30 December, 2008

the most fun you can have

With the simplest ingredients: your practically best friend (who happens to be your mother in law), your sister who you hardly ever get to see and her completely charming family, your 19th wedding anniversary with a perfectly good husband you're more than happy to keep for another 19 years, a charming child who can write poems for your Christmas present AND control the iPod that you yourself cannot understand, so providing Christmas music for the duration...

We have had, in short, the loveliest possible holiday. The only dark spot has been this lung-crushing cough that I cannot seem to shake: the very one I caught just as we left London, the sentiment ringing in my ears from SO many sources, "This thing hung on for WEEKS." It's officially three weeks tomorrow, and I'm thoroughly sick of losing a lung every other hour, I can tell you. But no fever, and I feel fine, so I just sort of persevere.

Right now I am ensconced in bed, typing away, watching the very occasional car pass slowly down our road, through the old, wavery glass of our bedroom windows, wondering who is passing by so late at night, wondering what they make of our candles lit in the window sills (our nightly communication with Anne and David and Kate across the road), our Christmas tree twinkling in the window of the front hall. I love sitting up here in any season, looking up as the infrequent headlights make their way down our bumpy, untended road, passing through summer and winter mists, rain and snow.

Part of the delight of the holiday has been the success in giving the right gift to the right person. Our big gift to Avery was an original illustration from her favorite book ever, "The Mysterious Benedict Society." After much laborious and (I must say) annoying correspondence with the illustrator's agent in Seattle, we managed to arrange for what I thought would be her favorite illustration, to be sent to my sister in Connecticut, and here it was. And although most of our friends thought we had lost our tiny minds to give such a gift ("why would she care?" being the most frequent response), she was in HEAVEN. Just in awe. The hand of the artist! And a hand-written thank-you note to go with it. Heaven.

And Jane, can I tell you how much she adored her felt? Well, you can tell. Her Uncle John explained helpfully that felt is made to be thrown in the air (so sorry, I must say, to her parents) and so we have been finding felt for days. But the point is, that little girl was awfully happy for that bit, throwing her felt in the air.

And then we went visiting: to see the adopted family of our lovely Hastings, kitten of the summer... Thank you, Shelley, Erik, Cassandra and Rebecca for the perfect evening, a glorious coq au vin, and for the sweet assurance that our lovely kitten is happy and quite, quite cosseted.

Then we received a visit from my dear friend Sarah, with whom I used to speak at least seventeen times a day when we were writing our book, raising our babies, feeding our husbands. I fed her roast chicken salad with pine nuts, sweetcorn, chives and lemon zest, and stuffed mushrooms. Those alone were worth the price of admission.

Stuffed Mushrooms
(serves four)

12 medium white, button or baby bella mushrooms, stems removed to make a little cap
1 tbsp butter
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 slices Canadian bacon, outer skin removed and diced very small
3 tbsps goats cheese
2-3 fresh breadcrumbs
squeeze of fresh lemon juice

In a small skillet, melt butter and saute garlic till soft. Add bacon and goats cheese and stir till cheese is melted. Remove from heat and stir in breadcrumbs till you achieve a thick consistency, suitable for spooning. Add lemon juice and mix well. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Spoon into mushroom caps and bake at 350 till bubbly and beginning to brown, perhaps 10-12 minutes. Stand back and watch them be devoured.


With these lovely dishes we had completely un-seasonal but very refreshingly tasty towers of tomato and mozzarella, sprinkled with pine nuts and lemon zest, balsamic and olive oil, drizzled with homemade pesto. We feasted. And gossiped, and caught up. The tricky part of seeing Sarah is that I remember how much my life was enhanced by seeing her, or talking to her, all the time; I simply have to stamp down my feelings of regret at the sad infrequency of our fun together.

Then we found ourselves cruising the cozy holiday streets of West Hartford on our way to dinner with my sister and her family. Can I tell you how many ways there are to make bolognese sauce? At least two: mine, and my brother in law Joel's version, made with GORGEOUS huge chunks of fennelly Italian sausage and big tomato bites. Baguette bites, steamed broccoli, it couldn't have been a better set of flavors. Jane is revelling in her various roles: big sister to tiny Molly, happy recipient of everyone's Christmas largesse, adored niece and cousin to us. Does it get any more exciting than colored bath water and a bevy of relatives to admire it? I don't think so, not for Jane. Their house is a haven of comfort: warm, happy, elegant, teeming with holiday spirit and the most perfect food. A memory to comfort us in the long, chilly grey London winter ahead.

And then... then we made pasta. You know how scared I was, in London, before I had my lesson. And I didn't follow the cardinal rule of things you're scared of: do it RIGHT AWAY AGAIN once you've done it once. I just left it aside. Until yesterday. We spent the day, sunny and cold, getting to and shopping in Litchfield, one of our favorite family outings, revelling in the all-white houses, the perfectly restrained Christmas decorations, the supremely friendly all-American attitude of everyone we meet. And on the way, in the otherwise forgettable hamlet of New Milford, we ran into the Maine seafood truck that comes to Woodbury on Thursdays in summer, and acquired two lobster tails and a quantity of shucked oysters. And came home, in an impossibly orange sunset, to... COOK our hearts out.

In a welter of flour, garlic, boiling lobster, claw crabmeat, celery salt from Wales and the last throes of Christmas music, we made fresh ravioli: one batch of lobster and crab flecked with lemon zest and sea salt, and one of spinach, ricotta, Canadian bacon dice and nutmeg. With a sauce of browned butter and fried whole sage leaves, two and a half hours later we sat down to a huge platter of ravioli and proceeded to devour it ALL within fifteen minutes. Slightly out of proportion to the effort it took, the meal was hilarious and happy and short, and we were in heaven. Altogether one of the happiest, most frantic, laughing and creative evenings ever, spent the way I like it: with my best cooking companion in Rosemary and a mad spirit of energy pervading over all. At the very end John got in on the action, making tagliatelle of the leftover dough and laughing with childhood memories of pasta extravaganzas... a completely happy night.

In between chores for dinner, we managed to put together a second holiday season oyster stew which played its part as lunch today, during the fluffy snowstorm that lasted all afternoon. I made a banana and apple cake, took a nap, watched my soap operas, generally took advantage of the last luxuriously lazy day of the holiday. Tomorrow brings my dear, dear friend Alyssa and her family from the city, Jill and her family, for a New Year's Day celebration. I've instructed everyone to bring extra clothing so the kids can get good and cold, good and wet, sledding and such, and then come in for homemade pizza and hot chocolate. The grownups will be tucking into brisket which simmered all evening today. The watchwords for my holiday? Family, friends, long car rides getting to each, food and snow. If 2009 is the same, I count myself lucky.


min said...

It sounds like you had a glorious holiday! I tried several of your recipes during past two weeks and all met with rave revues! Eggplant stew, lemon cake, and red pepper soup were all hits. I fully intended to attempt your bread recipe for a party we had but time ran away from me. Now that things have slowed down I am itching to make a stab at it. Happy New Yar and thank you for sharing your recipes and everything else.

Kristen In London said...

oh, Min, the holiday was lovely! I hope yours was too. I am thrilled to hear you had a successful time with several recipes. I made the focaccia over Christmas and I'd add the advice to cover the rising dough not with a damp towel but with clingfilm resting right on it: I had a problem with the dough drying out and the bits that did were really tough when baked. I also plan to branch out next time and add sauteed pancetta to the dough, or little bits of mozzarella...

Don't forget the apple banana cake! Happy New Year, and thank you as always for your kind comments.