30 January, 2009

from Italy to a middle school anniversary

It's one of those disconcerting nights that should be the answer to a parent's prayer: child away for a party and sleepover! And yet we knew we'd miss her, and we did. Twelve years old is a funny thing: there's almost no downside (horrible slang word), very little caretaking or annoying tasks or interruption of one's own agenda. There's just the amusing, entertaining, touching conversation, and the fun of hearing what's happening in the world from Avery's point of view. The only upside (sorry) is the opportunity to cook something she doesn't like. But even the fun of that is really overshadowed by her absence. I try to grab some irritation against her by finding piles of dirty clothes everywhere, like Hansel and Gretel's trail. One outfit under my desk where she changed to go to her party, another set of outergarments in the living room where she watched "The West Wing" with us before she left, and don't even MENTION her bedroom! A frightening display of sartorial disarray. But in all honesty, the little piles just made me miss her more.

We've been unusually busy this week. It is a truth of my life that making plans ahead of time are the only way I get out of my routine. Let to my own spontaneous devices, I would always choose to go home with John and Avery and be cozy! Thankfully, this week I had an invitation to a truly lovely exhibition of Italian art, to which you should go if you get a chance. I am not really a fan of even slightly representational art, preferring complete abstraction, preferably black and white. I was invited to this show because the artist is represented in Italy by the father (are you following this?) of Avery's friend Jamie's mother, who is in my writing class. She is the most cultured person I know: not so much sophisticated as unbelievably well educated. She speaks English, French, Italian and German fluently. She is one of the few people in my life who could honestly give a rat's whatever that I have a PhD in art history. To her, it matters, a lot. And so I warranted a invitation to her father's event.

The night arrived. I had made another lemon cake during the day, this one studded with blueberries (the jury's out on how much they mattered, but it was still lovely), so the kitchen was very bakery-cozy and enticing. To make matters worse, I started a saucepan of tomato sauce and then hit upon a very unexpected and delicious addition to it, and then added luxurious lamb meatballs to the simmering perfume... and then I had to LEAVE and go out into the horrid rainy, spitty, cold dark London world and make it to the exhibition, to return in time for dinner. As I say, it's a good thing I had made the plan ahead of time because with this in store, I would rather have stayed home.

Lamb Meatballs in Fresh Herb Tomato and Roasted Red Pepper Sauce
(serves 6)

for the sauce:
3 tbsps olive oil
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 white onion, minced
1 tbsp Italian seasoning
1/2 cup red wine
3 soup-size cans peeled plum tomatoes
1 tbsp each: chopped fresh oregano, rosemary, sage, flat-leaf parsley
1 large red pepper, roasted
2 tbsps creme fraiche
1 tsp sugar

for the meatballs:
1 kilo (2 lbs) minced lamb
3 cloves garlic
1 handful flat-leaf parsley, chopped fine

It's an assembly job. Mince your garlic and onion and saute them in the olive oil till soft. Add the Italian seasoning and the wine and cook until the volume of wine is reduced by half. Add tomatoes, crushing them into the saucepan with your hands and including the juice. Add fresh herbs and stir well over medium heat till bubbling. Whizz the pepper with the creme fraiche and sugar until a smooth-ish paste, then add to tomato sauce.

While the sauce bubbles, knead the lamb, garlic and parsley together until well mixed. Form into little balls about the diameter of a thumb, then drop into the sauce and poach until cooked through, at least 30 minutes over a low simmer. Serve with grated parmesan cheese, a nice salad of rocket, mozzarella and artichoke hearts.


Believe you me, it was difficult to leave home with this ambrosial concoction on the stove. But leave I did. And the show at the Italian Cultural Institute was worth the visit, especially if you groove to figurative work. Go, it's an aesthetic adventure, and you can escape the crush I experienced the night of the opening: all the crowds and wet coats of my own openings at my New York gallery lo these many years ago, without the authority!

Beyond that, we've been keeping the January depressions at bay by playing ridiculous amounts of tennis. It's been bl**dy freezing, but that doesn't stop us. Out we go with our raquets, an enormous bottle of water, shivering our way toward the courts near Avery's school, hoping to see her as she slopes toward the games green for the dreaded lacrosse or netball exercises, poor girl. Her Christmas report card pointed up a lack of... stick skills. This replaces the old complaint of missing... ball skills. Of all the skills in the world she might possess - underwater basket weaving, fluency in Louisiana dialects, fencing - ball and stick skills or the lack thereof do not move me to tears.

Yesterday was quite an anniversary: a year ago Avery took her exam, six long hours worth, for the school that would eventually become her home. And a little friend from her primary school sat the exam yesterday, so we felt it would be nice to pick her up and give her a nice relaxing afternoon as a reward. Sophie, Avery, John and I headed off to the dreaded ice skating rink, then, for a spin among the masses. I am completely torn: the rink is a dreadful place of noise, smells, screaming children and misery, and yet... it's the Friday ritual and as such has a sort of irreplaceable security about it. Friday, must be the rink. I always try to plow through a cookbook or memoir, pen in hand, make notes that will end up as part of a chapter, as I sit trying to catch a glimpse of my child who always manages to skate JUST outside my range of vision. It is all part of the experience. Somehow, as soon as I leave the rink behind, I feel a weekly sort of nostalgia for the security and sweetness of their fun on the ice, the half hour or hour that an expert is in charge of her education. It reminds me of the half-hour modern-dance lesson she used to take when a three-year-old. My mother would say, "It must be like herding cats," and it was, to gather up those tiny children, and when Loretta bent her southern drawl (by way of Tribeca) toward those little sprites in their pink leotards, I felt quite tearful at her authority! I was not in charge, for a whole half hour. Such lovely memories of the so-short time she was below my shoulder and IQ level.

Today was a visit to the Victoria and Albert for a perusal with my friend Jo (in for the day from Oxford) to the William Morris exhibition. I always have a difficult time remembering quotations, but one I do carry around with me is Morris's view that one's home must contain "only that which one believes to be beautiful, or to be useful." I am paraphrasing, but the point is that his interiors were utterly joyous in their celebration of human creativity in useful objects: desks, carpets, wallpapers, china, anything that would work must be made beautiful. It was a joy. We ended up up for tea across the road at the chic and tempting Brompton Quarter Cafe in Egerton Street, for a perfect pot of fresh ginger, lemon and honey concoction, the spot-on antidote for the cold and blowy day (of course I was wearing a VERY short tweedy skirt and a sleeveless outer gilet, stupid me to favor fashion over protection). Jo and had our usual confab of womanly wisdom. What does one do without girlfriends? I hope I never have to find out. A lovely flirt with the charming guy behind the counter at the adjacent Quarter Grocer rounded out a perfect afternoon.

And our dinner tonight? An old Italian favorite. Light, spicy, complex.

Spaghetti Puttanesca
(serves 4)

1/2 lb spaghetti
3 tbsps olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 red onion, minced
1 handful (200 grams-ish) oil-cured black olives, pitted
1 soup-size can peeled tomatoes, cut in sixths
3 tbsps capers, rinsed if held in salt
6 anchovies, rinsed
1 cup grated parmesan cheese

Boil spaghetti. In the meantime, mince the garlic and onion. Saute in olive oil in a saucepan, then when soft, add the olives, tomatoes, capers and anchovies. Saute till mixed. Throw in the drained spaghetti and serve with cheese.


Tomorrow will see us picking up Avery from her sleepover party (the theme: Black and White Films, how cool is that), dropping her at the stable, and preparing John's longed-for pork tenderloin in milk for dinner. I'm thinking a little pretentious stuffing of chopped sage, garlic, mushrooms, bacon and goats cheese cannot go amiss? Watch this space...


Anonymous said...

I am in awe of how you think of things in terms of the pork and then the stuffing that comes to your mind! Wow! I think I have to slow myself down and do more time following directions. I am trying to improvise way before I am ready. I need a sense of direction with seasoning. Any suggestions as to learning the way with spices? I have diagnosed my problem as trying to improvise when I am missing a called for ingredient. I think I become to heavy handed with spices not called for in panic.
On another note, 12 and 13 are such tender ages, I have a sweet 13 year old boy who is finding his own ground with us but still reminding us of the big hearted guy he always was. I know that we have been told that parenting a teenager would be difficult, but I have been finding a lot of joy and discovery in the process.

Kristen In London said...

Well, my husband vetoed stuffing the pork, wanted it perfectly plain although studded with whole garlic. I ended up making the stuffing for mushrooms! I'd say give yourself plenty of room to do the basics with spices. Get yourself Delia Smith (are you in the UK?), or Craig Claiborne in the US, and read about classic pairings. Lamb and rosemary, pork and sage, beef, tarragon and mustard. Indian spices like turmeric and cumin in Asian dishes, oregano, basil and marjoram in Italian. Then experiment as you like!

I love your musings on your teenager... I hope mine is as sweet as yours when the time comes!

min said...

Thanks for the advice on spicing (is that a word?). I am in NYC. I will try Claiborne and try to control my urge to add more when all that is called for is patience and maybe a bit more simmering.

Kristen In London said...

Let's see, I'm intrigued. Do you add spices before you taste, or do you taste and feel something's missing and then add something and find it was the wrong thing? Are you following recipes? We watch a cookery competition show on the telly here and the judges often say, "There is too much going on, on this plate." It's seems it's a common temptation, to add too many flavors. Good luck!