaki skirt.

And there were streamers and a "Happy Birthday" banner for John, since we didn't have a birthday celebration for him this year. Avery immediately set about finding anything longer than it was wide, to serve as a pony jump, and arranged quite a nice course for her new pony, Jane. It was very touching, I must say, to see Jane confidently following Avery in any ploy she suggested. "Run as quickly as you can, and don't stop before the jump, just keep going," Avery instructed, and there was Jane, with her sweaty little brow and earnest expression, "I'm coming, Avery!" It felt almost unbelievable that my little sister and I weren't the children anymore, playing in the backyard, one ordering the other one around (guess which one I was), but it was our CHILDREN running around in my sister's own backyard. How did that happen! Then we heard from way across the lawn, "Cousin Avery, you're my friend." Well, you can live a whole lifetime, as sisters, just to hear that.

But it's hard to be too sentimental when there's food to appreciate. Joel came out with a wickedly tempting appetizer, and it certainly sounds simple. Be sure to use good, real mayonnaise. Joel and Jill report that Miracle Whip (the staple condiment of our childhood) does not work here.

Joel's Artichoke Dip
(serves eight)


1 cup artichoke hearts (fresh or from a jar), chopped
1 cup mayonnaise
1 cup grated parmesan cheese

Mix well and place in a 9 x 9 baking dish (non-stick sprayed to make life easier), or several individual ramekins if you want to place them around an appetizer table at a party. Bake at 400 degrees for about 20-3- minute or until bubbly and brown on top. Serve with toasted baguette rounds or crackers.

*************

Jane makes us all laugh constantly. I had forgotten what a good age two and a half is. I must say here, however, that while most toddlers are luscious, a lot of what makes Jane so wonderful is the way her parents treat her. They speak to her as a real person, reminding her of funny things she's said in the past, taking her opinions seriously, including her in all conversation. Well, almost all. Once I leaned over to Jill to say something I didn't want Jane to hear, and she tapped me on the arm with a sticky little hand and chided, "Aunt Kristen, it's very hard for me to hear what you are saying when you talk so quietly." At one point she reached out toward the cracker dish, and Jill said, "Now, Jane, how would you ask nicely for a cracker?" Jane thought for a minute and then said seriously, "May I please have the whole plate?" She's very vigilant about manners, too. When Avery got up from the dinner table to run her course of jumps again, and invited Jane to join her, Jane said with her brow furrowed, "Avery, I would love to run the jump course, but you should not leave the table while I am still drinking my water."

Jill told the story of taking Jane to the Indy 500 (which my brilliant sister was producing, if you can imagine), and putting the pass around her neck to get to all the behind-the-scenes events. Then later in an airport, Jane saw someone with a similar thing around her neck and the lady said, "Yes, this is my ID." Where upon Jane burst out laughing and said, "No, it's not, it's your credentials!" She reminds us all of little Avery at that age, coming up with hilarious words all on her own, as in the time she approached me in the park, sitting with my other mother friends, and she took my hand, placed her candy wrapper in it, and said, "Here, Mommy, you can have my detritus."

Well, we're off to the library, I think, then the pool. I cannot believe how pale and English we all look, compared to the bronzed gods of New England. And all the other American things we had forgotten: the quite overwhelming fast-paced television ads, the ubiquitous cheer and willingness of salespeople, the enormous cars, and most hilariously, the new campaign on Subway sandwich television advertisements to make what are famously healthy sandwiches HUGER and more fattening than anyone could ever ingest: obviously American appetites are not grooving to the slimline image! There is a slickness and luxury to the most ordinary American experiences that makes me feel protective toward the simple and unassuming English things we've left behind. I hope both ways stay the same and we can have the fun of each. But right now: it's good to be back.

05 July, 2007

last day in London














We're off! The bags are packed, the kitties kissed, the last laundry load and dishwasher load done, summer homework in the suitcase, ready to go. To think: we'll be at the little farmhouse with the red gate, in just a few hours, waking up to birdsong and friendly neighbors, horses up the road and goats and lambs to be petted at the farmer's around the corner, chipmunks running under the terrace and Gary the groundhog to eat scraps of melon left for him. Swimming at the municipal pool, dinners from the grill around the picnic table, I can't wait.

I'll let you know how things go, plus I've got to tell you about our last frantic days here in London. A tantalising titbit (as they say here): Avery won both the Latin Cup (shades of last year!) and the English Prize at Prize Day. We couldn't be more pleased. But more on that from the other side of the pond! See you there...

03 July, 2007

of Peter Pan, more houses, and a great pub














Oh, the school play last night was great. Our friend Amy made a superb Peter Pan, arms akimbo, full of bravery and defiance, and a beautiful voice. Avery was a very beautiful mermaid, whatever she said about the costume falling off and hating her green wig. It was really lovely to see the results of all the hard work, and dear Miss Potts so earnest at the piano. It was touch and go at first, though, as I forgot our tickets. "I hope someone I know is at the ticket desk," I moaned, and luckily it was Mrs Dalling, for whose Form Two classroom I read every Thursday, so I slid under the radar. I've been incredibly flattered the last few days by having the headmistress call me by my first name! So now she can be "Judy." A milestone.

We came home to the duckling that had been roasting while we were away, and simultaneously roasting beets, and a less-than successful pot of rice, but oh well, better than ordering a pizza. You can't do everything.

I feel guilty that we've never taken Avery to the bits in Kensington Garden that relate to Peter Pan. The most I've done is note the blue plaque near the skating rink denoting J.M. Barrie's house. Such a slacker mom. But you can go, and report to us on the charms of the statues (the one pictured above, for example) and suchlike, and then we'll go in the autumn.

The gulls gave a further performance this morning to "the littles," as Avery calls the Lower and Upper Kindergartens. Then we just dropped her off at the big school for her rehearsal for performance number three, this evening. Then it's all over until next year, when Avery's Form Six will have the leads. I can tell you right now that as of tomorrow, a major topic of conversation will be, "I wonder what play we'll do," followed closely by, "I wonder what part I'll get." We wonder, too.

Then today it was back down to earth to see yet two more houses, to further our sense of complete confusion. One a rather forgettable house with a terrible garden and a nasty dark lower floor, but a nice price. Another house with one standout feature: you walk in the lower ground floor and look ALL THE WAY UP at the ceiling of the ground floor, fully 22 feet above your head. The owners just decided to scrap that part of livable space for pure drama. And the funny thing too was that the renovation was very year millennium-style, as our New York loft was: lots of clean edges and lofty bits, and then when your eyes get to the ceiling, finally, you get all the original Victorian mouldings and cornices. Lovely. The rest of the house was far too modern, though, so another bust.

However, we parked our car next to a perfectly ordinary-looking pub and so at lunchtime took a peek at the menu and it looked unexpectedly nice and fresh, so we ordered fish and chips and a burger for me, and lo and behold: by far the best of either dish that we've had in London. Light, crispy fish, a delicious chunky homemade tartare sauce, and the burger slathered with melted cheddar, fried onions and a spicy piccallili. So... The Kensington, it's called. In Russell Gardens, W14. I'm trying to find any more information about it, and in fact emailed the manager hoping to get more of a sense of how they, let's see, how to phrase it diplomatically, leapt from the dire chasm of ordinary pub food to be so delicious? When I find out I'll let you know...

01 July, 2007

a little more theatre before we go














But before I tell you about the greatly improved second go at "The Pain and the Itch" on Saturday (plus some great celebrity sighting), I must confess: we just broke a fundamental school rule: a party on Sunday night. AND the Sunday night before the Monday performance of the school play, "Peter Pan." It was like this. I invited several families, FAMILIES mind you, to our house for a nice end-of-year get together. A little champagne, a little dinner, the gulls could play together, it begins at 5 and ends at 8. Done. No problem.

Into this happy scenario comes a last-minute birthday party from one of the gulls in Form Five, in Notting Hill-ish, to throw a wrench into everyone's plans. Oy veh. In the meantime, of course, it occurred to Becky and me that Avery and one of her girls would be riding at the stables all afternoon. Becky gallantly offered to pick them up early, take them home to hose them off, and take them to the party, whereupon she and her two other gulls and husband would come to us for dinner. Except.

The school headmistress actually telephoned the Birthday Party Mum and told her in no uncertain terms to end the party early! As in, shortly after our dinner was to begin. Grrr. So what was to be a lazy evening of Moroccan meatballs, Lebanese cucumbers from Green Valley in sour cream, fresh dill and lemon juice, and steamed new potatoes with parsley and olive oil, turned into a race against time. How fast can you chew? In fact, is chewing really necessary when you can just... swallow? Ah well, everyone came prepared to have a good time, and we did. The enormous mound of strawberries I'd prepared, accompanied by freshly whipped double Devonshire cream with vanilla, disappeared in record time. It was three families plus ours, and the conversation ranged between the school play and next year's tests, which topics I must say can keep most parents busy for hours. But we didn't have hours. Before we knew it, we were ripping forks from peoples' mouths as one little sister murmured, "it's 7 o'clock," whilst simultaneously asking for more strawberries. Just an end-of-year frustration, but better than eating alone! Next autumn we will plan a much more extensive debauchery, I promise. Four courses, at least.

But I digress. The play! As you know, my friend 6point7 and I had been to see "The Pain and the Itch" last week, as an extra for the theatre Open House day. But the ticket I had for this Saturday had been burning a hole in my calendar since I booked it in March, so I was quite excited. And it was worth the wait. Due to unpleasantness on Park Lane on Friday (a bit daunting, a block from our flat), the traffic was such that I ended up walking to the theatre, and can I just say: the humidity was like walking through a wet paper towel. By the time I got to the Royal Court I was feeling like I'd been steam-cleaned, only not clean. 6point7 (otherwise known as Sue!) and I met up with fellow Matthew Macfadyen fans Caz and JoAnn in the bar before the play. How can I describe Caz as a "fan"? In fact she is THE fan, initiator of the wonderful fansite that was, for me, such a great distraction last year during our move. It was just lovely to meet her in person, and JoAnn is a transplanted New Jersey girl who will be living in Oxford for the foreseeable future, so we have plans to meet again in the autumn. And sitting next to JoAnn, perfectly friendly and sociable? Trevor Eve and Sharon Maughan, live and in person! Very exciting indeed. It is hard to believe they're old enough to be parents of the gorgeous Alice Eve, so impressive in Starter For Ten. Did she actually get to kiss James McAvoy, lucky girl?

The comic timing of the play was much improved, Matthew better than ever, and even the slightly irritating little girl in the cast was not quite so irritating. And after the play we sat down for a drink at a table just adjacent to... Keeley Hawes, Matthew's wife, and her family. And in just a moment, there he was, ready to relax. I thought Caz would faint. Can't wait to read her account on the boards.

But for now I'm off to my last "Creative Nonfiction" class. It's been such fun. The assignments are really mind-bending: "choose a small object that has significance in your life and write an essay about it." "Choose a photograph from your history and write a story about it." And today, "Choose a person in your life that you knew up until that person's death, and describe your relationship in an essay with a beginning, a middle and an end." I shall be sorry when the class is over, but the tutor, Amy Prior, thinks she will teach a continuation next term. It's good just for the feedback and the discipline. This morning at breakfast John asked, "Did you finish your homework?" and Avery started and said, "I didn't have any!" "Not you," he laughed, "I was talking to Mummy."