28 August, 2008
end of the idyll
So hard to believe we're back in London... but it requires nothing more for verification than to look out the window and find GREY GREY GREY. Yep, we're back.
To think that a week ago we were hanging out with Rollie in the yard, pulling old green shutters out of the big barn, holding them up to the house, examining the hardware. "Could be you could use some of these without much repairs at all," Rollie opined, but we all agreed the paint needed to be darker, so it was off to the hardware store to choose. Actually I let John, his mom and Avery choose (Benjamin Moore's very first invented color, "Litchfield Green"!)while I acquired ingredients at the grocery next door (The Southbu Food Cent, Avery always points out, loving to see each summer which neon letters don't work). Ingredients for what, you ask? Merely for the Best Lunch of the Summer.
Of course in order to have the best lunch of the summer you need already to have had the best dinner of the summer, which involves ordering four lobsters from David Thomas Lobster in Islesford, Maine, and then sitting on your heels waiting for them to arrive. And arrive they do! Rollie was sitting on my new L.L. Bean whitewashed cedar Adirondack chair, keeping us up to date with the progress of haying on Platt's Farm, the price of a gravel-mover purchased from the Department of Sanitation versus the price from a defunct farm, when up pulled FedEx. Every summer the guy is bemused by the square box from Maine marked "PERISHABLE," and makes a big play of it bouncing around in his hands. "Hand it over!" I say, and he says, "Give me one of what's inside, then," and then tells me the latest about the guy up the road who gets ONE bottle of wine delivered, OVERNIGHT. "Don't want to think about what THAT bottle costs him, before he even gets to drink it, "the FedEx guy says, finally relinquishing my lobsters and chuckling, till it all happens again next summer.
John's mom smiled to see the box. "What's this, then, perishable?" and I had to grin to say, "Of course it's lobsters from Dave Thomas, you wouldn't think we'd forget a summer tradition?" It was hard to tear ourselves away for our tennis lesson, and I think Avery and I were worse than ever. "You need two-hour lessons, two times a week so you don't forget everything between one lesson and the next," Val instructed, and Avery looked quite faint. We sat down in the sun at the edge of the road to wait for our ride, and she said, "I think we should wait until we see how school goes, before I sign up for any more lessons..." John came to get us in Quincy, our intrepid green Land Rover, a year younger than I am and MUCH more reliable. How is it that our ten-year old VW can't keep its battery intact over the winter but the Land Rover starts right up every time?
Home for steamed lobsters with the best aioli (just enough garlic and plenty of lemon zest, my condiment of the summer), sauteed red peppers, baguette slices, bean salad. Avery happily eats rigatoni alla vodka sauce as this carnivorous feast takes place under her nose.
And the next day for lunch, because John's mom and I are appreciative if wimpy lobster eaters and leave plenty of leftovers:
Lobster Rolls with Aioli
1 lobster tail for each person, or what we had: three tails and one extra claw), steamed and chilled
1/2 cup good mayonnaise
zest and juice of 1 lemon
1 clove garlic, minced with salt
four hot-dog rolls, top-split as they do in New England
Cut each lobster tail and/or claw into smallish bite-size pieces and place in a large bowl, then mix in all the other ingredients and let sit for a minute or two while you toast the hot-dog rolls. Note that these are not called "buns" as they were in my Midwestern childhood, nor are they side-split. They are top-split, which allows for much nicer presentation.
Open the toasted rolls as much as you dare, then pile on the lobster salad and enjoy!
Tomato-Mozzarella Towers with Pinenuts
1 perfectly ripe tomato per person
3 balls mozzarella, sliced thick to make 12 slices
1/2 cup pinenuts, toasted lightly in a skillet or oven till light brown
good drizzle olive oil, perhaps 1/3 cup
sprinkle balsamic vinegar
juice of 1/2 lemon
handful of fresh basil, sliced thin (chiffonade)
zest of whole lemon
salt and pepper
On a nice platter, start with a slice of tomato for each person, then build upwards: a slice of mozzarella, another slice of tomato, until you run out. Sprinkle with pinenuts, letting them tumble down onto the platter. Then you may either mix the dressing ingredients (olive oil, balsamic and lemon juice) or you can sprinkle them separately over the towers. Zest the lemon right over the towers, sprinkle with basil and season with salt and pepper. Divine.
This recipe was taken (OK, I adapted it a little: left out the red onion) from Lynne Rosetto Kasper's new cookbook, "How To Eat Supper," a present from John's mom which I now CHERISH. I cannot explain what makes this salad so much nicer than just tomato-mozzarella, which you all know I can eat several times a week. It's to do with the velvety crunch of the pinenuts, the refreshing tang of the lemon zest, and the fun of the towers. Try them! Two more great recipes from that cookbook to come, below...
We ended the Perfect Lunch with a quarter of a seedless watermelon, simply slicing it on the rind at the table and diving in. And plenty on the rind for Gary later on!
All too soon it was Thursday morning and time for Nonna to fly away: first we took a walk up to John's dad's bench, with Rollie's son Chris haying, sitting high in his John Deere tractor making enormous circles in the meadow. Guess where the expression "hay" fever comes from, duh! I had never before identified it quite so closely with the real thing! I compounded this experience with a visit to the horses, Molly and Cisco in the back meadow, where everyone but me fed them treats and petted them (I'm dumb, but not that dumb), and then we saw John's mom off, John chauffeuring her to the airport. Avery and I stood at the little red gate and waved at them, feeling bereft.
It was hard to separate the symptoms of missing John's mom from the symptoms of extreme allergic reaction, so I decided medication was the better part of valor and took a Benadryl and some other antihistamine and felt awful. Luckily, Konnie and Taylor came over to visit, and after playing with Hastings for a bit, they all took Avery to wash Pokey the Pony with them and do something complicated in the stables, so with little regret I watched them all walk up the dusty road, away. John turned in at the driveway and I fed us luscious crab rolls (just the same as lobster rolls only you need copious amounts of fresh-picked Maine crab sent to you along with the lobsters), and then Avery turned back up and she and John went to Quassy! I, on the other hand, collapsed for an allergy-induced nap... two hours of absolute bliss!
Avery and John returned in time to get cleaned up for Rollie and Judy's dinner visit, and would you believe when I looked back at my blog of last summer, I fed them EXACTLY the same things?? What are the odds? That's why real hostesses keep logs of these things, no? But the chicken recipe deserves to be mentioned one more time:
Lillian Hellman Chicken
8 boneless chicken breasts
1 cup Hellman's mayonnaise (get it?)
1 cup grated pecorino or parmesan cheese
juice of 1 lemon
sprinkle garlic salt
1 1/2 cups fresh breadcrumbs
First, make sure your assembly line works: you need a flat surface to trim the chicken, then to the right of that a bowl in which you've mixed the mayo, cheese, lemon juice, garlic salt and pepper. Then to the right of that bowl you need a shall bowl of the breadcrumbs, then you need a cookie sheet past that. Whew.
So smear the chicken breasts one at a time liberally with the mayo mixture (just dipping will not work, smear it with a spoon), then push them each firmly onto the breadcrumbs on both sides, then place on the cookie sheet with space between each. Bake at 400 degrees for 30 minutes, until nicely browned. But not much longer (I did once and they were drier than I'd like).
With this we had scalloped corn (just cut raw off the cob, sprinkled with garlic and with some cream poured over and baked) and the inevitable tomato mozzarella salad, not even towers! But we enjoyed ourselves. Hastings discovered how much more fun it is to go out onto the terrace when it's nearly dark than when it's afternoon, and how ALL his people will follow him madly if he runs away! Both Rollie and Judy proved a dab hand at rescuing an escaped mad kitten.
We sat long into the evening over the cookies John's mom had left behind, and the two flavors of Rich's ice cream Judy brought. Anne and Katie popped in to carry away the remains of the scalloped corn to have with their own salmon, and got a handful of cookies too! We heard Dave's car pull into their driveway and it was so cozy to think of them all together across the road.
Well, sadly Friday morning was spent trying to clear up our messy house to show to our beloved friends Olimpia and Tony who were coming to lunch: we have been to their country hideaway in the Catskills several times for Olimpia's incomparable Italian feasts, but I had never cooked for her, nor had they seen Red Gate Farm, so... it was time to make nice neat piles of all the detritus of our busy summer: Avery's lanyards (both the raw materials and the dozens of key rings, bracelets, zipper pulls and such that resulted), beads and the resulting bead rings, piles of books opened to the pages where they were left, library books carefully separated, clean folded laundry with no drawer space to hold it! The swim bag filled with towels and suits, water bottles on the window sill, tennis rackets, badminton rackets, bird seed! Recipes cut from Real Simple, Hello! magazine, the local newspaper... Hastings' toys with strings, bells, feathers!
And then Olimpia and Tony arrived for lunch on possibly the most beautiful afternoon of the whole summer. I tried two new recipes (both from Lynne Rosetto Kasper's new cookbook, so you can see how much I love it), and they were very much appreciated. How happy it makes me to see people eat! John began at one point to take away a platter that looked empty and Olimpia slapped his hand, "What are you doing? No, no, that's not ready to be taken away!" and sopped up a little more balsamic dressing with a piece of baguette! Perfect. The two new and notable dishes of the day were:
Slow-Simmered Warm Canellini Salad with Rosemary
(serves four hungry people with other bits on offer as well)
1 tbsp butter
3 tbps olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
handful fresh rosemary, then chopped roughly
2 soup-cans canellini beans, drained and rinsed
1 cup fresh breadcrumbs
4 tbsps grated parmesan cheese
salt and pepper
1/2 bag baby greens (radicchio, arugula, baby spinach, etc)
The key to this dish is be GENTLE, and don't rush it. You can cook the garlic, rosemary and beans ahead of time (as in an hour or so), but the assembly must wait till right before serving so nothing gets mushy or disintegrates.
Heat the butter and oil and add the garlic and rosemary. On a VERY low heat just barely bubble them till the garlic is soft. Do NOT brown. Then add the beans and stir around, and let simmer super low as long as you want, within reason, as in about an hour TOPS.
Put the breadcrumbs in a skillet on LOW heat and toast them till they're dry. Again, be patient. Don't quit toasting them till they're dry. You want them to float on top of the salad, not absorb any oil. When they're toasted, take them off the heat and when they're room-temperature, scatter the cheese on top.
When you're ready to serve, turn the heat UP and add the greens and breadcrumbs and cheese, and salt and pepper. Toss with tongs until mixed well and serve immediately.
Scandinavian Flower-Egg Salad with Mustard and Dill
(serves four hungry people with other bits on offer as well)
2 tbsps mayonnaise
1 lb small red potatoes, steamed
8 eggs, hard-boiled
1 head Bibb (Boston, butter, depending on where you are) lettuce
1 part white wine vinegar
3 parts olive oil
3 parts heavy-grain mustard
2 tsps sugar
1 clove garlic, minced
salt and pepper
Shake up all ingredients in a tightly covered jar.
handful dill, chopped
1/2 red onion, diced small
On a large plate, smooth the mayonnaise in a thin layer. Slice the red potatoes thickly and arrange them in a layer on the mayonnaise. Cut the eggs in quarter wedges and arrange on the potatoes as flower petals. Chop the lettuce into slivers and scatter over eggs.
At serving time, drizzle prettily with dressing and then scatter with dill and red onion. Delicious, and so light!
Oh, these were so lovely! I also roasted a nice plump chicken breast and sliced it thick on a bed of butter lettuce, more (as John rightly pointed out later) as a sop to the feeling that one had to have some MEAT than for any menu-planning reason, and there were plenty of baguette chunks for sauce-sopping, believe me. Lastly, there was the beautiful tomato-mozzarella tower I'm so fond of. We were so happy! My favorite way to eat: lots of different things but they all go together.
We took them on a tour of the strangely-neat house, as well as the lovely horse meadow. Such fun to show off what I truly think is one of the most peaceful spots there is: Red Gate Farm. Becky arrived to pick up Avery for one last Greenwich adventure of the summer, and I loved introducing two of my favorite people to each other! It occurs to me how much fun I had all summer, introducing my beloved Becky to people. It turns out that whoever I'm with, they're some of my favorite people.
Of course Olimpia left behind a tub of her precious meatballs and beef ribs, simmered FOREVER in her inimitable tomato sauce, so John and I selfishly ate them ALL for supper, sparing not a thought for Avery who would return the next day. We went for a ride on what Avery calls "scary road," off Hull's Hill, in Quincy, nearly splitting him into pieces with the state of the pothills! Avery hates the road for its sheer drop on the left side, over a ravine and a creek, but what I always object to is John's turn up an abandoned road that becomes nearly impassable and ends in a pile of charred logs with lord knows what disgusting things left behind by marauding teenagers. We turned back down, and were met at the bottom of the road by... one of Southbury's finest. What are the odds? "That road passable?" he asked John to which John replied, "It was to me, not so sure about you." We decided some neighbor had called the police on us!
We packed up some more, watching the Olympics. My friend Alyssa and I have come up with any number of drinking games based on the ridiculous hyperbole indulged in by the commentators ("unbelievable!" "iconic!" "superlative!") but my favorite phrase of all was uttered during the men's pommel horse. "He literally fell apart during the semi-finals!" I'd love to see that. LITERALLY.
Saturday afternoon saw us on the Merritt one last time to pick up Avery from Anna's house and to pry both Anna from Avery AND me from Becky. Not nice. But we have high hopes of Christmas together, so we refrained from too much weeping and wailing. Mostly Avery was totally silent in the backseat, until we could convince her to tell us the plot from "Legally Blonde," which they had watched the night before. It's funny what will comfort any given person at any given time. We didn't have much time to be melancholy anyway, with Joel, Jane, Anne, David and Katie coming for The Last Supper, so I was grateful for that. Sitting one last time on the terrace stones shucking corn and watching Hastings bound around... and a crazy mixed-up dinner of "Grilled This and That," cleaning out the fridge of veggies and condiments to go with. Chicken marinated in sesame oil, lime juice and soy sauce, burgers on hard rolls, hot sausages: and plenty of sliced onions, tomatoes, avocadoes and cheese to go with everything. Joel brought the traditional Frederickson tomatoes: contrary to most people's morays, we peel them after a quick boil, then chill them all afternoon in a stainless steel dish that looks like it just held a kidney during a transplant. Cold peeled tomatoes are a luxury, as far as I'm concerned: thanks, Joel.
John appointed Jane "Chef's Assistant" which she tried valiantly to pronounce. She appeared at one point during the cooking and put her hands on her hips (as she so often does). "John says the chef's assistant needs to tell you... [momentary hesitation for pronouns' sake] that he has dropped a sausage on the ground and what should he do with it?" Avery played games of alliteration, "Kinetic Katie," "Crafty Katie," although that brought on the debate: is alliteration sound or letter? Tough questions. Katie herself remains above all these petty concerns, merely opening her china-blue eyes wide and smiling at us, if we're lucky.
Sunday we executed such sad chores as rolling the trampoline into the big barn, locking the Everything Shed, putting the swim bag away in the laundry room, and getting ready to... leave Hastings. The car service arrived and Avery carried him up to her bed, where he sleeps with a crazy fluffy cat Olimpia gave her many Christmases ago... and she had to leave him there, all wet from her tears, to be picked up by my dear friend Shelley on Tuesday. A horrible, horrible moment. And off we went. "Was it not worth it, Avery, to have him this summer, if it makes you so sad?" I asked, and she looked at me and said, "But being so sad is what MAKES you know it was worth it." If only I could always approach separation and bereavement so wisely.
And guess what? "Home" is still here! We're back in London to settle in, to remember the new house I spent less time in before we left than I spent at Red Gate Farm! And the kitties are HUGE! All of them. Keechie is limping today, so she's destined for the first visit to the new vet this afternoon; I can't think what she's done to her ankle, but it's since we arrived back home, because she was racing around greeting us when we came in.
Honestly, it's nice to be back. John goes off for work in the mornings just like a normal husband and father! He came in last night just at dinner time, to Avery practicing the piano and me stirring the bolognese. "So this is what it feels like to have a job!" he laughed.
I spent all afternoon yesterday sewing the new-school name tapes on Avery's PE kit: it turns out that no matter how excited we all are for her to start her new school, name tapes are a big, honking BORE anyway. But they're done, and she has cleaned out her pencil case, put name tags on all her backpack belongings, and all we need is lacrosse boots (Avery is massively underwhelmed by THAT prospect, I can tell you).